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?

Custom contrived: Annual service at the St Benet’s abbey ruin, Norfolk

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It would be hard pressed to find a more evocative and romantic site for a religious nestled in the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey is not only spiritual but a functional one because St Benet’s is the only Abbey in Britain never to be dissolved at the Reformation. This means to all intense and purposes when the lands were given over to the newly established Bishop of Norwich, he also became the Abbot of the Abbey and the local vicar the Prior, a detail we shall explore later. Therefore, not only can the custom be seen as a service of remembrance but a service to allow the rights of the Bishop to continue. However, this would suggest a long history but that is not true. Indeed, if the press are anything to go by the service was established as a publicity event. The Sunday Mirror of the 02 July 1939 records:

“Abbey Holiday Worship – Holidaymakers will, on the first Sunday in August, be the first congregation at St Benets Abbey, Norfolk, since the Reformation…the Bishop of Norwich has already held special services in the holiday camps who would otherwise not have time for worship.”

Sail in

In this first service one of the key features of the service was established:

“The Bishop of Norwich, as Abbot of Benet will travel by boat to the ruined abbey standing far from any road, on the banks of the river Thurne”

In a 1953 account this had become:

“a fifty-year-old wherry. Solace, sitting up for’ard in his cope and golden vestments, with his pastoral crook in his hand.”  

Not much had changed except he now sailed down from Horning and not Wroxham as in the 1950s…and seeing the power of the wind on the day I attended I am sure that was a sensible decision! However, this has become perhaps the most picturesque part of the tradition, many people coming to see the 150 year old wherry, a boat once common on the broads, but now much rarer. When I arrived there I was kindly directed to the landing point which was further up from the main ruin. There was a more solid mooring near to this and at first I thought this was the most likely location, the Bishop then procession through the ruins making a very good picture. However, upon surveying the location it would have been a long procession…as it was a long way over rough grass to the site of the high altar of the abbey’s church now little more than low rubble walls.

The arrival time was 3.15 but as the time neared there was little sign of the Bishop, just a few excited false starts – one actual wherry and others sailing boats…then the boat sailed into view. The first thing that caught the eye being indeed the Bishop, holding on with a great deal of pose but also tenacity as the wind blew again the boat with some force…indeed I was surprised he did not lose his mitre to the water below. Greeting him at the bank were two men dressed in cloaks who were said to be of the order of St Benet thus keeping the Abbey’s association with an order alive.

Down among the ruins

One wonders if similar issues happened in 1953 when the event received national press due to its attendees, the Illustrated London News of the 8th August 1953 recorded a royal visit:

“QUEEN ELIZABETH THE QUEEN’S MOTHER, AND PRINCESS MARGARET SAIL TO THE SERVICE AT ST. BENET’S ABBEY. 

ON Sunday, August 2, after unveiling a memorial to the nine men of Sandringham village and estate who died in the last war. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother with Princess Margaret and the Princess Royal took luncheon up the Bure in his yacht Capricorn to attend the annual open-air service at the site of the ruined St. Benet’s Abbey. This service, for holiday-makers on the Broads, was taken by the Bishop of Norwich, who is the titular Abbot of St. Benet’s ; and for this service he had sailed down from Wroxham in a fifty-year-old wherry. Solace, sitting up for’ard in his cope and golden vestments, with his pastoral crook in his hand. The Bishop preached the sermon and a special prayer of thanksgiving was offered for the armistice in Korea. A farm-cart was used as the pulpit and there was a congregation of about a thousand. There were very many boats taking part in the journeys to and from the service, and during it white sails could be seen moving against the sky at all points of the horizon.”

Since then, the farm cart pulpit has been gone replaced by a mighty cross cut from the trees of the Sandringham estate. I was told by one of the attendees that at the time Prince Philip when asked if they could use a tree from the estate said of course yes, but was shocked when he saw the size of it. It certainly is an impressive place to hold a service twixt the rubble ruins and the long brown grass.

Once the Bishop reached the ruined church the choir and local vicar joined him at the ruined gateway to process down the aisle and to the altar. The service continued a similar vein as a usual Anglican service, with the choir sounding very angelic as their sound drifted across the ruins and there was even a collection at the ruined doorway…easily avoidable if you wanted to unlike others!

However ,there were some more unique features of the service focused on its association with the order and rule of St Benet. Firstly there was a reading from the Prologue of the rule of St Benedict. Then the members of the community of St. Benet’s gathered at the cross facing the Bishop – called as he can be the Abbot and read the traditional Act of commitment, probably unique, of which the following were particularly unusual:

“Abbot: As the present day Community of St Benet’s, will you continue to foster the ancient traditions of worship, prayer and hospitality, upon which the Abbey was founded.” Community: With the help of God, we will.

Abbot: Will you support and pray for the Abbot in his ministry, and each other in mutual fellowship?” Community: With the help of God, we will.”

The service also had the Prayer of St Benedict and the Nunc Dimittis sung by the community with the choir. Then the service finished with a blessing with local vicar, or Prior as he was called in the service sheet, telling us to go in peace and serve the Lord.

The annual service, very much an important fixture in the church calendar locally, is not only a picturesque one but one which connects us back to times before the Reformation and allows us to bring these ruins back to life again.

Custom demised: The Order of Free Gardener’s processions

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During the middle of the 17th century in Scotland the Order of Free Gardeners was established a fraternal society with its main aim was the sharing of profession knowledge linked and mutual insurance. Furthermore like other organisations, it would process in July.

James Haig in his 1825 History of Kelso stated

“The Society of Gardeners, on the second Tuesday in the month of July, the day of their annual general meeting, parade the streets, accompanied by a band of music, and carrying an. elegant device, composed of the  most beautiful flowers, which, on the company reaching the inn where they dine, is thrown from the window to the crowd, who soon demolish it in a scramble for the flowers.”

The group had also spread into England, in the border town of Berwick, John Fuller in his  1825 History of Berwick-upon-Tweed states that:

“The association of gardeners, which took place in 1796, had in his time a procession through the streets yearly. It was accompanied with music; and, in the middle of the procession, a number of men carried a large wreath of flowers. The different officers belonging to this institution wore their respective insignia, and the whole society dined together.”

Interestingly, some societies paraded with a costumed character usually one called ‘Old Adam’ or the Green Man but sometimes Jock in the Green a vernacular Jack in the Green. He was particularly seen during Haddington parade, where led the town piper and Jock carrying a bower of flowers representing the Garden of Eden.

Flowers were carried as indicated below:

“Free Gardeners’ Penicuik Centenary Year Walk 8th July 1922 Lady members who intend joining the procession and all children of Free Gardiners who are able to carry flowers, designs etc, are invited to attend a meeting….As the procession is to be filmed it is hoped Members will endeavour to make the Children’s Section a feature of this unique event.”

They carried also banners which hang from horizontal pole being held up by two vertical poles. These perhaps surprisingly were blue, rather than the more plant related green and had painted or embroidered decoration often with biblical scenes – Noah and his Ark or Adam and Eve. The members also wore highly decorative aprons as well as they processed.

When these processions demised is unclear, some friendly societies still process however. The two World Wars called up most of the members so is likely that this stopped the annual event. This and the economic crash of 1929 and the National Insurance Act of 1946 both weakened their monetary capacities and purpose, and thus by 1950s must had gone the last surviving into the 1980s. With them went the colourful processions and the flower scramble.

Custom occasional: Corby Pole Fair

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“At Corby near Rockingham, every twentieth year, the inhabitants assemble at an early hour, and stop up all roads and bye-ways in the parish, and demand a certain toll of every person, gentle or simple, who may have occasion to pass through the village on that day. In case of non-compliance a stout pole is produced, and the nonconformist is placed thereon, in a riding attitude, carried through the village, and taken to the parish stocks and imprisoned until the authorities choose to grant a dismissal. It appears that Queen Elizabeth granted to the inhabitants of Corby a charter to free them from town toll throughout England, Wales, and Scotland; and also to exempt them from serving on juries at Northampton, and to free the knights of the shire from the militia law. This custom of taking toll has been observed every twenty years in commemoration of the granting of the charter.—N. & Q. 3rd S. vol. i. p. 424.”

And much as the notes and queries records this is what greats the visitor today on Corby’s most important day.

Be fair

My first and at that time only experience of the Corby Pole fair was unsurprisingly 20 years previous in 2002. I had found out about it from Charles Kighty’s The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain which at the time was one of my sole sources for calendar customs and was curious to see this rare event. However, I must admit it did not impress; true there were the gates and the stocks, but no riding the stang, more of in a moment. It was to all intents and purposes it was just a big funfair sandwiched into a suburb. The sky was grey and the town busy. I did not find it an interesting experience. Thus 20 years later I was slightly wary of what I would experience. To be fair to the fair, I did not experience the traditional proclamation – which the book did not mention, and it was this I was particularly interested in experiencing!

Staying overnight within the village is to be recommended because then you can appreciate the rather surreal nature of being enclosed with a fair village. One of the traditions of the custom is the setting up of the barriers, the tolls, which are then covered with flowers. For 2022 these were set up in three places and decorated with foliage and children’s artwork. Being within the boundary of course also meant no toll!

Fairly early

Fairs like their proclamations and they are always colourful but I would say that Corby’s proclamation is one of the most interesting starting as it does at dawn with the chiming of the bells of St John the Baptist Church in Corby Old Village to gather all the village folk to hear it. I could not hear the bells but fortunately my alarm had got me up early enough and I made my way to the church following the then obvious chimes. There a fair sized congregation had assembled; many of which were press. At the foot of the church steps were three wooden sedan chairs as part of the tradition is the chairing of the proclamation party between the sites. This party consists of the vicar, the Mayor and the oldest resident of the village. Soon the bells stopped and a small choir appeared and started to sing; their sound magically swirling around in the air as the vicar read out the proclamation. Then Rev Paul Frost was given the honour of reading the Charter granted to the village in 1585 by Queen Elizabeth I. After it was read for the first time in public for 20 years of course; the three walked down and settled themselves into their chairs ready to be carried. There was a considerable amount of laughter and nervousness from all involved, as well as considerable press interest, as the volunteers grabbed each corner of the chairs and one by one, they lifted their charges up – first the oldest resident, an overjoyed June Thompson, then the vicar and lastly the mayor, Tafadwa Chikoto.

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The crowd parted and off they paraded down the street to the next proclamation point – a local pub, the White Hart, located at another entrance. Here standing on a wall the proclamation was again read and the party moved back to their chairs…noticing the lack of volunteers I opted to help. Well, it would be another 20 year until I have the next chance and I do not honestly think I’d be able to carry the vicar. Plus I noticed it was downhill from here and surprisingly it was quite easy…and I hoped that it put a good word in for me ‘upstairs’. At the final pub, the Jamb, it had been moved to accommodate the radio show, the chairs were lowered for a final time and the proclamation read for the final time. Then it was time for another Pole fair tradition, missed last time also – the free breakfast! Rather surreally attended by Vikings, knights and ordinary people…

Pole axed!

T. F. Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1875 British Popular customs present and past notes that:

“Why it is held every 20 years has never been discovered, nor why it is called a pole fair. But one theory suggests that when the Danes settled in the area, naming Corby village ‘The BY of Kori’, they brought many customs and punishments with them.

One such punishment, which lends itself to the theory, was ‘riding the stang’.

This involved men who had committed minor offences being carried astride an ash pole or stang. Insults and missiles where then thrown at the punished as they were carried through the town or village.”

Further ‘The Rutland Appendix to Almanacks for 1826’ states

“They went on to describe the demands for tolls from every person who passed through Corby that day with non-payers being made to ride through the town to jeers and shouts from the locals as penance, followed by a period of time spent in the stocks.”

This was one of the aspects I had missed in 2002 and despite seeing the stocks there was no-one in them and at the point of entry I was half minded not to pay so that that I would have to be carried ‘riding the stang’…but I don’t think that was the done thing or not! Photos of the custom show up – including in 1982!

Twenty years on and there were new stocks at Stock’s Lane and plenty of people queuing up to be put inside them for their amusing photo. But would there be a stang? Then by chance I was standing by the stocks when three people arrived two carrying a pole between their shoulders…and then as modern electro soundtrack blasted out the entered into a fluid dance, weaving in and out of each other and the pole in an interpretative dance the aim to avoid the stang! Then after much toing and froing one of them was captured onto the stang and was raised into the air and carried to the stocks. It was certainly a very interesting way of keeping the tradition alive and one which was certainly an improvement from 2002 (I could not be sure that they did this then to be honest)

There was also the traditional procession with large figures of important Corby people, including Queen Elizabeth of course and a colourful interjection of Romanian folk dancers – who indeed added a delightfully unique experience at one of the stages. Later in the afternoon was the pageant, and after a technical issue, was a splendid re-telling of the Elizabeth charter giving in wonderful custom.

There were other traditions associated with the custom which continued – the ox roast and the greasy pole – however, unlike 2002, the dreaded health and safety had prevented anyone attempting it and it was replaced by a photo opportunity…shame but also I thought I was glad that the healthy and safety brigade had not stopped the sedan chair carrying.

Fairly old?

The agreed account is that Elizabeth gave the fair but needless to say that no such charter can be found, but Charles II did confirm the fair in 1682, Furthermore, there is evidence of fairs in 1226. Henry III granted the right to hold two annual fairs and markets. Of the Pole fair first documented account is written in Latin which is said to be the charter authorising the event, which states the last time it was celebrated was the 11th of June 1821. Furthermore, The Mercury Herald of November 6, 1936 has an article recalling the memories of a Miss Collier recalls attending five Pole Fairs, the earliest being 1842, 21 years later!1862 appears to be the possible date when after which the 20 years was introduced…but why is unclear! Perhaps it was a cost thing? However, the pole fair is a real boost to the local economy and a joyful experience and as by Laura Malpas in an article for Northamptonshire surprise notes:

“The last five Pole Fairs have come at a time when the people of Corby most needed to be cheered and to celebrate life. In 1922, the effects of the Great War were still evident as the village had lost forty-one men, and the fragility of the peace in Europe was still a concern. In 1942, the country was still in the grip of the Second World War and so the Pole fair was delayed until 1947, when the celebration was sweet indeed. 1962 saw the growth of the new town and an increased population as Corby was strong economically, but the following fair in 1982 was very different. Corby had suffered dreadfully from hardship following the decision by British Steel to close the steelworks and let the blast furnaces go out. However, there was still steel inside the hearts of the people of Corby to survive and thrive. The 1982 Pole Fair was a much-needed boost to the locals, and in 2002, the most recent fair held was a great celebration by the newly revitalised town which even today is still experiencing spectacular growth.”

And one could add 2022 with the cost of living crisis and Ukraine conflict. With the fantastic Viking camp, jousting knights, Morris dancers and all the fun of the fair…2022 was one of those rare things for me; much much better than last time! See you in 2042!

 

 

 

Custom contrived: Queen’s Birthday service and procession, Southwell

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This year being a jubilee year the celebration of Queen has been everywhere, from shop windows to suburban streets, the country has been on full on royal revels and rejoicing. However, one town has been celebrating the Queen annually for much longer. This is Southwell. Southwell is a very picturesque small town which as I have said before should have more traditions especially considering the delightful ancient minster.

The Queen’s birthday surprisingly is not celebrated much in the United Kingdom, bar a gun salute and Trooping the Colour. However, in much of the Commonwealth it is annually celebrated and is indeed a national holiday in such places. Not so here, so Southwell’s tradition is on the Sunday closest to the Queen’s official birthday in June.

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It’s my birthday and I’ll have two if I want to!

Indeed although Elizabeth II’s real birthday is in April, the tradition of celebrating a set date irrespective of who the king or queen is, is older. This set monarch’s birthday has been celebrated in the United Kingdom since the reign of King George II in 1748 being subsequently determined by  at first the British Empire and then the Commonwealth of Nations and the date set by each country depends on that country although to make use of supposed good weather in the northern hemisphere June is set.

Originally Queen Elizabeth II’s was the same as her father the second Thursday but was changed in 1959, and since then her Official Birthday has since then been celebrated on the second Saturday of June. Southwell undertake it usually the day after.

Queening up for the day

The service starts with a procession of the dignitaries attending this civic event and in the bright June sunshine it is an eye catching spectacle. Just a way down from the entrance of the Minster, mace bearer lead the Queen’s representative in the county, the Lord-Lieutenant, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, officers of the local army and judges in their ceremonial robes. They processed through the Minster archway and were created by the dean and church officials for the final procession into the church for the service.

How long the service has been undertaken I have been unable to fully discover but one of the local attendees suggested since the silver jubilee, another said the 80s, however the earliest newspaper account I can locate is from 1994 but it is clear that it was already been established by then:

“SWORD CARRIED TO SERVICE TRADITION was broken on Sunday when Mrs Richard Abel Smith, the first woman High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, took part in the Queen’s official birthday service in Southwell Minster. Instead of wearing her ceremonial sword, it was borne in front of her by grand-daughter Amelia Beaumont (6), who travelled from Ireland for the occasion. The sword was used by Mrs Abel Smith’s father, General Sir Douglas Kendrew, when he was Governor of Western Australia. Preacher at the service was the Bishop of Southwell, the Rt Rev Patrick Harris, and prayers were led by the high sheriff’s chaplain, the Rev Keith Turner, Vicar of Linby-cum-Papplewick. The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry were ushers and Nottinghamshire Constabulary Band provided music before and after the service.”

Little did I know but I was to attend the last one before the national Covid lockdown. The year after it went digital and was reported more than any time before by the press. An article on the Southwell Minster website, the Queen’s Birthday Service: A Unique Celebration of Public Service in Nottinghamshire, reported that the then High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Dame Elizabeth Fradd, explained that:

“The Queen’s Birthday Service is usually a grand occasion at Southwell Minster but this year, like so much else, it will take a very different form. It will also have a new significance as a result of the pandemic and the public’s renewed appreciation of the value and importance of public service in all its forms.”

The Queen’s representative in Nottinghamshire is the Lord-Lieutenant, Sir John Peace, who said:

“What I see in local communities, across Nottinghamshire and across the country is an unprecedented crisis; what provides room for hope is the commitment to work together for the common good. Front line workers of all kinds deserve the public’s praise and appreciation but it is just as important to recognise the immense contribution of those behind the scenes. As Her Majesty said in her speech to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day: ‘We will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us’. Following Her Majesty’s lead, this online service will be an occasion for us to demonstrate our pride in all aspects of public service and common endeavour. I invite everyone to join us online for this special celebration.”

Southwell’s Queen’s birthday celebration may be a small custom but it is certainly unique and worthy of attending.

Custom demised: Raisin’ and buryin’ St Peter at Nun Monkton Yorkshire

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Image result for wooden st peter effigy

Until the first half of the 19th century, Nun Monkton villagers annually performed a unique ceremony connected to St Peter, the village’s patron saint. This being associated as T.F. Dwyer Thistleton 1875  British Popular customs present and past records:

“The feast day of Nun-Monkton is kept on St. Peter’s Day, and is followed by the “Little Feast Day,” and a merry time extending over a week.”

He continues:

“On the Saturday evening preceding the 29th a company of the villagers, headed by all the fiddlers and players on other instruments that could be mustered at one time went in procession across the great common to “May-pole Hill,” where there is an old sycamore (the pole being near it).”

So nothing unusual but when they reached there it was for the purpose of

““rising Peter,” who had been buried under the tree. This effigy of St. Peter, a rude one of wood, carved—no one professed to know when—and in these later times clothed in a ridiculous fashion, was removed in its box-coffin to the neighbourhood of the public-house, there to be exposed to view, and, with as little delay as possible, conveyed to some out-building.”

Here it was apparently:

“stowed away and thought no more about till the first Saturday after the feast day (or the second if the 29th had occurred at the back end of a week), when it was taken back in procession again, and re-interred with all honour which concluding ceremony was called “Buryin’ Peter.””

As recorded in notes and queries N. & Q. 4th S. vol. i. p. 361:

“In this way did St. Peter preside over his own feast. On the evening of the first day of the feast, two young men went round the village with large baskets for the purpose of collecting tarts, cheese-cakes, and eggs for mulled ale—all being consumed after the two ceremonies above indicated.”

The author reports that:

“This last good custom is not done away with yet, suppers and, afterwards, dancing in a barn being the order while the feast lasts.”

When the custom died out is unknown but presumably it was in the 1800s. The culprit being a vicar who regarded it as a pagan survival. And whilst St Peter’s feast is celebrated still with the usual jollities including maypole dancing….St Peter is nowhere to be seen. Does he still lay buried near the sycamore…ready to be revived?

Custom survived: Ickwell May Day

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Bedfordshire does not feature often in books on calendar customs but looming large is Ickwell May Day, a colourful injection of textbook May day. Centred around their distinctive permanent May pole on the green in the village’s centre; the custom has everything envisioned in a May Day – Morris men, maypole dancers, garlands and the May Queen. However it has some unique aspects as well which I shall come to later. 

Merrie Month of May

The earliest reference to the custom is in churchwardens’ accounts from the 19 May 1563 where a list of “charges for all our Maye” is made. It shows that money was spent on making the Morris coats, shoes and bells as well as for a minstrel,: spice and fruit for baked meats; hops to brew beer; wheat; and three calves. Money was also spent on gunpowder suggesting the day ended in a bit of bang. Indeed these charges cost 55s and 3d and a hefty £4 19s 4d receipts was recorded. The customs survival between then and the late 1800s is unknown although it was doubtlessly stopped during the Commonwealth it is unknown when it was revived for the next record is not until 1872. 

When it is said that Squire John Harvey paid for a permanent Maypole which was erected in 1872, beforehand the Maypole was set up the day before and removed thereafter. Locally believed to be a ship’s mast set up to celebrate the birth of his son. However, the Bedfordshire Times of 5 May 1899 states however that the tree had come from Warden Warren and was a larch, 67 feet high and four feet around at the base. The pole had been embedded in six feet of cement for stability. The Will of 1877 records that the said John Harvey of Ickwell Bury leaves £2/10/- to the Northill churchwardens “to be expended yearly in keeping up Mayday at Ickwell as has been done during my life”.  

As the 1800s came to a close a revival or rebirth perhaps of May Day was happening courtesy of John Ruskin which saw the introduction of the May Queen through his introduction at Whiteland’s college and one of his students, Headmistress of Northhill School, Mrs Hodges, introduced this aspect of the custom and an Evelyn Woodward became the first Queen.  The custom began to grow and expand when schools in the nearby village of Caldecote were given a half day holiday and to watch the May day and later Old Warden joined in..now of course it is a bank holiday.

An account in the 1911 Bedfordshire Times for 1911 describes the scene not dissimilar to what one can see today including the surprising reference to the camera!:

“At Northill School we found them lining up for the procession. Behold a regal chariot bedecked with coronals and festoons of spring flowers in blue and gold and white; and drawn by a milk white steed! Enthroned on a flower dais, on the aforesaid chariot, were the May Queen for 1910-11, Mary Law, and the May Queen elect, Agnes Woodward, attended by a full retinue of squires, pages and maids of honour. Nice, chubby little girls were delightfully arrayed as spring flowers. The country dancers from Caldecote were charming Quaker costumes of blue and brown, the boys with three-cornered hats and the girls with snowy coifs. The Morris dancers from Northill were resplendent in the quaintly flowered muslin of a bye-gone day, and, honouring tradition, there wore bells on their ankles. There was the usual charming bevy of dairymaids, rosy, plump, sweet-voiced, and pig-tailed, at the rear. In front of the car (we beg their pardon for leaving them so late), were the pretty little girls and boys who perform the cobweb dance, the girls in blue frocks and Dutch bonnets, and the boys in smart white sailor suits, and last, but certainly not least, the merry maypole dancers themselves, the girls in simple white dresses, flower garlanded, and with glowing faces that surely were washed in May dew that morning; and the boys in smock frocks. At the head of all marched the Biggleswade Brass Band, making brave music, though, alas! there was no fiddler there. During its marshalling, the troop faced a heavy fire of camera clickings with conspicuous coolness, and presently a move was made for the sister hamlet, half a mile distant. A vast concourse of people was waiting on the Green, and a reverent hush was maintained while the Coronation of Queen Agnes was performed with all due ceremony. Truly, it was Queen’s weather, the sun shining kindly from a dappled sky on the idyllic sward, surrounded by cottages that were picturesque enough for stage scenery, snowy orchards, and magnificent trees. The ring was packed many deep, chairs inside were captured in a twinkling, and there was an outer circle of motors and carriages”.

The permanent Maypole did not last beyond the new century for the Victoria County History noted that in 1912 that Ickwell did not have one. An account in 1911 Bedfordshire Times noting that:

“As all the world knows, May day was not celebrated at Ickwell last year owing to divers reasons, including the alleged unsoundness of the Maypole, which had dominated the Green for over thirty years. The new pole, a present from Warden Warren, is broader but not quite so tall, and considerable difficulty was experienced in planting it owing to the presence of a subterranean spring. However, the obstacle was finally overcome, and the pole was a goodly sight in its brave coat of red and white paint, surmounted by a great Union Jack.”

In 1945 a committee was established which continues today to organise the event and in 2000 50 former May Queens assembled with a special locket being given to the then May Queen, Stephanie Turner which was made by the May Queen of 1920 and presented by her, then a Vera Wagstaff.

The day begins with some splendid Morris dancing and after the judging of the garlands the main event begins. Soon the road is closed, and a procession from Northhill to the green much as described above with Morris dancers, a band, garland carrying girls, Moggies and the outgoing and incoming May Queen with attendants and a large concourse of dancers, the Mayers with their Lord and Lady. This in itself was a very colourful site as it lead to the green for the festivities.

One of the most unique aspects of the custom are the moggies, a group who are blackened up and often cross-dressed. They go around soliciting money and mischief and dressed in ragged clothes and carrying besom brushes. Their origin is unclear and it was suggested to me that these represented the devil, the darkside of the year as the Morris represented the summer months. I was not sure of this and it seemed like trying to inject some pagan into the procedures. To my mind it is significant that in the 1800s and early 1900s nearby Northhill had a plough monday tradition where blackened faces used to disguise begging and mischievous behaviour are recorded. At the demise of this it would seem sensible that the Moggies translated to May, although why they were called Moggies was unclear. Another likely theory is that they represented Chimney sweeps and of course sweeps have a long association with May day adopting it in urban areas as a holiday. Of course I last went in 1996 the colour of their faces may well have changed since!

The Maypole dancing unusually is taken up by all ages and was splendid; with the repertoire of classic dances – formal plait and spiders web being the most intricate. It is perhaps particularly unique to Ickwell to see adult dancers, called the Old Scholars (perhaps a name nodding to John Ruskin’s academic re-invention but of course referring to the fact that they were ex students of the nearby schools). Dressed in white smocks and dresses these adult dancers were In fact  so good that one wonders why there were not more adult may dancers! The day ends with all being invited to surround the Maypole and so I joined in as we all joined hands and and did the the Circassian Circle, moving in and out around the Maypole probably as those 16th century Mayers did.

As I said there may not be Bedfordshire customs but as Ickwell is one of the best May days in the country it more than makes up for it

Custom contrived: Dancing in the May at Laxton

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“Dawn jig on misty mount – walking through the mist towards Castle Hill, Laxton, and hearing bells jingling in the distance at 5.15 am on Tuesday, it was easy to imagine you had stepped into a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel.”

Newark Advertiser Friday 04 May 1990 by Samantha Pease

Arriving in Laxton the only indication anything is going on is the sign at the top of the lane down to the castle with its instruction to remember to not disturb the neighbours – riotous bunch these Morris…mind you I say only indication…when I turned up a man appeared carrying a horses head over his shoulder and realising he must know the way…I followed him! Due to a rather dodgy gate I missed the exact start of the custom but in a way that added to it; the sounds of the assembled teams singing a May song as the first glints of the Sun arose tentatively on the horizon, was magical…as the author alludes to above.  The custom established on this old castle mound with its extensive views across Nottinghamshire and beyond has the feel of some older custom and so I was interested to know more of its origins and despite a splendid book which has brought the forgotten Morris traditions of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire greater acknowledgement the more recent history of this customs appears to have been forgotten about!

May be older than it looks!

Another newspaper cutting from 2002 is interesting for it states that:

The dancing was done at Castle hill after a two year absence because of the foot and mouth crisis.

But also:

“It was also the first time at the event for the newly-formed Rattlejag Morris from Retford.”

A year later:

“Dance return – Morris dancers return to Castle Hill, Laxton on May Day, after the foot and mouth crisis prevented them from performing there last year. The event, hosted by the Rattlejag Morris Dancers of Retford, starts at sunrise at about 5.29 am, and finishes with a cooked breakfast.”

Thus indicating that the custom predated the Rattlejag Morris and further digging was required. In 2007 the Newark advertiser stated that 

“The welcome has been performed by morris dancers at the village’s motte and bailey castle site every May 1 for 35 years.

It was carried out by Broadstone Morrismen for many years but Rattlejag Morris took over 15 years ago.”

 

This would date it back to 1972 but so far I cannot find any information recording this fact and the Broadstone Morris appear to be extinct. The earliest reference I can found is from the Newark advertiser which records for the Friday 28 April  1989:

Members of Retford based Broadstone Morris Men plan to dance at sunrise on Laxton Castle Hill. The dancing is due to start at 5.32 am and will be followed by a cooked breakfast”

The year later on The Retford Gainsborough and Worksop Times of 1993 record:

“The Broadstone Morris Men begin their summer programme on May 1 when they will be up early to see the sun rise at 530am and celebrate in traditional dance style The public are warmly invited to join them at Castle Hill Laxton “

Then on the 12th May 1994:

“May Day dancers On May Day the Broadstone Morris Dancers came and danced at sunrise on the hill of the castle ruins at Laxton It was a lovely morning and breakfast was served for anyone who wanted it “

On the 30th April 1999 Tiggy Trotter gives a vivid account of the custom for the younger readers of the Newark Advertiser Retford based Broadstone Morris as the following account informs us.

“Early risers mark start of summer Dear boys and girls, Have you ever thought about getting up at 4.30 m to watch the Morris dancers welcome in the summer of May 1st. I can tell you that it is a most memorable experience for those who can muster the enthusiasm to rise at such a time…..if it is fine the scene at Laxton is spectacular. As the sun begins to rise above the mote, the head of the team, known as the squire starts by singing an unaccompanied solo, Summer is a comin’un.

Whatever happened to Broadstone I do not know, but what is excellent to know that rather than let this custom die, that team who made their 2002 debut would be one day running it!

May I have this dance?

A 2002 newspaper account describes the costume and it what can be seen today:

“Dancing started at 5.30 am. Traditional costumes of flat caps with ribbons, open-necked white shirts, black waist-coats with ribbons and black trousers and shoes were worn.”

Each dance accompanied by a fiddle or a squeezebox has its own meaning and this year the team discovered more traditional local dancers. The clashing of sticks in the air represents the warding off of evil spirits, and the sticks are also used to strike the ground to initiate the dibbing action used by farmers when sowing their seeds.”

The dancing was memorising weaving in and out the sound of bells and squeezebox filling the air. At certain times another May carol was sung again filling the air with tingling melodies on this very crisp dawn. Each year following on it would appear from the Broadstone Morris tradition other teams were invited. Joining the Rattlejag in white with green and blue were local team the Trentside Holmes Morris who stood out in their glaring white in the darkness. They put on a great show of Cotswold Morris dancing and clearly enjoyed being involved.

 

Standing or rather looming rather ominously over the proceedings was that man with his horse’s skull, forming a large owd oss, covered in greenery with its ‘owner’ hidden under a cloak. It added some mystery to the event, especially when upon asking about it, the members of Rattlejag did not know who he was or where he came from! At the end everyone assembled was encouraged to do an en-mass Morris dance and dutifully everyone did! A fair size crowd clung to the top of the old castle and looked on. It was evident that Laxton’s May is becoming a regular ritual for its attendees as well many of whom had made the effort in dressing ‘in the May’ and they stood cheek by jowl with locals who also felt compelled to get up so early!

One cannot agree more with the summing up The Newark Advertiser‘s piece from 2002:

The sun now well up and the dancing nearly done, the sound and smell of sizzling bacon brings on a healthy appetite…what a way to start the day.”

Laxton’s May Day is a splendid custom, very evocative, and should be on anyone’s list of customs to experience.

 

 

Custom demised: Rushden’s Mop and Pail Day

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Sergeant Thomas Richards | Murder at the StarRushden records a possibly unique rather antisocial custom which I have not seen recorded elsewhere. First recorded in Round House” Scene. (about 1821)

” “Mop and Pail Day” it appears that the younger inhabitants of the village adhered tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the Mop and Pail. On one particular night a host of them went in accordance with their annual custom to collect mops, pails, brooms and wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on. These they placed on the Green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport began. At an early hour the lady owners of the mops etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, where a merry scene ensues. Some of the gentle dames were tugging at one mop or doing ditto to a water vat, other wielding certain articles to the imminent danger of the heads or ribs of their neighbours. It was customary for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play “Happy Land”. The men said little, but one old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom. They got into trouble over this affair.”

Another account records this extinct Northampton Mercury, 23 May 1846 indicated why this custom died out with some discussion of perhaps what is indicated about ‘getting into trouble’:

“Three young men, and one old lady, of Rushden, stood charged [at Wellingborough Petty Sessions] with conducting themselves in a disorderly manner, on the night of the 12th inst., and setting at defiance the powers that be.”

It continues:

“It appeared that the younger inhabitants of this merry village adhere tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the mop and pail, which by the bye has been entirely overlooked by Strutt [Joseph Strutt, Dresses and Habits of the English People, 1796-9, and Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 1801]; on the night in question, viz., the 12th of May, when Morpheus had closed the eyelids of the more peaceable inhabitants, the defendants and a host of others went in accordance with their annual custom to collect the mops, pails, brooms, wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on; these they placed on the green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport begins; at an early hour the lady owners of the mops, etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, when a scene ensued which defies pen or pencil.”

The source of the problem and why it was probably stopped is indicated here:

“Half a dozen gentle dames might be seen tugging at one mop, two attempting to wheel one barrow in different directions, or doing ditto to a water vat; others wielding certain of the articles to the imminent danger of the head or ribs of their neighbours. It is customary during the hubbub for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play some appropriate tune, such as “Happy Land”. The male defendants said little or nothing in their defence, but the old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom; gently brushing aside her still raven locks, she gave a statement which might interest a society of antiquarians, but not the generality of our readers. They were each called on to pay the expenses, Ss., and bound over to appear at the Sessions if called on. On leaving, the old lady sighed, and gently brushing aside her hair and a tear, exclaimed “We shan’t be allowed to play at marbles next”.

I am sure it was a very comical custom to watch and in a way perhaps a fun one with permission to revive?

 

Custom survived: Good Friday Holcombe Hill Egg rolling, Lancashire

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The last custom I attended before we dived into national lockdown in 2020 was the annual Good Friday at Rivington Pike, those it seemed fitting that the first post Lockdown Easter custom I should attend is the other noted Lancashire Good Friday custom at Holcombe Hill, near Ramsbottom, Lancashire.

Rolling off

The Holcombe Hill Good Friday custom is noted in virtually all folk customs books but usually as an aside in a list of egg rolling locations; which is not particularly useful as it is often coupled with Bunker’s Hill, Derbyshire, which I am pretty sure is no longer extant. And whilst other egg rolling customs get some detailed accounts made, these days usually online, Holcombe’s custom appears to have been so under the radar, that before the pandemic hit, I doubted it actually happened. Or certainly that it did not happen in the same vigour as that of Rivington. However clearly I was wrong and it was the pandemic that indicated that it was very popular when this appeared in the 2021 Manchester Evening News:

“For the second year in a row, a popular children’s tradition is set to be cancelled.

Egg rolling at Holcombe Hill is an unusual event that takes place at Easter each year and has a history dating back centuries.

If you live in the area you will almost definitely have heard of it and might have been among the crowds of onlookers gathered to watch and cheers as youngsters roll painted boiled eggs down the hillside…..

Despite this long history, authorities have advised that no egg rolling take place at Holcombe Hill this year as large crowds ‘would make social distancing impossible’.

The car park on Lumb Carr Road will be locked over the Easter weekend to dissuade people from driving to the hill.

Coun Andrea Simpson, Bury council’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: “After a year of lockdown, we’re all desperate to get out there and enjoy the countryside, and get our lives back to normal…..Thousands of people mixing together at Easter carries a very real risk of causing infection to spread and making people very ill.”

Bar this there is little else recording it bar a mention in 1908 of someone selling sweets at the top in the Bury News and perhaps the original focus of the custom the Church service first recorded in print in 1949 as far as I can gather.  Sadly in many well-known customs people feel it is unnecessary to write anything about them…until now!

Rolling on

So I decided to attend in 2022 and experience the custom. With such rather informal affairs it is always difficult to know what time to attend. If the church custom still happened at the foot of the hill it would have been good to attend, but finding details of this was more difficult and it would appear to be bit early…so I aimed for midday.

Arriving there on a sunny Good Friday thankfully it was clear that there were already many on the summit of Holcombe Hill by the large number of cars crammed along the streets of the small village in its shadow. After finding a parking place, I noticed the large numbers of families with the children clutching egg boxes…meaning only one thing…egg rolling.

At the base of the hill one could see the small figures of people at the top appearing like spikes on dinosaur either side of the dark shadow of the Peel Monument on top. Indeed, there was a steady stream of people of all ages ascending the summit which felt at times more like a mountain than a hill! On the way, there were bits of egg shell. Did they land here or did they not make it?

I spoke to a number of people as they ascended the hill and asked them why they did it. One commented that ‘it was a family tradition’ and another said ‘I remembered going to the summit with his father and grandfather’ I asked did you go with eggs and one could not remember and the other said ‘why yes of course’. I also asked why they did it and another stated that ‘it was just a ritual a way of burning off a big lunch’ another said it was to ‘remember to the Calvary!’

At the top there was a large number of people, mainly eating their lunch, and then like a steady stream, going down to the edge of the hill with their eggs. I peered into a couple of egg boxes to see some neatly painted eggs; indeed some looked stained in the traditional fashion. I joined the families to see how they were rolling them and the answer was they werent! The hill unlike every other site for egg rolling had no good slope. Much of the hill was covered with thick heath and bracken. Instead the children went to the edge of the cliff, one ledge looked pretty precarious and there the aim being to get they either as far as possible, as smashed as possible or both and beneath a large rocky outcrop -the main aim of their projectiles, was splatted with eggs and shells like a giant omelette attempt! It seemed that this was the usual practice for the children confirmed by one of the older men with his grandchildren…and as such I was surprised it had not been recorded before!