Monthly Archives: January 2013

Custom contrived: Mapleton bridge jump

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Belated happy new year…this year I’ve decided to add another category, customs contrived…for all those bizarre newer customs like this one!

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New Years Eve is always a strange one. I think its best summed up by this quote by Briscoe (1874) neatly sums up New Year’s Eve even today:

“The close of the year brings along with it a mingled feeling of gladness and melancholy; of gladness in the anticipation of brighter days to come with the advent of the new year, and of melancholy in reflections on the fleeting nature of time, and the gradual approach to the inevitable goal in the race of life. That so interesting an occasion should be distinguished by some observance or ceremony appears but natural, and we accordingly find various customs prevail, some sportive, others serious, and others in which both the mirthful and pensive moods are intermingled. The most general of these is that of sitting up until midnight on New Year’s Eve..”

New Year’s Day 2013 was a delightful day and rather than stare at each other glumly over another gigantic repast which took three hours to prepare and less than half an hour to consume, we decided to go out.

There are very few traditional customs or ceremonies enacted on the day, especially within easy distance of me, but over the last decades a growing number of bizarre sports and activities have grown up to welcome in the New Year..Mappleton Bridge Jumping is one such.

The river Dove is said to the coldest in England and so naturally when told that the first think you want to do is jump in at one of the coldest times of the year…not you? Well there were plenty of volunteers. The day consists of two parts, the first is a mainly charity event where pairs compete a raft race, jump from the bridge and then run to the finishing line. The second part appears more informal, a turn up and jump.

A new year’s water baptism

In a way this is a traditional observation reborn. Water is always seen as significant in the new year (see the Cream of the Well post last January) and so in way this is a new custom from the view of the purifying nature of water on the new year….or is it a bit of fun? You decide.

NOTE: This custom has now moved to Easter!!

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Custom revived: The Whittlesea straw bear

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Whittesey Straw Bear (2)

Turning up on the second Saturday in January to the little known town of Whittlesea one will be greeted by a fantastic site – the Straw bear festival.
My one and only attendance was with my family and mother-in-law. Understandably it was freezing, a factor not appreciated by my Australian mother in law. I tended to agree, the wind blows hard and sharp across those fens…there’s nothing in the way until the Friesland (appropriately) on the European mainland. This wild and desolate landscape is befitting of such a weird and wonderful tradition.
Despite the weather we braved it and upon entering the town square we could see the assembled mass of the procession in the far distance. Soon they were upon us and the Straw bear could be seen, a strange otherworldly creature and quite frightening..well it was to be eldest, then two who upon seeing it come towards me screamed the loudest I have ever heard him. It’s obviously had an effect on him because in idle conversation he brought it up…more than the monsters of Doctor Who which haunted my nightmares but appear to have little effect on him. Reference to Doctor Who is certainly appropriate for this creature has much in common with the creations of that show. Its stomping gate a locomotion many a monster would be glad of, its lack of features a step perhaps too scary for the show’s producers to attempt.

The bear essentials – the history

Plough Monday as you know if you’ve been following this blog was an unofficial day off when farm workers travelled the parish begging. In the east midlands, mainly Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire these were plays, East Anglia celebrated with molly dancers and in some places the celebration was spread out to the next day Plough Tuesday. In the fens it would appear this was the day for the most curious and impressive of beasts, the Straw Bear.
No one appears to know the age of the tradition, a newspaper report in 1882 states:

“he was then taken around the town to entertain by his frantic and clumsy gestures the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef.”

It is clear that its antics and the combination of alcohol saw its demise in 1909 said to be the result of an over-zealous police inspector who banned them because they were begging.
The official website on the bear relates that it was made of:

“great lengths of tightly twisted bands prepared and wound up the arms, legs and body of the man or boy who was unfortunate enough to have been chosen. Two sticks fastened to his shoulders met a point over his head and the straw would around them to form a cone above the bear’s head. The face was quite covered and he could hardly see.”

This later fact would explain why he would be guided by a rope fastened around him by one of the farmers. He was made to dance outside houses and gifts of money, food and beer were given.

Bear bones of a theory

Bear traditions have been recorded in Ramsey Cambridgeshire (revived 2009) and associated with a plough Monday play in Holton-le-Clay, Lincolnshire (yet to revived!) Furthermore there are traditions in places as far apart as Andorra and Germany. Indeed, since 1999 a bear from Walldurn Frankfurt, slightly slimmer and associated with Shrove Tuesday joins in the Whittlesea fun (and unlike those well known pandas have yet to breed!)
The behaviour of the straw bear clearly indicates some relationship with the performing bears which were common in Europe from the 13th century onwards and indeed I remember seeing in the 1980s in Spain (incidentally it is now illegal in the EC but cases have been reported as late as 2007!). However, several aspects suggest trace memory of an older tradition: the selecting of the best straw, the date of course and the ritual burning.

An ex-straw-ordinary Morris meeting

If you had only one day in England and you wanted to get a flavour of English tradition and especially folk dance you could do no better that Whittlesea Straw Bear. Why? Because in this small rather non-descript town are gathered every type of folk dancer; from molly dancer to handkerchief bothering Morris, from cluttering clog dancers to stylish long sword dancers, and in such a small area one can experience it all!. Between 250-600 dancers can be seen on the main day and
What is amazing is this tradition was only revived in 1980 and yet it has all the vim and vigour of something which has continued forever, such is the tribute to its organisers

Whittesey Straw Bear (3)

Custom demised: Observing the holy thorn

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A thorny subject

Just before Christmas in 2010 vandals inexplicably chopped down the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury and a nation was shocked. Whatever the reason for this destruction it prevented anyone witnessing this tree blooming according to tradition. However, despite this being the most iconic and well known holy thorn, it was only one of a considerable number across the country which originates from the original tree which stood before the Parish church before being cut down by Cromwellian troops in the English civil war, the axe wielder is said to have lost an eye as a result which James Howell of odona’s grove noted:

“He was well serv’d for his blinde Zeale, who going to cut doune an ancient white Hauthorne-tree, which, because she budded before the others, might be an occasion of superstition had some of the prickles flew into his eye and made him Monoculor”

However this tree is not the holy thorn, not even in Glastonbury for its progeny is found in the churchyard and Abbey grounds. Records of other holy thorns occur not surprisingly at West Buckland, Woolmingston and Whitestaunton also in Somerset, Sutton Poyntz Dorset, but also at Houghton Le Spring, Durham, Brickendon, Hertfordshire and Shenley Church End and Quainton, Buckinghamshire. Herefordshire curiously had and has a number of examples. These listed by folklorist Leather included Wormsley, Rowlstone, Dorstone, Colwall, Stoke Edith, King’s Thorn, Tyberton with one at Bredwardine in Herefordshire. Palmer notes Alfrick, Hampton, Newland, Ripple and Tardebigge in Worcestershire.

A blossoming story

Despite being such a well known story, the thorn is only first mentioned in a 1520 work by Richard Pynson Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathea where the blooming in winter and spring are first recorded. Indeed, Joseph himself only appears in legend in the 9th century. What is interesting is that the plant, Crataegus monogyna biflora is not a native species. DNA of all known descendents match and experts in Kew have identified it from Levantine Palestine hawthorn…so there may be evidence.
To these trees it was customary for the devout to visit these bushes on Christmas Eve to see them bloom. In the 17th century Bishop Goodman of Gloucester noted:

“The white thorn of Glastonbury which usually blossoms on Christmas and Easter.”

The flowers were thought to bloom exactly on midnight, the hour Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, and then drop off an hour later. For example an account in the East Anglia Miscellany notes a thorn:

“near Parham Hall (Norfolk) is a white thorn bush which blossoms by Christmas Day, and the people of the neighbourhood flock to it in great companies upon Christmas Eve..”

Although the author does note that:

“I had some of the buds just blooming brought to me on Sunday, the 2nd of December, 1734”

But wait a minute this is January’s blog!

Yes and the date of the above account is significant, for only 22 years later it may not have bloomed. Why because in 1752, the calendar changed. Indeed, the blooming of the holy thorns was used by those critical of the date change as evidence that the new calendar was wrong. For when the calendar did change, these disbelievers of the new Calendar, waited to see when the tree would blossom the 25th December or the 6th January? The Gentleman’s magazine reported in 1753 in January:

“A Vast concourse of people attended the noted thorn on Christmas-day, new stile, but to their great disappointment, there was no appearance of its blowing,which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas-day, old stile, when it blowed as usual.”

Such begun a January tradition For example on the 7th January 1878, the author Kilvert visited a farm at Dolfach where the blossoming was witnessed by a group of fifteen people and he was given a spray of blossom by the farmer’s daughter. Kilvert notes that he grafted this cutting onto his tree and reported that on the same date the next year it bloomed despite the severe frost. Attendance to see the thorns was still current in Sutton Poyntz Dorset until 1844, Woolmingston Somerset 1898 and Wormsley at least until 1908 when folklorist Ella Mary Leather recorded it in her Folklore of Herefordshire. She also noted one of the reasons for the popularity of the custom and its demise:

“A piece of thorn gathered at this hour brings luck, if kept for the rest of the year. Formerly crowds of people went to see the thorn blossom at this time. I myself went to Wormesely in 1908; about forty people were there, and as it was quite dark and the blossom could only be seen by candle light, it was probably the warmth of the candles which made some of the little white buds seem to expand. The tree had really been in bloom for several days, the season being extremely mild. Mr Powell of Peterchurch told me he could remember that on old Christmas Eve, people came for miles round to Kingstone Grange, where a holy thorn grew in the garden; they were liberally supplied with cake and cider.”

Blooming cheek – an unpopular custom

Leather noted that such rather impromptu perhaps gatherings were not always popular she notes:

“At Cleohanger, years ago a man was very much annoyed at the damage done to his garden by those coming to see the thorn blossom which grew there, so he began to cut it down. But blood flowed from the trunk of the tree and this so alarmed him he left off at once!”
Similarly at Acton Beauchamp, the local farmer so annoyed by the concourse of people who crossed his field to see the flowering, that he destroyed the thorn but so the story says he broke both arm and legs and his farm house burnt down!”

Nipped in the bud

Not always were the crowds able to witness a show. A 100 assembled in 1934 failed to see the Cleohanger thorn bloom. Yet in 1949, it was reported by the Times that the Orcop Thorn at the Stars Little Hill in the village was to be filmed by the BBC put there was nowhere to plug in their lamps! Indeed memory of visiting the thorns is still current if a correspondent to WW2 People’s War website is anything to judge:

“I used to visit my Grandparents over Christmas and there was a thorn tree that used to flower. They had a ladder to pick the bloom..If you picked the flower when it flowered, the next morning it would have died. Young men used to pick the flowers for their girl friends. There were lots of flowers in the tree-it used to be in full bloom. Everyone got excited about it-the adults would be chattering.”

Sadly this thorn was lost in a storm of 1980. However, the third reason for the decline had already had a significant effect. The predations of the pickers which came in coach loads had their impact and weakened it. Of the other holy thorns, I am unclear of what survives or still blooms and it would be useful to do further research. Many other sacred thorns lie forgotten and unheralded. Some have died such as that of Orcop above, Shenley Church End, and Quainton Buckinghamshire and Houghton Le spring (although a cutting survives) others survive such as that of Brickenden, Hertfordshire and Glastonbury of course, but whether they can escape the joint perils of ignorance and vandalism is yet to be seen.