In ‘Seems Only Yesterday’ villagers recall personal memories of Pirton. This month, Clare Baines remembers a Maundy Thursday tradition.
Wild woodland primroses decorating the Church at Easter is one of my earliest memories. For many years it had been the custom for a group of ladies from the church to walk to Tingley Wood, the wood which lies behind Highdown to gather primroses. How or when the tradition began I do not know, but I remember it all my younger life and it continued until about the late 1960’s. For those concerned it was part of the preparation for Easter. The woods were, and still are, private so permission had to be given to go in – it was never refused.
So early in the afternoon, the party of mainly women and children, carrying baskets, set out from the village. We met, walked up Long Shot, the field-path opposite the Hitchin Road end of Walnut Tree Road, over a rickety stile, now no longer there, at the top and into the field known as Lime Pits. We then followed the uphill diagonal path to a gap in the hedge by some chestnut trees and so into Bush Close. We walked through Bush Close stepping round or jumping over the boggy patch where the water drained down from Highdown orchard into a little pond. Then past the gravel pit (now filled in) where, before myxomatosis took its toll, dozens of rabbits scurried under the brambles and bushes; so to meet with the gamekeeper under the oak trees by the wood. He told us where to find the best primroses and with a cautionary word about gamebirds opened the big field gate to let us in.
Although only a fence separates it from the field, once inside, the wood seemed a different world. Even its name ‘Tingley’ sounded like a fairy tale. It was quiet, sheltered and smelt of damp earth and fallen leaves. No matter if Easter was early or late, the season mild or chilly, there was always much to see as we walked along the ride between the trees. Catkins, dog’s mercury and developing bluebells, celandines and violets. Near the gate was the game-keeper’s gibbet, a line between two stakes displaying the remains of stoats, weasels, magpies and crows. Proof for the landowner riding by that the gamekeeper was doing his job.
The path divided, one way leading to the south bank where the best primroses grew. There was so much to see. A young, imaginative child could quite expect to see the fairies, but the nearest approach were the dainty wood anemones. We picked the primroses carefully, making the bunches and tying them up with cotton from the reel in our pockets. Why could some people make nice neat bunches with all the heads even while others only managed loose straggly posies? However, they all looked lovely when packed in the baskets with their pale faces and soft slightly acid scent. When we had enough we retraced our steps, shoes probably caked in mud but having enjoyed a lovely and rewarding afternoon.
So on Easter morning, there were little pots of primroses nestling in moss and other greenery, decorating the font, window ledges and, some in taller jars, at the foot of the choir stall. With the garden, daffodils and other seasonal flowers the church was transformed into a festival of spring. So very welcome after the dull winter and the austerity of Lent. I wonder if other people in the village can remember the primroses?