Marshwood Goes Celtic

PUBLISHED: 16:23 17 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:31 20 February 2013

Marshwood Goes Celtic

Marshwood Goes Celtic

Edward Griffiths looks forward to some age-old celebrations at a 16th-century Dorset wayside inn.

The winding and scenic B3165 is Marshwood's equivalent of the M5, wending its picturesque way between Lyme Regis and Crewkerne. If you make your way to the elevated village which gives its name to the beautiful Marshwood Vale from any other direction, you'll find yourself in archetypal 'deepest Dorset'.

There will be narrow country lanes, two of which pass through the ancient hillforts of Coney's Castle and Lambert's Castle, deep and shady hollow-ways, steep hills, sharp bends and no end of backing up if you're unfortunate enough to meet some of the drivers who appear incapable of reversing. But these little trials don't deter the thousands of people who journey to Marshwood via places with names like Fishpond Bottom, Shave Cross, Wootton Cross and Baker's Cross, and big cities like Hawkchurch, Bettiscombe and Whitchurch Canonicorum. And some of these people will be heading off to join in the Samhain Festival celebrations...

In the days of Elizabeth I, people paying their church tithes at the tithe barn on the site of the present Bottle Inn at Marshwood could have a drop of mead to soften the blow. This barn evolved into a full-scale drinking den when the Revenue men closed down an ale-house at nearby Fishponds. The Bottle Inn itself dates back to 1585, and its name came about because it was the first inn around here to sell bottled beer, some time in the 18th century. It was first documented in the Crewkerne to Lyme Regis Toll Road deeds of 1760. But current events at The Bottle Inn will undoubtedly be recalled when its 21st-century history comes to be written. Having become famous for the International Nettle Eating Championships at The Bottle Inn every June, landlord Shane Pym decided to introduce the later season festival of Samhain to Marshwood in 1999.

The Celtic year had just two seasons, divided from winter into summer by Beltane on 1st May, and from summer into winter by Samhain on 1st November. Pronounced 'Sowen', Samhain is the ancient Celtic celebration of the year's end, traditionally celebrated after the final harvest of wheat, oats, barley and fruit was safely gathered in. The festival included elements of the Roman 'Feralia' when the dead were specially remembered, and 'Pomona' which honoured the goddess of trees and fruit. The Celts believed that, when the summer sun god died, evil fairies called 'puka' would blight any crops still in the ground or any wild berries still in the hedgerows. Even to this day, it is commonly believed that you shouldn't pick blackberries after All Hallows Eve because the devil has mistreated them in an unspeakable way.

This was also the time when summer grazing was coming to an end, and the stock animals had to be rounded up and taken into barns and houses. The priests had to decide which were the best animals to be kept sheltered throughout the winter, ready for breeding when spring arrived. The rest would be slaughtered for winter meat. The resulting certainty of meat throughout the winter, and good animals promising a good season next year, was always celebrated with a great party.

Falling at the time of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness', Samhain is when the 'veil' which separates the living from the world of the dead is at its thinnest, allowing departed spirits of loved ones to appear to their ancestors and be celebrated. During the Celtic festival, each departed loved-one's favourite meals would be prepared and a place reserved at the family table. For all of the loved-ones' entertainment during the night, traditional songs, poetry and dances were performed. The bonfires associated with Samhain were to warm friendly spirits and ward off evil ones, and each family would carry home a glowing ember from the bonfire to light a prepared fire in their hearth. A fire lit with the Samhain bonfire ember would guarantee a happy home.

When Christianity came to England, lots of these ancient beliefs became entangled with Christian teaching, and Samhain was eventually replaced by All Hallows Eve or Halloween.

At The Bottle Inn, a 'Wicker Man' is burnt on the bonfire. The Wicker Man appeared in a rather gruesome tale of sacrificial burning in Julius Caesar's recollections of his Gallic wars but, more realistically, the actual sacrificial 'corn god' was represented by a small man-shaped effigy woven from the last of the harvested corn-stalks and left in the harvest field. Nowadays, he is represented by the traditional 'corn dolly'. Wicker is traditionally made from plant fibres like rattan or willow, but the Wicker Man is actually associated with Beltane, the arrival of summer, rather than Samhain. At Marshwood, the Wicker Man is constructed from willow withies and, although he is purely an embellishment to the evening's bonfire and fireworks party, he adds greatly to the whole spectacle.

This year's Samhain Festival takes place at the Inn on Friday 31st October and will include a barbecue at 7pm; a fancy dress, with prizes, for best witch or wizard; a children's treasure hunt; a bonfire and the burning of the Wicker Man; and live folk music from Rusty Razor at 9pm. All in all, a great family celebration... and there's no charge! (01297 678254) or visit

Latest from the Dorset