Category Archives: Surviving

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 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 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 survived: Corby Glen Sheep Fair

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In 2021 the east midlands’ largest fair was again called off due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a few miles away the second oldest fair was still being set up.  Corby Glen dates back to a Charter granted by Henry III on 26th February 1238. This states:

“Grant to Hamo Pecche and his heirs of a weekly market on Thursday at his Manor of Coreby and of a yearly fair there on the Vigil, the Feast and the Morrow of the Feast of the Assumption. ”

An 1863 in the diary of George Bird states it was:

 “the largest shew of sheep, beasts and horses that has ever been seen on the ground before.”  

The next year 93 truckloads of sheep and other beasts arrived by train. Twelve thousand sheep were recorded in  1876, but the next year only 7,400. It would appear that the custom was in decline for in 1882 he wrote: 

“Corby Fair the poorest I’ve seen, not above 5,000 sheep penned.” 

However, by the turn of the twentieth century it had risen to 6,000 yet 13 years later it was only 4,000  with ” few beasts and foals either” Numbers never reached the heady heights of the late 1800s but the fair continued to trade despite the agricultural depression with the sale of beasts and cattle disappearing leaving only the ram fair. 

And indeed sheep are still the reason for it of course. Yet it soon developed into more than the sheep. The fair further changed after WWII when sheep which used to driven to the fair now arrived by train. However, this changed again in 1959 when the station closed and so all sheep now travel by road arriving in the early morning and leaving that evening. The website describes the scene today:

Early on Monday morning the familiar pens are erected on every available green space in the village in readiness for the day’s sale and by mid-morning the sheep have been trucked in for the auction. Expert eyes assess their qualities as owners wait anxiously for the bidding to begin and by late afternoon it is all over and the transporters head for home for another year. “

Fair sheep

At the point I arrived there was a very amusing demonstration on sheep breeds and sheep shearing which enthralled all with its mix of facts and amusing sheep. The highlight being what I gather appears to be an annual custom -sheep dancing. The disco music went on and the sheep swayed and moved back and forth to the music! After this amusing and informative show I explored the village more. Of course over time the custom had attracted the obligatory pleasure fair. This appeared in the 19th century when it was held in the Market Place with the traditional sideshows, gingerbread stalls, shooting galleries and boxing booths. Older residents can still recall the mass of stalls in the Market Place with swing-boats and roundabouts, skittling for a copper kettle and in some years, stalls for the sale of goods produced locally that would attract people from the village and the surrounding countryside. Today this is what attracts a large population to the village as it clothes the green swards and snakes through the village’s lanes and streets. Described as on the village website as:

Stalls are erected in the historic Market Square from Friday onwards with country crafts and memorabilia much in evidence and a fun fair with swings, roundabouts and sideshows is located on the green. There is also a horticultural show in the village school and a display of local produce together with jazz bands, Morris dancing and one year a mediaeval mystery play was staged by pupils of the Corby Glen primary school. Archery demonstrations, local history displays, art and photographic exhibitions, a wheelbarrow race, a conker competition, tug of war, a dog show and even a competition to guess the weight of a sheep – all have found a place in the festivities in recent years.

But the fair has in the past had another purpose, that of bringing together families who have been split when sons and daughters left the village to pursue marriage and careers elsewhere and this event was the catalyst for a weekend reunion, visits made possible by the coming of the railway which brought travel across counties within the reach of most people. Stuffed chine topped the bill of fare at family get-togethers and on the eve of the fair in October 1867, villager George Bird wrote in his diary: “Mother very busy making plum cakes, cheesecakes and such like.” The widespread increase in car ownership has to some extent diminished the tradition of such gatherings at fair time. 

The sheep fair mirrors the economic conditions of the district and the local farming industry in past centuries when the farmer’s financial year was organised around this event for at this time they were forced to sell sheep to settle rent arrears. The fair, like the village, was in relative decline towards the end of the 18th century but it picked up during the 19th century and in 1863 George Bird wrote in his diary of “the largest shew of sheep, beasts and horses that has ever been seen on the ground before.” He also mentioned that there was talk of making the fair a two-day event.”. 

The agricultural depression of the last quarter of the 19th century had a sudden but decisive impact on the Corby Fair but in the wake of this decline, the associated activities also suffered and by the 1930s the sale of beasts and cattle had died out but the ram fair remained. As a result, the Corby Fair continues today with vigour and enthusiasm and although numbers no longer reach the peaks of past times and market fluctuations continue, there is little likelihood that it will disappear in the immediate future. 

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.

 

 

 

Custom survived: Forest Chapel Rushbearing

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High above Macclesfield is Forest Chapel, reached through winding and narrow lanes you reach one of the most picturesque and unspoilt parts of the Peak District. The views here are stunning and a better place for an annual custom could not be found in my opinion. For hear on the Sunday nearest the 12th August – significantly tied in to attract the grouse shooting fraternity but now attracts the muddy boots of the walking community – is the Rushbearing service.

Rushing to get a spot

Rushbearing is an old tradition which provided churches with rushes which would keep the church clean and warm. Each year these would need to be cleared out and refreshed usually post harvest time and as such this changeover could be used as a day of celebration often seen as a symbol of spiritual renewal. Forest Chapel rush bearing is very popular and already when I had turned up a number seeing the weather fair forewent getting a seat inside for one outside.

The first mention of it is in 1848 in the church accounts which reads that a sum of five shillings was paid to:

“William Smith for repairing the windows at the chapel and school broken at Rushbearing.”

Whatever happened to cause this damage is unclear -one assumes some rather over exuberant alcohol fuelled dancing perhaps -today’s rush bearing is a much quieter affair

What is curious is that most churches abandoned the rushbearing for practical health reasons in Great Plague and they never returned. What is unusual here is that the chapel was only built in 1834 so why was it done here. 

Rush to the head

The effort made is remarkable especially for such a small community; the whole chapel floor is covered in plaited rushes with them interwoven with flower arrangement at the end of pews mainly using chrysanthemums, over the font, within the chancel and over the door and beyond – creating a very picturesque vision.   

The service starts inside with the sweet sounds of the harmonium playing ‘near my God to Thee’ and soon with the church almost literally packed to the rafters the choir entered dressed in their crimson gowns and as the organist plays ‘Angel voices ever singing’ the service begun. The Service followed a traditional route then after the fifth hymn there is a change of position as the vicar and invited bishop leave the church to complete the rest of the service outside standing on a table tomb in the grave. This was apparently introduced when the church was unable to accommodate all the visitors. Certainly there were a lot there, but not as many as were in the 1940s when 900 were recorded. Mind you the outside service part did make for a more atmospheric event and allowed those who may already be sitting down on their fold up chairs in the churchyard half listening, half enjoying the view to see the faces of the clergy.

The Bishop then introduced his sermon which was very light hearted and humorous and at the end we all sung “God be with you till we meet again” although it was a far more dour version than I was used to!

There is a real earthy, traditional and welcoming feel to the place and as a church custom even for those non-Christian it was very welcoming especially the biscuits and tea afterwards. Ironically with its outside service this was one of the few Covid ready calendar customs there was – the founders must have known something!

 

 

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 survived: Hot Penny Scrambling on Mayor’s Day, Rye, Sussex

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Mayor Making, that is the enthronement of a new Mayor, in Rye is an old tradition at least dating back 700 years. There are of course lots of such ceremonies in the country and whilst they are delightfully high in pomp, ceremony and colour, they are not as unique as what happens after Rye’s mayor is made. For afterwards the Mayor party take to the Town hall windows high above the square and rain pennies down upon the crowd. 

I attended the Throwing of the Hot Pennies as part of my mad May day weekend dash – having already experienced Oxford May Morning, Lewes May Garlands and stopped here on my way to the Rochester May Day and finishing off the day with the Hammersmith Jack. It was a bit of mad rush and adventure!

Why did Rye do this and not other places? Penny throwing or scrambling is found in other places such as Driffield and Reach Fair but these were often done for commercial reasons to encourage local children to spend money. This may be the reason but why would Rye do this and not other towns?

Hot money!

Jacqueline Simpson (1973) Folklore of Sussex states that one of the main reasons was that this was because Rye had its own mint and one day she states:

“The town ran out of pennies on Mayor’s Day, and a boy sent to fetch new ones from the mint brought them back so fast that they were still hot.”

The other would be that once the Mayor of Rye was a member of parliament and so provided money to bribe the voters. To be honest neither really make sense! Tony Foxworthy in his Customs in Sussex adds further reasons:

“The reason the pennies are heated before being thrown is to make sure the bigger children dont get larger handfuls than the smaller children (very likely)

The simple reason for throwing heated coins is to instil on the young people of Rye’s mind the importance of the day when the Mayor of Rye is installed.”

Although again this does ask why Rye?

Coined a profit!

It was reported in 1967 that the local bank had supplied coins that were minted in 1951 which was extraordinary as in this year most of the coins minted were sent to British dependencies in the West Indies and so made them rare. It was reported that after throwing £2.10s worth of coinage it was worked out that each penny was actually worth £12 and as such the rest of the coins were valued and kept safe…cannot imagine this rather put a dampener on all the fun!

In those days the total thrown was £5 now it is £20 and at some times in the past the George Hotel was used. 

Scramble to get there!

I turned up just in time to see a large crowd of excitable children mass below the Town Hall and the new Mayor turn up flanked by two mace bearers. A sort of hush descend as the windows opened and the crowd looked up in anticipation. A gleeful Mayor with a shovel in his hand tossed it upwards and off the coins went flying into the air! Soon all the children fell to the floor desperate to pick as many as possible. There was clearly a lot of enjoyment and the children would certainly remember it in many years to come….clearly the reason they did it!

PLEASE NOTE THIS BLOG WAS IN A BIT OF OBEYANCE OVER THE LAST YEAR BUT AS A NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION I AM DETERMINED TO COMPLETE ALL MONTHS BEFORE THE END OF JANUARY…THE BLOGS 10TH ANNIVERSARY!

Custom survived: Beltane rites at the Clootie wells of Inverness region

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A few years ago I planned to experience customs over the Beltane and May day weekend and it coincided with me providing a contribution at a Ritual Litter conference on the phenomena of rag wells or as they become more widely known clootie or cloutie well. As part of this I decided to do some field research and those decided to sit for six hours at the most famous clootie well of all – the titular Clootie Well or St. Boniface’s Well on the Black Isle not far from Inverness. This was one of three clootie wells in the Inverness area of which little is actually recorded of St Boniface with St Mary’s well on the other side of Culloden battle field being equally famed. A report in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, 3/5/37 noted of the Culloden Wishing Well:

“Despite the protests made by prominent figures in the Free and Free Presbyterian Churches against the annual pilgrimage to the Wishing Well at Culloden Moor, the numbers taking part in yesterday’s trek were greater than ever. The brilliant weather was no doubt largely responsible for the record crowd which took part in the centuries-old custom of dropping coins in the well, drinking the water, wishing a wish, and tying a rag to one of the nearby trees. The pilgrimage started at an early hour. Shortly after sunrise the first of the visitors set out on foot to the well. As midday approached the numbers grew, and by early afternoon the crowd reached unprecedented proportions. The trek continued until sunset, when the trees round the well hung heavy with ” clouties,” and a big heap of silver and copper coins lay at the bottom of the well, to be collected later and handed over to local charities. The crowd was drawn principally from Inverness and Nairn and the intervening districts, although some of the pilgrims came from as far north as Dingwall and as far east as Elgin. Hundreds came by car, motor cycle, push bicycles, and even on foot, and bus companies which provided special services from Inverness and Nairn reported that they never had a bigger demand for transport to the well. A conservative estimate is that 12,oo000 people took part in the pilgrimage. The money found at the bottom of the well amounted in value to £27 7/.”

In The Times 25th May 1957 the following account The Clootie Well A Highland Tradition from long before Culloden:

“The ritual of those distant days has survived the centuries : first a coin must be thrown into the well, a tribute to the spirit dwelling there; then taken of the water, a charm against evil; and then, after the wish, a ” clootie “, or small rag, must be tied to the branch of an over-hanging tree. This is considered so important that this wishing-well of Culloden is now known far and wide as the Clootie Well. Sure enough, as the path dipped down into a glade of trees with the en- circling stone of the well in their midst, we saw clooties all around, far too many for one tree alone, they were tied indiscriminately to the branches of fir, and spruce, and beech. Rags there were of all colours, blue and pink and white. Some of the fresh ones were tied in trim little bows, others, that had withstood the winds of winter, hung limp and discoloured. So they must hang until another winter has rotted them away; to remove them would bring bad luck, if not a transfer of the very afflictions of which the first owners had been trying to rid themselves.”

So there was certainly a fair bit of evidence of organised visits to the clootie wells but although these themselves had subsiding I was under the impression that people still visited the wells. 

Despite the fact that any internet search will produce thousands of images of this well festooned in all manner of objects I did wonder whether as stated Beltaine (the 30th of April – although seen as a moveable feast including what we would consider the first day of May) was a favoured time. I decided to ask around before I went and upon contacting the local parish council was told by the replier that they had lived there for many years and never seen anyone tie anything there nor anyone at it…not a promising start.

Getting on my rag

However, I decided to make my way from Inverness and find out who would turn up if anyone! So making my way to the well. It was not difficult to find it. Within a few yards of the trees start to appear adorned with ribbons and rags and the closer and closer the more and the more these trees buckled and bowed under the weight of these offerings. Some see as it as enlightening, others an eye sore; it was certainly eye opening! In 1979 the Morrises in their Scottish Healing Wells bemoaned the use of modern fibres stating:

 “There were many rags in evidence during the visit since the majority were of unrottable man-made fibre it was obvious that the visitors did not fully understand the purpose of this part of the ritual.”

The sign at the clootie well does much to keep the tradition alive as well as advice against such unnatural fibres – to little avail I feel. However, locals supported by the Woven network have worked to trim the amount a few years back. 

Rag rating

I made my way to the epicentre where the rags became more dense. Indeed where the spring arose was like a broken washing machine full of dirty and wet rags. Local folklore tells that the best place is to be nearer the spring and as such the roots surrounding the chamber were indiscernible. I sat nearby awaiting visitors, The first hour I saw no-one and as the second hour began to slide away I decided to tour around recording the offerings around me. There were huge numbers and a huge range. There were shoes, bags, hi-vis jackets, socks and underwear. From the later it was clear the value of buying Calvin Clein against own brands in terms of decay and lichen growth!

High above in the trees above the springhead there was even a collection of shirts all signed by the same members placed here year after year with the day and dates…at least I could be assured that there would be someone at the on that date the next year! 

However, suddenly I could hear voices below me and slowly I made my way down to announce my presence. The first couple were locals who had visited with some relatives to show them the site and despite attesting they did not use it; the grandmother barked at a younger member ‘dont touch the clooties otherwise you’ll contract what they were put up there for.” I asked what she meant and she explained that people visited the wells to remove ailments and issues that they had using in some cases the water to wet the rag, rub on the afflicted area and then attach to to a tree. As it rotted the ailment would disappear. 

They soon departed and were replaced by another smaller group; a local tour guide and an American keep to see the place. The tour guide said he regularly visited the well but the last time he left a deposit was when he left a Scottish football scarf when he emigrated. He said he wasnt keen to find it because he became divorced soon after and feared that his ex-wife would return! The tourist with him was keen to add to the clooties but could only add a sock but dutifully removed, soaked in the stream of the water and circled three times clockwise around the spring head as directed and attached to a tree. 

Soon a steady stream of people attended. One couple were reluctant to be talked to but I watched as they solemnly took out a hanky dipped in the water, followed the same movement around the spring and tied it up above it slightly out of sight and moved off even more surreptitiously! I watched and saw around 10 people following the ritual some were local but the majority were tourists drawn by the site’s considerable internet presence and prevalence of neo-pagan interest. All in some form followed the same ritual although I noticed a couple completely ignored the well and attached their offering to the trees directly…which seemed slightly pointlessly! Most knew the importance of visiting the spring over the Beltane period and indeed one suggested a very plausible reason why drinking its water at this time would be better stating that as this was in line with the ice water melting on the mountains nearby and so the water would be fresher. 

So it is clearly a living tradition and one which is still done over the Beltane period. However, by the very number of clooties here a custom more linked to the availability of visitors. Sadly, if they are following the tradition correctly using an artificial materials would mean that whatever ailments they had would remain…I am sure there is a message there about modern society. 

 

 

Custom survived: Eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday

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A few years back I was invited to be involved in a Shrove Tuesday live radio broadcast from the Nottinghamshire village of Linby. The aim was to discuss why we ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and I’ll explain why in a moment.

The association of pancakes with Shrove Tuesday is unlike perhaps any food associated with a calendar day – Christmas has cakes, mince pies and puddings (and much else I would add), Easter – hot cross buns, biscuits and Simnel cakes – but Shrove Tuesday is really only associated with one type of food. This association having become so great that the actual day is slowly morphing into Pancake day, divorced from its Christian origin and in a way devoid of any sense (or lacking not making any sense) of why it would be so associated.

Of course this metamorphosis is purely a commercial enterprise – which appears to have almost completed its aim. When the Pancake day stamp arose is difficult to work out but certainly by the 1980s adverts,  in the main associated with lemon juice, the secularisation was becoming well established.

But why Pancakes in the first place?

Tossing up the origin

Well this brings us back to why I was in Linby where it is said that the custom begun. However, the earliest reference I can find is by a H. E. P. Stuffynwood, near Mansfield in Notes & Queries 2nd S. vol. vii. 1859:

“There is a curious tradition existing in Mansfield, Woodhouse, Bulwell, and several other villages near Sherwood Forest, as to the origin of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. The inhabitants of any of the villages will inform the questioner that when the Danes got to Linby all the Saxon men of the neighbouring villages ran off into the forest, and the Danes took the Saxon women to keep house for them. This happened just before Lent, and the Saxon women, encouraged by their fugitive lords, resolved to massacre their Danish masters on Ash Wednesday. Every woman who agreed to do this was to bake pancakes for this meal on Shrove Tuesday as a kind of pledge to fulfil her vow. This was done, and that the massacre of the Danes did take place on Ash Wednesday is a well-known historical fact. In addition, the villagers will tell you that in this part of the country there were no red haired people before the Danes came; that all were either fair, or black haired before that time. Thinking this tradition as to the origin of pancakes sufficiently curious to be worth preserving, I venture to send it to ” N. & Q.” in the hopes that it may find a place somewhere in the pages of your valuable journal.”

In sort it seems very unlikely even if there was some veracity in the claim that the Linby legend spawned our long association between pancakes and Shrove Tuesday least of all that it cannot be proved it was on the said day.

A race for the origins

What is more evident is that making a pancake would use up the staples which were not part of the fast – namely dairy, eggs, fat and flour.

Certainly the name of Pancake Day for Shrove Tuesday was nothing new. Pancakes features in children’s rhymes at Shrove Tuesday from Skegby Stanton Hill Girl’s school. Nottinghamshire, the local children had a rhyme in the 1900s:

“Pancake day, pancake day if you don’t give us a holiday we’ll all run away. Where shell we run? Down Skegby Lane, here comes the teacher with the big fat cane”

To 1842 in Cornwall:

“Nicka, nicka nan ; Give me some pancake, and then I’ll be gone.”

In 1849 in Devonshire

“Lent Crock, give a pancake, Or a fritter, for my labour.”

And ad nauseum. Similarly, an interesting lost Shrove Tuesday tradition is recorded at Aspley Hall, which may have been more common countrywide. It is noted that the Lord and Lady of the manor would:                                

“provide batter and lard, fire, and frying pans, for all the poor families of Wollaton, Trowell and Cossall, who chose to come and eat their pancakes at his honour’s mansion, The only conditions attached to the feast were, that no quarrelling should take place, and that each wife and mother should fry for her own family, and that when the cake needed turning in the pan, the act should be performed by tossing it in the air and catching it again in the pan with the uncooked side downwards…”

One early origin is in Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry from 1620 which refers to the separate custom of feeding the first pancake to the hen. However custom magpie Thistleton-Dwyer again comes up with a solution to when it arose. Firstly he states that:

“In connection with the custom of eating pancakes on this day, Fosbroke in his Encyclopaedia of Antiquities (vol. ii. p. 572) says that ” Pancakes, the ” Pancakes, the Norman Crispellae,, are taken from the Fornacalia, on Feb. 18th, in memory of the practice in use before the goddess Fornax invented ovens.”

More significantly perhaps for Linby’s claims he then states:

“The Saxons called February ‘Solmonath,’ which Dr. F. Sayers, in his Disquisitions, says is explained by Bede’s ‘Mensis Placentarum,’ and rendered by Spelman, in an inedited MS., ‘Pancake month’ because in the course of it cakes were offered by the Pagan Saxons to the Sun.”

Whilst it does not mention the Linby story it does place the origins in the same period of time. However, in Robert Thompson Hampson’s  1841 Medii Ævi Kalendarium: Or, Dates, Charters, and Customs of the Middle Ages, Volume 1 is originally Swedish pankaka, an omelette but it has been absurdly derived from the Greek words for all bad in reference to the penitents at confession. If it does have such an origin I am sure that those originators would be amazed to see how the pancake has blossomed and continues to bear fruit in the 20th and 21st century and take over the day.

So in all it is difficult when to exactly to say why when pancakes became a staple all I know is that every year I think to myself I enjoyed those why don’t I have more often than once a year!?