Customs revived: Calder Valley Spaw Sunday


In the book, Martyrs, maypoles and Mayhem Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan (1994) report:

“the celebrations were revived briefly in 1987, and the well in Cragg Vale near Hebden Bridge was decorated with flowers and branches. Several Morris teams turned up, everyone took a gulp of the liquorice infused water, and a great time was had by all. In 1988 however, the first Sunday in May suffered appalling weather: the booked Morris teams cried off, and the tradition was dead before the morning was out. It remained dormant ever since. “

Such can happen to revivals, but then in 2010 it was reborn again. But in this case you wait for one folk custom to be revived and you get two, for at the same time, Midgley resurrected their Spaw Sunday. In a good piece of organisation because the Midgley event is undertaken in the morning and that of Cragg Vale in the afternoon, allowing the custom junkie to attend two on the same day and not wait another 365 days!

Spring into action        

May Day or more precisely May Eve was often when the waters of local holy wells and springs were seen as particularly powerful in their properties. A custom linked to this was Spaw Sunday, the first Sunday in May, which was clearly a clever way to both legitimise a ‘pagan’ tradition by placing it on a Sunday and allow people not to miss work! Large congregations of people would visit these springs to take the water even though in some cases it takes and smelled pretty horrendous! The custom was found in Northern counties, but its stronghold was Yorkshire and in particular the Calder Valley.

Water a walk!

Midgley is a small hamlet above the larger town of Mythmolroyd. I decided to arrive by train and walk to Midgley. What a walk, passing the world famous clog factory and equally famous Calder Valley High School (of Pace Egging fame), I climbed higher and higher…only feeling better when I turned to see an elderly man a few feet ahead steaming full speed ahead! If he can do it, so can I! I overtook him with a sort of pride and glee which I should have had and after about 40 minutes reached Midgley. A sign proudly proclaimed Spaw Sunday and asking around I was directed to the old Pound where the walk would begin at 11.00.

There I found two girls setting up their dressing. They pottered about moving things here, moving them there…a career at the Chelsea flower show perhaps beckons. As 11 arrived, I was feeling a bit self conscious as no one appeared to there…then soon, three, four, ten, twenty and finally around forty people turned up.

We were given a warm welcome by the chairman of the community forum and a very informative discussion of animal pounds by the two girls. After they finished, we all followed our standard bearer to the next well. Here set up with a colourful maypole we were carolled by two local singers and down we went to the main Town well along the high street where a delightful comical poem was recited.

So far the walk had been an easy and relaxing pace on flat surfaces or down hill, now we turned upwards to the moor! A few walkers fell by the wayside but they missed a fine view of the valley and the remaining wells after returning to high street. At the end the assembled mass visit the community centre where the plan was to partake in dock pudding.

Midgley Spaw Sunday 2013 (119)Midgley Spaw Sunday 2013 (95)Midgley Spaw Sunday 2013 (187)

What’s up dock!

Dock pudding is a local delicacy, but not this year. Although it was promised as an après walk, the thick snows of January through to March had prevented it from sprouting and possibly for the first time even the world famous dock pudding championship was cancelled. Never mind I did have to return back to Mytholmroyd although the journey back was 10 times easier and 100 times quicker it felt.

Midgley is one of those hamlets where the local communities have changed, being so close to Manchester it has like other areas become a dormitory town for commuters…however now it seems that this commuter community is retired and fortunately keen to spend time again in their community and revive traditions which made it unique.

The origins of this custom is unclear, one of the organisers suggested an observance of it occurred in the 1970s and possibly 80s, The Bords sacred waters from 1984 say recently revived, but they were unaware whether this was a survival or revival. This custom consists of the dressing of the well and springheads of the small hamlet with banners and a wide range of flowers, objects and artwork. In the morning there was a perambulation around there were poems and recitations are consisted.

Midgley Spaw Sunday 2013 (48)

What is unusual about Midgley’s Spaw Sunday is that no-one drank the water and the other side this was still undertaken and I was interested to see this. I spoke to the lady who wrote the article in The Guardian which directed my attention to revival the custom. She drunk some of the sulphur water at Cragg Vale and well…she was still alive. It was worth a go and I had packed my liquorice especially so off I went..

A Spa-rtan history?

The most famous of these was Cragg Vale which has a history dating back at least 300 years or details are scant. It certainly could be older but we cannot be sure. The earliest reference dates from 1789 in Watson’s History of Halifax Parish, and the custom was apparently to adorn the well with boughs and flowers and whether it was drink is unclear.  The height of its popularity was in the late 19th and early 20th with numbers being up to the 100s! In the Telegraph and Argus of 7th May 1909 there was the following report on Spa Sunday:

“’Spa’ Sunday, specially favoured in point of weather, was as popular as ever on the hills surrounding the town.  The Hebden Bridge Brass Band were out early, and discoursed music on the Erringden hillside.  Blackstone Edge and Cragg Vale were as usual visited by hundreds of people.”

Sam Hellowell’s History of Cragg Vale (1959) records in 1913:

“It being a nice day the crowd during the afternoon was a very large one, being many hundreds in excess of last year’s and the scene was of an animated character.  Testing the pungent water was much more generally observed than formerly.  The scene, however, contrasted very favourably compared with the very rough and rowdy conduct of generations gone by.  The local branch of the Independent Labour Party was represented with speakers.  The Hebden Bridge Brass Band was also present, as was the Steep Lane Mission Band.”

The Cragg Vale Spaw Sunday died out in the 1940s probably during the War. A revival in 1987 as noted above was short lived and consequently, the Spa spring itself became effectively lost falling like many sites in ruin and becoming forgotten out of site and mind.  This was until 2009 when the site was cleared, cleaned and new steps provided with a landscaped surrounding. Then on the first May in Sunday, 1st May 2010, it was again revived. Fortunately, nothing appears to have affected the custom since its revival in 2011. The present revival consists of a procession to the spring from presently the Hinchcliffe Arms Inn with the Rippondale sword dancers and resident clergy. The spa is then blessed and water sprinkled and drunk with liquorice and cakes served.

Sulphur and brimstone

I arrived at the Hinchcliffe Arms at good time, everyone was congregating with cake. The token clergy arrived jolly and enthusiastic and soon, the sword dancers, curate and local residents formed a procession. Through the fields we went following the stream, back onto the main road and then back down to the bridge where the spring lay.

Cragg Vale Spaw Sunday 2013 (176)Cragg Vale Spaw Sunday 2013 (236)

Here everything went a little off message, as soon as we arrived, we were subjected to a piece of fire and brimstone…which included a dig at a green man carved in a piece of wood in the village. Interesting to see that the 2000 year old battle with paganism continues. In a way this oration was classic Spaw Sunday because in the 19th centuries as noted these gatherings were attended by a whole range of tub thumpers. However, then the bombshell was dropped. She had received a phone call that said that no-one could drink the water!! No! I was looking forward to the convoluted faces as they drank the water. Why? The locals put it down to possible contamination due to last year’s ferocious floods. This also meant that the scattering of water in the blessing was not to be done. Never mind at least we would still have the blessing and I positioned myself so that I could get a number of shots. However despite a detailed order with hymns and Caedmon’s prayer we were subjected to more brimstone when God was called upon to rededicate the spring. This in particularly annoyed one of those assembled who challenged this view….but perhaps that was fitting for Spaw Sunday with its history of reforming Labourites and Temperance adherents was all about debate and argument. Long may the revival continue!

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

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