Category Archives: Food

Custom survived: Lee Gap Fair, Yorkshire

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“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!

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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 survived: Good Friday Holcombe Hill Egg rolling, Lancashire

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The last custom I attended before we dived into national lockdown in 2020 was the annual Good Friday at Rivington Pike, those it seemed fitting that the first post Lockdown Easter custom I should attend is the other noted Lancashire Good Friday custom at Holcombe Hill, near Ramsbottom, Lancashire.

Rolling off

The Holcombe Hill Good Friday custom is noted in virtually all folk customs books but usually as an aside in a list of egg rolling locations; which is not particularly useful as it is often coupled with Bunker’s Hill, Derbyshire, which I am pretty sure is no longer extant. And whilst other egg rolling customs get some detailed accounts made, these days usually online, Holcombe’s custom appears to have been so under the radar, that before the pandemic hit, I doubted it actually happened. Or certainly that it did not happen in the same vigour as that of Rivington. However clearly I was wrong and it was the pandemic that indicated that it was very popular when this appeared in the 2021 Manchester Evening News:

“For the second year in a row, a popular children’s tradition is set to be cancelled.

Egg rolling at Holcombe Hill is an unusual event that takes place at Easter each year and has a history dating back centuries.

If you live in the area you will almost definitely have heard of it and might have been among the crowds of onlookers gathered to watch and cheers as youngsters roll painted boiled eggs down the hillside…..

Despite this long history, authorities have advised that no egg rolling take place at Holcombe Hill this year as large crowds ‘would make social distancing impossible’.

The car park on Lumb Carr Road will be locked over the Easter weekend to dissuade people from driving to the hill.

Coun Andrea Simpson, Bury council’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: “After a year of lockdown, we’re all desperate to get out there and enjoy the countryside, and get our lives back to normal…..Thousands of people mixing together at Easter carries a very real risk of causing infection to spread and making people very ill.”

Bar this there is little else recording it bar a mention in 1908 of someone selling sweets at the top in the Bury News and perhaps the original focus of the custom the Church service first recorded in print in 1949 as far as I can gather.  Sadly in many well-known customs people feel it is unnecessary to write anything about them…until now!

Rolling on

So I decided to attend in 2022 and experience the custom. With such rather informal affairs it is always difficult to know what time to attend. If the church custom still happened at the foot of the hill it would have been good to attend, but finding details of this was more difficult and it would appear to be bit early…so I aimed for midday.

Arriving there on a sunny Good Friday thankfully it was clear that there were already many on the summit of Holcombe Hill by the large number of cars crammed along the streets of the small village in its shadow. After finding a parking place, I noticed the large numbers of families with the children clutching egg boxes…meaning only one thing…egg rolling.

At the base of the hill one could see the small figures of people at the top appearing like spikes on dinosaur either side of the dark shadow of the Peel Monument on top. Indeed, there was a steady stream of people of all ages ascending the summit which felt at times more like a mountain than a hill! On the way, there were bits of egg shell. Did they land here or did they not make it?

I spoke to a number of people as they ascended the hill and asked them why they did it. One commented that ‘it was a family tradition’ and another said ‘I remembered going to the summit with his father and grandfather’ I asked did you go with eggs and one could not remember and the other said ‘why yes of course’. I also asked why they did it and another stated that ‘it was just a ritual a way of burning off a big lunch’ another said it was to ‘remember to the Calvary!’

At the top there was a large number of people, mainly eating their lunch, and then like a steady stream, going down to the edge of the hill with their eggs. I peered into a couple of egg boxes to see some neatly painted eggs; indeed some looked stained in the traditional fashion. I joined the families to see how they were rolling them and the answer was they werent! The hill unlike every other site for egg rolling had no good slope. Much of the hill was covered with thick heath and bracken. Instead the children went to the edge of the cliff, one ledge looked pretty precarious and there the aim being to get they either as far as possible, as smashed as possible or both and beneath a large rocky outcrop -the main aim of their projectiles, was splatted with eggs and shells like a giant omelette attempt! It seemed that this was the usual practice for the children confirmed by one of the older men with his grandchildren…and as such I was surprised it had not been recorded before!

 

Custom transcribed: Nottingham Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan

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Recently I have been highlighting the rich customs of Nottingham; a county which rarely gets a focus in folklore circles (unless it is Robin Hood of course) however in the process of writing my Customs and Ceremonies of Nottinghamshire there is a rich range and Vaisakhi the annual Sikh celebration is without doubt on of the most colourful.

Nottingham’s Sikh celebration consists of a Nagar Kirtan procession which starts at the Lenton’s Sri Guru Teg Bahadur Gurdwara early in the morning and snakes its way around the perimeter of the city arriving around three pm at the newest Gurdwara Ramgarhia Sabha to the north of the city. 

The Nottingham Sikh’s Website sums up the significance of the custom well:

“Vaisakhi has traditionally been a harvest festival in the state of Panjab, in modern day India. It is marked by the first day of the month of Vaisakh on 14th April. For Sikhs, Vaisakhi is the highlight of the year marking the Birth of the Khalsa and a time to celebrate their faith and identity.

The Sikh Gurus began their mission of teaching spiritual enlightenment at the start of the 15th century with their first Guru, Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469 – 1539). The subsequent nine Gurus contributed to making Vaisakhi an annual time of gathering for the Sikhs. Each year, at Vaisakhi, the Gurus would introduce new elements to the Sikh teachings.

At this time, the Sikh faith was under vicious attack for its revolutionary nature. The rise of the faith promoted many new freedoms, such as the outlawing (by the Sikh Gurus) of female infanticide, the affordance of equal rights for women and the advancement of an egalitarian society. The fifth and ninth Sikh Gurus were martyred whilst peacefully undergoing torture from the rulers of the time. In reaction to these martyrdoms, the Sikhs were militarised by the sixth and tenth Gurus, by varying degrees, to ensure the survival of the Sikh faith.

The Vaisakhi of 1699 was to be the most revolutionary yet.”

For Sikhs, Vaisakhi celebrates the formation of this Khalsa Panth in 1699 by their 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji and thus is a time to celebrate their faith and identity. Unfortunately, to the ill-informed, or rather local media this has been dubbed Sikh new year, but as one of the attendees told me ‘ this is a big day for Sikh’s think of it as Sikh’s equivalent of Christmas’…pure fodder for the those ill-informed newspaper hacks! However, a closer association would be the harvest home celebrations perhaps of the pre-Industrial age; although they did not include any religious associations.

Sikh more information

My first encounter of this custom was in the early 00s when it came past my house. First I heard the sound of music and chanting and then coming to the front door was confronted with its colour and splendour. According to one of the attendees it was already 10 years old by this stage and indeed the earliest account I can find is from The Nottingham Evening Post of Friday 13th 1990 which states:

“Hundreds of Sikhs formed a colourful procession through Nottingham today – to celebrate one of the most important days in their religious calendar. Ceremonial horses and a sacred float carrying a model of the Golden Temple at Amritsar in India led the way in the parade for Vaisakhi – the day when the Khalsa movement of baptised Sikhs was formed in 1699. Most of  Nottingham’s Sikh community joined the inner-city march, which visited five temples.”

A good account and informative of the reason for the custom, however, by 1993, the Nottingham Evening Post from the 22nd of April journalist sloppiness had crept in:

“HAPPY NEW YEAR s was celebrated with a spectacular procession through the streets of Nottingham At its peak up to 2000 people joined in the celebrations on the five-mile parade along a route past the city’s six gurudwaras Sikh temples People lining the roadside were handed sweets as a sign of goodwill by children Among those joining the fun for Vaisakhi the most important day in the Sikh calendar were Sukhdeep Singh Badyal seven (left) and Charn-jit Kaur Rayat eight The event was organised by the Sikh Community.”

I wonder if these children were still attending? It appeared as a regular feature in the post for the next decade and appears on line although lacks perhaps the details needed for those interested in the custom and rather focuses on the road closures!

Processing it all

I recently came across the parade, in the middle of the day, twenty years after my first encounter and it did not disappoint. The main focus was a float carrying as it traditional the turrets of the Sikh’s golden temple, bedecked with ribbons and adorned with gold as below musicians played music, sung and chanted. A LED sign informed those unaware of what it was about with a Happy Vaisakhi. In front of the float were ceremonial sword dancers and staff bearers who periodically stopped and displayed their splendid skills. Leading the procession was a truck with a large ceremonial drum which was enthusiastically beaten. Behind them helpers swept the ground and sprinkled holy water and behind them barefooted ceremonial sword bearers and flag holders shuffling along. The whole spectacle was a vibrant aural and visual delight of blue and orange, made even more palatable by the free sweets and later on the Langar (free vegetarian food). Following up the float was the assembled Nottingham Sikh congregation dressed in their finest and not looking particularly worn out as I would have done if I had been parading since the early morning. Now 40 years old this custom is a firm fixture in the city’s ceremonial customs so much I am surprised Robin Hood has yet to make an appearance!

Custom survived: Making Simnel Cakes for Mothering Sunday

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Recently I have noticed that well-known bakery Greggs had been selling Simnel cakes around March time in memory of the tradition of making Simnel Cake which if the number of recipes on the internet is anything to go by is still a commonly made cake. Here is a clip of well-known Mary Berry making one!

The association with Mothering Sunday has been so great that it became alternatively known as Simnel Sunday. 

Nathan Bailey in his 1721 Dictionary states that:

“Simnel is probably derived from the Latin Simila, fine flour, and means a sort of cake, or bun, made of fine flour, spice, &c.”

Frequent mention is made of the Simnel in the household allowances of Henry the First.

“Cancellarius v solidos in die et i Siminellum dominicum, et ii salum, et i sextarium de vino claro, et i sext. de vino expensabili, et unum grossum cereum, et xl frusta Candell.”–_Libr. Nigr. Scaccarii,”

Why a cake should be firstly established with a religious custom is unclear but some have argued that it derived from a type of bread given out on the Sunday service. Indeed a bread called “simnel bread” is mentioned by Jehoshaphat Aspin, in his Pictures of Manners, &c., of England quoting from a statue book of the 51st of Henry III:

“A farthing symnel_ (a sort of small cake, twice baked, and also called a cracknel) should weigh two ounces less than the wastel_(a kind of cake made with honey, or with meal and oil).”

At some point probably to make it more commercially viable it manifested itself into cakes with the image of Jesus to know the traditional 12 apostles and Jesus made of balls of marzipan!

Edward Baines in his 1836 History of Lancashire records that:

“At Bury, in Lancashire, from time beyond memory, thousands of persons come from all parts, and eat “simnels” on Simnel Sunday.”

However the custom nearly fell afoul of the church:

“Formerly, nearly every shop was open, quite in defiance of the law respecting the closing during “service,” but of late, through the improved state of public opinion, the disorderly scenes to which the custom gave rise have been partially amended. Efforts have been repeatedly made to put a stop to the practice altogether, but in vain. The clergy, headed by the rector, and the ministers of all denominations (save the Romanists) have drawn up protests and printed appeals against this desecration, but, as just stated, with scarcely any visible effect. It is not a little singular that the practice of assembling in one town, upon one day–the middle Sunday in Lent, to eat simnel cake, is a practice confined to Bury. Much labour has been expended to trace the origin of this custom, but without success.”

Herrick in his Hesperides has the following:

“TO DIANEME. “A CEREMONIE IN GLOCESTER.    “I’ll to thee a Simnell bring, ’Gainst thou go’st a _mothering;  So that, when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou’lt give me.”

Hone’s Book of Days gives the origin of the name

“There is a story current in Shropshire, which is more picturesque. Long ago there lived an honest old couple, boasting the names of Simon and Nelly, but their surnames are not known. It was their custom at Easter to gather their children about them, and thus meet together once a year under the old homestead. The fasting season of Lent was just ending, but they had still left some of the unleavened dough which had been from time to time converted into bread during the forty days. Nelly was a careful woman, and it grieved her to waste anything, so she suggested that they should use the remains of the lenten dough, for the basis of a cake to regale the assembled family. Simon readily agreed to the proposal, and further reminded his partner that there were still some remains of their Christmas plum-pudding hoarded up in the cupboard, and that this might form the interior, and be an agreeable surprise to the young people when they had made their way through the less tasty crust. So far all things went on harmoniously; but when the cake was made, a subject of violent discord arose, Sim insisting that it should be boiled, while Nell no less obstinately contended that it should be baked. The dispute ran from words to blows, for Nell not choosing to let her province in the household be thus interfered with, jumped up, and threw the stool she was sitting on at Sim, who, on his part, seized a besom, and applied it with right good will to the head and shoulders of his spouse. She now seized the broom, and the battle became so warm, that it might have had a very serious result, had not Nell proposed as a compromise that the cake should be boiled first and afterwards baked. This Sim acceded to, for he had no wish for further acquaintance with the heavy end of the broom. Accordingly, the big pot was set on the fire, and the stool broken up and thrown on to boil it, whilst the besom and broom furnished fuel for the oven. Some eggs, which had been broken in the scuffle, were used to coat the outside of the pudding when boiled, which gave it the shining gloss it possesses as a cake. This new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known by the name of the cake of Simon and Nelly, but soon only the first half of each name was alone preserved and joined together, and it has ever since been known as the cake of Sim-Nel or Simnel.”

Well upon cooking my Simnel cake I took pains to boil the fruit and then add it to the mix bake it slowly..and then with the marzipan on carefully place it under the grill..and very nice it was too. My mother was very pleased with it as I arrived surprising her on Mother’s Day.

Custom demised: Wetting the block

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All about shoes: Cordwainer or Cobbler : What's the difference ?

Hone’s Everyday book records a curious lost trade custom which was recorded in Berkshire and Hampshire only it appears. As the two counties are adjoining it is quite possible that it was established here but a note by the author suggests that it other places it took place in Easter. The author writes: 

“The first Monday in March being the time when shoemakers in the country cease from working by candle-light, it used to be customary for them to meet together in the evening for the purpose of wetting the block.”

The custom appears to be one done by the master of the trade to recognise the workers:

“On these occasions the master either provided a supper for his men, or made them a present of money or drink; the rest of the expense was defrayed by subscriptions among themselves, and sometimes by donations from customers.”

The custom then would have a ceremonial end which is the wetting part which consisted of the following:

“After the supper was ended, the block candlestick was placed in the midst, the shop candle was lighted, and all the glasses being filled.”

Then at the end:

“the oldest hand in the shop poured the contents of his glass over the candle to extinguish it; the rest then drank the contents of theirs standing, and gave three cheers. The meeting was usually kept to a late hour.”

As shoemaking became industrialised one imagine this custom died out!

Custom survived: St. Ives Langley Bread

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“charged his lands in St. Ives with the payment of 40s. a year to be distributed to poor widows and fatherless children, and with a further sum of 6s. to the churchwardens to be given to the bellringers.

Robert Langley by will dated 24 Aug. 1656 Charity report 1909

St Ives is a delightful small town which is noted amongst those interested in calendar customs for its bible dicing, however there is another custom that the town has undertaken for the last 300 years or so which has failed to be recorded as far as I am aware in any books on calendar customs. So for the 10th year of blogging on calendar custom it felt appropriate that I experienced and being free on the day of its distribution the 5th of January, linking it to epiphany no doubt it felt this was the ideal opportunity. 

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Bread and Butter

The custom consists of a dole given out on or around the epiphany and fortunately being free this year. It was set up as stated above in 1656 by local philanthropic St. Ives man, Robert Langley and whilst there is no stipulations about fatherless children it is still distributed to poor widows (and grammatically now widowers). The tradition is known as the Langley Bread and continues as a giving practice once a year in January.

I arrived to see the truck outside the Corn Exchange loaded with Co-op bags drive off – hand I missed it – no for as I went into the main hall of the building to see tables bellowing under a pile of green Co-op bags crammed with food and the Mayor in his chain, the trustees of the charity and town council secretary awaiting the first of the applicants.

In 2022 there were 120 bags lined up on the tables. Around 45 being delivered each year to local nursing homes. The number had been adjusted to take into account the number of recipients who came the previous year and thus the number left over. 

All doled up

Soon the first applicants appeared and many of them for familiar faces who had come previously to collect their bag of goodies and as a local newspaper account records:

“Great care is taken to ensure that only widows and widowers who are residents of St Ives benefit. As people come in to the building, they give out their addresses which are checked on the electoral roll.”

Indeed the clerks asked for names and they searched carefully their electoral role and upon finding them crossed them off and gave the recipient a ticket. However it was only a few feet away where the Mayor was ready to collect the ticket and give over the bag.

Many of the recipients were ‘regulars’ and despite having to be checked on the role many had come for the chat as well – being lonely widowers this would of course make sense. Indeed there was a sort of melancholy to the custom typified by one recipient stating

“Last year I came with my friend and wasnt eligible and this year I can come and collect one myself”

Sadly we all know what that means. But on the flipside it also encouraged people to talk to each and help each other as recorded in the newspaper article which stated:

one person is authorised to collect for friends.

“Especially where the old folks’ bungalows are, the fittest one will come down and collect them for their neighbours,” said David Hodge, who as mayor is responsible for giving out the bags. “Hence, they come with a list and they then go back with some for all their friends. It is checked, honestly!”

One could see that for many lonely widows it was a good reason to get into town and perhaps socialise or in some cases challenge the Mayor on their policies.

The trustees stick very rigidly to the wording of the charity. A man turned up from nearby Reach and politely asked if he was eligible having been born in St Ives and was a widower. He however was refused as he no longer lived in the town. He seemed okay with that and it was interesting to see that the letter of the original bequest being undertaken.  

The bags soon went down. By 10 .45 85 bags were gone. By 11.40 107 had gone. And then by 11.45 only 13 were left. It had been a successful day the previous year they had had 150 bags left but nothing goes to waste as like the earlier ones they are delivered to those in nursing homes.

Now however very little of the original charity money goes to buy the dole and is donated by local companies. In 2022 it was donated for the third year from the Co-Op. Back in the 1800s it would have simply been bread like many other doles. However, now its full of other staples.  The bag consists of digestive biscuits, tea, bread, butter and sugar and were delivered by the company on the back of truck at 8 o’clock. Usually I was informed that it was topped up by the charity and this included orange juice or jam but this year they could not be sourced. 

Two for the price of one!

The Langley bequest is actually two customs in one as he left money for the bell ringers from St Ives’ parish church. The reason being because of a very familiar story seen elsewhere is bell tolling bequests. It is said that Langley was lost in a snowstorm on nearby Hemingford Meadow walking to St Ives. Upon hearing the parish church bells he was guided back to safety and thus in gratitude he left money for the bell ringers to ring a peel. This apparently also happens in January, however the trustees did not know when.

It is heartening to see Langley’s bequest continues to give support to those in need…although he clearly had little thought of mobility in snow ladden Januaries – perhaps not the best time for aged widowers to travel about!

Custom contrived: Guildford Twelfth Night celebrations

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Guildford’s Twelfth Night celebrations, always held on the night is a great smorgasbord of the customs associated with the old celebrations associated with the day and a more rousing and enjoyable twelfth night celebration you couldn’t find I’d say.

The Twelfth Night at Guildford founded by Pilgrim Morris founded in 1972. The groups dressed as characters from a plough or Mummer’s Play tour a number of Guildford’s pubs injecting a necessary shot of jollity into a drab winter’s night. As they tour around a fair number of followers are attracted to their infectious fun. Their costumes in themselves were a riot of craziness and eccentricity covered with ribbons and adorned with Chrimbo iconography one even included a miniature Father Christmas!

I arrived at the first pub having travelled across the capital from the Jeffrey’s museum’s Twelfth night and came across them mid mummer’s play as St George was being speared by a Saracen in such a rather cramped location that I feared as he feel he would hit his head on a table.

At the play’s conclusion seeing the revival of St George to cheers one of the Morris mean appeared with a cake and urged people to eat. Some were rather reluctant whereas others upon finding the purpose dived in and took a piece hoping to find the pea and bean. The pea and bean, hidden in the cake, being a Twelfth Night tradition, whosever would find it would be King or Queen of Misrule. The taker was unsuccessful. However, soon a partaker looking like they’d swallowed something a bit odd, reached into his mouth and extracted a hard bean – a cheer went out and he was celebrated as the King for the night.

There was then a sword dance again in the rather small area and it was perhaps thankful the swords were not the sharp kind.  One of the Morris then moved a chair and upon standing on it began to chalking the beam as traditional for epiphany. Their version slightly different:

“Finally, at each place, three crosses are chalked onto the beams to protect the house and bring good luck for the next year.”

There were more cheers. 

Off we went to another pub and hear the wassail bowl was out. This a wooden bowl filled with spiced ale and was being offered around and drunk enthusiastically like a communion wine and in a way this was the intentions.

Phil Gorton noted in the Guildford gazette

“In each of the five places that we visited, the Guildford Mummer’s play was performed followed carols and wassail songs – not the boring standard issue ones but traditional versions, some of which are local to Surrey.”

These songs were particularly uplifting at their final pub The Royal Oak where gathered around the stairway and up on the balcony the Morris dancers and accompanied impromptu choir sung their hearts out in their mixture of traditional and not so familiar carols. The custom is so well established now that it has its own followers who regularly attend and know the words of the more obscure and localised carols much as they do around Sheffield.  As noted by Phil again:

“There are always plenty of singers who come along to bolster the unofficial choir and, as happens each year

The local newspaper recording:

“Up to 150 wassailers, traditionally celebrating twelfth night, toured some of Guildford’s pubs last night (Jan 6th) causing merriment at every venue.

One of the celebrants, morris man Phil Gorton of Farncombe said: “The pubs were packed and it was a riotous night!””

If you are in Guildford or perhaps not and are free on Twelfth Night join the wassail at Guildford for a great experience – second to none as it has something customwise for everyone – including free food and drink!!

Custom demised: Biddenham Parish Bull on St Thomas’s Day

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Edwards in his 1842 Old English Customs and Charities notes:

“An ancient annual payment of 5l. out of an estate at Biddenham, formerly belonging to the family of Boteler, and now the property of Lord Viscount Hampden, is regularly paid on St. Thomas’s Day to the overseers of the poor for the purchase of a bull, which is killed, and the flesh thereof given amongst the poor persons of the parish.”

This is an unusual bequest because it was usually St. Martin’s Day that spare cattle were slaughtered and this may have been an issue. It is recorded that the churchwardens overseers and principal inhabitants assist at the distribution of the meat the portions being given to those who have the families. The report considers:

“For many years past the annual fund, being insufficient to purchase a bull, the deficiency has been made good out of other charities belonging to the parish. “

Tunnicliffe, C. F. (1901-1979), 'The Chartley Bull', Wood Engraving, 1939/2007 £300.00 - Fine Art prints paintings drawings sculpture uk

 

It was noted that the value of the bull has varied in the 1800s from £9 to £14 which may have resulted in the customs disappearance however a suggestion was made:.  

It was proposed some years ago by the vicar that the 5l. a year should be laid out in buying meat, but the poor insisted on the customary purchase of a bull being continued, and the usage is accordingly kept up.”

 It was said that the money came from a transfer of £200 from the trustees. This is possibly linked to land bought in 1706 by Elizabeth Boteler. Sadly the custom did not survive the 20th century. 

Custom contrived: Chocolate advent calendars

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Advent calendar - Wikipedia

Each year in November parents run around the shops preparing for Christmas and the first thing perhaps that needs to be purchased is the advent calendar. However these are not the card board ones which I remembered and are worthy of a separate discussion, no these are the chocolate ones. But how did the paper ones turn into the chocolate ones and when?

It is thought that advent calendars first started in German around the early 1900s although the company which first made these appeared to cease production during the Second World War but it was revived in 1946 and by the 1950s it had arrived in the US.

A date for the choco-holic?

It was not long into the 1950s that some had the idea of replacing the images in the advent windows with chocolate and secularisation begun. The first chocolate Advent calendar appeared in 1958. These continue to be made during the 1960s but it did not appear to catch on and I remember in the 1980s in the UK the advent calendar we purchased just had the scenes of the nativity in it – and to be honest I was quite excited to see them as well.

The beginning of the dominance perhaps could be traced to 1971 when chocolate giant Cadbury introduced one in the UK. However, they still not catch on and they were only produced intermittently between 1972 and 1986. They were not put into continuous production until 1993. By the 2000s they appear to have become the mainstay and the excepted. Such that it is now difficult to find the original none chocolate ones. Indeed, Martin Johnes in his Research notes and resources on the histories of Wales and popular culture blog notes:

“It is tempting to see the move to giving children a chocolate every day as another sign of the commercialisation of Christmas and ever growing levels of festive consumption. The emergence in of the past few years of luxurious calendars with toys and even food, drink and gifts aimed at adults has added to this sense and led to accusation that religious ideas are being colonised and trampled.”

Of course one could criticise the commercialisation of the original cardboard ones but somehow the addition of chocolate is somewhat more commercial. However, like the original card one, the countdown to Christmas day is still the principle role and children still get excited to see the windows open and see that they are one day closer to the big day itself and the joy that that brings.

For the folklorist the fact that it was not until the 1990s and 00s that this custom became established and then becoming the expected tradition just shows how quickly a custom can establish itself and become part of the smorgasbord of Christmas. Of course, that is if you can stop your children from eating them all in one go! Perhaps they are trying to win the record set by Kevin Strahle. He holds the record for eating the advent chocolates for the fastest time: 1 minute 27.84 seconds. A record which definitely flies in the face of the spirit of the custom!

Custom survived: The Southwell Ploughing Match

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Plough a deep furrow

The Southwell Ploughing match is one of the oldest agricultural traditions in the country. It was established in 1855 by the Southwell and District Agricultural society consisting of four ploughing classes with the first ploughing match being undertaken in 1856. This was at Averham Park. Unfortunately the group folded in 1880 but was re-established in 1908 by the Southwell Farmer’s Club. The First World War put an understandable stop to such activities only being restored in 1922. Modernisation begun when in 1937 tractor pulling was added in 1936 but it did not last long stopping in 1938. Post war in 1947 it was re-started. It has not had an unbroken run since unfortunately with foot and mouth in 2001 stopping it, heaving rain in 2017 and the Coronavirus pandemic. 

To plough ahead

The ploughing remains central to the event. One can see the beauty in creating a straight furrow although how it was exactly judged was a bit of an arcane art. Being a few yards away from it also made it a bit difficult to follow. From the distance I stood it looked like a rather strangely staggered relay match with tractors. There were massive seed drills, old and ancient some looking like they had just out of a museum for the day. The tractors were centre stage of course in their many forms old and new. The smell and the sounds of threshing machines and old engines are very evocative. However, the event is more than just watching the ploughing and there is a whole range of country and rural related events and trade stands. These range from dog shows to farmer’s market. I spent a lot of time looking at the cheese available and admiring the dog’s agility.

Southwell Ploughing Match & Show

A deep furrow

These events are very much the stage and advert for the agricultural community so needed. An essential place for all to attend especially those who by our increasingly urban communities have been disconnected from the countryside.

Its position in the calendar of the year shows how calendar customs can be in tune with nature like a descent of the lost harvest homes; the event links to the end of the harvest and the necessary preparations of the land for the crop next year. Thus despite this being a ‘showing off’ of the ploughing communities best talents it is also a subtle way to show best practice. It has become as it has grown a way to celebrate the agricultural way of life and to stress the importance of these traditions to keep our rural communities alive.