Brian Viner: Country Life

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It is almost a fortnight now since we in Herefordshire celebrated Britain's inaugural National Mistletoe Day, and we're still full of admiration for our MP, Bill Wiggin (Leominster, Con), for getting his parliamentary colleagues to agree there should be such a thing. I must say that when I heard that Mr Wiggin's Early Day Motion had been passed at the House of Commons, I couldn't quite shake the image of him triumphantly flushing the loo just before breakfast, but maybe that's just my lavatorial mind, and a cheap joke should not detract from the splendour of having an official day for mistletoe on 1 December.

Mistletoe is big in these parts. It grows especially well in orchards and Herefordshire and Worcestershire is Orchard Central. It is odd, in a way, that mistletoe is associated with kissing, because it is a parasite, and is spread by the mistle thrush, which eats the berry and then flies around excreting the seeds in its droppings. The droppings stick to twigs and branches, and lo, more mistletoe grows. The etymology of mistletoe is uncertain, incidentally, but the word is thought to derive from the Old German word "mist", meaning dung. Which brings me, with apologies, back to Bill Wiggin's Early Day Motion.

He was persuaded to champion the mistletoe cause by an indefatigable woman called Jen Green, chairman of the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival, which this year ran from 24 November to 5 December. I couldn't go, sadly, but apparently I missed a treat, not least a visit from Queen Victoria and her lady-in-waiting to the town's Chinese Gothic Pump Rooms. The Victoria lookalike is Sylvia Strange, who lives in Onibury in Shropshire, and her lady-in-waiting, Lady Charlotte Ponsonby, is plain Jean Grange from Leominster. I'm told they make a fine double act, as befits a pair called Strange and Grange. The former is by all accounts an absolute ringer for Victoria in her later, dumpy years. I suppose most Victoria lookalikes are, just as most Elvis impersonators evoke the eight-hamburgers-a-day version.

Anyway, the first mistletoe festival took place last year and was a great success. It was opened by Lorraine Chase, once of Luton Airport, now of Emmerdale. She has since been made the festival's patron, which I think is marvellous. Never mind the German word for dung, there is something gloriously, quintessentially English about the "Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival - patron Lorraine Chase".

The festival was conceived, by Jen Green and others, to celebrate a long association between Tenbury Wells and mistletoe. In 1885, a Tenbury fruit merchant and publican called Thomas Graves sold a ton of holly and half a ton of mistletoe to America, and he was still dealing in the stuff in 1919. In the 1930s, local auctioneers started mistletoe sales, and by the 1980s the Tenbury mistletoe auction was a national event. In 2004, however, the auctioneers, Brightwells, sold the site to William Chase, the Herefordshire potato farmer whose business was struggling until he invented Tyrrells Potato Chips, which have now - at least in this part of the world - become a euphemism for the crisp. Round here, you don't go into the pub and ask for a bag of crisps, you ask for a bag of Tyrrells.

But in Tenbury there was concern that with the auction site now in the hands of a crisp baron, a venerable tradition might die, hence the inauguration of the festival. Happily, Mr Chase sponsored it this year and has pledged to keep the auction alive. He's even said that he might produce a mistletoe crisp, which would be a very fine gesture indeed. Then we could all start kissing under a bag of Tyrells.

There's one other thing about mistletoe you should know. Pharmaceutical tests have recently shown that a compound found in the berries might help to keep certain life-threatening illnesses in regression, which makes mistletoe, if I might borrow Jen Green's stirring words, the plant not just of pleasure but of hope. On that uplifting note let me take this opportunity to wish you a very happy Christmas, and some enjoyable kisses under the you-know-what. The 'Property' section, and this column, will be back in the new year.

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