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  • The Midsummer Oak and its Skeletons July 8, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    **This post is dedicated to New Moon who sent the oak story in**

    Here is a little bit of Sussex folklore which manages to combine English zombies, the delicate whiff of cobblers and, best of all, a famous oak.

    The oak tree in question is the Midsummer Oak at Broadwater, Worthing and the legend in question seems not to be recorded in any medieval or early modern source.  It did, however, briefly surface in the Argus newspaper in 2006 when the oak was threatened with ‘closure’ – it was in the way of some development:

    ‘Mr Hare said the late Wilf Page, former landlord of The Cricketers pub at Broadwater, passed on the tale of Worthing’s Midsummer Tree to him in 1987. He told The Argus: ‘It was believed long ago that skeletons would rise up from the roots of this tree on Midsummer’s Eve and dance around the tree. ‘The origin of the Midsummer Tree is to be found in England’s pagan past, when Midsummer, rather than Hallowe’en, was viewed as the most auspicious time to commune with the spirit world.’

    Beachcombing will for ever treasure the reply of Margaret King, spokeswoman for tree-cutting company InterRoute, to Mr Hare’s hopeless romanticism:

    ‘Our arboriculturalist has advised that the tree is suffering from brown cubicle rot. It will eventually degrade the timber completely. However, prior to this it will degrade the wood in a way which makes it brittle and prone to sudden failure…  The tree is located within approximately three metres of a heavily used footway and approximately five metres of a very heavily used trunk road, neither of which can be diverted. The removal of this tree, which could be viewed as a terrible loss, must also be viewed as part of a natural process whereby trees grow, mature, die and are then replaced by new trees.’

    Talk about metallic: this is Dalek PR!

    In any case, concerned readers will be glad to know that  the good residents of Worthing won the right for the oak in question to die from brown cubicle rot in its own fair time. It stands to this very day.

    And just before ‘Mr Hare’ is accused of making up stories to save a random oak Beach has been able to find a handful of sources that predate 2006.

    In 1986 the BBC celebrated the nine hundredth anniversary of Domesday Book by having children gather information about their hometowns. This huge project – essentially a celebration of the birth of Big Brother and income tax… – has in itself become a treasure trove written in the quaint English of 1980s school kids and their teachers.

    At first site [sic], the Worthing area does not seem to be a very inspiring place for legends, but looks can be deceptive. Right in the heart of Worthing, for instance, once stood an oak tree. From beneath it, it was said, skeletons rose on Midsummer Eve and danced hand in hand around the tree until cock crow. The tree’s site is now a triangle of land in the road intersection at the end of Broadwater Green…

    Interestingly here the story seems to be applied to a different now deceased tree. Better not tell West Sussex Council or Margaret King!

    The earliest source that Beach has been able to lay his hands on appears in a medley of Sussex folk customs by Charlotte Latham from 1878 (though recalling 1868):

    ‘There stood, and still may stand, upon the downs, close to Broadwater, an old oak-tree, that I used, in days gone by, to gaze at with an uncomfortable and suspicious look from having heard that always on Midsummer Eve, just at midnight, a number of skeletons started up from its roots, and, joining hands, danced round it till cock-crow, and then as suddenly sank down again. My informant knew several persons who had actually seen this dance of death, but one young man in particular was named to me who, having been detained at Finden by business till very late, and forgetting that it was Midsummer Eve, had been frightened (no difficult matter we may suspect) out of his very senses by seeing the dead men capering to the rattling of their own bones.’

    Note that our author is not sure whether the tree is still actually standing or not.

    Can we go any further back? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Beach will round off with an anecdote about supernatural Sussex beings from the same 1878 essay, a reminder how bogey men were ‘abroad’ in southern England as recently as the late nineteenth century.

    ‘Belief in the apparition of Ghosts and Goblins still maintains its hold upon the minds of our West Sussex peasantry almost as firmly as in the time of their less-instructed forefathers. I do not know to what enlightenment in these matters the youth of other counties have attained, but I can bear witness to the contemporary darkness of young Sussex. A short time ago there was committed to me the teaching of a Sunday School class composed principally of tradesmen’s children, who, on my asking them if they knew what was meant by their ‘ghostly enemy’ one and all replied, ‘Yes, a spirit that comes back from the grave;’ and as they showed an eagerness to tell me everything they knew upon the subject, I allowed them to go on. They then spoke all at once, and quite overwhelmed me with the stories of what their fathers, mothers, brothers, or relations, in whom they placed the same implicit trust, had seen. Some spirits were reported to walk about without their heads, others carried them under their arms, and one, haunting a dark lane, had a ball of fire upon its shoulders in lieu of the natural finial. On my explaining the true meaning of the term ‘ghostly enemy’, a fresh torrent of superstitious narrative burst forth. One boy knew a man who had seen the devil, and another told a fearful story of a poor sinner who saw little devils dancing round his bed ‘when he was a dying’, though nobody else could see them; and then followed the account of a man who was always seeing the devil, or the ‘black man’, as he was styled by most of them’.

    Now that sounds like a fun Sunday School class… It used to be said that the arrival of Protestantism did for the British fairies. Beachcombing has long suspected that Lloyd George’s budget and the welfare state finished off, instead, the minor fauna of the English imagination. Here, then, is a last testimony from the last generation of believers.


    8 July 2011: Chris Hare writes in (see ‘Mr Hare’ in the Argus piece above) explaining that there is now a meeting at the oak at Midsummers Eve ‘Our ‘ritual’ dates from the ‘saving’ of the tree in 2006. It is spread by word-of-mouth and not advertised. We get between 15 and 30 people showing up at midnight. Jacqueline Simpson (arguably Britain’s greatest living folklorist) is often the centre of the festvities, even though she is now over 80.  Next year Midsummer’s Eve (23rd June) is on a Saturday, so we could get our largest attendance ever.’ Thanks Chris, what Beachcombing would give to be there…