Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Hawthorn: The Faerie Tree

Hawthorn Tree Hob Moor York

This wild, beautiful, gnarly and throny little ancient tree is also known by many other names, such as Whitethorn, Hægthorn, Queen of the May, Quickthorn, or just May, and can grow to a ripe old age. It is one of our oldest, most sacred, and beautiful trees. Often known as the 'faerie tree,' the hawthorn has rich and varied folklore associated with it. Mostly growing in strange and hauntingly beautiful shapes, it can be found in the wildest and harshest spots.

This is the first in a series of articles that I plan to write on different native trees from every aspect, including the nature of their wood.

I'm starting with probably my favourite, the enigmatic and ancient hawthorn tree, which has shared and shaped our history since the beginning. I love everything about it, from the sinuous and sculptural shapes that it takes, through its various qualities and folklore, to the hypnotic beauty of its dense, yet challenging wood.

The Hawthorn Tree 


Small Hawthorn
Small Hawthorn, near Husthwaite, Yorkshire

Common name: common hawthorn, hawthorn 
(from Old English hagaþorn, hæguþorn, from haga ("enclosure, hedge") + þorn ("thorn")

Scientific name: Crataegus monogyna 
(Crataegus: from the Greek kratos - strength and akis - sharp, referring to the thorns. Monogyna is derived from Greek mono - one and gyno - female, meaning 'with one ovary' (or pistil.)

Family: Rosaceae (rose)

Ancient Hawthorn Skipwith Common Near Selby
Ancient Hawthorn, Skipwith Common, Near Selby

A deciduous tree native across Europe, and one of Britain's most ancient trees, it can present as a shrub or small tree up to 14 metres (45 feet) tall with a dense crown. It is often found in hedgerows, but can also be found as a solitary tree, or in mixed woodland. It is highly adaptable and consequently does not have a typical shape, instead growing to fit its circumstances, sometimes fusing with itself and other trees in strange and intricate shapes.

The bark is brown-grey, knotted and fissured with slender twigs covered in thorns. The flowers of the hawthorn used to be known for blossoming around, or just before, May Day, (until the calenday was revised in 1752, bringing May 1st forward by 13 days,) hence the hawthorn's alternate name 'May,' or 'May Tree,' and its associations and close links with fertility and May Day celebrations.

Pink and White Hawthorn Blossom, Holy Trinity Church, York
Pink and White Hawthorn Blossom side-by-side, Holy Trinity Church, York
The flowers are highly scented, with five petals growing in flat-topped clusters, and are normally white, although there are rarer pink varieties. Once pollinated by insects, the flowers develop into deep red berries known as haws.

Pink Hawthorn Blossom
Pink Hawthorn Blossom

Hawthorn Berries: Haws. Photo Wikimedia Licence CC 3.0

Hawthorn can be very long-lived, with the oldest specimens in Britain, such as the Hethel Old Thorn in Norfolk, reputedly being over 700 years old.

Hawthorn Tree Lore

Ancient Hawthorn Skipwith Common Near Selby
Ancient Hawthorn Skipwith Common Near Selby

The hawthorn is steeped in tradition, ancient practises and folklore. Heavily associated with the faerie realm, solitary hawthorns in particularly are often referred to as faerie trees and oftentimes hung with cloughties / clooties (cloths/rags tied to the tree as a prayer, blessing or acknowledgement of the spirits of the land.) Strong beliefs still prevail in many parts, particularly in Ireland, that ill fortune will befall anyone impetuous enough to damage or cut down a faerie tree. Roads have even been known to be re-routed to avoid incurring the wrath of the local faeries.

St Helens Well, Market Weighton, tree hung with clooties
St Helens Well, Market Weighton, tree hung with clooties

The five petals of the hawthorn flower are considered to make a pentagram, a potent magical symbol, and are sometimes known as the Elven Cross. The heady scent of the mayflowers is also believed, if inhaled deeply enough, to transport an individual to the 'other world.' A famous example of this comes from the story of 'Thomas the Rhymer' or 'True Thomas,' the famous 13th century Scottish Mystic and Poet, who met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn bush, then being led to the Faerie Realm for a brief visitation. Upon his return he found, to his amazement, that seven long years had passed.

"At the beginning of each summer, when the milk-white hawthorn is in bloom, anointing the air with its sweet odour, and miles and miles of golden whin adorn the glens and hill-slopes, the fairies come forth in grand procession, headed by the Fairy Queen." 
- The Story of Thomas the Rhymer.

In ancient times there were many Goddess cults associated with the hawthorn, and the Faery Queen may well ba remnant of those beliefs.

Some more hawthorn lore: 
  • Bringing hawthorn blossom into the house has long been a taboo, and scientific research has shown that there may be some wisdom in the prohibition, as the blossom contains the chemical trimethylamine, which is present in decaying animal tissue (interestingly, the other species of hawthorn in the UK, the Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata,) which is now relatively rare, but may have been much more common when this folklore developed, gives off a pungent 'decomposing corpse' smell when the blossom is first cut.)
'Tanglewood' - hawthorn, Hob Moor, York
'Tanglewood' - hawthorn, Hob Moor, York
  • Although blossom is taboo indoors, globes of woven hawthorn twigs would be brought into the house to protect it against fire.
  • Due to its dense foliage and abundant thorns, the hawthorn has been used, alive and dead, throughout history to create protective spaces for animals, plants and humans, thus adding the quality of protection to its associated symbology.
  • Fertility is another primary attribute linked to hawthorn, the tree being common at weddings and woven crowns and mayflower garlands gracing many a May Day celebration, which, of course, is our modern day name for the ancient pagan festival of Beltane.
Lone Hawthorn
Lone Hawthorn near Masham, North Yorkshire
  • A nickname for the leaves of the hawthorn tree are 'bread and cheese.' They are edible and thus called either because they were thought to be as nutritious and filling as bread and cheese, or because they were often the 'bread and cheese' of poor folk fallen on hard times, depending on the source.
  • The site of Westminster Abbey was once called 'Thorney Island,' possibly after a sacred grove of hawthorn trees, showing the continuity of worship on this site.
  • One of the most famous hawthorns is the Holy Thorn of Galstonbury, the original reputedly sprouting from the planted staff of Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of the Virgin Mary.
  • The hawthorn has several traditional medicinal uses including treatments for heart problems, hypertension and angina, as it contains chemicals which are sedative, anti-spasmodic and diuretic. The berries are also rich in Vitamin C.
  • There are many recipes available for hawthorn flowers, leaves and berries from Mayflower Sorbet through to Hawberry Brandy - see the sources at the bottom of this article.
  • Hawthorn - huathe - is the sixth symbol of the Celtic Ogham script, and makes up the 'Faery Triad' along with Oak and Ash. "Of all the trees that grow so fair, old England to adorn, Greater are none beneath the sun than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn." - Rudyard Kipling.

Hawthorn Tree Quotes


"And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale."
- John Milton

Row of Hawthorns, Yorkshire Wolds
Row of Hawthorns, Yorkshire Wolds

"The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade
For talking age and whispering lovers made"
- Oliver Goldsmith

"In hawthorn-time the heart grows light."
- Algernon Charles Swinburne

"Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroidered canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery?"
- William Shakespeare

"How right it is to love flowers and
The greenery of pines and ivy and hawthorn hedges;
They have been with us from the very beginning."
- Vincent Van Gogh

"Poetry and imagination begin life.
A child will fall on its knees on the gravel walk
at the sight of a pink hawthorn in full flower,
when it is by itself, to praise God for it."
- Florence Nightingale

White Hawthorn Flowers Photo Wikimedia Licence CC 3.0
White Hawthorn Flowers Photo Wikimedia Licence CC 3.0

"There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect Men do not quarrel about the meaning of sunsets; they never dispute that the hawthorn says the best and wittiest thing about the spring."
- Gilbert K Chesterton

"The world is like a little marsh filled
With mint and white hawthorn."
- Mary MacLane

"...the hawthorn, the may, the first glory of the hedges...its flowers are the risen cream of all the milkiness of Maytime. Its scent has the exotic heaviness of a summer in it, very like the pungent vanilla half-sweetness of meadowsweet."
- H.E. Bates

Lone Hawthorn, Hob Moor, York
Lone Hawthorn, Hob Moor, York

"The fair maid, who on the first of May,
Goes to the fields at the break of day,
And bathes in the dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever strong and handsome be."
- Old English Nursery Rhyme

Wood from the Hawthorn

Hawthorn wood is very dense and a pale, creamy brown-through-red colour. It often contains beautiful patterns created from the different shapes that this little tough tree has known in its life. Spalting from fungus can add extra delight to this mix. 

Different blocks of hawthorn wood
Different blocks of hawthorn wood
Traditionally, as only smallish items can be created, the wood has been used for items such as tool handles, particularly the handles of personal and special knives, which, if made from hawthorn, are known to be lucky. It has also been used for other small decorative items.
The patterns of hawthorn
The patterns of hawthorn

It is an extremely fine firewood, burning at high temperture, both unseasoned or dry, and is an excellent wood to make charcoal.

In the past I have made a great many items from hawthorn, including: didgeridoos, knife handles, picture frames, coasters, small and medium sculptures and, most recently, tealight holders.

Hawthorn Tealight Holders
Hawthorn Tealight Holders from Justbod

It is one of my favourite woods, and always a interesting journey to work with. I adore its natural beauty and the variance in the patterns that it creates. Very challenging to process, as the wood is very dense, and contains multiple directions of contrasting tensions from the twists and turns created by the living, growing tree, hence it cracks easily as it dries. It can also contain pockets of bark and voids. I have probably had to discard far more wood than I have ever used.

Some of the sculptural shapes of hawthorn
Some of the sculptural shapes of hawthorn

Balancing this is the beauty of its natural curves. It is always worth the effort, and I love discovering the varying patterns, colours, shapes and structures within the different sections of a branch. Hawthorn always sparks my imagination with new ideas and inspirations from its enigmatic soul, hardy nature and rich and deep ancient presence within our lives.

Thanks for reading


Justbod Team

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Tree of Life Wall Plaque
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For regular updates on new products:

Sources and Further Information: 


Wikipedia: Crategus Monogyna
Tree and Landscape: Hawthorn
Woodland Trust: Hawthorn
Trees For Life: The Mythology & Folklore of Hawthorn
Sacred Texts: Thomas The Rhymer
Wikipedia: Thorney Island
Traditional Music: Oak and Ash and Thorn

Offline Publications:

The Complete Book of Trees of Britain and Europe by Tony Russell
A Tree In Your Pocket by Jacqueline Memory Paterson
The Hedgerow Handbook by Adele Nozedar
The Celtic Tree Oracle by Liz and Colin Murray
Ogam by Erynn Rowan Laurie
The Healing Energies of Trees by Patrice Bouchardon


Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The ‘Palace’ of an Iron Age Queen, or the Stronghold of a Rebel? - the fascinating site of Stanwick Camp.

Stanwick Iron Age Camp North Yorkshire

Stanwick Camp is a huge enclosure of Iron Age Fortifications in Northern Britain, comprising over 5.5 miles of ditches and ramparts which enclose almost 700 acres of land. Despite it's enormous size, obvious importance, and possible role in a British revolt against the Romans; its purpose and history, like many Iron Age sites, is still unclear.

Sited deep within the tribal lands of the Brigantes, who were the most extensive tribal group (probably a confederation of tribes) of late Iron Age Britain, occupying territories from sea to sea in much of what is now Northern Britain and Southern Scotland, it is also close to Scotch Corner, an important crossroads throughout history.

Stanwick Camp North Yorkshire Information Board
Information Board: Stanwick Camp North Yorkshire

Overgrown ditch: Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire
One of the many overgrown fortification ditches

The majority of fortified Iron Age sites in the North are hillforts, and Stanwick stands out, not just because of its sheer size, but also because of its unusual construction, which has lead to it being classified by some as an 'oppidum' (large fortified Iron Age settlement associated with the late Celtic La Tené culture, thought by some to be early 'towns.') - a structure much more common in Europe and Sourthern Britain.

The Brigantes and their Leaders


The Brigantes were initially loyal to Rome and first appear in the written record when Caratacus, the British leader of resistance to Roman rule for over a decade following the invasion in AD43, was defeated in Wales and fled to Brigantian territory, perhaps hoping for their support. The Brigantian Queen, Cartimandua, showed her loyalty to the Romans by promptly handed him over in chains: a contributory factor in two subsequent Brigantian revolts against Cartimandua and her Roman allies. These revolts were lead by her former consort, Venutius in AD50, and again in AD69.

Caractacus delivered to Ostorius by Cartimandua - Print by Francesco Bartolozzi 1781 - 1797
Caractacus delivered to Ostorius by Cartimandua - Print by Francesco Bartolozzi 1781 - 1797

There were obviously also other factors at play, as Tacitus relates:

"[Cartimandua] Casting aside her husband Venutius, she took Vellocatus, his armour-bearer, in marriage and to share in governing the realm. This huge scandal rocked her household to its foundations. The tribe's sentiments favoured her rightful husband [Venutius.]  Favouring the illegitimate husband were the queen's libido and her ferocious temper. So then, Venutius mustered some warbands and was helped at the same time by an uprising amongst this tribe, the Brigantes. He succeeded in putting Cartimandua into an extremely desperate position. She requested Roman forces. Some of our infantry and cavalry auxiliary units, after fighting for a time with mixed results, resued the queen from this dangerous crisis. [But] Venutius power was not finished, and we were [thus] left with a war."

The story of the powerful Queen Cartimandua, the rebel Caratacus, and the vengeful ex-husband Venutius, is compelling narrative indeed, spawning at least two exciting novels that I know of. 

As the largest fortified site in Northern Britain, Stanwick Camp must have played an important role in these events.

Excavations at Stanwick Camp

So far there have been two excavations at Stanwick:

Ramparts Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire
Ramparts Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire

The first one was undertaken by Mortimer Wheeler in the 1950s. He concluded that the site had been constructed in three seperate phases starting with a small earthwork enclosure on a low hill known as 'The Tofts' in about AD40 which was then extended to the North in AD50-60 and enclosing over 130 acres. The final phase in AD72 extended the site to over 700 acres. Wheeler felt that it had been the rebel stronghold of Venutius during the two revolts. 
Wheeler left an enduring legacy on the site by digging out part of one of the ditches and reconstructing part of the stone rampart. This wall is only two feet high above the rampart, but Wheeler estimated that it would originally have been closer to 15 feet. The site is under the care of English Heritage, and does give quite an impressive indication of just how awe-inspiring the fortifications would have been in their time.

Stanwick Camp: Mortimer Wheeler's 'Wall'
Mortimer Wheeler's reconstructed ditch and (partial) rampart wall with 6ft bod figure for scale

Stanwick's name is thought to derive from the old Norse word steinvegges meaning 'stone ways' or 'stone walls'

The next excavations were undertaken by a team from Durham University in the 1980s, led by Percival Turnbull and professor Colin Haselgrove. They concluded that the outer fortifications had been completed first during the middle of the first century AD, and then the inner area subdivided. They argued that it was far too big to be a mainly defensive structure, and was rather intended to reflect power and status, so, rather than being the stronghold of Venutius, they felt it was the royal estate of Queen Cartimandua.

Finds of Roman Samian ware and other luxury goods found on the site could support this view.

The Tofts Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire
The Tofts area of the camp, which contained evidence of high-prestige trade with the Romans

The famous 'Stanwick Hoard,' found in the 1840s: a hoard of 140 metal artefacts including four sets of horse harness for chariots, and a copper alloy horse head (it is not clear whether the 'Hoard' was found within or without the fortifications, or a short distance away) also lends weight to the importance of the site.

The Stanwick Horse Mask
The Stanwick Horse Mask.

So we have two excavations with apparently opposing conclusions, or, could they both be right, with the 'camp' starting as Cartimandua's estate, and ending as Venutius' stronghold?


I must admit that before I visited, I had heard Stanwick called a hill fort, and this is what I was expecting. However, despite some low hills and mounds within the site, the land is fairly flat and not at all what I was expecting. It's also extremely difficult to gain a true appreciation of the sheer size of the site, even after walking around the ramparts, and I couldn't find anywhere that provided a view over the whole area. So it does seem to be an unusual siting if thinking about defense when there are so many very defensible hills in the area.

Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire
Even walking the ground, it is hard to get a grip on the sheer size of the site

Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire
Miles of ramparts....

Whether it was Queen Cartimandua's seat of power, or Venutius' rebel stronghold, or both, it is obvious that Stanwick was a site of major significance, and must have played a role in those key events in the first century AD. Although there are only Tacitus' accounts, it does appear that the second revolt was quite extreme, with Tacitus remarking that Vespasian, once emperor, had to "recover" Britain. Even after the Romans crushed the uprising, which took them almost three years, Northern Britain remained a Military Zone for the duration of the Roman Occupation, and there is a school of thought that one of the reasons for the positioning of Hadrian's Wall was to control and split the Brigantes.

As this is my favourite period of history, and Yorkshire is my county, I would love to know so much more about these fascinating events in the story of the occupation of Britain by the Romans. I imagine that Stanwick holds a vast amount of information within its many ramparts, bumps and mounds, perhaps information that could unlock some of the mystery. Maybe one day....

However, at the moment, and to quote Alen McFadzean from his article about Stanwick:

"All you know is that once, a long time ago, something extremely important and probably tragic occured in this place." 

Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire

Update April 2017

There have been quite a lot of recent exciting finds at Scotch Corner and Catterick, during the A1 widening scheme. Both of these are in the near vicinity of Stanwick. The discoveries include high status Roman artefacts, and a very large town at Scotch Corner, dating from the early Roman occupation, and in existance for only 20 years. All of these discoveries help to cast light on this most interesting story.
See the 'sources and information' section at the end of this article for links to several news articles detailing some of the new discoveries.

Earlier Occupation and the Church of St John the Baptist


Although we do not hear much of the Brigantes until the Roman invasion, many sites show continued, undisturbed occupation from an early date. Various earlier items have been found in the Stanwick area including a bronze age battle axe. Even more intriguing is the fascinating site of the Church of St John the Baptist, which occupys a very unusual circular churchyard, which suggests a much earlier pre-Norman conquest site, which could even date back to the Iron Age occupation, or earlier.

Church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire
Tthe circular churchyard of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire

The present church dates from the 13th century, although it was extensively 'restored' in the nineteenth century.

Carved cross shaft Church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire
Carved cross shaft Church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire

A plethora of interesting stone carved items await the visitor, including an intricately carved Viking ring cross-shaft and several saxon carvings including cross-heads. Built into the wall are a large number of old grave covers, and fragments of carvings. A helpful ringbinder within the church has illustrations and descriptions of all the carvings. 

Viking ring cross-shaft Church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire
Carved Viking ring cross-shaft. Church of St John the Baptist.

Carved fragments in wall Church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire
Some of the many carved fragments in the walls of the Church

The church has not been used for regular services since 1990, but was open when we visited. Please consider leaving a donation if you do stop by this interesting building. 

Visiting The Site

Stanwick Camp, entrance to Wheeler reconstuction
Stanwick Camp, entrance to Wheeler reconstuction
Stanwick Camp is a really interesting and intriguing site to spend a few hours, but quite difficult to find and navigate. If you are interested in visiting, I thoroughly recommend downloading one of the walks listed in the 'Sources and further information' section at the end of the article, and planning your visit before you go. 

Thanks for reading


Justbod Team

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Sources and further Information:


Update April 2017 - news articles: discoveries at Scotch Corner

Photos: Archaeology at Scotch Corner 
The Romans Who Paved the Way for the Straight A1
Monumental Archaeology Unearthed Along the A1
New Light Shed on Royal Sex Scandal as Ancient Roman Remains Unearthed


The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland: John T. Koch and John Carey
Britain Begins: Barry Cunliffe
Roman Britain and the English Settlements: Collingwood and Myers

Gnor Bodi: Frederick Covins
Daughters of Fire: Barbara Erskine


Northern Echo: Stanwick Camp (PDF)
Brigantes Nation: Stanwick Iron Age Hillfort