Monthly Archives: May 2014

Custom survived: Bisley Ascension day Well dressing

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The three days before Ascension Day it never stopped raining, so it was with some trepidation that I made my journey to Bisley for their annual water based celebration. Rain was on the forecast, but I noticed oddly enough a gap both geographically and temporally was noted on the weather website and that was good enough for me. Of course, rain would be wholly appropriate on a day when thanks is traditionally given for water, a little odd since the day commemorates the Ascension of Jesus, which of course is the reverse!

Well positioned

Bisley is a delightful village, high above Stroud, it has all the great features of a classic Cotswold village with a historic old pub, The Bear with its association with the Bisley Boy legend ( a story of a switch between a local lookalike and a child Elizabeth I), a lock-up and those traditional delightful Cotswold stone cream buildings..and a picturesque well head situated below the church’s rocky outcrop. This well head, encloses seven springs, the name given to the site, of which five flow with considerable power through Gothic pointed arches and into a trough which lines the walling. Another two at the front gable fill large troughs. The water looks delightfully refreshing.

Well thought of.

The custom is one of the oldest Well dressing customs continually done in England; the only one outside of the Derbyshire-Staffordshire region with any pedigree. There are after all tens of well dressings and I don’t yet intend detailing all, but one so unique geographically and old needs mention. Surprising, it is still little known, cursory mention is made of it in well dressing volumes and even Katherine Brigg’s 1974 work Folklore of the Cotswolds ignores it!

Debate exists over whether in 1863 the custom was revived, transferred from Derbyshire or the pure invention of the noted vicar Thomas Keble. Being the brother of the more famous John of the Oxford movement it is fairly obvious that establishing such a custom fell into the remit of the Anglo-Catholic views they espoused. Certainly, the legend over the well was carved to cause controversy being a Catholic inscription of the version in the Common Book of Prayer.

The Reverend Keble repaired or built the well house, perhaps also giving the Seven springs name and having done so much effort thought it would be an excellent idea to celebrate this annually. Little appears to have recorded from this earliest day and the first mention of it is from Skyring Walters who’s 1928, Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of Gloucestershiresadly does not delve too deeply into their history and spends more time discussing Tissington.

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Bisley Boys (and Girls)

“The ceremony still has much traditional atmosphere unlike many of the Derbyshire well-dressings which are becoming more like floral art displays for tourists.”

Such states Laurence Hunt (1994) in Some Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of the Cotswolds in Source and I completely agree. One of the reasons why the Bisley dressings feel unique is the procession. Many Derbyshire well dressings have a brass band, so do Bisley, ably provided by Avening Brass Band, all have their clergy, but few possibly none carry the well dressings or have them carried by costumed children. These children are dressed in traditional Victorian Tudor blue coats and smocks for the girls. Joining them this year where two children from the twin town in Brittany with traditional Breton children’s dress. They carry the dressings because unlike those of Derbyshire they are wrapped in garland frames with moss and inserted flower heads made by a cross generational team of children, parents and grandparents. I was told that they take a day or so to make, which of course is shorter than that of Derbyshire, but they are no less picturesque or effective.

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Head from the spring head

There was short service in the Parish church, I decided as the sun was shining to listen from outside bathing in the bright sunshine. Then at around two the children appeared and collected their well garlands and after some to-ing and fro-ing to get those letters in the right order…ACSENSINO being an interesting word but not right! Then off they went following the brass band downhill to the wells.

At the wells, the two Star of Davids were attached to the front of the well house and the individual flower letters spelling ASCENSION were raised and an attached between each arch and in the middle the traditional flower letters and numbers AD 2014.

The other children and indeed some adults laid small posies in the long trough around the wells base, perhaps the most primitive of responses..ensuring that everyone in the village could commemorate this once valuable water source.

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At the well head, soon a large crowd assembled around and here on a small stage, the vicar, The Reverend Rosie Woodhall, read a watery reading of the Benedicite which ended with the fitting:

“O ye Wells, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him forever.”

The congregation sang and the wells were blessed and then a bit like a rock star, the vicar left the stage climbed back up the hill and disappeared out of view, which I thought a little strange,…perhaps the banter that I often expect from vicars at these events happened in the church above. Nevertheless, 2013 was the 150th anniversary and despite the rain that day, nothing appears to dampen the village’s desire to celebrate the wells and its 2014 celebration was a delightful remembrance of not only a once important source of water but a great vicar in the history of the Church.

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs …no specific site but there is a post on well dressing http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/well-dressing/and of course http://welldressing.com is your first port of call for all things well dressing naturally!

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Custom revived: Ely Hoop Trundle

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“It is up there with rolling a Gloucester cheese down a hill and Eton’s Wall Game,”  

Principal Sue Freestone.

School customs are a fascinating, if frustrating group of customs..many have a long and fascinating history, but often understandably due to the nature of the establishments difficult to witness. Ely’s Hoop Trundle although a fascinating custom it is unlike say Westminster School’s pancake grease inaccessible to the custom crawler…as it is done in public on the Green behind Ely’s imposing cathedral and although not always in May, so a bit of a cheat, it appears to often be on that month and appears set for that day from now on. Easily the best of such events for the spectator with no barriers, it is easy to watch and subsequently become part of the action…as the hoops rolled into the audience on a number of occasions.

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What the hoop-la?

The customs is liked to a tradition of the re-founding of the school by King Henry VIIth in 1541. As he dissolved its educational predecessor Ely monastery, he appears to have had a pang of guilt and so established the school with its first charter with 12 schoolars. Apparently he allowed them to play games in the Cathedral grounds and although this does not appear to happen anymore, by rolling a hoop they retain that right and remember that re-founding.

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Cock a hoop

Despite the press releases which state it has continued since the time of Henry VIIIth,  I believe this is a revived custom probably as the principal agreed being resurrected by a 20th century predecessor probably around the time of the school’s adoption of Queen’s Schoolars in 1973 but I have yet to have that confirmed.

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Hoops outside your head

At the allotted time the green began to fill with the students, staff and parents of the school. An oil can was carefully placed in the middle of the grass and the wooden hoops and sticks collected ready to be distributed. Then scholars appeared in their red gowns and the wooden hoops and sticks were passed amongst. No soon as this happened then they were off rolling them and racing backwards and forth.  I was told that originally it was ran down the road outside the Cathedral but too many grazed knees and cuts would occur and problems with traffic no doubt. Despite what would appear to be a fairly innocuous event danger clearly awaited. For whilst practising, one of the prospective contestants in the clashed with another and when head over hills and appeared to damage his ankle. This appeared to be a fairly rare occasion as he had to be carried off in a work van! Well it was one way of reducing the odds.

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Then the two heats produced their winners, a Euan Richards and Yuki Kimura who proudly, picked up their commemorative wooden tankards and their names entered in the history of Hoop trundling. They posed for pictures holding their hoops aloft and everyone disappeared into the city.

So keep an eye out for the next trundle, I spoke to the principal who said they aimed to ensure it was always on the same weekend as the Ely Eel festival…details of that for another May.

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs …its not on there yet

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Custom contrived: Yaxley Jack in the Green

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Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (128)May the best event win!

This May I experienced two ‘revived’ or rather ‘contrived’ May Day events. Events which attempted to instil the traditions of the time of year with a modern twist. One was fairly dreadful, a travesty, no better than a glorified car boot sale with a May theme tacked on…that wasn’t Yaxley! I won’t say where the other was but Yaxley’s event really showed how such an event, albeit based on an older Fair tradition can be both credible and relevant to a whole range of people. The fair itself dates back from the 13th century when Royal decree, Henry III granted a fair to be held on Ascension Day in Yaxley to Thornton Abbey. I am unaware of the survival of this Fair into modern times, but the modern event is clearly not tied to Ascension Day.

I’m alright Jack

Furthermore, no Jack in Green is not recorded in Yaxley either, but he does have a history in the Cambridgeshire area. The Women’s Institute recorded of Melbourn: “A procession of dancers, headed by Jack in the Green, the local sweep, who walked in a framework of boughs, made their way through the village to the Maypole” Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (203) I arrived at the Three Horses Pub, a delightful thatched establishment on the main street to see all the procession assembled and some organiser towering above them on a wall giving directors.  Here the shell of the Jack was being prepared, with ribbons attached and a man stood green faced waiting with his attendants, a Sap-Engro and Copperface wearing the original Ancient Order of the Foresters sash, which was worn in the village’s parades in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Then at the allotted time, the shell was raised and the man enclosed. Then we waited for the other star, a larger one, a star of stage and screen, Warwick Davis. A local celebrity to the village who has gladly became a patron of the festival. He soon arrived and climbing into a car with the other patron, the local MP, the procession continued. Although the procession had all the clichés of a parade: marionettes, Saxon and Civil War re-enactors and of course Morris, or in this case Molly, dancers, it does not feel predictable…perhaps as a result of the inclusion of the Jack and his sweep attendees, something only seen in 16 other places and not always in a procession. Thus it makes the procession feel unique and certainly ancient. Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (455)

Down to earth

At the recreation ground the procession greeted an impressive spread of fun fair and fete. At the arena awaiting Jack and the patrons was a square sod of earth. Here Warwick Davis was asked to cut a Y into a piece of pre-cut turf. The cutting of a Y was obvious but despite Mr. Davis’s enquiring no-one could immediately tell him. Perhaps summing up many an English tradition,, but if you going to do something pointless…you’ve got to have a reason for it I say. The reason was that during the fair, any house which cut a piece of turf and displayed it, could sell alcohol and function as a pub even without a certificate. I am sure that had this been explained one of the crowd would have rushed forward to affix to their house and make a quick buck!

Jack of all trades

Warwick was the genial host freely entering into the spirit of the event. He enjoyed a fair bit of kick about humour from the parliamentarians who accused Warwick Davis of sorcery saying that he was digging a big hole for himself…and you can make up the rest of the joke. Afterwards, the day continued with the local primary undertaking some Maypole dancing and the Pig Dyke Molly dancers regaling the crowds in their black and white garb and curious dancing. Outside the arena was an expansive funfair, the usual collection of novelty stalls and even a Guess your age stall who got my age wrong by 10 years! Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (502)Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (529)           The organisers of Yaxley’s festival are to be congratulated they have pulled off a credible event which mixes a bit of folklore tradition with a modern concert and all the fun of the fair. If you find yourself in the area do come; it’s a village fete par excellence! Find out when its on Calendar Customs …its not on there yet. Yaxley festival website is Copyright Pixyledpublications