Custom demised: Midsummer Fire Cartwheel rolling

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Cartwheeling Leusdon, Devon. From The Country Life book of old English customs. by Roy Christian

Rolling a flaming wheel into a stream or river down a hill may seem an oddly dangerous enterprise but it was one which was undertaken until recent times across Britain on the eve of St. John the Baptist otherwise known as Midsummer Eve. An account from the 1820s from South Glamorgan reported in 1909 by Marie Trevelyan in her Folklore and folk stories of Wales. It notes that:

People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and Girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that the long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If the fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”

Ancient origins

In the fourth-century Acts of the Martyr St. Vincent there is a description how in Aquitane, south-western France pagans rolled a flaming wheel towards a river and the charred remains were reassembled in their Sky God temple.

Widespread custom

The custom was also undertaken in Devon. At Buckfastleigh in the mid 1850s, aptly Bonfire Hill was the location and the wheel was moved down the hill using sticks by the use of sticks. Like South Glamorgan, if it reached the stream the village would have a good year.  In the village of Leusdon it was done until recent. Eric Hemery in his 1983 High Dartmoor book records:

An old custom on Mil Tor was the ‘Rolling of the Wagon Wheels’ on Midsummer Day: discontinued in the war years, it was revised for a time during the late 1950s, since which it has again lapsed. The aim was that the wheels should reach the river, but so rock-strewn is the six-hundred foot slope that few ever did. In consequence, the old iron tyres of long-rotted wheels lie about Miltor Wood – some now encircling the trees.

At point this custom died out to be revived in 1962 but now streamers were added to give a flame effect. Without the added spectacle of fire danger it doubtless seemed even more pointless indeed Roy Christian notes in his Old English Customs

“Within the last few years the villagers of Leusdon, in Devon, have abandoned their ancient and apparently pointless practice of rolling a cartwheel down the slopes of Mel Tor on the eve of St. John the Baptists Day. Preservationists may deplore the end of his and other customs but artificial respiration will no keep them alive. A custom will only survive if a spontaneous desire by a  large body of folk to keep it going”

Yet, as the online

Minutes of Widdecombe on the Moor Parish council note:

Leusdon Church 150th Anniversary: We were informed that Leusdon Church will celebrate its 150th Anniversary of its dedication on 28th April 2013. It is understood that the church was dedicated in 1863 and its patron Saint is St John the Baptist. It was noted that historically on the Eve of St John the Baptist Day 24th June, there was held the ‘cartwheel rolling’ ceremony at Meltor. Will this be revived in 2013?”

I don’t think it was sadly

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