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From Playworker Penny Wilson

For thousands of years human beings have been planting seeds and taking care of them while they grew into food to eat.

They grew as much as they possibly could in the summer so that they had enough to eat all through the year.

Perhaps the most important crops that they grew were grains, things like barley and rye, spelt, wheat and corn. These crops look a little like very tall grasses. The tall stems and leaves and other plants that grow alongside them in the fields are really important too. This is the hay and straw which is used to feed and make bedding for animals.

The grains cluster at the top of the stalks and have to be picked off, have their tough little coats-the husks- taken off, dried and eventually ground down and made into flour and then turned into breads as such.

The autumn time was and still is, the season when many crops and gathered and put safely into storage for the winter.

The lives of people revolved around the success of the crops and they made up stories which they shared at each different landmark of the farming year. These stories were partly to try and understand the wonder and power of nature. They were also to remind people what they need to do to keep on taking care of the plants and their harvest.

In England, and many other places in the world, there was a story about the spirit of the corn, who had lived and thrived in the field. When the time for harvest came, she became worried that she would have no home left and would die over the wintertime. Of course the farm people didn’t want her to die and so they made a promise to the spirit of corn. Every year they would take the very last sheaf (or bundle) of corn and treat it with enormous respect as ritual.

The women would take the sheaf of corn and fold and twist and plot it into wonderful shapes and patterns. These were beautiful objects that were given to different people to look after, and take care of until the spring. Then the ‘Corn Dollies’ would be taken out into the ploughed fields and the grains and stalks of corn that were the very last to be taken from the earlier the previous year, would be the first seeds to be returned to the soil ready for the year to come. The spirit of the corn was returned safe and sound to her cozy home.

When I was a child in the 1960s it was still the custom of the farmers near our home to save the last sheaf of corn and give it to the church as the centre piece of the Harvest Festival service which is a celebration of the wonder and power of our world.

Here are some instructions to show you how to make dolls from straws using some of the basic skills that the women used all those hundreds of centuries ago. Who knows, perhaps you will enjoy it and look on line to find some more intricate designs to try out.

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I remember as a child feeling curiously excited when I caught the first smell of autumn in the air. It may be something to do with having an autumn birthday, or fireworks night, or Halloween, or simply wrapping up warm and eating comforting food.

Children are discovering the world around them for the first time and each autumn is a fresh surprise of chilly days, earthy smells, berries mushrooms and nuts, some you can eat and some you most definitely cannot. And the trees! It’s wonderful to see their leaves turn colour.

A tree you never noticed before suddenly turns the most magical, fairy tale, brilliant yellow and its leaves fall like drips of gold into the grass below.

A bit over overgrown brick wall surprisingly and briefly becomes a blazing crimson tapestry.

These miracles last for the shortest of times, they are come and gone in an instant and are all the more precious for the fact that their time is so brief.

Every year I gather a few leaves, usually wet with soft rain when I pick them up so that they gleam with intense colour. Then, in a few hours, they crisp and fade and become ordinary and get thrown away because they are making a mess.

I have looked for ways to preserve them for a little bit longer.

I have pressed them between the pages of heavy books and left them for a week or so. I have used a flower press. Both of these methods preserve something of the glorious moments of autumn, even if the leaves fragile delicate when you take them from the press or book.

This year I have picked up some leaves on my little trips out into the world. It is such a strange year, that I feel that I need to savour every wonderful moment of it.

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So here is a method of preserving leaves that I am trying out for the first time.

I don’t know if it will work yet, but fingers crossed.

Enjoy every moment of this beautiful season.

1/2 cup of glycerine mixed well with 1 cup of water.

On each of your beautiful leaves, make a cut in the stem so that it can absorb the mixture more easily. Put them in a sealable plastic bag, nice and flat and add the glycerine water. Seal up the bag and lay it flat for about three days. The leaves are supposed to come out supple, with their colours well preserved.

You can buy glycerine from your chemist for under three pounds for 200ml


Conkers (Horse Chestnuts) - not edible!

Conkers (Horse Chestnuts) – not edible!

I remember how exciting it felt to find the first conkers of the season.

You could find them gleaming, nestled into the crispy orange brown leaves. Little mahogany bubbles with contour swirls that were almost iridescent.

I remember searching for the perfect one. Thinking I’d found it, then seeing another perfect one and another and another.

Collecting them was for me the best bit of the whole of conker season.

But there was the tradition of playing an age old game with them.

My grandparents told me that they used to bake the conkers in the oven or boil them in vinegar to harden them. I tried both of these and I tried using the conkers just as I found them.

The trick was to find a way of drilling or hammering a hole through the fat middle of the conker with its pale beige-pink patch at the top. Then you cut a length of string about two feet or 60 cm long. Thread the string through the hole and tie a big triple knot at the end of the string to stop the conker falling off.

The game is between two people each with a conker on a string. You stand facing each other, at a convenient sociable distance, one holds their conker at arms length in front of them, keeping it very very still. The other player tries to swing their conker, aimed to hit their opponents’. Then the players swap roles. The aim is not only to hit the other conker, but to smash it to bits. There are regional variations to the game, but that is the basic outline.

There is a modern myth about playing conkers at school which seems to have stopped children from enjoying this free seasonal marker that generations before them have loved so much.

The story goes that children had been getting specks of shattered conkers in their eyes, so a headteacher had made the children wear googles and padded gloves while they were playing.

From this rumour it was a short step to schools all over Britain banning conkers.

The Health and Saftey Executive say that “realistically the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not bothering about.”
https://www.hse.gov.uk/myth/september.htm

Another bonus to conker season is that you can make your own laundry detergent.

We are very used to going and buying super dooper washing powders and liquids, so it seems unimaginable that a traditional natural home made recipe would work. But recently some people have switched from chemical products to using “soap nuts” which are flown half way across the world to us in the UK. However the creamy coloured nut inside conkers contain the same soap like substance, saponin, and many people say that they work every bit as well as a cheap environmentally friendly replacement for laundry detergents.

If you want to try this out you can find several different recipes on line, but basically it goes like this.

  • Smash each conker into little chunks, then grind them in a blender until they are rough crumbs.
  • Place them in a thin layer on a baking paper lined sheet, and bake them gently in the oven, until they are dry but preferably not burned.
  • Let them cool and then store them in a not quite airtight container, (you don’t want them to sweat and get moist and go mouldy.)
  • When you are ready to make up a batch of washing liquid, let a tablespoonful per load of washing seep in warm water for half an hour. When the water has turned milky pour it into a container through a sieve to get rid of the crumbs of chestnut. Use the liquid as you would use a washing liquid.if you want to you can add a few drops of essential oils to give it a fragrance, otherwise it has a very neutral smell.

So let’s make this autumn one where children are taught how to play conkers again by their grown ups, so that they get as excited by the new season as we used to. And try out a way of doing washing without expensive chemical products. A time to turn over new orange brown leaves perhaps.

Enjoy conker season.

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