Monthly Archives: March 2015

Custom survived: Wychwood Forest Palm Sunday Walk

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A throng of walkers pass the Wort Well

 

“Walkers enjoy day in ‘Hidden’ forest. Hundreds of ramblers and conservationists converged on the secret Wychwood Forest on Sunday to walk through its leady glades. It was the one day of the year – Palm Sunday – when Lord Rotherwick the owner of the 2150 acre medieval woodlands, allows public access.”

To which I might add just! This is a curious custom where part of the tradition remains, but aspects of it appear to have disappeared. The custom apparently was established to provide access of the local parishes adjacent – Leafield Five Ash, Charlbury and Finstock particularly – for the collection of wood and the visiting of the springs and wells of the estate. It is the latter of which is of considerable interest.

If you go down the woods…..

My aunt and uncle did not live far from this area and I have always been fascinated with this woods and their privacy. Apparently, I was not the only one. Large numbers of visitors could be found wandering the woods; their cars lined the narrow streets around the forest. It was not just for local people. In an excellent article by Roy Townsend on the Finstock Local History Website records the memories of a Mr Pratley of nearby Finstock. He notes the widespread nature of the visitors:

“It was possible to meet people from Cornwall one minute, then a family from Durham a few yards later.”

But why? The name the ‘Secret Forest’ was part of the appeal no doubt. It was a forest which could only be visited on Palm Sunday each year. Any other time of the year it was strictly out of bounds. Everyone loves a mysterious place and getting access to it was part of the allure.

Well wishing…

One of the major reasons for the access on Palm Sunday was for the local community to visit the springs and wells, which were thought to have a healing tradition on the day. A local historian, John Kibble, noted in 1928, recorded that prayers were said at the springs:

“Hast then a wound to heal; The wych doth grieve thee?

Come then unto this welle, It will relieve thee:

Nolie me tangeries, And other maladies”                                                                  

 This was one of the main reasons also why the estate and its curious access tradition fascinated me. Wells and springs were often visited on this date, but this one appeared to have the longest surviving tradition and from some accounts some people still did it. The main aspect of this tradition undertaken was to make Spanish Water, using liquorice, brown sugar or sweets often black peppermints. Mr. Pratley again notes:

“This tradition took place all through the 20th century, and probably before, although the liquorice may have originally come from the root of the plant, rather than being shop bought.”

Three wells can still be found in the estate – the Cyder, the Wort and the Spa or Iron Well. The Wort Well or another lost well called Uzzle were the most popular apparently around them would grow wild liquorice. The name wort derives from healing suggesting its health giving properties. Of the Iron Well, Roy Townsend notes:

“Spanish Liquor is made up with some pieces of hard liquorice with two to three black gobstopper type sweets and white peppermints which were crushed, made up on Saturday night and shaken well on Sunday Morning. You take your bottle with the mixture in down to the well behind the kennels called the Iron Well. If it’s still there behind the fencing. We were forbidden to drink much of it on the way home.”

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The Iron Well

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The Cyder Well

 

A poster in the Finstock Local History website, called Fabulous Flowers notes:

“I remember walking to the Iron Well on Palm Sunday with my great Aunty Vi and Molly and mixing the water with our Spanish liquor. Before the footpath was opened through the Wychwood forrest (sic) as it is know this was the only day you could walk down to the lakes and I remember lots of people doing this.”

The date of this visitation is unclear but this aspect tradition appears close to extinction or is extinct. An account noted that:

a man from Leafield, who used to take his bottle of mixture to the well up until a few years ago.”

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The Cornbury Map showing route directly to Iron Well.

On entering the estate I still noticed that the route outlined still made a bee-line to the Iron Well.  The route had been diverted and I easily found my way in courtesy of a man who did the walk every Palm Sunday. I made my way at first to the Iron Well. I wasn’t convinced to drink the water..it certainly lived up to its name, having a reddy-orange scum on the edges – it didn’t look very appetizing. Entering the park I first made a slight detour to see the Cyder Well, which poured out a considerable flow of clear fresh water. However, I thought I would leave my Spanish water experience to the main well which was associated with the tradition – the Wort well. This was the less impressive of the springs but the easiest to determine the spring source. I lowered my bottle and filled it. Popping in my liquorice and giving it a shake I took a slip…it was refreshing but I could detect no real flavour. However as I progressed back along the path regular sips revealed a more flavoursome experience. By the end it was rather delicious and I regretted not filling more bottles or having more liquorice.

One wonders how old the Palm Sunday access is as Briggs refers to an Easter Monday tradition:

“on Easter Monday the Leafield people maintained, and still believe that they have the right to go into the Wychwood Forest and make Spanish Water which is made from one of the sacred springs in Wychwood Forest. The bottle is then shaken till the liquorice is dissolved. This is believed to be not only a tonic but a sovereign remedy for all kinds of disorders. It is grievance to the Leaford people that Wychwood is now closed to them.”

However, talking to local people they stated that they had had 100s of years of access on the date. In the church at Charlbury, I fortunately met Mrs Fowler. She informed me that visiting wells for Spanish Liquor was still very common up until in the 1980s. She and her husband remembered that a Royston (Dobber) Scroggs, a Cotswold Warden, would stand by the well and tell people the history.  This is no more. Wandering around I watched a number of people on my journey around, of which only one came near to the springs…although they did fill a bottle and drink it. They did not have any liquorice though…Fortunately I did and it tasted rather nice.

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Liquorice dissolving in the water of the Wort Well

 

Cannot see the wood for the trees.

Ironically the popularity of the custom appeared to lead to its decline. An account from 1984 tellingly records:

“And the Council for the Protection of Rural England took it as an opportunity to promote its campaign to have the forest opened all the year around. Walkers and ramblers were asked, and were willing to sign a petition supporting the campaign. They were signing at the rate of 100 an hour.”

And so that signing lead to the opening up of a permanent footpath, from Patch Riding, Finstock, to Waterman’s Lodge, near Charlbury, through the estate in 1990..the one I used to access the permissive path. It may be only one, but like any incision, it allowed greater access and so the mystic began to fade…but not quite yet. It was clear that Palm Sunday I went that a considerable number of local and not so local people were still keen to see the vistas and green swards generally unavailable. The estate covers a considerable area and the footpath only crosses a very small section.

Walk on the wild side

The Palm Sunday Walk is a curious survival but one still under threat. Many years ago the clergy tried to bribe children by offering free crucifixes to keep them in church. Even today a poster to the Finstock History page notes:

“The last time I tried to visit it on a Palm Sunday, the gate which would have given access to the iron well was locked. I suspect it is only ignorance that keeps us out: if the local history society asked, they’d probably let a group in next year.”

But local people are determined to keep the Palm Sunday Walk open. Mr Pratley writes:

“I walk this permanent footpath regularly but also try to do the Palm Sunday walk as often as possible, as that’s still the only day the Five Ash Bottom route is open to the public.”

He remarks he saw few people despite doing a complete circuit! Indeed, when I arrived I found the traditional route sadly blocked and plenty of walkers appearing and then turning around scratching heads and moaning. However, at least access remains whether people take the waters or not…plenty enough people were happy to ensure that the custom of walking the path remained.

However it would be nice to see more Spanish Water drinking. The is especially significant when if you visit many wells you can find the tradition of tying objects, called clooties to the trees, a tradition foreign to many places it is now found.  It would be better to see the revival of more native traditions such as Spanish Water drinking – at this site I can safely vouch for its safety of drinking its water. So if you are in the area please keep the Spanish water alive!

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Custom revived: The Penistone Turton Dole

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What makes England such a fascinating country is the survival of many odd customs and ceremonies and I find none so curious as the dole or charity. This is perhaps the least well know of such surviving charities and it is not included as far as I am aware in any countrywide customs works, although it is now I notice on the excellent Calendar customs.

Finding the actual time of the distribution was tricky. A quick piece of research suggested 10.30, another 11, I contacted the church who informed me that it was associated with the Good Friday service…in reality after some singing and a part of the Easter story the distribution happened at  10.17!

At this time the congregation processed down the path to the sensory garden. In 2013 the white stuff apparently was not limited to flour – but now and it appeared to have limited numbers meaning even a driver passing by got some- however, the fine weather meant there was a large enough group – one per family!

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In 1559 a William Turton left lands in Hexley in the neighbouring Denby parish. This was to be used to provide a quarter of rye to the poor on Good Friday morning. The benefactor’s board removed from the tower and placed in the aisle for easy reading records:

“In Memory of Charitable Benefactors to the Parish of Peniston. Imp. William Turton  Gent gave to the free school of Penistone to be paid out of lands lying in the Township of Denby the yearly some of 3 9 4. Also one Quarter of Rie to the Poor of the Parish of Peniston to be distributed yearly on Good Friday.”

Tony Foxworthy (2008) in his Customs of Yorkshire tells us that some years ago the custom was revived. When this was he does not make clear, speaking to the church warden he stated he could not remember when it was not given out in his 70 years!

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The sum of three pounds and four shillings (now three pounds and twenty pence) was provided annually for the dole from the Charity Commission and was used to buy flour. Howard Peach (2010) Curious Tales of West Yorkshire tells us sixty bags in all. I was not sure it was that many, but it was of Tesco’s finest with a choice of Self-raising or plain. Foxworthy (2008)  tells us:

“The recipients are mainly children with a few adults. Their attendance is more of habit than by poverty. It is good to see that quite a number of older residents attend, who were in their youth, receivers of the dole.”

The custom has gone through a number of changes. It was once given out on the Town Hall steps, now the town hall, in the guise of the Mayor, comes to the church.

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For those with no a lot of dough

The vicar stated that the charity was for the poor and needy and asked anyone who was rich to put their hands up!! No needy people appeared, but not long ago fellow folklorist John Roper was told that he was not allowed to take photos as people did not to be pictured collecting charity!

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What is interesting about this custom is that although it did move from rye to flour, it did not make the jump to say cakes or hot cross buns considering the recipients of the dole- children. Many looked very confused when given the flour and some tried to taste it! The parents quickly jumped in and said ‘we’ll make some cakes with this latter’ and broad smiles appeared.

The Penistone flour ceremony is a little known custom and low key perhaps but that is its appeal. Nearly every Parish in England had a dole like this, indeed had several, very few survive..so it is excellent to see this ceremony survive into the 21st century especially as Foxworthy (2008) notes:

“Sadly over the past few years the numbers have dwindled, but even when it was suggested that small charities should merge, the Penistone Council requested that this one should be retained.”

Fortunately it continues a simple custom but one of the few survivors.

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Custom demised: Caister’s Palm Sunday Gap Whip

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In a glass frame in the church is a curious relic – the Gad Whip. An account in the Book of Days notes:

“Until it was discontinued in 1847, a singular ceremony took place annually in this church, by the performance of which certain lands in the parish of Broughton, near Brigg, were held. On Palm Sunday, a person from Broughton brought a large whip, called a gad whip, the stock of which was made of wood, tapered towards the top. He came to the north porch about the commencement of the first lesson, and cracked his whip at the door three times; after which, with ceremony, he wrapped the throng round the stock of the whip, and bound the whole together with whip cord, tying up with it some twigs of mountain ash; he then tied to the top of the whip-stock a small leather purse, containing two shillings, (originally 24 silver pennies) and took the whole upon his shoulder into the Hundon choir, or chapel, where he stood in front of the reading desk until the commencement of the second lesson; he then waved the purse over the head of the clergyman, knelt down upon a cushion, and continued in that posture, with the purse suspended over the clergyman’s head, till the end of the lesson, when he retired into the choir. After the service was concluded, he carried the whip and purse to the manor house of Hundon, where they were left.”

An odd procedure and one which had a few complainants.

Banning the custom

It is reported in the May 24th 1836 copy of the Hertford Mercury and Reformer that:

“A petition by Sir Culling Eardley-Smith of Bedwell Park, Hertfordshire, was put before the House of Lords Temporal and Spiritual , to get the practice in Caistor stopped on the grounds that it was a superstitious practice… Sir Culling had even applied to the Bishop of Lincoln to get it stopped but he had not done so. Sir Culling wanted the Lords to investigate the Bishop of Lincoln for this scandal.”

However, this petition was unsuccessful and it did not cease until 1847 when the land which paid for the custom was sold. A common source for the stopping of customs.

The origins of the custom

“generally supposed to be a penance for murder by the Lord of the manor, the Lord would have paid a penalty to the Lord of a neighbouring manor had it really been murder.”

Despite the article’s noting that the custom derived from the penance for murder, that seems unlikely. One possible origin is seen in the purse and its thirty silver pieces – does this refer to the betrayal of Judas? However, the whip is problematic if so..More likely is that considering the date that it is associated with the custom of the Procession of the Ass, a custom which has been revived across the country. The whip was probably used to move the Ass symbolically or actually! The name is further evidence being derived from the term goad for driving horses.