From various pollen analysis studies it is estimated that ‘Slip Shell’ or Hazel has been growing on Dartmoor since around 7500BC and would have been found over most parts of the moor. Climate change and deforestation has long since altered that state of affairs and today it is commonly found in the woods and hedgerows of the lower margins. But over the last 9,500 years hazel has provided building materials, fuel, food for humans and animals and a host of other resources for the moor folk. Over such a long time-span it is not surprising that the Hazel has found its way into the folklore and traditions of the Dartmoor area.
There are various local names for the hazel tree; Slip Shell, Nit Alse and Halse to name but a few, the yellow catkins were normally referred to as Cat-O-Nine-Tails for obvious reasons. The name hazel nut derives from the Anglo Saxon; Hæsel Knut, hæsel meaning cap or hat thus referring to the green ‘cap’ of leaves which encompass the nut. There was profit to be made from hazel nuts and as an example in 1869 it was reported that “For the past two months anyone coming from Holne, might meet on average fifty me, women and children, with bags and baskets on their arm going ‘nutting’ in the Chase Woods, the property of Sir B. P. Wrey, Bart. who generously throws it open to the ‘nutters’. In some parts of these extensive woods, the nut bushes of extraordinary growth, cover many acres, and this season the bearing has been unprecedented, it being calculated that near on £300 has been realised by those who have gathered them and sold them at about three pence per quart, irrespective of the large quantities that have been gathered and not sold.”
At one time most of the woodland and hedgerow hazel would be coppiced and therefore have many poles growing from a managed stool. The rods and poles were used to make the weaved wattle walls of buildings and hurdles as well as thatching spars, crooks, walking sticks and various farm implements and utensils. The leaves of the hazel tree are usually the first to appear in the spring and at one time were fed as a browse for cattle, some believed that in dairy cows it increased the milk yield. From about mid August the hazel nuts begin to ripen, also know loosely as filberts because St. Philbert’s Day was the 20th of August which coincided with the ripening of the nuts. Once ripened the nuts provided an opportunity for moor folk to make some extra money.
The Celtic tradition regarded the nuts as containing wisdom and poetic brilliance which when eaten would pass on those properties. Hazel wands and poles have long been regarded as having mystical abilities, the ancient druids used to carry staffs made from hazel poles and to this day diviners will use wands of hazel. The Eve of St. John (June 23rd) was the only time these ‘Y’ shaped divining rods should be cut and a small offering or libation should be left for the tree from whence they came. On Dartmoor these diviners were used to locate sources of water and more importantly metallic lodes hidden deep in the ground. Another mystical use of hazel was in the cure for adder bites to dogs, it was believed that a hazel wand made into a ring and placed around the animals neck would alleviate the effects of the ‘sting’. As would making a cross from two hazel twigs and placing it on the site of the bite. If at first light on May day someone cut a hazel wand and then with it drew a circle around themselves this would ensure a years protection against piskies, evil and adder bites. Whilst on the subject of piskies, it was strongly believed that once the summer jam had been made it was vital to stir it with a hazel stick, this would ensure that the piskies didn’t steal it. There was also a saying that some ne’er do wells could do with a, “drap o’ ‘azel oil on ‘is yead“, hazel oil being another name for a cudgel made from a hazel root.
But it is the nuts which appear most in the realms of folklore and superstition, for instance if you dream of hazel nuts it is a sure sign of two things; firstly that money will be coming your way and secondly you are a sad sod to dream about nuts. Young moor maids would use them as instruments of divination in order to see when they would be married. A group of girls would each place a hazelnut on the bar of the fire grate and the nut which caught alight first meant that its owner who would be married soonest. But woe betide any girl whose nut cracked before igniting for this meant that she would be jilted. Similarly, a nut which simply smouldered and did not flame up meant that its owner would be a spinster and live a short and unhappy life. On a lighter not if a girls nut popped off the grate it predicted that she would travel a great deal instead of getting married. This ceremony was usually carried out on All Hallows Eve as this was the time that all such magic was at its strongest. On the northern fringes of the moor there was a tradition where a bride and groom would be presented with a white bag of hazelnuts at the church which would bring them good luck for the future. Come late August or early September it was always, and still is, a race to get the hazelnuts before the mice and squirrels hoard them for the winter. Therefore people would go out ‘nutting’ along the hedgerows and fields. To this day I cannot understand any country dweller buying hazelnuts when the hedgerows are laden with them, at one time everyone knew where the best hazel trees grew.
“Even now, methinks, I see the bushy dell,
The tangled brake, green lane, or sunny glade,
Where on a ‘sunshine holiday’ I strayed,
Plucking the ripening nuts with eager glee,
Which from the hazel-boughs hung so temptingly“.
Medicinally, anyone who wanted to prevent toothache simply had to carry a double hazelnut in their pocket at all times.