I’ve been looking forward to my Christmas break and particularly to my New Year’s Day ritual morning walk.
It is a joy to have the countryside more or less to one’s self, when the rest of the world is tucked up in bed nursing a hangover. We used to live in Huntingdonshire when a favourite walk was to Aversley Wood, a fine ancient wood full of botanical treats and where I would renew my acquaintance with the wild service trees (Sorbus torminalis) that grow there.
We don’t have wild service in my part of Norfolk and so it is always a pleasure to come upon one on my travels; the leaves are very attractively cut and it produces large heads of creamy flowers in spring, in the manner of all the Sorbus. In autumn, however, the leaves turn a deep scarlet, blotched with gold and bronze and, if the influx of Scandinavian thrushes has not stripped them all, the warm russet berries are a subtler decoration than holly at this time of year. I always try a few when I find them late in the season (they need bletting before they are palatable) and, the hard seeds notwithstanding, they have a pleasant, beery flavour not unlike dates, and even a hint of astringent effervescence on the tongue. Known in the Home Counties as chequers, they were once gathered and sold as sweets, especially to children. They were also used to make an alcoholic drink, akin to ratafia, and it has been said that they were used to flavour beer, a story amplified by the similarity of the name ‘Service’ to the Latin ‘cervisia’ (meaning beer) and the abundance of pubs and inns called The Chequers. The root of the name is more likely in the Old English word ‘sýfre’, meaning pure or temperate, but the connection with pubs cannot be ignored – there are too many with wild service trees nearby or in their gardens for it to be mere coincidence. Chequers pubs might be named for the tree or the drink that they sold; or indeed the drink, and therefore the tree, might be named after the alehouses themselves, of which many were identified by a black and white chequerboard sign.
The timber of the wild service is hard, close-grained, durable and resistant to splitting and warping; it was accordingly prized by millwrights for making mill cogs and also used to make such things as the axletrees for carts, crossbow and gun stocks, arrows, harpsichord jacks (integral to the plucking action of the instrument) and all manner of turned and carved items. Many such artefacts probably reside in museums but, after the passage of time, the timber is difficult to identify without damaging the artefact, and even then may be mistaken for pear, other fruitwoods, or even beech. Its historical and cultural significance therefore is almost certainly underestimated.
The advent of the industrial revolution, with the consequent demise of traditional craftsmen such as the millwright, cooper and turner, saw off the wild service as wild-sourced product and it has dwindled to a rarity in the countryside. It does however persist in old woods and hedges, suckering to form single-species stands, and large specimens often going un-noticed, with their spreading boughs, flower-heads and fruit being carried well above head height. So, when you stroll down to your local for a pint of winter warmer, look out for the distinctive foliage of the wild service tree.