A few days ago I visited Blackwell, an ‘Arts and Crafts’ house in the Lake District. Its architect, Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, designed the house in 1898 as a holiday home for the Manchester Brewer Edward Holt and his family. And what a place for a holiday. The building emits calm and light, intimacy and restful comfort; its design makes the most of natural light and embraces the setting on the shore of Windermere. The whole interior reflects the natural environment in which Blackwell sits – carving, tiles and stained glass display wild flowers, trees and birds. A particular focus of the decorative design is the rowan, a theme guided by the Holt family coat of arms which shows two fleur-de-lys between two stylised rowan trees, a tree chosen to represent strength.
I like the Rowan tree. It has other names – mountain ash, quick beam, – but the name rowan comes from the Norse dialect and means ‘red’ or ‘redden’. In early autumn, the tree heaves with red berries which have ripened from green. In our trees at least, they don’t last long. A blackbird will often do it’s best to hold off thieves, but the trees feast lasts only a few days, and the rowan is left unadorned while its leaves blow off in the autumn winds. The berries have antioxidant qualities and it is possible to make a vitamin C rich jelly from them, which I am told is delicious. I will make a note to myself to nip in before the birds this year and see.
In spring the rowan wears a different adornment, though similarly short lived. In the month of May, abundant delicate white pom-poms drift in the tree’s branches. Then for the remainder of the spring and summer months it lifts elegant, toothed-leaved fronds on tall and slender upward reaching branches, no less beautiful for the loss of the flowers.
In the past the hard wood of the rowan has been used for making tool handles and it is traditionally used for spindles and spinning wheels. Apparently, if you fancy your hand at divining, rowan is the thing for that too. Rowan was hung over doors to ward off evil and it was thought to protect from witchcraft. It seems it is a tree with a rich folklore surrounding it and has played a part in many lives. The rowan is now part of our lives too. We have rowan trees thoughout our wood, and like the Holt family who lived through happy times with rowan flowing through their house, we too move through the rowan as we enjoy happy times together in the trees.