Custom survived: Burning Owd Bartle!


When my sister-in-law and her family came over from Australia two years ago I planned to show them some quaint customs as foreigner would say, and although August is not a great time of year for such things, their stay did coincide with the Burning of Bartle in the delightful Wensleydale village of West Witton.

West Witton is a village shrouded in mystery with its crags and woody valleys hiding mysteries such as ancient springs, Templar properties and supposedly a giant hill figure. We arrived early evening in the village and noticed the village was deserted. Had I made a mistake with the date? Entering one of the local inns for need a something to eat, it was clear by the number of reserved tables and slowness of service that this was the correct night and the in inn to the occasion. When we were served, I showed the bar lady the book I had with me which contained some pictures from the 1980s; she was very surprised to see her relatives in it and herself as a young girl.

Bartle about

At the allotted time of 9 o’clock darkness had cloaked the village and assembling at one end of the village we waited. Soon an eerie pipe begun to play and appearing from the darkness was a green man playing his pipe…soon a cottage door opened in a cul-de-sac and the figure of Bartle appeared carried like a sort drunken demon, his body made of a jumper and tracksuit bottoms but his face a hideous hallowe’en mask covered by a grey wig. It was a strange and bewitching site, made even more bizarre by every now and again his eyes flashed on and off!

His carries made their strange procession around town, followed by an odd assortment of camera laden tourists and enthusiastic locals. But this is more than a simple procession for at regular points, Bartle was greeted by hotel owners and often some of the community’s older residents who probably could not process around, who upon offering ‘Bartle’ a drink (eagerly taken by its escorts), probably looked upon themselves as being given some sort of blessing of good luck. At these points, one of the following verses are evocatively chanted, in an accent which could easily sounded Viking in its origin. Each place being significant to the story…

On Penhill Crags he tore his rags

Hunters Thorn he blew his horn

Cappelbank Stee happened a misfortune and brake his knee

Grassgill Beck he brake his neck

Wadhams End he couldn’t fend

Grassgill End we’ll make his end

Shout, lads, shout!”

The Bartle-bum The origins of the custom

Several claims are made for the origins of the custom suggesting its great age. The most popular is that Bartle was a local sheep thief that the local people chased out of town and dispatched according to the chant. This appears to be a rather unlikely (and unpleasant) reason and may have been a Victorian attempt to tidy up the custom’s origin. Furthermore it misses the obvious, that the church is dedicated to St Bartholomew and the event is down around what would have been its patronal day. This suggests that the custom arose from the traditional carrying of an effigy around the village as is seen in many Catholic countries and now with Our Lady in places such as Walsingham. If the starting point is tradition it is interesting that there is an old well at the start point suggesting that perhaps some libation was done of over the effigy from its waters. Yet why would they be destroying it? Perhaps it was an accident or a fight to preserve it at the Reformation when pious locals were trying to hide it at Grassgill. The alternative theory was that a local Abbot, Jervaulx’s Adam Sedburgh  was that he was avoiding the Pilgrimage of Grace and was chased for his lack of commitment. The book I had, the excellent Penhill Giant linked it to a giant…This again looks very unlikely….

My personal view is that originally it may have been a pagan effigy which was ritually sacrificed hence some of the terms, which was of course Christianised and the custom of carrying the effigy was continued long into the Catholic period until the Reformation when the Bartholomew effigy was lost.

Burn Bartle Burn

When they finally reached Grassgill Lane, the effigy was placed against the wall. The full moon pour open the scene giving an otherworldly nature as for the final time, the truncheon was push into Bartle’s chest and the chant repeated with considerable enthusiasm. The figure was doused in petrol and set light to the scene being surrounded by a reverential hush. I wondered the age of the location as it was clearly much used as a stone had been set into the ground to prevent the fire spreading. As the flames engulfed the body, kids lined up on the wall nearby oblivious it seemed to the potential danger of the flames and the crowd circled around it’s warmth to hear as it burned brighter and brighter that chant. People lined up to have photos with the burning body…as if perhaps it was again a good luck motif. Then the flames began to subside, and more smoke than flame was emanating from Bartle. At this point the organised seeing their work done, left the smouldering ‘corpse’ for another year.

What makes the ceremony one of the best of England’s customs is that it remains a local event. There is no police presence, no hoards of TV cameras and only a few visitors (like us!). Indeed during the burning the only safety precaution I saw was a solitary cone beside the flaming Bartle!

And where sheep stealer or pagan deity, whatever the origins, it is without doubt one of the most evocative of all English customs.

copyright Pixyled publications

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