Category Archives: Procession

Custom contrived: Nottingham’s St Patrick Day parade

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No photo description available.

“Nottingham has a growing Irish community which is very apparent on a day like today”.

Patrick’s Day has been celebrated by an annual procession in Nottingham since 2000 which may surprise you that means it is only slightly younger than that help in Dublin and thus rightfully should be remarked upon as a custom in its own right.

The week starts when a ceremonial shamrock is given to the Mayor at the town hall which is then blessed at a Mass of St Patrick at Our Lady and St Patrick’s Church in Robin Hood Way, The Meadows. This starts the festivities which really do showcase the Irish community and its importance to the city. Each year a city from Northern Ireland or the Republic is chosen to lead the procession flanked by impressive Irish wolf hounds. The impartial reporter of

“FERMANAGH will be represented at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Nottingham tomorrow (Friday). The 10 day festival finishes with a city centre parade led by local representatives, including chief marshalls Eileen Dowling and Siobhan Begley, both of whom were born in Fermanagh. Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have been invited to attend the event as part of an initiative each year in which the city hosts a different county from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Marching bands from across the city will take part and there will be a selection of Irish food on offer and a chance for Nottingham residents to learn about Fermanagh from SDLP Councillor John Coyle, Sinn Fein’s Thomas O’Reilly, Ulster Unionist’s Chris Smyth, Tourist Development Officer Edward McGovern and Tanya Cathcart of Fermanagh Lakeland Tourism.
A civic reception will take place at Nottingham Council House hosted by Lord Mayor Mohammed Saghir.” 

No photo description available.The procession is lead by a member dressed as St Patrick dressed as a Bishop and starts at the Forest ground just outside of the city. Behind him were symbols of the day and many children taken from schools across the city and of course the compulsory band. Once in the square there are speeches and a detailed events programme of Irish music and dancing. As one looks around seeing a sea of green, leprechauns, shamrocks and lava bread on stalls it is evident that the city has gone all out for St Patrick. Many people had coloured their hair or wore green hats, some had hats of Guinness pints or even harps.

 

Some may ask is St. Patrick’s Day just another excuse to go to the pub? Well drinking was on many people’s minds especially as all the pubs around the square were heavy with green glad people (some may have been pretending to be Robin Hood of course it is Nottingham after all) and their doorways with green balloons aplenty. Asked this question by the Nottingham evening post it is clear that the event superseded any desire in many to drink:

 “I have two choices, go to the pub and drink all day, or come out and see all the different events and parades with my kids, the answer is a simple one, it isn’t all about the Guinness”.

Nottingham’s St Patrick Day parade is a great day out devoid of the embarrassment that might sadly associate itself with St George’s Day implied or subconscious. A real day to celebrate Irish culture and identity. A good day to people watch and find the most Irish cliched dress. A day awash with green so much that even Robin Hood joins the start of the procession!

No photo description available.

No photo description available.

Custom demised: Bradford’s St Blaise’s Day processions

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See the source image

Hone in his Book of Days discussed the importance of St Blaise’s Day to the Yorkshire city of Bradford he states:

“The large flourishing communities engaged in this business in Bradford, and other English towns, are accustomed to hold a septennial jubilee on the 3rd of February, in honour of Jason of the Golden Fleece and St. Blaize; and not many years ago the fête was conducted with considerable state and ceremony.”.

The author continues to report the procession as in 1825:

“Herald bearing a flag, Woolstaplers on horseback, each horse caparisoned with a fleece. Worsted Spinners and manufacturers_ on horseback, in white stuff waistcoats, with each a sliver over the shoulder, and a white stuff sash; the horses’ necks covered with nets made of thick yarn. Merchants_ on horseback, with coloured sashes.

Three guards. Masters’ Colours. Three guards. Apprentices and Masters’ Sons_, on horseback, with ornamented caps, scarlet stuff coats, white stuff waistcoats, and blue pantaloons.

Bradford and Keighley Bands. Mace-bearer, on foot. Six guards. King. Queen. Six guards. Guards. Jason. Princess Medea. Guards. Bishop’s Chaplain. Bishop Blase. Shepherd and Shepherdess. Shepherd Swains. Woolsorters, on horseback, with ornamented caps, and various coloured slivers. Comb Makers. Charcoal Burners. Combers’ Colours. Band. Woolcombers_ with wool wigs, &c.  Band. Dyers, with red cockades, blue aprons, and crossed slivers of red and blue.”

Before the procession started it was addressed by Richard Fawcett, Esq., in the following lines:

“Hail to the day, whose kind auspicious rays Deign’d first to smile on famous Bishop Blase! To the great author of our Combing trade, This day’s devoted, and due honour’s paid, To him whose fame thro’ Britain’s isle resounds, To him whose goodness to the poor abounds. Long shall his name in British annals shine. And grateful ages offer at his shrine! By this our trade are thousands daily fed, By it supplied with means to earn their bread. In various forms our trade its work impart, In different methods, and by different arts: 

Preserves from starving indigents distress’d, As Combers, Spinners, Weavers, and the rest. We boast no gems, or costly garments vain,  Borrow’d from India or the coast of Spain; Our native soil with wool our trade supplies, While foreign countries envy us the prize. No foreign broil our common good annoys, Our country’s product all our art employs; Our fleecy flocks abound in every vale, Our bleating lambs proclaim the joyful tale. So let not Spain with us attempt to vie,  Nor India’s wealth pretend to soar so high; Nor Jason pride him in his Colchian spoil, By hardships gain’d, and enterprising toil; Since Britons all with ease attain the prize, And every hill resounds with golden crie, To celebrate our founder’s great renown. Our shepherd and our shepherdess we crown, For England’s commerce and for George’s sway Each loyal subject give a loud Huzza.   Huzza!”

There was apparently a town-wide celebrations in 1804, 1811, 1818 and 1825 as recorded above and by a Bradford Dr John Simpson who wrote about:

“by different individuals connected with the trade of the place’ and that Bradford ‘may expect a great influx of strangers, indeed great numbers have arrived today’. His diary entry for the 3rd February, Saint Blaise’s Day, recorded how there had been ‘wind. . . snow and rain’ overnight but it had cleared by morning – ‘the morning was beautiful . . . it seemed as of the weather had taken up purposely for the celebration of the Blaise’.

This apparently was the first festival although there were apparently a smaller scale event in 1857 and 1930 and then no more! However, there is a campaign for a revival of sorts. Local poet and writer Glyn Watkins has campaigned to revive the festival through a series of walks, talks and events in Bradford combined with one year with a Bring Back Blaise Wool Festival at Bradford Industrial Museum. But so far it has not encouraged a real civic ceremony being revived.

Custom revived: Lincoln Crying Christmas

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I’ve said this before but some towns and cities lend themselves to having a plethora of customs and traditions. Lincoln is such a place but with its challenging Steep Hill, towering cathedral and Roman ruins it should have collated a number of curious customs – but bar a couple of interesting church services and its Australian breakfast – unfortunately since I reported it in this blog now in abeyance – its rather lacking. That is why the revival of perhaps one of the city’s unique and certainly colourful customs is very welcome.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

Why should anyone by crying over Christmas you may ask? Not getting the correct present was it? Indigestion from too much stuffing and pudding? Or was it the inevitable argument with the in laws that did it? Not its not the emotional type of crying but crying out as in calling out and the aim of this custom was to inform the citizens of the rules surrounding on the on coming festive period.

I arrive and climbed that famous steep hill – well at least the custom was going downwards – to see a small group assembled dressed in medieval clothing and carrying banners and traditional instruments. The party were called Waites an old English name for such civic musicians.

Waites in themselves are a curious tradition. They were a sort of municipal musicians employed by the Mayor to play at civic ceremonies. Established by Henry III in 1253 in association with watching over the citizens during the curfew and as such they died out as the curfew became redundant and were officially stopped by the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act although apparently they continued to 1857 in Lincoln.

Origin of crying.

“”Evere franchest man and dennyssen inhabite within this Citie schalle have free liberte and sayffegarde in honest mirthe and gam sportis to goo or doe what hym pleys”.

The aim of the crying event being to inform the cities that unless written permission was given by the King, during the 12 days of Christmas no man would be arrested by the city’s authorities. Thus at regular intervals through the evening of the 21st December verses would be delivered either sung or spoken by three Senatours appointed by the Mayor and possibly city Waites. In 1576 for example it was recorded that:

“Christmas myrthe to be proclaimed in ten or twelve places and every Alderman to ride with the Officers”

The first written record of the custom is the words “Crying Christmas” being written on a flyleaf of Entries of the Common Council (1565 – 1599) with the words

“Anno xxv. Officij Willelmi Hynde Communis Clerici Civitatis Lincolniensis”.

An account of 1572 records:

“The old robes which the Officers Cried Christmas withal to be made into decent cloaks for the said officers to cry the same yearly.”

One assumes the custom became obsolete as soon as the Waites died out and it was not until 2007 that it was revived.

Waite for it!

Once the Cathedral clock struck 6pm and the with the steady beat of the drum we were off down into Lincoln. Accompanied with the sound of flutes and trumpets the streets of Lincoln was immediately brightened by this archaic sounds. Understandably as the ground processed downwards they received some interest from onlookers who stopped to take photos and some joined the procession behind making it seem like a real life piped piper procession.

 

At the first place one of the Waites put a horn to his lips and blew and then another called a Senator, read a proclamation:

“The maker Allmyghtye the grounds of all grace, Save this Congregation that here be present and Bryng them all to the Celestyall place, That with paycens wyll here the effect of our intent.”

A further three times these Senators read out their proclamations

“Oure intent & purpose is Auncyent customes to declare that have ben Vsed in this Citie manye yeres ago and noew for to breake them we wysshe ye schuld beware for ther be grevous ponysshmentes for them that wyll do soo.”

and then

“At the tyme of Crystmas, mythe haith ben made throughout all nacyons, of the Crystian faith and styll so to keip it, ye nede not be affrayde for then, was our Savyour bourn as the Scripture saith.”

It was all a bit confusing for the onlookers and indeed this being Friday night there were a few rowdy characters who sought to interject with their views, some somewhat colourful and in all cases fell flat. Indeed the concern with the possible conflict with the large night time economy meant that one year when the 21st fell on a Saturday it was decided not to entertain the notion!

In the market square beneath the shadow of the cathedral some of the Waites then danced weaving in and out of each other. I continued with them until we reached the Mayors parlour when the musicians played and a final proclamation made by the city cryer:

“The eternall Lord, have mercy on your souls this day. vnto other place to bear our tidings we must now away power upon you that ye may do good, the Lord bestow he, that all thynges both good and evil doth well know.”

Then we were all invited in for some festive food and the procession ended for another year. The city informed of the coming of Christmas and their rights and the dark and cold December nights made much better for it.

Custom contrived: Battle of Hastings re-enactment

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‘I don’t want to spoil the end but Harold loses in the end!’

Britain is proud of its history and indeed it is a great money spinner – thousands travel to see sites associated with historical events and sometimes these historical events come to the visitors and barring a time machine – the only way is via the battle re-enactment. The Battle of Hastings is perhaps the most famous of these and well-known. 

1066 and all that!

The very first re-enactment was organised back in 1932 and called a pageant. It was organised by a Gwen Lally and impressively attracted 2600 re-enactors. In an article for the Sussex Agricultural Express Lally told the that she and her partner Mabel Gibson:

“had felt definite psychic influences in the Abbey grounds at late rehearsals…I think that the monks were probably not displeased with us, for we were doing them no dishonour in making those lovely scenes live again”.

This was apparently a one off and is remembered by a commemorative pamphlet displayed at Battle Abbey. A regular re-enactment would not begin until understandingly English Heritage saw the commercial possibility in a regular event. This would take place at first every two years and then annually since 1984 on a weekend date closest to the 14th  October; the date closest to the actual event. Then every five or six years  it has been the site of major re-enactments. At the 2000 re-enactment, called “Hastings 2000”, about 1000 reenactors on foot 100 cavalry and between 50 and 100 archers from 16 different countries took part. That year was nearly a washout as the BBC website attests:

“She said: “Fortunately the battleground – on Senlac Hill – is high ground and in no danger of flooding.”

Not that a bit of rain would affect anyone I’d say and it would add to the reality of it. Certainly the participants really take the re-enactment serious. The air is awash with the sound of clashing swords and maces. Bodies flung against each other as the arrows flew over head. This event is heavily choregraphed but there is a real authentic feel to the conflict. Of course we are all know the outcome but that does not detract from the excitement of the event. Those doing are doing it for real almost it seems. However, not as much that the time I watched that Harold would have a chance to win…oh no this is strict to script Harold will be losing!

Walk to Victory…er defeat

There has become over time at the big events a re-enactment of the walk from Stamford Bridge to Hastings as recorded by the BBC in 2006:

“Members of a group called The Vikings, who call themselves Britain’s largest Dark Age re-enactment society, preceded the battle by restaging Harold’s dash back to Sussex.

They left York on 21 September in full period costume, passing through Nottingham, Leicester, Luton, London and Kent, before arriving in Battle on Friday.”

Again adding to the realism of the event the re-enactors being tired as were Harold’s men on the actual event.

Eye eye!

Of course we know what is going be the key thing to look out for and so does the re-enactor playing Harold as the BBC website recorded in 2006

“Roger Barry, who faced inevitable defeat as King Harold II, said he had studied the Battle of Hastings for a long time.

On acting out his character’s death, the 49-year-old soldier from Salisbury in Wiltshire said: “I have down my person somewhere an arrow or part of an arrow.

“On cue, I will clasp my eye with the arrow over it and fall gracefully to the ground.

“It’s a bit of bummer really, but sadly that’s the way it is. It’s fun, win or lose.

As I say we all know the outcome like watching a movie over and over again, there is some comfort in seeing how that inevitable end will happen! Certainly the crowds of 30000 would agree and has become one of the largest re-enactment of its kind. 

 

 

Customs occasional: The ceremony of the Keys, The Tower of London

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Many years ago when I was younger my father rather excitedly gave me an envelope which I opened with a confused expression on my face – within were some tickets to see the Ceremony of the Keys in the Tower of London. He said it was quite difficult to get them and that they were a London tradition.

Key it all

This is possibly Britain’s most precise custom thoroughly prepared, executed and always on time.

How old this ceremony is is unknown it may have been established upon the building of the Tower. However a story is told about how the ceremony may have begun back in the 14th century. This is when Edward III tuned up unannounced one cold December night in 1340 and walked in straight in. Keen to beef up the Beefeaters after imprisoning the Tower’s constable for a bit he insisted that it be locked sunset and unlocked at sunrise. A few hundred years later and Mary I concerned that a Protestant plot could use the Tower as a secure starting point not only increased the number of Yeoman warders six patrolling at night and nine during the day, she also laid down precise instructions of how it should be performed:

“And it is ordered that there shall be a place appointed under Locke and key where in the keys of the gates of the saide Tower shall be laide in the sight of the constable, the porter and two of the Yeoman Warders, or three of them at the least, and by two or three of them to be taken out when the[y] shall be occupied. And the key of that locke or coffer where the keys be, to be kepte by the porter or, in his absence, by the chief yeoman warder.”

The final change to the flow of the custom happened in 1826. The Duke of Wellington was then the Constable of the Tower and ordered that rather than be an unspecified ‘sunset’ it should be fixed at 10pm. Since then it has been like clockwork only being disrupted when a bomb fell on the 29th December when the Chief Yeoman Warder was blown over just at the wrong moment!

Preparation is the key to success

I turned up on that cold wintry night to see at exactly seven minutes to ten, the Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower emerges from the Byward Tower, wearing the traditional red Watch Coat and Tudor Bonnet. The darkest light by his single candle carried in a lantern. Its light illuminates his other hands and within them a set of keys – the Queen’s Keys.

Then he moves as measured pace to meet his military escort at the Bloody Tower. The military escort consists of two sentries, a sergeant and drummer with a bugle.

The custom follows:

“The Warder passes his lantern to a soldier, and marches with his escort to the outer gate. The sentries on duty salute the Queen’s Keys as they pass.
The Warder first locks the outer gate and then the gates of the Middle and Byward Towers. The Warder and escort march down Water Lane, until they reach the Bloody Tower archway where a sentry challenges the party to identify themselves:
Sentry: “Halt! Who comes there?”
Chief Warder: “The keys”.
Sentry: “Whose keys?”
Chief Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s keys”.
Sentry: “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well”.
The Warder and escort march down to the foot of Broadwalk Steps where the main Tower Guard is drawn up to meet them. The party halts, and the officer in charge gives the command to present arms. The Chief Warder steps forward, doffs his bonnet, and proclaims:
Chief Warder: “God preserve Queen Elizabeth”.
Guard: “Amen!”
On the answering “Amen” the clock of the Waterloo Barracks strikes 10pm and the Last Post is sounded, marking the end of the ceremony.
The Guard is dismissed, and the Chief Warder takes the keys to the Queen’s House for safekeeping overnight.”

Key to success

The ceremony of the keys is a brief but very evocative custom which gives a glimpse of something ancient. There is a real nervous anticipation in waiting and a real feeling we are privileged in seeing it. It is also one of the few in which photography is forbidden!

Custom contrived: Broomfield Well dressing, Kent

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There are hundreds of wells across the country and a large number of holy wells in the county of Kent – however very few have been as specially treated as the village well of Broomfield in the shadow of Leeds Castle. Locally the well is called St Margaret’s based on an old record which states

‘…to the reparation of St. Margaret’s well, 12d Agnes, Widow of Ricd Caring of Leeds 1507.’

Developing well

It appears that local people believed this to be the specific well and repaired it in 1990. Once repaired a discussion occurred to how to make the well more celebrated. It would appear that the idea of well dressing was decided. It is said that this colourful custom was transported down from Derbyshire by a local man Revd. Bill Withers who was the vicar coming down from a Derbyshire living.

Previous effort have had a religious topic; but since the early 1990s the ideas have diversified. Like those in the Peak District themes have been 2019 First Man of the Moon; 2018 100 Years of the RAF; 2014 WWI and 2000 Battle of Britain. However, uniquely in 2015 the church got a new treble bell and that was celebrated. In a curious twist of irony 1999 celebrated the EU 30 years before we left it! Although to all impressions the style is identical to that of the Peak District; the technique differs utilising plant oasis rather than puddled clay which sounds easier but perhaps more challenging to maintain.

When I attended in 1996 it was the year of the Olympics and as such this was the theme. A large group of people had attended to see the vicar lead the service after starting in the church. The children attending had baskets of flowers which after the prayers are said at the well placed them around the well head. A small ceremony which despite being out of place has developed and so far survived the impact of Covid-19. Indeed if I have read correctly the skills were even transferred north.

“Kent Messenger Maidstone reported 

A well dressed congregation – South Yorkshire 14 Aug 2009 Parishioners enjoyed a service with a difference when the ancient custom of well dressing came to Kent. Well dressing – blessing the water supply – is a feature of the Peak District, South Yorkshire and Staffordshire, and includes decorating the village well. The custom almost died out in the 1950s but has since been revived. Broomfield vicar the Rev Robin Gill led the service there.”

Custom survived: Oxford Ascension Day Beating the Bounds

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There are a large number of customs on Ascension Day that to see them all would need a considerable number of years. A few years ago I decided to sample the Oxford beating of the bounds on the way to the Bisley Ascension Day well dressing.

Oxford has a long history of recorded beating of the bounds. Brand’s Popular antiquities of 1849 records that:

“At Oxford the little crosses cut in the stones of buildings to denote the division of the parishes are whitened with chalk. Great numbers of boys, with peeled willow rods in their hands, accompany the minister in the procession.”

Fast forward to the 21st century and delightfully little has changed – the willow rods, the marks, the chalk, all except perhaps the great numbers of boys. I turned up at St. Michael at the Northgate where a large number of people were assembling and willow rods were being given out. I tried to avoid getting one myself as I feared it might get in the way of the photography.

Beating the boundaries was done by many parishes and still is. Between 1598 and 1834, Poor Laws made it that the care of the poor was parish’s responsibility and as such it was important to ensure that they knew the boundaries so that those who might turn up to ask for alms were legitimately on the parish’s land. Oxford has one of the more interesting boundary beatings – two churches go out on the same day, one early the morning the other later on, presumably not to mark at the same time but occasionally they do to mock indignance no doubt. Oxford is also notable also weaving in and out of some rather unusual locations.

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The vicar arrived with chalk in hand and considerable enthusiasm and seeing that we all had wands in hand with his two cross bearers took us off to beat the bounds. It wasnt long before we found our first hit and taking about a piece of chalk he wrote upon a cross marked on the wall between the arms the letter SMNG and the date beneath. Once he had done so he said ‘whack it’ and the wands raised in hand ceremonially hit the mark and then we were off.

I’ve been in some strange places recording calendar customs but I think the lingerie section of Zara must be one of the most bizarre. Here the group stood cross bearers between the bras as the vicar asked for the manager. However, this was not some ask to return some unwanted items but to gain access to a storeroom where bizarrely a mark was held. Clearly himself bemused by the location he dutifully marked it, we whacked it and off we went.

On our perambulations, walls featured greatly some marks low down some high up – making it very clear why we needed the long wands. At one point the vicar disappeared behind some foliage to mark and we just noted it. At the site of the Oxford Martyrs a moment of reflection was needed before chalk in hand and for the lack of an actual mark in an act which would be considered vandalism if anyone else, the road sign was chalked and we again whacked especially enthusiastically by a little girl looking considerably surprised she got away with it it seemed!

Next we entered the grounds of Brasenose college where our next mark was to be found. Here it was clear that the St. Mary the Virgin beaters had beaten us to it as they had left their mark too as the college was the boundary of both. Here the beaters were treated with a break and something called Ivy beer which I politely declined…indeed I quickly check my phone and realised I need to leave to attend the Bisley ascension day well dressing and vowed to return another time to experience the rest of the boundary walk.

Custom revived: Hemswell May Day, Lincolnshire

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A cursory glance of a book on Calendar customs will find no mention of the Hemswell May Day. This is a shame for although the present celebration is not of a great vintage, it is claimed that Hemswell maypole dancing celebrations in the world dating significantly back to 1660, the year of the Restoration. However, the earliest record of the Maypole is from the street name first recorded in 1841.It is noted that the weathervane was added in 1859, Gutch and Peacock (1908) in their work on Lincolnshire folklore notes:

“Hemswell Maypole. — On a recent visit to the neighbourhood of Gainsborough, I went to Hemswell, a village at the foot of what is termed ‘ The Cliff,’ in the northern division of the county of Lincoln. In the centre of the village I was surprised to see a Maypole. The pole proper stands between two stout posts about fifteen feet high. Near the top of them a strong iron bolt is passed through the whole. The posts are fixed firmly in the ground, while the pole between is loose at the bottom, but kept in place by a second transverse bolt near the ground, which is drawn out when the pole is wanted to be lowered; which is done by getting a ladder and fixing a rope high up on the pole, by which it is pulled down, swinging on the top transverse bolt as on a pivot. It is steadied by another rope at the bottom. When decorated it is raised to its place again by pulling the bottom rope, and it is fixed by reinserting the lower transverse bolt.”

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The authors do not appear to describe any use of the Maypole and the earliest record of its use being pictures of the early 1900s. It is known that it was lowered and repainted in 1919 by the village carpenter, a Charles Love at the cost of 25/-. However, by the time Rudkin (1936) describes it, the correspondent appears to suggest such events were a thing of the past:

“Feast week was in Maytime (ie Mayweek first week in May) and there used to be stalls all in the street round the maypole. There was ‘good-stiff’ stalls and sweetmeat stalls and aunt sally a rare fine show it was!As a little ‘un I remember it and id 4d to spend so I spent it all in halfpence – and I did buy a lot with that 54d! We danced at nighttime round the Maypole, but only ordinary round dances, none of those dances with ribbons attached to the pole – I never heard tell of that being done pers Mrs H of Hemswell.”

She is more emphatic in the County Magazine (1934-6), as Rudkin notes:

“Hemswell is our only village that can boast of a Maypole still in position..but all traditions about dances or other doings are now dead in the village itself.”

May be old or Maypole be not!

Allen (1994) in her work The Hemswell Maypole notes however and a Mr. Senior in 1977 could remember a youth climbing it to put some briads on it. Allen (1994) suggests that the attempt was unsuccessful as he could not recollect any dancing. It appears if a Mrs Edith Bamford is correct with her recollection in 1986 when 87 that the tradition of Maypole dancing was kept alive by the school having a portable maypole. Certainly photographs from the 1950s show this. Despite this repairs were made in 1957 and 1964. It appears probable that the custom was revived in 1976 when the Lincoln Folk Dance society asked if they could use it.  They brought their own braids and a May Day was established and now dancing and a small fete is held around the Maypole area and parish hall on the May Bank Holiday.  The braids due to the difficulty of reaching the top of the pole are set mid way up.  Now the children wear a special costume with boy’s smocks patterned to denote their work and girls with long cotton skirts, aprons and fen-bridle style cotton bonnets.  Over the years Allen (1994) notes:

“Sometimes a May Queen has figured in the celebrations; the Lincolnshire Morris Men have often joined us, and other visitors have included the Lincoln Folk dance society, the Tatterfoals, and Dukes Dandy Clog Dancers, all bringing their particular brand of tradition.”

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The Hobby Horse and the rider

Only a hobby

One of the most interesting aspects of the day is a hobby horse – more horse like than others, which collects money and appears from all accounts to be a familiar feature although it is isolated from the dancing and appears to not to be associated with a Morris team. He wanders around with a note asking for money for his stable – the village hall! One wonders the origin of it, of course Obby Oss are associated with three West Country May events and certainly Rudkin refers to one in nearby towns of Grimsby where a sadly colourful defunct May pole day records: 

“And there was also Robin Hood, the Friar, the fool, the dragon and the Hobby Horse, all robed in character.”

Such a cavalcade of characters may suggest similar disguises where undertaken at Hemswell, but only the Hobby Horse remains, a person completely covered with a  sheet with a horse’s head on top carved out of wood. A bonus as the Hobby Horse is certainly a unique feature to Hemswell and one which looks vert old.

From the revival in the 1970s this quiet local celebration has continued. In 1992 when the pole was weathered for 5 years previous and a new brass fox placed on the top of its 17th feet, ensuring perhaps at least another 100 years of May days…so long may this remote location celebrate the May with their very own Maypole.

Custom contrived: Edinburgh Beltane Fire festivals

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Beltane is an ancient festival day which until recently had been largely forgotten it would seem but due to a neo-pagan revival to have been increasingly observed. One of the earliest and certainly most vibrant is that established in 1988 by a musical collective called Test Dept as their website records: 

“The event was intended as a celebration of traditional rituals as a local manifestation of an international spirit……Choreography, iconography and performance were moulded by the originators’ research into historical accounts of Beltane and their own influences (e.g. Test Department’s drumming, Trinidadian carnival, and ritual dance and performance).”

In a way of the custom is a sort of revival as Edinburgh had a tradition of beltane celebrations located on Arthur’s seat of which the washing in May Dew is the last remnant. However, anyone who has been to the told of Arthur’s seat would attest it is big on scenery but small on space! Thus the location was moved to Carlton Hill. The first Beltane fire festivals were a success:

“Originally an event with a core of a dozen performers and a few hundred audience, the event has grown to several hundred performers and over ten thousand audience. Key characters within the performance are maintained, though reinterpreted by their performers, and additional participants incorporated each year.”

Popularity has brought its challenges as the website notes:

“Originally, the festival was free and only lightly stewarded, however, as the event has grown in popularity, due to the capacity of the hill, funding requirements… the festival has in recent years moved to being a ticketed event.”

It certainly is a vibrant and busy event. I followed ticket in my hand the throng of people, devotes to the fire festival as they snaked up the hill. Once in you really do feel this is an immersive experience everywhere there is action, sounds, sights, smells and excitement. However, getting that killer photo is more of a challenge! 

The event starts with a procession of a resplendent white May Queen with a foliage covered green man with as their website states:

“followed by a cavalcade of characters who are intrinsically linked to them and their journey. Their destination is punctuated by various groups who either help or hinder their progress towards the Green Man’s fate and the May Queen’s destiny.”

If it wasnt them it was the throng of onlookers jostling for a position! The May Queen signifies the beginning of summer physically emphasized by the lighting of an immense bonfire. Once this has happened the performers move around the site integrating with great aplomb and flashes of red, white and toplessness! Writhing bodies and jumping in and out of the crowds creating a magical. Many doing the traditional jumping through the fire for luck and causes woops and cheers from the crowd. 

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After a dramatic stage performance signifying the inception of summer the May Queen and Green Man spark the birth of summer by lighting a huge bonfire. The performance then moves into its community phase. All the participants congregate in a place called the Bower. From here the finishing movements of the festival are played out in a dance of reds and whites. This is also where the home comforts of warmth, food and drink are provided to the tired and often very cold performers and crew. As the website notes:

“There are very few barriers between the audience and performers which offers up opportunity for an immersive experience. It is one where you are likely to come face-to-face with one of our colourful characters, or can step back and marvel at the scale of a production wrought in only two months by around three hundred volunteers. The presentation may leave you figuratively in the dark regarding what is being portrayed, but there is also a chance you may find yourself literally there too. One suggestion is to ‘head to the high ground and then follow the sound of drumming.”

The sound was indeed incredible and all in all this is an amazing event custom a must to experience and be part of. Less of an event to experience what Beltane was like in the pre-Modern years I would add but that is beside the point Edinburgh should be justly proud of this fantastic addition to the folklore calendar. A must! I left a bit before it finished and looked back at Carlton hill the spectacle of rich reds and oranges pours across the Edinburgh skyline creating an exciting vista. 

Custom demised: Gyst-ale in Ashton-under-Lyne

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A lost festival was associated with Lady Day in Ashton-under-Lyne. Its first mention is in a rental of Sir John de Assheton, compiled a.d. 1422:

“that twenty shillings were paid to him as lord of the manor for the privilege of holding this feast by its then conductors. The persons named in the roll as having paid 3s. 4d. each are: Margret, that was the wife of Hobbe the Kynges (of misrule) ; Hobbe Adamson ; Eoger the Baxter; Robert Somayster; Jenkyn of the Wode; and Thomas of Curtual.”

What does Gyst-ale mean?

The meaning of the term gyst-ale is involved in some obscurity—most probably the payments above were for the gyst, or hire, for the privilege of selling ale and other refreshments during the festivals held on the payment of the rents of the manor. These guis-ings were frequently held in the spring, most probably about Lady Day, when manorial rents were usually paid; and, as the fields were manured with marl about the same period, the term marlings has been supposed to indicate the rough play or marlocMng which was then practised. This, however, must be a mistake, since the term relates to merry pranks, or pleasure gambols only, and has no connection with marl as a manure.”

Thistleton-Dwyer goes on to explain:

“These gyst-ales, or guisings, once ranked amongst the principal festivals of Lancashire, and large sums of money were subscribed by all ranks of society in order that they might be celebrated with becoming splendour. The lord of the manor, the vicar of the parish, the farmer, and the operative, severally announced the sums they intended to give, and when the treasurer exclaimed ” A largesse,” the crowd demanded ” from whom ?” and then due proclamation was made of the sum subscribed. The real amount, however, was seldom named, but it was announced that ” Lord John­son,” or some other equally distinguished person had con­tributed “a portion of ten thousand pounds” towards the expenses of the feast.”

One of the important aspects on the custom was the construction of an immense garland:

“which contained abundance of every flower in season, interspersed with a profusion of evergreens and ribbons of every shade and pattern. The framework of this garland was made of wood, to which hooks were affixed, and on these were suspended a large collection of watches, jewels, and silver articles borrowed from the richer residents in the town. On the day of the gyst this garland was borne through the principal streets and thoroughfares, attended by crowds of townspeople dressed in their best attire.”

The custom appeared to have inherited some characters from a mummer’s play. Indeed R.T. Hampson’s 1841 Dates, Charters, and Customs of the Middle Ages,states:

“In Lancashire we find the term gyst-ale, which seems to be one of the corruptions of disguising, as applied to mumming. Gyst-ale, or guising, was celebrated in Eccles [England] with much rustic splendor at the termination of the marling [field-dunging] season when the villagers, with a “king” at their head, walked in procession with garlands, to which silver plate was attached, which was contributed by the principal gentry in the neighbourhood.”

Thistleton-Dwyer continues:

“These were formed into a procession by a master of the ceremonies, locally termed the king. Another principal attendant was the Fool, dressed in a grotesque cap, a hideous grinning mask, a long tail hanging behind him, and a bell with which he commanded attention when announcements were to be made. In an early period of these guisings the fool was usually mounted on a hobby-horse, and indulged in grotesque pranks as he passed along—hence we obtained the term ” hob-riding,” and more recently the proverbial expression of “riding one’s hobby to death.”

Sadly all this uniqueness has now gone around the beginning of the last century!