Monthly Archives: August 2022

Custom survived: Lee Gap Fair, Yorkshire

Standard

“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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Standard

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

Standard

“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!