Tag Archives: traditions

Custom survived: Lee Gap Fair, Yorkshire

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“Stallions proud and ribbands prancing

Joyous fiddling and dancing

Isaac Horsfield who was there

He made sport for all the fair.

A handsome show of china ware

Of much variety was there

Cheesecakes plenty might be got

Gingerbread and good tom-trot.”

 

Lee Gap Fair was founded over 800 years ago been chartered by King Stephen in 1139, thus it can rightly claim to be England’s oldest horse fair only the local church is older and the two are linked.  Traditionally the fair took place on the Feast of the Assumption (15th September) and finished on the Nativity of the  blessed Virgin (8th September) and thus was linked to the church.

Making leeway

The fair became a major event People travelled vast distances to attend the fair. In the Middle Ages Lee Gap Fair attracted merchants from France, Spain, Florence and the low lands of Germany. Not only Horses bur cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock were sold at the fair.

Such was the occasion that people attending are said to have married or got their children baptised and hence the fair was good revenue for the church who had a priest on call the whole fair. Miracle plays were also performed to bring the faith to the masses.  The fair was owned by Nostell Priory until the Reformation when it was granted to a Dr Leigh and the fair moved to West Ardsley and took on his name although written as Lee and I am unsure where the Gap came from. However, there is some confusion over whether the Nostell Priory Fair and the current fair are the same continuation as their fair was five days starting on St Oswalds’s feast day on the 9th not 24th and early writers state that it was discontinued ‘centuries ago’.

Interestingly, the Charter does not tie the fair to one site only that it be held in the parish of Woolkirk or West Ardsley. Which is good because its most traditional site was lost to building many years back forcing a new location to be held. However, not only is its location fluid but its function too. Originally it was wool fair only becoming a horse fair as the need for horses through increasing warfare and agriculture forced the necessity.

Fairly well met

On first arrival you think there cannot be a horse fair here its too urban as you survey the neat gardens, hedges and waxed cars in their drives. And indeed, the first site was built upon a few years on. However, soon there appear to be see a parade of cones and then a small handwritten sign Lee Fair at the side of a farm lane. Going down here past some rather large houses the lane snakes down into a small, enclosed field and here 100s have gathered. A detailed sign at the gate informs me of what I can and cannot do there – no racing of horses and silly string stand out!

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A fair assessment?

Attending a horse fair is one of those rare experiences. A completely unvarnished natural organic custom devoid of any tourist pretensions. Indeed, at one point I think I am the only non-traveller there! Certainly, the only one with a camera around my neck which makes me self-conscious as I snap away but despite one boy asking for a photo; I appear invisible and inconsequential to those assembled. Such events always appear to be associated with problems

The horse fair is a window on another world. A world within a world. A world divorced from the mainstream. The stalls mainly sell materials which only suit its close clientele – metal churns, horses’ bits and various nick-nacks. There are of course cloth stalls but again in the main their apparel appeal to those who are there particularly the young girls who view these events as both a fashion parade and an opportunity to meet boys. Indeed, I came across and listened in on one such approach by a boy who runs over and asks ‘excuse me but my friend really likes you will you talk to him?’ None of that grabbing that was parade in the populist media a few years back.

Standing on the corners one comes across groups of old men. They had seen it all before. They appear the more traditionally dressed in their tweeds and barbers catching up with old friends and looking on at the young folk and their courting. Unlike a more formal selling environment with an arena and animals paraded in and out it is in these huddled groups that the horse trading is done. So often seeing or hearing a deal can be a rarity.

Walking around I noticed lots of strands of green, pink, blue materials and soon come across some younger kids attacking each other with kit and then looking like they immediately regretted it and set about removing it from each other’s hair! The silly string! Looks good they heeded then warning!

Every now and then a horse rushes by ridden, trotted or on occasion on its own! The crowd parts and everyone watches – again I am sure they said there was none of this-but I am glad there is because it adds some degree of excitement and authenticity.

Occasionally there are some other animals – chickens and caged canaries seem to be popular, and I see a number wandering around with the birds in colourful quaint wooden cages. The community are keen to maintain their traditions but unlike other customs where such things are kept up, here it seems natural and functional, rather than tradition for its own sake.

A fair representation?

Sadly, fairs and antisocial behaviour seem always to go hand in hand. One only need to delve into the records to see. The earliest being the 1315 Wakefield  Court Rolls which records three complaints brought against John  de Heton. He was accused of assaulting a man and a woman and overturning a stall, causing the owner damages and injuries totalling a loss of forty shillings. Regular accounts in the local press record thefts, selling of stolen horses and pick pockets litter the 19th century press accounts. Fairs always attract all types and certainly over the years drunkenness, damage to property and indeed bloodshed forced the local residents in 1656 to petition the West Riding justices to have it abolished stating that it was a nuisance and Wakefield market could provide their needs. It did not work of course, especially as the local community had not grasped that the fair whilst open to them was not really for them. By end of the 18th century the fair did indeed last from 24th August (St. Bartholomew’s) until 17th September. As the twentieth century developed it was moved to have the fair only on the starting date- 24th August and its last day and thus gave the name early Lee and Later Lee.   Alcohol was highlighted as a cause for much of the issues and as such there is no license to sell it at the fair.

Fairly well remembered

Julia Smith in the excellent 1989 Fairs, Feasts and Frolics spoke with a Mr J A Rawson, who she met at the ‘latter Lee’ in 1985. She said that he remembered when the fair was on the Baghill site. She says:

“He had been coming regularly for almost sixty years, and was only fourteen when he bought his first pony there for £4. 10S. He recalled once buying a foal and taking it home on the bus! He had spent his working life down the local pit and drove a pit pony when he first went underground. In order not to miss the fair, he would work the night shift and so have the day free. In the past a Welsh dealer had brought ponies and kept them on the moors at Hartshead to fatten them up for a few weeks prior to the fair, and Mr Rawson had often helped to drive them from there to Lee Gap. A Welsh dealer had been at the fair last year but had not returned this year, much to the disappointment of many of the visitors. Forty or fifty years ago, Irish traders also came to the fair bringing crates of geese and pullets, and the locals would buy a goose from them to fatten up for Christmas.”#

Little appears to have changed over the years since Smith’s description although gone have the:

“big chromium-plated gypsy caravans with their displays of Crown Derby china and their owners sitting on the steps, ‘as if they were showing off their homes and vying to outdo each other’.”

But the display of traditional wooden caravans appears to have increased in their absence as the community looks to continue its traditions. Everything else is almost identical to what greets the curious today she states that:

“the edges of the field were lined with horse boxes, vans and trailers. Horses for sale were tethered at the sides of them and tack, leather and ironwork were displayed on the tail-gates which were turned into makeshift stalls. Some of the traps and carts were decorated with delicately painted designs, I saw little actually changing hands, apart from a pedigree pup and a painting. Men huddled together in groups, deep in earnest conversations; it was here the real trading was done. At various intervals a shout would go up, a path would be cleared down the middle of the field and a horse would come galloping through the crowd, its bareback rider putting it through its paces. Buyers and sellers appeared to know each other, and there were shouts of encouragement or criticism as horse and rider sped by. Two minutes later and warning shouts would proclaim the presence of a huge shire horst being trotted, its owner running furiously alongside. Things would

quieten down for a little while and the huddles be reformed, but before long there was the crack of a whip and a pony and trap would dashdown the field.”

Interestingly unlike other fairs Lee Gap has not been swallowed up by its fringe activities and whilst Smith could watch:

“a man swallow and regurgitate a seven foot long chain! In the afternoon he escaped from a series of bonds and chains, accompanied by a good line in patter.

The business of the day was decidedly the buying and selling horses; four small swing-boats and a couple of slot machines were only concession to entertainment, apart from the escapologist of course.”

Today there are no fringe entertainments, certainly no miracle plays, only than the entertainment of meeting old friends, making new ones and silly string.

Of this buying and selling despite the lowkey nature of trading, I was fortunate to watch a number of deals which involved much too-ing and fro-ing, bluff and counter bluff, persuasion and the final slap of each other’s hands in a motion quite rhythmic and poetic. The deal being sealed and the horse sold.

It is a privilege to be able to see the Horse Fair, one which has remained unbroken for 800 years and whilst it may have its detractors its function being so pivotal to its community means it is a custom that on its own is in no danger of dying out as long as it is protected from those outside forces with their blinkered ways of looking at it!

Custom revived: Egmanton pilgrimage, Nottinghamshire

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The UK has a number of pilgrim locations – Walsingham, Canterbury – being well known and each have their set days in which pilgrimage would be particularly valuable. Our Lady of Egmanton is not one of those places which comes to mind when the world pilgrimage is raised. But a pilgrimage site it is and for three set feast days in the year – it becomes the focus of those seeking devotion. Being a Marian shrine- the Assumptiontide – is the most important. Thus, on the first Saturday of August the church becomes a pilgrim site.

Lady Luck?

Why Egmanton? That is a good question. It is believed that the shrine was established when apparition of the Virgin Mary to a local woman in nearby Ladywood, sometime prior to the 12th century. A similar tradition is of course associated with Walsingham but there a firm date and name of the women are given. It seems a bit coincidental for the church which became a stopping off point for Walsingham to have a similar story. Come what may the shrine did become a site of pilgrimage. There is evidence of pilgrims is evident at the church with the discovery of pilgrim ampulla and the scratched crosses on the door jam said to have been done as evidence of the completion of a vow. Then in 1547 it was destroyed.

In many cases that would have been that if it was not for the Duke of Newcastle. He had a desire to restore the shrine to its former glory employing Ninian Cowper to improve much of fabric, repaint and return the effigy of Our Lady. Such a splendid job being done that upon opening the door and seeing it one is at first shocked by its splendour.

Once the church had been restored it seemed obvious that pilgrimage would be soon revived.  A Guild of Our Lady of Egmanton society was formed  in 1912 and regular assumption tide pilgrimages begun in 1929. The ceremony consists of Mass, outside afternoon procession of the effigy of Our Lady and benediction. with pilgrims coming from Leicester, Leeds, Sheffield, Lincoln, and more locally. A year later the Rev. Alfred Hope Patten, who had restored the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, made the trip along with a group of his people and gifted a banner to the church, which is still there today. Since then many other pilgrimages have been made to Egmanton. It has been a popular pilgrimage for members of the Anglo Catholic movement and on its Golden Jubilee in 1979, the High Mass was undertaken by the Lord Bishop of Southwell, the Rt. Revd. John Denis Wakeling. Even today those attending came from different both geographically and religiously with a congregation made up of High church Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Orthodox.

I asked the question about the relationship between the diocese, the local vicar and the use of the church for Anglo-Catholic services. I was informed that it had been a fraught one and originally, a vicar was appointed to close the church down as surplus to requirements in the 1930s instead this appeared to springboard the further revival. It has not been plain sailing since though with some incumbents refusing to attend and sitting in the vicarage when the pilgrimage was on. Today there appears to be a more ecumenical approach.

Lady Day

Bar a lady in the church, which was also open, it is usually only open Thursday afternoon, there was little sign that this was a pilgrimage day. I crossed the road into the village hall where a splendid array of cakes and food was being prepared including one of the most delightful pavlovas I had ever seen! Soon a few people appeared and became to make their way to the church. In the past there had been a formal procession around the village as described below:

“I visited Egmanton as a pilgrim on several occasions in the late 1980s and early 1990s and on a couple of occasions helped carry the portable statue of Our Lady along the village street and back to the church. It was all rather charming in a very Anglo-Catholic way –  some of the villagers getting on with their Saturday afternoon gardening as we pilgrims wended our way past, and some of the artificial silk flowers falling out of the holder on the plinth as we processed along…symbolic of graces bestowed by Our Lady I decided.”

I was told that in the 1960s the Marian statue was being carried into the church proudly when it hit against a low yew tree branch fell of its platform and smashed on the floor. The effigy had been borrowed so the congregation were keen to to repair it and fortunately it was put back together as good as new! This would happen before the service but the organisers this year felt that due to covid numbers may well be down and so it was not organised. Which of course was disappointing and one hope it returns in the near future. Today the pilgrims flowed many touching the carved crosses left by medieval pilgrims of the past.

The service begun with devotions to the effigy of our lady within the shrine beside the altar and one feels like we are brought back to the pre-Reformation time. Soon the church filled with incense and song. The most remarkable was an elderly lady who stood up and gave a spine-tingling Ave Maria….then after the service back to sample that pavlova!

All in all Egmanton pilgrimage can be seen as one of the purest of the revived pilgrimages. It isn’t overly gaudy or over commercialised but it fulfils the need to connect spiritually with a place, a moment in religious history, and it is more evocative because of it. A small pilgrimage perhaps but one which connects with the real heritage of our Christian past.

Custom demised: Gule of August and Lammas Towers, Lothian

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“The herdsmen within a certain district, towards the beginning of summer, associated themselves into bands, sometimes to the number of a hundred or more. Each of these communities agreed to build a tower in some conspicuous place, near the centre of their district, which was to serve as the place of their rendezvous on Lammas Day. This tower was usually built of sods, for the most part square, about four feet in diameter at the bottom and tapering to a point at the top, which was seldom above seven or eight feet from the ground. In building it, a hole was left in the centre for a flagstaff, on which to display their colours.”

Scottish traditions - Lammas Day - History ScotlandSuch records an unusual custom in the Trans. Soc. Antiq. of Scotland, vol. i.  It continues to state:

“From the moment the foundation of the tower was laid, it became an object of care and attention to the whole community; for it was reckoned a disgrace to suffer it to be defaced; so that they resisted, with all their power, any attempts that should be made to demolish it, either by force or fraud; and, as the honour that was acquired by the demolition of a tower, if effected by those belonging to another, was in proportion to the disgrace of suffering it to be demolished, each party endeavoured to circumvent the other as much as possible, and laid plans to steal upon the tower unperceived, in the night time, and level it with the ground. Great was the honour that such a successful exploit conveyed to the undertakers; and, though the tower was easily rebuilt, yet the news was quickly spread by the successful adventurers, through the whole district, which filled it with shouts of joy and exultation, while their unfortunate neighbours were covered with shame.”

There appeared to be some competition arisen which may have lead to some desire to knock over the rival’s effort there for it continues to state:

“To ward off this disgrace, a constant nightly guard was kept at each tower, which was made stronger and stronger, as the tower advanced; so that frequent nightly skirmishes ensued at these attacks, but were seldom of much consequence, as the assailants seldom came in force to make an attack in this way, but merely to succeed by surprise; as soon, therefore, as they saw they were discovered, they made off in the best manner they could.”

The night watch would have a horn and this was called the “tooting horn,” which was described as a “horn perforated in the small end, through which wind can be forcibly blown from the mouth, so as to occasion a loud noise” And it said that there was need for great dexterity and that “they practised upon it during the summer while keeping their beasts; and towards Lammas they were so incessantly employed at this business, answering to, and vieing with each other, that the whole country rang continually with the sounds.”

The custom was organised and the report continues:

“As Lammas Day approached each community chose one from among themselves for their captain, and they prepared a stand of colours to be ready to be then displayed. For this purpose they borrowed a fine table-napkin of the largest size from one of the farmers’ wives within the district, and ornamented it with ribbons. Things being thus prepared, they marched forth early in the morning on Lammas Day, dressed in their best apparel, each armed with a stout cudgel, and, repairing to their tower, there displayed their colours in triumph, blowing horns, and making merry in the best manner they could: about nine o’clock they sat down upon the green and had their breakfast.”

There would still be concerns over attacks from other parties and thus:

“In the meantime scouts were sent out towards every quarter to bring them notice if any hostile party approached, for it frequently happened, that, on that day, the herdsman of one district went to attack those of another district, and to bring them under subjection to them by main force. If news were brought that a hostile party approached, the horns sounded to arms, and they immediately arranged themselves in the best order they could devise; the stoutest and boldest in front, and those of inferior prowess behind. Seldom did they await the approach of the enemy, but usually went forth to meet them with a bold countenance, the captain of each company carrying the colours, and leading the van. When they met they mutually desired each other to lower their colours in sign of subjection. If there appeared to be a great disproportion in the strength of the parties, the weakest usually submitted to this ceremony without much difficulty, thinking their honour was saved by the evident disproportion of the match; but, if they were nearly equal in strength, neither of them would yield, and it ended in blows, and sometimes bloodshed. It is related that, in a battle of this kind, four were actually killed, and many disabled from work for weeks.”

However it then states that:

“If no opponent appeared, or if they themselves had no intention of making an attack, at about mid-day they took down their colours, and marched, with horns sounding, towards the most considerable village in their district; where the lasses and all the people came out to meet them, and partake of their diversions. Boundaries were immediately appointed, and a proclamation made, that all who intended to compete in the race should appear. A bonnet ornamented with ribbons was displayed upon a pole as a prize to the victor; and sometimes five or six started for it, and ran with as great eagerness as if they had been to gain a kingdom; the prize of the second race was a pair of garters, and the third a knife. They then amused themselves for some time with such rural sports as suited their taste, and dispersed quietly to their respective homes before sunset. When two parties met, and one of them yielded to the other, they marched together for some time in two separate bodies, the subjected body behind the other, and then they parted good friends, each performing their races at their own appointed place. Next day, after the ceremony was over, the ribbons and napkin that formed the colours were carefully returned to their respective owners, the tower was no longer a matter of consequence, and the country returned to its usual state of tranquillity.”

When this curious custom died up exactly is unclear it was still being described in the 18th century but as a possible more ancient pagan custom it is a shame and surprised in some format it has not been revived!

 

Custom contrived: Queen’s Birthday service and procession, Southwell

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This year being a jubilee year the celebration of Queen has been everywhere, from shop windows to suburban streets, the country has been on full on royal revels and rejoicing. However, one town has been celebrating the Queen annually for much longer. This is Southwell. Southwell is a very picturesque small town which as I have said before should have more traditions especially considering the delightful ancient minster.

The Queen’s birthday surprisingly is not celebrated much in the United Kingdom, bar a gun salute and Trooping the Colour. However, in much of the Commonwealth it is annually celebrated and is indeed a national holiday in such places. Not so here, so Southwell’s tradition is on the Sunday closest to the Queen’s official birthday in June.

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It’s my birthday and I’ll have two if I want to!

Indeed although Elizabeth II’s real birthday is in April, the tradition of celebrating a set date irrespective of who the king or queen is, is older. This set monarch’s birthday has been celebrated in the United Kingdom since the reign of King George II in 1748 being subsequently determined by  at first the British Empire and then the Commonwealth of Nations and the date set by each country depends on that country although to make use of supposed good weather in the northern hemisphere June is set.

Originally Queen Elizabeth II’s was the same as her father the second Thursday but was changed in 1959, and since then her Official Birthday has since then been celebrated on the second Saturday of June. Southwell undertake it usually the day after.

Queening up for the day

The service starts with a procession of the dignitaries attending this civic event and in the bright June sunshine it is an eye catching spectacle. Just a way down from the entrance of the Minster, mace bearer lead the Queen’s representative in the county, the Lord-Lieutenant, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, officers of the local army and judges in their ceremonial robes. They processed through the Minster archway and were created by the dean and church officials for the final procession into the church for the service.

How long the service has been undertaken I have been unable to fully discover but one of the local attendees suggested since the silver jubilee, another said the 80s, however the earliest newspaper account I can locate is from 1994 but it is clear that it was already been established by then:

“SWORD CARRIED TO SERVICE TRADITION was broken on Sunday when Mrs Richard Abel Smith, the first woman High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, took part in the Queen’s official birthday service in Southwell Minster. Instead of wearing her ceremonial sword, it was borne in front of her by grand-daughter Amelia Beaumont (6), who travelled from Ireland for the occasion. The sword was used by Mrs Abel Smith’s father, General Sir Douglas Kendrew, when he was Governor of Western Australia. Preacher at the service was the Bishop of Southwell, the Rt Rev Patrick Harris, and prayers were led by the high sheriff’s chaplain, the Rev Keith Turner, Vicar of Linby-cum-Papplewick. The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry were ushers and Nottinghamshire Constabulary Band provided music before and after the service.”

Little did I know but I was to attend the last one before the national Covid lockdown. The year after it went digital and was reported more than any time before by the press. An article on the Southwell Minster website, the Queen’s Birthday Service: A Unique Celebration of Public Service in Nottinghamshire, reported that the then High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Dame Elizabeth Fradd, explained that:

“The Queen’s Birthday Service is usually a grand occasion at Southwell Minster but this year, like so much else, it will take a very different form. It will also have a new significance as a result of the pandemic and the public’s renewed appreciation of the value and importance of public service in all its forms.”

The Queen’s representative in Nottinghamshire is the Lord-Lieutenant, Sir John Peace, who said:

“What I see in local communities, across Nottinghamshire and across the country is an unprecedented crisis; what provides room for hope is the commitment to work together for the common good. Front line workers of all kinds deserve the public’s praise and appreciation but it is just as important to recognise the immense contribution of those behind the scenes. As Her Majesty said in her speech to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day: ‘We will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us’. Following Her Majesty’s lead, this online service will be an occasion for us to demonstrate our pride in all aspects of public service and common endeavour. I invite everyone to join us online for this special celebration.”

Southwell’s Queen’s birthday celebration may be a small custom but it is certainly unique and worthy of attending.

Custom survived: Ickwell May Day

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Bedfordshire does not feature often in books on calendar customs but looming large is Ickwell May Day, a colourful injection of textbook May day. Centred around their distinctive permanent May pole on the green in the village’s centre; the custom has everything envisioned in a May Day – Morris men, maypole dancers, garlands and the May Queen. However it has some unique aspects as well which I shall come to later. 

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Merrie Month of May

The earliest reference to the custom is in churchwardens’ accounts from the 19 May 1563 where a list of “charges for all our Maye” is made. It shows that money was spent on making the Morris coats, shoes and bells as well as for a minstrel,: spice and fruit for baked meats; hops to brew beer; wheat; and three calves. Money was also spent on gunpowder suggesting the day ended in a bit of bang. Indeed these charges cost 55s and 3d and a hefty £4 19s 4d receipts was recorded. The customs survival between then and the late 1800s is unknown although it was doubtlessly stopped during the Commonwealth it is unknown when it was revived for the next record is not until 1872. 

When it is said that Squire John Harvey paid for a permanent Maypole which was erected in 1872, beforehand the Maypole was set up the day before and removed thereafter. Locally believed to be a ship’s mast set up to celebrate the birth of his son. However, the Bedfordshire Times of 5 May 1899 states however that the tree had come from Warden Warren and was a larch, 67 feet high and four feet around at the base. The pole had been embedded in six feet of cement for stability. The Will of 1877 records that the said John Harvey of Ickwell Bury leaves £2/10/- to the Northill churchwardens “to be expended yearly in keeping up Mayday at Ickwell as has been done during my life”.  

As the 1800s came to a close a revival or rebirth perhaps of May Day was happening courtesy of John Ruskin which saw the introduction of the May Queen through his introduction at Whiteland’s college and one of his students, Headmistress of Northhill School, Mrs Hodges, introduced this aspect of the custom and an Evelyn Woodward became the first Queen.  The custom began to grow and expand when schools in the nearby village of Caldecote were given a half day holiday and to watch the May day and later Old Warden joined in..now of course it is a bank holiday.

An account in the 1911 Bedfordshire Times for 1911 describes the scene not dissimilar to what one can see today including the surprising reference to the camera!:

“At Northill School we found them lining up for the procession. Behold a regal chariot bedecked with coronals and festoons of spring flowers in blue and gold and white; and drawn by a milk white steed! Enthroned on a flower dais, on the aforesaid chariot, were the May Queen for 1910-11, Mary Law, and the May Queen elect, Agnes Woodward, attended by a full retinue of squires, pages and maids of honour. Nice, chubby little girls were delightfully arrayed as spring flowers. The country dancers from Caldecote were charming Quaker costumes of blue and brown, the boys with three-cornered hats and the girls with snowy coifs. The Morris dancers from Northill were resplendent in the quaintly flowered muslin of a bye-gone day, and, honouring tradition, there wore bells on their ankles. There was the usual charming bevy of dairymaids, rosy, plump, sweet-voiced, and pig-tailed, at the rear. In front of the car (we beg their pardon for leaving them so late), were the pretty little girls and boys who perform the cobweb dance, the girls in blue frocks and Dutch bonnets, and the boys in smart white sailor suits, and last, but certainly not least, the merry maypole dancers themselves, the girls in simple white dresses, flower garlanded, and with glowing faces that surely were washed in May dew that morning; and the boys in smock frocks. At the head of all marched the Biggleswade Brass Band, making brave music, though, alas! there was no fiddler there. During its marshalling, the troop faced a heavy fire of camera clickings with conspicuous coolness, and presently a move was made for the sister hamlet, half a mile distant. A vast concourse of people was waiting on the Green, and a reverent hush was maintained while the Coronation of Queen Agnes was performed with all due ceremony. Truly, it was Queen’s weather, the sun shining kindly from a dappled sky on the idyllic sward, surrounded by cottages that were picturesque enough for stage scenery, snowy orchards, and magnificent trees. The ring was packed many deep, chairs inside were captured in a twinkling, and there was an outer circle of motors and carriages”.

The permanent Maypole did not last beyond the new century for the Victoria County History noted that in 1912 that Ickwell did not have one. An account in 1911 Bedfordshire Times noting that:

“As all the world knows, May day was not celebrated at Ickwell last year owing to divers reasons, including the alleged unsoundness of the Maypole, which had dominated the Green for over thirty years. The new pole, a present from Warden Warren, is broader but not quite so tall, and considerable difficulty was experienced in planting it owing to the presence of a subterranean spring. However, the obstacle was finally overcome, and the pole was a goodly sight in its brave coat of red and white paint, surmounted by a great Union Jack.”

In 1945 a committee was established which continues today to organise the event and in 2000 50 former May Queens assembled with a special locket being given to the then May Queen, Stephanie Turner which was made by the May Queen of 1920 and presented by her, then a Vera Wagstaff.

The day begins with some splendid Morris dancing and after the judging of the garlands the main event begins. Soon the road is closed, and a procession from Northhill to the green much as described above with Morris dancers, a band, garland carrying girls, Moggies and the outgoing and incoming May Queen with attendants and a large concourse of dancers, the Mayers with their Lord and Lady. This in itself was a very colourful site as it lead to the green for the festivities.

One of the most unique aspects of the custom are the moggies, a group who are blackened up and often cross-dressed. They go around soliciting money and mischief and dressed in ragged clothes and carrying besom brushes. Their origin is unclear and it was suggested to me that these represented the devil, the darkside of the year as the Morris represented the summer months. I was not sure of this and it seemed like trying to inject some pagan into the procedures. To my mind it is significant that in the 1800s and early 1900s nearby Northhill had a plough monday tradition where blackened faces used to disguise begging and mischievous behaviour are recorded. At the demise of this it would seem sensible that the Moggies translated to May, although why they were called Moggies was unclear. Another likely theory is that they represented Chimney sweeps and of course sweeps have a long association with May day adopting it in urban areas as a holiday. Of course I last went in 1996 the colour of their faces may well have changed since!

The Maypole dancing unusually is taken up by all ages and was splendid; with the repertoire of classic dances – formal plait and spiders web being the most intricate. It is perhaps particularly unique to Ickwell to see adult dancers, called the Old Scholars (perhaps a name nodding to John Ruskin’s academic re-invention but of course referring to the fact that they were ex students of the nearby schools). Dressed in white smocks and dresses these adult dancers were In fact  so good that one wonders why there were not more adult may dancers! The day ends with all being invited to surround the Maypole and so I joined in as we all joined hands and and did the the Circassian Circle, moving in and out around the Maypole probably as those 16th century Mayers did.

As I said there may not be Bedfordshire customs but as Ickwell is one of the best May days in the country it more than makes up for it

Custom contrived: Dancing in the May at Laxton

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“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

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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

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

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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

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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.