Tag Archives: Hampshire

Custom contrived: Blessing the Midsummer Bower, Woolmer Forest


“How sweetly I, at close of Summer’s Day,

While thy dear presence blessed these happy Bowers,

Could lost in rapture with my Daphne stray,

Or in soft converse pass the fleeting Hours.”

Midsummer madness?

In the Deadwatervalley Trust maintained Woolmer Forest a curious custom has developed. Curious firstly because it is based on the observations of a local famed Naturalist – Gilbert White and secondly because it is organised by a woodland conservation ground. Thanks to Bill Wain who provided the materials on the custom; one which appeaThe custom is based on an observation made by the author that at Walldown on St. Barnabus’ Day a bower would be constructed. He recorded in his A Natural History of Selborne within the letters to Thomas Pennant, a fellow naturalist:

“On two of the most conspicuous eminences of this forest stand two arbours or bowers, made of the boughs of oaks; the one called Waldon-lodge , the other Brimstone-lodge; these the keepers renew annually on the feast of St Barnabas, talking the old materials for a perquisite. The farm called Blackmoor, in this parish, is obliged to find the posts and brushwood for the former; while the farms at Greatham, in rotation, furnish for the latter; and are all enjoined to cut and deliver the materials at the spot. This custom I mention, because I look upon it to be of very remote antiquity.”

And that is it really! Gilbert White wrote no more about the custom and neither did any other author. However, some have attempted to link it to May bowers. D. H. Moutray Read in their 1911 article for Folklore on Hampshire folklore records:

“Miss Burne, in her Presidential Address last year, spoke of the “bowery” erected for sports at Woodstock, and readers of Miss Mitford’s Our Village will recall how in “Bramley Maying” she describes the ” May-houses to dance,” built of green boughs by the lads and lasses of the neighbouring parishes.”

However this could be a tenuous link – these are not midsummer bowers. Yet the lack of any reference to midsummer bowers is not a reason not to establish a custom on them. This is clearly a new custom based upon an account of something older.

Midsummer nights dream

It is of course worth noting that this is a different midsummer to the one we currently recognise. Before the calendar change, St Barnabas Day fell on Midsummer’s Day as remembered:

Barnaby Bright, Barnaby Bright

The longest day and the shortest night

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Therefore when in 2010, the Deadwater Valley Trust and the Woolmer Forest Heritage Society decided to start the custom the closest day to old St Barnabus, i.e 13th June was chosen, although local events such as the Queen’s Birthday in 2016 did get in the way of organising it.
The earthworks noted by White were also selected to make the custom a copy of that recorded by White. However, because the site is a scheduled ancient monument the bower can only be there for a day. As such early in the day local children arrange branches to create an arch and then use green boughs and branches to drape over the structure creating a small green hut.
Bowery boys and girls
Then around midday a collection of curious onlookers and those involved with the trusts and group stand around the Bower as first a man dressed in typical Georgian squire attire with a white wig as Gilbert White reads out his note to Pennant about the custom and then the vicar gives his thanks giving and the bower is blessed; a slightly contrived aspect as the White gave no reference to the structure being blessed. Nor did he mention processing around it! However, this all goes to make a most unusual of customs. Of course making a bower on a hot day also affords a good shelter and the children were quick to realise this ducking under the branches and finding a cool respite under the leaves to excited glee ‘let’s make one of these at home’ one said to another.
Of course why midsummer and why at these earthworks is a question that remains unanswered. But is clear that even given the slimest of provenances a great little custom can arise and give colour and interest. Long may the bower be built.

Custom demised: Weyhill Sheep Fair


“To Wy and to Wynchestre I wente to the feyre.”

So does Langland record Weyhill Fair, in Piers Plowman, in 1377, the largest and most important livestock fair in the country. One of the features were the establishment of booths to sell produce and so many hops from Farnham were sold that they became known as Farnham row.  Like many great fairs despite an ancient provenance it was like others a charter fair…like others it did attract fringe activities – hiring of labour, a pleasure fair, bull baiting and even mummers and mystery plays.

Ancient fair

Twelve twenty five is the fair’s earliest reference being called Fair of Le We then. However this is not a charter. Indeed, the lack of a charter is perhaps because the fair was very ancient lying as it does on ancient crossroads which crisscrossed tin merchants, gold transporter and even pilgrims from as far as way as Cornwall, Kent and the Continent. Laying also on three parishes and three estates helped it escape the need for a Charter. For when in Andover town folk claimed a right to hold their own fair, by 1559 Royal charter, the fair owners claimed that the rules did not apply to their fair!

Court fair

As it grew into the 19th century the volume of trading grew exponentially. Cheeses from all over Wessex were sold and around 100,000 sheep were sold in one day.  Irish horse traders were accused of putting everyone in danger by showing off ‘charged up and down, and over hurdles’. Lawlessness was a common problem and so large was the fair that by the 16th century it was necessary to set up a Court of Pie Powder. This a common feature of large fairs was a court which provided quick settlement on disputes and could punish lawlessness. Wife selling was a custom associated with many fairs and one immortalised by Thomas Hardy in his 1886 The Mayor of Casterbridge. Renamed Weydon Priors one of his characters, Henchard, sells his wife for five guineas. Wife selling was not unknown in the days before divorce was relatively easy and affordable. An account records that a man called Henry Mears bought Joseph Thomson’s wife for 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog – he was originally asking 50 but the account states both parties were happy. I am not so clear as the wife’s opinion.

The fall of the fair

The 1800s was perhaps the final heyday of the fair. By the end of the 19th century it was in decline. William Cobbett in his Rural rides visited the Fair in 1822. He had been a regular attendee for 40 years previous and found it already depressed:

“The 11th of October is the Sheep Fair. About £300,000 used, some few years ago, to be carried home by the sheep-sellers. Today, less perhaps, than £70,000 and yet the rents of these sheep sellers are, perhaps as high, on average, as they were then. The countenances of the farmers were descriptive of their ruinous state. I never, in all my life, beheld a more mournful scene.”

Reports suggest that despite being still the biggest fair in the South in 1867 each year less and less hops and cheeses were being sold.  Sheep and cattle continued to be trade until just after the Second World War. In 1948 only 1400 sheep were sold – a far drop from the 100,000s. The rapid progress of modernity, better roads, rail and communications meant such large meetings were unnecessary. Although the pleasure fair continued to thrive as in many places. In 1957, the last livestock auction was held and then so few animals were sold that the auctioneers deemed it unprofitable. So the fair stopped and unlike other fairs such as Nottingham Goose fair so did the pleasure fair. The booths were bought by a building company Dunnings Associates using them for storage. They themselves went bankrupt and the buildings fell into disrepair. The site is now a light industry site with the Fairground Craft and Design Centre continuing the name and tradition of selling.

Custom survived..the Tichborne Dole


The March posts all have a theme if you can notice it….

On the 25th March each year, the usually sleepy Hampshire village, remembers its heritage and perhaps, at the same time, preserves and underlines the role of the village gentry in the welfare of the village, an aspect largely forgotten as villages become satellite settlements for larger cities! This they do by distributing the Tichborne Dole, one of the most famous and largest distributions surviving in England today. Its survival is perhaps surprising, with many such villages not exactly thronging with obvious ‘poor’, but its survival is as much to do with its peculiar legend as its usefulness of its distribution being flour which although perhaps not as prohibitively expensive, useful nevertheless!

The Crawls!

The origin of the custom dates back to the reign of Henry II. It is said that the manor was owned by a rather uncaring Lord of the Manor, Sir Roger Tichborne. His wife. Lady Mabella, lay on her death bed and asked him if he would set up a bequest and provide income for the poor after her demise. He agreed, but said only wheat from land she could walk around whilst a torch burnt, could be provided knowing perhaps this would rather restrict her bequest. Yet although she was too weak to walk, she did succeed in crawling around a twenty-three acre field, now called ‘The Crawls’ (north of Tichborne Park, beside Alresford road). Probably astonished he did establish a bread dole which continued from that date until 1796.

The curse!

In 1796 it was suspended, as the local magistrate was concerned that the tradition attracted too much itinerant people and the crime associated with strangers in the village. Yet, the suspension did not last long because it is said of a curse laid down by Lady Tichborne, maybe to ensure that future Lord’s were not as cruel as her husband. It is said that if the dole was stopped there would be a generation of seven sons, would be followed by one of seven daughters and the family name would become extinct and the house collapse. It is said that part of the house did collapse in 1803, an indeed, Sir Henry Tichborne, himself a seventh son, in 1821 produced seven daughters! As a consequence the dole was re-established and soon in 1839, a nephew was born, Roger soon followed by a younger brother called Alfred.

However his brother Edward did have a son, Henry, born in 1829 but he died in 1836 aged six years old. At this point, fearing that the curse had come to fruition, the Dole was resumed. Edward became the 9th baronet but had no sons. Another of the seven brothers, James, became the 10th baronet. He had two sons, Roger, who was born in 1829 (before the Dole was resumed) and Alfred, born in 1839 (after the resumption of the Dole). Roger was shipwrecked and lost at sea (1854) and Alfred eventually became the 11th baronet on his father’s death in 1862. Sir Alfred died in 1866 leaving his wife pregnant with a son, Sir Henry Doughty-Tichborne, 12th Bart.

The Tichborne Claimant

Interestingly, the male heir to the estate was lost in 1845 during sea voyage and his brother took the estate. However, this was not the end of the story, for two decades later he re-appeared and claimed the estate. A cause celebre court case begun which proved the man, real name Arthur Orton, to be an imposter!

The dole today

I had the opportunity to witness the dole in 1996 on a grey but dry 25th March, within the last few years the current owners, the Loudons, had recently let out the hall but the family was still present with a Mrs, Hendrie the sole descendent of the Tichborne family. It was a cheerful and strange affair, where all and sundry were invited into the grounds of this usually private estate, although only those from the parish and neighbouring Cheriton and Lane End, where at the halls steps could be found a large wooden box and surrounding it about 40 20 litre bags of flour. Local people assembled in their numbers. They appeared to be clutching plastic and more substantial bags, after a gallon of flour was the allocation, with children half a gallon, so something substantial was needed! The flour was poured into the wooden box, bag by bag. Once it was filled the local Catholic Dean of Winchester blessed the flour and sacred oil sprayed over it and incense wafted over it, in a ceremony probably not dissimilar to that which happened pre-Reformation. After a few words were said over it, a list was read of those who could claim it and Mrs Loudon now wearing her white coat used a bucket to pour into the first claimant’s sack. So it continued until after about half an hour or maybe a bit over, the last gallon of flour was emptied into the last bag and the assembled team of distributed disappeared for a good earned rest no doubt.

And so I am sure it continues because despite the changes of ownership of the estate and usage, a stipulation of the ownership of the house is that the dole continues….a no-one wants to evoke the curse again!

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