Category Archives: Northamptonshire

Custom occasional: Corby Pole Fair

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“At Corby near Rockingham, every twentieth year, the inhabitants assemble at an early hour, and stop up all roads and bye-ways in the parish, and demand a certain toll of every person, gentle or simple, who may have occasion to pass through the village on that day. In case of non-compliance a stout pole is produced, and the nonconformist is placed thereon, in a riding attitude, carried through the village, and taken to the parish stocks and imprisoned until the authorities choose to grant a dismissal. It appears that Queen Elizabeth granted to the inhabitants of Corby a charter to free them from town toll throughout England, Wales, and Scotland; and also to exempt them from serving on juries at Northampton, and to free the knights of the shire from the militia law. This custom of taking toll has been observed every twenty years in commemoration of the granting of the charter.—N. & Q. 3rd S. vol. i. p. 424.”

And much as the notes and queries records this is what greats the visitor today on Corby’s most important day.

Be fair

My first and at that time only experience of the Corby Pole fair was unsurprisingly 20 years previous in 2002. I had found out about it from Charles Kighty’s The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain which at the time was one of my sole sources for calendar customs and was curious to see this rare event. However, I must admit it did not impress; true there were the gates and the stocks, but no riding the stang, more of in a moment. It was to all intents and purposes it was just a big funfair sandwiched into a suburb. The sky was grey and the town busy. I did not find it an interesting experience. Thus 20 years later I was slightly wary of what I would experience. To be fair to the fair, I did not experience the traditional proclamation – which the book did not mention, and it was this I was particularly interested in experiencing!

Staying overnight within the village is to be recommended because then you can appreciate the rather surreal nature of being enclosed with a fair village. One of the traditions of the custom is the setting up of the barriers, the tolls, which are then covered with flowers. For 2022 these were set up in three places and decorated with foliage and children’s artwork. Being within the boundary of course also meant no toll!

Fairly early

Fairs like their proclamations and they are always colourful but I would say that Corby’s proclamation is one of the most interesting starting as it does at dawn with the chiming of the bells of St John the Baptist Church in Corby Old Village to gather all the village folk to hear it. I could not hear the bells but fortunately my alarm had got me up early enough and I made my way to the church following the then obvious chimes. There a fair sized congregation had assembled; many of which were press. At the foot of the church steps were three wooden sedan chairs as part of the tradition is the chairing of the proclamation party between the sites. This party consists of the vicar, the Mayor and the oldest resident of the village. Soon the bells stopped and a small choir appeared and started to sing; their sound magically swirling around in the air as the vicar read out the proclamation. Then Rev Paul Frost was given the honour of reading the Charter granted to the village in 1585 by Queen Elizabeth I. After it was read for the first time in public for 20 years of course; the three walked down and settled themselves into their chairs ready to be carried. There was a considerable amount of laughter and nervousness from all involved, as well as considerable press interest, as the volunteers grabbed each corner of the chairs and one by one, they lifted their charges up – first the oldest resident, an overjoyed June Thompson, then the vicar and lastly the mayor, Tafadwa Chikoto.

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The crowd parted and off they paraded down the street to the next proclamation point – a local pub, the White Hart, located at another entrance. Here standing on a wall the proclamation was again read and the party moved back to their chairs…noticing the lack of volunteers I opted to help. Well, it would be another 20 year until I have the next chance and I do not honestly think I’d be able to carry the vicar. Plus I noticed it was downhill from here and surprisingly it was quite easy…and I hoped that it put a good word in for me ‘upstairs’. At the final pub, the Jamb, it had been moved to accommodate the radio show, the chairs were lowered for a final time and the proclamation read for the final time. Then it was time for another Pole fair tradition, missed last time also – the free breakfast! Rather surreally attended by Vikings, knights and ordinary people…

Pole axed!

T. F. Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1875 British Popular customs present and past notes that:

“Why it is held every 20 years has never been discovered, nor why it is called a pole fair. But one theory suggests that when the Danes settled in the area, naming Corby village ‘The BY of Kori’, they brought many customs and punishments with them.

One such punishment, which lends itself to the theory, was ‘riding the stang’.

This involved men who had committed minor offences being carried astride an ash pole or stang. Insults and missiles where then thrown at the punished as they were carried through the town or village.”

Further ‘The Rutland Appendix to Almanacks for 1826’ states

“They went on to describe the demands for tolls from every person who passed through Corby that day with non-payers being made to ride through the town to jeers and shouts from the locals as penance, followed by a period of time spent in the stocks.”

This was one of the aspects I had missed in 2002 and despite seeing the stocks there was no-one in them and at the point of entry I was half minded not to pay so that that I would have to be carried ‘riding the stang’…but I don’t think that was the done thing or not! Photos of the custom show up – including in 1982!

Twenty years on and there were new stocks at Stock’s Lane and plenty of people queuing up to be put inside them for their amusing photo. But would there be a stang? Then by chance I was standing by the stocks when three people arrived two carrying a pole between their shoulders…and then as modern electro soundtrack blasted out the entered into a fluid dance, weaving in and out of each other and the pole in an interpretative dance the aim to avoid the stang! Then after much toing and froing one of them was captured onto the stang and was raised into the air and carried to the stocks. It was certainly a very interesting way of keeping the tradition alive and one which was certainly an improvement from 2002 (I could not be sure that they did this then to be honest)

There was also the traditional procession with large figures of important Corby people, including Queen Elizabeth of course and a colourful interjection of Romanian folk dancers – who indeed added a delightfully unique experience at one of the stages. Later in the afternoon was the pageant, and after a technical issue, was a splendid re-telling of the Elizabeth charter giving in wonderful custom.

There were other traditions associated with the custom which continued – the ox roast and the greasy pole – however, unlike 2002, the dreaded health and safety had prevented anyone attempting it and it was replaced by a photo opportunity…shame but also I thought I was glad that the healthy and safety brigade had not stopped the sedan chair carrying.

Fairly old?

The agreed account is that Elizabeth gave the fair but needless to say that no such charter can be found, but Charles II did confirm the fair in 1682, Furthermore, there is evidence of fairs in 1226. Henry III granted the right to hold two annual fairs and markets. Of the Pole fair first documented account is written in Latin which is said to be the charter authorising the event, which states the last time it was celebrated was the 11th of June 1821. Furthermore, The Mercury Herald of November 6, 1936 has an article recalling the memories of a Miss Collier recalls attending five Pole Fairs, the earliest being 1842, 21 years later!1862 appears to be the possible date when after which the 20 years was introduced…but why is unclear! Perhaps it was a cost thing? However, the pole fair is a real boost to the local economy and a joyful experience and as by Laura Malpas in an article for Northamptonshire surprise notes:

“The last five Pole Fairs have come at a time when the people of Corby most needed to be cheered and to celebrate life. In 1922, the effects of the Great War were still evident as the village had lost forty-one men, and the fragility of the peace in Europe was still a concern. In 1942, the country was still in the grip of the Second World War and so the Pole fair was delayed until 1947, when the celebration was sweet indeed. 1962 saw the growth of the new town and an increased population as Corby was strong economically, but the following fair in 1982 was very different. Corby had suffered dreadfully from hardship following the decision by British Steel to close the steelworks and let the blast furnaces go out. However, there was still steel inside the hearts of the people of Corby to survive and thrive. The 1982 Pole Fair was a much-needed boost to the locals, and in 2002, the most recent fair held was a great celebration by the newly revitalised town which even today is still experiencing spectacular growth.”

And one could add 2022 with the cost of living crisis and Ukraine conflict. With the fantastic Viking camp, jousting knights, Morris dancers and all the fun of the fair…2022 was one of those rare things for me; much much better than last time! See you in 2042!

 

 

 

Custom demised: Rushden’s Mop and Pail Day

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Sergeant Thomas Richards | Murder at the StarRushden records a possibly unique rather antisocial custom which I have not seen recorded elsewhere. First recorded in Round House” Scene. (about 1821)

” “Mop and Pail Day” it appears that the younger inhabitants of the village adhered tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the Mop and Pail. On one particular night a host of them went in accordance with their annual custom to collect mops, pails, brooms and wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on. These they placed on the Green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport began. At an early hour the lady owners of the mops etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, where a merry scene ensues. Some of the gentle dames were tugging at one mop or doing ditto to a water vat, other wielding certain articles to the imminent danger of the heads or ribs of their neighbours. It was customary for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play “Happy Land”. The men said little, but one old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom. They got into trouble over this affair.”

Another account records this extinct Northampton Mercury, 23 May 1846 indicated why this custom died out with some discussion of perhaps what is indicated about ‘getting into trouble’:

“Three young men, and one old lady, of Rushden, stood charged [at Wellingborough Petty Sessions] with conducting themselves in a disorderly manner, on the night of the 12th inst., and setting at defiance the powers that be.”

It continues:

“It appeared that the younger inhabitants of this merry village adhere tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the mop and pail, which by the bye has been entirely overlooked by Strutt [Joseph Strutt, Dresses and Habits of the English People, 1796-9, and Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 1801]; on the night in question, viz., the 12th of May, when Morpheus had closed the eyelids of the more peaceable inhabitants, the defendants and a host of others went in accordance with their annual custom to collect the mops, pails, brooms, wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on; these they placed on the green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport begins; at an early hour the lady owners of the mops, etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, when a scene ensued which defies pen or pencil.”

The source of the problem and why it was probably stopped is indicated here:

“Half a dozen gentle dames might be seen tugging at one mop, two attempting to wheel one barrow in different directions, or doing ditto to a water vat; others wielding certain of the articles to the imminent danger of the head or ribs of their neighbours. It is customary during the hubbub for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play some appropriate tune, such as “Happy Land”. The male defendants said little or nothing in their defence, but the old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom; gently brushing aside her still raven locks, she gave a statement which might interest a society of antiquarians, but not the generality of our readers. They were each called on to pay the expenses, Ss., and bound over to appear at the Sessions if called on. On leaving, the old lady sighed, and gently brushing aside her hair and a tear, exclaimed “We shan’t be allowed to play at marbles next”.

I am sure it was a very comical custom to watch and in a way perhaps a fun one with permission to revive?

 

Custom demised: Peterborough’s St Catherine’s Day Parade

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January 29, 1536 - Burial of Catherine of Aragon - Janet Wertman

T.F. Thistleton Dwyer in his British Popular customs present and past (1875) records that:

“At one time it was customary, at Peterborough, till the introduction of the new poor laws, for the female children belonging to the workhouse, attended by the master, to go in procession round the city on St. Catherine’s Day. They were all attired in white, and decorated with various coloured ribbons, principally scarlet.”

This appeared to be a moral formalised approach to the St. Catherine Day begging undertaken as he continues:

“the tallest girl was selected to represent the Queen, and was adorned with a crown and sceptre. The procession stopped at the houses of the principal inhabitants, and they sang the following rude ballad, begging for money at every house as they passed along :

” Here comes Queen Catherine, as fine as any queen, With a coach and six horses a coining to be seen. And a spinning we will go, will go, will go, And a spinning we will go. Some say she is alive, and some say she is dead, Aud now slie does appear with a crown upon her head. And a spinning we will go, &c. Old Madam Marshall she takes up her pen, And then she sits and calls for all her royal men. Aud a spinning we wQl go, &o. All yon that want employment, though spinning is but small, Come list, and don’t stand still, but go and work for all. And a spinning we will go, & If we set a spinning, we will either work or play, But if we set a spinning we can earn a crown a day. And a spinning we will go, &c. And if there be some young men, as I suppose there’s some. We’ll hardly let them stand alone upon the cold stone. And a spinning we will go, &c.”

The author reflects that as St. Catherine was the patron of the spinners, as well as of spinsters, and that spinning being formerly the employment of the females at the workhouse, it naturally followed that they should be selected to commemorate the anniversary of this Saint. He recorded that early entries in the Dean and Chapter’s accounts for payments of wheels and reels for the children show it to be of  great antiquity. When it ceased is not known but presumably as the workhouses closed and spinning replaced with more mechanical procedures its enactors would have slowly died out.

Custom demised: Dyzemas Day, Northamptonshire

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Image result for unlucky engraving illustration"

British customs divide into two broad types – those which are widespread and are found across allied counties or all counties, and those which can only be found in one county. Dyzemas day was one of these.

This custom apparently was only restricted to Northamptonshire according to Miss Baker, in her 1854 Glossary of Northamptonshire Words. According to Thistleton-Dwer’s 1900 Popular British customs she states that:

“she was told by a sexagenarian on the southern side of the county that, within his remembrance, this day was kept as sacred as the Sabbath, and it was considered particularly unlucky to commence any undertaking, or even to wash, on the same day of the week throughout the year on which the anniversary of this day last fell, and it was commonly said:

“What is begun on Dyzemas Day will never be finished.”

Thisteton Dwer states that:

“The source of the ill-omened Dyzemas has not been settled : its origin has been suggested from Greek dus, and mass, as being expressive of misfortune, evil, peril, in allusion to the massacre of the Innocents.”

This would make sense as the day corresponded with the 28th December, the mass of the Holy Inocents. A correspondent of Notes & Queries (2nd S. vol. iii. pp. 289 and 495) asked if it was not a reference to the name Desmas, a name given to one of the thieves crucified with our Lord, as a universal tradition seeming to attach Desmas to the penitent, and Gestas (or Yesmas) to the impenitent thief? Thisleton-Dwer notes that:

“it would seem as if Desmas was the name of ill-omen. It has also been suggested that Dyzemas Day is tithe day : in Portuguese, dizimas, dizimos, tenths, tithes ; in law Latin, decimae, thie same. Timbs thinks it referable to the old north-country word disen, i.e., to dress out in holiday finery, especially at this festive season. —Something for Everybody.”

The day in Northamptonshire appears to have completely forgotten another day in the post-Christmas sales bonanzas.

Custom demised: Valentining on St. Valentine’s Day

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A forgotten tradition associated with St Valentine’s day was very widespread in the last century was Valentining and whilst the obvious assumption was that it was to do with love, the love aspect was furthest to the back of the mind. No Valentining was another form of begging in response to sung doggerel.  A detailed account in the Cambridgeshire village of Duxford and other adjoining parishes. According to the Antiquary, the custom in 1873 was ‘is still in feeble existence’. The account states that:

“They start about 9 a.m. on their expedition, which must be finished by noon ; otherwise their singing is not acknowledged in any way. In some few cases the donor gives each child a halfpenny, others throw from their doors the coppers they feel disposed to part with amongst the little band of choristers, which are eagerly scrambled after.”

In Northamptonshire it is recorded that:

“In this county children go from house to house, on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day, soliciting small gratuities. The children of the villages go in parties, sometimes in considerable numbers, repeating at each house the following salutations, which vary in different districts.”

The rhyme

In Cambridgeshire the rhyme would go:

“Curl your looks as I do mine. Two before and three behind. So good morning, Valentine. Hurra ! Hurra ! Hurra!”

In Oxfordshire the first rhyme indicates how a valentine was a random gift, later it was manifest itself as a person:

“Good morrow, Valentine, I be thine, and thou be’st mine, So please give my a Valentine.”

Another rhyme went:

“ Good morrow, Valentine God bless you ever I If you’ll be true to me, I’ll be the like to thee. Old England forever.”

or

“Good morrow, Valentine ! First it’s j’ours, and then it’s mine, So please give me a Valentine.”

In Kyburgh Norfolk it was a bit more specific going:

“God bless the baker ; If you will be the If you will be the giver, I will be the taker.”

One wonders whether the tradition of Jack or Father Valentine derived as a way to prevent unwanted begging. Interestingly in Hone’s Everyday book (1838) informs us that in Herefordshire:

“the poor and middling classes of children assemble together in some part of the town or village where they live, and proceed in a body to the house of the chief personage of the place, who, on their arrival, throws them wreaths and true lovers’ knots from the window, with which they adorn themselves. Two or three of the girls then select one of the youngest among them (generally a boy), whom they deck out more gaily than the rest, and placing him at their head, march forward, singing as they go along : “Good morrow to you, Valentine; Curl your locks its I do mine, Two before and three behind. Good morrow to you, Valentine.” This they repeat under the windows of all the houses they pass, and the inhabitant is seldom known to refuse a mite towards the merry solicitings of these juvenile serenaders.”

Interestingly this account suggests the evolution of more love related gifts given to the children and association of activities between the boys and the girls, but this form of Valentining is for another blog post.

 

Custom demised: Relic Sunday

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“Worshipfull frendis, on Sunday next commyng shall be the holy fest of all relykis (called Relike Sonday), which that be left here in erth to the grete magnificence, honour and worship of god and profite to man bothe bodily and gostily, for in as much as we be in sufficient to worship and reuerence singulerly all reuerent Relikis of all seyntis left here in erth, for it passith mannis power. Wherefore holy Chirch in especiall the Chirch of Yngelonde hathe ordeynd this holy Fest to be worshipped the next Sonday aftir the translacion of seint Thomas of Cauntirbery yerely to be hallowed and had in reuerence.”

So is written in a late 15th century sermon called In festo Reliquarum. Relic Sunday was a Catholic feast which was celebrated in either on the 1st Sunday in July or the third Sunday after Midsummer. The feast was designed to celebrate the relics of Christian saints and was perhaps cynically set up to focus pilgrimage to shrines in which either the saint’s feast day was unknown or else to encourage further devotion, certainly it was recognised by more offerings being given. By undertaking pilgrimage on Relic Sunday an indulgence could be gained. One did not have to go far, for example even when John Baylis’s wife went to her parish church in Rolvenden (Kent) on Relic Sunday in 1511 she stated that she was going on

‘pilgrimage at the relics’.

Image result for St Thomas becket shrine Victorian drawingSimilarly avoiding Relic Sunday would result in penalty. At the quarter sessions in Wigan (Lancashire) in 1592 it was noted that:

“Richard and William Buckley, of Charnock Richard, Laboureres and Richard Sharrock of Heath Charnock butcher on the day called Relic Sunday 1592 in time of divine service at Chorley played at bowls”

Of course the Reformation would have its final say and as the 1846 The Church of England as by law established being very doctrine and express words of homilies against popery noted:

“Concerning Popish Relics But in this they pass the folly and wickedness of the that they honour and worship the relics and of our saints which prove that they be mortal and dead and therefore no gods to be worshipped the Gentiles would never confess of their Gods very shame But the relics we must kiss and offer specially on relic Sunday And while we offer that we should not be weary or repent us of our the music and minstrelsy goeth merrily all the time with praising and calling upon those whose relics be then in presence Yea and water also wherein those relics have been must with great reverence be reserved as ve and effectual Is this agreeable to St Chrysostom writeth thus of relics Do not regard the ashes”

Relic Sunday then disappeared as the shrines became dismantled and the church moved away from Catholicism. It survived longest in Northamptonshire where Thistleton Dyer’s Popular Customs

“In some parts of this county the Sunday after St. Thomas a Becket’s Day goes by the name of Relic Sunday.”

But even here it was forgotten probably only remembered because of fairs associated with the day. The relics are forgotten and as far as I am aware it was never revived!

Custom contrived: Maundy Thursday Shoe Polishing

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“ It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…..he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”  Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”  For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean. When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

John 13:1-17

Shine on!

Whilst the Queen (and every modern monarch since George v) will distribute maundy money on the day, those in the hierarchy of the church try to do something in keeping with the words of John…after trying washing feet, called Pedivallium (which is surely a bit too invasive or Catholic) and whilst the Archbishops of Canterbury and York appear to keep to the tradition, other high level Anglicans have settled upon polishing shoes as a good compromise. It can be encountered across the country from Birmingham to Leicester, Northampton to Nottinghamshire, Coventry to Cardiff.

Where this compromise came from is difficult to find but it is likely to be a transatlantic import. The earliest British example is that of Manchester which appears to have been done since 2008. An account reading:

The Cathedral Clergy shined the shoes of shoppers in Manchester Arndale on Maundy Thursday. The shoe shine idea has a serious message aiming to emulate Jesus washing the feet of his followers 2000 years ago and the subsequent tradition of the clergy washing parishioners feet on the Thursday before Easter for centuries.”

In some places it appears to be a one man team but according to the Peterborough Today:

“THE Bishop of Peterborough rolled up his sleeves to give shoppers a free, symbolic, shoe shine. The Rt Rev Ian Cundy and more than 10 other clergymen and women from across the city gave shoppers’ shoes a bit of spit and polish in Cathedral Square.”

Shopping centres appear to be the popular location but:

“Commuters from Abergavenny were give a free shoe polish at the train station to mark Maundy Thursday today. Modern-day monks living in the community offered the service to people travelling to work in a re-enactment of Christ’s act of washing the feet of his disciples.”

Now there’s a group of people surely in need of a shine although perhaps the business men and women probably had had a shine beforehand, although an extra re-buff doesn’t harm.

Shoe off!

My first encounter with this curious custom was a Maundy Thursday back in 2011, where the Bishop of Southwell called out to me – fancy a shoe shine? How could I refuse and I enjoyed the chance to say back at work that my shoes had been polished by a Bishop.

However, some people were quite wary. Others lacked shoes which could be shined. Some wondered what it was about the Right Reverend Chris Edmonson, Bishop of Bolton, explained to the Lancashire Telegraph:

“This is a modern twist on the tradition of foot washing, which in Jesus’ day was done by the lowest servant of all. Jesus challenged his disciples then, and all of us today, to treat each other with such love and respect. We hope to have lots of opportunities to explain this and the message of Easter, while we offer a practical service to people in the town. Shoe shining in the public space is a brilliant opportunity for Bishop Paul and myself to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ visible.”

Certainly it was a good opportunity for the church to connect in a comical and non-preachy way with the community. Indeed, one man, clearly not a card carrying Christian had quite a deep conversation I observed. Was he convinced by the faith perhaps no, but he left more sympathetic. Indeed as Bishop Paul said:

“It’s all done with a light touch and plenty of banter, but it is very effective.”

The Rev Roger Morris, from Coventry went one further and set up for the three days of Easter he said in the local BBC web page:

“We want to bless the people of Coventry by offering them something for nothing. We’re not after money. We are not on a recruitment drive. We simply want people to associate the Church with the idea of good things, freely given – after all, that is at the heart of the Easter message.”

As Bishop Urquhart polishing shoes outside Birmingham cathedral noted in the Birmingham Mail:

“The shoeshine is just a small demonstration that people who follow Jesus are prepared to roll up their sleeves and serve their communities.”

In a world where those in power seem report a bit of humbleness is more than acceptable….picking up from the Bishops I did it myself this Maundy Thursday!

 

Custom demised: Fig Sunday

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Palm Sunday known locally as Fig Sunday was a minor hamlet festival. Sprays of soft gold and silver willow catkins called ‘palm’ in that part of the country, were brought indoors to decorate the houses and worn as buttonholes for churchgoing. The children of the house loved fetching in the palm …..better still they loved the old custom of eating figs on Palm Sunday. Some of the more expert cooks among the women would use these to make fig puddings for dinner.’

Flora Thompson Lark Rise to Candleford

Fig Sunday was an alternative name for Palm Sunday and it appears to have been observed as a custom across the country. It is noted that at one point it was observed in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Northampton and North Wales. In Hertfordshire it is recorded in the village of Kempton:

“It has long been the custom for the people to eat figs – keep warsel! – and make merry with their friends on Palm Sunday. More figs are sold in the shops on the few days previous to the festival than in all the year beside.”

In Buckinghamshire it is noted that:

“At Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire, the children procure figs and nearly every house has a fig- pudding.”

In Dunstable, Bedfordshire:

“For some days beforehand the shop windows of the neighbouring town are full of figs and on Palm Sunday crowds go to the top of Dunstable Downs, one of the highest points of the neighbourhood, and eat figs.”  

In the 1912 Byways in British Archaeology by Walter Johnson he observes that a:

 “Ceremony was carried out on Palm Sunday by the villagers of Avebury, Wiltshire, who mounted the famous Silbury Hill, there to eat fig cakes and drink sugar and water. The water was procured from the spring below, known as the Swallow Head.”

Image result for fig sunday silbury

The author observes that real figs were often replaced by raisins as they were in the west of England and Wessex.

Why figs?

“when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.”

The Gospel of St Mark

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Palm Sunday is so called from the custom of eating figs on that day but why them? The main claim is that on Christ’s entrance to city on Palm Sunday he cursed a fig tree for not having any fruit, a barren tree, being hungry he then cursed it. Another claim is that the practice arose from the Bible story of Zaccheus, who climbed up into a fig-tree to see Jesus.

Sadly although a few food bloggers might promote fig pudding making on the day, Fig Sunday as a community custom has long ceased.

Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

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Many wells and springs were believed to increase in proficiency either Midsummer (Eve or Day). Often such wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton, Northamptonshire or St John’s Well, Shenstone, Staffordshire, whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire, Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes in her Lincolnshire folklore that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible and indeed likely that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day, By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well; The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Nottinhamshire’s Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

It was suggested that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. Nowadays if you visit these wells at Midsummer you will find yourself alone…but in a way that may have been the way it had always been.

Custom demised: Going a-nutting

Standard

nuttingAll the youths are now a-nutting gone.”

Grim the Collier of Croydon

The 14th September passes by without fanfare these days but for many it was Holy Cross Day when the True Cross was revealed but in England the day became associated with a more domestic custom…one actually possibly at loggerheads with the church. For in some cases these nuts were brought into church. In Edward Brayley’s Topographical history of Surrey (1850) notes that at the church at Kingston upon Thames:

“the cracking noise was often so powerful, that the minster was obliged to suspend his reading, or discourse until greater quietness was obtained.”

In this case Steve Stroud (2001) The English Year notes that it was believed to be part of a civic custom about selecting a bailiff although the author notes he cannot see the connection. But it might give a reason for Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield (1766) stating:

“Religiously cracked nuts on Michaelmas Eve.”

The nuts collected considering the time of the year were hazelnuts and accounts of ‘going a nutting’ can be found across the centuries. Eton schoolboys were granted a half day holiday in 1560 to gather nuts…however one wonder what would greet them when they arrived. For clearly other activities were abroad which were far from innocent. The phrase soon became a bye word for sexual proclivity and soon collecting nuts would become a nod and wink for something else. Certainly by 1660 a common expression would be:

“A good year for nuts, a good year for babies.”

The Devil was soon associated with the custom as a way to avoid such proclivities. Poor Robin’s Almanack of 1709 contains the following verses:

“The devil, as the common people say, Doth go a nutting on Holy-rood day; And sure such leachery in some doth lurk, Going a nutting do the devil’s work.”

 Going nutting was particularly avoided on Sunday when it was thought the Devil would be abroad disguised as an kindly old gentlemen who would pull down branches and whisk you away. Poet John Clare notes that certain days he would be likely found:

“On Holy Rood Day it is faithfully…believed both by old and young that the Devil goes a –nutting…I have heard many people affirm that they thought it a tale until they ventured into the woods on that day when they smelt such a strong smell of brimstone as nearly stifled them before they could escape…”

Now few people go nutting today…so the Devil must be otherwise entertained.