This Sunday is Bilberry Sunday

Bilberry Sunday

There were times during my childhood when we holidayed during the new school term, in September. It seemed to me, as an eight-year-old, that we were indulging in some kind of secret activity. In those days the holiday was in Wales, which still remains my favourite country.

It was different in September. There were no families as the children had to go to school. It was often warmer in September than August. Best of all though, was the abundance of bilberries growing in the poor soil of heathland with heather. They were dark and juicy and unlike any fruit or berry I had seen at home. To me, they were secret, special and must have had magical powers.

Years later I remembered the little berries and researched them in the hope of growing them in my own garden. They are difficult to cultivate so they will remain forever the fruit of the Welsh hills. But I also found out how valuable they were to my ancestors.

The calendar has shifted a bit over the last fifteen hundred years or so, as has the climate. So much so that bilberries were harvested throughout July in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times. It was a job that the children could do, their little fingers could pluck the berries from the low-growing shrubs without crushing them. Quite a tedious job but there were other benefits. Spending so much time in the sunshine hunting for these little jewels often led young people into courtship. The story goes that a young lady would bake a bilberry pie for the young man who caught her eye and give it to him during the celebrations that followed.

On the last Sunday of July a great feast took place where people ate the bilberry produce. Pies, jams, tarts and wine were no doubt consumed as well as the general merriment of the day. On the 1st August the Celtic peoples celebrated their god Lugh, in a festival named Lughnasadh. This was the first harvest festival of the year and the crop of bilberries was said to indicate how well the rest of the crops would fare in their harvests later in the year. During the celebrations, people would climb hills where bilberries grew. I love that.

Bilberry Sunday continued for a few centuries in Ireland, but even that has died out now. However, I am pleased to see that the supermarket Tesco has a bilberry pie recipe on its website. Maybe Bilberry Sunday will be resurrected. It is in my household anyway.

© 2016 A.J. Sefton

Bilberry pie with cream recipe (from Tesco)


  • 250g Tesco lighter ready rolled shortcrust pastry

  • a little plain flour, for dusting

  • 500g bilberries (use blueberries if not available)

  • 150g caster sugar

  • 2tbsp cornflour

  • juice of ½ lemon

  • 1 small egg, beaten

  • 200ml reduced fat thick cream, for serving

Serves 4 * 15 mins to prepare * 1 hr 15 mins to cook * 570 calories per serving * freezable

Combine the cornflour, bilberries, lemon juice and sugar (apart from the 1 tbsp) in a large mixing bowl. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 190°C.

Roll the pastry out on a lightly floured surface to 1cm thickness. Line a 9 inch ceramic pie plate with the pastry, cutting off the overhanging pastry (of which there should be a lot). Gather the excess pastry into a ball and roll out to 1cm thickness roughly and reserve to one side.

Fill the pastry with the bilberry mixture. Cut the pastry into long strips that will act as decoration across the top of the pie. Arrange in a wide lattice pattern making sure each strip of pastry reaches the edge of the pie plate.

Seal well and brush the exposed parts of pastry with the beaten egg. Bake for 45-50 minutes until the pastry is cooked and the filing is glazed and hot.

Remove and allow to rest for a few minutes before serving with a small bowl of the thick cream on the side.


The Strange Story of the Cheese and the Sword  

 Saint Juthware of Devonshire by A.J. Sefton

You risk being knocked over if you say “cheese” in our house. Our cat will run at great speed from wherever she is to steal the dairy product. A real cheese monster.

Cheese has been part of our diet since before recorded history, so – a long time then. But stranger than my cat’s love of cheese, is the sad story behind the pub sign depicting a headless woman (see above). It is inspired by a young woman who lived in Halstock, Dorset, in the seventh century.

An inn-keeper called Benna brought up his baby daughter, Juthware (pronounced Uth-are) after her mother died during childbirth. After a while, Benna married a widow called Goneril, who had a son, Bana. Oh yes, another wicked step-mother story looms.

Juthware grew up to be a quiet, pious Christian, which, for some reason, really irked Goneril. When her sickly father died, Juthware continued his kind hospitality and was popular with all the travellers who stayed at the inn, sharing stories and serving ale and wine.

We shall never know why Goneril despised her step-daughter, but the story says that their relationship worsened after the death of Benna. Perhaps Goneril wanted the inn for herself and the profits that went with it. Either way, she wanted rid of Juthware.

Not long after the death of her father, Juthware complained of pains in her chest. Goneril said that if she rubbed her chest with soft cheese the pain would go. Not heard that one before. So the young woman put the soft cheese down her front twice a day. Meanwhile, the nasty step-mother  planned the next phase: she slaughtered a lamb in the forest and left it there.

For a pious Christian girl, goodness was everything. Destroying this would surely destroy Juthware. Goneril did this by telling her son, Bana, (and probably everyone else) that Juthware had given birth to a baby in the forest and left it to the wolves. Bana would not believe this of his kind step-sister. What proof was there? Goneril showed him the remains of the lamb’s carcass that had been eaten by wolves.

Still unconvinced, he faced Juthware as Goneril ordered her to remove her underwear. The remnants of the soft cheese were evidence of lactation, Goneril said. No more proof needed.

Bana was horrified and angry. He drew his sword and beheaded Juthware where she stood. But the head called to the body, which jerked slowly but surely to its feet, picked up the head and carried to the church, placed it on the altar and then died.

Juthware soon became a saint and martyr and pilgrims travelled to the village to pay homage. Her feast day is 13 July and she is depicted with rounds of cheese and a sword. The public house that had the sign above is now a guest house, known as ‘The Quiet Woman’ and looks very nice set in the lovely Dorset village.

But before you book, consider this: at one o’clock in the morning on All Saints Day (1st November), Saint Juthware’s ghost is said to return to repeat the incident. It is said that she will be carrying her head as she walks down the lane towards the church…

© 2016 A.J. Sefton

Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

Awesome post…sheds such light onto the art of the Anglo-Saxons.

British Museum blog

silver-gilt brooch detailRosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th…

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Top Ten Facts About July


 By A.J. Sefton

1. July is named after Julius Caesar as it was the month of his birth. Before 44 BC, the month was known as Quintilis as it was the fifth month of the old Roman calendar.

2. Well dressing takes place, mostly in the county of Derbyshire. This is an ancient tradition where wells, natural springs or other sources of water are decorated. There is usually a picture made from pieces of bark, petals, seeds, moss and leaves that are used like mosaics.

3. Until the middle of the 18th century, the word July in English rhymed with truly.

4. Swan Upping takes place on the River Thames. This has taken place since the twelfth century and involves catching, counting and labelling the swans and then releasing them back into the river. All mute swans belong to the reigning monarch.


5. The Anglo-Saxons called June and July “Litha” meaning navigable or calm, referring to the sea and weather. “Aefteralitha” (after-calm) followed.

6. As the main harvest starts, the weather is vital. A popular saying is: ‘If the first of July be rainy weather, ‘Twill rain, more or less, for four weeks together.’ Saint Swithin’s Day falls on the 15th, where the weather is watched and whatever happens on that day, will continue for the next forty days.

7. Bilberries were harvested in July. These small dark berries were usually collected by children because of their small fingers. As always in these Anglo-Saxon times, the end of the season was marked by celebrations and feasts on Bilberry Sunday, the last Sunday in July.

8. Most pilgrimages took place during July in Anglo-Saxon and Medieval times.

9. “The English winter – ending in July, to recommence in August,” (Lord Byron).

10. My wonderful daughter, Amanda, was born in this month (30th).

© 2016 A.J. Sefton