Custom survived: London Harvest of the Sea Festival

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“O Lord Jesus Christ, who after thy glorious resurrection didst prepare by  the waterside a breakfast of fish for disciples that had toiled the whole night  long; Come amongst these thy servants who toil beside our river day by day  to provide food for their fellow men, and bring thy blessing both on their  work and on their lives, O Lord our Saviour and help for ever. Amen.”

The Billingsgate Market Prayer – specially written by the late Very Rev. E. Milner-White

London has many traditions and customs as indeed this blog has detailed. One of the most visually arresting and unique is the Harvest of the Sea Harvest festival which is celebrated at St Marys at the Hill tucked away up the narrow Lovat Lane in the shadow of London’s famed Monument and a few yards from the Old Billingsgate Market.

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I remember as a child once being brought early in the morning to see this vibrant fish market in action. The seafood smells, the sounds and sights of the white coated porters rushing around delivering their valuable fish stock was a heady and confusing. Little did I know that a few years later this venerable market, which had traded here since Viking times, would move forever more from its famous location to the Isle of Dogs and the noise and smells lost forever here….that is until the second Sunday in October when the smells and memories return to the church nearby. 

Plenty of fish in the sea!

The custom is famed for its seafood display which is not only visually impressive but fills the air with a fresh maritime aroma; a unique experience in a London church. Brian Shuel  in his 1985 a Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain states:

“Early in the morning a vanload of fish arrives to be laid out just inside the door of the church. In 1984 it took four men just two hours to create the astonishing display.”

He continues to state that one of the porters remarked:

“We counted fifty-four varieties of fish and shellfish…something like £500 worth of fish donated by the Billingsgate Fish Merchants.”

The display was similarly adorned with a large display of fish and seafood, with a separate stall of prawns, shrimps and cockles to the side. Nets were hung above and over a considerable monument which loomed above and crab and lobster pots – indeed two live crabs sat rather dazed upon the later awaiting their fate. 

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Fishing around

I spied beneath the stall, one of the traditional bobbins. These were unique hats once worn by the porters to enable quick and efficient movement of their wares. Recalling my childhood visit I do remember the considerable skill involved and was in awe of those men rushing around carrying several boxes of fish balanced on their heads. The hats themselves are of wooden construction, covered with canvas and coated with bitumen to make them long lasting. Held together with studs and understandably having a brim to prevent any unnecessary fluids reaching the face, they are now rare pieces and in the modern Billingsgate not required.  The hat belonged to Mr Billy Hallet, who was one of two senior porters in white overalls who obliged for a photo. 

But one may ask why were they needed then? The original Billingsgate and the areas around was largely cobbled and so wheeled trolleys would be difficult to maneuver. I was informed by one of the oldest ex-Porters there, Reg Condon, of a tradition which enabled them to get up the more challenging hills locally. Upon reaching such a local, a cry of ‘hill up’ would be called by the porter. This then awoke the various rough sleepers who rested in the area who would then appear to help push the porter up the hill! They would then would be rewarded a shilling for their help. Apparently, this was a long standing tradition known by the homeless community who would make sure they were local to help and receive their monies.  

The service begun with a traditional blessing of a small section of the fish by the Bishop of Birmingham – an interesting choice perhaps being a clergyman from a landlocked location. This blessed firsh  was later returned to the whole display, with a remark that this was probably more desirable as it had been blessed.  The service had other unique maritime features such as the unique Billingsgate Prayer and prayers for Seafarers as below:

“For Seafarers  O eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, rulest the raging  of the sea: Be pleased to receive into thy protection all those who go down to  the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters. Preserve them  both in body and soul; prosper their labours with good success; in all time of  danger be their defence, and bring them to the haven where they would be;  through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

O God our heavenly Father, we pray to thee for all seafarers and those who serve their needs; for keepers of lighthouses and the pilots of our ports; for all who man the lifeboats and guard our coasts; for the men of the fishing fleets and those who carry out the services of docks and harbours; for the guilds and societies which care for the wellbeing of fishermen and their families. Bless them according to their need, and shield them in all dangers and temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

There was an uplifting rendition of the “For those in peril on the sea” even more poignant with the aroma of the sea drifting across the congregation. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem with the new amendments and soon food and drink was being served to the departing congregation. 

A different kettle of fish?

How old the current custom is is difficult to ascertain. It certainly is not mentioned in any of the books on customs and traditions from the 1800s or early 20th century. I spoke with a Mr Reg Condon who had worked in Billingsgate in the 50s, 60s and 70s and was 85. He could recall that the first service at St Mary’s was in the 1960s and that he did recall it being held in St Magnus. This would be in line with the reference in the Times of the 3rd October 1922 which describes a similar event. It seems likely that the custom moved perhaps after the second world war to its current location. Although St Magnus state that the service moved in 1923 to St Dunstan in the East and then to St Mary at Hill, Alternatively, Brian Shuel  in his 1985 a Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain states:

“This unique Harvest Thanksgiving began in the 1930s.. The Church Army  approached the market and suggested it as a charitable exercise. Sam Shepherd, a former Superintendent of the market told me they were delighted to agree. The occasion continues on the same basis; the Church Army still claims the fish and distributes to the needy.”

He adds surely with a tongue in cheek:

“I was grateful to accept a pair of dover sole myself, from the artistic fishmongers, who recognised my own unfortunate circumstances.”

Today a considerable queue forms and many happy congregations left with some quality seafood ready for that special occasion and despite the concerns over overfishing the display is as remarkable as ever. 

Custom contrived: October Plenty

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“October Plenty is such a special way to celebrate the Autumn Harvest and show off the beautiful colours of the season’s fruit & veg piled high on our traders’ stalls. We are really looking forward to welcoming the event back to the Market this year and sharing festivities, stories and dancing for a lovely family event. The Corn Queene and Berry Man are always particular favourites of ours and we are excited to host visitors as well as the many different characters in the procession!”

Kate Howell, Director of Communications and Engagement at Borough Market

The autumn period is packed with curious customs and celebrations associated with the changing seasons; from harvest festivals to Hallowe’en, from Diwali to Bonfire Night. In recent years, a celebration of that quintessential season fruit; the apple has attracted its day. Attempting to join many ideas together in one place; as a sort of smorgasbord of autumn, is the Lion’s Part’s October Plenty, which is undertaken in London’s Southwark. Indeed, as the organiser’s website records:

Over 20 years ago, fired with enthusiasm for amazing autumn festivies that people celebrated world wide and influenced by the organisation Common Ground, whose creation of Apple Day has inspired so many, I gathered with local friends and members of the Lions part and we launched October Plenty. At the heart of it was the iconic Corn Queene. Since then, in collaboration with Roots and Shoots, Lambeth, through David Perkins and Sarah Wilson, she has become an annual wonder.”

A bit corny!

The most remarkable feature is the Corn Queene whose appearance at the front of the Globe marks the beginning and is central to the procession. The website for the event records how this Corn Queene has been made since 2004 and that:

“she has emerged each year at Roots and Shoots in Lambeth and, like another mythical old bird, she takes form, rises, briefly reigns, before dissipating in a great shout…..Her demeanour can seem bemused, condescending, even dismissive, of the antics of much smaller humans.”

What is interesting about this Corn Queene is that although clearly a modern invention it has the feel of something more ancient and authenticate. She plays a central role in the October Plenty festival and her annual reincarnation is a central point and theme to this custom. Each year although she follows a similar design, she is also different; she metamorphosizes and since 2003 she parades on an old market barrow. She is described as:

“The Queene’s facial features are very colourful, often with an interesting complexion and skin texture. Her nose generally resembles a small gourd (regrettably warty at times) and she almost always has decidedly hot lips. Lashes can be long, perhaps enhanced with extensions (wire, right). Beauty spots have appeared now and then and she has favoured ear decorations on a number of occasions (small gourds or radish, maybe).”

Originally it was made by the actors on the day then as the event became more successful and merged with the markets own Apple Day since 2012 it had allowed the Queene to take place under cover in a then newly refurbished area of the Market; taking around 3 or 4 days to build her. 

The procession has also changed and since 2019, the Queene now emerges from Lambeth, passes the Tibetan Peace Garden/Imperial War Museum via Lambeth Walk.

On my visit this Corn Queene was indeed a very odd, comical but still rather eerie ‘creature’ looming over the crowd that had assembled for the start of the procession. Joining her was the equally odd Berry Man..now we had seen him before at the beginning of the year as the Green man of course and this autumnal version adorned with shades of brown and orange and suitably seasonal fruits and berries was perhaps even more impressive. It certainly turned a few heads as he, the Corn Queene and the Mayor headed a procession of players down the streets on the southbank and into the market. 

Here one could sample that wonderful autumnal produce, and the assembled crowd certainly took advantage of that opportunity as the market was bustling. Soon as a large enough audience had developed the actors presented them with Tudor dancing and a Georgian play which was the correct mix of bawdy and bizarre. Once the play had been presented the procession reformed and made its way to the George Inn, a delightful galleried inn which has survived considerable progress around. Here there was conker competitions, apple bobbing, a wishing tree….and that traditional staple of a countryside custom – Morris dancers.

October Plenty is certainly a fun and colourful custom; completely made up with a feel of authenticity, a modern take on the Harvest home perhaps, and one might add playing a vital role in our modern life. Especially in the city. For in our modern city lives it’s important to understand the countryside and how we are very dependent on it. October Plenty provides a historical nod to how this was done in the past in a very modern spin. When seasonality often lost in the 21st century, when everything is available irrespective of the time of year, October plenty allows the city folk to reconnect in a fun way, with the season and the wonderful colours and bounty that autumn provides.

Custom demised: Great Crosby Goose Fair

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Many readers will know the Tavistock Goosey Fair, certainly Nottingham’s Goose Fair but Great Crosby once a small village, now a considerable settlement, seven miles from Liverpool also had its ‘Goose Fair.’

Notes and queries records that the feast took place when the harvest is gathered in about that part of the country, and so it forms a sort of “harvest-home” gathering for the agriculturists of the neighbourhood. Thus, it appears to have developed from a feast day and was associated with St Luke’s Day or rather the nearest Sunday. Notes and queries continues to state that:

“It is said also that, at this particular period, geese are finer and fatter after feeding on the stubble-fields than at any other time.”

And the comments that:

“Curious to say, however, the bird in question is seldom, if ever, eaten at these feasts.”

A reason for this being given that George Henderson’s 1911 Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, states that:

“At ‘Goose Fair’ at Great Crosby, Lancashire, the goose was held as too sacred to eat.”

Whether is true is unclear and it may have been that it was simply a trade fair and once does not eat the profits. Similarly when it demised is not known. 

Custom occasional: Proclamations of the accession of the monarch

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“EDWARD VI, by the grace of God King of England, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith and of the Church of England and also of Ireland in earth the supreme head, to all our most loving, faithful, and obedient subjects, and to every of them, greeting.

Where it hath pleased Almighty God, on Friday last past in the morning to call unto his infinite mercy the most excellent high and mighty prince, King Henry VIII of most noble and famous memory, our most dear and entirely beloved father, whose soul God pardon; forasmuch as we, being his only son and undoubted heir, be now invested and established in the crown imperial of this realm, and other his realms, dominions, and countries, with all regalities, pre-eminences, styles, names, titles, and dignities to the same belonging or in any wise appertaining:

We do by these presents signify unto all our said most loving, faithful, and obedient subjects that like as we for our part shall, by God’s grace, show ourself a most gracious and benign sovereign lord to all our good subjects in all their just and lawful suits and causes, so we mistrust not but they and every of them will again, for their parts, at all times and in all cases, show themselves unto us, their natural liege lord, most faithful, loving, and obedient subjects, according to their bounden duties and allegiances, whereby they shall please God and do the thing that shall tend to their own preservations and sureties; willing and commanding all men of all estates, degrees, and conditions to see our peace kept and to be obedient to our laws, as they tender our favor and will answer for the contrary at their extreme peril.”

Thus reads the oldest surviving Proclamation of the King that of Edward IV and whilst early Proclamations were made by the monarch over time a accession council set the date and made the announcements. However, nowadays news spreads very quickly. Within seconds of an official or even unofficial announcement the world knows so when Charles ascended to the British Throne one might expect a Twitter tweet or a Facebook feed to do the job but of course this might well have happened on top of a more of the most traditional custom of the proclamation. Indeed at the Proclamation I attended the Lord Mayor stated:

In an age where modern methods of communication convey news around the globe in an instant, the proclamation is no longer the means by which people learn for the first time that they have a new Monarch. Today, however, is one of the first occasions when communities have an opportunity to come together and reflect on the moment in our nation’s history when the reign of our longest-serving Monarch came to an end and our new Sovereign succeeded.”

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What is interesting is that the proclamation works as a cascade mechanism. The first official or principal public proclamation being that at St James’s Palace. This being read by the Garter King of Arms from the balcony overlooking Friary court. This then is repeated by the City of London at the Royal Exchange. This then progressed to the separate countries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and then it dissolved to the counties, then the cities and then the boroughs…I was half expecting at some point a person dressed in ceremonial robes shouting the proclamation through my letterbox at one point!

The High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Paul Southby gave the proclamation on the banks of the Trent at 1pm however I failed to attend this feeling the Nottingham city proclamation sat outside the impressive town hall. Thus, I attended the City of Nottingham’s proclamation.  By the time I had reached there a large number of people had attended, many previously laying the flowers in memory of Her Majesty the Queen. The flag was at half mast and a large number of dignitaries were arriving, many of whom had driven over from the earlier proclamation at the county offices. Despite there being a fair sized crowd I still managed to get right in front, they must have believed me to an official photographer. 

Soon the town crier appeared and rang the bell to start the proceedings and out processed the Lord Mayor of Nottingham, Cllr Wendy Smith, Sir John Peace, the Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire; the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Paul Southby; City Council Leader, Cllr David Mellen; Sheriff of Nottingham, Cllr Nicola Heaton and other special dignitaries. The Lord Mayor naturally referred to the recent events stating that:

 “Our sadness at this time is shared by people across the globe, as we remember with affection and gratitude the lifetime of service given by Queen Elizabeth II, our longest-reigning Monarch.”

She continued to explain that:

“The basis on which our monarchy is built has ensured that through the centuries the Crown has passed in an unbroken line of succession. Today’s ceremony marks the formal Proclamation to the people of Nottingham of the beginning of our new King’s reign. The proclamation of the new Sovereign is a very old tradition which can be traced back over many centuries.   The ceremony does not create a new King. It is simply an announcement of the accession which took place immediately on the death of the reigning monarch.”

The amassed stood on a special platform to witness the Proclamation facing stoically into the crowd as the Proclamation was read:

“Whereas it has pleased Almighty God to call to His Mercy our late Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second of Blessed and Glorious Memory, by whose Decease the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is solely and rightfully come to The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George: We, therefore, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of this Realm and Members of the House of Commons, together with other members of Her late Majesty’s Privy Council and representatives of the Realms and Territories, Aldermen and Citizens of London, and others, do now hereby with one voice and Consent of Tongue and Heart publish and proclaim that The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George is now, by the Death of our late Sovereign of Happy Memory, become our only lawful and rightful Liege Lord Charles the Third, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories, King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, to whom we do acknowledge all Faith and Obedience with humble Affection; beseeching God by whom Kings and Queens do reign to bless His Majesty with long and happy Years to reign over us.

Given at St. James’s Palace this tenth day of September in the year of Our Lord two thousand.”

The flag being raised for the Proclamation temporarily but also a curious custom where the mace bearer turned the ceremonial mace over; a tradition undertaken in cities which had been visited by the monarch as a sign of respect.  There was a curious moment where the tape recording used to play the National Anthem did not appear to work. To be honest with a city as notable as Nottingham I would have thought that they might have managed some live music. Come what may though the Lord Mayor used their initiative and got the crowd to join in three rounds of ‘God Save the King’.  Then finally the tape worked, and the crowd sung ‘God save the King’ many I am sure for the first time.

The Proclamation over I left the City to experience it all over again at Gedling Borough council. Here the Mayor and Mayoress were joined by the councillors, the current MP Tom Randall and the previous MP, now Baron, Vernon Coaker. The reading was of course exactly the same but less people were assembled and after the singing of God Save the King, for the second time that day…for me…the party processed down to a small monument in the grounds of the park which had become a temporary memorial for the Queen.  The custom of course is a rare one but naturally also a very historic one and who knows when we shall hear it again.

Custom transcribed: London Rathayatra

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Occasionally London surprises you and you discover a fairly long running and sizeable custom such is the remarkable Hare Krisna Rathayatra custom which fills the streets of London with incredible sounds and sights in what could be described as London’s most vibrant religious customs. 

Hare Hare

The custom begun when eight devotees and their congregation organised the first procession from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square in 1969. Devotee Shyamasundar Dasa constructed the first chariot for Lord Jagannath making the deities of Jagannath Beladeva and Subhadra ‘so beautiful that everyone will be attracted to them’ as Indian Guru Srila Prabhupada instructed, and these are the deities which still process today. The Back to Godhead Magazine stated:

“Londoners still have not recovered from that initial shock of that transcendental sound vibration in 1969. The Radha Krishna Temple (music band) has not let them”

In those first headlines in national papers read “Krishna Chant Startles London”. In those early years the congregation was small around 30 but their presence was increasing particularly when in 1970 a new 50 foot chariot was built and  Hare Krishna devotees overtook Leicester square with huge flashing billboards announcing “Holy Jagannath Car Procession”. The Godhead magazine, the magazine of the Hare Krisna movement, stated

The second annual London Rathayatra festival happened just like that. Two years before, when six disciples of the Hare Krsna Movement first invaded British soil, the newspapers declared: “KRSNA CHANT STARTLES LONDON.” Londoners still haven’t recovered from that initial shock of transcendental sound vibration. The Radha-Krsna Temple (London) hasn’t let them. The devotees there (now numbering near thirty) have continued to bombard England with Hare Krsna on records on television and radio, in the movies, in newspapers and magazines, and daily the sankirtana party of saffron-clad chanters dance their way down Oxford Street.”

In 1973 the Rathayatra was attended by His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada Founder Acharya of ISKCON. It was reported that:

 “although Srila Prabhupada was 74 years of age, he chanted and danced throughout the entire procession. He ignored the elegant seat on the chariot, which was offered to him, much to the delight of the assembled devotees. This festival was Srila Prabhupada’s triumphant moment looking out at thousands of people chanting the Holy name in Trafalgar Square.”

A future leader of the Hare Krishna movement Maha Vishnu Swami organised the event and donated £10,000 pounds to publicise it. The next day Guardian newspaper read “ISKCON Rathayatha is rival to Nelson’s column” and the Srila Prabhupada stated that:

“Just as the residents of Puri compared the Rathayatra cart to Mount Sumeru, the residents of London considered the cart rival to the Nelson Monument.”

By 1985 the Rathayatra now proceeded from Marble Arch to Battersea Park, allowing for a larger festival at the end of the procession and here for a number of years a big festival was established in the park. In 1996 the procession had swelled to around 8000 members and by 1999 it had returned to its original route combined with the fact that Trafalgar square was traffic free and it was attended by 10 Sannyasis, the movement’s senior leaders and was filmed for an international TV series Abhay Charan. 

By 2004, two more chariots were built and thus the procession consisted of three chariots and in 2008 the oldest chariot was rebuilt utilising the skills of the Queen’s wheelwright to construct the huge wooden wheels in the traditional style with the rest of the work such as the painting done by volunteers. In 2018, the custom celebrated its 50th anniversary. 

Hare along to see

I stopped outside the Ritz as a wave of Hare Krishna devotees flowed down from Marble Arch. First one noticed the sound of chanting ‘Hare Krisna’ and a blur of distinctive orange as large numbers of people danced in and out of the crowd. As they got closer one could see that the procession was not only made up of joyous dancers but consisted of portable shrines, individuals dressed as deities and of course the enormous chariot which soon loomed into view and filled the sky. 

The chariot is a remarkable construction, although initially disappointed that there was only one as I was under the impression there would be three. A huge wooden construction covered in maroon, yellow and blue proclaiming Hare Krishna, covered in garlands upon which sat a smiling figure of the late spiritual leader Srila Prabhupada; there in spirit if not sadly in body. The canvas top of the 

Soon the massed procession passed by Eros and the intrusive neon commerciality of Piccadilly Circus which in a way was a curious juxtaposition; but that is London after all. After around an hour the whole procession and the cart arrived in Trafalgar Square where the celebration continued. There was more dancing, weaving in and out and chanting. However, the most remarkable site became the queue for the free food; a common feature of the Hare Krishna movement. 

All in all, the procession was a remarkable visual and auditory experience. One of the great customs of the capital and one which clearly drew many people from different backgrounds together to celebrate life and devotion. Long may it continue.

Custom demised: Eccles Wake

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Eccles Wakes Fair, 1822 | Art UK

In the town of Eccles was a famous wake, an annual festival associated with the Parish church and doubtless associated with its foundation. The event was celebrated on the first Sunday in September, and continued during the three succeeding days, and consisted of feasting upon a kind of local confectionery, called “Eccles Cakes,” and ale, with various sports. 

Edward Baines in their 1836 History of County of Lancaster: 

“On Monday morning, at eleven o’clock the sports will commence (the sports of Sunday being passed over in silence) with that most ancient, loyal, rational, constitutional and lawful diversion.”

One of the most barbaric aspects was:

 “Bull Baiting: In all its primitive excellence, for which this place has been long noted…the day’s sport to conclude with baiting the bull, Fury, for a superior dog-chain.”

The festivities continue:

“At one o’clock there will be a foot race; at two o’clock, a bull baiting for a horse collar; at four o’clock, donkey races for a pair of panniers; at five o’clock, a race for a stuff hat. On Tuesday, the sports will be repeated; also on Wednesday, with the additional attraction of a smock race by ladies. A main of cocks to be fought on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for twenty guineas, and five guineas the byes, between the gentlemen of Manchester and Eccles; the wake to conclude with a fiddling match by all the fiddlers that attend for a piece of silver.”

Such village wakes flourished throughout the midlands and northern England and were seen as holidays for working people in the industrial regions such as Wigan.  As such by the 18th century, huge crowds were attracted and by 1877 local residents complained and thus the custom stopped by order of the Home Secretary. 

Today the only relic of the Eccles wakes are those Eccles Cakes….and delicious they are too!

Custom survived: Lee Gap Fair, Yorkshire

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“Stallions proud and ribbands prancing

Joyous fiddling and dancing

Isaac Horsfield who was there

He made sport for all the fair.

A handsome show of china ware

Of much variety was there

Cheesecakes plenty might be got

Gingerbread and good tom-trot.”

 

Lee Gap Fair was founded over 800 years ago been chartered by King Stephen in 1139, thus it can rightly claim to be England’s oldest horse fair only the local church is older and the two are linked.  Traditionally the fair took place on the Feast of the Assumption (15th September) and finished on the Nativity of the  blessed Virgin (8th September) and thus was linked to the church.

Making leeway

The fair became a major event People travelled vast distances to attend the fair. In the Middle Ages Lee Gap Fair attracted merchants from France, Spain, Florence and the low lands of Germany. Not only Horses bur cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock were sold at the fair.

Such was the occasion that people attending are said to have married or got their children baptised and hence the fair was good revenue for the church who had a priest on call the whole fair. Miracle plays were also performed to bring the faith to the masses.  The fair was owned by Nostell Priory until the Reformation when it was granted to a Dr Leigh and the fair moved to West Ardsley and took on his name although written as Lee and I am unsure where the Gap came from. However, there is some confusion over whether the Nostell Priory Fair and the current fair are the same continuation as their fair was five days starting on St Oswalds’s feast day on the 9th not 24th and early writers state that it was discontinued ‘centuries ago’.

Interestingly, the Charter does not tie the fair to one site only that it be held in the parish of Woolkirk or West Ardsley. Which is good because its most traditional site was lost to building many years back forcing a new location to be held. However, not only is its location fluid but its function too. Originally it was wool fair only becoming a horse fair as the need for horses through increasing warfare and agriculture forced the necessity.

Fairly well met

On first arrival you think there cannot be a horse fair here its too urban as you survey the neat gardens, hedges and waxed cars in their drives. And indeed, the first site was built upon a few years on. However, soon there appear to be see a parade of cones and then a small handwritten sign Lee Fair at the side of a farm lane. Going down here past some rather large houses the lane snakes down into a small, enclosed field and here 100s have gathered. A detailed sign at the gate informs me of what I can and cannot do there – no racing of horses and silly string stand out!

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A fair assessment?

Attending a horse fair is one of those rare experiences. A completely unvarnished natural organic custom devoid of any tourist pretensions. Indeed, at one point I think I am the only non-traveller there! Certainly, the only one with a camera around my neck which makes me self-conscious as I snap away but despite one boy asking for a photo; I appear invisible and inconsequential to those assembled. Such events always appear to be associated with problems

The horse fair is a window on another world. A world within a world. A world divorced from the mainstream. The stalls mainly sell materials which only suit its close clientele – metal churns, horses’ bits and various nick-nacks. There are of course cloth stalls but again in the main their apparel appeal to those who are there particularly the young girls who view these events as both a fashion parade and an opportunity to meet boys. Indeed, I came across and listened in on one such approach by a boy who runs over and asks ‘excuse me but my friend really likes you will you talk to him?’ None of that grabbing that was parade in the populist media a few years back.

Standing on the corners one comes across groups of old men. They had seen it all before. They appear the more traditionally dressed in their tweeds and barbers catching up with old friends and looking on at the young folk and their courting. Unlike a more formal selling environment with an arena and animals paraded in and out it is in these huddled groups that the horse trading is done. So often seeing or hearing a deal can be a rarity.

Walking around I noticed lots of strands of green, pink, blue materials and soon come across some younger kids attacking each other with kit and then looking like they immediately regretted it and set about removing it from each other’s hair! The silly string! Looks good they heeded then warning!

Every now and then a horse rushes by ridden, trotted or on occasion on its own! The crowd parts and everyone watches – again I am sure they said there was none of this-but I am glad there is because it adds some degree of excitement and authenticity.

Occasionally there are some other animals – chickens and caged canaries seem to be popular, and I see a number wandering around with the birds in colourful quaint wooden cages. The community are keen to maintain their traditions but unlike other customs where such things are kept up, here it seems natural and functional, rather than tradition for its own sake.

A fair representation?

Sadly, fairs and antisocial behaviour seem always to go hand in hand. One only need to delve into the records to see. The earliest being the 1315 Wakefield  Court Rolls which records three complaints brought against John  de Heton. He was accused of assaulting a man and a woman and overturning a stall, causing the owner damages and injuries totalling a loss of forty shillings. Regular accounts in the local press record thefts, selling of stolen horses and pick pockets litter the 19th century press accounts. Fairs always attract all types and certainly over the years drunkenness, damage to property and indeed bloodshed forced the local residents in 1656 to petition the West Riding justices to have it abolished stating that it was a nuisance and Wakefield market could provide their needs. It did not work of course, especially as the local community had not grasped that the fair whilst open to them was not really for them. By end of the 18th century the fair did indeed last from 24th August (St. Bartholomew’s) until 17th September. As the twentieth century developed it was moved to have the fair only on the starting date- 24th August and its last day and thus gave the name early Lee and Later Lee.   Alcohol was highlighted as a cause for much of the issues and as such there is no license to sell it at the fair.

Fairly well remembered

Julia Smith in the excellent 1989 Fairs, Feasts and Frolics spoke with a Mr J A Rawson, who she met at the ‘latter Lee’ in 1985. She said that he remembered when the fair was on the Baghill site. She says:

“He had been coming regularly for almost sixty years, and was only fourteen when he bought his first pony there for £4. 10S. He recalled once buying a foal and taking it home on the bus! He had spent his working life down the local pit and drove a pit pony when he first went underground. In order not to miss the fair, he would work the night shift and so have the day free. In the past a Welsh dealer had brought ponies and kept them on the moors at Hartshead to fatten them up for a few weeks prior to the fair, and Mr Rawson had often helped to drive them from there to Lee Gap. A Welsh dealer had been at the fair last year but had not returned this year, much to the disappointment of many of the visitors. Forty or fifty years ago, Irish traders also came to the fair bringing crates of geese and pullets, and the locals would buy a goose from them to fatten up for Christmas.”#

Little appears to have changed over the years since Smith’s description although gone have the:

“big chromium-plated gypsy caravans with their displays of Crown Derby china and their owners sitting on the steps, ‘as if they were showing off their homes and vying to outdo each other’.”

But the display of traditional wooden caravans appears to have increased in their absence as the community looks to continue its traditions. Everything else is almost identical to what greets the curious today she states that:

“the edges of the field were lined with horse boxes, vans and trailers. Horses for sale were tethered at the sides of them and tack, leather and ironwork were displayed on the tail-gates which were turned into makeshift stalls. Some of the traps and carts were decorated with delicately painted designs, I saw little actually changing hands, apart from a pedigree pup and a painting. Men huddled together in groups, deep in earnest conversations; it was here the real trading was done. At various intervals a shout would go up, a path would be cleared down the middle of the field and a horse would come galloping through the crowd, its bareback rider putting it through its paces. Buyers and sellers appeared to know each other, and there were shouts of encouragement or criticism as horse and rider sped by. Two minutes later and warning shouts would proclaim the presence of a huge shire horst being trotted, its owner running furiously alongside. Things would

quieten down for a little while and the huddles be reformed, but before long there was the crack of a whip and a pony and trap would dashdown the field.”

Interestingly unlike other fairs Lee Gap has not been swallowed up by its fringe activities and whilst Smith could watch:

“a man swallow and regurgitate a seven foot long chain! In the afternoon he escaped from a series of bonds and chains, accompanied by a good line in patter.

The business of the day was decidedly the buying and selling horses; four small swing-boats and a couple of slot machines were only concession to entertainment, apart from the escapologist of course.”

Today there are no fringe entertainments, certainly no miracle plays, only than the entertainment of meeting old friends, making new ones and silly string.

Of this buying and selling despite the lowkey nature of trading, I was fortunate to watch a number of deals which involved much too-ing and fro-ing, bluff and counter bluff, persuasion and the final slap of each other’s hands in a motion quite rhythmic and poetic. The deal being sealed and the horse sold.

It is a privilege to be able to see the Horse Fair, one which has remained unbroken for 800 years and whilst it may have its detractors its function being so pivotal to its community means it is a custom that on its own is in no danger of dying out as long as it is protected from those outside forces with their blinkered ways of looking at it!

Custom revived: Egmanton pilgrimage, Nottinghamshire

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The UK has a number of pilgrim locations – Walsingham, Canterbury – being well known and each have their set days in which pilgrimage would be particularly valuable. Our Lady of Egmanton is not one of those places which comes to mind when the world pilgrimage is raised. But a pilgrimage site it is and for three set feast days in the year – it becomes the focus of those seeking devotion. Being a Marian shrine- the Assumptiontide – is the most important. Thus, on the first Saturday of August the church becomes a pilgrim site.

Lady Luck?

Why Egmanton? That is a good question. It is believed that the shrine was established when apparition of the Virgin Mary to a local woman in nearby Ladywood, sometime prior to the 12th century. A similar tradition is of course associated with Walsingham but there a firm date and name of the women are given. It seems a bit coincidental for the church which became a stopping off point for Walsingham to have a similar story. Come what may the shrine did become a site of pilgrimage. There is evidence of pilgrims is evident at the church with the discovery of pilgrim ampulla and the scratched crosses on the door jam said to have been done as evidence of the completion of a vow. Then in 1547 it was destroyed.

In many cases that would have been that if it was not for the Duke of Newcastle. He had a desire to restore the shrine to its former glory employing Ninian Cowper to improve much of fabric, repaint and return the effigy of Our Lady. Such a splendid job being done that upon opening the door and seeing it one is at first shocked by its splendour.

Once the church had been restored it seemed obvious that pilgrimage would be soon revived.  A Guild of Our Lady of Egmanton society was formed  in 1912 and regular assumption tide pilgrimages begun in 1929. The ceremony consists of Mass, outside afternoon procession of the effigy of Our Lady and benediction. with pilgrims coming from Leicester, Leeds, Sheffield, Lincoln, and more locally. A year later the Rev. Alfred Hope Patten, who had restored the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, made the trip along with a group of his people and gifted a banner to the church, which is still there today. Since then many other pilgrimages have been made to Egmanton. It has been a popular pilgrimage for members of the Anglo Catholic movement and on its Golden Jubilee in 1979, the High Mass was undertaken by the Lord Bishop of Southwell, the Rt. Revd. John Denis Wakeling. Even today those attending came from different both geographically and religiously with a congregation made up of High church Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Orthodox.

I asked the question about the relationship between the diocese, the local vicar and the use of the church for Anglo-Catholic services. I was informed that it had been a fraught one and originally, a vicar was appointed to close the church down as surplus to requirements in the 1930s instead this appeared to springboard the further revival. It has not been plain sailing since though with some incumbents refusing to attend and sitting in the vicarage when the pilgrimage was on. Today there appears to be a more ecumenical approach.

Lady Day

Bar a lady in the church, which was also open, it is usually only open Thursday afternoon, there was little sign that this was a pilgrimage day. I crossed the road into the village hall where a splendid array of cakes and food was being prepared including one of the most delightful pavlovas I had ever seen! Soon a few people appeared and became to make their way to the church. In the past there had been a formal procession around the village as described below:

“I visited Egmanton as a pilgrim on several occasions in the late 1980s and early 1990s and on a couple of occasions helped carry the portable statue of Our Lady along the village street and back to the church. It was all rather charming in a very Anglo-Catholic way –  some of the villagers getting on with their Saturday afternoon gardening as we pilgrims wended our way past, and some of the artificial silk flowers falling out of the holder on the plinth as we processed along…symbolic of graces bestowed by Our Lady I decided.”

I was told that in the 1960s the Marian statue was being carried into the church proudly when it hit against a low yew tree branch fell of its platform and smashed on the floor. The effigy had been borrowed so the congregation were keen to to repair it and fortunately it was put back together as good as new! This would happen before the service but the organisers this year felt that due to covid numbers may well be down and so it was not organised. Which of course was disappointing and one hope it returns in the near future. Today the pilgrims flowed many touching the carved crosses left by medieval pilgrims of the past.

The service begun with devotions to the effigy of our lady within the shrine beside the altar and one feels like we are brought back to the pre-Reformation time. Soon the church filled with incense and song. The most remarkable was an elderly lady who stood up and gave a spine-tingling Ave Maria….then after the service back to sample that pavlova!

All in all Egmanton pilgrimage can be seen as one of the purest of the revived pilgrimages. It isn’t overly gaudy or over commercialised but it fulfils the need to connect spiritually with a place, a moment in religious history, and it is more evocative because of it. A small pilgrimage perhaps but one which connects with the real heritage of our Christian past.

Custom demised: Gule of August and Lammas Towers, Lothian

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“The herdsmen within a certain district, towards the beginning of summer, associated themselves into bands, sometimes to the number of a hundred or more. Each of these communities agreed to build a tower in some conspicuous place, near the centre of their district, which was to serve as the place of their rendezvous on Lammas Day. This tower was usually built of sods, for the most part square, about four feet in diameter at the bottom and tapering to a point at the top, which was seldom above seven or eight feet from the ground. In building it, a hole was left in the centre for a flagstaff, on which to display their colours.”

Scottish traditions - Lammas Day - History ScotlandSuch records an unusual custom in the Trans. Soc. Antiq. of Scotland, vol. i.  It continues to state:

“From the moment the foundation of the tower was laid, it became an object of care and attention to the whole community; for it was reckoned a disgrace to suffer it to be defaced; so that they resisted, with all their power, any attempts that should be made to demolish it, either by force or fraud; and, as the honour that was acquired by the demolition of a tower, if effected by those belonging to another, was in proportion to the disgrace of suffering it to be demolished, each party endeavoured to circumvent the other as much as possible, and laid plans to steal upon the tower unperceived, in the night time, and level it with the ground. Great was the honour that such a successful exploit conveyed to the undertakers; and, though the tower was easily rebuilt, yet the news was quickly spread by the successful adventurers, through the whole district, which filled it with shouts of joy and exultation, while their unfortunate neighbours were covered with shame.”

There appeared to be some competition arisen which may have lead to some desire to knock over the rival’s effort there for it continues to state:

“To ward off this disgrace, a constant nightly guard was kept at each tower, which was made stronger and stronger, as the tower advanced; so that frequent nightly skirmishes ensued at these attacks, but were seldom of much consequence, as the assailants seldom came in force to make an attack in this way, but merely to succeed by surprise; as soon, therefore, as they saw they were discovered, they made off in the best manner they could.”

The night watch would have a horn and this was called the “tooting horn,” which was described as a “horn perforated in the small end, through which wind can be forcibly blown from the mouth, so as to occasion a loud noise” And it said that there was need for great dexterity and that “they practised upon it during the summer while keeping their beasts; and towards Lammas they were so incessantly employed at this business, answering to, and vieing with each other, that the whole country rang continually with the sounds.”

The custom was organised and the report continues:

“As Lammas Day approached each community chose one from among themselves for their captain, and they prepared a stand of colours to be ready to be then displayed. For this purpose they borrowed a fine table-napkin of the largest size from one of the farmers’ wives within the district, and ornamented it with ribbons. Things being thus prepared, they marched forth early in the morning on Lammas Day, dressed in their best apparel, each armed with a stout cudgel, and, repairing to their tower, there displayed their colours in triumph, blowing horns, and making merry in the best manner they could: about nine o’clock they sat down upon the green and had their breakfast.”

There would still be concerns over attacks from other parties and thus:

“In the meantime scouts were sent out towards every quarter to bring them notice if any hostile party approached, for it frequently happened, that, on that day, the herdsman of one district went to attack those of another district, and to bring them under subjection to them by main force. If news were brought that a hostile party approached, the horns sounded to arms, and they immediately arranged themselves in the best order they could devise; the stoutest and boldest in front, and those of inferior prowess behind. Seldom did they await the approach of the enemy, but usually went forth to meet them with a bold countenance, the captain of each company carrying the colours, and leading the van. When they met they mutually desired each other to lower their colours in sign of subjection. If there appeared to be a great disproportion in the strength of the parties, the weakest usually submitted to this ceremony without much difficulty, thinking their honour was saved by the evident disproportion of the match; but, if they were nearly equal in strength, neither of them would yield, and it ended in blows, and sometimes bloodshed. It is related that, in a battle of this kind, four were actually killed, and many disabled from work for weeks.”

However it then states that:

“If no opponent appeared, or if they themselves had no intention of making an attack, at about mid-day they took down their colours, and marched, with horns sounding, towards the most considerable village in their district; where the lasses and all the people came out to meet them, and partake of their diversions. Boundaries were immediately appointed, and a proclamation made, that all who intended to compete in the race should appear. A bonnet ornamented with ribbons was displayed upon a pole as a prize to the victor; and sometimes five or six started for it, and ran with as great eagerness as if they had been to gain a kingdom; the prize of the second race was a pair of garters, and the third a knife. They then amused themselves for some time with such rural sports as suited their taste, and dispersed quietly to their respective homes before sunset. When two parties met, and one of them yielded to the other, they marched together for some time in two separate bodies, the subjected body behind the other, and then they parted good friends, each performing their races at their own appointed place. Next day, after the ceremony was over, the ribbons and napkin that formed the colours were carefully returned to their respective owners, the tower was no longer a matter of consequence, and the country returned to its usual state of tranquillity.”

When this curious custom died up exactly is unclear it was still being described in the 18th century but as a possible more ancient pagan custom it is a shame and surprised in some format it has not been revived!

 

Custom survived: St Swithin’s Day Weather predictions

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‘In this month is St. Swithin’s Day,

On which, if that it rain, they say,

Full forty days after it will,

Or more or less, some rain distil.

This Swithin was a saint, I trow,

And Winchester’s bishop also,

Who in his time did many a feat,

As popish legends do repeat:

A woman having broke her eggs,

By stumbling at another’s legs,

For which she made a woful cry.

St. Swithin chanced for to come by,

Who made them all as sound or more,

Than ever that they were before.

But whether this were so or no,

‘Tis more than you or I do know.

Better it is to rise betime,

And to make hay while sun doth shine,

Than to believe in tales and lies,

Which idle monks and friars devise.’

In the next century, Gay remarks in his Trivia

‘Now if on Swithin’s feast the welkin lours,

And every penthouse streams with hasty showers,

Twice twenty days shall clouds their fleeces drain,

And wash the pavement with incessant rain.

Let not such vulgar tales debase thy mind;

Nor Paul nor Swithin rule the clouds and wind!’

Poor Robin’s Almanac for 1697

It is one of the best known of British pieces of folk tradition; one that everyone knows, everyone says and indeed everyone dreads – the association of rain with St Swithun’s Day.

It is perhaps as held strongly by some as William Hone, records in his 1780-1842 Everyday Book:

“An old lady who so far observed this festival, on one occasion when it was fair and sunshiny till the afternoon, predicted fair weather; but tea-time came, and—

“there follow’d some droppings of rain.”

This was quite enough. “Ah!” said she, “now we shall have rain every day for forty days;” nor would she be persuaded of the contrary. Forty days of our humid climate passed, and many, by their having been perfectly dry, falsified her prediction. “Nay, nay,” said she, “but there was wet in the night, depend upon it.” According to such persons St. Swithin cannot err.”

Right as rain?

The earliest mention appears to be from a 14th century manuscript held in Emmanuel college Cambridge which reads:

“In the daye of Seynte Swithone rane ginneth rinigge Forti daws mid ywone,”

(On St Swithin’s day it begins raining and usually continues for 40 days.)

Such a viewpoint seemed fairly entrenched for in 1336 a Robert de Graystane:

“In 1315…on the day after the anniversary of the moving of St Swithin’s body namely the 15th July, such was the deluge of rain, that rivers overflow their banks to an awesome degree, submerging crops,,and rushing through houses, drowning women and children.”

By Poor Robin’s almanac it appears to be well established, crystalised in the 1813 copy of Brand’s popular antiquities of Great Britain states:

“The common adage regarding St. Swithin, as every one knows, is to the effect that, as it rains or is fair on St. Swithin’s Day, the 15th of July, there will be a continuous track of wet or dry weather for the forty days ensuing.

St Swithin’s Day, if thou dost rain,

For forty days it will remain:

St. Swithin’s Day, if thou be fair,

For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.’

Rain fire and brimestone

But why? Robert Chambers in his 1864 Book of Days informs us that:

“St. Swithin, bishop of Winchester, was a man equally noted for his uprightness and humility. So far did he carry the latter quality, that, on his death-bed, he requested to be buried, not within the church, but outside in the churchyard, on the north of the sacred building, where his corpse might receive the eaves-droppings from the roof, and his grave be trodden by the feet of the passers-by. His lowly request was complied with, and in this neglected spot his remains reposed till about a hundred years afterwards, when a fit of indignation seized the clergy at the body of so pious a member of their order being allowed to occupy such a position; and on an appointed day they all assembled to convey it with great pomp into the adjoining cathedral of Winchester. When they were about to commence the ceremony, a heavy rain burst forth, and continued without intermission for the forty succeeding days. The monks interpreted this tempest as a warning from Heaven of the blasphemous nature of their attempt to contravene the directions of St. Swithin, and, instead of disturbing his remains, they erected a chapel over his grave, at which many astounding miracles were performed. From this circumstance, it is stated, arose the popular belief of the anniversary of the attempted translation of St. Swithin being invested with a prophetic character in reference to the condition of the weather for the ensuing six weeks.”

How true this is unclear, we know that Swithin, or Swithun, was born in Winchester, probably around 800A.D., and became a monk of the abbey there gaining favour Egbert, king of Wessex, who intrusted him with the education of his son and successor, Ethelwulf.  Nothing that is known of him suggests he would be associated with raining! What is more likely is that it records some longer pagan belief regarding the meteorologically prophetic character of day around St. Swithin’s. This is certainly supported by the fact that in France, St. Médard’s Day (June 8), and the day of Saints Gervais and Protais (June 19), not too far off from July have the following ascribed to them:

‘S’il pleut le jour de Saint Médard,

Il pleut quarante jours plus tard;

S’il pleut le jour de Saint Gervais et de Saint Protais,

Il pleut quarante jours apres.’

Rain on one’s parade

Robert Chambers in his 1864 Book of Days appears curious to discover more and states:

“The question now remains to be answered, whether the popular belief we have been considering has any foundation in fact, and here the observations at Greenwich for the 20 years preceding 1861, must be adduced to demonstrate its fallacy. From these we learn that St. Swithin’s Day was wet in 1841, and there were 23 rainy days up to the 24th of August; 1845, 26 rainy days; 1851, 13 rainy days;- 1853, 18 rainy days; 1854, 16 rainy days; and, in 1856, 14 rainy days. In 1842, and following years, St. Swithin’s Day was dry, and the result was in 1842, 12 rainy days; 1843, 22 rainy days; 1844, 20 rainy days; 1846, 21 rainy days; 1847, 17 rainy days; 1848, 31 rainy days; 1849, 20 rainy days; 1850, 17 rainy days; 1852, 19 rainy days; 1855, 18 rainy days; 1857, 14 rainy days; 1858, 14 rainy days; 1859, 13 rainy days; and, in 1860, 29 rainy days. It will thus be seen, by the average of the fore-going 20 years, that the greatest number of rainy days, after St. Swithin’s Day, had taken place when the 15th of July was dry. It is, indeed, likely enough that a track of wet weather, or the opposite, may occur at this period of the year, as a change generally takes place soon after midsummer, the character of which will depend much on the state of the previous spring. If this has been for the greater part dry, it is very probable that the weather may change to wet about the middle of July, and vice versa”. But that any critical meteorological influence resides in the 15th, seems wholly erroneous.”

Despite this debuttle of the custom, it continues to be referred to in 1832 A Henderson’s Scottish Proverbs states:

“if St Swithin greats (weeps), the weather will be foul for forty days.”

In 1882 People’s Friend states in a November edition of 1882 stated:

“People not ordinarily superstitious are still found who cling to the old belief ‘if on St Swithin’s it does rain, for Forty days it will remain.”

1892 C.M. Yonge Old Womans Outlook

“If Swithin’s day be fair and clear, it betides a happy year; if Swithin’s day be dark with rain, Then will be dear all sorts of grain.”

In 1986 a man c 50s in Richmond Yorkshire when asked stated

‘If it rains on St. Swithin’s Day, it will rain for forty days and forty nights -I’ve known since childhood.”

But a folklorist does not need to find written examples this is one of the few pieces of folklore which is known by everyone it seems and so I looked up to the sky on the said day…it was clear and so far 16 days later its kept dry…and there has been a heatwave..but does the adage work that way as well?