My first encounter with a ‘coin-tree’ was in a pub in the charming East Sussex town of Rye. I was settling down for a quiet drink and leaned back from the stool I was sitting on against a wooden pillar. Suddenly I felt a series of sharp stabs in my back, and when I turned around I discovered that the old wooden beam that was part of the structure of the old pub was encrusted with hundreds of coins that had been pushed into it.
Well, you do find these odd sorts of things in pubs, collecting for charities and suchlike, so I thought nothing more of it and simply moved to a more comfortable seat and finished my drink.
Like me, Ceri Houlbrook’s first encounter with a ‘coin-tree’ was entirely fortuitous. As a child in 1998 she was on a family outing visiting Bolton Abbey, in Yorkshire, While strolling through the woodland around the ancient building, they came across a fallen tree which was covered with coins which had been hammered into it. As they looked at the tree they saw that other families were adding to the coins in the wood, and inevitably she and her sister asked their parents for some coins so they could make their own contribution.
This wasn’t really a eureka moment, but a decade later undertaking research for a PhD in British folk customs, she came across a passage in E M Forster’s Howard's End, where one of the characters tells of a tree similarly adorned, but with pigs’ teeth rather than coins, as a traditional cure for toothache. Another character comments, “I love folklore and all festering superstitions”. At the time it was the assumption by many scholars that folk customs “have not survived as a living trait in modern civilisation.”
Recalling her experience raised questions about the nature of the Bolton Abbey coin-tree. Had this been a ‘festering superstition’ but one which had actually managed to hold out into the modern world?
|THE BOLTON ABBEY COIN-TREE|
In trying to find out more about the tree Ceri Houlbrook contacted the Bolton Abbey estate, wondering if the penny she pushed into the tree was a continuation of a centuries-old custom which had somehow managed to survive into ‘modern civilisation’. The reply she got startled her.
There was no historical background to the tree, it had not replaced any earlier tree or object which had attracted similar ‘tributes’. According to the estate’s Visitor Manager it has simply started when a forester working on the estate had found a coin next to a felled log, and stuck it in. This may be so, but it looks to me that although the coin-tree had only been going for about twenty years, it has already acquired its own creation myth!
Unable to find any other information about coin-trees, Houlbrook started her own investigation. She found several others within a 20 mile radius of Bolton Abbey, and many more across the North of England. Eventually she was able to catalogue 39 trees or clusters of trees (up to five separate specimens at some locations) across the British Isles.
Few of these trees seemed to have been in existence for more than thirty or so years, judging by the dates of the coins embedded in them, although a number, in Scotland and Ireland, hinted at a longer ancestry. Researching further into their background, she found two in Scotland and four in Ireland which seemed to date back to at least the nineteenth century.
For example, the coin-tree on the Isle of Maree, Wester Ross, Scotland, can be traced back to the mid-eighteenth century, and is associated with a ‘healing well’ on the island, dedicated to St. Maelrubha and reputed to cure madness. After a successful cure the patient or their relatives originally left a small piece of cloth from their clothing nailed to a nearby tree. Eventually this practice reduced to just hammering a nail into the tree, and eventually any convenient metal object, usually a coin. The tree gained a wider reputation when, in 1877, Queen Victoria on one of her Highland sorties visited the island and hammered a coin – presumably one bearing her own portrait – into the tree.
Several of the Irish trees seem to have had a similar origin, evolving from holy wells or other sites associated with saints, where pilgrims would leave some small token as a thanksgiving. This was often originally a piece of cloth, but later almost anything would be left at the tree or well, from coins to children's toys, to items which in other circumstances would be regarded just as litter. One site is described as looking like a recycling centre.
The author sees the spread of the coin-tree custom as being a result of the ‘democratisation of the landscape’. It is really only in the twentieth century that most ordinary people have had access to areas of the countryside any distance from where they lived. The majority of the coin trees are alongside well-trodden paths in public woodland like National Trust properties or the grounds of other historic sites.
Often the owners have introduced the trees into the official story of the site, marking them out on visitor maps and information panels, and in some cases encouraging them to be regarded as ‘lucky’, ‘wishing’ or ‘fairy’ trees, and creating back-stories for them, which usually suggest that they have a longer history than in reality, and are part of older folk tales, and stories of fairies, sprites and other legendary creatures.
The people that the author spoke to while researching the phenomenon were mostly family groups, usually on a short visit from another part of the country. There seemed to be few local people or overseas tourists, although some trees did have a few foreign coins in them. Usually the parties included children and as a rule it was the children who sought out the tree and insisted on putting another coin into it. She records a number of amusing conversations, including hearing a rather urgent “no, not the 50p!” as a group of children urged their parents to put a coin into a tree. Visitors also made up their own stories on the origin of the coin-trees, one mother telling her daughter that they were where the tooth-fairies got their money from to put under pillows!
So can the trees be considered authentic folk-lore, or are they to be dismissed as ‘fake-lore’ a term coined (sorry!) by the American folklorist Richard Dawson. Dawson tried to draw a rigid line between folklore which was preserved and disseminated purely through word-of-mouth and personal contact; and those stories, songs and rituals which were spread through print and other media, feeling that such forms of transmission invalidated their purely ‘folk’ character.
But there is no real division between the methods of propagating folk customs and stories; they have always been spread through print media, and now increasingly through audio-visual and digital means, and talk of ‘fake-lore’ fails to understand the complexity of the transmission of ideas, even in societies with far less exposure to multi-media sources than ours.
Coin-trees have been created and propagated through many thousand individual actions. Some perhaps stimulated by the older tradition of holy or curative wells and springs, or spread through the increasing public access to forested areas. Houlbrook suggests that one of the reasons why so many began in the 1970s – as indicated by the dates of the coins implanted in them – is because about that time forestry practice changed from clearing away felled tree-trunks and branches, to leaving them in-situ to encourage biodiversity.
The author speculates on the possible future of the coin-trees. Already some are beginning to decay and coins are falling out of them. She notes the gradual replacement of coins by electronic payment methods and wonders if this will lead to their demise, as people carry fewer coins around with them. An even newer phenomenon is the ‘love-lock’ attached to chains and bridge railings, and which already seems to be causing problems for owners and curators of historic structures. Thousands were cleared from the Pont des Arts in Paris as they were threatening the integrity of the structure.
Whatever their origin and their eventual fate, coin-trees are now very much part of British tradition, folklore and landscape as this most enjoyable book makes clear. Although it is an academic contribution to a series of historical studies on witchcraft and magic, it is a clear and readable account accessible for the non-specialist reader and laced with interesting sidelights and anecdotes, of a fascinating piece of folklore, as authentic as any truly ‘ancient’ tradition.
And next time I’m in Rye, I will take a closer look at that indoor coin-tree, which will involve me in a lot of serious research – and a couple of pints! – John Rimmer.