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When Hawthorns along The Ridgeway are heavy with masses of white flowers, it is a sign that spring will soon be turning to summer. Ancient trees have stood for years along the Trail and have many stories to tell from history and folklore, including some which are hung with ribbons and trinkets for fairies. Perhaps the most famous in The Ridgeway area is the ‘Nachededorne’ or ‘the naked thorn’ which was a tree around which the Saxons and Vikings fought during the Battle of Ashdown in 871AD. Read on below to find out more…..

Hawthorn is a native tree supporting lots of wildlife through the year, including Yellowhammers and Fieldfares feeding on the red berries known as ‘haws’, bees enjoying nectar in the flowers and Wood Mice and Slow Worms sheltering under its dense thorny branches. Common Hawthorn has shiny leaves which have three to seven pairs of lobes (see image gallery above). They are often the first leaves to appear in the countryside in Spring and turn yellow in Autumn. The creamy-white, sweet-smelling flowers have five petals and flowering has historically occurred around May, hence the name ‘May Tree’. This is later than Blackthorn’s flowering period (in March-May) – Hawthorn can be mistaken for Blackthorn and is also found along The Ridgeway.

The changes through the year are shown in this timelapse video by the Woodland Trust

Hawthorn can live to around 400 years, but 250 years is typical and so a Hawthorn is considered an ancient tree when it is 225 years old or more. The Ancient Woodland Inventory suggests Hawthorns with trunks measuring 1.5m or more are important. Hawthorns are often kept short in hedgerows but, if left uncut, they could potentially grow up to 15m in height. There are some characterful old Hawthorns along The Ridgeway near Berwick Bassett Down in Wiltshire, Barbury Castle near Swindon and Smeathe’s Ridge near Ogbourne St George in Wiltshire.

It is common in hedgerows because Hawthorn was one of the preferred hedging plants for creating ‘enclosure hedges’. These hedges were planted to enclose areas of commonland and so create privately-owned fields. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Parliamentary Enclosure Acts set out requirements and some stipulated that enclosures would only be binding if the boundaries were completed within a year. This drove demand for ‘quickset’ hedge plants and so Hawthorn became known as ‘Quickthorn’ and ‘Hedgethorn’. It’s other name ‘Bread-and-cheese tree’ also comes from this time when its widespread presence in the countryside meant the rural poor could make use of the edible leaves as a source of free food. 

Hawthorn persists longer than other trees might because its thorns deter animals and humans, but also because folklore and superstition warns people away. Some believe witches make their brooms from Hawthorn wood and so the old rhyme goes: ‘Hawthorn bloom and elder-flowers, Will fill a house with evil powers’. Others say that bringing May into the house will bring financial loss, illness and death into the home – hence, the name ‘Motherdie’! In Medieval times, it was said that the blossom smelt like the Great Plague and scientists have since learned that the chemical trimethylamine, which is one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue, is also found in Hawthorn blossom! Pagans and others associate Hawthorn with the ‘Otherworld’ and, where they grow near prehistoric barrows (burial places) or at crossroads, consider the tree to mark the threshold between one world and another.

Some call it the ‘Faerie Tree’ where a meeting with fairies could be possible and Ridgeway visitors leave  ribbons and trinkets hung in the trees as gifts for fairies. Who will you meet by a Hawthorn tree next time you visit The Ridgeway?

Notes: More information about the Battle of Ashdown, shrubs and trees, paganism and spiritualism and fruit trees is available in other Top 50 entries.

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