Dull days before Christmas.
The winds that drive our weather systems seem to have taken their feet off the accelerator in the last few days. The sky has become amorphous. Endlessly grey and as unstructured as unkneaded dough, it leaks a drizzle so fine that breathing in is like chewing wet blotting paper.
The dykes reflect the dome of nothing above and look for all the world like channels filled with potter’s slip. Vegetation rots across the fen I walk and a miasma of decay surrounds me like a cloak.
These are the dull days before Christmas and the time of the Cutty Wren approaches.
Troglodytes troglodytes. The Latin name of the Wren arises from its habit of foraging in the dark and dank bottoms of hedgerows and reedbeds. It is tiny and often overlooked, yet now considered the commonest British bird. In the long shadow cast by time long past it was considered to have supernatural powers, so much so that the Druids, who considered the bird sacred, believed they could forsee the future by listening to the song of a captured Wren. For such a tiny bird its voice has a magnitude almost on the Richter scale.
Long ago, on St Stephen’s Day, Christianity and paganism would collide as village boys rampaged through the parish, hunting the Wren. The captured bird was killed and attached to a pole decorated with ribbons and ivy. It was considered by many to be a creature of the Underworld because of its habit of frequenting the dark and secret places, and its sacrifice was a way of slaying the powers of the Dark, which seemed to rise and gather strength in the long nights and short days of Winter.
Samhain has now passed and the ploughs traditionally lay still as the ploughboys awaited the thaw of the iron soil. In the dark of a December night, on Boxing Day, an old tradition is again awake.
Stretching back across the centuries to the far off days when Britain danced to the beat of a different drum, a Celtic drum in the Iron Age, footsteps can be heard. Slow, heavy footsteps as a group of men, all hob-nailed boots and black faces, Old Molly, and their attendant musicians, women who seem born of a hedgerow, their hats draped in garlands of Ivy, open a window into the past. They process like so many Golems, their each step seeming to tear itself from the clutch of the Suffolk clay, carrying before them a carved Wren in a bed of ivy and ribbons.
If menhirs could move and dance this is how they would do it. Blazing torches light their way until they gather in the village of Middleton. Music strikes up, tunes from days past, whose long forgotten composers lie slumbering in the cold ground.
A bygone era, when the ploughboys from an analogue time of heavy horses danced for pennies to feed their families, comes to life for an hour as the men begin to dance in their measured, ponderous way.
Silent and unemotional they dance on, the nails in their boots throwing up sparks into the cold night air. Finally they sing a song of Wren hunting and a final dance around the Wren takes place.
The dark closes in again as the torches are extinguished and Old Glory melt away to drink ale and tell stories of that one day in the year, when the King of the Birds was hunted. Somewhere close by a Wren, roosting in the heart of an Ivy locked in an embrace with an Oak, which had been awoken by the dance, closes its eye and returns to its slumbers.