Monthly Archives: August 2012

Custom survived: Burning Owd Bartle!

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When my sister-in-law and her family came over from Australia two years ago I planned to show them some quaint customs as foreigner would say, and although August is not a great time of year for such things, their stay did coincide with the Burning of Bartle in the delightful Wensleydale village of West Witton.

West Witton is a village shrouded in mystery with its crags and woody valleys hiding mysteries such as ancient springs, Templar properties and supposedly a giant hill figure. We arrived early evening in the village and noticed the village was deserted. Had I made a mistake with the date? Entering one of the local inns for need a something to eat, it was clear by the number of reserved tables and slowness of service that this was the correct night and the in inn to the occasion. When we were served, I showed the bar lady the book I had with me which contained some pictures from the 1980s; she was very surprised to see her relatives in it and herself as a young girl.

Bartle about

At the allotted time of 9 o’clock darkness had cloaked the village and assembling at one end of the village we waited. Soon an eerie pipe begun to play and appearing from the darkness was a green man playing his pipe…soon a cottage door opened in a cul-de-sac and the figure of Bartle appeared carried like a sort drunken demon, his body made of a jumper and tracksuit bottoms but his face a hideous hallowe’en mask covered by a grey wig. It was a strange and bewitching site, made even more bizarre by every now and again his eyes flashed on and off!

His carries made their strange procession around town, followed by an odd assortment of camera laden tourists and enthusiastic locals. But this is more than a simple procession for at regular points, Bartle was greeted by hotel owners and often some of the community’s older residents who probably could not process around, who upon offering ‘Bartle’ a drink (eagerly taken by its escorts), probably looked upon themselves as being given some sort of blessing of good luck. At these points, one of the following verses are evocatively chanted, in an accent which could easily sounded Viking in its origin. Each place being significant to the story…

On Penhill Crags he tore his rags

Hunters Thorn he blew his horn

Cappelbank Stee happened a misfortune and brake his knee

Grassgill Beck he brake his neck

Wadhams End he couldn’t fend

Grassgill End we’ll make his end

Shout, lads, shout!”

The Bartle-bum The origins of the custom

Several claims are made for the origins of the custom suggesting its great age. The most popular is that Bartle was a local sheep thief that the local people chased out of town and dispatched according to the chant. This appears to be a rather unlikely (and unpleasant) reason and may have been a Victorian attempt to tidy up the custom’s origin. Furthermore it misses the obvious, that the church is dedicated to St Bartholomew and the event is down around what would have been its patronal day. This suggests that the custom arose from the traditional carrying of an effigy around the village as is seen in many Catholic countries and now with Our Lady in places such as Walsingham. If the starting point is tradition it is interesting that there is an old well at the start point suggesting that perhaps some libation was done of over the effigy from its waters. Yet why would they be destroying it? Perhaps it was an accident or a fight to preserve it at the Reformation when pious locals were trying to hide it at Grassgill. The alternative theory was that a local Abbot, Jervaulx’s Adam Sedburgh  was that he was avoiding the Pilgrimage of Grace and was chased for his lack of commitment. The book I had, the excellent Penhill Giant linked it to a giant…This again looks very unlikely….

My personal view is that originally it may have been a pagan effigy which was ritually sacrificed hence some of the terms, which was of course Christianised and the custom of carrying the effigy was continued long into the Catholic period until the Reformation when the Bartholomew effigy was lost.

Burn Bartle Burn

When they finally reached Grassgill Lane, the effigy was placed against the wall. The full moon pour open the scene giving an otherworldly nature as for the final time, the truncheon was push into Bartle’s chest and the chant repeated with considerable enthusiasm. The figure was doused in petrol and set light to the scene being surrounded by a reverential hush. I wondered the age of the location as it was clearly much used as a stone had been set into the ground to prevent the fire spreading. As the flames engulfed the body, kids lined up on the wall nearby oblivious it seemed to the potential danger of the flames and the crowd circled around it’s warmth to hear as it burned brighter and brighter that chant. People lined up to have photos with the burning body…as if perhaps it was again a good luck motif. Then the flames began to subside, and more smoke than flame was emanating from Bartle. At this point the organised seeing their work done, left the smouldering ‘corpse’ for another year.

What makes the ceremony one of the best of England’s customs is that it remains a local event. There is no police presence, no hoards of TV cameras and only a few visitors (like us!). Indeed during the burning the only safety precaution I saw was a solitary cone beside the flaming Bartle!

And where sheep stealer or pagan deity, whatever the origins, it is without doubt one of the most evocative of all English customs.

copyright Pixyled publications

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Customs revived: Saddleworth rush cart

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The Saddleworth rush cart is a revived event which follows the formula Old custom+Morris men = revived and more the joyous as a result. Despite the rather pointless nature of what it’s about, afterall do churches need rushes (like does Southwell minster need £12 from the Gate to Southwell). In this case of the moving of Saddleworth into Lancashire from Yorkshire was the catalyst in the 1970s for its revival and celebration.

The origin of the custom

Before modern times, the floors of churches were earth based and so rushes were used to keep them clean, to help make churches smell nice and prevent damage to the knees, these needed to be replaced each year, often at great festivals or the patronal saint’s day. Interestingly, despite being associated with saints and ceremony, neither the Reformation nor the Puritans, nor even the boarding of floors, had any effect on the vigour for the custom and it continued to be popular. The pomp of the rushbearing reached its pinnacle in the 19th century when green rushes were pyramidically piled with great effort on a two or four wheeled special cart often secured by flower-woven rush ropes, and topped with oaken boughs with patriotic slogans and often silverware seen as luck for the village. The rush bearing was a great event for the town and such was in some places competitive but in all cases associated with drinking as such the ceremony came to logger heads with the Victorian reformers.

rush revival

In the 1800s, each of the village, Cross, Boothurst, Friezeland, Harrop Dale, Burnedge, Uppermill and Greenfield in the Saddleworth valley had their own carts but now only Saddleworth. As noted Saddleworth was revived in 1974, as a response it is said to the secondment of the region to Lancashire. It is now undertaken in the third weekend of August, often the bank holiday weekend.

Enough Morris men?

if you’ve always had a hankering to see Morris dancers and haven’t yet…this is one you must see. Swaths of Morris are involved, only the Thaxted Meet comes near. At first you think that’s it and then more keep coming..and coming…and coming! This is then carried by the Saddleworth Morris and teams from all over the country being dragged by Morris holding staves attached to a long pole known as the ‘stang’ pulled around the villages, there are over 40 morris men, in front and behind to stop it going backwards! A wet Saturday was the day chosen, and after being slightly pixyled, by a hold up on the M1. Finally, turning up at Uppermill, which is the central location for the region of Saddleworth and thus the ‘home’ of the cart, I was greeted by the rather surreal vision of every pub, bar, shop, indeed every open space and all along the street, Morris. The sound of the cars being augmented by the chiming of bells and somewhere I could hear the sound of sticks hitting each other. Soon travelling along the street I came across the rushcart resting at the Commercial Inn. Here was also the Saddleworth Morris, resplendent in their The rushcart was a wonderful and slightly frightening structure, a towering apex of the rushes surmounted by some tree branches, lined with heath, and affixed to one side was the banner this time celebrating the Queen’s Jubilee and Titanic. The time approached and soon all the Morris men who were supping elsewhere were congregating at the rush cart. Soon the Rushcart was on its way, atop the towering edifice the oldest Morris dancer, this year from Saddleworth. The speed at which this cart journeyed was at times quite considerable and one could image in the days when people would be unfamiliar with juggernauts it could be quite frightening especially as it sways and jostles in response to the action of the Morris men. I followed the cart through three villages and saw it return triumphantly if a little wet to its home at the Commercial Inn. A ladder was thrown to the side of it and the jockey slowly climbed down and the banner was collected up. It’s job done that day. Like the Gate to Southwell it is a joyous celebration of all that is uniquely English about the Morris tradition, and is a bizarre and wondrous custom.

copyright Pixyled publications

Customs demised: Nottinghamshire harvest home

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Recently I have been researching Nottinghamshire customs, a country even from this blog which has a large number of customs some well known and some unknown out of the county, yet no volume has been done on it. I thought it would worth sharing some of the findings below.

The loss of the custom

Today the demand for food has outstripped any traditions which were associated with its harvest. Mechanism has replaced the hand scything of crops and those the need for large numbers of helpers, together with the considerable effort needed which meant one thing: celebration

Harvest time?

The Harvest was a moveable event. If years were poor, the harvest would be done in September, in good weather years, August would be the date.

In the Nottingham Guardian, a correspondent calling themselves North Notts (1887)notes:

“ … 25 or 30 years ago prevailed in the county of Notts…..The last load of corn brought home from the fields was the occasion for the boys of the village to have a ride and to shout ‘Harvest Home’ for the farmers. This load would generally consist of the rakings of the field, and therefore not very valuable. Previous to our mounting the load for our ride we were careful to arm ourselves with branches of trees, the purpose for which will presently appear. On our journey from the field to the farmer’s yard, the usual hurrahs would be lustily given, and at intervals of a few minutes a well-known speech or ditty would be recited by the leading boys, two of which I can yet remember:God bless these horses which trail us home, They’ve had many a wet and weary bone. We’ve rent our clothes, and torn our skin, All for to get this harvest in. So hip, hip, hip hurrah.In another the name of the farmer would be brought in thus:- Mr. Smith he is a good man, He lets us ride home on his harvest van. He gives us bread, and cheese, and ale, And we hope his heart will never fail. So hip, hip, hip hurrah.

Then, Sir, curious and barbarous as it may seem, as we drew near to houses, it was the custom to bring out water and throw it upon us as we passed along, and from which we defended ourselves with the branches of trees. If we arrived safely home without a dowsing of water, the occasion was shorn of half the fun for the boys, but that was not the worst calamity. It was supposed that farmer Smith’s yield of corn would not be so good. After arrival home apples would be distributed to the boys for their labour in shouting ‘Harvest Home.’”                                                                                                      

Another account notes a longer song:

“It is the custom in Nottinghamshire to make the last sheaf of the harvest big in order to ensure a good crop the next year. The youngest boys in the village ride home on the last load of wheat, the wagon being decorated with branches of trees. Apples and buckets of cold water are thrown over the boys as they ride home singing the following harvest song :  Mr. is a good man, He lets us ride his harvest home, He gives us apples, he gives us ale,  We wish his heart may never fail.  (Chorus) With a hip, hip, hurrah,  A dry wagon,  adry wagon,  A sup of cold water  To keep it from swagging.  God bless these horses that trail us home,  For they’ve had many a weary bone,  They’ve rent their clothes and torn their skin,  All for to get this harvest in.  (Chorus as before.)”                                                   

  A correspondent to the Guardian’s Local notes and queries in 1903 notes a Sneinton Harvest Custom:

“I may say that when a boy I have frequently ridden on the last load of corn, brought to the late Benjamin Morley Esq of Sneinton Manor….The following ditty, having been rehearsed in the harvest field, would be shouted by the boys from the top of the load, at intervals during the journey to the stackyard:- Mr Morley’s got the corn, Well sheared and well shorn, Never turned over, nor yet set fast, The harvest load’s come home at last..Hurrah!”                   

Mr. Morley met the load at the stackyard and the boys were given 6 pence by him. In Caunton they sung:

“Mr Barlow has got his corn, Well mown and well shorn, Never hurled over, and never stuck fast, He has his harvest home at last. Hip Hip Hurray.”

In Blidworth the workers rode back with the last harvest and the villagers threw buckets of water over them as they sang:

“Ne’er o’er holled (hurled) And ne’er stuck fast, We’ve got our harvest in at last”        

This covering of the returning last load and its workers appears to have been done in East Bridgford: as a correspondent to Guardian Local notes and queries in 1903:

“It was general custom also, when the load reached the village, for the people to drench the lads with water, and many a wet shirt I had had. The last load was generally rakings so that the farmers had no objection, in fact they very often prepared quite a deluge, by having a place close to a stack where they could pour water down on the harvest home lads.”                                                                   

  The same correspondent notes in a memory dating back to 1883 that:

“The waggoner would trim his team with ribbons, bells, flowers and evergreens and also there was stuck in the load, at the top, large ash branches, until the load looked almost like a moving tree, The verse they sang was quite similar to the one mentioned in the paper (reference to Sneinton) only that it was not quite so grammatical….”

In Nottinghamshire, a Harvest king or ‘queen’ was often seen. One traveller recorded seeing a man dressed in women’s clothing, his face lavishly painted and his head decorated with ears of corn, being borne on a cart amid plaudits from the crowd. Upon enquiring they were told they were drawing the Harvest queen.  

Sadly it appears by 1875 many of the harvest home customs had died out and all that is done now is the Harvest festival.