Grovely Rights, WiltshireIn the Wiltshire village of Great Wishford every Oak Apple Day (May 29) an ancient custom is carried out in order to guarantee the people of the village their rights of estover in nearby Grovely Wood. For those not up to speed in medieval law, estover is the right to gather dead wood, or as the Commons Registration Act 1965 puts it more precisely: "The gathering and bringing away of dead wood boughs and sticks."
Before dawn on May 29 what the generous refer to as the Tin Can band rouses the village to action with their uproar. Villagers then make their way to Grovely Wood to the south west of the village, carrying banners with their motto 'Unity is Strength' before them, there to exercise their rights as defined in a charter of 1603. They may use handcarts, but no vehicles. What they gather should be no thicker than a man's forearm as regards the oak they find, but in addition they may take green willow and hazel sticks.
To keep their rights the villagers have certain duties to perform, the sort of thing that American visitors would kill to see: in the woods the gatherers shout the words laid out in the charter - "Grovely, Grovely, and all Grovely;" some of the wood brought back to the village is decorated and judged as to its artistic merits; later in the proceedings four "nitch" dancers, women dressed in old-fashioned costume (long dark skirts, long white blouses, rough aprons and Pilgrim Fathers style head-coverings) perform a dance at Salisbury Cathedral just a few miles south east of the village before entering the building and depositing some branches of oak on the high altar.
The duties are rounded off by eating a traditional meal back at the village, to include wild boar and game pie with a hot water crust, and a few toasts, to the Crown, guests, and traditions.
The wood gathering rights are considered so important that in the last decade of the 19th century The Oak Apple Club was established to fight for them if threatened. When right to roam legislation did just that at the start of this new century local MP Robert Kee stood up in Parliament and made a powerful speech in defence of the Grovely gatherers.
In most of the last century of course the whole affair might have been adhered to for custom's sake, but these days any form of fuel for free is worth fighting for. And traditions involving eating pie and drinking toasts should be defended to the death.
More British Folk Customs?
1 Response to Grovely Rights
From Elaine Shelton on 14th September 2012
Thank you for satisfying my curiosity about a framed photogragh in my local in Cheshire. The dour faces of the 4 women are at odds with their clothing and the triumphant-sounding sign of Grovely Grovely snd all Grovely! I'm now of a mind to visit and join in the serious fun.