Tag Archives: church

Custom survived: St. Ives Langley Bread

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“charged his lands in St. Ives with the payment of 40s. a year to be distributed to poor widows and fatherless children, and with a further sum of 6s. to the churchwardens to be given to the bellringers.

Robert Langley by will dated 24 Aug. 1656 Charity report 1909

St Ives is a delightful small town which is noted amongst those interested in calendar customs for its bible dicing, however there is another custom that the town has undertaken for the last 300 years or so which has failed to be recorded as far as I am aware in any books on calendar customs. So for the 10th year of blogging on calendar custom it felt appropriate that I experienced and being free on the day of its distribution the 5th of January, linking it to epiphany no doubt it felt this was the ideal opportunity. 

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Bread and Butter

The custom consists of a dole given out on or around the epiphany and fortunately being free this year. It was set up as stated above in 1656 by local philanthropic St. Ives man, Robert Langley and whilst there is no stipulations about fatherless children it is still distributed to poor widows (and grammatically now widowers). The tradition is known as the Langley Bread and continues as a giving practice once a year in January.

I arrived to see the truck outside the Corn Exchange loaded with Co-op bags drive off – hand I missed it – no for as I went into the main hall of the building to see tables bellowing under a pile of green Co-op bags crammed with food and the Mayor in his chain, the trustees of the charity and town council secretary awaiting the first of the applicants.

In 2022 there were 120 bags lined up on the tables. Around 45 being delivered each year to local nursing homes. The number had been adjusted to take into account the number of recipients who came the previous year and thus the number left over. 

All doled up

Soon the first applicants appeared and many of them for familiar faces who had come previously to collect their bag of goodies and as a local newspaper account records:

“Great care is taken to ensure that only widows and widowers who are residents of St Ives benefit. As people come in to the building, they give out their addresses which are checked on the electoral roll.”

Indeed the clerks asked for names and they searched carefully their electoral role and upon finding them crossed them off and gave the recipient a ticket. However it was only a few feet away where the Mayor was ready to collect the ticket and give over the bag.

Many of the recipients were ‘regulars’ and despite having to be checked on the role many had come for the chat as well – being lonely widowers this would of course make sense. Indeed there was a sort of melancholy to the custom typified by one recipient stating

“Last year I came with my friend and wasnt eligible and this year I can come and collect one myself”

Sadly we all know what that means. But on the flipside it also encouraged people to talk to each and help each other as recorded in the newspaper article which stated:

one person is authorised to collect for friends.

“Especially where the old folks’ bungalows are, the fittest one will come down and collect them for their neighbours,” said David Hodge, who as mayor is responsible for giving out the bags. “Hence, they come with a list and they then go back with some for all their friends. It is checked, honestly!”

One could see that for many lonely widows it was a good reason to get into town and perhaps socialise or in some cases challenge the Mayor on their policies.

The trustees stick very rigidly to the wording of the charity. A man turned up from nearby Reach and politely asked if he was eligible having been born in St Ives and was a widower. He however was refused as he no longer lived in the town. He seemed okay with that and it was interesting to see that the letter of the original bequest being undertaken.  

The bags soon went down. By 10 .45 85 bags were gone. By 11.40 107 had gone. And then by 11.45 only 13 were left. It had been a successful day the previous year they had had 150 bags left but nothing goes to waste as like the earlier ones they are delivered to those in nursing homes.

Now however very little of the original charity money goes to buy the dole and is donated by local companies. In 2022 it was donated for the third year from the Co-Op. Back in the 1800s it would have simply been bread like many other doles. However, now its full of other staples.  The bag consists of digestive biscuits, tea, bread, butter and sugar and were delivered by the company on the back of truck at 8 o’clock. Usually I was informed that it was topped up by the charity and this included orange juice or jam but this year they could not be sourced. 

Two for the price of one!

The Langley bequest is actually two customs in one as he left money for the bell ringers from St Ives’ parish church. The reason being because of a very familiar story seen elsewhere is bell tolling bequests. It is said that Langley was lost in a snowstorm on nearby Hemingford Meadow walking to St Ives. Upon hearing the parish church bells he was guided back to safety and thus in gratitude he left money for the bell ringers to ring a peel. This apparently also happens in January, however the trustees did not know when.

It is heartening to see Langley’s bequest continues to give support to those in need…although he clearly had little thought of mobility in snow ladden Januaries – perhaps not the best time for aged widowers to travel about!

Custom demised: Twelfth Night Moseley Dole, Walsall

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File:Walsall in Medieval Times (15th Century) Artist's Impression.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons

This demised custom had a great story behind it:

“Thomas Moseley, passing through Walsall, on twelfth eve, saw a child crying for bread, where others were feasting, and, struck by the circumstance, made over the estates at Barcott, &c., to the town of Walsall, on condition that every year one penny should be given each person on that day, so that no one might witness a like sadness.”

And as such established the Moseley Dole as recorded in An abstract of the title – of the town of Walsall, in Stafford, to valuable estates at Bascott, &c., in the county of Warwick, with remarks by James Cottrell, 1818. which reads:

“In 1453 Thomas Moseley made a feoffment of certain estates, to William Lyle and William Maggot, and their heirs, in trust, for the use of the town of Walsall; but John Lyle, son of William Lyle, to whom these estates would have descended, instead of applying the produce of the estates for the use of the town, kept them, and denied that the property was in trust, pretending it to be his own inheritance; but the inhabitants of Walsall not choosing to be so cheated, some of them went to Moxhal, and drove away Lyle’s cattle, which unjustifiable act he did not resent, because he was liable to be brought to account for the trust estate in his hands. At length a suit was commenced by the town against Lyle, and the estates in question were adjudged for the use of the town of Walsall. Accordingly, in 1515, John Lyle of Moxhal, near Coleshill, Warwickshire, suffered a recovery, whereby these estates passed to Richard Hunt, and John Ford, and they, in 1516, made a feoffment of the land, to divers inhabitants of the town of Walsall, in trust, and so it continues in the hand of trustees to this day.”

It is recorded that:

“In 1539 the first mention appears to have been made of the penny dole. On the twelfth eve, being the anniversary for the souls of Thomas Moseley, and Margaret his wife, the bellman went about with his bell, exciting all to kneel down and pray for the souls of Thomas Moseley, and Margaret, his wife; Thomas Moseley never gave this dole, either by feoffment or will; but, because he had been so good a benefactor, in giving his lands, &c., in Warwickshire, the town, by way of gratitude, yearly distributed a general dole of one penny each, to young and old, rich and poor; strangers, as well as townspeople; and this was the origin of the dole.”

However there is some discussion over where the dole really begun:

“The masters of the guild of St. John the Baptist, in Walsall, a religious fraternity, with laws and orders made among themselves, by royal licence, appear at this time to have been the trustees; for they received the rents of these estates, and kept court at Barcott. King John granted to every arch-deacon in England a power of gathering from every ‘fyer householder,’ in every parish, one penny, which were called Peter pence; therefore I am inclined to think this religious fraternity were the beginners of this penny dole, which would enable them immediately to pay their Peter Pence or, perhaps they might stop it in the same manner as the bellman does the lord of the manor’s penny.”

The author of the extract:

“It would be a good thing if this dole was given up, and the rents of these valuable estates, which are now considerable, were all applied to charitable purposes.”

The dole ceased in 1825 after some local resistance it is believed. Twelve alms-houses, were built with the money in the hands of the corporation with the money apparently.

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 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 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 demised: Eastbourne Great Tythe feast

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Lundens, Gerrit; Peasants Feasting in a Barn; National Trust, Melford Hall; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/peasants-feasting-in-a-barn-171766

In Royer’s 1787 History of Eastbourne, 1787 a curious custom is described:

“On the three first Sundays in August a public breakfast, says  p. 126), is given at the parsonage-house by the tenants of the great tythes to the farmers and their servants, each farmer being entitled to send two servants for every waggon that he keeps. So that if a farmer have five waggons to do his necessary business he may send ten servants, and so on in proportion for a less or greater number.”

Thus was laid out a feast:

“The farmers are entertained in the parlour with a sirloin of hot roast beef, cold ham, Sussex cheese, strong ale, and Geneva; the men are entertained in the barn with everything the same as their masters except the beef. It is presumed that this custom had its origin from the time the tythes were first taken in kind in this parish, in order to keep all parties in good humour.”

Chambers’ Handbook of Eastbourne, 1872 records

“A petition to Parliament for the abolition of this custom was presented as far back as 1640, and, in 1649, an ordinance was enacted that 20l. per annum should be paid for the relief of the poor in lieu of the feast. “

It would be clear that during the Commonwealth the custom did stop but during the reign of Charles II:

“In 1687 the custom was revived; more recently an annual payment of 20l. for the education of poor children was substituted, and this amount now figures year by year in the accounts of St. Mary’s schools as paid by the Duke of Devonshire.”

It seemed that it was that the event encouraged poor behaviour rather than the custom’s cost. As summed up by the Sussex Archaeological society’s 1861’s Sussex archaeological collections relating to the history and antiquities of the county:

“That the Eastbourne Sunday is no matter of regret are dying out to which no good morals would be applicable.”

When it finally demised is unclear but it was certainly before the above account. It probably died out when many of the other harvest homes demised.

Custom contrived: Broomfield Well dressing, Kent

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

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

Developing well

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

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

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

“Kent Messenger Maidstone reported 

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

Custom survived: Oxford Ascension Day Beating the Bounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custom revived: Chester Mystery Plays

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“The Aldermen and stewards of every society and company draw yourselves to your said several companies according to Ancient Custom and so to appear with your said several Companies every man as you are Called upon pain that shall fall thereon”

 

In the busy streets of Chester this cry might not be as effective as it was in the mediaeval streets in which the Mystery plays were originally performed. Such dramas were common across Europe since the 10th century in some cases and by the late 12th century they were performed outside churches and unlike much of the church services would be spoken in the vernacular language – in Chester that would be English – this meant it was far more accessible and easier way for the populace to learn the biblical stories in the Old and New Testaments. 

The introduction in 1264  of the Feast of Corpus christi appeared to be a catalyst for the mystery play expansion; combined with an expansion of towns and cities and associated guilds who were often responsible for it. The skilled labourers in such communities would common together to build stages and props for the plays and as such they become increasingly sophisticated. By this time the Mysteries were fully developed with a tableau of biblical scenes. One of the first recorded was a biblical history of salvation performed in York by 1394 and as commercial trade benefited from the visitors came to see the play other towns such as Chester adopted them. 

No Play days

However, the Reformation was to slowly stop the plays. They were banned nationally in the 16th century and interestingly, Chester was the last to concede. In 1562 the cathedral still paid for the stage and beer; 1568 a play cycle was performed and again 1572 which was despite the protest by an Evangelical minister and again were performed in 1575. The later resulted in the Mayor being called the Star Chamber in London to answer to why but he escaped prosecution. A record of play for the 4th June 1600 suggests it dragged on further before the protestant forces won. 

Mystery revealed

Despite the toleration act and the increasing acceptance of what had been seen as Popish practises; the Chester Mystery plays were not revived until 1951 for the Festival of Britain. Since then they have been performed every  five years.

I attended in 2001 and soon found the performers in the stage in front of the Town Hall. It was simple but effective set up with a backdrop of the cityscape painted on the back high above it in a raised stage was God beneath a rainbow. I was considerably impressed with how this simple set up was so effective and loud. A large crowd begun to gather and listen carefully. It was an interactive performance with the cast quick to call out to the audience and solicit appropriate responses.

Since then the Chester Mystery plays have become more and more polished and now moved to the Cathedral which creates a fantastic backdrop but perhaps detaches it from its original intentions.

Custom survived: St Bartholomew’s Founder’s Day and Bun Race, Sandwich Kent

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Sandwich is a town where you would expect there to be many traditions. One of the Cinque ports, many traditions have arisen from its long association with sea. In a small chapel and its associated almshouse community is one of the most enjoyable.

Legend has it that on the 24th August 1217 the town received a considerable amount of money from a sea battle held off the coast. This they used to build St Bartholomew’s Chapel and a hospital for sixteen men and women to inhabit. It would probably have been envisioned as a place of refuge for pilgrims latterly as it is today becoming an almshouse for the elderly.

Sandwich did not forget this great sea battle’s bounty and it appears that St Bartholomew’s Day became a day of importance in the town with the Mayor and civic dignitaries processing to the chapel for a special patronal founder’s day service – a founder’s day with a difference.

A prickly decision

One of the roles of the service is the selection of a new Master for the coming year. This is called pricking out. During this process a list of all those living in the almshouse – called brothers and sisters – is laid out and a silver bodkin  is used to run over the names and selects the person who will be in charge for the next twelve months. However the role of the Master is fairly mundane being a sort of care taker!

Typically you might say for August, the weather was wet and horrible. I arrived to watch a rather soggy civic procession arrive at the chapel to meet the brothers and sisters within. I slipped into the chapel, just about finding some room, to see the pricking out ceremony and hear the oath which went:

“I – (insert name) will me as I ought to be true and faithful unto the hospital and all things shall do, to my best of my power, for the most weal, proper and commodate of the same hospital and at the end of the year, a true and just account shall make all of things, wherewith I shall have to do belonging to the hospital for this year following.”

Not a bun fight!

After the ceremony as Charles Kightly records in his 1986 Ceremonies and customs of Britain:

“The ceremonies then conclude in livelier fashion, with local children racing around the chapel for a reward of a currant bun a piece.”

Outside there were a fair number of parents and young children waiting the race – the chapel could never have accommodated all of them and I wondered how the race had arisen. Did it arise as a way to encourage a well behaved congregation or to encourage more attendees? Both struck me as odd as it was clear that the service had a rather private feel about it and large numbers of children may have equally ruined the atmosphere I would imagine!

The dampness and drizzle did not put the participants. They lived up in the designated place beside the chapel. As it began to rain, the Mayor blew a whistle and the kids were off

The mayor protected by an umbrella gave out the buns to an out of breadth congregation of grateful children of many sizes. Many covered in mud and soggy! The adults who attended were given a hard paste biscuit with the hospital’s seal and the date 1190 – it did not look as nice as the bun! It was over as soon as it started and the crowd dispersed for another year.

How did the Bun race originate? The bun race is an interesting custom. A bit like those no winners or losers sports day everyone gets a prize! Everyone gets a bun! Why a race? Perhaps the custom arose as a dole for wayfarers and as these slowly disappeared some one came up with the idea of a race. The race symbolising the race to Canterbury’s St Thomas’s shrine. When it arose is not clear either and I have been unable to find it out. Kightly suggests it can only be less than a hundred years old – but that was in 1986 – with 34 years elapsed I imagine it qualifies now!