Custom transcribed: Notting Hill Carnival

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What a custom! Vibrant, splendid, colourful, joyful, loud, proud and every superlative you can think of. A custom which is British terms is 50 years young (or so). A custom which draws at least a million visitors, something that many other customs would love to achieve. A custom which despite its firm fixture in London’s event calendar is one which has had a turbulent history and continues to attract problems, although considering nearly a million people attend statistically this is likely.

Notting like it

Arriving just before the 10 o’clock starting point the first observation is that it does not look like it will start on time! Indeed, the large numbers of police I was expecting them to form a procession – a police procession now there’s a thought- soon though one can hear the pounding sounds and a swirl of colour – mainly the bright green of the stewards – a mix a wash of gold.

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Soon the Carnival begins with this first procession, dancers wrapped in gold and holding aloft huge hands with 50. Celebrating 50 years (young) of the carnival, although this was also celebrated in 2014 and 2015. Then there was a big gap – which seemed like 30 mins – the next float. This is the first of 60 floats and countless colourful costumes, it will be a long day if you wait for it all to pass by. Many of course eschew the parade and stick to the 38 static sound systems dotted around this small enclave of west London.

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These floats are not like your usual float crammed full of themed participants, there would not be room, much of it is full of booming bass and tweaking speakers. Surrounding each float are some of the most wonderful costumes to be seen outside of the Rio Carnival. Massive tableaux of faces, feathers, bright vibrant colours. Samba dancers brightly adorned in their feathers and revealing costumes weave in and out dancing to whip up the crowds. Sounds of calypso, soca and reggae boom from the floats and bounce around the street.

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Notting allowed!

Sadly for what should be a great outburst of sounds and sights, its origins have been fraught. Born as a response of racial tension and the need for a unifying social identity. Although its official ‘birth date’ is 1964 this event was a descendent of a rather less impacting event, in was January and indoors, a Caribbean Carnival on the 30th January 1959 in Pancras Town Hall. This fused with a more hippie inspired street party organised in the mid-1960s to encourage cultural unity. This street party consisted of a procession of neighbourhood kids and a steel band. Roll forward to 1970 and it was described as:

the Notting Hill Carnival consisted of 2 music bands, the Russell Henderson Combo and Selwyn Baptiste’s Notting Hill Adventure Playground Steelband and 500 dancing spectators”

By the early 70s greater sponsorship thanks to an enterprising local teacher by the name of Leslie Palmer, resulted in an increase in steel bands, reggae groups and sound systems. The event begun to develop into two strands, a masquerade procession with floats and the establishment of stationary islands with their own sound systems.

From what clearly appears to be a very valid celebration of Caribbean culture was not popular with the authorities to begin with. The riots did not help in 1976 when disaffected youths battled with police and as a result for a long period of time this became the unfortunate media representation of the colourful event. However, such action could have been a result of heavy handed approaches of the police and the constant attempt to ban the event. It would not be until 1987 that the Carnival was officially allowed to take place. This has not prevented trouble (five deaths in the years since) or the need for high levels of police, but it has certainly reduced and fallen away to the fringes. Troubles and occasional serious crimes still arise from time to time – with around a million people swarming the narrow streets it’s not difficult to understand why something could boil over – but the media is much more favourable and is seen by the authorities as a celebration of London’s multicultural society.

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In a way, the Notting Hill Carnival typifies how customs become hybridised. Carnival is of course a Roman Catholic tradition brought over from France and Spanish colonisation. Through in the displaced masses of the African slave and brought back to Europe to be enjoyed by all races. All human life is here, of all ages, sexes and races. Despite the problems which create a sometimes poor reputation I would recommend the sounds and sights (and smells…of diesel and other intoxicants) to anyone. If you want to miss the crowds get there for the start and near the start and you’ll find it a pleasant experience. Go on experience it..

Custom revived: Lympstone’s Furry Dance, Devon

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Lympstone? Devon? Surely that is an error? The Furry or Floral Dance is a Cornish custom and one established at Helston deep in Cornwall. Well it appears the picturesque Cornish town has long had a rival – in both the custom and appearance too I might add.

In a bit of a furry!

I had discovered the custom by accident. Researching a holiday down in Devon I came across a reference and at first dismissed it as a mistake. After a rather tortured journey down to Devon – should have been four hours – but with delays, hold ups, detours etc, it took virtually all day and I just arrived 20 minutes before the dance! The sun was shining and the small town was in party atmosphere. Parking at the pub on the main road, I walked the surprisingly long walk into the town, within minutes the dance had begun.

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Furry history

Lympstone’s Furry Dance history is a bit confused. Locals will tell you it is something to do with fur hunters returning from Nova Scotia. The dance being established as some sort of celebration of their return. If so why does it have the same name as Helstons? Helston’s is associated with fertility. The coming of summer. Old pagan rites perhaps. But Lympstone’s is in high summer, although perhaps close enough to be associated with the old traditions of Lammas?

The custom is certainly over 100 years old although details are difficult to find. It appears that it was revived and associated of the Furry Dance tune in 1933 by a local band master Bill Chapman and indeed the day was established as a way to raise money for the band. The custom was suspended for the second world war, but was revived in 1946.

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Kick up your heels!

Stepping out at the front of the dance has always been a local honour and it appears traditionally the same man until they retired, Tom Kerslake did so until the 1950s, then apparently his son and then Graham Willis from until today. Dressed in top hat and tails they weave up the long street passing pubs and cheering visitors and locals, who make it a day of garden parties, kicking their heels to each side. Directly behind them the band belting out with vigour the traditional Floral dance tune. Then behind them a whole range of weird and wonderful costumes ranging Alice in Wonderland to Star Wars. The route is considerably lengthy and ends up with a well-earned rest at the Saddlers Arms where the curious assemble can be seen quaffing a drink and odd view for a passerby on the main road.

It is evident the Furry dance is more than a dance – albeit actually two, but a whole day of local of celebration with field events and some splendid fancy dress  – the town lighthouses being of particular simple ingenuity – in Candy Field and ends the day in a blaze of fireworks. After the dance there was the familiar site of some rather colourful Morris.

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One must add that the procession dance is no way as lengthy nor perhaps as impressive as that at Helston but it is nevertheless worthy of a visit if in the area.  As a postscript I noticed later in the month over the bank holiday weekend Totnes on the other side of the river Exe also had a Floral dance…it looks like there may be more than we knew! The origin of this one even more

Custom demised: Eton Ram Hunting, Berkshire

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Schools begin again soon but amongst the curious rituals of the new term, none are as bizarre as that which – now would be done during school holidays – the hunting of a ram on Election Saturday. The College had an ancient claim upon its butcher to provide a ram on the Election Saturday, to be hunted by the scholars. In his 1847 History of Buckinghamshire, Lipscombe notes:

“the animal having been so pressed as to swim across the Thames, it ran into Windsor Market, with the boys after it, and much mischief was caused by this unexpected accident. The health of the scholars had also suffered from the length of the chase, or the heat of the season. The character of the sport was therefore changed about 1740, when the ram was ham-strung, and, after the speech, was knocked on the head with large, twisted clubs.”

An account in the Gentleman’s Magasine of 1731 notes:

“Monday, Aug. 2 was the election at Eton College, when the scholars, according to custom, hunted a ram, by which the Provost and Fellows hold a Manor.”

Eton was not alone with its custom, East Wretham in Norfolk also had a harvest related hunting the ram. John Blomefield in his 1831 History of Norfolk notes:

“When the harvest work was finished by the tenants, they were to have an acre of barley, and a ram let loose in the midst of them; if they caught him, he was their property but if he escaped then the Lord claimed him”.

Surprisingly at a school, this rather cruel act was not unique, for as Henry S. Salt in his Blood Sports at School – The Eton Hare-Hunt notes:

Even in the nineteenth century such sports as bull-baiting, badger-baits, dog-fights, and cat and duck hunts, were “organised for the special edification of the Eton boys.”

However, views on such barbarity were changing even Liscombe noted:

But the barbarity of the amusement caused it to be laid aside at the election in 1747, and the, flesh of the ram was prepared in pasties The dish, however, still continued nominally to grace the Election Monday.”

Salt also notes:

“It is a curious fact that the large majority of Etonians, though nowadays a bit ashamed of the ram-hunt and other sporting pleasantries of a bygone period, do not in the least suspect that their beloved hare-hunt belongs in effect to the same category of amusement. Thus, Sir H. Maxwell Lyte, in his history of the school, referring to the earlier barbarities, remarks that “it is evident that in the time of Elizabeth cruelty to animals was not counted among the sins for which penitents require to be shriven.” But what, it may be asked, of the time of George V.? It is entertaining to find the Eton College Chronicle itself referring to the ram-hunt of the eighteenth century as a ‘brutal custom’; and remarking that Etonians were “only so barbarous.” Once!”

I for one see this as one ancient custom not necessary to revive.

 

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.