Monthly Archives: August 2014

Custom survived: Hythe Venetian Festival

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Fete worse than….

There can be nothing more pleasant than sitting on the bank of a river and watch a carnival parade especially if it’s on the water! Every two years, the town of Hythe celebrates the fact that it never needed its military canal with a Venetian Fete, made up of a tableaux of 40 decorated floats in various themes, which gently drift pass to one’s amusement.
That’s not cricket!

I believe a local legend associates the original fete back in the early 1800s to not needing their Royal Military canal, a great engineering feat constructed to fight Napoleon. Although there is tradition that a carnival of sorts was enacted in the mid 1800s it was not until 1860s or 1890 according to some accounts, that a parade of illuminated boats was organised by a local worthy Edward Palmer. The name Venetian was what he used to report the event and despite it being quite unlike a real Venetian festival, the name stuck and even more bizarrely being connected with the town’s cricket week! This odd idea was a good one, because although three fetes were held in 1891, local people were reluctant to so after a small interregnum, it was established in 1894 as a way to raise funds for the first Hythe Cricket Week.

Not really a 100 years?

I’ve been a bit cheeky here, because there is not a complete custom from 1890 until today, however as the two main gaps were WW1 and WW2, I think they are respectable times to have had a break. Furthermore, the years over which the custom has been kept up add up to 100 years anyhow!

Nearly met its fete?

Soon after the First World War, the lack of labour and overgrown nature of the canal meant it did not restart until 1927 despite the Cricket week starting in 1919 and then even then its survival was ropey! However, despite being a colourful activity in times of blandness perhaps, local opposition to the fete was great in the late 1920s…the canal being closed for eight hours was not popular with local people! Yet it came back with vigour in 1934 and gained considerable support and continued with a gap in WW2 until today.

The effort made today is considerable especially as it is all done for charity and by volunteers. Local organisations, schools and groups make great efforts to produce a colourful and amusing display. In late 1990s when I visited some of the highlights were a floating castle with knights, two spitfires, a Viking longboat, a submarine, some rock and rollers dancing on the water and a sinking Titanic…remarkably all based around a simple raft at the most and yet all looked different! Recent tableaux have been even more remarkable with a Noah’s ark, street on water and robots. Many of these displays are charming and quaint during the day…but come to life at night dazzling brightly in the balmy summer evening with their flashing and glowing lights, as well as the potential unsafe nature of some of their dancing in the dark on the water. It may not be anything like what they do in Venice and with local charm of the amateur that’s a good thing, Kent does it much better.

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Custom contrived: Dymchurch Day of Syn

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Visit the delightful Kent town of Dymchurch over the bank holiday weekend and be surprised by a Synful lot…that’s Syn not sin that is. For the town has embraced the ‘hero’ of  the novels of their most famed son, Russell Thorndyke’s  Smuggling Vicar – Dr Syn or the Scarecrow. But this is not some staid literary festival but an energetic and impressive tour de force, a colourful pageant.

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Syns of the father

The event, which is done every even year, is believed to have arisen from a church fete in 1936. However, it is stated that the first Day of Syn was held in 1964 as a way of paying for St Peter & St Paul Parish Church’s roof repairs. The then Rector of Dymchurch, Reverend Ronald Meredith, and the Parochial Church Council made the decision to hold a pageant based on the Dr Syn stories and the author, Russell Thorndike gave his permission, but I would think he would be amazed to see it develop into Kent’s biggest free show. The event was so popular that it was formalised into the ‘Day of Syn’ in 1966 when a committee was formed.

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It’s synful

It’s difficult to avoid all things Dr Syn in the town that weekend and I was amazed at the considerable authenticity of the town’s effort…it was like stepping back into the smugglers. Over the weekend the town is over-ran with press gangs, dragoons, smugglers and highwaymen! There is a whiff of gunpowder in the air and the sounds of shouting and shot is quite audible on the greens and beaches of the town when battles and fights are ‘re-enacted’ by the townsfolk supported by professional re-enactors and local players on the beach and around the pub. The dressing up even extending to the church service where the congregation are all very sinful!

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Of course the event has attracted all the usual side attractions – face painting and Morris men- but it is the Smugglers of course which are the main attraction and indeed a world record attempt was made. What with blockbuster movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Dymchurch’s Day of Syn has really hit the zeitgeist and in its 50th anniversary year 2014 does not appear to be re-syn-did!dayofsyn4

 

 

 

 

Custom demised: Shaking St Peter’s Chains

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Congleton Wakes held on the 12th August was associated with a certainly unusual and probably unique custom called St Peter’s Bells or Chains. The Monthly Packet noted:

“On the Wake Sunday, from time immemorial until several years ago, an extraordinary musical performance aroused the inhabitants from their sleep very early in the morning. The instruments were horse collars hung round with numerous bells of peculiar shape; these collars were placed on men’s shoulders and, walking through the streets of the town, the men shake the collars vigorously and thus cause the bell to emit a loud noise. Formerly, a heavy chain was used; the bells were an innovation introduced a few generations ago.”

As the church was dedicated to St. Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in chains) the custom was doubtlessly pre-Reformation. This view is certainly supported by Coward in his 1903 Picturesque Cheshire notes:

In the town hall…..we may find a curious relic of Congleton, a broad leather belt adorned with big metal bells, which are known as St. Peter’s Chains. At the feast of the church, “St. Peter ad Vincula,” it was customary for the priests to parade in this belt, rattling the chains or chiming the bells, whichever you like to call it.”

Coward (1903) adds that:

“At the Reformation these chains passed into the hands of a family of chimney-sweeps, who for three hundred years held hereditary possession, claiming the right to make a noise with them on the feast day.”

According to Raven’s 1907 The Bells of England this was:

“at midnight on the vigil, girt about with leather belts to which were suspended a number of crotals…….and ended with an address at the Market Cross on the approaching festival and the lessons to be drawn from it.”

 However despite surviving the Reformation its demise was sealed by the very actions of those who had maintained it. For as Coward (1903) he continues:

 “perambulated the town, followed by a noisy crowd, chanting a proclamation which ended in an admonition to the Congletonians to get as drunk as possible during Wakes week.”

 Raven’s 1907 The Bells of England similarly is dismissive noting:

 “these bells, or “chains,” became diverted from their original intention, and the performance became degraded to mere incentive to drunken jollity, rather than to a reverent recollection of the great Apostle.”

 Not only this but there appeared to have arisen an argument between two sides of the family for carrying the chains and as a result some degree of conflict and time in goal. Coward (1903) notes:

 “At last the town clerk wisely settled the dispute by compensating each party with a gift of ten shillings, and at the same time gaining possession of the chains; the trouble was stopped, and now the belt and bells are retained as a curiosity, and the peace of Congleton is no longer upset by drunken rows.”

However, the town has become bereft of its most interesting custom! Fortunately they survive in the town’s museum.