Monthly Archives: September 2013

Custom survived: Matlock Illuminations and Venetian fete

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The splendours of Matlock Bath are perhaps difficult to explain to anyone not familiar with English eccentricity. Bereft of the seaside, Midland’s people appear to have created one inland, with its fish and chip shops, stick of rock emporia, amusement arcades and kiss me quick frivolity. If one looked at the main parade of shops which not only regale in these but are joined by an aquarium, rides, ice-cream eaters and rows of motorbikes..one could see it easily transferred to face some salty sandy strip, waves breaking and long pier but no..turn around and you’ll see the great river Derwent slithering through this valley of vicarious vicissitudes instead. This was and is a spa town and like many spa towns it had a defined season. Defined seasons are all very well when we are by the sea, when sun bathing is a bit problematic in Autumn…but I get the impression that for spa towns, especially those in the decline in the late 1800s, any way of extending this season and bringing more tourists in would be welcome…so as the summer season comes to an end, days shorten, Matlock Bath invites you to its most colourful attraction…the Venetian illuminations.

Bright idea

The event dates back to 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, which is interesting as Victoria was said to be the inspiration. She recalled that when staying in Matlock Bath, she remarked how she saw the candle lights of the town reflected on the Derwent when staying there and thought the mist over the river was magical…and so the town decided to capitalise on this description. These were the days when everyone hung on the thoughts of the monarch…has little changed!?

Tripping the light fantastic

So in 1897, a selection of fairy lamps, Chinese and Japanese lanterns was used and a torchlight procession was undertaken through the village. Coloured bonfires lit up the gorge and illuminated boats floated down the river. So popular was the event, that the local trades people invested in glass bucket lanterns to illuminate the parade during the first Saturday in September every year. The growing popularity resulted in the formation of a ‘lamp committee’ which organised these displays but it was not until 1903 that the decorated and illuminated boats became a regular part of the event with a competition for the best one established called the Arkright Cup. This competition continues till this day, with a longer month or so long festival being established in 1952.

The delightful Riverside gardens are the venue for this curious custom. No better location can be found which typifies the Victorian splendour of old. Here everything trees, fountains and wells, are adorned with old fashioned bulb lighting which as dusk envelops gives the area a magical enchanted feeling.

Light up!

I arrived at the opening ceremony to watch, the councillor to officially open the illuminations. The switch on in the 1970s and 80s was done by people as varied as children’s artist Tony Hart to Doctor who’s Jon Pertwee, disappearing in the 1990s in a way competing with Blackpool’s famous switch ons, which still continue. Two small children were selected and I was amused to watch another have a hissy-fit when they were not selected: I do hope they have the same view after seeing the Blackpool lights switched up by some celeb?!Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one! Now with the help of these two small children selected from the audience, the delightful fairy-tale delight was switched on for another year. In reflection perhaps a celeb may raise the profile of the event, but understandably absence considering the appearance fees those celebs charge.

Bill and Ben

Float away

The main attractions here of course are the boats. During the day, these I must admit look unimpressive, but under the cover of darkness, their magnificence comes to life, especially when they are lit up all at once on their first outing. What is impressive, aside from the hundred and possibly thousands of bulbs, are mechanisms used, this year having a working Ferris wheel, swaying Chinese Dragon, and blinking eyed Thomas the Tank Engine Lorry. The first float however comes out solely being lit by candles as traditional, a custom which begun in the 1980s I believe to show what the original floats look like, in 2013 it was a bomber..impressive but not ad the main show and difficult to get a decent photo!

Light relief

At the end of the first evening, it was called upon for the councillor again to give out, the prizes. A strange collection of people clumped near the bandstand: Chinese mandarins, Smurfs, Willy Wonka! Four prizes were on offer in this Arkright cup. This competition has attracted some regular entrants, such as electrician David Gregory, who since 1971 has entered every year and won the cup 11 times.

With over 1800 coloured bulbs per boat, and over 100,000 visitors, Matlock’s illuminations are certainly in the big league when it comes to customs but outside the area little known especially compared to Blackpool.  Fortunately, for anyone reading this unlike when I describe these customs, they have finished, but in this case, the Illuminations continue every weekend until the end of October, so there’s still time to experience them if you are in the area.

On certain weekends, the night finishing with a spectacular fireworks.  A strange melancholy amongst the obvious vibrancy of a sky scattered in fireworks. The fireworks themselves subtly telling us that winter is on its way, time to tidy up and put the shops to bed..close down and finally reconcile oneself to the quieter winter ahead!

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Custom revived: Gloucester Day and the Mock Mayor of Barton

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“Dulce est Desipere in Loco”

It is delightful to play the fool occasionally, so reads the motto of the revived Mock Mayor of Barton. How appropriate!

Gloucester over it!

Land use around train stations in the UK is always less than promising. Only a handful of cities and towns can boast a good vista from the station. Gloucester isn’t one of them! The buildings around both train and bus station are no great advert for much of the beauty and fine architecture that can be found in the city: hideous concrete slabs, boarded up windows and row after row of charity shops and cheap shops. There must have been some nice architecture there…perhaps the war removed it, but the post-War did much to ruin it. So it might seem strange that a city which appears to be going through a patriotic revival ignores this part. Ho hum..a few  streets in of course and we enter the Gloucester of the postcard, but it’s a shame our post war architects could not have been more imaginative, but I digress.

Siege mentality

Gloucester Day celebrates the lifting of the 1643 Siege of Gloucester, when the city survived after an onslaught of the Royalist forces in the first English Civil War. Strangely despite celebrating what could be conceived an anti-Monarchist event, the custom survived until around the nineteenth century. It was arrived in 2009 by the colourful figure of Alan Myatt, the Town Crier and forms part of the Gloucester History and Heritage Week.

The new Mock mayor

Double Gloucester

Not only is Gloucester Day is celebrated on the day but there is a Morris meet, called Hands Around Gloucester and more interestingly the revived Mock Mayor of Barton. This too is believed to date from the Civil War. It is said that that after the siege Barton was removed from the city and so as a response decided to mock them and elect their own mayor. However, in a contributor to Jennings’ Gloucester Handbook suggests an age  “more ancient than the Mayors of Gloucester”, possibly deriving from an old moot called Halimote of Barton.  Certainly, the mock mayor did have a ‘court’, which would be held in various pubs doubling for the town hall: the Old Vauxhall and lastly the Bell Inn, and as noted a coat of ‘arms’. He also had some armorial insignia which survived in a wine merchant of Bell Lane in the 1880s, but now cannot be traced. The mayor would have duties such as visiting the Cotswold Olympics and the Cheese Rolling. The mayor could also inflict penalties, comical though they may be. Generally, the offender would be forbidden to:

 “shoot ducks, fowls, donkeys, pigs, or any game whatever, or fish in any river, running stream, ditch, pool, or puddle, with many other pains also”. 

Any resident of Barton who had lived there for two years would be eligible and were selected through some mistake or blunder:

“through want of judgement or absence of mind, made some blunders of an amusing nature before he could be named to the ‘Court’”

Once appointed he could not shake off this ‘honour’ and Duart-Smith (1923) notes that:

 “one of the elected mayors had impounded his own pigs by mistake, believing them to be his neighbour’s” 

Another member was inducted because he sowed soot to grow chimneys and another setting up a expensive fenced in piggery forgot to include a doorway! Interestingly, it is reported in the Gloucester Standard of c.1889 – 90 that despite the mockery of the position, some notable individuals became mayors such as a solicitor, the editor of the Gloucester Journal, a Russian Consul, and a timber importer and indeed once the City Mayor at that of Barton were one and the same. What caused the custom to disappear is unclear, but it probably considering its association with hostelries became associated with drunks and antisocial behaviour.

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Another month another Mock Mayor

At 11.00 in the morning the members of the Mock Mayor’s mayor making entourage assembled behind the museum and what a motley bunch: Morris dancers, goats, a colourful burger, sword bearer, and a whole range of eccentrics who resembled the Monster Raving Loony Party. With the sword beater menacing in front they were off to a confused Gloucester shopping public, some of who appear unaware that if a procession comes along get out the way!! They passed the real Mayor, councillors and local MP near St. Michael’s Tower, upon which the sword bearer undertook a circular dance, probably if not intentionally intending to show contempt to them much in way they did at Woodstock. The newly elected Mock Mayor being carried on a bike powered trailer and sat comically upon a metal beer barrel. After circling around the parade came back to near the tower where a stage was erected, here the other civic party awaited. The electee, sword bearer and burger climbed on stage, and some slights and comical I jokes came flying out. After the Mayor making proclamation which ended with an up yours, the more comical politicians had a say…I mean the local MP and real Mayor to recognise the valuable work behind the trivial ness done by the mock mayor. All the platitudes over the group processed down to the nearby church and here the Morris were there again holding aloft their staffs, they formed an arch under which the groups flowed for their thanksgiving service. For a few hours normality resumed, but then…

Off we go again

DSC_0264If one parade was not enough wait a few hours and another, larger one comes along at 2.00. This was the Gloucester Day parade. Back with the Mock Mayor, minus the Morris who congregated at the cross road near St. Micheal’s Tower, ready to dance as the group went by. These parades appear to have a formula:civic dignitaries + religious groups/Scottish bands+~ knights or Romans to its credit Gloucester’s parade added a bit more to this formula including cross dressers from the gay community, masons, a giant pig, those goats again, the Waits a revived medieval group of musicians, as well all lead by the town crier. I didn’t notice the Gloucester flag much touted from a few years back, but it was a flurry of colour and a barrage of beats. Perhaps not as comical as the mock mayor procession…but well worth a few and where else do you get two processions a day!

This re-instated custom certainly is impressive and undertaken which such enthusiasm it difficult to believe it is only been revived since 2009!

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Custom demised: Kissing the Old Man

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Presentation1The first day at school is a daunting experience: so many different lessons, different teachers, and lots of corridors and the fear of having one’s head down the loo! (The last worry, although as far as I can remember, was always one spread around, I don’t remember anyone having that done to them.) In some of the venerable school’s of the country, there appears to be a formalised ritual of initiation associated with the first weeks of September. One such school was Stamford, Lincolnshire, were there was a tradition called ‘Kissing the Old Man’. The Old Man was a medieval carved head which formed the keystone of the door into the old school which was formerly St. Paul’s Church. There appears to be some confusion concerning the age of the custom. On the Reminiscences page of the school’s website it suggests that the custom begun in 1929, the author claiming to be the first one on the 17th October unknown origins but was well established by Victorian times. The reason for this confusion, maybe due to the fact that in 1929 this worn head was reset into the west door of the chapel extension and he may have been the first to re-kiss it. Indeed, it appears to have been going through decline then as Arthur Browning, reports that in 1870, the initiation was ‘seldom practiced’ and J. H. Boam states that the custom was only done if a pupil had done anything to dishonour the school, which appear contrary to other reports. Certainly it was traditional to pinch and annoy the kisser as Deed in a History of Stamford School notes that they would often suffer the indignity of having a compass stuck in their backside. This is emphasised again by Micheal Walsh in Brothers in War who records:

“New boys at Stamford had to face one of those familiar, character building initiation rituals beloved of the public school system. ‘Kissing the Old Man’ required the victim to be hoisted up by two prefects to kiss a stone head over a doorway while being barracked, pinched and buffeted by the rest of the assembled school.”

Similarly, an anonymous rhyme in The Stamfordian in the Lent term edition of 1887 goes:

“It is my intent, And on it I’m bent, In our spacious hall, The School Roll to Call, Of those who have felt, From foot to the belt, The most cruelly pinched, And woefully lynched, While kissing the face, With horrid grimace, And very poor grace, Of the School Old Man.”

The custom was undertaken on Saturday break, and some old boys appear to have a more rose-tinted view. In Sutton’s Lincolnshire Calendar an old boy recorded:

“The Old Man is still there, even though nobody kisses him any more..there was nothing cruel or painful in the process when I was subjected to it in 1960. It was probably banned because it was too much of a distraction from work.”

The head is still there and I imagine a head saw it as a form of bullying and in the more enlightened time penalised those doing it and the custom disappeared.

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