“If the Oak is out before the Ash, then we shall surely have a splash,
If the Ash is out before the Oak, then we shall surely have a soak”.
That is probably one of the better known of the old weather lore sayings and versions of it can be found the length and breadth of the country. This, in its very self indicates how common the ash tree was in days gone by, Dartmoor being no exception. It is not a tree to be found on the high moors but is plentiful amongst the woods and hedgerows of the moorland fringes. The Ash tree has deep roots in the lore and traditions of the moor and with most things some of them go pack to the pre-Christian era and were then plagiarised into the Christian beliefs with the bonus of holy connotations. The actual name of the tree comes from the Anglo Saxon word æsc which means lance or spear, the even older Celtic name was Nion. If we transfer our attentions to the Norse world and its traditions we will find that the Ash tree was regarded as the ‘Tree of Life’ whose limbs formed a link between the gods, mankind, and the dead. It was also the tree that Odin hung himself from in order to recieve the knowledge of the runes. The Latin name for the ash is Fraxinus excelsior, the Fraxinus word means firelight and refers to the woods burning abilities and excelsior word means ‘higher’ and alludes to the trees ability to live at high altitudes.
For centuries on Dartmoor the ash tree has been coppiced to provide wood for poles and firewood and also pollarded for animal browse. Because the wood is both tough and flexible it has been used to make spears, arrows, and pike shafts. The larger timbers were often used in wagon and furniture making and the smaller poles for hurdles, ladders, wheels, tool shafts and walking sticks. The wood also has the unique ability to be burnt whilst still green as testified by two old sayings; “Burn ash-wood green, ‘Tis fit for a queen“, and “Ash logs, all smooth and grey. Burn them green or old; Buy up all that come your way; They’re worth their weight in gold“. One early recommendation was that every Lord of the Manor should plant 1 acre of ash to every 20 acres of land because in many years the woods would be worth more than the land itself.
One old pagan tradition associated with Dartmoor is the ‘Ashen Faggot‘ which was burnt at Christmas. Although not strictly pagan, the belief that the ash tree could cure or heal a child’s rupture was until fairly recently widespread. The ‘cure’ involved finding an ash sapling and splitting it down the middle. The slit would then be prised open and the patient passed three times through the middle. The two halves would then be bound together and if they knitted back together the rupture would be healed, if not the patient continued to suffer. For this spell/cure to work it needed two female youngster for a male sufferer or two young males for a female patient, adults could not take part. In the 1870’s it was reported that many young ash sapling in Spitchwick Wood near Ashburton showed signs of having been used in this ceremony. Another old cure for warts was to gather the sap from a burning green stick and whilst still hot rub it on the warts, this was said to effect a cure in three days. It was also believed that an ash tree planted near the house would provide protection from witchcraft and witches as neither curse nor hag could abide the tree.
The actual leaves of the ash also had ‘magical’ properties, normal ash leaves have an odd number of leaflets and if you found one with an even number this was thought to have been as lucky as finding a four-leaved clover. An old saying said: “If you find an even ash or four-leafed clover, u’ll see your true love afore the day is over“. If a woman found such an ash leaf she had to hold it flat between both hands and recite the following: “With this even-leafed ash between my hands, the first I meet will be my dear man“. The leaf then had to be placed in the palm of her gloved right hand and say: “This placed in my glove, will bring my own true love“. The leaf then had to be pressed against her bosom when she then had to whisper: “This even-leafed ash in my bosom, will give me, in the first man I meet, my true husband“. The ash tree was also said to attract lightening strikes so it was always advised to steer away from them in a storm as the following implies: “Avoid an ash for it courts a flash“.
With the coming of Christianity the ash tree suddenly took on many holy associations. The wood’s ability to burn whilst green was attributed to the fact that it was this very wood that warmed the stable where Jesus was born and ever since held that ability. Many also believed that because it was an ash fire in the stable, Jesus had his first bath in the warmth of its fire. Accordingly, many newborn babies received their first bath infront of a fire made with ash logs in the hope that they would have a long and pious life. The sticks and leaves have long been used in adder lore for curing bites and charming. Maybe this is because in biblical terms the Devil was always represented by the serpent and the ash tree has holy associations stemming from the fire in the stable.
The seeds of the ash are known as keys and on the moor are specifically called the ‘Keys of Heaven’. This probably comes from the fact that the tree grows so high it seems to stretch into heaven and so the seeds would unlock the gates of heaven. They were also thought to be an aphrodisiac and were often eaten pickled, the other benefits were the ability to cure flatulence which I suppose would prove very useful when the aphrodisiac qualities kicked in. The pickle was also said to cure jaundice and assist in the relief of headaches. The keys were also said to be a powerful force for protecting against witchcraft and often on the moor bunches of them would be hung over the door or in the shippen. Every youngster to this day must have played at ‘helicopters’ with the keys, I remember hours sat up a tree spinning them down to see how far they would go, I still have the scar from trying to follow one out of the tree.
The ash, as mentioned above, has been used as a weather predictor with special attention to whether it comes into leaf before or after the oak as per the couplet at the top of the page.
Place-names abound on Dartmoor with the ‘ash‘ element, Ashburton was originally Ashburn or ‘stream where the ash grows’, then there is: Ash Bridge, Ashbury Hill, several Ash Farms, Ash Green, Ashlands, Ashplants, and Ashwell, to name but a few.