(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 4th August 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 2nd August 2017)
I’m no horticultural expert, but judging by the bumper crop of elderflowers that has recently come to an end, we are going to be in for a bumper crop of elderberries. I see many elders on my dog-walking routes, and they always conjure up memories from childhood. Growing up we lived in a cottage which had a long narrow garden full of fruit trees and bushes.
In one part of the garden was a cluster of elder trees that backed on to a crumbling outbuilding belonging to the neighbour. They were simply the best climbing trees any child could wish for, and if you were nimble enough, you could scramble all the way up and on to the roof of this outbuilding. Obviously, we were not allowed to do this, and were regularly warned of the possibility of branches breaking, or of roof tiles and walls failing under our weight which would lead to immediate death. Of course, that’s what made it so exciting, and the trick was to make sure you didn’t get caught.
So when my dad Peter Walker talks about having to cut back these troublesome trees in his column of July 30th 1977, I remember the feeling of disappointment that our natural climbing frame was being significantly reduced in size. Dad is dreading the forthcoming difficult task, as he knows they will just grow again. He also laments the fact that elder wood is very slow to burn, and it would take days on a smouldering bonfire for it to be reduced to ashes.
My disappointment caused by the trimming of our trees was compensated by these long-lasting fires. As a child, I think I was a borderline pyromaniac as I could spend hours messing about with the bonfire, poking dry twigs into the embers and blowing on them to see if they’d catch light. Of course, this was another forbidden activity, and I’d always deny that I’d been playing with the fire whenever challenged. I used to think my mum was some kind of super sleuth, as she always knew when I’d been doing something I shouldn’t, even if she hadn’t seen me do it. It didn’t occur to me that the stink of smoke on my clothes and in my hair, and my ash-blackened hands, were dead giveaways of my wrongdoing.
Elder wood was one of the most robust and versatile materials in days of yore. Its rough outer layer is very strong, while its inner core is soft and easy to hollow out. So in ancient times, elder was used to create pipes for things like drainage, domestic utensils, butchers’ skewers, cogs in mill machinery and also musical whistles. It is thought the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’, which means ‘fire’, as the hollow stems were used as bellows to blow into the centre of a fire (according to http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk).
As my dad explained, despite its many uses, there were also plenty of superstitions associated with elder wood. One was that you must never fashion a baby’s cradle from it as that would place the infant into the hands of witches (Maybe that was where Sleeping Beauty’s mother went wrong, and caused the wicked witch to cast her sleeping spell during Beauty’s christening!). Dad explains that evil associations with the wood grew from the legend that Christ was crucified on a cross made from elder.
In that same article, Dad includes a recipe for elderflower ‘champagne’, which my brother used to make, and which I absolutely loved! He advises: “It should be corked well, for it is very fizzy.” Well, this is a bit of an understatement, for what Dad fails to mention is that in our house, the cork exploded from the bottle and blew a hole right through the kitchen ceiling!Follow @Countrymansdaug