As part of my Weird Wiltshire journey, I have found out about many old traditions and celebrations, heading back centuries, that have simply ceased to be.
Indeed, in the village where I live, the annual carnival held in September, which has been going on for over one hundred years, is in danger of just not happening anymore. It costs money to run, there aren’t enough people to organise it and these days, it’s tied up with red tape. When it finally ceases, that will sadly be the end of that tradition and celebration.
So, it is with great joy that I find an event that is somehow clinging on to our distant and sometimes not so distant past. Modern day folk who come together to keep a tradition alive. Oak Apple Day is one such example.
Welcoming back the monarchy with Oak Apple Day
Always held on the 29th of May, Oak Apple Day is a celebratory day which marked the restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in 1660. The English Parliament passed into law ‘An Act for a Perpetual Anniversary Thanksgiving on the Nine and Twentieth Day of May.’ A public holiday was declared ‘for keeping of a perpetual Anniversary, for a Day of Thanksgiving to God, for the great Blessing and Mercy he hath been graciously pleased to vouchsafe to the People of these Kingdoms, after their manifold and grievous Sufferings, in the Restoration of his Majesty…’
It’s also known as Restoration Day or Royal Oak Day and, amusingly Shick Shack Day in some parts. 1859 came along and many of the celebratory days relating to the 17th century were abolished but in some areas, the traditions continued. One such place is in Great Wishford here in Wiltshire, where it is known as Oak Apple Day.
Traditions differ depending on what part of England you are in but generally it involves the wearing of oak apples (a type of plant gall) or the wearing of springs of oak leaves. This references an event after the Battle of Worcester in September 1651 when Charles II hid in an oak tree to escape the Roundheads.
Oak Apple Day and its connection with Grovely Woods
Oak Apple Day in Great Wishford is inexplicably connected to the ancient woodlands of Grovely Woods. This wonderful place has quite the history and a spooky reputation. I wrote all about Grovely Woods here if you haven’t read it already.
Great Wishford sits near Salisbury in South West Wiltshire. It’s a lovely little village, a farming community but now mainly residential.
It is on Oak Apple Day that the residents of Great Wishford, to this day, exercise their ancient rights to collect wood from Grovely Wood. Interestingly these rights date back to the 12th century. It wasn’t until Oak Apple Day began in 1603 that charter rights were confirmed by the Royal Forest of Grovely’s Forest Court.
They decreed the inhabitants of Great Wishford be granted the right to collect dead wood all year round, to cut green boughs on Oak Apple Day, to pasture cattle and allow pigs to root as well as gather nuts and acorns.
Whether Oak Apple Day carried on through the next two centuries or was resurrected in the late 19th century is debated. However, I am pleased to report; it is a tradition very much alive.
The tradition of Oak Apple Day
A band of villagers meet before dawn and proceed down through the village making a great noise. It has been described as a band. In years previously it would involve pots and pans, trumpets, bells and noise. When all the lights of the village houses were alight the residents would head on up to Grovely Wood to carry out their ancient rights and customs.
Villagers take boughs of oak trees ‘no thicker than a man’s arm’, traditionally to decorate houses and the church with the most prized of boughs dripping in oak apples. Firewood was also collected. A large bough is hoisted up the church tower, adorned with ribbons. It is said to provide the luck of a long and happy marriage for anyone to marry in St Giles’ Church in the following year.
From Great Wishford to Salisbury Cathedral
Following the visit to the woods, villagers head on to Salisbury Cathedral, headed by a band of women in costume. Traditionally they perform two dances outside the cathedral. A service is held where the women head to the altar to shout ‘Grovely! Grovely! And all Grovely!’ And from then the charter is maintained. The villagers then head back to Great Wishford, where a feast and festivities finish off the day.
The activities held to celebrate the day have changed over times but the essence of the day stays the same. It’s a celebration of old times and traditions. There have been formal lunches, picnics, games, maypole dancing and music. I think this year there is an Oak Apple Day Village Fete which I wish I’d been able to attend! It’s great to see a relaunch of this tradition this year after it was affected by the Covid pandemic for a couple of years.
Long may the villagers of Great Wishford exercise their right to take wood from Grovely and long may Oak Apple Day continue to be celebrated.
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