Today is Oak Apple Day or Royal Oak Day, which was once a formal public holiday celebrated in England on 29 May to commemorate the restoration of the English monarchy, in May 1660. In 1660, Parliament declared 29 May a public holiday:
Parliament has ordered the 29 of May, the King’s birthday, to be for ever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny and the King’s return to his Government, he entering London that day.
This statute should also remind us, therefore, that today we celebrate the birthday of Charles II whose restoration as monarch gives rise to the era of the Restoration – noted for the re-opening of the theaters with their bawdy and rakish comedies; literature that includes such masterpieces as Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim’s Progress; the founding of the Royal Society ushering in a great age of science in England (whose masters such as Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle have pages in this blog); magnificent architecture, with Christopher Wren as the great exemplar; and a style in the decorative arts noted for incredible skill and opulence, Grinling Gibbons being the undisputed master in carving.
Traditional celebrations to commemorate the event often entailed the wearing of oak apples (a type of plant gall), or sprigs of oak leaves, in reference to the occasion after the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, when the future Charles II of England escaped the Roundhead army by hiding in an oak tree near Boscobel House. It is reported that anyone who failed to wear a sprig of oak risked being pelted with birds’ eggs or thrashed with nettles.
Because of the famous event, the term Royal Oak was adopted, and still used, by a host of companies and institutions. The Royal Oak is one of the most common pub names throughout England. The Royal Oak in Oxford was a favorite haunt for my pals in my undergraduate days, and remains so for those who still live there. Royal Oak lunches were classics of traditional English pub food (more later).
The public holiday, Oak Apple Day, was formally abolished in 1859, but the date retains some significance in local or institutional customs. It is kept as Founder’s Day in the Royal Hospital Chelsea, founded by Charles II in 1681 as a pension home for old soldiers (a service it still retains). Here you see them on formal parade wearing oak sprigs in memory of Charles.
In other parts of the country the day is still celebrated in some way or another, but modern celebrations are not usually associated with original Oak Apple Day customs, they just happen to fall on the same day. In Castleton in Derbyshire, for example, the Garland King rides through the streets on Oak Apple Day at the head of a procession, completely disguised in a garland of flowers, which is later affixed to a pinnacle on the parish church tower. There is no reference to Charles or oak sprigs, however.
On this day in Great Wishford in Wiltshire villagers claim their ancient rights to collect wood from Grovely Wood. This tradition is said to date back to 1603, when the charter of rights to collect wood in the Royal Forest of Groveley was confirmed by the Forest Court. The rights themselves date back several centuries before 1603. The events of a modern Oak Apple Day include a “band” waking the villagers in the early hours of the morning, gathering oak branches from the woods at dawn, a village breakfast in the local pub (Royal Oak), then on to Salisbury, where there is dancing outside the Cathedral followed by claiming rights inside the cathedral by shouting “Grovely, Grovely, Grovely, and all Grovely.” Although the charter requires just three ‘Grovely’s,’ tradition demands four – “three for the charter and one for us,” as it’s usually expressed. In the afternoon there is a formal meal, and other events for villagers in Oak Apple Field. Folklorists, myself included, strongly believe that this whole affair is a late-19th century invention based on an old charter that predates the Restoration, with symbolic inventions to link the charter with Oak Apple Day.
Oak Apple Day is also celebrated in the Cornish village of St Neot annually. The Vicar leads a procession through the village, he is followed by the Tower Captain holding the Oak bough. A large number of the villagers follow walking to the Church. A story of the history of the event is told and then the Vicar blesses the branch. The Tower Captain throws the old branch down from the top of the Tower and a new one is hauled to the top. Everyone is then invited to the Vicarage gardens for refreshments and a barbecue. Up to 12 noon villagers wear a sprig of “red” (new) oak and in the afternoon wear a sprig of “Boys Love” Artemisia abrotanum; tradition dictates that the punishment for not doing this results in being stung by nettles. This too, I believe, is a relatively modern invention.
Now, back to pub lunches. Modern pub food has little to do with traditional pub food as it is thought of by people my age. Nowadays a great many pubs are little more than conventional restaurants situated in old pubs which provide an attractive setting for fancy dining rooms where people once sat and drank (and talked a lot of course). The food these days can be just about anything, and is served for lunch and dinner.
The changeover began in the 1970’s as pubs began dramatically losing business for a host of reasons including rapidly escalating prices of beer and the costs of maintaining older buildings. However, it was common in the 1950’s and 60’s to have a very small menu at lunchtime, in some cases just one item made by the landlady, (and nothing in the evening). I have already waxed lyrical on steak and kidney pies lovingly made in my two favorite pubs. Common fare would be bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, steak and kidney pudding, and the ubiquitous ploughman’s lunch. For a quickie you could get a Scotch egg or a pork pie. Here I will focus on the ploughman’s lunch.
The ploughman’s lunch is so named because it was what farm laborers took into the fields each day for their midday meal – a big hunk of bread and cheese. This would have been a satisfying meal because the bread was home baked and the cheese was locally produced as well. Furthermore they took large hunks of both. The idea was picked up by pubs wanting to offer something quick and without using a kitchen. But the pub version was usually a pallid offering in comparison with what ploughmen were used to. You’d probably get a slice or two of factory bread, a lump of indifferent supermarket cheese, and a knob of butter, which you could probably supplement with a pickled onion (at extra cost). Not much of a lunch, but in many pubs it was that or nothing.
But then in the late 60’s and early 70’s there was a revolution. It was a revolution that occurred steadily over all England as people developed an interest in regional farm products, especially cheeses, that had virtually disappeared under the ravages of two world wars and an economic depression. Cheeses, such as Dorset Blue Vinney, Swaledale, and White Stilton, which were once found in history books only or were very rare, started appearing in stores countrywide.
Furthermore, the nasty mass produced cheeses of old, especially Cheddar, could now be found in their upgraded farm-made forms of long ago. The British Cheese Board states that “there are over 700 named British cheeses produced in the UK.” 700 !!!! Take that France. For a list go here:
This revolution hit the pub ploughman’s lunch, of course. I often used to go to the Royal Oak in Oxford for my lunch of bread and cheese because they had a large chalk board with easily 30 cheeses on offer for the day. What is more, you got freshly baked bread with it (and good butter). So here is my version of a decent ploughman’s lunch.
This is an easy one for everyone to do. You don’t even have to be a cook. My one hope is that you try some “new” English cheeses on your platter. If you live outside of the U.K. you can get them mail ordered. Some of my especial favorites are Beenleigh Blue, Shropshire Blue, Parlick Fell, and Little Derby – not to mention classics of old, Stilton, Caerphilly, and Weynsleydale. In case regular readers had not noticed, this is one more volley in my battle against those who think there is nothing to English cuisine.