At last Saturday’s Night Market on Bermondsey Square, we were selling our award-winning Bermondsey Street Honey. And we sold out.
Our stall was very much a family affair, with Sarah’s immaculate styling putting our product on elegant display and Xander, Maff and I selling the honey, candles, honey and salt hand-scrub, natural beeswax furniture polish, bone-china bee-mugs and organic T-shirts (OK, so we didn’t sell many T-shirts at a couple of degrees above zero!).
A shiver ran down my spine as it occured to me that our stall was precisely on the spot where Bermondsey Abbey had stood, founded just after the Norman Conquest on the site of a 7th Century monastery. That sudden time-shift placed the Bermondsey Street Bees as the inheritors of a 1300-year history of beekeeping in that very place.
While I knew that bees and monks went back a long way, I pondered on that connection and came up with a few reasons why monks would have been keen beekeepers.
Wax was an important commodity for churches. With stoutly-build walls to withstand Viking raids and small windows to allow maximum advantage to defenders against aggression, the ability of a beeswax candle to light the interior, even on the brightest summer’s day, was invaluable. Unlike tallow (animal fats), beeswax burns clean, with a heavenly smell of wax and honey. So the monks would have valued their bees partly for the devotional aspect of their wax combs.
Bees are excellent pollinators. Even though the science of pollination was unknown in the 7th century, the happy propinquity of honeybees with a kitchen garden – and many arable crops – would not have escaped notice. Bees would have been important to sustain a large religious community. But in a modern, urban brickscape like Bermondsey Street, it is imperative for us to create adequate forage. To that end, I have put flowerbeds into St. Mary Magadalen Churchyard (Southwark grant) and fruiting, edible plantings into Leathermarket Gardens (with plants from Bankside Open Spaces Trust) and I maintain an allotment at Alscot Road, by Bermondsey Spa. We need to do more than just talk about forage provision to ensure a healthy, happy bee-population in London.
And finally, there’s the honey itself. Let’s not underestimate what honey would have represented in when the Bermondsey Abbey was set up in 1082 by Alywn Childe. It had been a luxury item in nature long before human beings existed – ask any bear! And consider: when you put some honey in your mouth, that sunburst of sweetness is precisely the same sensation as the first human being would have experienced. True, the same would go for oysters – except that honey is a substance made by other creatures, it is not the creatures themselves. Surely that is part of the wonder of honey as a foodstuff.
It is humbling to acknowledge that honey had already reached its peak of perfection millions of years before mankind started walking upright and that, subsequently, the ingenuity of the human race has failed to improve upon honey’s sublime simplicity.
Remember that, in the 7th century, there was no sugar, no treacle, no chocolate, no candy. Honey was the only way to store sweetness to enjoy on its own or to add to another foodstuff. Honey, this rare and remarkable substance, once sealed on the comb, can be stored almost indefinitely.
And then there honey as a medicine, salving wounds and soothing allergies, and then again as an agent of fermentation, used to produce intoxicating drinks, like mead. And do you know what ? Bermondsey Street Honey is a key ingredient of award-winning Hiver Beer since the first batch was bottled in 2012. Another resonance, ringing down the years from ancient Bermondsey Abbey to today.
But before I get completely carried away, let’s just say that I’m proud to be carrying on the ancient tradition of Bermondsey beekeeping – and selling our honey with Sarah, Xander and Maff on the spot where Bermondsey Abbey used to stand.