Besom brooms, Witches brooms and broomsquires….. it must be Halloween

Many of you will already be familiar with our Halloween activities in the countryside at Trelissick. Each year, in the copse if weather permits, we put a slight twist on the theme of the witches’ broom and make traditional besom brooms with the children who come along to the estate.

The ranger team try very hard to make each event we put on as relevant to our everyday work as we possibly can. It is very important to us that we use artistic and creative ways to interpret our woodland management for an audience that may not usually take an interest in such areas, especially young people. It is our hope that these events plant a seed, however subconscious or subtle, of understanding, appreciation and respect for our beautiful British woodlands and the rich history, both natural and anthropological, that is irrevocably tied to it, within the minds of those who attend. The following blog post shines a light on the humble besom broom and demonstrates the ties of this simple item to the history of traditional woodland management.

besom broom

Etymology:

The word ‘besom’ derives from the Old English ‘besma’, meaning ‘bundle of twigs’, specifically in the form of a broom for sweeping. Although that word itself is taken from the Old High German ‘besmo’, also meaning brush. The word even appears in the bible, in ancient Hebrew language, where it means ‘sweeper’ or ‘the sweeping away’ of the utter ruin, of Babylon. Locally, the place-name Bissoe is believed to derive from the Cornish word besow, meaning birch trees.  So, as you can see, besom brooms are ancient, appear across many cultures and countries and remain unchanged for thousands of years….

Background:

Besom brooms are a traditional form of produce from woodland coppice,  made using the plant broom (hence the modern name for a besom), birch and heather.

Historically they were made by a craftsman called a broomsquire and the materials were often cut from areas of heathland with the birch and heather cut on rotation each year to allow materials to re-grow.

Boxall the broomsquire:

The following is an excerpt from the book ‘Tales of the old woodlanders’, included here because it a fantastic and evocative snap-shot of an old way of life and a more traditional method of countryside management:

William Boxall of Hammer Vale, on the borders of Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire, died at the age of ninety-one in the early 1920’s, when he was one of four broomsquires living in the village. His broom-shops were rough, open-fronted sheds on the common and he made his brooms from either birch or heather. His nephew, Ernest W. Boxall, looking back in the early 1950’s, remembered helping with the heather harvest towards the end of August as a boy. ‘For me, that meant a day on Bramshott Common and I usually spent it hunting for mushrooms; the flavour of the heather-grown mushroom is far superior to that of the meadow variety.’

boxall broomsquire

The birch would be cut from local copses ‘when the catkins were still on them’ and the long, feathery twigs would be stored until winter. They were trimmed with a curved knife by an expert woman, who sliced them to just over a yard long. She judged the length by eye, consistently within an eighth of an inch.

The raw material, whether birch or heather, was bundled into broomheads, tightened by a leather thong and then bound with two withies cut from willows growing by a garden stream – a stream in which the bundles would then be soaked for several days. Then they were trimmed with a sharp axe and fitted with handles made from pointed birch or hazel saplings, which had been shaved with a two handed tool. The handles were fixed in place with a wooden peg.

The finished brooms were gathered into dozens (thirteen to the dozen) and piled high in an enormous wain hired from a local farmer in the early spring. For the next few weeks, Uncle William would be on the road, selling his bundles of brooms to country houses, stables and stores as far away as Kent and Wiltshire. When stocks were low he would send a telegram to his mother, who dispatched fresh supplies from Liphook station. ‘A telegram sent at ten o’ clock in the morning brought a fresh supply within twenty four hours without fail,’ Ernest remembered. Oh, the good old days!

Why do we manage the birch at Trelissick?

The birch we are using this Halloween was cut as part of the ongoing woodland management at Roundwood on the Trelissick estate. Here, the ranger team are creating and managing an area of characteristic Cornish oak woodland with a heathland understory – this mosaic of habitat is very specific to Cornwall and, as a result, supports a characteristic set of species associated with estuarine woodland in the county.

Our other consideration in this area is archaeology – Roundwood is home to a very important Iron Age/Romano-British promontory fort, designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It is one of the very few estuarine encampments still present within Europe and you can still explore and enjoy its well defined inner outer and inner ramparts. Birch, a vigorous pioneer species, would quickly take over the diminutive heathland areas and obscure the archaeology if it wasn’t managed effectively. As a creative solution, we cut birch from this area each October and use it to create a product for our Halloween event – besom brooms!

Witches’ brooms in nature:

The natural ‘witches’ brooms’ that can often be seen up in birch trees are actually a gall, which can be defined as an abnormal growth reaction of a plant in response to an intrusive organism, such as a fungus. The fungus is question with birch is of the Taphrina species which finds its way into the buds and bark of the tree. In spring, the new shoots and leaves emerge already infected.

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To many, these growths are an interesting and appealing curiosity but they can also be of significant ecological importance – the ‘brooms’ are often inhabited by a variety of organisms apart from those that initially caused the growth, such as invertebrates and even squirrels. Several species of moth are also specific to certain types of witches’ brooms, depending upon them for food and shelter for their larvae. Next time you see one, think of these riches suspended above our heads….

Hopefully this information provides a valuable context and background for our countryside Halloween event, to be held this Saturday 29th & Sunday 30th October at Trelissick. Happy Halloween!

-The National Trust ranger team, Trelissick and North Helford

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