Custom contrived: Tenby Boxing Day swim

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Boxing Day dips and swims have become a modern phenomena and the desire to throw oneself into the icy cold waters around Britain just as the Christmas excesses has worn off can be found all around the country. Perhaps the oldest now over 50 years old is that at Tenby. A local news website stated:

“Named as one of Britain’s top ten barmiest winter dips, TENBY’s famous Boxing Day Swim has been an institution in the small West Wales town for decades and has recently featured in the ITV Wales series The Harbour, which was filmed in Tenby and shows a year in the life of the seaside community.”

The Tenby Boxing Day Swim is organised by the Tenby Sea Swimming Association, which dates back to the early 1900s as the organisers website states:

” In 1910, Arthur Dickinson – Quaker, lay preacher, artist and keen swimmer – brought his family from Yorkshire to live in Ruabon House, South Parade. Arthur was a year-round swimmer, and family legend has it that he was the first person to swim to Caldey. His son-in-law, Ossie Morgan, who was appointed as headmaster of the Tenby Council School, carried on the family tradition of teaching children to swim. When Mr Morgan retired, his own offspring decided to get non-swimmers afloat, and in the 1960s, Idris Morgan, Gly Osborne, Alan Morgan and Ray Lowe formed the Tenby Sea Swimming Association (TSSA). The opening of Tenby’s first indoor swimming pool could have spelled the end of TSSA, but the organisation then took on a new lease of life in 1970 when Tenby’s publicity officer, John Evans, came up with the idea of a charity Boxing Day Swim to put Tenby on the map. “

And pandemic aside it has thrived every since with numbers reaching the high 100s with around 800 in 2019 all amassed on the town’s North Beach excitedly staring into the grey waters. The event is of course a charity one and one which attracts a fair bit of eccentricity! Lined up on the beach awaiting its less than inviting waters are a wide range of young and old, some just in shorts and bikinis, some in full body costume – giant bananas appear to be popular – an Father and more often Mrs Claus. In 2020 Wales online recorded that the theme was Climate change:

“Ahead of the mad dash into the ocean, swim chairman Chris Osborne said: “Our seaside environment, which we proudly treasure, is under threat so it seems absolutely right that we support efforts to raise awareness of climate change and its impact. We hope our swimmers’ imaginative fancy dress will help in this cause.”

Indeed they did as:

“People embraced the theme of climate change for what was the 49th event, with even a polar bear spotted marching into the water complete with a sign proclaiming “Lost home to climate change”….There was even a Swedish-style ark, complete with endangered species, inspired by teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg.”

Large crowds watch on with the compulsory local photographers who encourage the usual high activity types of photos – often with the more glamorous members of the local community! Boxing day swim was for many just a dip in, although some plunged deeper into the waters watched with eagle eyes by boats from the RNLI for safety sake, Sensibly a large bonfire was set up on the beach and hot soup handed out – which was very welcomed. Perhaps less out of place with their full regalia the town’s Mayor than presents each of the  swimmers with a commemorative medal which this year. In the year of recognising the impact of climate change these were made out of wood instead of plastic or metal. For the 50th the theme of Golden was chosen and with its triumphant post lockdown return the beach was awash with shiny yellow suits and yes more bananas of course.

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

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Edwards in his 1842 Old English Customs and Charities notes:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Custom contrived: Chocolate advent calendars

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Advent calendar - Wikipedia

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

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

A date for the choco-holic?

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

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

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

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

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

Custom survived: Building bonfires for Guy Fawkes

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“Don’t you Remember,
The Fifth of November,
‘Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
I let off my gun,
And made’em all run.
And Stole all their Bonfire away.”

Charlton in Otmoor – 1742

Bonfires and Guy Fawkes Night are synonymous so much that the name Guy Fawkes appears to be disappearing and it is now called bonfire night. But why did bonfires become associated with a remembrance which you would think would not want to celebrate with the very thing which was avoided!

The association is early as soon after the King’s escape, his council encouraged the celebrate with bonfires which were “without any danger or disorder” in 1605. One of the earliest recorded being in Dorchester, by the 1670s in London it had become an organised fire festival by the London apprentices such that in 1682 London’s militia were forced to intervene in when violence ensued and such that the following year bonfires were banned in the capital. When James II came to the thrown, fireworks were banned and the government attempted to reduce the celebrations of the day. It was unsuccessful and when he was deposed in 1688, William of Orange actively encouraged its celebration except keeping the ban on fireworks. In Nottinghamshire earliest reference of Guy Fawkes celebrations appears to 1743 as noted in the borough records. The forest ground in Nottingham is still the location of one of the largest Bonfire night celebrations, and records in 1830 and 1890 record bonfires. Celebrations appear to often cause conflict. In 1834 two shots were shot into the Wing Tavern. A report also notes:

“The anniversary of Guy Fawkes was celebrated in Newark by the ringing of bells, a large bonfire in the market place and plenty of squibs, crackers etc. Blunderbusses, guns and pistols were let off….during the evening to the annoyance of everyone walking the street.”

In a diary written by a William Moss of Mansfield (who worked as a Cooper) is the following entry for 5 November 1841:  

“Gunpowder Plot; but I think it is almost forgotten at Mansfield.  I have neither seen squib nor cracker, nor anything of the kind.  There is one bonfire at the top end of Stockwell Gate and I know not of any more in the town”.

Going ‘chumping’ was a Nottinghamshire term for collecting sticks and deadwood from hedges called ‘chump’ for Bon fires. A Bill Morely recalls the rivalry between local groups which was focused on bonfire night antics, and it is worth quoting at length:  

“Bonfire Night, and the time leading up to it, had its rituals, amazing to look back on (no nonsense about Hallowe’en in those days; I don’t suppose I heard of it until my teens). When the lead-up to Bonfire Night started, the estate split into three gangs: us, that is those who lived on or near the top end of Danethorpe Vale, Collin Green and Edingley Square, a slightly more formal square near the bottom of Caythorpe Rise. Opposite our house, by the wall of the Firs where I was born, was Hooley Street (leading to the orchards which are now Elmswood Gardens), where Hall Street had their bonfire – another gang. So the four gangs built their bonfires, and guarded them against attack from the others. Usually it was the young ones like me who were left to guard the fires whilst the bigger kids went about their business of collecting, or scouting for the enemy, or maybe just clearing off. Sometimes you’d find when you came home from school that the entire bonfire had gone. It wasn’t other gangs though; it was the council, which didn’t want the fires on its property. The most infamous of these council raids was in 1945 or ’46. The day before, or actually on November 5, (incidentally, all bonfires were on November 5, no rubbish about spreading them over three or four weeks like today) the council took Collin Green’s bonfire away. Well, with the returned soldiers saying, according to legend and no reason to disbelieve it, stuff like, “we didn’t fight a war to come home and find our kids can’t have a bonfire”, and the like, they dismantled the garden gates round the Green – all council property, of course – and rebuilt the bonfire with them. And everyone approved, even my very respectable parents. But back to the gangs: there was always a hollow in the middle of the fire, and we sat in there, ready to ward off the enemy coming to nick our fire, or possibly set fire to it. Bit stupid being inside it, of course. And there were pitched battles on the streets of the estate. The members of the other Greens were often friends, but, for a couple of weeks, we’d fight them. The fights were always the same, throwing grass-sods and sticks at each other, and always on the roads of the estate. What did the adults do? Nothing. What did they think, especially those without children? I can’t remember anyone getting hurt, and we didn’t throw stones, so perhaps we unconsciously realised it was a ritual not reality, but there were real frissons of fear and aggression. Collin Green was our main enemy. In fact, as far as I remember, all our actual fights were with them. This was all on a ‘respectable’ estate; these days it would either be much worse and seriously violent, or it just wouldn’t happen. However, we were really frightened of the Hall Street gang (did it really exist?). Hall Street had some fairly rough older boys, or so we thought, but again some of the younger kids from there were friends of mine at school. Anyway, the real fear was that Hall Street would come, and we were seriously scared of that. Did they ever? We certainly never had one of the pitched battles with them. On Bonfire Night, all the boys (girls too) came to the bonfire (on which there’d be a guy) with long poles, on the end of which were tightly bound rags, in flames and we’d set the fire going by thrusting the burning torches into it. I remember the anguish of whether I’d get there in time for the start. My mother seemed to take ages to get the rags sorted out, as no doubt the other mothers did too. Again, there was no penny-for-the-guy stuff, round our way anyway, though the guy was probably another thing to defend in the last two days. The fire always seemed to burn very fast, the guy vanishing in a few minutes, and then it was more or less over, and, no, we didn’t put potatoes or chestnuts in the fire, it was just a fire, nice and primitive.”

These large informal street fires became a thing of the past when in the 1960s the police, local authorities and fire brigade combined to prevent them and in 1963 27 organised sites were provided. In the 1990s regular sites were established in across the country from those set up to raise money for preservation railways such as that done by the Quorn railway (Leicestershire) and various ones to raise money for scouts, WIs and schools. 

Why bonfire?

Historians have often suggested that Guy Fawkes Day served as a Protestant replacement for the ancient Celtic Samhain festival. Another theory is that it transferred from Crispin’s Day celebrations. Over time the bonfire has changed of course. In 2005 David Cannadine commented on the encroachment into British culture of late 20th-century American Hallowe’en celebrations, and their effect on Guy Fawkes Night:

Nowadays, family bonfire gatherings are much less popular, and many once-large civic celebrations have been given up because of increasingly intrusive health and safety regulations. But 5 November has also been overtaken by a popular festival that barely existed when I was growing up, and that is Halloween … Britain is not the Protestant nation it was when I was young: it is now a multi-faith society. And the Americanised Halloween is sweeping all before it—a vivid reminder of just how powerfully American culture and American consumerism can be transported across the Atlantic

Despite the changes there is something still attractive to people and very well attended. People still have the primeval need to feel the warmth of the bonfire.

 

Custom demised: Ringing the bells on Guy Fawkes Night

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Ringing Photos

Across the country churches were expected to celebrate the foiling of the Gun Powder Plot. Nottinghamshire in particular has a large number of reported cases.  At East Bridgford, Gunpowder treason ringers would ‘clash or fire’ the bells in commemoration. Holme Pierrpoint churchwarden’s account notes in 1688 “payment to Gonpowder treason ringing” , and that in Gedling:

“22nd Nov 1708. Agreed that betwixt the three towns of the parish of Gedling that there be an allowance at the common usuage of ye parish for ringing of three shillings for ye fifth November”

In Worksop in 1617 it notes money was given “for ringing on ye gunpowther days”. In 1747 2s and 6d were given to Nottingham for ‘Gunpowder Treason with 6d given for candles for ringers.  Found in the Parish Constables accounts for East Leake, 1791: “5th Nov paid for Ale Gunpowder plott”

Rickinghall (Suffolk) churchwardens’ accounts of November 5th 1814 when beer was bought for the ringers, probably for ringing the bells for Guy Fawkes Nigh

In Backwell (Somerset) it is recorded in the church wardens accounts that:

“Spent upon ye ringers ye 5th November 1698 – 12/6d”

Little Cornard (Essex) records that in

“1731 when five shillings was paid to the bell ringers for their efforts on Guy Fawkes Night.”

The Penistone bell-ringers active on 5th March 1696 were paid eight shillings to ring the bells. That same year, 4s 6d was paid for ‘A bel-rop and 2d for bringing it home’.

When the last time any of these bells were rung is unclear but it may link to the removal of Guy Fawkes as a national holiday  

Custom contrived: Battle of Hastings re-enactment

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

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

1066 and all that!

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

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

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

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

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

Walk to Victory…er defeat

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

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

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

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

Eye eye!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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 demised: Lating the witches at Pendle, Lancashire

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Lancashire Folklore, 1882 by John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson., it was formerly believed that witches assembled on this night to do “their deeds without a name,” at their general rendezvous in the forest of Pendle, a ruined and desolate farmhouse, denominated the Malkin Tower, from the awful purposes to which it was devoted. It is said in Hone’s Year Book 1838 that:

“This superstition led to a ceremony called lating, or perhaps leeting the witches. It was believed that, if a lighted candle were carried about the fells or hills from eleven till twelve o’clock at night, and burned all that time steadily, it had so far triumphed over the evil power of the witches, who, as they passed to the Malkin Tower, would employ their utmost efforts to extinguish the light, and the person whom it represented might safely defy their malice during the season; but if by accident the light went out, it was an omen of evil to the luckless wight for whom the experiment was made. It was also deemed inauspicious to cross the threshold of that person until after the return from leeting, and not then unless the candle had preserved its light.”

Pendle of course is famous for its witch trials but what is unclear is whether this was a custom or before that. It would appear that if there was a large scale belief of witches in the area why would you want to go across the moors on this night anyway. One wonders whether this was some sort of initiation or dare based custom. When this custom died out is unclear but I am sure that people are still wary of the witches in this area.

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

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

Key it all

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

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

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

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

Preparation is the key to success

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

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

The custom follows:

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

Key to success

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

Custom demised: Michaelmas Day horse races of the Western Isles

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Description of the Western Isles of Scotland - Wikipedia

In his Martin Martin’s 1703 Account of the Western Isles of Scotland, describes a custom on the island Lingay:

“the natives are much addicted to riding, the plainness of the country disposing both men and horses to it. They observe an anniversary cavalcade on Michaelmas Day, and then all ranks of both sexes appear on horseback. The place for this rendezvous is a large piece of firm sandy ground on the sea-shore, and there they have horse racing for small prizes for which they contend eagerly. There is an ancient custom by which it is lawful for any of the inhabitants to steal his neighbour’s horse the night before the race and ride him all next day, provided he delivers him safe and sound to the owner after the race.”

The race sounds particularly challenging for:

“The manner of running is by a few young men who use neither saddles nor bridles, except small ropes made of bent instead of a bridle, nor any sort of spurs but their bare heels; and when they begin the race, they throw these ropes on their horses’ necks, and drive them on vigorously, with a piece of long sea-ware in each hand instead of a whip, and this is dried in the sun several months before for that purpose. This is a happy opportunity for the vulgar, who have few occasions for meeting except on Sundays; the men have their sweethearts behind them on horseback and give and receive mutual presents: the men present the women with knives and purses, the women present the men with a pair of fine garters of divers colours; they give them likewise a quantity of wild carrots.”

When the custom demised is unclear. There are many horses still on the island but the human population has slowly declined which may have meant the death knell of the custom.