Monthly Archives: June 2016

Custom survived: Folkestone’s Blessing the sea and fisheries

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God bless you!

The ceremonies of blessing the sea and fisheries are perhaps one of the best examples of a Christianisation of a pagan ritual. They originated as early man’s way of giving thanks to ensure good harvests for the next year. Yet, it is clear that they are part of the ‘revived’ or rather ‘cleaned’ harvest thanksgiving ceremonies, which have become quite familiar, thanks to this revival or rather adoption by the church perhaps, in the mid-1800s. Found around the country in a number of maritime locations (even in locations where fishing has become a matter of academic history). Kent, being a county surrounded on two sides by sea naturally it has a fair number of these ceremonies. Traditionally they were help around Ascension Day or during the three days of ‘Rogationtide’ (during which beating the bounds ceremonies would also be undertaken), many have moved to either dates nearing Patronal saints (Fishermen saints Peter or James), or when tourists are more frequent!

 

 

 

Folkestone’s ceremony claims to be the oldest continually undertaken still surviving. One of these occurs in the ancient fishing town of Folkestone, being associated with the chapel of St. Peter, dedicated to the town’s fisher folk with fine views of the harbour.

The earliest traceable record is an account in the Folkestone Express of July 8th 1883. However, according to Mr. Fisher of Folkestone St Peter’s Church, this ceremony may have already been of some age then. This is because, the report laments that it was a depressed event with a low tide and sluggish boats. Traditionally it was held in the old fish market. At the time he notes that there must have been 100 boats in the inner harbour. Photographs of the 1920s show a large number of smocks attending. The Folkestone Herald of July Seventh 1906, noted an addition to the traditional service in the form of prayers. It added:

“that it may please Thee to bless the waters of the sea that they may bring forth fish abundantly.. bless and preserve the fishermen of these waters…and lift their minds to heavenly desires.”

Something fishy?

In 1935 was the last year to be held in the old fish market, and since it has been held overlooking the harbour. The parish priest had worked hard to have all the old hovels removed and replaced by the terrace housing which remains to today.

In a press report of 1958, it noted that it was then attended by the Bishop of Dover, the Rt. Rev. L. Meredith, and the Mayor, F. W. Archer as well as other members of the Corporation, Choristers, Scouts, members of the Old Contemptible and the Royal Naval Association and children dressed in traditional fishermen’s clothes.

In this report it was sadly noted that service lacked the gaiety of previous years as the little fisherman’s cottages were not bedecked with flags and nor were the boats in harbour decorated as they were for previous occasions. Furthermore, no fishermen were to be found in the procession. A 67 year old fishermen, Bill Harris who had fished the waters from Folkestone some 50 years, noted that: ‘Things had certainly changed’, he could remember those times when the harbour was full of fully decorated boats and all the houses were flying flags and bunting. He bemoaned that no-one was interested. The then Bishop said that Blessing the Fishermen, fell into two groups those which do it for fun and those who did it for a life’s work. He said that:

” It is those who devote their whole lives to fishing in the sea that we are asking for God’s continued blessing this afternoon.’” 

This blessing attracted television coverage from both the BBC and ITA, and the service was performed by Bishop Noel Hall, formerly Bishop of Vhota Nagpour, India with two Deacons of Honour (Rev. W. H. Bathhurst Vicar of St. Saviours) and Rev. J. Meliss (curate of Folkestone Parish church). The ceremony was conducted by the Rev. H. J. L. Stephens (Vicar of St. Peters).

The lack of fishermen was what doubtless prompted the event to be renamed ‘blessing the sea’ rather than ‘fisheries’ and by doing so saved this the oldest of such blessings. Tony Foxworthy (2008) in Customs in Kent describes it well:

“The evening starts with service in St. Peter’s church. After the service a procession is formed consisting of a local band in the lead followed by the children of St. Peter’s primary school, with the girls carrying small posies of flowers, and the boys carrying a large model of a fishermen’s boat. Following the children comes the church choir then the processional cross, then the clergy and local dignitaries like the Mayor, the Mayoress and local councillors, then the invited guest preacher, usually a local Bishop. The procession winds its way to the harbour where a large crowd has assembled. The fisheries are then blessed by the visiting Bishop, who then leads to a short service and addresses the hundreds of people attending this very picturesque custom.”

 

The custom retains a very colourful and evocative feel especially as the clergy process down from St. Peter’s Church, (usually on the first Sunday after St. Peter’s Day (29th June), at around three o’ clock). Also attending this ceremony, are the Lord Mayor and his barker. After a series of hymns, and readings, the sea is blessed by splashing holy water and shaking incense over the harbour railings.

 

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Custom occasional: Abingdon Bun Throwing

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Abingdon has a custom which has been undertaken rather on and off over 200 years. Principally associated with Royal events its irregularity means that it does not fit the categories on this blog so I have made a new category – custom occasional!

How did this curious custom begin? Abingdon claims its unique. In the way it does of course, but there are other bun throws such as that I recorded at Wath upon Dearne. It may not have started as bun throwing and it is suggested that it may have been a dole probably done to recognise the importance of the event it was associated with. During the 1760 for George III coronation, a John Waite records catching a cake thrown from the Market House. The Borough Minutes of 1831 record that 500 penny cakes distributed. In the Abingdon Herald’s it states that:

500 cakes … were thrown from the tops of houses into the dirt to be scrambled for, in accordance with ancient usage”.

From 1761 until 2016 34 bun throws have been done of these 27 have been for Royal occasions – 8 coronations, 6 jubilees, 5 birthdays, 4 marriages, 2 anniversaries of a marriage and one Royal visit. Other events have been celebrated by buns such as VE Day and its 50th anniversary and the end of the Crimean War or Charter days and even an International Day. In the museum can be seen evidence of the last 17 bun throwings, the earliest being from 1887 Golden Jubilee of Victoria. The museum was closed on the day unfortunately. The number of bun throws appear to have increased in the year, possibly as a result of a wise tourist drive – nothing wrong with that of course!

Bun time for all

I turned up a few hours earlier to see the town preparing. Abingdon is a classic town – a real life Trumpton and as such I expected Trumptonesque activities For of course it was not just bun throwing to keep the crowd happy the organisers had put on some other entertainments. Very Trumptonlike with Town Crier, band and Morris.

One of the attendees was morning about the need for signs for the ingredients of the buns and morning ‘EU regulation’. I smiled wryly…although I noted there wasn’t a sign saying ‘don’t eat the ones on the floor’.

As the crowds begun to assemble, the local band cheerfully entertained them from everything from Hope and Glory to Sex Bomb! As we approached nearer to launch time, it was time for the famed Abingdon Morris Men to appear with their Bull mascot, sword and pewter mug. They enthralled those assembled with their dances and this was a good advert for their more famous Mock Mayor custom the week after. The crowd looked very responsive to them and so no doubt that boded well for the following week!

Whilst this was going on Union Jack flags were enthusiastic delivered through the crowd with children leaping on the opportunity to give them a way and occasionally poke an eye out no doubt.

Then a small procession came to the town hall attended by the Mayor, the town dignitaries, local MP and the winners of a furthest bun throwing competition a few weeks earlier!

The band then struck up the National Anthem and the crowd sung. And yes in the crowd, there was that embarrassing moment where no one remembers the words to the second verse! Then there was a cheer as they turn around and ascended the town hall. A few minutes later they appeared on the roof.

Bun fight

In what appeared an aeon, peppered with false starts teasing the crowd, limbering up and chants of ‘we want buns’, the later could be misinterpreted Versailles style!

“please do not use upturned umbrellas’ You don’t see signs like that everyday do you? But it was clear that one of the greatest aspects of bun throwing is the chance to catch as many as possible. However, there was no unruly scramble, this was genteel Oxfordshire after all.

Then the clock struck 7 and we were off. And some off it was literally raining buns. There was no let off. Over 2500 were being launched and it felt like it. The sky was almost darkened over with buns! Catching them was another matter. One bounced off my shoulder and another with some force hit me squarely on the head ‘ouch’. Some people were clearly having greater luck. A girl behind had about eight and we were only four minutes in! Two children had baseball gloves..very ingenious!

Then I began having luck and soon caught a special celebratory bun with 90 piped onto it. I appeared to be the only one I found one I noticed in the same area, so I did not know how many were being released but I would imagine 90. So if so catching 1 out of 90 out of the 2500 was I suppose a bit of a chance happening. The sound of excitement was getting fever pitch and more and more buns fell from the sky and then 15 minutes in the sky cleared. No more buns. The crowd cheers and began to dispersed. Around me there were lots of grinning children clutching their happy hoards…and off everyone went…roll on the 100th?

Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

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Many wells and springs were believed to increase in proficiency either Midsummer (Eve or Day). Often such wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton, Northamptonshire or St John’s Well, Shenstone, Staffordshire, whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire, Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes in her Lincolnshire folklore that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible and indeed likely that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day, By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well; The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Nottinhamshire’s Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

It was suggested that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. Nowadays if you visit these wells at Midsummer you will find yourself alone…but in a way that may have been the way it had always been.