Custom revived: Listening to witches

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Shrove tuesday…is full of customs, mostly pancakes. In this Bedfordshire village they don’t make them but listen for them in perhaps the country’s strangest custom.

Let’s all do the conger

As St. George’s church bell rings, a crocodile of children leave the local primary school and head towards a small hill. The hill called Conger Hill, a 12th century motte and bailey, is said to hold a strange captive. Once there they all kneeled down, on positioned mats or sheets so as not to get their clothes dirty and placed their ears to the ground.

What were they listening to? Doris Jones-Baker (1977) provides the notes. She states in her Folklore of Hertfordshire:

“The best-known maker of Shrove Tuesday Pancakes in Hertfordshire, however was no mortal but the Pancake Witch of Toddington….She fries her yearly batch deep inside Conger Hill.”

She continues to add:

“The Toddington village school bell rings five minutes before noon to give the children time to scurry along to the top of the hill nearby. Here putting their ears to the ground, they listen for the sizzle of the pancakes as they fry in the old witch’s pan.”

And so was written the last account of the custom whilst still undertaken. The origins of the custom are not clear, but it is believed to be at least 150 years old. The earliest account is in 1885 although it does not mention the hill stating:

“Being Shrove Tuesday, according to ancient custom, the children have a half holiday.”

However, it was common to give the children the afternoon off everywhere so it is difficult to judge. Jones-Baker  when she described the custom was recalling a revival or was it made up then by Richard Dillingham the primary school’s headmaster, from the 1940s (according to the Bedfordshire archives) or 1950s which continued until the 1970s (and into the 1990s according to many folk custom books).  And for many years that was that. It was a demised custom. Why perhaps parents moaned about dirty clothes or someone suggested it was a bit too pagan!

However, some customs refuse to die, especially when you have a thriving community and its spirit.  The Toddington Old Boys’ Association decided to revive the custom in 2011 after checking with a former pupil from the 50s that the witch was still there! And she was! So to ensure that the custom was understood the legend was told at the school and now the children are firmly involved.

Witch is it? Witch or not?

Cynics may argue that the sound is the reverb of the church bells vibrating in the ground. Others disagree “I heard the witch cackle” I can hear it…”quiet but evil” but another child would say “It’s just the ground.” I would say it could the M1 hurtling by nearby…a local legend recalls that the Lord of the Castle wanting pancakes imprisoned a witch in the dungeon. Looking around is quite surreal lots of children lying down with their heads buried in the grass, at a brief moment silent and giggling and chatting! My children thought it was all rather weird…but they believed. I think!

Whatever is the truth it’s nice to see the custom revived….and lets hope it continues.

My hard drive is playing up and I cannot access photos, the grainy photo from the following website where I found the majority of the information. Hope they don’t mind. It has a great video as well…

http://www.lutontoday.co.uk/news/local/video-conger-hill-witch-heard-frying-pancakes-on-shrove-tuesday-1-5913751

Find out when it’s on….

its not on Calendar customs yet, but there’s a lot on Shrove Tuesday there

http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/shrove-tuesday/

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