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

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4 responses »

  1. Hello, this is Stewart, the founder of the Yaxley Festival. Thank you for joining us and we are very happy that you enjoyed the event. I’d love to chat with you at some point in more detail about the festival and in particular the customs and traditions of the village. Perhaps if you’re down this way we can meet up for a drink in the Three Horseshoes 🙂

  2. Hi Stewart, thanks for the message again well done for organising the festival. More than happy to although I rarely get down Peterborough way, but please feel free to comment here about the customs.

  3. Hello again. The Yaxley May fair has existed in various forms through the centuries, certainly with gaps in between. From the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century the Ancient Order of the Foresters led May parades throughout the village and local children danced around the Maypole on the village green. In the 1970s this was revived in the form of the old Yaxley Gala, which ceased to be in the 1980s. We therefore like to think of our celebration and parade as a revival of a tradition that has been intermittent in its practise but with old roots.

    We don’t know too much about Yaxley’s medieval fair, only that it did last from the 13th to the 17th century. I would have ideally liked to have schedule our event close to Ascension Day but the modern calendar and other regional events made this difficult. I do however see the May traditions and the modern aspects of the festival as two separate events and perhaps as we look forward we many even make that delineation even clearer. A Yaxley medieval fair sounds fun to me.

    We do know however about the old village June feasts. Yaxley was once home to Southern England’s largest inland lake, The Whittlesea Mere. This body of water was once home to Yaxley’s original residents, the Anglo Saxon Sweorda tribe.

    Prior to the drainage of this body of water in the middle of the 19th century, great regattas were held on the Mere and great feasts were held on its banks. The aristocracy would race on the open water whilst bands played to entertain the crowds.

    As for Yaxley’s Jack-in-the-Green, there is anecodtal evidence of a green man or at least a variation of such walking in Yaxley (notes/reminscenses from a village Doctor long deceased), but as yet I haven’t discovered anything in the village manorial records. We can however vouch for the authenticity of Jack’s attendants Sap-engro and Copperface, who are both local historical figures.

    Turf Law is an ancient custom that I wanted to reintroduce in a modified form, in that the three pieces of turf are indeed cut and distributed to the licensed buildings in the village. Regrettably our compere didn’t seem to be very well briefed on this but there is always next year!

    Thanks again for joining us and I will continue to enjoy your blog. You and your readers are always welcome in Yaxley.

    • Thanks very much these notes are excellent and have improved the post immensely. I’ll pass on the fact about the Jack in Yaxley to Chris of the Company of the Green man for his notes on the record of a Jack I am sure he’ll be very interested, especially if you find any notes. All the best and thanks. Good luck for next year and please think about following the blog if you’d like to hear my exploits through are colourful customs.

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