The devil’s nutting bag

One of my favourite bloggers A Clerk of Oxford tweeted that today – September 14 – was once called ‘Devil’s Nutting Day’.

The Devil has an affinity with nutting apparently.

Nutting on any Sunday was risky – you might meet Old Nick as a tall, gentlemanly figure kind enough to offer to pull down high branches for you. Otherwise it was today –  Holy Rood day – that was especially favoured. This, from a  letter John Clare sent to his friend William Hone:


(quoted in The English Year by Steve Roud)

Once you start looking, there’s a lot of information about. Renne Reynolds on her blog (Obstinate Headstrong Girl) writes that:

The tradition of a Nutting Day dates back to 1560 Eton, when boys were given a half-holiday to gather nuts, creating the phrase “gone a-nutting.” Consequently, as one might suspect from a tradition associated with young boys, going “a-nutting” soon became a euphemism for sex and seduction, giving rise to its own saying, “a good year for nuts, a good year for babies.”

She quotes:


I suspect the link between nutting, bad behaviour and old Nick stretches much further back myself.

On another site (German this time, intended for people learning English, although an earnest student would be certainly be met with  incomprehension if he used the reference with the average Englisher) the story begins with :

The Devil’s Nightcap (there are several hills with this name) near Alcester, in Warwickshire…formed when the devil was out nutting on September 21st (known as the Devil’s Nutting Day) and met the Virgin Mary. He was so surprised and shocked that he dropped his bag of nuts, which became the hill.

There is an old Sussex saying ‘as black as the Devil’s nutting bag’, which is associated with the superstition that it is extremely unwise to gather nuts in autumn on a Sunday because that is when Old Nick is himself out nutting. Generally people do not go nutting on any Sunday in autumn because you might meet the devil gathering nuts.

It is mentioned in the play, John Endicott, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow –


“Nice angels!
Angels in broad-brimmed hats and russet cloaks,
The colour of the Devil’s nutting-bag. They came
Into the Meeting-house this afternoon
More in the shape of devils than of angels.
The women screamed and fainted; and the boys
Made such an uproar in the gallery
I could not keep them quiet.”

The devil’s nutting bag


I’m sure I heard that dogs can smell cancer in us – they just don’t know that the information might be useful to us.

There is  a tradition, though, when disaster looms, of warnings given by animals – who will even speak at times. C S Lewis drew on it in That Hideous Strength when, before an impending earthquake he writes:

One had heard his donkey, another her cat, say “as clear as clear”: “Go away. ” 

Paul Farley speculates that the disappearance of sparrows – once so familiar, ubiquitous, companionable – is a conscious withdrawal, as these old friends leave us to rattle off to hell in our handcarts all by ourselves. Of course, if we were still woken by dawn choruses, the unwonted quiet in the mornings, outside our bedroom windows, would be as clear an alarm as you could imagine. 

The poem is, For the House Sparrow, in Decline:

Your numbers fall and it’s tempting to think
you’re deserting our suburbs and estates
like your cousins at Pompeii; that when you return
to bathe in dust and build your nests again
in a roofless world where no one hears your cheeps,
only a starling’s modem mimicry
will remind you of how you once supplied
the incidental music of our lives.


John Clare and my Father

Not so long ago In Our Time dedicated a programme to John Clare. Listening to it I was struck when the panel described how, after his brief lionisation, Clare was disparaged and forgotten through most of the 19th and 20th centuries until, they said, poets like Ted Hughes ‘re-discovered’ him.

Yet I remembered my father talking admiringly about Clare when I was a boy – it must have been in the mid or early sixties. Dad was a reader, but not literary and I wondered how he had found Clare for himself.

There’s an interesting enquiry here – about the way the non-literary world sustains an interest in the lost and unfashionable. It reminded me of Salinger’s dedication to one of his books ‘If there is an amateur reader still left in the world – or someone who just reads and runs…’* It’s good to hold on to the knowledge that critics and literary arbiters don’t tell even half of the story of who is read and remembered, only who is visible at any given moment.

It’s easy to see why dad was drawn to Clare. He wasn’t a countryman but, after the war, he sought out work on the land as a solace, just one of the gangs of pickers and planters that moved across the Vale, following crop and season. Like Clare, working the land, he grew interested in the hidden life of field and hedgerow, and I think, in Clare, he found a guide and kindred spirit.

Clare loved the country around his home in Northamptonshire – it was part of him – even though, to the stranger is seemed so dull and uninteresting. Clare’s fields and villages were not part of any ‘romantic’ England. His countryside was prosaic – muddy, boggy, flat and dull; except that, to Clare, it wasn’t. He’d grown up in it, played in it, worked on it from boyhood and, minutely, entered into the hidden life of all its residents – the hedgehog and the nightingale, the mouse fleeing her nest, babies hanging grotesquely from her teats, the ladybird hiding from a storm in a cowslip. This little gem, Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter:

I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing,
An oddling crow in idle motion swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the haw round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.

Evesham, where dad settled, is similar country – flat, dull and, while it is well gardened, can seem empty and, if you don’t know it, alienating. There are hills – the Cotswolds ring you round with the promise of new landscapes, but the market gardener keeps to the flat and fertile as far as he can.

Rush through and you’d believe there was nothing to see. Work in it – as dad did – and its life begins to reveal itself.

I remember him telling me about the nightingale that used to sing up beyond Four Pools; the Fieldfare that nested one year out at Bricklehampton. Field fares aren’t supposed to nest in this country and, sadly, this adventurer didn’t survive the experiment. The nest was in a tree beside a bedroom window and, dad said, irritated the old man who slept there so much that he took a shotgun and blasted it to bits.

He told me about the Yellowhammer’s ‘littlebitofbreadandnocheese’, and we tasted the hawthorn buds – because they were called bread and butter. In autumn he knew where the most flavoursome blackberries were and where you could find the best conkers.

One special memory is of the time that dad and I cycled up the lane to his piece of ground – I was about eight at the time – and in the distance, framed by trees that opened onto farmland, we saw two birds flying up and over and around each other. They seemed big birds to me, with unusually shaped wings, thin and sharp. Dad looked and said ‘those are two cuckoos. You’ll never see that again’. He was right, I haven’t.

*Raise high the roofbeam carpenters

John Clare and my Father