Ashen Faggot

An East Anglian cure was to cut the initial letters of both one's Christian and surnames on the bark of an ash that has its keys. Count the exact number of your warts, and cut the same number of notches in the bark. Then, as the bark grows, so will the warts go away (Glyde). Another method was to cross the wart with a pin three times, and then stick the pin into the tree (Northall), and recite the appropriate rhyme. The Cheshire cure was to steal a piece of bacon, and to rub the warts with it, then to cut a slot in the bark and slip the bacon underneath. The warts would disappear from the hand, but would make their appearance as rough excrescences on the bark of the tree (Black). An Irish cure for jaundice operated in a similar way (see Wood-Martin). A most unlikely sounding charm is one from Sussex, to stop a child from bed-wetting. The child had to go alone to an ash, then going another day to gather a handful of keys, which have to be laid with the left hand in the hollow of the right arm. They are carried like this, and then burned to ashes (Latham).

A shrew ash is one in which a hole has been bored in the trunk, and a shrew-mouse put inside and left there. At one time, almost every country village had its shrew-ash. The point was that cattle and horses, when suffering from any sickness that seems to cause a numbness of the legs, were thought to have been bitten by a shrew, and the only cure for this was thought to be the application of a branch or twig from a shrew ash (Clair). Such a tree was known in the Black Country as a "nursrow" tree, and was not necessarily confined to ash - oak and elm could be treated in the same way (Raven). But inserting something into an ash could have other results. In Wiltshire, for instance, finger- and toe-nail clippings used to be put in a hole in a maiden ash and the hole then stopped up; this was a neuralgia preventive. A maiden ash is one that has never been pollarded or topped (Clark).

Ash has its share of weather lore, the best known being the comparison with the oak to foretell a good or bad summer:

If the oak before the ash come out,

There has been, or will be, a drought.

There are quite a number of jingles of the same import, the most succinct of which is, from Surrey:

Oak, smoke

Ash, squash

(Northall). Or sometimes

Oak, choke,

Ash, splash i.e., if the oak leafed first, there would be dry, dusty weather (M Baker.1980).

Ash provides the toughest and most elastic of British timbers, hence its use for spear shafts; indeed aesc in OE came to mean spear, and aesc-plega the game of spears, or battle. Then it was further extended to the man who carried the spear. The handles of most garden tools are best made of the wood - some rakes are still made entirely of ash (Freethy). Clothes posts, billiard cues (Wilkinson), hockey and hurley sticks, cricket bat handles and police truncheons were all traditionally made of ash timber. It was tough enough for windmill cogwheels, and boats also were made of it - OE aesc, Norse aske came to mean a vessel as well as a spear. In ancient Wales and Ireland all oars and coracle-slats were made of it (Graves). Evelyn mentions that the inner bark was used as paper, before the invention of the latter, and he also mentions that the keys are edible, and often pickled - "being pickled tender, [they] afford a delicate sallading"; Sir Robert Atkyns, a number of years later, spoke of them as "an excellent wholesome sauce, and a great expel-ler of venom". Recipes are still given; a recent one suggested that one should boil the keys in salt water for ten or fifteen minutes, then strain and put into warmed jars. Cover with boiling spiced vinegar. The keys should be picked while they are still green and soft (Cullum). Yorkshire carters used a spray of ash in the head stall of their horses, to keep off the flies (Nicholson), and medicinal uses for man or beast were many indeed. The bark is good for agues and fevers (Atkyns), and is still used in herbal medicine as a substitute for quinine. In Vermont, USA, a story used to be told of a man who cured himself of fever by tying himself (and the fever) to an ash tree, and then crawling out and leaving the disease tied there (Bergen). Burnt ash bark was a Highland remedy for toothache (Beith), and in Ireland the sap of a young tree was used to cure earache. This is actually a very old remedy, for there are recorded leechdoms from the fifteenth century, as well as similar usages in the early Welsh text known as the Physicians of Myddfai. Evelyn had heard of it, but misunderstood the malady, for he claimed that the "oyl from the ash ... is excellent to recover the hearing ..."

Apparently, there was a belief that the wood, provided it was cut at certain holy seasons, was incorruptible, and so would heal wounds (Kelly); hence Aubrey, even if the moment of cutting does not agree with "holy seasons": "To staunch bleeding, cut an ash of one, two or three years' growth, at the very hour and minute of the sun's entering Taurus: a chip of this applied will stop it". James Il's nosebleed, so it is said, was staunched in this way in 1688. There is a veterinary usage of some interest - Devonshire farmers were quite convinced that feeding infected cattle with ash leaves was a cure for foot and mouth disease (Devonshire Association. Transactions. Vol 65; 1933 p127).

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