Monthly Archives: July 2013

Custom survived: Selston Tower Service

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Search in a book of calendar customs for the tower service at Selston and I doubt you’ll find it, but it has a long history, certainly over 100 years and has a perplexing origin as a many others.

A Tower of Strength

What possessed the then vicar, a Reverend Charles Harrison to start the sermon is unknown. It is thought that he did so to attract local travellers, who camped on Selston Green and would visit the grave of Boswell, the King of the Gypsies, often with their new born babies. He may have done it to commemorate its restoration in 1904/5 and the date was thought to coincide with their Wakes week, although this would suggest another date as such weeks were often developed from the patronal festival.

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Tower records

From the top of the tower one can see over twenty church and right across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and even into Leicestershire. So it is not surprising that the sermon has attracted many visitors. I was informed by Mr Tew, the present church warden that one year an estimated congregation of 1000 attended, although they must have spilled over the churchyard wall and into the street!  Now it is has become traditional to invite a guest preacher to preach from the tower.

Stairway to heaven

Of course part of the uniqueness of this sermon was that it was conducted from the tower and so it joins a small group of better known tower sermons and services. As I thought it be fascinating to see both sides of the event, I contacted the church enquiring whether I would be able to view the sermon from the tower itself and fortunately they agreed. I could see why they did not encourage visitors as I clambered up the very worn and weathered 70 steps. Then across the rickety metal frame over the bells and squeezing up the ladder and through the trap door and onto the hot metal roof. It took a while to orientate myself and I had to be careful not to lean on the parapets too hard or lean back thinking there was one – it was a long way down! In the early days the quire also mounted the roof, now they are safely on ground level under a shelter. Now there is only the curate, their guest, a traditional feature of the sermon and the church warden.

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Despite the precarious nature of the event, no accident has ever been recorded…except for one incumbent who never made it almost. When thirty years ago, the Rev Vic Simmons, was about to read his final tower sermon set his foot alight with weed killer (accidentally). He was determined to do it stating:

“It was the highlight of the church year. I didn’t want to miss it.”

So a chair was carried up and no doubt he made a slow and rather tender climb to the top.

The 100th anniversary in 2007 saw the presence of the Rt Rev Anthony Porter, Bishop of Sherwood. When I visited it was the extremely jovial figure of the Rev. Liz Murray having a local association with the church but was currently the curate of nearby Eastwood, Brinsley and Underwood joined the equally charming Revd Pauline Key. They  made such a natural ‘pious’ pair that it surprises me that the Church of England fought against women clergy for so long…so natural did these two fit in the role.

With some well known and uplifting choices for hymns as well an obvious punning song with the chorus ‘my strong tower’. Now of course the sermon has amplification, one could not imagine, how difficult it would have been to hear it before its use for it was difficult to hear the choir beneath without it…presumably earlier vicars had big voices.

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Mr Tew doubted that the tower service was enacted every year since, but I had the fortune to speak to a 90 year old parishioner who remembered being taken ‘babe in arms’ to the service and regularly attended from her infant years. I asked her whether she had climbed to the top…No, and I don’t think many had making me realise how honoured that they allowed me to join in on such a venerable custom.

Clearly the curate and their regular guest got a buzz…dare I say a ‘high’ from the experience and enjoyed it enormously. Indeed, I felt it was all in all a rather jolly and joyous experience.

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

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Custom contrived: John Clare memorial midsummer cushions

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Cushion star!

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (99)

Often commemorations record pious politicians and mighty military men, every now and again it is nice to see a much more humble and harmless professions being celebrated: writers, poets and clowns being amongst them! At Helpston, since the 1980s a local festival has been established to toast a local and little known servant of the muses, the so-called ‘peasant poet’ John Clare. The event focuses around the weekend closest to his birth date, the 13th July and includes concerts and readings. However, it is the picturesque midsummer cushion ceremony which concerns us here. John Clare himself reported in his manuscript called Midsummer cushion in 1832:

“It is a very old custom among villagers in summer time to stick a piece of greensward full of field flowers and place it as an ornament in their cottages which ornaments are called Midsummer cushions.”

Glorious sunshine beamed down into the small churchyard of St. Botolphs and a crowd had begun to assemble around the tomb of this lauded local, some devotees of the verse, some curious bystanders and the rest dutiful parents. The later naturally swelled the churchyard as the custom is enacted by the pupils of John Clare Primary school naturally enough.

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (36)

At the allotted time 1.30, a stream of students holding proudly their creations entered beneath the churchyard arch, up the lavender lined path and towards the grave where under the direction of their head teacher, they laid their cushions around his grave. Slowly and surely they formed a picturesque patchwork, their vibrant colours glimmering in the mid day sunlight.

These cushions was composed in a fashion similar as possible to Clare’s description, using an ice cream tub crammed as much as possibly with colourful blooms and in one case a whole plants. The tradition perhaps should be a revived custom; although it is more a transferred custom as clearly it would not have been associated with the poet. Speaking to a local man he informed me it was a Northamptonshire custom, to which I added Cambridgeshire as well, to which he replied ‘sadly the village is now’ showing how still some are not happy to see the Soke of Peterborough be absorbed into the modern Cambridgeshire. However, the custom is not unique to this region as an MA Denham wrote in 1850s of a version in northern England that:

“The young lads and lasses of the town or village having procured a cushion…and covered it with calico, or silk of showy and attractive colour, proceeded to bedeck it with every variety of flower which they could procure out of their parents’ and more wealthy neighbour’s gardens, displaying them in such a manner so as to give it a most beautiful appearance. All this is done, they placed themselves with their cushion of Flora’s choicest gems, in the most public place they conveniently could soliciting of every passer-by a trifling present of pence, which in numerous cases was liberally and cheerfully bestowed…the custom prevailed from Midsummer Day to Magdalene Day (22 July), which latter has long corrupted to ‘Maudlin Day’.”

As early as 1778 John Hutchinson reported a similar custom in Northumberland but the cushions were made out of stools, with a layer of clay smeared on top and flowers stick into it much like a well dressing.

How long the ceremony has been enacted I am unclear, speaking to a regular attendee he said he had seen 30 years of them and suggested it had been done at least another 30 years previous by the school.

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (131) John Clare Midsummer 2013 (133)

Once all the children had assembled, a small group remained in the blazing sunlight to serenade the grave perhaps with songs based on Clare’s work set to music. After which the children then sat down in the shade to hear an introduction and explanation by the society’s representative and one could see a degree of anticipation on their faces. Was it the usual boredom? No it was awaiting the results of the poetry competition. Winners and commended were read out from each class with a nervous but surprisingly confident approach, there were no shy moments and the pieces had a surprising maturity, clearly the influence of Clare has had a positive effect. All in all it is very pleasant to see such a charming custom given such enthusiastic support…even during the heavy storms of 2012! Long may it continue.

copyright Pixyled publications

Custom demised: Little Edith’s Treat

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The small village of Piddinghoe has in the church like many others a benefactor’s board recording its local charities. Here however is a rather sad story which founded a unique charitable event – Little Edith’s Treat. Which despite its inclusion in nearly every calendar customs book, it is sadly now largely defunct.

The origins of the custom derive from a doting grandmother called Elizabeth Croft who after her husband died in 1866, took solace in the birth of her granddaughter in July of 1868. Sadly she died only a few months later in October and so distraught at her left £350, to be invested a sizable sum for a number of charities. The important bit of the plaque reads:

“The interest arising from £100 of the said stock to be known as ‘Little Edith’s Treat’ to be expended on the 19th of July in each year in a treat to the children of the national school of the said parish and in rewards more especially to the girls who are skilled in plain needlework and to the boys and girls who are neat in their dress in their habits and regular in attendance at church and school.”

The treats followed the same pattern each year: on the afternoon of her birthday or the nearest school day July 19th, the schoolchildren were told the story of the bequest, attended a church service and then taken to the open space called the Hoe to engage in various games and races, finishing with tea which in the days when food may have been scarcer was a life saver. Roud (2008) in his English Year tells us that the vicar would throw a handful of coins into the air and the children would scramble for them. Prizes and gifts would be distributed back at the school: boys for tidiness, attended school and church regularly and girls for needlecraft. In 1904 the total number of children rose to over 100. However, sadly after the school closed in 1952, and although the custom moved naturally to Sunday school, a fall in child numbers and decrease in the annual value meant the ‘treat’ became irregular and I was informed in the 1990s that it ceased as a formal event but money was available for one offs. Roud (2008) tells us that in 2000 some of the money paid for a Christmas party, so despite the loss of the actual day the gift still continues when there is enough money available. I am sure that Elizabeth Croft would approve.