Monthly Archives: June 2012

Customs survived: Youlgrave’s well dressing


Youlgrave’s well dressing is one of the oldest and best of the county’s well dressing. It takes place on the weekend nearest the Feast of St. John the Baptist.

Well thought of

Well dressing is a strong tradition in Derbyshire, especially the picturesque Peak region. Well dressings of varying quality spring up at any old well, pump, site there of,  drain or paddling pool! Fortunately, Youlgrave or Youlgreave is not one of them! Although not strictly speaking a well…rather a pump dressing!

A private water supply

Unlike nearby Tissington, the dressing of the wells appears to be linked to a firm date: the installation of a private water supply, but whether this was a revival is unclear. The main well dressing is at this site a round stone structure called the Fountain. This reservoir draws water from a spring in the hillside called Mawstone spring and was completed in 1829. Problems with corrosion appears to have affected the supply and this caused the installation of a  further ten taps around the village. There was apparently a great celebration when the scheme was completed and it appears the five sites were where the well dressing was established . Or possibly re-established as one of the sites was at or near a Holy well which may have been dressed in the distant past. By 1849, the interest in dressing declined and it was not until 1869 when the event was erected to celebrate the coming of the mains water and thus the custom became a ‘tap dressing’

Well put together

A team of 100 or more people are involved in the dressing and each well dressing takes the week to finish. Derbyshire well dressing follows a tried and tested method, where the wooden screens which consist of a tray like structure and lined with clay which is smoothed over. There are basically four stages: immersion of the boards in water, puddling the clay, making the design and then the petalling when the flowers are applied.  The immersion is done in a nearby stream and the boards are held down with stones to ensure they become thoroughly sodden which helps the clay attach and stay moist for longer. A typical screen is made of five shallow wooden trays erected at an elevation of at least 9ft by 71/2 feet according to the Youlgreave website.   Over this a paper template is made and the design is set out with lines draw from it.

Well dressed!

These designs are some of the best in Derbyshire, with biblical themes and text being the dominant feature. What the design is made from varies but only natural materials are used: petals, seeds, moss, and leaves being pressed into the clay to make the picture. The competitive spirit between the welldressing teams has produced some of the best in Derbyshire and although best to be seen on the weekend of their installation, even after the clay has cracked and changeable British weather has done it worst they still shine in their artistry.

Customs revived: The Gate to Southwell


An admission

When I first started experiencing our strange customs I often looked down upon revivals and rarely visited them , this was clearly a stupid mistake as firstly I missed a number of interesting customs and secondly often these revived. The Gate to Southwell (Gate from old English for ‘way’) is one of these, a modern construct based on an account of 1530 which referred to Morris Dancers, and such the revival is solely run by the local team.

What is known of the custom?

It is believed to have started in 1109, when a Thomas Beverley Archbishop of York who owned lands in Nottinghamshire including Southwell, asked parish churches to make a contribution to the building of their mother church therefore ending the debate on where money collected in the county should go Nottingham or York. Such that it appears that at Whitsuntide or more appropriately Whit Monday, a procession was established which was attended by the Mayor and Corporation of Nottingham, the priests and churchwardens from each parish in the county bringing their Pentecostal offering to the cathedral. They would be joined by townspeople and villagers.  It is believed that the entertainment was provided by Morris Dancers. As suggested by that 1530 Nottingham Chamberlain’s accounts show a payment for bells, coats and ale for the Morris Dancers who took part in the Gate to Southwell. The procession upon reaching the town deliver the tribute would consist of what was called the Southwell Pence. This was collected from various parishes, ranging from Nottingham, for example, gave 13 Shillings and 4 Pence (about 66p), whereas lowly Stanton gave only 5d  (about 2p).   In today’s money, just under 16 quid..The colourful but supposedly solemn procession probably ended at the Reformation although it is not recorded when exactly. Interestingly, it is said that the only survival from this procession is said to be the Southwell races remembering the donkey races undertaken at Rolleston.

The revival

Considering this long time since its disappearance, it perhaps seems surprising that it was revived and indeed that it did gives impetus for others thinking of reviving long dead customs.  First organised in 1981 it has continued ever since and now the custom has become a sort of get together for local Morris and allied groups, in a sort of Morris men ‘dance off’….I couldn’t help thinking with their banner held aloft that this a rather camper and more joyous version of a Trade Union mark (indeed perhaps the congregation may have had a couple of ex-Miners as well considering the county!)

Of course just having the Morris do the procession would be pointless without a beginning and end and as such Nottingham’s Lord Mayor is involved giving a small speech of welcome and good wishes as he hands over the city’s contributions at around 9.30 on the Sunday in the second weekend of June usually. I first experienced the Gate to Southwell in 2002, so in 2012, 10 years on I thought it time I revisited it and its heartening to say that it was still in rude health and little had changed.  Nottingham’s market square was yet again thronging with the garishly coloured. The colours ranging from the more conservative whites of the organisers, the Dolphin Morris to that would be described as post-Rave Morris (a mixture of a sort of Goth, with eyeliner and coloured hair and a Day-Glo take on the paper boy). This final garb is perhaps the future of Morris, being the younger persons take on the tradition! In 2012 the Lord Mayor dutifully gave his dues and the Dolphin Morris’s leader related about the days when the attendees were given free alcohol and seeing that the attending crowd were locals, took an vote.

The assembled Morris team lead by the Nottingham’s own team-Dolphin who carry a board with bags displaying the villages and their monetary contributions, as well as a banner and decorated cross.. They process followed by their invited teams, in 2012 they were…………The first arrival is Sneinton where they meet the local councillor and member of the Sneinton Environmental Society who proclaims via a Town crier:

“To The Gate to Southwell. We the representatives of the Sneinton Environmental Society being charged with the honour of greeting this worthy pilgrimage by our members and cherishing the customs of olde Englande do hereby beseech merciful providence; that the weather be clement, that your footwear be comfortable, that your resolve will be greater than the journey, and that there will be good ale to refresh you at all convenient halting places. Go now with our best wishes. God save the Queen.”              

The processional route

Although there is no record of the processional route, but as the villagers of Lambley, Lowdham, Caythorpe, Hoveringham, Thurgarton, Goverton, Bleasby and Fiskerton were involved presumably each of these were visited in order or rather their parishes passed through as the road to Southwell from Nottingham would have touched upon their land.. Today the procession does not of course process the whole distance but take to mini-buses stopping at pubs on the way where dancing is undertaken.

At the Minster

Finally at around 6pm the procession reaches the Minster and hand over the pence in the board. In 2012 I rejoined them at Southwell Minster , around 5.30ish and after waiting for a few minutes the procession moved into to view filling the previously empty grounds of the church.  After a rather longer than usual wait when Dolphin Morris entertained us with some impromptu signing and a violin solo with dancing. Then out emerged the Bishop and his clergy to receive their pence and so bag by bag, the leader of the Dolphin Morris invited the different teams which had association with the towns and villages  from whence the money came from to place the money in the large wooden collecting bowl held by one of the clergy. .

After giving their pence, which of course is in old money, a cheque to the same amount was given over. Then the dean invited the audience in for a short service. So  the strangely dressed assembly (the clergy) invited the other strangely dressed assembly (the Morris!!) for a brief service which included a Morris dance in the transect  and unsurprisingly Lord of the Dance.

All in all The Gate to Southwell, whose popularity has spawned an even better known Folk festival in the Town under the same name, is an enjoyable revival and one which as it enters its 3rd decade looks unlikely to die out!

copyright Pixyled publications

Customs demised: White and Black Ram Nights


June was traditionally the time of year when Sussex’s sheep were rounded up and sheared and as such considering the hard work involved each day for a three week period, much relief was given by a party called the Black Ram Night when a number of drinking customs and songs dominated. Before this at a local pub would be White Ram Night where those involved with the shearing, which often involved a wide range of people and in particular those good with their hands such as tailors, where organised by someone appointed as the Captain and had appointees such as the Tar Boy. During the meeting the list of farms was given out by the Captain whose also read out the fines that would be given out for poor shearing or losing control of the sheep. On the day, a contemporary report records:

“On the morning of the day fixed for the shearing, a gang of men, 12 to 20 in number according to the size of the flock, accompanied by the “tar boy,” made their appearance under the command of a Captain and Lieutenant, who were distinguished by gold bands on their hats. The tar boy’s duties, which were rather important, were to walk about among the shearers with a tin pot filled with tar, with which his clothes and face were generally well smeared. After a sheep was shorn, before it was released, it was examined by the shearer, and if he detected any abrasion he called “Tar Boy,” and was answered “Coming Sir,” and the boy then applied some tar with his finger which prevented any worry from flies or infection to the wound. A barrister of high standing told me that in his quite young days his great ambition was to be a tar boy.”

The work appears to have been quite strenuous as the report adds:

“During the day these men, who were supposed to shear about 30 to 40 sheep each, were liberally supplied at intervals with mild beer and with a meal in the middle of the day, and after the sheep were shorn the men had more food, followed by more potent ale. The sheep-shearing song was then sung, and the evening was spent in singing, drinking and smoking long clay pipes, their “Yards of Clay.””

At such parties and the Black Ram Night the Sheep shearing song would be sung:

“Come all my jolly boys and we’ll together go, Abroad with our Captain, to shear the lamb and ewe, All in the merry month of June, of all times in the year, It always comes in season the ewes and lambs to shear; And there we must work hard, boys, until our backs do ache, And our master, he will bring us beer whenever we do lack.  Our master he comes round to see his work done well, He says, “Boys, shear them close, for there is but little wool!” “O yes, Master,” then we reply, “we’ll do it well if we can,” When our Captain calls, “Shear close, boys,” to each and every man; And at some places still we have this story all day long, “Shear them well and close, boys,” and this is all their song.  And then our noble Captain doth unto our master say, “Come, let us have one bucket of your good ale I pray”; He turns unto our Captain, and makes him this reply, “You shall have the best of beer, I promise, presently,” Then out with the bucket pretty Betsy she doth come, And Master says, “Maid, mind and see that every man have some.”  This is some of our pastime as we the sheep do shear, And though we are such merry boys, we work hard I declare; And when ’tis night and we are done, our master is more free, And fills us well with good strong beer. And pipes and tobaccee; And so we sit and drink and smoke and sing and roar, Till we become more merry far than we had been before.  When all our work is done, and all our sheep are shorn, Then home with our Captain, to drink the ale that’s strong; ‘Tis a barrel then of hum-cup, which we call the “black ram.” And we do sit and swagger, and think that we are men, And yet before ’tis night, I’ll stand you half -a-crown, That if you haven’t especial care this ram will knock you down.”

It ended with

“Here’s a health to all sheep-shearers, good fellows every one,

“Here’s a health unto our Captain, and now our song is done.”

Perhaps the most famed drinking song or custom was “turning the cup over”  It is described as follows:

“At the head of the table one of the men occupied the position of chairman; in front of him stood a pail, clean as wooden staves and iron hoops could be made by human labour. At his right sat four or five men who led the singing; grave as judges were they; indeed, the appearance of the whole assembly was one of the greatest solemnity, except for a moment or two when some unlucky wight failed to ‘ turn the cup over,’ and was compelled to undergo the penalty in that case made and provided. This done, all went on as solemnly as before. The ceremony, if I may call it so, was this:—

“The leader, or chairman, standing behind the pail with a tall horn cup in his hand, filled it with beer from the pail. The man next to him on the left stood up, and holding a hat with both hands by the brim, crown upwards, received the cup from the chairman, on the crown of the hat, not touching it with either hand. He then lifted the cup to his lips by raising the hat, and slowly drank off the contents. As soon as he began to drink the chorus struck up this chant:

“I’ve bin to Plymouth, and I’ve bin to Dover, I have bin rambling, boys, all the wurld over. Over and over and over and over, Drink up yur liquor and turn your cup over; Over and over and over and over, The liquor’s drink’d up and the cup is turned over.”

The man drinking was expected to time his draught so as to empty his cup at the end of the fourth line of the chant; he was then to return the hat to the perpendicular, still holding the hat by the brim, then to throw the cup into the air, and, reversing the hat, to catch the cup in it as it fell. If he failed to perform this part of the operation, the fellow workmen, who were closely watching him, made an important alteration in the last line of their chant, which in that case ran thus:—

The liquor’s drink’d up and the cup aint turned over.

“The cup was then refilled and the unfortunate drinker was compelled to go through the same ceremony again. Every one at the table took the cup and ‘ turned it over’ in succession, the chief shepherd keeping the pail constantly supplied with beer. The parlour guests were of course invited to turn the cup over with the guests of the kitchen, who went through the ordeal with more or less of success. For my own part, I confess that I failed to catch the cup in the hat at the first trial, and had to try again; the chairman, however, mercifully gave me only a small quantity of beer the second time.”

Interestingly the reported of this account states:

“This custom of ‘turning the cup over,’ with its accompanying chant, was rather amusing at first, but, after hearing it, as I did on the occasion I have described, for at least four hours without intermission, it became at last rather tiresome. I could not get the tune out of my head for a long time after—indeed, I have not got rid of it yet.”

It has been many years since the jollities of Black Ram Night has filled the air of pubs such as the Shepherd and Dog in Fulking, the tradition like many falling foul of mechanisation and modern farming practices.