You know when it is Autumn at Ashridge, not because of the changing leaf colours, but because of the emerging bonfires. They are springing up all over the place – on Piccadilly Hill, in Witchcraft Bottom, even in the Estate yard. The most popular pursuit of the male volunteer is undoubtedly a ritual burning.
The autumn bonfire, like the first barbecue of summer, is a religious affair. It is dominated by the male of the species, requires ritual lighting, demands specialist robes in the form of a working hat and gloves, and produces a burnt offering of ashes. Most bonfires are built on the heap system – pile it up and hope it burns. At Ashridge we have dedicated fire -lighters like Tony Smart who employ the Boy Scout method. Using some dry kindling to start with, and once a flame is obtained then adding layers of larger and larger material. When a conflagration is achieved then chuck on the big stuff. Many Ashridge “fleeces” have suffered potmarks from raging fires. The grass fires often smoulder and burn for days, while material for the majority of fires comes from the scrub clearance, where the dense slow-growing blackthorn and hawthorn wood creates great heat.
And, like the barbecue, the bonfire is flourishing. It’s acrid smell gets everywhere ushering in the coming cold in the same way as cut grass introduces the hazy lazy days of summer.
This ancient tradition of setting fire to unwanted debris, the culmination of which takes place on Guy Fawkes Night, has never been more celebrated. Bonfire night can be traced to the Celtic Samhain festival when it was believed that the dead walked the Earth. Huge fires were built to burn spirit effigies to drive away the phantoms before they committed evil. This pagan custom was the prime late-autumn festival until the Gunpowder Plot.
Smoke that would do justice to a LS Lowry painting now curls from the most unlikely of places.
Meanwhile many councils, such as Guildford, have banned bonfires on allotments, and landowners who have any sort of estate or woodland apparently need permission from Defra to light a fire. It’s something to do with air quality and it can be a traffic hazard – it was not so many years ago that farmers were burning stubble and straw residue in their fields.
The Beacon has been a location for bonfires over the centuries warning of impending invasion, with a celebratory burning for the crowning of George V in 1911. Now a protected SSSI site such a celebration is unlikely to take place again.
There will always be plenty of unwanted debris at Ashridge for burning, so we need to keep our pyromaniacs in tow!
Thanks to Adam Edwards for his contribution.