Custom contrived: October Plenty

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“October Plenty is such a special way to celebrate the Autumn Harvest and show off the beautiful colours of the season’s fruit & veg piled high on our traders’ stalls. We are really looking forward to welcoming the event back to the Market this year and sharing festivities, stories and dancing for a lovely family event. The Corn Queene and Berry Man are always particular favourites of ours and we are excited to host visitors as well as the many different characters in the procession!”

Kate Howell, Director of Communications and Engagement at Borough Market

The autumn period is packed with curious customs and celebrations associated with the changing seasons; from harvest festivals to Hallowe’en, from Diwali to Bonfire Night. In recent years, a celebration of that quintessential season fruit; the apple has attracted its day. Attempting to join many ideas together in one place; as a sort of smorgasbord of autumn, is the Lion’s Part’s October Plenty, which is undertaken in London’s Southwark. Indeed, as the organiser’s website records:

Over 20 years ago, fired with enthusiasm for amazing autumn festivies that people celebrated world wide and influenced by the organisation Common Ground, whose creation of Apple Day has inspired so many, I gathered with local friends and members of the Lions part and we launched October Plenty. At the heart of it was the iconic Corn Queene. Since then, in collaboration with Roots and Shoots, Lambeth, through David Perkins and Sarah Wilson, she has become an annual wonder.”

A bit corny!

The most remarkable feature is the Corn Queene whose appearance at the front of the Globe marks the beginning and is central to the procession. The website for the event records how this Corn Queene has been made since 2004 and that:

“she has emerged each year at Roots and Shoots in Lambeth and, like another mythical old bird, she takes form, rises, briefly reigns, before dissipating in a great shout…..Her demeanour can seem bemused, condescending, even dismissive, of the antics of much smaller humans.”

What is interesting about this Corn Queene is that although clearly a modern invention it has the feel of something more ancient and authenticate. She plays a central role in the October Plenty festival and her annual reincarnation is a central point and theme to this custom. Each year although she follows a similar design, she is also different; she metamorphosizes and since 2003 she parades on an old market barrow. She is described as:

“The Queene’s facial features are very colourful, often with an interesting complexion and skin texture. Her nose generally resembles a small gourd (regrettably warty at times) and she almost always has decidedly hot lips. Lashes can be long, perhaps enhanced with extensions (wire, right). Beauty spots have appeared now and then and she has favoured ear decorations on a number of occasions (small gourds or radish, maybe).”

Originally it was made by the actors on the day then as the event became more successful and merged with the markets own Apple Day since 2012 it had allowed the Queene to take place under cover in a then newly refurbished area of the Market; taking around 3 or 4 days to build her. 

The procession has also changed and since 2019, the Queene now emerges from Lambeth, passes the Tibetan Peace Garden/Imperial War Museum via Lambeth Walk.

On my visit this Corn Queene was indeed a very odd, comical but still rather eerie ‘creature’ looming over the crowd that had assembled for the start of the procession. Joining her was the equally odd Berry Man..now we had seen him before at the beginning of the year as the Green man of course and this autumnal version adorned with shades of brown and orange and suitably seasonal fruits and berries was perhaps even more impressive. It certainly turned a few heads as he, the Corn Queene and the Mayor headed a procession of players down the streets on the southbank and into the market. 

Here one could sample that wonderful autumnal produce, and the assembled crowd certainly took advantage of that opportunity as the market was bustling. Soon as a large enough audience had developed the actors presented them with Tudor dancing and a Georgian play which was the correct mix of bawdy and bizarre. Once the play had been presented the procession reformed and made its way to the George Inn, a delightful galleried inn which has survived considerable progress around. Here there was conker competitions, apple bobbing, a wishing tree….and that traditional staple of a countryside custom – Morris dancers.

October Plenty is certainly a fun and colourful custom; completely made up with a feel of authenticity, a modern take on the Harvest home perhaps, and one might add playing a vital role in our modern life. Especially in the city. For in our modern city lives it’s important to understand the countryside and how we are very dependent on it. October Plenty provides a historical nod to how this was done in the past in a very modern spin. When seasonality often lost in the 21st century, when everything is available irrespective of the time of year, October plenty allows the city folk to reconnect in a fun way, with the season and the wonderful colours and bounty that autumn provides.

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