Mistletoe Magic

BBC Countryfile Magazine – December 2022

Check out my piece in the December 2022 issue of BBC Countryfile magazine, looking at Christmas markets and, in particular, the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival.

Our rural Christmas fairs, markets and festivals are a blend of traditional, nostalgic ingredients. Take one northerly chill to caress our cheeks as we savour the internal hug from a warming sip of spiced, mulled wine. Then add the gorgeous metallic tones from a local brass band as they play the opening bars of Silent Night, accompanied by the angelic voices of the local infant school choir. Finally, stir in lashings of festive spirit, with twinkling lights, and the aroma of fresh mince pies or roasting chestnuts. And, if we’re lucky, it’s all topped off with the softest of snowflakes dancing aimlessly in the air.

Our cities tempt tourists with large German markets, but Britain’s market towns and villages celebrate rural customs, local produce, crafts, and ancient traditions. They’re a magical place to buy that special ingredient for our Christmas dinner, or a unique handcrafted gift for a loved one.

Savour the produce from festive farmers’ markets, like Norfolk’s Creake Abbey Christmas Food and Gift Farmers’ Market (17th Dec), or The Argory’s Christmas Fair in County Armagh (3rd Dec). Aberglasney’s Winter Fair (2nd-4th Dec) showcases local Welsh delicacies and crafts, while the town’s famous chefs at Padstow’s Christmas Market (1st-4th Dec) offer sumptuous Christmas dinner tips. 

Victorian entertainment accompanies the cobbled streets of Ulverston’s Dickensian Festival (26th-27th Nov), while Thursford village performs their 45th Christmas Spectacular of non-stop singing, dancing, music and humour (8th Nov-23rd Dec).

Make your own lantern at Hawkshead’s Christmas Fair (3rd-4th Dec) before parading through the village at night, or create a festive decoration at Stourhead’s Christmas Wreath Workshops (26/27th Nov, 6th & 10th Dec).

Meanwhile, energetic visitors to Beecraig’s Illuminated Festive Forest (2nd-3rd Dec) can keep warm along the 1.8km festive-light trail with some toasted marshmallows and mulled wine.

Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival

The orchards of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire produce over two-thirds of Britain’s mistletoe, which is why Tenbury’s mistletoe auctions (22nd & 29th Nov – Burford House) have been the UK’s largest for over 160 years. As the winter solstice approaches, the orchards’ otherwise bare branches groan under the weight of this fertile, hemiparasitic plant.

Tenbury Wells’ Mistletoe Festival (3rd Dec) began in 2004, when the historic mistletoe auction site was sold for development. To bring back the mistletoe buzz, the community created the festival with a magical mix of old and new traditions.

New rituals include the crowning of the Mistletoe Queen by the Holly Prince, who take part in the day’s activities. Stalls sell mistletoe-themed gifts, as well as local produce, including cider and perry.

The festival’s highlight is the traditional mistletoe blessing. Drummers beat a dancing rhythm through town, collecting visitors like a pied piper, while snaking their way towards the Burgage Recreation Ground.

Here, local druids celebrate the year’s mistletoe harvest with music and readings, blessing the plant by chanting: 

“All Hail the Mistletoe, 
On the sacred tree does grow, 
Our blessing we bestow, 
All upon the Mistletoe!”

The blessed bunch is shared among visitors, before the River Teme takes the remains towards the sea and, ultimately, around the world.

Tenbury Wells Walk

1. Pump House

From Teme Street car park, follow the Kyre Brook to the town’s Pump Rooms. Built in 1862 to promote Tenbury as a spa town, on festival day it houses local craft and produce stalls. It was the owner of the adjacent Crow Hotel who discovered the saline spring on their grounds in 1839.

The trail passes the Market Street’s toilets, rebuilt after the devastating 2007 floods. The building’s shape reflects a hop kiln, recognising the town’s historic hop industry.

2. Old Schools

Turn left along Cross Street. Numbers 43-49 were originally built as the Tenbury National School, to educate Tenbury’s poorest children. Between 53 and 55 Cross Street is Tenbury Museum (open summer only), built in 1816 as Goff’s Free School. It continued as a school until 1915.

Further along Cross Street is the 16th century, timber-framed Pembroke House. Originally owned by Oxford’s Pembroke College, it was once a cider house with a reputation for serving a potent brew!

3. Market Misshape

Return down Cross Street and fork left into Market Square. The Round Market is actually oval-shaped, and was designed by James Cranston, who also designed the Pump Rooms. Festival events here include local produce stalls and some children’s activities.

Look out for the Old Fire Station near St Mary’s Church, which used to be the town’s mortuary. Floods damaged the original 12th century St Mary’s in 1770. Only the lower section of the original tower survives.

The narrow Church Lane cuts through to Tenbury’s main road, Teme Street, next to The Regal. Refurbished in 2012, this Art déco style cinema has wonderful Italianate murals on the auditorium walls. Look out for the crowning of the Mistletoe Queen and Holly Prince here.

4. Temeside Sprigs

Just before the river stands Temeside House, built as the town’s workhouse in 1837. Draped in mistletoe on festival day, there’s plenty here to pucker up with friends before picking up the drumming procession to the mistletoe blessing.

5. Burford House

Tenbury’s mistletoe auctions (22nd and 29th Nov) are now held a mile away at Burford House & Gardens. The free-to-enter four-acre gardens are home to 290 varieties of Clematis. To visit, cross the Teme, turn left at the road junction and take a stile on the left. The earth tump is all that remains of where Tenbury’s wooden castle keep once stood. Follow the signed path across several fields and through Burford Churchyard to Burford House. Retrace your steps to town.

From Tenbury’s crooked bridge, a Temeside path heads to the Burgage Recreation Ground, for the mistletoe blessing, and returns to the car park.

Check out some of my suggested christmas festivals and markets here: https://www.countryfile.com/go-outdoors/days-out/britains-best-christmas-markets/