High above Macclesfield is Forest Chapel, reached through winding and narrow lanes you reach one of the most picturesque and unspoilt parts of the Peak District. The views here are stunning and a better place for an annual custom could not be found in my opinion. For hear on the Sunday nearest the 12th August – significantly tied in to attract the grouse shooting fraternity but now attracts the muddy boots of the walking community – is the Rushbearing service.
Rushing to get a spot
Rushbearing is an old tradition which provided churches with rushes which would keep the church clean and warm. Each year these would need to be cleared out and refreshed usually post harvest time and as such this changeover could be used as a day of celebration often seen as a symbol of spiritual renewal. Forest Chapel rush bearing is very popular and already when I had turned up a number seeing the weather fair forewent getting a seat inside for one outside.
The first mention of it is in 1848 in the church accounts which reads that a sum of five shillings was paid to:
“William Smith for repairing the windows at the chapel and school broken at Rushbearing.”
Whatever happened to cause this damage is unclear -one assumes some rather over exuberant alcohol fuelled dancing perhaps -today’s rush bearing is a much quieter affair
What is curious is that most churches abandoned the rushbearing for practical health reasons in Great Plague and they never returned. What is unusual here is that the chapel was only built in 1834 so why was it done here.
Rush to the head
The effort made is remarkable especially for such a small community; the whole chapel floor is covered in plaited rushes with them interwoven with flower arrangement at the end of pews mainly using chrysanthemums, over the font, within the chancel and over the door and beyond – creating a very picturesque vision.
The service starts inside with the sweet sounds of the harmonium playing ‘near my God to Thee’ and soon with the church almost literally packed to the rafters the choir entered dressed in their crimson gowns and as the organist plays ‘Angel voices ever singing’ the service begun. The Service followed a traditional route then after the fifth hymn there is a change of position as the vicar and invited bishop leave the church to complete the rest of the service outside standing on a table tomb in the grave. This was apparently introduced when the church was unable to accommodate all the visitors. Certainly there were a lot there, but not as many as were in the 1940s when 900 were recorded. Mind you the outside service part did make for a more atmospheric event and allowed those who may already be sitting down on their fold up chairs in the churchyard half listening, half enjoying the view to see the faces of the clergy.
The Bishop then introduced his sermon which was very light hearted and humorous and at the end we all sung “God be with you till we meet again” although it was a far more dour version than I was used to!
There is a real earthy, traditional and welcoming feel to the place and as a church custom even for those non-Christian it was very welcoming especially the biscuits and tea afterwards. Ironically with its outside service this was one of the few Covid ready calendar customs there was – the founders must have known something!