Custom survived: The Knillian Ceremony, St Ives, Cornwall

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The John Knill Ceremony often called the Knillian is perhaps because of the combination of its bizarre stipulations, quincentarian nature and picturesque nature of the custom and its associated seaside town, is the archetypical calendar custom.

Basically a glorified dole with specific conditions. Of course being every five years means that all eyes are focused on the town on the Feast of James, that is 25th July. Being so rarely done it is a time that anyone and everyone interested in customs or indeed connected to the custom will try to make.

In many ways, John Knill, the founder, both customs collector (exercise and customs that is) and Mayor of St. Ives in 1767, is a personal role model, a man determined to establish the most bizarre custom so that he could long be remembered. This campaign to be remembered begun in 1782 when he instructed the building of a fifty foot triangular pyramidical folly – subsequently called Knill’s steeple – as jointly a sea mark for shipping, his mausoleum and subsequently the foci of the custom. Ironically due to reasons over consecration he was not interred there but at St. Andrew’s Holborn some 281 miles – a bit too far for a procession and not as picturesque for a custom! So the mausoleum became a real folly!

His Will stipulated that the custom should involve 15 minute dancing by ten young girls, each under the age of ten, traditionally daughters of either fishermen, tinners or seamen, two widows, the Mayor, the Customs Officer and a Master of Ceremonies. Originally it appears that the tune was the Old Hundred, but now is the very jolly perennial Cornish favourite the ‘floral or furry dance’ tune is played. John left money for the upkeep of his monument and also £25 for celebrations to take place.  An account of the 1886 Knill ceremony neatly sums it up:

“The widows were Elizabeth Trevorrow, seventy-six, and Nancy Stoneman, seventy-four. These ancient crones, with their very much younger sisters, managed, at the end of their shambling, to quaver out the  ‘Old Hundredth,’ and a ‘ fine old tune ‘ they made of it. During the afternoon the money was paid to the recipients at the office of Mr. Hicks; and the sum of £5, for the man who had brought up the largest family of children up to ten years of age, was awarded to Andrew Noall, seventy-one, who had had sixteen children, nine of them being under the specified age. The fiddler received £1”

Over time it appears that the custom grew as illustrated by an account by Sabine Baring-Gould states in his Cornish Characters and curious events and first seemed a veritable party:

“Early in the morning the roads from Helston, Truro, and Penzance, were lined with horses and vehicles of every description. These were seen midst clouds of dust pouring down the sides of the mountains, while thousands of travellers on foot chose the more pleasant route through the winding passages of the valleys. At noon the assembly was formed. The wrestlers entered the ring; the troop of virgins, dressed all in white, advanced with solemn step, which was regulated by the notes of harmony. The spectators ranged themselves along the hills which enclose the extensive Bay, while the pyramid on the summit seemed pointing to the sun, who appeared in all the majesty of light, rejoicing at the scene. At length the Mayor of St. Ives appeared in his robes of state. The signal was given. The flags were displayed in waving splendour from the towers of the Castle.

Here the wrestlers exerted their sinewy strength; there the rowers, in their various dresses of blue, white, and red, urged the gilded prows of their boats through the sparkling waves of the ocean; while the hills echoed to the mingled shouts of the victors, the dashing of the oars, the songs of the virgins, and the repeated plaudits of the admiring crowd, who stood so thick upon the crescent which is formed by the surrounding mountains as to appear one living amphitheatre.”

Knill points

Knill was very particular in his Will and stipulated the following stipulated points in the use of the £25 pounds he invested. Firstly:

“£10 for a dinner for the Trustees who are the mayor, Vicar and Customs Officer plus two guests each. This dinner was to take place at the George and Dragon Inn, Market Place.

£5 to ten young girls who have to be the daughters of either fishermen, tinners or seamen.

£1 to the fiddler.

£2 to two widows.”

Such a feast does go on, privately, but I doubt that the original £25 covers it – not even fish and chips. It is probably nowhere as grandiose as that described by Baring Gould in his Cornish characters and strange events:

“The ladies and gentlemen of Penzance returned to an elegant dinner, which they had ordered to be prepared at the Union Hotel, and a splendid ball concluded the entertainment of the evening.”

Some stipulations and doles have subsequently died out as times has changed:

“£5 to the man and wife, widower or widow, who shall raise the greatest family of legitimate children who have reached the age

of ten years (without parochial assistance).

£1 for white ribbon for breast knots.”

I doubt these are still given out…so too the money for the best followers after the fishing boats…they themselves gone!

As for the other stipulations these are still done and the monies are handed out in silk purses from his ancient chest on the steps of the town’s Guildhall but now the Fiddler gets £25 – well he does do a fair bit of work and in 2016 he came from Padstow!

Interestingly there was some controversy regarding the children chosen..some of which were apparently not descended from these processions and too young, when older ones could have attended!! I like a bit of local intrigue!

Knill and void

Sadly some of the aspects described in these first Knillians have gone. The wrestlers have gone for example.  So too had gone the song sung by the minstrel adorned in ribbons for the virgins to dance to…as indeed the use of the word virgin…. The song sung is recorded as follows:

“Shun the bustle of the bay,

Hasten, virgins, come away;

Hasten to the mountain’s brow,

Leave, O leave, S. Ives below.

Haste to breathe a purer air,

Virgins fair, and pure as fair;

Fly S. Ives and all her treasures,

Fly her soft voluptuous pleasures;

Fly her sons and all their wiles,

Lushing in their wanton smiles;

Fly the splendid midnight halls;

Fly the revels of her balls;

Fly, O fly the chosen seat,

Where vanity and fashion meet.

Hither hasten from the ring,

Round the tomb in chorus sing,

And on the lofty mountain’s brow, aptly dight,

Just as we should be, all in white,

Leave all our troubles and our cares below.”

Knill down

Around 10 a large crowd had begun to assemble outside the Guidhall, where the stipulations of his Will and the story of the custom was related. The large metal chest inscribed with “Knill’s Chest 1797” was temporarily removed from the museum and put on the table at the foot of the steps. With some humming and ahhing, the table was removed for a better one, more befitting and the chest placed upon this – nobody noticed! Remember they have had five years to organise this! Soon the Mayor, Vicar and Custom officer appeared. These are pivotal characters for each hold a key to the chest and as such all three keys need to be used to open it. Although to save embarrassment it appeared someone had already opened it and discretely propped it open with a piece of old wood. The Master of Ceremonies welcomed everybody, or rather those at the front as the mic did not work – remember five years planning! The Mayor introduced the custom and soon all three keys were in the lock and the chest was ceremonially open to cheers. Then all three hands went to distribute in white purses the monies owed as stipulated.

Just as the ceremony was about to proceed to the dancing a furious squall arrived drenching everyone ‘shall we hold off?’ I heard cry ‘no it’ll pass over’…and with such faith in the transient British weather they were off.

The children then proceed to dance around the town, weaving through the back streets to an awaiting transport – a minibus. Apparently, this was established early on as it is reported that:

“In former years the custom had been for the dancers to walk in procession from the town to the mausoleum. But in 1881 the weather was so unfavourable that the old practice was departed from, and the actors were driven up in a waggonette.”

Indeed the walk to the monument is quite a long one and all along it were people making this five yearly pilgrimage – I jumped into a taxi! By the time I reached the top there was already a throng of people being entertained by a Cornish music and dancing group.

Not late for his funeral!

Interestingly, unlike many benefactors of curious dole customs John Knill was able to witness the first of his established custom in 1801. It is not recorded whether he attended the 1806 event but he was barred from attending the 1811 event as he died on 29th March 1811!

Knilly there!

Soon the fiddler could be heard and the party flowed through the crowd and made their way into the mausoleum’s enclosure. The girls assembled along the long wall around the Steeple and the others in the party beneath as the Master of Ceremonies once again explained the story and everyone readied themselves as the Fiddler led the girls, widows, Mayor, Vicar and Custom master around the monument. The girls were understandably more enthusiastic in their dancing around, spinning and skipping, the widows a little less, but the glint in their eyes suggested they dearly wanted to and giggled at the oddness of it.

Then the Master of Ceremonies called all those assembled to sing the Old Hundreth – the words helpfully in the commemorative booklet. The sounds of the crowds singing could no doubt be heard for miles around. Then another dance was called for around the monument and after a few thank yous, the Vicar was called to give his blessing to the crowd..at this moment a heavy storm appeared again and fitting the wind and rain and ‘making it as brief as possible’ he blessed us on our onward journey and it was over for another five years!

Custom revived: St Ann’s Day Pilgrimage to St. Ann’s Well, Brislington

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In medieval England, St Anne, a slightly apocraphyl saint, said to be the mother of Mary, was widely celebrated. On the outskirts of modern Bristol is one relic from this day. St. Anne’s Well is perhaps all that is left of a wider site, which included a noted chapel – indeed it is the chapel which has an older more venerable history. Said to have been visited by Henry VIIth and his queen, it is now lost beneath the urbanisation which has spread through Bristol suburbs. The delightful oasis of Brislington Brook and St. Anne’s Park similarly could have been swallowed up…but the effort of local groups has preserved its memory.

When I lived in Bristol, I knew of St. Anne’s Well but although I knew that it was visited by the local church never could find any details. I remember ringing up once and finding now further information – O the days before the internet. Now the church appears have forgotten the well, but not the locals who each Saturday nearest to the old saint’s feast day go in procession to the well.  The current celebration of this noted holy well is perhaps more of a contrived custom than revived perhaps but although it is largely stripped of its religious emphasis is no less significant.

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If you go down to the woods today!

Meeting at the pub beforehand were a curious collection of costumed punters…if you didn’t know you would blame the drink! Adults of all ages and children readily got into the spirit and as the number of potential ‘processioners’ assembled, the group posed outside of the pub, formed a procession with three knights of honour, banners aloft following a specially made flag depicting the well. Medieval music guided us as we weaved and wandered first through streets, down back passages and along streets – much to the bewilderment of people as they peered out of the windows – quintessentially British! Then as we were about to descend into the delightfully named Nightingale Valley, we stopped to hear the first of our medieval monologues – which gave us a good rest whilst we listened.

Well-watered walkers

Formally and informally over the hundreds of years many people had walked here to access the waters for whatever reason. However, first ‘modern’ processions to the well begun in 1880s with the beginning of local Catholic attendance. In 1927 the Reverend C F. Harman lead the first twentieth century procession to the well and held a service there as a result it became an annual event only declining apparently in the 1970s as the site became vandalised and slowly derelict. However, in 1986, on the anniversary the 500th anniversary of the visit by Henry VII. Then the procession was led by rural Dean Father John Bradley who according to Ken Taylor’s 2016 work on the well and chapel, The Holy Wells and Chapel of St Anne in the Wood, Brislington, Bristol:

“snaked through St. Anne’s Wood to the holy well where a service was held jointly with the Rev. Mark Waters, vicar of the church of St. Anne’s who had revived the custom.”

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In Phil Quinn’s 1999 work Holy Wells of the Bath and Bristol Region there is a photos of a small group of pilgrims at the well. He notes:

“Some 40 people taking part in 1996 service of blessing of the well. In this the priest takes water from the well and sprinkles it over those gathered around.”

Accordingly, this custom continued until 2005 but why it ceased is unclear, the church survives and is still as its website states ‘High church’ leaning!

However, this was a relatively small interregnum as on 26th July 2009 members of the Brislington Community Archaeology Project revived the pilgrimage not as Taylor (2016) notes:

“The date was not chosen for its religious significance, but because of its historical significance – this was not a pilgrimage in honour of St. Anne, but a public, guided walk into the history and archaeology of the site.”

Taylor (2016) notes:

“Ten people met at the Kings Arms in Hollywood Road, which is opposite Kenneth Road, where the medieval pilgrims are reputed to have camped prior to walking to the Chapel of St Anne in the Wood. Leaving the pub at 2.15pm the group followed as closely as possible the course of Brislington Brook, which led to the so called Pilgrim’s Path through picturesque Nightingale Valley. They arrived at the holy well at St. Anne’s Wood around 3pm, where several other people waited the arrival of the party.”

A further walk occurred a year later or so on Sunday 25th for Festival of British Archaeology and so the numbers double and at the well they added:

“more ribbons, pendants and other mementoes already there.”

By the following year, the procession had grown to around a hundred and the procession having members dressed up especially in medieval costumes. They were led by ‘King Henry VIIth’ and his Queen, ‘Elizabeth of York’. These royal personages being greeted by the Lord of Mayor of Bristol, who was also the councillor for Brislington.

This year also introduced some of the more theatrical elements of the walk, about a dozen monologues written especially by local people for the event were read along the route and beside the well.

In 2013 Discover Brislington Brook raised funds to deliver the pageant as well as raise local interest in the site via workshops with local schools and making procession puppets used in that year’s procession. By 2014 the pageant appears to have become a regular fixture in the local calendar. The procession now including traditional musicians and over 200 attendees. At the site of the well was organised a fair and BBQ.

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Alls well that ends at a well

The group, now swelled by some casual attendees made its way through the woods, along the stream, the children being enraptured by tales of wise women of the woods and trolls. Indeed, despite urbanisation being a few steps away, it was not difficult to believe their existence.  Soon the rather weary party arrived triumphantly at the well. The children enthusiastically rushed to peer into it and then throw things into it…oh well. More respectful children felt the urge to adorn it with paper pendant and these added to the ribbons which hang from the trees – evidence of more informal pilgrimage. Sadly, there was no BBQ or fair this year, which perhaps meant a rather deflated end especially for adults. However, it is clear that the procession remains a popular event locally and hopefully it will grow and with it help support the area and allow this ancient well to survive and be celebrated. If you are local or in the area next last weekend in July consider joining and remembering this ancient site.

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Custom demised: Yarnton Lot Meadows Ceremony, Oxfordshire

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In this quiet Oxfordshire village each July all eyes would be on their meadows. Here survived until fairly recently, a peculiar and potentially ancient custom which would allocate these meadows, called Lot Meadows, according to the drawing of balls – called Mead Balls.

Balls up

These meadows were arranged in 13 lots. There were divided in strips called customary acres which covered as much land as one man could mow in a day or ‘man’s mowth’. The balls represented by these inch in diameter balls, made of cherry or holly wood were inscribed with the name of each lot and of which 4 belonged to the neighbouring Begbroke. The names were thought to represent the names of tenant farmers: Boat, White, Dunn, William, Water Molly, Green, Boulton, Rothe, Gilbert, Harry, Freeman, Walter Jeoffrey and Parry. Traditionally the organisers, called the Meadsmen would proceed to a certain spot in the meadow where the balls were to be draw, but at later times they met at the Grapes Inn in the village.

Here a ball was drawn from the ball and its name proclaimed and as this is done a man would scythe six feet of hay and another would cut the initials of the winner. This was repeated until all the lots were drawn and which point the Meadsman would write down the owners of each strip.  Disputes would occur. A report records that:

“There is a record of one disagreement over trespassing after the lots had been drawn and a fight resulted. This was in 1817, in the reign of George III, and in the ancient warrant for the arrest of the participants the Sheriffs are entreated to keep them safely, so that you may have their Bodies before us at Westminster’. To Westminster they went for their trial and careful record of their expenses they kept, even down to two shillings and ten-pence for the hire of a coach!”

To distinguish the boundary, men would tread up and down the edges and this was ‘running the treads’.

Having a Field Day

The cutting of the meadows themselves developed into a popular intense one-day custom with large quantities of plum puddings and plum pudding being consumed. The day ended with some subsequently rather drunken races for the honour of ‘securing a garland’ which would be proudly displayed in the church.  It was not always good humoured; as riots and one man died as a result in 1817. Consequently, the vicar gave a severe sermon that Sunday and the mowing was spread over three days to even out the alcohol!

Blackballed!

Despite a survival from the Norman conquest and its survival post fatality, numbers dwindled and then in 1978 as a consequence of the area becoming a nature reserve. The balls and the Meadsmen survive however, the latter being a hereditary title should the meadows return to service!  Until then the fields at this time of year are a blaze of local wild flowers and I suppose this can easily replace the loss of an ancient custom.

Custom survived: Folkestone’s Blessing the sea and fisheries

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God bless you!

The ceremonies of blessing the sea and fisheries are perhaps one of the best examples of a Christianisation of a pagan ritual. They originated as early man’s way of giving thanks to ensure good harvests for the next year. Yet, it is clear that they are part of the ‘revived’ or rather ‘cleaned’ harvest thanksgiving ceremonies, which have become quite familiar, thanks to this revival or rather adoption by the church perhaps, in the mid-1800s. Found around the country in a number of maritime locations (even in locations where fishing has become a matter of academic history). Kent, being a county surrounded on two sides by sea naturally it has a fair number of these ceremonies. Traditionally they were help around Ascension Day or during the three days of ‘Rogationtide’ (during which beating the bounds ceremonies would also be undertaken), many have moved to either dates nearing Patronal saints (Fishermen saints Peter or James), or when tourists are more frequent!

 

 

 

Folkestone’s ceremony claims to be the oldest continually undertaken still surviving. One of these occurs in the ancient fishing town of Folkestone, being associated with the chapel of St. Peter, dedicated to the town’s fisher folk with fine views of the harbour.

The earliest traceable record is an account in the Folkestone Express of July 8th 1883. However, according to Mr. Fisher of Folkestone St Peter’s Church, this ceremony may have already been of some age then. This is because, the report laments that it was a depressed event with a low tide and sluggish boats. Traditionally it was held in the old fish market. At the time he notes that there must have been 100 boats in the inner harbour. Photographs of the 1920s show a large number of smocks attending. The Folkestone Herald of July Seventh 1906, noted an addition to the traditional service in the form of prayers. It added:

“that it may please Thee to bless the waters of the sea that they may bring forth fish abundantly.. bless and preserve the fishermen of these waters…and lift their minds to heavenly desires.”

Something fishy?

In 1935 was the last year to be held in the old fish market, and since it has been held overlooking the harbour. The parish priest had worked hard to have all the old hovels removed and replaced by the terrace housing which remains to today.

In a press report of 1958, it noted that it was then attended by the Bishop of Dover, the Rt. Rev. L. Meredith, and the Mayor, F. W. Archer as well as other members of the Corporation, Choristers, Scouts, members of the Old Contemptible and the Royal Naval Association and children dressed in traditional fishermen’s clothes.

In this report it was sadly noted that service lacked the gaiety of previous years as the little fisherman’s cottages were not bedecked with flags and nor were the boats in harbour decorated as they were for previous occasions. Furthermore, no fishermen were to be found in the procession. A 67 year old fishermen, Bill Harris who had fished the waters from Folkestone some 50 years, noted that: ‘Things had certainly changed’, he could remember those times when the harbour was full of fully decorated boats and all the houses were flying flags and bunting. He bemoaned that no-one was interested. The then Bishop said that Blessing the Fishermen, fell into two groups those which do it for fun and those who did it for a life’s work. He said that:

” It is those who devote their whole lives to fishing in the sea that we are asking for God’s continued blessing this afternoon.’” 

This blessing attracted television coverage from both the BBC and ITA, and the service was performed by Bishop Noel Hall, formerly Bishop of Vhota Nagpour, India with two Deacons of Honour (Rev. W. H. Bathhurst Vicar of St. Saviours) and Rev. J. Meliss (curate of Folkestone Parish church). The ceremony was conducted by the Rev. H. J. L. Stephens (Vicar of St. Peters).

The lack of fishermen was what doubtless prompted the event to be renamed ‘blessing the sea’ rather than ‘fisheries’ and by doing so saved this the oldest of such blessings. Tony Foxworthy (2008) in Customs in Kent describes it well:

“The evening starts with service in St. Peter’s church. After the service a procession is formed consisting of a local band in the lead followed by the children of St. Peter’s primary school, with the girls carrying small posies of flowers, and the boys carrying a large model of a fishermen’s boat. Following the children comes the church choir then the processional cross, then the clergy and local dignitaries like the Mayor, the Mayoress and local councillors, then the invited guest preacher, usually a local Bishop. The procession winds its way to the harbour where a large crowd has assembled. The fisheries are then blessed by the visiting Bishop, who then leads to a short service and addresses the hundreds of people attending this very picturesque custom.”

 

The custom retains a very colourful and evocative feel especially as the clergy process down from St. Peter’s Church, (usually on the first Sunday after St. Peter’s Day (29th June), at around three o’ clock). Also attending this ceremony, are the Lord Mayor and his barker. After a series of hymns, and readings, the sea is blessed by splashing holy water and shaking incense over the harbour railings.

 

Custom occasional: Abingdon Bun Throwing

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Abingdon has a custom which has been undertaken rather on and off over 200 years. Principally associated with Royal events its irregularity means that it does not fit the categories on this blog so I have made a new category – custom occasional!

How did this curious custom begin? Abingdon claims its unique. In the way it does of course, but there are other bun throws such as that I recorded at Wath upon Dearne. It may not have started as bun throwing and it is suggested that it may have been a dole probably done to recognise the importance of the event it was associated with. During the 1760 for George III coronation, a John Waite records catching a cake thrown from the Market House. The Borough Minutes of 1831 record that 500 penny cakes distributed. In the Abingdon Herald’s it states that:

500 cakes … were thrown from the tops of houses into the dirt to be scrambled for, in accordance with ancient usage”.

From 1761 until 2016 34 bun throws have been done of these 27 have been for Royal occasions – 8 coronations, 6 jubilees, 5 birthdays, 4 marriages, 2 anniversaries of a marriage and one Royal visit. Other events have been celebrated by buns such as VE Day and its 50th anniversary and the end of the Crimean War or Charter days and even an International Day. In the museum can be seen evidence of the last 17 bun throwings, the earliest being from 1887 Golden Jubilee of Victoria. The museum was closed on the day unfortunately. The number of bun throws appear to have increased in the year, possibly as a result of a wise tourist drive – nothing wrong with that of course!

Bun time for all

I turned up a few hours earlier to see the town preparing. Abingdon is a classic town – a real life Trumpton and as such I expected Trumptonesque activities For of course it was not just bun throwing to keep the crowd happy the organisers had put on some other entertainments. Very Trumptonlike with Town Crier, band and Morris.

One of the attendees was morning about the need for signs for the ingredients of the buns and morning ‘EU regulation’. I smiled wryly…although I noted there wasn’t a sign saying ‘don’t eat the ones on the floor’.

As the crowds begun to assemble, the local band cheerfully entertained them from everything from Hope and Glory to Sex Bomb! As we approached nearer to launch time, it was time for the famed Abingdon Morris Men to appear with their Bull mascot, sword and pewter mug. They enthralled those assembled with their dances and this was a good advert for their more famous Mock Mayor custom the week after. The crowd looked very responsive to them and so no doubt that boded well for the following week!

Whilst this was going on Union Jack flags were enthusiastic delivered through the crowd with children leaping on the opportunity to give them a way and occasionally poke an eye out no doubt.

Then a small procession came to the town hall attended by the Mayor, the town dignitaries, local MP and the winners of a furthest bun throwing competition a few weeks earlier!

The band then struck up the National Anthem and the crowd sung. And yes in the crowd, there was that embarrassing moment where no one remembers the words to the second verse! Then there was a cheer as they turn around and ascended the town hall. A few minutes later they appeared on the roof.

Bun fight

In what appeared an aeon, peppered with false starts teasing the crowd, limbering up and chants of ‘we want buns’, the later could be misinterpreted Versailles style!

“please do not use upturned umbrellas’ You don’t see signs like that everyday do you? But it was clear that one of the greatest aspects of bun throwing is the chance to catch as many as possible. However, there was no unruly scramble, this was genteel Oxfordshire after all.

Then the clock struck 7 and we were off. And some off it was literally raining buns. There was no let off. Over 2500 were being launched and it felt like it. The sky was almost darkened over with buns! Catching them was another matter. One bounced off my shoulder and another with some force hit me squarely on the head ‘ouch’. Some people were clearly having greater luck. A girl behind had about eight and we were only four minutes in! Two children had baseball gloves..very ingenious!

Then I began having luck and soon caught a special celebratory bun with 90 piped onto it. I appeared to be the only one I found one I noticed in the same area, so I did not know how many were being released but I would imagine 90. So if so catching 1 out of 90 out of the 2500 was I suppose a bit of a chance happening. The sound of excitement was getting fever pitch and more and more buns fell from the sky and then 15 minutes in the sky cleared. No more buns. The crowd cheers and began to dispersed. Around me there were lots of grinning children clutching their happy hoards…and off everyone went…roll on the 100th?

Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

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Many wells and springs were believed to increase in proficiency either Midsummer (Eve or Day). Often such wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton, Northamptonshire or St John’s Well, Shenstone, Staffordshire, whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire, Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes in her Lincolnshire folklore that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible and indeed likely that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day, By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well; The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Nottinhamshire’s Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

It was suggested that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. Nowadays if you visit these wells at Midsummer you will find yourself alone…but in a way that may have been the way it had always been.

Custom contrived: The Bluebell Service, Swithland Woods, Leicestershire

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“Strangers enjoying an afternoon stroll in Swithland Woods on Sunday might have been surprised to hear the strains of All Things Bright and Beautiful coming through the trees near the old slate quarry.”

Loughborough Echo 14th May 1993

Indeed, almost hidden in a natural amphitheatre beside a great water filled hollow can be found around two hundred worshipers – why are they there? What are they waiting for? A service which is possibly unique in England yet surprisingly still little known – the annual Bluebell service.

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If you go down to the woods today

Arriving at the north car park to the wood, the existence of the event, one follows the small blue signs. I must admit during my half hour or so walk, I did not see a single blue flower. This was despite seeing great swaths of them on the way, particularly in Stoneywell Wood. This might not have been a one off. S. R. Meadows in the 1965 Swithland noted that in an early ceremony an early spring had meant there were no flowers in the woods and the Vicar had to:

admit the bluebells had already come and departed. Whereupon a Salvation army lady, who had attended the corps band stepped boldly forward and presented him with a single bloom, which appropriately she had saved for him.”

All things bright and beautiful

The custom begun soon after the estate was given to the public in the 1920s. The area had long been known as a beauty spot, where bluebells proliferated in great number and so the Rotary Club decided to instigate an annual event. It was a Walter Kilby and a Mr Harry Gimson who conceived the idea of the service with Reverend Frederick Oliver, then vicar of Swithland in 1928 and it has been going ever since then. Indeed until recently, the daughter and the daughter in law of the founders still attended. A search of copies of the Leicestershire mercury or Loughborough Echo recording such regular annual devotion. In 1997 14th May the Leicester Mercury, noted that a Mrs Gweneth Gimson:

“has been present at every single Bluebell service.”

The Leicester Mercury reported on the 6th May 1998 adding next year:

“Swithland churchwarden, Mrs Gweneth Gimson 85 first attended as a 13 year old girl when the service begun in 1927.”

Although the Loughborough Echo of 13th May 1994, suggests that:

“played the harmonium for the service at the age of 10!”

The paper claims that she had been present at every one forget that in 1993 it was noted that:

“Mrs Gweneth Gimson, who has supervised the event for many years, was missing as she suffered an accident at home.”

Fortunately, as it was later testament she did regularly attend thereafter. I did not enquire whether she still attended, she’d be 101, but I am sure she would be there in spirit. Regular attendance is clearly an important aspect of any custom and especially this one. Even when there is a clear threat of rain or in the 1990s murder as the paper stated:

“The worship is expected to go ahead as planned despite the inquiry into the fatal stabbing of Leicester man Esmail Hassan whose body was discovered in the woods just over a week ago.”

Coming up smelling of…bluebells!

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In the small amphitheatre I found the congregation, some were in rows of seats, many with their dogs sat on the hill behind them. In front of them was an outside altar, a table covered with a cloth with a sizeable silver crucifix upon it. There was the vicar of Swithland church, the Mayor and Lady Mayoress and a brass band from Welbeck College. The service which was pleasantly succinct and under an hour long – perhaps they feared the rain – was very focused on giving homage to nature. Guest preachers have varied over the time and in I1997, The Bishop of Leicester, the right Rev. Dr. Thomas Butler was the preacher. The year I attended, the guest was xxxx. The sermon, short and focusing on amongst other things Leicester City’s triumphant Premier League win…a link to the blue of the bluebells! The knowledgeable sermon drew reference to some of the wonderful plants and animals around the woods. The sermon underlined the reason for the service perhaps as a correspondent recorded:

“It’s a country service for those who enjoy the countryside. In a way it’s a celebration of the Creation.”

An earlier Leicester Mercury reference also agreeing to consider that:

“As the sun shone through the delicate green leaves of late spring on the bluebells of Swithland wood on Sunday afternoon, it was not difficult to respond to the invitation from the preacher to ‘consider the flowers of the field’ which more wondrous than Soloman in his glory.”

Swithland (8)Swithland (9)I was particularly impressed by the volume of the singing from the congregation, albeit supported by an excellent choir and especially impressive considering the congregation was seated. Understandably All Things Bright and Beautiful was sung with great gusto. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National anthem and it was easy to agree with the sentiment again of the Leicester Mercury which recorded:

“as singing the National Anthem to enjoy the bluebells in the afternoon sun, it was obvious that this event in Swithland had lost none of its appeal for visitors to the area.”

All in all an uplifting pause to consider the wonderful world around us and give thanks for it.