Custom survived: Oxford Ascension Day Beating the Bounds

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There are a large number of customs on Ascension Day that to see them all would need a considerable number of years. A few years ago I decided to sample the Oxford beating of the bounds on the way to the Bisley Ascension Day well dressing.

Oxford has a long history of recorded beating of the bounds. Brand’s Popular antiquities of 1849 records that:

“At Oxford the little crosses cut in the stones of buildings to denote the division of the parishes are whitened with chalk. Great numbers of boys, with peeled willow rods in their hands, accompany the minister in the procession.”

Fast forward to the 21st century and delightfully little has changed – the willow rods, the marks, the chalk, all except perhaps the great numbers of boys. I turned up at St. Michael at the Northgate where a large number of people were assembling and willow rods were being given out. I tried to avoid getting one myself as I feared it might get in the way of the photography.

Beating the boundaries was done by many parishes and still is. Between 1598 and 1834, Poor Laws made it that the care of the poor was parish’s responsibility and as such it was important to ensure that they knew the boundaries so that those who might turn up to ask for alms were legitimately on the parish’s land. Oxford has one of the more interesting boundary beatings – two churches go out on the same day, one early the morning the other later on, presumably not to mark at the same time but occasionally they do to mock indignance no doubt. Oxford is also notable also weaving in and out of some rather unusual locations.

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The vicar arrived with chalk in hand and considerable enthusiasm and seeing that we all had wands in hand with his two cross bearers took us off to beat the bounds. It wasnt long before we found our first hit and taking about a piece of chalk he wrote upon a cross marked on the wall between the arms the letter SMNG and the date beneath. Once he had done so he said ‘whack it’ and the wands raised in hand ceremonially hit the mark and then we were off.

I’ve been in some strange places recording calendar customs but I think the lingerie section of Zara must be one of the most bizarre. Here the group stood cross bearers between the bras as the vicar asked for the manager. However, this was not some ask to return some unwanted items but to gain access to a storeroom where bizarrely a mark was held. Clearly himself bemused by the location he dutifully marked it, we whacked it and off we went.

On our perambulations, walls featured greatly some marks low down some high up – making it very clear why we needed the long wands. At one point the vicar disappeared behind some foliage to mark and we just noted it. At the site of the Oxford Martyrs a moment of reflection was needed before chalk in hand and for the lack of an actual mark in an act which would be considered vandalism if anyone else, the road sign was chalked and we again whacked especially enthusiastically by a little girl looking considerably surprised she got away with it it seemed!

Next we entered the grounds of Brasenose college where our next mark was to be found. Here it was clear that the St. Mary the Virgin beaters had beaten us to it as they had left their mark too as the college was the boundary of both. Here the beaters were treated with a break and something called Ivy beer which I politely declined…indeed I quickly check my phone and realised I need to leave to attend the Bisley ascension day well dressing and vowed to return another time to experience the rest of the boundary walk.

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