Category Archives: Customs contrived

Custom contrived: Visiting St Valentine’s Shrine Glasgow

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Many of us may have heard of the term Glasgow kiss; but that does not have anything to do with love…whereas just on the outskirts of the city in the Gorbals is something truly connected with love – the remains of St Valentine himself!

But how did the saint end up here? 

Valentine was a 3rd century priest or bishop in Rome, who Roman emperor Claudius II jailed undertaking Christian marriages which the emperor had ruled against. According to tradition he finally befriended Claudius and his daughter – with letters signed off – your valentine, but when he tried converting them to Christianity he was beaten with clubs, stoned and beheaded and was buried in the Via Flamina cemetery in Rome. So how did he end up in Glasgow?

It is said that in 1868 a wealthy French family donated some relics of Saint Valentine to the Franciscan Catholic church. These French monks then brought the relics to Glasgow and donated them to the Church of St Francis a Gothic style church designed by Peter Paul Pugin and then when they moved to a new church in the Gorbals they brought the relic with them to Blessed John Duns Scotus Church in Ballater Street. This was in 1993 and then an examination 6 years later of a cardboard box sitting on a wardrove revealed the reliquary casket. Soon publicity of the possession of the relics was better known encased in a reliquary box. The outside of this box having carved “Corpus Valentini Martyris,” or “the Body of Saint Valentine” in gold lettering.

Be my Valentine

“Following extensive publicity, Glasgow proclaimed itself City of Love and in February 2002 launched to the City of Love Festival, an event which has been repeated in subsequent years.”

Glasgow has really capitalised on the relic’s presence. The church itself have encouraged a low key custom and as such a new pilgrimage has begun. Every year on the Feast of St Valentine, the casket holding the relic is bedecked with flowers and the friars say prayers for lovers who petition to do so. A statue of the saint is covered in red roses as is a sheet beside it

The Scotsman reports:

““Each year on Valentine’s Day, visitors—mainly couples—will visit the shrine,” Smulski says. “Some come to renew their wedding vows and, in one known instance, to make a proposal of marriage to his intended.”

Another account states on the proposals:

“They have done so, yes,” says Rev Edmund Highton of the impromptu marriage proposals at the church, “I’ve seen it happen while I’ve been here. They just come in, and you see one of them get down on the knee, and so on.

 

Over the day I attended in the early 00s there was a steady stream of curious onlookers some just curious, others more devout making blessings as they gently touched the casket. Its an organic custom, not much it seems encouraged by the church:

“Father Edmund’s shrug is quite audible when I ask him about St Valentine. “It’s not an important one for me. That’s just a matter of history. We’ve got these relics, people come in, and they have a devotion. They see it as a focus for themselves, that’s all. St Valentine was a martyr saint who gave witness to his faith, that’s all I’m interested in. That’s good.”

Despite this some couples did come to feel romantic in the casket’s presence and whilst it is not well advertised – there is no signpost unlike its nearest St Valentine shrine competitor in Dublin it has attracted people on the feasts day. I did see some couples kissed in its presence but I did not see any proposals sadly…mind you the fame of the casket has probably grown since then and its fame has developed into a more concrete custom and as such I am overdue a visit.

 

Custom contrived: Tenby Boxing Day swim

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Boxing Day dips and swims have become a modern phenomena and the desire to throw oneself into the icy cold waters around Britain just as the Christmas excesses has worn off can be found all around the country. Perhaps the oldest now over 50 years old is that at Tenby. A local news website stated:

“Named as one of Britain’s top ten barmiest winter dips, TENBY’s famous Boxing Day Swim has been an institution in the small West Wales town for decades and has recently featured in the ITV Wales series The Harbour, which was filmed in Tenby and shows a year in the life of the seaside community.”

The Tenby Boxing Day Swim is organised by the Tenby Sea Swimming Association, which dates back to the early 1900s as the organisers website states:

” In 1910, Arthur Dickinson – Quaker, lay preacher, artist and keen swimmer – brought his family from Yorkshire to live in Ruabon House, South Parade. Arthur was a year-round swimmer, and family legend has it that he was the first person to swim to Caldey. His son-in-law, Ossie Morgan, who was appointed as headmaster of the Tenby Council School, carried on the family tradition of teaching children to swim. When Mr Morgan retired, his own offspring decided to get non-swimmers afloat, and in the 1960s, Idris Morgan, Gly Osborne, Alan Morgan and Ray Lowe formed the Tenby Sea Swimming Association (TSSA). The opening of Tenby’s first indoor swimming pool could have spelled the end of TSSA, but the organisation then took on a new lease of life in 1970 when Tenby’s publicity officer, John Evans, came up with the idea of a charity Boxing Day Swim to put Tenby on the map. “

And pandemic aside it has thrived every since with numbers reaching the high 100s with around 800 in 2019 all amassed on the town’s North Beach excitedly staring into the grey waters. The event is of course a charity one and one which attracts a fair bit of eccentricity! Lined up on the beach awaiting its less than inviting waters are a wide range of young and old, some just in shorts and bikinis, some in full body costume – giant bananas appear to be popular – an Father and more often Mrs Claus. In 2020 Wales online recorded that the theme was Climate change:

“Ahead of the mad dash into the ocean, swim chairman Chris Osborne said: “Our seaside environment, which we proudly treasure, is under threat so it seems absolutely right that we support efforts to raise awareness of climate change and its impact. We hope our swimmers’ imaginative fancy dress will help in this cause.”

Indeed they did as:

“People embraced the theme of climate change for what was the 49th event, with even a polar bear spotted marching into the water complete with a sign proclaiming “Lost home to climate change”….There was even a Swedish-style ark, complete with endangered species, inspired by teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg.”

Large crowds watch on with the compulsory local photographers who encourage the usual high activity types of photos – often with the more glamorous members of the local community! Boxing day swim was for many just a dip in, although some plunged deeper into the waters watched with eagle eyes by boats from the RNLI for safety sake, Sensibly a large bonfire was set up on the beach and hot soup handed out – which was very welcomed. Perhaps less out of place with their full regalia the town’s Mayor than presents each of the  swimmers with a commemorative medal which this year. In the year of recognising the impact of climate change these were made out of wood instead of plastic or metal. For the 50th the theme of Golden was chosen and with its triumphant post lockdown return the beach was awash with shiny yellow suits and yes more bananas of course.

Custom contrived: The Bog Snorkelling championships

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Perhaps king of the crazy customs dreamt up one day in the pub is the World Bog Snorkelling Championship. Started in Llanwrtyd Wells, a fairly forgotten place not really on the way to anywhere but once in the eye of attention when it was developed as a spa. That was long ago and despite some grand buildings its been largely forgotten by the outside well. It is certainly a great candidate for a bizarre sporting custom and being surrounded by boggy highland areas – bog snorkelling is it.

Not bog standard

Legend tells that that seed of an idea begun in an chat in the town’s Neuadd Arms between a few regulars and Gordon Green in 1976. The seed was sown but the first championship largely a quiet affair by comparison of today was held at the Waen Rhydd bog near the town in 1985. The winner (or winners as it was doubtless like today men and women championships) has not been recorded or rather I have been unable to find. Since then the world’s stage has come to Wales to enter with competitors coming as far as way as South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, USA and even England. As such its been on German and Australian TV as a regular ‘wacky world’ component on the news. 

The BBC website covering the event neatly described the bizarreness of it:

“Taking an activity normally associated with the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean and moving it to a large drain in Dungannon may not be to everyone’s taste.”

And yet people flock to get into those murky dirty water to race down two lengths of a 60 metre drain in the bog and be the winner.  The continue: 

“Why someone would want to dive into a deep cold, very dirty, and slightly smelly bog drain is a moot point, even among the competitors.”

Some competitors said they may need to find a different hobby, but one man said he had set a record for the sport, mainly because no-one else had been timed yet.

“It’s cold, yes, when you get in, but it’s good for your skin,” said one female devotee of the sport.”

Personally I was not convinced by the later reason. looking down into the water and watching the competitors emerging from the murky waters like a modern day creature of the black lagoon some covered with floating pieces of moss!

Bog trotters

Each year 200 entrants sign up. All that is needed of course is a pair of goggles and a snorkel – you don’t even need a wetsuit – but this does not stop the competitors turning up in more and more bizarre costumes. Many looking like a stag or hen night which has somehow got lost from their evening pub crawl and ended up bewildered at the edge of a peat bog and say ‘oh well we are here now might as well join in – be rude not too.’. Some costumes are of course completely impractical in a peat bog as well blowing up like balloons in the murky water and sadly making them too buoyant like someone going for one of those school safety certificates. 

I turned up in 2017 and was confronted by a considerable number of men in dresses, nuns and a person dressed as a bumble bee – whose wins when she entered caused considerable drag and slowed them down.

Bogged down

There was a considerable bit of cockiness from some who waited bathing in the warm sun, dismissing the enterprise as easy and upon entering the cold brown waters looked rather shocked to find and were huffing and puffing at the end. Tempting as it looked – and I did have a snorkel and glasses in the car – I wasnt tempted.

Some individuals were more determined  such as Mr Neil Rutter who took the crown in 2017. The challenge was on. The year before a 1 minute 19 seconds was the world record (but that was over in Ireland). Mr Rutter shouldn’t have been upset he came in a very respectable 1 min 26.15 secs. Little did I know the very next year spurned on by this perhaps he broke the world record at 1 min 18.81 secs. He remains the title holder as well as the current Bog Snorkelling champion due to the impact of Covid of course. The only other time it had been cancelled was in 1995 due to a drought! 

The Bog Snorkelling has become the catalyst of other smaller events expanded into a sort of triathlon approach. And somewhat prescient the Royal Mail included the event in a celebration of UK Weird and Wonderful Customs it would seem in 2019 – a few months before the pandemic would stop them!! When it is bet I could not think of a better way to spend an August bank holiday…if you havent been get your flippers on an attend. 

 

 

Custom transcribed: Wife carrying races

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The UK Wife Carrying Race has taken place since in 2008 in Dorking, Surrey, and from tiny acorns it has grown as it only attracted only three competitors in its first year growing to include 23 couples. The official website states that:

“Unlike the Finnish World Championships where pairs of carriers run against each other, in the UK Wife Carrying Race all couples run against each other in one wild mix of flailing arms, legs and buttocks. The UK race also differs from the Finnish competition in that the course is not flat: carriers have to tote their ‘wives’ uphill to the half way point, with an altitude gain of around 10m, before running back downhill to the finish line. Hay bales are used to provide hurdles on both the outward and return legs and while the course does not feature a pool, like in Finland, there is a ready supply of volunteers with water pistols and buckets of water to soak the competitors as they near the finish.”

The website continues:

“The race in Dorking has also seen the full spectrum of carrying styles: the piggyback (popular, but tiring and not very fast); the bridle carrying (almost impossible to keep up for long); the Fireman (across the shoulders); the shoulder ride (precarious but surprisingly swift) and the Estonian hold, where the ‘wife’ hangs upside down on the man’s back with her legs over his shoulders: This is the hold that is now almost invariably used in competition, being swift and relatively comfortable for both carrier and ‘wife.”

Carried away with a good story

Lou Ambers on the blog post ‘The strange sport of wife carrying’ :

There are three stories that people say form the basis for this strange sport. The first of these stories is one where an ancient Finnish robber and his gang of thieves used to plunder the land. The leader of the gang was named Ronkainen the Robber and he and his gang used to steal food and women from surrounding villages in the area where he lived. They would carry the women away on their backs and that evolved into the wife carrying race of today. The other legend behind this race is the one about a practice in 19th century Finland when young men used to go to neighbouring villages and steal other men’s wives and claim them for themselves. The practice was known as wife stealing and may have contributed to the sport of today. The final origin story is a little bit mundane and ordinary. This again features the character named Ronkainen the Robber but this time he used to train his thugs to become faster and stronger by carrying big heavy sacks on their backs.”

The homeland of wife carrying is thus Scandinavia and with a cheeky node to that origin claims that the British one was established:

 “with help from our Scandinavian cousins” for around 300 years from 793AD when Viking raiders raided villages and abducted wives.”

Wives tales

The race has tried to be inclusive – apparently in 2015 Joel Hicks carried “Tiny Tina” a male friend in drag who was 7’4″ and 22 stone – although I am not sure that it ticked any transgender inclusivity box and in 2016 he apparently carried two wives to tick the polyandry box. Indeed the website records:

“The UK Wife Carrying Competition has now seen all combinations of competitors: men carrying women, a man carrying a man and a woman carrying a woman, and in 2013 welcomed a woman carrying a man fir the first time: The BBC’s Stephanie McGovern carried 78-kg Mike Bushell around the course (they came last by a long way, but they did finish!)”

Lou Ambers on the blog post ‘The strange sport of wife carrying’ :

“This odd race is not the most politically correct though. As the world moves on in terms of male and female equality we still have a race where women are carried by big strong men to the finish line. It does not say a lot about gender rights. But the race is a tongue in cheek kind and is only done to keep old traditions alive and relive the olden days of Finland. The sport seems to be more of a joke event and it is not to be taken seriously.”

Of course the whole event is very tongue in cheek and no pollical points are being made. In 2019 the website reported:

“Three brave couples took part: Joel Hicks and Wendy Cook, Ian and Kath Phillips, and Kevin Bailey and Kim Lowe. Joel opted for the transverse fireman’s carry, while the other two couples went for the classic piggyback. Joel Hicks (a veteran fundraiser who had travelled from Hinkley, Leicestershire, in order to take part) was dressed as a baby, complete with nappy and fetching blue bonnet.

Joel took an early lead, and hardly slowed down to walk until the climb to the half way high point, whereupon he accelerated away again, leaving the other two couples jostling for second place. Joel – a well-built young gent, to say the least – sprinted home in just 1 minute 59 seconds for the 380m course, although Kevin Bailey was a close-run second in 2:13. Ian jogged in a breathless but happy third, to win the last-placer’s Pot Noodle, in 2:30.”

 Sadly, although perhaps social distancing might not impact upon true husbands and wives it would preclude any causal ‘wives’ if the reader understands me, so the race has been given a well-earned rest time for the contestants to practice in lockdown no doubt!

Custom contrived: London’s New Year Parade

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“Executive director Bob Bone started the event with his wife Geri in the 1980s after they had wanted to take their children out on New Year’s Day and found most museums, theatres, cinemas, restaurants and shops were closed.”

And thus was born what would become the world’s largest New Year’s Day street parade.

 

It was new year 2019 and I had a busy day ahead. I got up early to attend a rather empty local radio studio for a breakfast show about new day customs and so it was rather appropriate to take the opportunity to attend one of the few New Year Day customs – the London New Year parade.

New year new custom

It was in 1987 that the first New Year’s Parade was started under the name Lord Mayor of Westminster’s Big Parade..surprisingly this rather clunky and rather lacking in details (or perhaps too much detail) name survived until 1994. I am sure that someone in the organisation thought to themselves it does not really say anything about when it is…and who outside of London would care about the Lord Mayor of Westminster was. So clearly with an eye on its commercial survival and its familiarity with tourists…the more obvious New Year’s Parade was coined. A name which would have greater resonance.

Certainly the organisers have their eye on the tourists. For example probably when another member of the teams rightfully observed that the parade route missed the big tourist locations the route was wisely reversed in 2010. This was done to:

“appease US television broadcasters and give the American audience the best views of the capital’s landmarks, such as the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster (The Houses of Parliament, also known as Big Ben) and Trafalgar Square”.

The article continues

“The reverse route will give the American audience the best views of the capital’s landmarks, such as Big Ben and Trafalgar Square. The annual parade is popular in the US and an estimated 100 million viewers are expected to tune in. Last year nearly 4,000 Americans took part, representing 24 different bands.”

A wise move with the event being televised now in 900 countries – although not broadcast live in the UK!

 

Parading about

I arrived around an hour before the parade was about to start and arrange myself in a place a mile or so down from the starting block. One could soon see the crowds awaiting and hear the sound coming of bands – that staple of all parades.

The event is certainly a big one with 32 London boroughs involved and all manner of commercial enterprises. At the head of the parade was a huge inflated Mayor of London and soon after an inflated red phone box! There was a clever nod to the other parades – yellow NYC taxis, a Chinese Dragon and some rather brave Brazilian dancers – a veritable smorgasbord of parade icons – through into this some classic cars, motor cycles and tickertape and reference to west end shows such as the Wicked! All in all on a rather dull January Day a bright and vibrant injection.

 

Whilst the New Year’s Day Parade is certainly an impressive and joyful event personally it is not one I hurry back to experience again. Why? The crowds surprisingly and perhaps not surprisingly because as the founder did state there is still little else to do in London on the 1st of January are a little intense. However, I have coped with crowds. No I feel it is more the overt commercial aspect of the event. It is an event purely for the tourists devoid of any real tradition. That’s fine the city needs to keep those tourists happy. However, I found it rather soulless! Loud, bright, engaging…perhaps fun…but soulless. I would certainly recommend it to anyone to see once and certainly if they in London over NYE but perhaps not to travel especially for..and indeed in 2021 one didn’t need to we all joined remotely!

Custom contrived: The Elf on the Shelf

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The Elf on the Shelf - Wikipedia

“Like most things that get big in America, the Elf on the Shelf was bound to cross to these shores eventually. Now it’s available in the UK, the Elf on the Shelf is spreading like wildfire.”

Kate Whiting What is Elf on the Shelf? All you need to know about the Christmas craze

“Horrible passive aggressive doll that ‘watches you’ then tells on you to Santa.”

Amazon review

For many years we had plastic Elf sitting with his knees firmly tucked under his chin. He sat – because he had loop in his head – firmly hanging from one of the branches of our annual Christmas tree. He was a bauble like many of the others – currently the weirdest one on the tree is a pickled gherkin but that’s another story! Then as the current millennium developed a new Elf appeared on the Christmas roster and the term Elf on the Shelf became more and more frequently heard. Why?

Another book on the she-Elf-ie!

In the Strange and Sweet history of Elf on the Shelf the Huffpost summaries the story as follows:

“According to the book, the elf is a “scout elf” who sits on a shelf or table or another part of a family’s home to observe the children’s behavior during the holiday season.

Each night, the elf flies back to the North Pole and reports the kids’ actions to Santa Claus to inform his naughty and nice list picks. The elf then returns before the children wake up and settles in a new part of the house, creating a hide-and-seek game each morning.”

The Elf would visit from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve suggesting that parents would set up the Elf between these areas.The authors, Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell of thisT 2005 children’s picture book appear to be almost single handedly created their own custom – developed and spread by social media. Carol Aebersold stated that they got the idea from a family tradition that she Carol started for her two children in Georgia USA in the 1970s:.

“We had an elf growing up for as long as we can remember. Our elf was named Fisbee, and Fisbee of course would report to Santa Claus at night and be back in a different position in our house the next day,” Pitts explained. “We loved it. It was a chance for us to tell Santa directly what maybe we might want for Christmas, or to do good deeds so that Santa would know about them.”

When Aebersold was a child herself, Fisbee was more like an ornament that stayed on the Christmas tree and didn’t move. But the tradition morphed over time, and when she became a mother, she told her kids the elf would magically fly around at night and mustn’t be touched or it would lose its magic ― likely “to protect it, because we were pretty rambunctious children,” said Pitts.

The idea of a magical elf that flies to the North Pole at night and reappears in a surprise location was “super fun and whimsical” to the twins and their brother, Brandon, Pitts recalled. “It had all of us racing out of bed in the morning to find our elf!”

Help your Elf

As the custom developed it appears rules developed now on the book’s website:

  1. “A scout elf cannot be touched. Christmas magic is very fragile and if a scout elf is touched it may lose that magic and be unable to fly back to the North Pole.”
  2. “A scout elf cannot speak or move while anyone in the house is awake! A scout elf’s job is to watch and listen.”

Of course each night once the children have gone to bed the parents would have to find new places to place the Elf; which has resulted in some amusing locations and a whole range of images shared on social media.

It is thought that 2007 was an important point when actress Jennifer Garner was photographed with the Elf on the shelf box and soon the booksellers were flooded with orders and toy stores started selling the product. Now over 11 million elves have been sold and it has spread across the world including Great Britain.

Elf and safety warning

The custom hasn’t always been welcomed. Notwithstanding the hundreds of parents who have had to think about where to place the Elf each night and the horrendous middle of the night moment when a parent has just remembered they have not moved it, the have been other concerns.

In Who’s the Boss? “The Elf on the Shelf” and the normalization of surveillance Professor Laura Pinto reports that:

“Although The Elf on the Shelf has received positive media attention and has been embraced by millions of parents and teachers, it nevertheless represents something disturbing and raises an important question. When parents and teachers bring The Elf on the Shelf into homes and classrooms, are they preparing a generation of children to accept, not question, increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance?”

But psychological impact aside many such as The Atlantic columnist Kate Tuttle have questioned its position as a tradition, seeing it as:

“a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a tradition.”

But then I would say so are virtually half of our current customs and traditions – divorced as they are from what they really stood for!

This has ranged from reports on Amazon which states it is a

“My 4 year old cried and didn’t want it in the house.”

Custom contrived: Cotehele House Garland

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Living in an old Georgian house I felt the need to establish my old customs as befits it; so at Christmas I have revived the Kissing Bush and placed garlands of evergreen materials over the fire places and up the stairwells. It is a mammoth – and frustrating – task so I feel empathy for the volunteers at Cornwall’s Cotehele House who since the 1950s have established their own – and far more complicated garland.

46,000 dried flowers grown on the house estate are tied together into one hundred feet of rope. Although it takes the staff and volunteers two weeks to construct in reality it takes all year, seeds are ordered in December, grow through spring and summer, picked and dried in the autumn ready for its November construction. In its construction are 60 evergreen pittosporum tree cuttings as its base, with grasses, statice, helichrysum, acrolineum and helipterum being added to it.

In 2013 a BBC news webpage National Trust’s Cotehele creating 90ft flower garland recorded:

Gardeners at a stately home are creating a garland that is more than 90ft (27m) long, following a bumper year for flowers.

Garlands have been made at Cotehele, in south-east Cornwall, since the 1950s and are normally about 60ft (18m) long.

David Bouch, head gardener at the National Trust property, said that more than 40,000 flowers were collected compared to an average of 22,000.

He added that “brilliant growing season” had prompted the increase.

Mr Bouch said he believed the garland was the longest created at a National Trust property.

“Normally, loops go along the centre of the Great Hall, but because of the bumper crop an additional 33ft (10m) of garland will also frame the door,” he said.”

The result is indeed impressive and unique and attracts visitors far and wide to observe it as it sways across the old hall cafe. It certainly puts my efforts to shame.

Custom contrived: King Harold’s Day at Waltham Abbey

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King Harold Day is a good example how a custom can be made to capitalise on a local areas famous offspring and in a way question why it had not been done before. Waltham Abbey is the sort of small town nestled on the outskirts of the great conurbation of London which could easily be overlooked, lose its identity to a dormer satellite of that great city. A place where its own identity and the celebrating thereof is largely overshadowed by its larger neighbour.

King Harold, the loser of the famous battle of Hastings is perhaps an obvious choice – a victim of fortune and the sort of ‘loser’ the British oft like to celebrate and remember. However, despite the marking of his grave in the ruins of the local abbey, the first time it would appear Harold was celebrated in 2004, being developed from various sources as the event website describes how:

“Elaine Fletcher and Tricia Gurnett, who both used to work in the area, decided they would like to do something to promote the rich history of this ancient town.   They soon found that Isabelle Perrichon, owner of the historic tearooms in the town and a French national, had the same idea, and had spoken to the Rector at the Abbey Church, who had asked Dave and Sheila Giles to represent the Church on the group.   The sixth person who joined was Garth Gregory, a local amateur dramatics enthusiast.   This little group put together the first event.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnKDwUsSWnA

2016 was a big year for the festival marking the 950th anniversary of 1066 the events were as follows:

“ We began with Compline for a Coronation in the Abbey on the 6 January 2016. During the year we went on to have a major exhibition at the Museum on King Harold II, his Life and Legacy. We welcomed English Heritage’s 1066 March to the town when armoured horsemen rode at some speed through gridlocked traffic to the Abbey and we then re-enacted King Harold praying at the Holy Cross of Waltham before continuing his journey to Hastings. Then we had the 2016 King Harold Day. This was followed by a Day Conference held at the Town Hall, and organized by the Museum, which attracted renowned speakers on King Harold, the Bayeux Tapestry and the 1066 story. Finally there was a talk on King Harold at the Museum.”

The event is a colourful addition to the roster of commemoration and re-enactment types of events which the British do so well. With the march through the town and the King praying at the cross one could clearly see in these busy modern streets how Waltham Abbey’s great history was a rich one.

Custom contrived: London Bridge Sheep Drive

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If you turn up on the last Sunday in September it is not just cars you have to dodge as you cross London bridge, no it will be sheep, liverymen, an odd celebrity and photographers! Yes for this is the annual London sheep drive – drive as in the sense to drive them across, as I mean a sheep drove, er no not with a car, you go behind them…oh well hopefully you will realise what I mean!

Pulling the wool over one’s eyes?

The event is organised by the Woolmen of the city, who claim that in medieval times, when sheep farmers drove their sheep across the bridge into the City of London to sell them at market, the Freemen of the City were excused the bridge toll that had to be paid by the others, as they were local traders and were  recognised as such. It is not clear when this sheep were last driven across but the appearance of the motor car would have made such a journey a bit perilous and unnecessary as well!

At some point in one of those conversations down the pub; this time presumably in the bar of the livery company of Woolmen, someone came up with the idea of re-instating the drove; as some sort of ancient right cum tradition, which of course there is little evidence it was despite what Bill Clark, Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, said: “Driving sheep over London Bridge by Freemen of the City is a tradition rooted in more than 800 years of the history of the Woolmen.

This notwithstanding, in 2013 wanting to uphold the tradition of Freemen’s rights, the Worshipful Company of Woolmen arranged:

“the first official Sheep Drive for Freemen of the City and their guests to ‘drive’ sheep across the bridge. The event has been so successful that it has continued ever since and with places selling out every year we are planning for over 700 pre-booked supporters for 2021.”

Being a bit sheepish!

However, this was not the first time in recent years. As in 2009 a group dressed as farmers had crossed the bridge – albeit in far less publicity as the recent establishment. Over the short number of years the company has attracted a colourful and impressive roster of celebrity drivers ranging from Alan Titchmarsh to Barbara Windsor; .

“Re-energising this old tradition provides a fun day out for Londoners but it is also a reminder of the City of London’s important trading history. Wool may have been replaced by stocks and shares but London is still the world’s centre of commerce.”

In 2016 it was reported that:

“Thirty sheep are provided for the event by a Bedfordshire farmer, with just ten at a time driven across the bridge by successive groups of Freemen.”

The event offers a colourful spectacle as the liverymen and the mayor officials and even Bo Peep stand by to drive in small groups with a sponsor the sheep across the bridge and back again..a real classic British custom colourful but largely if completely pointless! I do wonder what they sheep think of it! The assembled crowds loved it of course.

Custom contrived: Yorkshire Day

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“Today is Yorkshire Day. Not many people know that, as a very non-Yorkshire person likes to say, and probably not many Yorkshiremen either know or care. It is almost as artificial as Father’s Day, which, as all thrifty northerners know, was created to sell more greetings cards.”

The Times 1991

In 1974 the then Government made the decision to change some county boarders and remove some counties such as Rutland altogether. Yorkshire perhaps was one of the worst hit – the old Ridings were gone, South Yorkshire appeared taking some of Derbyshire with it and Hull was created with north Lincolnshire its own county of Humberside. Understandably many people were not happy with the changes and 20 years later some of the changes were overturned.

Such an act is often a catalyst for a custom and proud Yorkshire people were keen that the historic ridings of Yorkshire were not forgotten and in 1975 the Yorkshire Ridings Society celebrated their first Yorkshire Day as a protest in the city of Beverley on the 1st of August.

The first of August was chosen because it has already been celebrated for many years by the Yorkshire regiments in itself a custom in its own right called Minden Day. The Yorkshire Society every 1st of August since 1985 there has been a civic gathering of Lord Mayors, mayors and other civic heads in different Yorkshire towns and cities. Naturally starting in York, nearly every town and city in the three original Ridings have taken part.

On Yorkshire Day a ‘declaration of integrity’ is read out by members of the society which reads:

“I, (insert name) being a resident of the (West/North/East) Riding of Yorkshire (or City of York) declare:

That Yorkshire is three Ridings and the City of York, with these Boundaries of (which is the current year stated minus 851) years’ standing; That the address of all places in these Ridings is Yorkshire; That all persons born therein or resident therein and loyal to the Ridings are Yorkshiremen and women; That any person or corporate body which deliberately ignores or denies the aforementioned shall forfeit all claim to Yorkshire status.

These declarations made this Yorkshire Day God Save the Queen!”

Around this declaration have arisen all sorts of local events and festivals to celebrate Yorkshireness beyond civic processions and declarations. In 2013 Yorkshire born and bred celebrities came together to give a rousing rendition of the county’s traditional folk song On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘At with Brian Blessed rapping a section!

In 2020 it was Rotheram’s opportunity but virtually of course! Indeed the threat of the Coronavirus did not stop the celebration with Welly wanging, making Yorkshire Parkin and online Yorkshire pudding. In fact the 1st was used by many Yorkshire museums and heritage sites as the day they reopened after lockdown.

Denis Kilcommons: Yorkshire Day - Denis Kilcommons - YorkshireLive

It’s not all flat caps and whippets?

Yorkshire people are proud of their heritage as this local newspaper account notes:

The ‘Official Yorkshire Day Civic Celebration’ now adds pomp and circumstance to a day of pride for a county which is like a nation within a nation: having its own flag, its own language, own anthem (almost) and its own culture. It is undoubtedly the biggest gathering of ‘first citizens’ and civic leaders in the UK and probably one of the biggest in the world.

The problem with any celebration of a county or indeed a country can that it falls into the trap of enforcing stereotypes as noted by Arnold Kellett from the Yorkshire Dialect Society in Grand day for the white rose county in the The Times. 1 August 1998.:

“We have to be careful not to overdo it, but regional distinctiveness adds colour. I’m against a grey uniformity spreading over everything, which is the way the world is going.”

Indeed, an what would appear to have been a largely ignored ‘contrived’ custom is now more and more embraced to celebrate the uniqueness of the three counties – just don’t mention it in Lancashire!