Friday 24 September 2010

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree

In the forest the sweet chestnuts are ripening and falling to the ground, there to be collected by children and squirrels. The nuts are soft and sweet and worth the considerable effort required to remove them from their prickly outer casing and then the closely-fitting shiny brown shells. There are many hints and tips for releasing the chewy nuts but whichever method is used is fiddly, sticky and results in sore fingers (or is that just me?)

Some of the chestnut trees are getting on in years and have spreading canopies to provide welcome shade on September days that can still be very warm. Yesterday I took some photographs and they are here together with some macro shots of chestnuts that Barry captured a couple of days ago.
Pathé News presented a review of 1939, part of which showed King George VI and other members of the Royal Family at the Duke of York’s Camp for Boys singing ‘Underneath the spreading chestnut tree.’ Apparently, he didn’t seem very comfortable performing the actions, but it was a favourite of his and was chosen for the 1948 Royal Command Performance.
It was also a favourite of mine when I was teaching music and many are the children who learnt the actions and enjoyed performing it. I wonder if any of them remember it now?
The lyrics, inspired at least by the first line of the poem, ‘The Village Blacksmith’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1832) were written by J. and H. Kennedy and were set to music by Hal Kemp. The song was recorded by the Glen Miller Orchestra in 1939 with Marion Hutton. It’s delivered rather speedily and I can imagine that anyone attempting to fit in the actions would be somewhat breathless by the end!
I’ve added the ‘actions’ to the words, as clearly as I can. Remember, practice makes perfect ;-)

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree         (spread arms above head, then touch chest, head and lift arms up)
I loved him and he loved me.                                     (hands on heart, then hug)
There I used to sit upon his knee                         (hands on knees)
‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree.                    (as before)

There beneath the boughs we used to meet     (spread arms, then clasp hands)
All his kisses were so sweet;                                       (kiss fingers)
All the little birdies went ‘tweet- tweet’          (fingers make bird beaks)
‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree.                        (as before)
I said, ‘I love you and there ain’t no ifs or buts,       (hands on heart, shake finger)
He said, ‘I love you' and the blacksmith shouted, 'Chestnuts!'     (hands on heart)

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree              (as before)
There he said he’d marry me,                                         (mimic placing ring on finger)
Now you ought to see our family                               (hand indicates heights of children on ‘fa-mi-ly;)
‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree!                         (as before)


  1. Oh, super, Janice! I love Glenn Miller (my father insisted I would, and he was right) and although I can't imagine Longfellow saying "and there ain't no ifs or buts" I'm sure he would have enjoyed the music.
    I never knew there were actions to go with the song, and I don't think I've eaten fresh chestnuts. We had something called "horse chestnuts" in British Columbia when I was young. All the girls would polish them up lovingly because they were a beautiful color, but the boys used to drill holes in them, put them on a string, and use them as weapons with which to chase one another (and their sisters)!! Not exactly "sweet" chestnut memories!

  2. After hearing the song I can see why kids would love it, especially with gestures to go along. This is the first time I have ever seen what chestnuts look like on a tree. They are so cute, but look dangerous. I can see why your fingers would be sore.

  3. I love sweet chestnuts. Unfortunately by the time they get down here they're dried out. But I still like to boil them.

  4. Chestnuts are sold in grocery stores here in late fall and at Christmas time. Street vendors sell them warm on the streets of Toronto in winter, at least they used to.

    Most North American chestnut trees have succumbed to disease, though at one time they were apparently so prevalent it was said squirrels could cross the continent without having to touch the ground.

    We do have horse chestnut trees (conkers) - pretty but the nuts are not edible.

  5. I've never come across all those verses before! :) (Lovely green hedgehogs you grow in your trees!)

  6. I've never seen a green chestnut before. How lovely, thanks.

    We do not see chestnuts much in Australia, though they exist in places like the Botanical gardens.


  7. Excellent post. I did not know you have chestnut trees in the U.K. Over here in the U.S. they were once the most common tree in our Eastern forests, but they got wiped out by a blight in the first half of the twentieth century. Old roots still survive and occasionally send up a sapling, but the saplings succumb to the blight before reaching maturity.

  8. Oh we love Glen Miller too! I love winter nights when we have a sing song! The wine helps! lol!

  9. Thank you all :-)
    The conker season is almost upon us - hope you've all got your champion conkers ready.

  10. This is such a cute song. It was fun to listen to it.

    We had a horse chestnut in Illinois. The nuts were only good for squirrels. I wish we could have had sweet chestnuts that could be eaten.

  11. I imagine you would be surprised at how many will remember the song and the actions. My daughter will no doubt be bringing conkers home in bucket loads as she does each year.

    CJ xx

  12. This must have been a fun musical treat for your students. I've never had a chestnut. I don't think they grow here.

  13. Chestnut trees are indeed beautiful. I have never tried collecting the chestnuts before, maybe one day.

  14. I am very familiar with Longfellow's poem but I had never heard of the song. We have an American chestnut tree in our backyard and it produces an incredible amount of nuts. The squirrels are in heaven when they start to fall.

  15. I love this post. I really admire the way you write.


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