Monthly Archives: May 2012

Custom survived: Minehead Hobby Horse

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The Merry Month of May..is a great month of those fascinated with calendar customs and ceremonies, there are hundreds alone on May 1st or one some occasions to the May Bank Holiday, restricting oneself to three is difficult..so I’ve picked a favourite surviving one..

“Do you have any information on the Minehead Hobby horses, particularly the Town Horse?”

“Oh is it out today?”

So was my question and reply from Minehead’s tourist information! Now what I am inferr from this enquiry? Are Tourist Information places useful for information on customs? Perhaps not always. Is that the organisers did not want it overly advertised? Perhaps yes and in a way that is not always a bad thing….for I get the impression that this tradition, in an area over-run by the holidayer and tourist, is perhaps culturally the only remaining local thing and that this custom is done for the locals and not for us tourists…and I have no problem with that…such customs are more likely to be driven by the locals need and desire to do it. Why wonders how many of these revived customs, forced back to life perhaps by parish’s and councils with one eye on the tourist potential, will survive.

Anyhow I digress! Last year May day bank holiday fell on a convenient date for those customs who have rightly stubbornly stuck to the first of May for their observations…the Minehead Hobby Horse is one of these.

A comical aside….

I had booked a nice guest house on the route of the Hobby Horse via the internet and arriving at its location found….I wasn’t booked in! It was their fault fair enough, but wasn’t going to get me somewhere to stay….the owner rung around and finally found a room. I think I know where it is…she said and we jumped into the car and followed her…Well I thought it was here….I’ll ask a taxi driver. So she did and the Taxi driver said….yeah follow me. And so we both followed him…..back to where he had started and which he jumped out of the car and said….it’s around him somewhere! Of course all along my satnav was saying something else..but you don’t like to disagree with locals do you?

Finally following the satnav we arrived at our destination, a delightful Edwardian house high above the town and only minutes from where the Hobby Horse was to be awoken.

Back to the Hobby Horse…Warning Night

The night before the 1st May is called Warning night and sitting by the harbour at the Old Ship Aground when the sound of accordionists bursts out of the club and the hobby horse is awoken to tour the town, swirling and jumping with the joys of spring, scaring children and comforting cars with a strange children like head nod.

May Day

I had decided to see the awakening of the traditional sailor’s horse which happened at 5 am. It traditionally comes out on the eve of May Day and proceeds from the Quay over the hill through Higher town to arrive at White Cross early on May 1st. Looking out it was beginning to rain. Through the drizzle I could hear the eerie sound of the drums as they echoed from the harbour below and the addict sound of the accordionist which occasionally broke from its tradition ditty to the strains of Yankee doodle dandy!. They rain was not stopping this ancient observation which made its way through the lanes and streets of the old town ensuring that no-one slept that morning. This was a tradition in its truest sense, the hobby horse joined only by a handful of attendants and curious bystanders. At certain times the Hobby Horse changed owners with the young men seeming desperate to be part of the action.

It made its way to the white cross where it undertook a whirling and spinning dance and was joined by another horse…after a break it continued its journey back into the town. By then the town was coming alive and people were making their way around. Some particularly young women were barracked by the beast to much hilarity.

No Bootie Night for me!

Sadly I missed the famed Bootie Night. During this the horse is allowed to grab any young lady it sees with the help of two crew members who hold them by the arms and legs at the front of the horse, which rises up and down ten times as the crowd cries Bootie! The victim is said to have dance avoiding being lashed by the tail. This is done on the Cher steps and Wellington square where the horse says goodbye for the rest of the year. This appears to have originated according to an early account of 1830 to have arisen from those who did not pay it says:

many other persons, inhabitants of the places they visit, give them small sums, and such persons as they meet are also asked to contribute a trifle; if they are refused, the person of the refuser is subjected to the ceremony of booting or pursing; this is done by some of the attendants holding his person while one of the figures inflict ten slight blows on him with the top of a boot; he is then liberated and all parties give three huzzas: the most trifling sum buys off this ceremony, and it is seldom or never performed but on those who purposely throw themselves in their way and join the party, or obstruct them in their vagaries.”

Origins of the hobby horse.

Three hobby horse traditions exist along the Somerset-Devon-Cornwall coast and each claim to be the oldest and be unique. Clearly there is a link between each of them and indeed probably between these and those found through Europe, Africa and beyond! As regards Minehead, one story states that it was used to frighten off the Viking raiders and where the horse stops, the white cross, is as far as the Vikings were chased. However another account in a local newspaper of May 1863 states:

“The origin professes to be in commemoration of the wreck of a vessel at Minehead in remote times, or the advent of a sort of phantom ship which entered the harbour without Captain or crew.”

Certainly the Hobby Horse is boat like only having a length of rope for its cow tail and is covered with brightly coloured ribbons with a hole cut in for the body with a disc shaped face.

Whatever the origin Minehead’s Hobby Horse will continue to be one of the best May day customs in Britain, full of music, mischief and always mystery.

Custom revived: Lambley’s Cowslip Sunday

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Outside Nottinghamshire and perhaps outside the Nottingham area, Lambley’s Cowslip Sunday or simply Lambley Sunday, the first Sunday in May, is not very well known. This was an interesting custom which was an unusual may day custom fixed on Sunday, usually a day frowned upon for such frivolities, which appeared to be a mass flower pick with associated side attractions. For on this date local people and visitors from neighbouring Nottingham and nearby villages (several thousand in the early 20th century) would visit the Dumbles where Dover Beck flowed and picked cowslips. This rather innocent if ultimately destructive custom soon became associated with festivities and commerce. Stalls would be established in the main street selling refreshments and local pubs would sell beer causing unfortunately associated drunkenness and violence. In 1866 local newspapers complained about the day desecrating the Sabbath and moves were afoot to move the day. A brief undated cutting in Nottingham Central Library reads:

“Cowslip Sunday. About dinner time and during the early afternoon yesterday a large number of cyclists and pedestrians could have been seen returning into Nottingham carrying either bunches of cowslips or small branches of blossom taken from the hedgerows. Many of the pedestrians were boys, and it seemed in one sense, a pity that better use was not made of what must have cost them many a mile of trudging. Some of the youths left their little burdens of cowslips and wild violets scattered on the road.”  

In a booklet ‘Lambley Sunday’ a picturesque May Day festival, local historian Stapleton provides the best account of the custom and I have quoted it at length. He notes that in his youth:

“commencing not later than 4 a.m., the lashing of straining brake-horses, pulling densely-packed loads of holiday humanity, the braying of a never ending series of bugle horns, the beat of many iron hooves rattling over the granite roads and the heavy chaff and laughter of habitually thirsty throats made up a Sabbath bedlam that surely would be tolerated in the streets of no other great English city”

Stapleton was confused why especially after a heavy night drinking on the Saturday were people not recovering on the Sunday but rather walking or travelling to this small village the day after…he was never able to get a reply other than its Lambley or Cowslip Sunday and as such this was reason enough as we have seen with many of these customs the reason having long gone before the ceasing of the tradition. Stapleton gives a colourful account of his own pilgrimage:

“Eight o’clock and a wet morning! It was the uncompromising sort of weather when the lazy town-dwelle, having glanced out of the window, debates whether it be not the wiser plan to spend a few more hours in bed…”

Giving himself that lie-in he promised himself, he begun at 11 am:

“Bereft by the discouraging climatic conditions of expected companionship, and tire dof awaiting a change in that never came, I set out alone …..via Mapperley Park for Nottinghamites May Sunday Mecca duly equipped with overcoat and umbrella. The wind and rain drove consistently and horizontally from the right or eastern side…”

Clearly the weather had put many off and he states that :

“Cowslip Sunday was a comparative failure that year, but ardent youths were not to be denied. In nearly every green field they were to be found, trampling the saturated grass in search of floral treasures…..they boasted neither umbrellas nor overcoats, but did not seem to mind the wet very much. En route they were buoyed up by anticipations of floral wealth, and on returning there was all the swelling pride of conquest and spoils.”

Even by the 1800s when Stapleton was describing his experiences, the custom was in decline

“There is little to distinguish this from another Sunday. Yet the people of Mapperley tell of a time, not so many years ago either, when the conveyances stopping at the local licensing houses stretched fifty yards or more the excursionists…sat on the opposite side of the road eating bread and cheese and no children were allowed out of doors.”

Stapleton notes that he

“met the first three returning ‘Cowslippers’…they were somewhat more than fully-grown men, but they were not proof against the all-powerful fascination of the occasion. One of them had five bunches of cowslips in his hand, and the second was whimsically adorned with a like number dangling in a string from his top button hole..”

Cowslip wine

Was available again at the event although made in Oxfordshire, in the early form of the tradition this was one of the main reasons for collecting cowslips, especially it appears by children! Stapleton talks of how cowslip wine was made:

“Pluck off all the little yellow heads place in a vessel in the oven, add water, and stew until you have a good, strong infusion. Then decant into old medicine bottles and add as much sugar and milk as your mother will give you or as much as you can steal, among the lot and it is ready for use at once, whether it be hot or cold.”

Is the custom unique? What is its origin?

There appears to have been an industrial background behind the tradition and it Sileby in Leicestershire, where in May children of the area were ‘employed’ to collect cowslips in an annual harvest where children were given time off school. The custom appears to have died out in the 1920s. Several ideas have been put forward for the custom occurring on Sunday. One being that this was a Wake Sunday or Patronal day but the wake week was in Whitsun. Another that it is a vestige of commoners rights to unenclosed areas of Thorneywood chase which covered Lambley and Gedling. Clearly it is more probably associated with May Day.

The decline

By the 1920s the tradition had all but died out. This was due to a number of factors: the ploughing up of some of the dumbles, probably the weather and the police discouraging the tradition due to its rowdy nature. Of this a report in the Nottinghamshire Guardian notes:

“if we judge, from the manners and customs of a great part of them and their acts and language, we should conclude that the class has not improved since their last annual visit. The police had much trouble in keeping decent order in the village. …The great cry is why cannot another day in the week be devoted to this much-desired ramble, if all are so anxious that it should be continued, so that all might enjoy the pleasure more freely without desecrating the Sabbath.”

Certainly the very action of picking the flowers could not have been favourable to their survival as the urban population enlarged. Certainly the weather and inconsistency of growth could have contributed to the downfall as a correspondent in Nottinghamshire Guardian of May 11th noted:

“This much-talked of day, annually held on the first Sunday in May, was duly celebrated. The weather for some time previous had been cold and wet with frosty nights; consequently vegetation had not made so much progress as usual at this season of the year so that the cowslips and other spring flowers were not quite so properly matured..”

The revival

Certainly with this reputation this quiet village may not have been in favour of a true revival and as such Cowslip Sunday is perhaps radically different from that 100 years ago and all the better for it. Gone are the hoards of pickers and the dawn pilgrimage, the rowdy drinking and indeed perhaps the cowslips! Although some have made it into the garlands carried.

It was 2010 when Lambley Parish council who in 2010 resurrected the tradition, albeit a little more organised and lending itself more to May day, which probably the original focus was. A report in 2010 for the BBC reports:

“The residents of a Nottinghamshire village are reviving a forgotten rural folk tradition. …..  On Sunday, 2 May 2010, the celebrations return with folk tales, live performance and a ceilidh.   Playwright and Lambley resident David Longford has researched Cowslip Sunday, traditionally held on the first Sunday in May, for a play being performed on the day.”

David Longford notes in the article:

“Now Lambley’s recently established Cowslip Sunday now consists of a procession though the village, attended by a giant called Cowslip Jack. Afterwards there is a free open air rustic play telling the history of Lambley and end in a ceilidh. Cowslip wine will be available again. 

Lambley Jack and his procession

Cowslip Jack was retired in 2012.The procession is lead by a Lambley Jack, a top hat wearing broom carrying urchin, who figures in the play. The name is a local one for someone who is cheeky or impudent, legendarily associated with the burning down of Nottingham castle. However, no such Jack or John is named in the assizes which followed.

This procession with a neatly sown Cowslip banner  and accompanied with a hotch-potch of characters: an accordionist, antlered ‘fawns’, an elf, fairies carrying garlands with spring flowers around them, some peasant girls and a dandy. They process around the village with an amusing short cut through the church, perhaps to remind the church of the sacrilegious nature of such a Sunday celebration! As they went along they cried Cowslip Sunday and called out the letters of Cowslip! Once they returned the most interesting part of the custom begins

The play-Lambley Jack and the Golden Stocking Frame

The play is a one off each year, described on the programme as:

“rustic rough-hewn style and knockabout hour it can easily be described as ‘a Panto for springtime’. Therefore in keeping with the style of this kind of performance your cheers vocal appreciation and friendly banter are well throughout. In other words join in.”

This year, as noted, the giant, whose head sat by the village hall, was sadly absent as the story centred around the tradition of William Lee and the stocking frame, a local invention for neighbouring Calverton cleverly interwoven with the classic Rumplestiltskin (or as they said in the a Play-the English version Tom Tit). The story was framed by the Cowslip Fairs and fawns, referencing the activities which went on in days of old, collecting cowslips and making cowslip balls (thrown of course). There was a great Pantomime dame with some great banter with the crowd, some very professional turns from some of the younger members of the parish. There were of course some very obvious in-jokes based nationally, a Dragon’s Den inspired chat between Lee, Elizabeth I and the King of France and their sponsorship of the said stocking frame, or some locally based of  inter-village rivalry. All in all it was an excellent play taking some of the best features of traditional approaches such as Panto and Mummers and throwing in some modern comedy….going to show that Nottinghamshire can provide some of the best of amateur theatricals.

The organisers of Cowslip Sunday appear determined to keep the custom alive, and it is interesting to note they have avoiding the obvious fall back May event staple-The Morris dancer. Hopefully they can in the cash strapped days ahead but with large numbers of people coming to the village , who otherwise would pass straight through, with spending cash, it should survive; after all where were they in 2009? I heartily recommend a visit especially as they are few customs on this day.

Custom demised: Pinch bum day: a child’s view of Oak Apple day

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Oak Apple day was a nationally celebrated event which commemorated the restoration of Charles II and his escape by hiding in an oak tree. It was an official day that was to be celebrated around the county, and some places still organise events on or around this date,  but generally outside of these places its main observance the wearing of oak leaves or more precisely oak apples (oak wasp galls) has disappeared. Across the country, this custom was particularly upheld by children not perhaps necessarily because of any keenness of the monarch but perhaps for the joint pleasure of a half day holiday from school. The common rhyme had different variants according to the local name from it.

“Royal Oak Day, 29th May.

If you don’t give us a holiday.

We run away”.

Wilson (1940) notes that at Windermere Grammar School, the day was called Yak Bob Day, where although it was seen as a holiday the master decided to ignore this and so with protests falling on deaf ears the older boys bolted and barricaded the windows and doors to the school. With the boys chanting the above chant except obviously the first line, the teachers were unable to enter and the holiday was restored.

It was also popular as a result of the ability to admonish those who had forgotten! Like a student who has forgot its non-uniform day, such students were the target of a wide range of penalties. The most common appears to be pinch bottom day. When those not wearing had their bottoms pinched! This was particularly popular in mixed schools and various accounts tell of rather over-enthusiastic boys getting in trouble. The reason for pinching bottoms comes from a legendary story that Major Carless who was also up the tree prevents the king from falling out by pinching his bottom!School boys were particularly important in upholding the custom, probably because of the potential of causing mischief. Unsurprising, pinch bottom day was not particularly held up in boy’s school, where other penalties were given.   No more vigorous was the tradition upheld than at Nottingham High School where individuals not upholding the tradition where pelted with rotten eggs. The observance of this penalty fell into abeyance in the 1870s. Briscoe  a Nottinghamshire author notes:

“A more unpleasant custom prevailed in the northern portion of the county about twenty years ago. Those who did not conform to the usages of the “Royal Oak Day” were pelted with rotten eggs. In order  to be well supplied with the ” needful ” for that day the young men would hoard’ up hen eggs for about a couple of months before they would be brought into requisition, so that the eggs would become rotten before they were required. This custom was in time carried to such an extent that the ‘strong arm of the law’ was often brought into requisition to suppress it; the rough young folk pelting persons indiscriminately. Smaller eggs are still used by the school lads on ‘King Charles’ Day.’

More common was nettling! A Nottinghamshire author notes thatnettles used on people without a spray of leaves and adds that the wise boy wore his oak leaves, armed themselves with a stinging nettle and carried a few dock leaves for first aid just in case. This was carried on until noon. The schools were generally not appreciative of this tradition and at Hayton a correspondent of NFWI remembers their brother being canned on both hands for nettling a girl. The penalty ranged from the rather innocuous rubbing clothese with chalk and such the day was called Chalky Back Day to Cobbing’ or spitting as was done in Cornwall.

Sometimes, non wearers were simply berated such as at Gloucester College where they were called shig shags and interestingly at Kirkby Lonsdale as well as being beaten by oak branches they were called Tom Paine, after the noted ‘revolutionary and republican’.. According to Brand’s popular antiquities boys in Newcastle-upon-Tyne would taunt :

“Royal oak, The Whigs to provoke.”

Those who wore plane-tree leaves recieved:

“Plane-tree leaves, The Church folk are thieves.”

The customs appears to died out soon after 1859 when the day ceased to be a holiday. Reports suggest that the children’s observation survived into the 1870s, but bereft of the holiday aspect and perhaps the concerns of parents the custom has completely died out. Perhaps for the good eh?