Monthly Archives: May 2016

Custom contrived: The Bluebell Service, Swithland Woods, Leicestershire

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“Strangers enjoying an afternoon stroll in Swithland Woods on Sunday might have been surprised to hear the strains of All Things Bright and Beautiful coming through the trees near the old slate quarry.”

Loughborough Echo 14th May 1993

Indeed, almost hidden in a natural amphitheatre beside a great water filled hollow can be found around two hundred worshipers – why are they there? What are they waiting for? A service which is possibly unique in England yet surprisingly still little known – the annual Bluebell service.

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If you go down to the woods today

Arriving at the north car park to the wood, the existence of the event, one follows the small blue signs. I must admit during my half hour or so walk, I did not see a single blue flower. This was despite seeing great swaths of them on the way, particularly in Stoneywell Wood. This might not have been a one off. S. R. Meadows in the 1965 Swithland noted that in an early ceremony an early spring had meant there were no flowers in the woods and the Vicar had to:

admit the bluebells had already come and departed. Whereupon a Salvation army lady, who had attended the corps band stepped boldly forward and presented him with a single bloom, which appropriately she had saved for him.”

All things bright and beautiful

The custom begun soon after the estate was given to the public in the 1920s. The area had long been known as a beauty spot, where bluebells proliferated in great number and so the Rotary Club decided to instigate an annual event. It was a Walter Kilby and a Mr Harry Gimson who conceived the idea of the service with Reverend Frederick Oliver, then vicar of Swithland in 1928 and it has been going ever since then. Indeed until recently, the daughter and the daughter in law of the founders still attended. A search of copies of the Leicestershire mercury or Loughborough Echo recording such regular annual devotion. In 1997 14th May the Leicester Mercury, noted that a Mrs Gweneth Gimson:

“has been present at every single Bluebell service.”

The Leicester Mercury reported on the 6th May 1998 adding next year:

“Swithland churchwarden, Mrs Gweneth Gimson 85 first attended as a 13 year old girl when the service begun in 1927.”

Although the Loughborough Echo of 13th May 1994, suggests that:

“played the harmonium for the service at the age of 10!”

The paper claims that she had been present at every one forget that in 1993 it was noted that:

“Mrs Gweneth Gimson, who has supervised the event for many years, was missing as she suffered an accident at home.”

Fortunately, as it was later testament she did regularly attend thereafter. I did not enquire whether she still attended, she’d be 101, but I am sure she would be there in spirit. Regular attendance is clearly an important aspect of any custom and especially this one. Even when there is a clear threat of rain or in the 1990s murder as the paper stated:

“The worship is expected to go ahead as planned despite the inquiry into the fatal stabbing of Leicester man Esmail Hassan whose body was discovered in the woods just over a week ago.”

Coming up smelling of…bluebells!

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In the small amphitheatre I found the congregation, some were in rows of seats, many with their dogs sat on the hill behind them. In front of them was an outside altar, a table covered with a cloth with a sizeable silver crucifix upon it. There was the vicar of Swithland church, the Mayor and Lady Mayoress and a brass band from Welbeck College. The service which was pleasantly succinct and under an hour long – perhaps they feared the rain – was very focused on giving homage to nature. Guest preachers have varied over the time and in I1997, The Bishop of Leicester, the right Rev. Dr. Thomas Butler was the preacher. The year I attended, the guest was xxxx. The sermon, short and focusing on amongst other things Leicester City’s triumphant Premier League win…a link to the blue of the bluebells! The knowledgeable sermon drew reference to some of the wonderful plants and animals around the woods. The sermon underlined the reason for the service perhaps as a correspondent recorded:

“It’s a country service for those who enjoy the countryside. In a way it’s a celebration of the Creation.”

An earlier Leicester Mercury reference also agreeing to consider that:

“As the sun shone through the delicate green leaves of late spring on the bluebells of Swithland wood on Sunday afternoon, it was not difficult to respond to the invitation from the preacher to ‘consider the flowers of the field’ which more wondrous than Soloman in his glory.”

Swithland (8)Swithland (9)I was particularly impressed by the volume of the singing from the congregation, albeit supported by an excellent choir and especially impressive considering the congregation was seated. Understandably All Things Bright and Beautiful was sung with great gusto. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National anthem and it was easy to agree with the sentiment again of the Leicester Mercury which recorded:

“as singing the National Anthem to enjoy the bluebells in the afternoon sun, it was obvious that this event in Swithland had lost none of its appeal for visitors to the area.”

All in all an uplifting pause to consider the wonderful world around us and give thanks for it.

 

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Custom survived: St. Walstan’s Day pilgrimage, Bawburgh, Norfolk

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“Come journey in St. Walstan’s way, Come make a start this joyful day; And as he turned from wealth and ease, Go forth in prayer to seek God’s peace.”

The hymn of St. Walstan

Laying in a small private orchard beside the Parish church, St Walstan’s Well has been, on and off,  the goal of many pilgrims over the centuries. Here beside the church was once his chapel and in times before the Reformation, it doubtless swarmed with pilgrims visiting the shrine and well. The most auspicious date to visit the shrine and well would be the saint’s feast day the 30th May. How many pilgrims, what stories of their journeys and stories are now unknown. Little is recorded of the site before the Reformation but thanks to a return of pilgrimage and a greater tolerance and acceptance from Anglican Church and adoption by a revitalised Catholic church, St Walstan is now regularly remembered.

Saints alive!

Who is St. Walstan? He’s a little known saint today but his spread was once considerable through the agricultural heartlands of East Anglia and beyond. A Saxon saint, said to have been of royal lineage, who forwent this to be a farm hand, giving his riches to the poor. He died on the 30th May 1016, and legend tells us that three springs arose, one at his place of death, at Taverham, another, Costessey, where a cart pulled his body dragged by two white oxen and the final at Bawburgh, where his body was laid to rest and a shrine established which was very popular. Indeed, in a region rich with such shrines it attracted considerable miracles and money, it and his nearby well being the goal of man and beast. Then the reformation came, the shrine dismantled and attendance at the well discouraged! Put you cannot put a good saint down…nor more importantly his well.

Spring back

This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:

“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”

Author J. C. Husbenbeth in 1859 Life of St Walstan, confessor wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:

“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”

The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that:

“much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.”

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pilgrims bless themselves at the well

Still waters run deep

A number of cures were associated with the well and these combined with the spreading Anglo-Catholic ethos of the Oxford Movement renewed worship of the well. Among the colourful characters to have been connected with this revival at the time was Father Ignatius. He founded a monastic settlement called the Third Order in Norwich and led the first official pilgrimage to the well in 1864. Those attended it could have described it as did one of them Baronness de Bertouch:

“A Public pilgrimage in full feather to the St Walstan’s Well – a said to be miraculous source of water, four miles out of Norwich referred to on the programme of old world religious revivals. It was hundreds of years since a single pilgrim had dipped his cup into that long forgotten spring, or breathed a prayer to its derelict Patron; so the occasion was an historical one, and worthy of the pageant with which it was commemorated by the Monks and their contingent.”

Nearby Norwich, a strongly Protestant city viewed the whole affair differently as unwanted Popery and many opponents tried by any means possible to discourage the activities. To prevent any conflicts on the day of the procession it was suggested that constables should be placed on specific cross roads to monitor and thus remove any problems. Ignatius ignored this problem and marshalled his 400 pilgrim’s to the well. The crowd of pilgrims being so great that they moved as:

‘one long flexible column through the town.’

Critics in the press ridiculed their actions, a broadsheet entitled ‘The Monks Pilgrimage to Bawburgh’ was printed by Robert Cullum of Norwich and scathingly described their activities in a poem ridiculing the miraculous waters in the cure of Brother Stumpy’s leg:

“Why what in the world were these Monks now about,

They’re Lately been having a rather grand turn out,

To astonish the joskins the whole country round,

Such a set of poor simpletons elsewhere can’t be found.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Last Week they slipp’d out of Town one by one,

And people were puzzled to know where they’d gone,

In a fly there fine dresses and gimeracks were carried,

And some said that Blazer was gone to be married.

There’s Old Ginger Giles he vow and protest,

That he won’t work for farmers the Monks pay him best,

Seven shillings a week is not worth looking arter,

He can get twice as much from selling the water.

But soon they meet on the Earlham Road,

And some of the finery began to unload,

Pockthorpe famed Guild this rum lot would beat,

All it warned was Old Snap to make it complete.

The People of Bawburgh they never did ill,

And don’t know the want of a doctor or pill,

But if it is true what they say unto me,

‘Tis by using the water in making the tea.

 

‘And when all were muster’d under the trees,

Down went the whole lot right on to their knees,

On the dusty road Monks and Women were seen,

With their fine Sunday Dresses and smart Crinoline

There’s old mother Smith that lives by the Cock,

Declares that whenever she washes her smock,

With the water although she now getting old,

If she puts it on wet she never catch cold.

 

Then up they all got and made a great noise,

for some begun singing at the top of their voice,

Each village they came the people turned out,

For they could not imagine what t’was all about,

Brother Stumpy too met a wonderful cure,

You remember the wooden leg he had to be sure,

After bathing it well for an hour or two,

A beautiful new leg appeared to view.

 

But at Bawburgh is said that they have found out a well,

The water of which all others excel,

It will cure all complaints of those who receive it,

And keep out the Devil if you can believe it,

 

Poor neighbour goose who in St Lawrence now dwell,

Strange is the tale I’m about to tell,

Though the mother of eight children of late it is said,

Through drinking Holy Water, looks more like a maid

When they got there with fasting they turn’d very faint,

All were eager to drink at the well of the saint,

And some simpletons were heard to declare,

They could without victuals the rest of the year.

The blind made see, the lame made to walk,

The deaf made to hear and the dumb made to talk,

If you like to believe all the cures they tell,

That’s done by the water and moss from this well

Such a sight there was seen when they’d got to the well,

For flat on their faces these Pilgrims all fell,

And began kissing the ground as if they were crazed,

While the poor people looked on amazed.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Brother Magentis then said that when the saint died,

(Though between you and me I think that he lied)

The water was seen from this place to run,

And thousands of cures by it had been done.

 

Now take my advice, don’t be galled by such stuff,

Of Monks and Miracles were had quite enough,

If you go to their chapel and learn at their schools,

You’ll find that they think you a great set of fools.

They’ll make you believe every Pulk hole they find,

Sprung up where some saint died if they have a mind,

But I hope folks know better in the present age,

And won’t join the monks in their next Pilgrimage.”

The pilgrims decorated the well with flowers and lights. Various vials and vessels were filled and handed out among the crowd. Locally people begun to realise that the water was still profitable; Ginger Giles, the supplier, stating that he received more money from selling its water, than from working on the local farm. However the anti-popish feeling ran high and sadly the Order suffered under physical and literary abuse, and after a scandal involving the luring away of a young boy, Father Ignatius, in 1866, left following a serious illness.

However despite this scandal the well was not forgotten. Indeed the revival had the desired effect in re-establishing the power of its water, the Norwich Mercury even noted effectiveness in the cure of sick animals. In 1912, the Third National Catholic Congress, organised a mass pilgrimage to the well, after a successful one to Walsingham. It was the result of this congress that the first chronicled and official miracle of the twentieth century occurred, after a London man attending the pilgrimage took back with him some moss. Later that year he found his eyes failing and was diagnosed to be becoming blind. Yet after washing his eyes in the well’s water and placing the moss on his eyes for four days – and his eyes were restored. He vowed to make a second pilgrimage and did the following September. This story had been circulated and another Catholic Pilgrimage was organised. This procession starting in the grounds of Bawburgh Hall, and Mr Sparrow the farmer again helped with the water access, however someone was over zealous by bringing a gallon-sized beer bottle.

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Pilgrims pass Chapel Farm – a clue to an ancient pilgrim route?

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The banner held proudly aloft

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Through the fields they travelled..

Well look who’s here!

Despite the anti-pilgrimage opinions it would only 20 years for the Church of England moved towards revitalising the saint and that year saw the first of many Anglo-Catholic Pilgrimages and even worship of the saint included Bawburgh Methodists. Today there is a regular service at the well on the saint’s day 30th May.

In 1976 there was established an Anglo-Catholic pilgrimage. Indeed since the 1970s every year there has been an observance of the custom, with the Methodist joining in 1982. In 1989 an interfaith pilgrimage from Taverham to Bawburgh was established to recognise the saint’s adoption by the British Food and Agriculture year. How things have greatly and thankfully changed from the ‘stumpy’ protestations!

Actually there are three separate observations – on the Sunday nearest to St. Walstan’s Day for Anglicans and the Sunday after St. Walstan, the first in June for Catholics processing from the local Catholic Church at Costessey, with the Orthodox coming the week after. However, in the last few years the first two days have coincided in the calendar and thus the observation combined. The Catholic church processing and being met on the old packhorse bridge by the local Anglican church. A school visit on the 30th for children even being organised on year with an re-enactment of the cart carrying the body of the saint.  In 2016, the community commemorated the saint’s millennia again with a joint celebration with the Bishops of Norwich/East Anglia, Rt Reverend Grapham Jones and Rt Reverend Alan Hopes (both Catholic and Anglican).

Well trod

For the commemoration of the 1000th anniversary of his death, the village established a number of events. In the church was a flower festival based on the saint’s life and a special extended processional pilgrimage walk. In the village I even saw a man carrying an old scythe like St. Walstan.  A large group had assembled for the mass pilgrimage from Marlingford village hall for this walk, I waited for the man with the scythe to lead us – he didn’t turn up – did I imagine it At the hall I asked one of the organisers why this route. Apparently there was evidence that the route, now over private land, was an old pilgrim route – it does pass by a chapel farm – although more functionally a procession with large numbers from Taverham, the place of his death to Bawburgh, would be problematic for safety purposes. A shame but the essence of a pilgrimage was upheld nevertheless, and if we were walking in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims that added to it. The walk, which was around 3 miles took in some of the great agricultural landscapes that would have made this farming saint at home. Indeed half way we rested and paused to give thanks for what Norfolk and its agriculture had provided and the people who’s livelihood depended on it. The walk continued, with the banner of St Mary and St Walstan Catholic church proudly leading the way. Soon the church was in sight and after a long walk it was a welcome site.

Alls Well, that ends well

The procession made its way via St. Walstan’s Well, sadly we couldn’t refresh ourselves there as the water was unfit for drinking, fortunately there was tea and coffee available, a much needed physical refreshment. At the well a medieval band played and song, a St Walstan inspired madrigal, as the weary pilgrims took a blessing from the well’s water instead from bowls by the side. Some attached blessings to a tree nearby, a resurrected St. Walstan’s bush perhaps said to lie nearby. I went for the tea and coffee.

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BBOGOF – Bishops Buy one get one free!

In a field near the church and well, a large congregation had gathered, augmented by the pilgrims, to hear the unusual sounds of a joint Anglican-Catholic service, at one point read in union, which I must admit was quite unusual. The Catholic Bishop recalling the legend of St. Walstan and hymns included one dedicated to the saint. The Bishop double act entered the congregation and went around sprinkling blessings with holy water – although the Catholic bishop seemed a bit more expedient and appeared to cover more ground! The service ended with the clergy praying homage to the Well and remembering the saint and the gift of his water. Remarkable for such an obscure saint that his memory is still important 1000 years on..but then again very little has changed to mean that his message is no longer relevant !

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Wait all this time for some clergy and nine come at once. The Bishops bless the well.

Custom demised: The Byzant Ceremony Shaftesbury Dorset

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In Shaftesbury museum is a curious relic from a lost bygone custom. The structure an ornate shaft was called the byzant and a curious ceremony which maintained ancient rights for the town. The custom being at first on Holy Cross Day, the first Sunday after the 3rd of May, being in 1622 transferred to the Monday before Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day.

Many people visit Shaftesbury for its picturesque hill top setting, especially taking in the famed Gold Hill, but this location caused problems for the town as it did not have a reliable water supply. Yet, at some point someone in the settlement came to an idea at nearby Enmore Green at Motcombe was a water supply which could be utilised.

However, the town could not just take the water some sort of tribute would have to be established with the giving of gifts. Thus arose the Byzant ceremony. The custom dates back to at least 1364 and its first written account is 1527 as below:

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A detailed written reference is in A compleat history of Dorsetshire c 1716. Its name possibly derived from a middle-eastern tradition of royalty giving a special coin called the bezant at religious events. Although it appears the coin was replaced with something clearly ceremonial, the Lord of the Manor of Gillingham, whose land the spring lay, still received more functional gifts. John Symmonds Udal in his 1883 article in Dorset County Chronicle state::

“raw calves head, and a pair of Gloves, which his Steward receives distributing at the same time among the People twelve Penny Loaves and three dozen of Beer.”

The former probably from a quit rent and the later to provide for hospitality. The Byzant ceremony thus developed into a celebration with the attendees singing and dancing their way to the spring, a distance of half a mile or so. Before them would be the town officials, the Mayor and council, and in front of them would be two officials. One carried a calf’s head which carried a purse of money and another carrying the ornate Byzant or prize-besom covered with ribbons, flowers, feathers and jewels. John Symmonds Udal (1883) state:

“The mayor and burgess of Shaftesbury…dress up a Prize-Besom, as they call it (somewhat like a May Garland in form)”

Chambers in his Book of Days describes the byzant as:

“A frame four feet high was covered with ribbons, flowers, peacock’s feathers, jewellery, and gold and silver coins, from which the last name was taken, a bizant being an ancient gold coin, and the amount, probably, of the original water tax.”

Once at Enmore Green, the gifts and byzant were handed over. The Lord would receive the ornate staff but then hand it back. As John Symmonds Udal (1883) notes:

“The prize-besom, which was worth usually £1500 being adorned with plate and jewels borrowed of the neighbouring gentry) is restored to the Mayor and brought back again to the Town by one of the officers with great solemnity.”

Despite the futile nature of the ceremony the village of Motcombe could still refuse access if it did not happen. After the ceremony the attendees would make their way back, rather tiringly up the hill to Shaftesbury.

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Sadly practicalities dominated and thus when an artesian well was established on the hill providing a reliable source of water the need to fete Enmore Green was gone but that may not have been the sole reason for its demise. The ritual really died out in 1830, being abolished by the Marquess of Westminster when he purchased the Motcombe estate. The decision was not popular at Enmore. Udal 1922 Dorsetshire folk-lore notes:

“ on the Tuesday and during the week after the custom, a fair was held at Enmore green, a hamlet of Motcombe, in which the wells were situate, and further that the people filled up the wells with rubbish, being disgusted, that the custom had been abolished.”

The protestations fell on fallow ground and now the only remembrance ended up in Shaftesbury museum. Thanks to Claire Heron for the photos!

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