Custom contrived: Dancing in the May at Laxton

Standard

“Dawn jig on misty mount – walking through the mist towards Castle Hill, Laxton, and hearing bells jingling in the distance at 5.15 am on Tuesday, it was easy to imagine you had stepped into a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel.”

Newark Advertiser Friday 04 May 1990 by Samantha Pease

Arriving in Laxton the only indication anything is going on is the sign at the top of the lane down to the castle with its instruction to remember to not disturb the neighbours – riotous bunch these Morris…mind you I say only indication…when I turned up a man appeared carrying a horses head over his shoulder and realising he must know the way…I followed him! Due to a rather dodgy gate I missed the exact start of the custom but in a way that added to it; the sounds of the assembled teams singing a May song as the first glints of the Sun arose tentatively on the horizon, was magical…as the author alludes to above.  The custom established on this old castle mound with its extensive views across Nottinghamshire and beyond has the feel of some older custom and so I was interested to know more of its origins and despite a splendid book which has brought the forgotten Morris traditions of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire greater acknowledgement the more recent history of this customs appears to have been forgotten about!

May be older than it looks!

Another newspaper cutting from 2002 is interesting for it states that:

The dancing was done at Castle hill after a two year absence because of the foot and mouth crisis.

But also:

“It was also the first time at the event for the newly-formed Rattlejag Morris from Retford.”

A year later:

“Dance return – Morris dancers return to Castle Hill, Laxton on May Day, after the foot and mouth crisis prevented them from performing there last year. The event, hosted by the Rattlejag Morris Dancers of Retford, starts at sunrise at about 5.29 am, and finishes with a cooked breakfast.”

Thus indicating that the custom predated the Rattlejag Morris and further digging was required. In 2007 the Newark advertiser stated that 

“The welcome has been performed by morris dancers at the village’s motte and bailey castle site every May 1 for 35 years.

It was carried out by Broadstone Morrismen for many years but Rattlejag Morris took over 15 years ago.”

 

This would date it back to 1972 but so far I cannot find any information recording this fact and the Broadstone Morris appear to be extinct. The earliest reference I can found is from the Newark advertiser which records for the Friday 28 April  1989:

Members of Retford based Broadstone Morris Men plan to dance at sunrise on Laxton Castle Hill. The dancing is due to start at 5.32 am and will be followed by a cooked breakfast”

The year later on The Retford Gainsborough and Worksop Times of 1993 record:

“The Broadstone Morris Men begin their summer programme on May 1 when they will be up early to see the sun rise at 530am and celebrate in traditional dance style The public are warmly invited to join them at Castle Hill Laxton “

Then on the 12th May 1994:

“May Day dancers On May Day the Broadstone Morris Dancers came and danced at sunrise on the hill of the castle ruins at Laxton It was a lovely morning and breakfast was served for anyone who wanted it “

On the 30th April 1999 Tiggy Trotter gives a vivid account of the custom for the younger readers of the Newark Advertiser Retford based Broadstone Morris as the following account informs us.

“Early risers mark start of summer Dear boys and girls, Have you ever thought about getting up at 4.30 m to watch the Morris dancers welcome in the summer of May 1st. I can tell you that it is a most memorable experience for those who can muster the enthusiasm to rise at such a time…..if it is fine the scene at Laxton is spectacular. As the sun begins to rise above the mote, the head of the team, known as the squire starts by singing an unaccompanied solo, Summer is a comin’un.

Whatever happened to Broadstone I do not know, but what is excellent to know that rather than let this custom die, that team who made their 2002 debut would be one day running it!

May I have this dance?

A 2002 newspaper account describes the costume and it what can be seen today:

“Dancing started at 5.30 am. Traditional costumes of flat caps with ribbons, open-necked white shirts, black waist-coats with ribbons and black trousers and shoes were worn.”

Each dance accompanied by a fiddle or a squeezebox has its own meaning and this year the team discovered more traditional local dancers. The clashing of sticks in the air represents the warding off of evil spirits, and the sticks are also used to strike the ground to initiate the dibbing action used by farmers when sowing their seeds.”

The dancing was memorising weaving in and out the sound of bells and squeezebox filling the air. At certain times another May carol was sung again filling the air with tingling melodies on this very crisp dawn. Each year following on it would appear from the Broadstone Morris tradition other teams were invited. Joining the Rattlejag in white with green and blue were local team the Trentside Holmes Morris who stood out in their glaring white in the darkness. They put on a great show of Cotswold Morris dancing and clearly enjoyed being involved.

 

Standing or rather looming rather ominously over the proceedings was that man with his horse’s skull, forming a large owd oss, covered in greenery with its ‘owner’ hidden under a cloak. It added some mystery to the event, especially when upon asking about it, the members of Rattlejag did not know who he was or where he came from! At the end everyone assembled was encouraged to do an en-mass Morris dance and dutifully everyone did! A fair size crowd clung to the top of the old castle and looked on. It was evident that Laxton’s May is becoming a regular ritual for its attendees as well many of whom had made the effort in dressing ‘in the May’ and they stood cheek by jowl with locals who also felt compelled to get up so early!

One cannot agree more with the summing up The Newark Advertiser‘s piece from 2002:

The sun now well up and the dancing nearly done, the sound and smell of sizzling bacon brings on a healthy appetite…what a way to start the day.”

Laxton’s May Day is a splendid custom, very evocative, and should be on anyone’s list of customs to experience.

 

 

Custom demised: Rushden’s Mop and Pail Day

Standard

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

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

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

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

It continues:

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

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

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

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

 

Custom survived: Good Friday Holcombe Hill Egg rolling, Lancashire

Standard

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

Rolling off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolling on

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

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

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

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

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

 

Custom transcribed: Nottingham Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sikh more information

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

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

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

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

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

Processing it all

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

Custom demised: Good Friday on St Martha’s Hill, Surrey

Standard
File:St.Martha's Church, St.Martha's Hill, Surrey - geograph.org.uk - 1704082.jpg

St Martha’s Church on St Martha’s Hill Peter Trimming / St.Martha’s Church, St.Martha’s Hill, Surrey

High above Guildford is St Martha’s Hill where a curious Good Friday existed as a report in the Times in 1870 of a curious lost custom:

“Thither from all the country side youths and maidens, old folks and children, betake themselves, and gathered together on one of the most beautiful spots in Surrey, in full sight of an old Norman Church which crowns the green summit of the hill, beguile the time with music and dancing.”

The author notes:

“Whatever the origin of this pilgrimage to St. Martha’s, it is apparently one that commends itself to the taste of the present generation, and is not likely to die out with the lapse of years, but to increase in popular estimation as long as the green hill lasts to attract the worshippers of natural beauty, or to furnish the mere votaries of pleasure with the excuse and the opportunity for a pleasant holiday”

Walter Johnson in his 1908 Folk-memory: Or, The Continuity of British Archaeology suggests a link with the custom with some local archaeological remains:

 “are some curious earth-rings, which may represent the remains of a maze. In olden times, the youths and maidens met there on Good Friday, and indulged in music and boisterous dancing.” 

A view the author repeated in his In Byways in British Archaeology (1912): 

“there are some curious earth-rings situated to the south of the church, haIf-hidden by heather, and I have elsewhere suggested that these represent part of a maze, within which the sports were once held.” 

However, this is mere supposition as is the belief that the custom itself was of age. Matthew Alexander in his More Surrey Tales believes that it was not established time out of memory but begun in the 1809s. 

The County, Chronicle and Weekly Advertiser on April 14th 1868 reports that there was a:

“the usual gathering of the lower orders on Good Friday at Tyting Farm” 

This suggestion that the Hill was not perhaps the main focus on activity as they gathered at Bent piece near Tyting Farm in what could be described as a rural fete with fruit vendors, hockey, shying orange peel and ‘kissing in the ring’ The main appeal however was a kind of massed dancing which in 1870 attracted a blind fiddler and has been described as akin to the Helston Furry dance with little evidence! The paper complained that it should, as not to offend religious sensitivities, move to Easter Monday. Indeed in 1871 an evangelical preacher ranted at the party being ‘giddy and gay’ and was subsequently pelted with orange peel! However, this rather confused custom which appeared dancing the custom did die out around the turn of the twentieth century. Of course the custom resembled in many ways the annual Good Friday climbing of hills around Lancashire which is still current however no mention of egg rolling 

Custom contrived: Nottingham’s St Patrick Day parade

Standard

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 survived: Making Simnel Cakes for Mothering Sunday

Standard

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

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

Nathan Bailey in his 1721 Dictionary states that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Baines in his 1836 History of Lancashire records that:

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

However the custom nearly fell afoul of the church:

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

Herrick in his Hesperides has the following:

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

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

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

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

Custom demised: Wetting the block

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then at the end:

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

As shoemaking became industrialised one imagine this custom died out!

Custom contrived: Visiting St Valentine’s Shrine Glasgow

Standard

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

But how did the saint end up here? 

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

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

Be my Valentine

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

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

The Scotsman reports:

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

Another account states on the proposals:

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

 

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

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

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

 

Custom survived: Some Kentish Curfew bells

Standard

Curfew bell - Wikipedia

‘Solemnly, mournfully,

Dealing its dole,

The curfew Bell,

Is beginning to toll,

Cover the embers,

And put out the light,

Toil comes with the morning,

And rest with the night.’

The ringing the curfew bell was once a commonly heard sound across the English countryside, calling workers to down tools or all villagers and citizens to damp down fires. Although the first law regarding curfews was passed in Oxford by Alfred the Great in A.D. 972, ( requiring all fires to be covered at night when the bell was rung ), it was only extended to the whole of England, after the Norman conquest. It was then that it gained the name curfew, deriving from the name for a metal cover which ensured that the embers did not ignite. This was called a ‘Couvre feu’. This, thus can be translated as to cover ( couvre ) and fire ( feu ). 

Although, the order to ring curfew bells was abolished in 1100, many churches still continued the custom, at least to the Second World War. Indeed there are a number of recorded examples of curfew bells or curfew ringing in Kent, which have never been collated together and are worth discussing, particularly because close examination reveals some interesting reasons for their foundation or rather continuation.  

One of the most interesting reasons is recorded at St. Margaret at Cliffe, Dover. Where the ringing was endowed by a shepherd. An account relates this endowment or possibly re-endowment ( it is not exactly clear which ), in the minutes of the vestry book of September 1696. It states:

“Whereas there has been, and is at this time, a parcel of land in this parish, called by the name of curfew land ( corfeu ), consisting of five rods more or less, which for some time hath been given by a shepherd, who one night fell over the cliff, yet lived so long as to make the said bequest for the ringing of the curfew bell every night for the winter half year…, and now finding the great neglect for some years past in the due ringing of the same, and to prevent for the future any danger which may ensue to travellers and other being so near the cliff for the want and due of constant ringing, if possible the like sad Providence may not befall any other, we, the minister, churchwardens and others, the parishioners whose names are underwritten, in reference to the donors good intent, herein do hereby order and decree that the said curfew bell be hereafter rung every night in the week, all the aforesaid winter half year, for the full time of quarter of an hour at least without any exception of a Sunday or Holy Day Nights; and he that rings is to have and receive the benefit and profit of the said curfew land, provided also that he whosoever he is or shall be clerk of the parish shall have the refusal of it before any other…And in case it shall not be constantly rung it shall be lawful for the said minister and churchwardens to receive the rent from him who occupies the said land, and to deduct from it every night it shall not be rung twopence ( and any commission ), which shall be given to the poor that come constantly to the church.

In testimony whereof we have hereunto set our hands Wm. Barney, S. Marg. Vicar, John Chittey, Churchwarden’

The bells at St Margaret at Cliffe were recast into a small set of eight bells in 1977 and now the curfew has subsequently been programmed into the electronic bell system, being chimed by electronic solenoids attached to an electronic keyboard. 

A similar piece of folklore is believed to be the origin of Cowden’s curfew. The historian, J. C. L. Stahlschmidtt ( 1887 ) in his ‘The Church Bells of Kent; their inscriptions, Founders, Uses and Traditions’, notes that:

‘..that the donor had lost his way in the Forest and was guided home by the Cowden bells.’

Beneath the bells at Cowden is a board which reads that a Richard Still bequest 20 shillings a year from Waystrode Farm for the ringing of the ‘Great Bell’ at five in the morning and eight at night from Michaelmas to Lady Day for ever.’

It is possible that this was a survival of the morning and evening ‘Ave’ bells. Records suggest that Richard Still gave the rent as remuneration for a duty which the clerk or sexton has been performing for centuries. Certainly he did not originate the payment; for a William Jackson was paid £1 ‘for Ringing ye eight a clock bell’ in 1671.

The five o’clock bell ceased in 1875, as ‘the amount not being considered sufficient pay for the double work’. Presumably, the evening bell, was not kept up after the First and Second World Wars, when by law, such activities were curtailed.

Sandwich’s curfew bell does not appear to have any traditions, but it still continues to be tolled. Sandwich’s Curfew bell appears to be alluded to in historian Boys’ ‘History of Sandwich’:

“The sexton is appointed by the parishioners and he has a salary from the parish of 40/- for the tolling the tenor, whenever the service requires, the likewise rings the tenor bell very night at eight  o’ clock, unless there to be a burial at the church and again in the morning at four o’ clock from a fortnight after Michaelmas to a fortnight before old lady day, except on Sundays and in the twelve days of Christmas, for which he has from the corporation annually £3 and an allowance of 6s 8d for candles and oil.”

The sexton had around an annual allowance of four shillings from the Corporation for ringing at the church ‘Bromelyese bell at one and the curfu at eight o’ clock’. The bell is still rung every evening at eight by the Sandwich Curfew Ringers. Apparently, they each take it in turn to ring the bell, with one date per month!

Another surviving curfew bell ringing is that rung at Canterbury Cathedral every night between five to nine and nine o’clock in the evening when the gates of the precincts are closed. The bell, called Bell Harry, was named after Prior Henry of Eastry, and was cast in 1635 by a Kentish Bellfounder, Joseph Hatch of Ulcombe. This is now electronically chimed after being rehung in 1981 as part of the overhaul of all the cathedral bells. 

 

Curfew bells and their establishment are an interesting but neglected topic for folklorists. Hopefully, this article will produce more interest in the subject and bring forth more examples.