Monthly Archives: July 2017

Custom survived: Ebernoe Horn Fair

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What could be more quintessentially English; a large village green, the sound of leather on wicket, cries of Owzat and a sheep roasting! The latter is perhaps not the most English but this game of cricket is not all what it appears either!

Ebernoe is a small village, so small it is difficult to define as a village which each 25th July since 1864, a revival after a long lapse, the village come together to celebrate the Horn Fair. A correspondent to Folklore recorded its popularity in an 1950s edition:

everyone goes, by car, bicycle, bus or push-chair, and on Shanks’ pony up the steep track through scrubby woodland to the hill-top common where the hamlet encircles the open ground.”

All’s fair in horn fair

The origins of the Horn Fair are difficult to pin down, particularly as the only places it is recorded is in this village and Charlton near London. In the olden days the day was one of considerable ribaldry as it is believed to be derived from a custom of celebrating cuckoldry which would happen at the fair as it was probably a more riotous affair with dressing up. All this has gone but it is the roasting of the sheep whose head was traditionally presented that is significant.

That’s not cricket!

Indeed it is an odd association – cricket and a sheep roast – but one which is closely protected. There’s only been one interruption from 1940 until 1954 although this didn’t affect the cricket and a pair stag antlers were used as a suitable replacement so its not really a break – the cricket must go on!

There is a fair, a fun fair albeit a small one . It was described in Folklore as:

“with roundabouts and swings, hot-dogs and china dogs.”

The China dogs have gone but everything else survives!

Turning up on the day what first impresses you is the normality of the custom the cricket and the roast could be like any village fete where roasts have become common place, but there is something curiously ancient about this sanitised custom. The scene today is no different than that described by Stanley Godman in his 1957 article Horn Fair in Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society:

“It is a specially fattened sheep, roasted whole. A pit is dug in the ground, four and half feet long, and three feet deep. A big wood fire is lighted inside this trench and kept burning until approximately one and a half feet of cinders and hot ashes have accumulated. The carcass is rubbed with salt, red pepper and oil . . . A long pole is driven through the carcass and fixed in such a way that the sheep turns with the spit . . . the sheep is cooked for at least four hours and turned once every fifteen minutes. It is basted with oil at least once every half hour .”

Round the horn!

At the end of the day all the attendees assemble by the club house. The horns are given to the highest scoring batsman although it is no longer the head of the sheep roasted on the spit rather a specially mounted one. The reasons for this maybe explained in an account by a Mr A.W. Smith, in Folklore he states that a:

“spectator’s dog…a year or two ago ran off with the head pursued by the butcher (in white coat and straw hat) brandishing his knife, and a string of shouting onlookers determined to avert a disaster.”

Although its more likely to be health and safety concerns! This notwithstanding organisation has not changed since it was reported in Folklore which recorded:

The head is presented by a local notability with a suitable speech, of which the most memorable that I myself have heard was made by the parson of the parish, a man of striking presence. Holding in one hand the head – a horrid object prudently provided with a wire handle – he proclaimed ‘We men of Ebernoe know where the men of – [who had won rather too often] are going – and jerking his free thumb over his shoulder, we are giving them the Horns to help them get there !”

Ebernoe had won the year I turned up too and its best turned up to collect the head from the local lord residing at Petsworth I believe. Then sheets are handed around and the Horn Fair song is sung:

As I was a-walking one fine summer morn,

So soft was the wind and the waves on the corn.

I met a pretty damsel upon a grey mare,

And she was a-riding upon a grey mare.

‘Now take me up behind you fair maid for to ride.’

Oh no and then, Oh no, for my mammy she would chide,

And then my dear old daddy would beat me full sore,

And never let me ride on his grey mare no more.”

‘If you would see Horn Fair you must walk on your way,

I will not let you ride on my grey mare today,

You’d rumple all my muslin and uncurl my hair,

And leave me all distrest to be seen at Horn Fair.

‘O fairest of damsels, how can you say No?

With you I do intend to Horn Fair for to go,

We’ll join the best of company when we do get there,

With horns on their heads, boys, the finest at the Fair.”

Stanley Godman in his article Horn Fair in 1957 for the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society attempted to find out more of the song’s origins he noted:

Thanks to the kindness of Miss Marie Slocombe it is now possible to specify the Country Magazine programme which led to the revival of the Horn Fair song at Ebernoe. It was broadcast on May 28th, 1950, and the song had been sung to Mr. Collinson two weeks before. As Mr. Collinson said, Jimmie Booker was a trug-basket maker. He had learnt the craft in East Sussex and carried it on until his death in 1951. In the broadcast the song was sung by Cyril Tucker. Mr. Morrish of Great Allfields Farm, Balls Cross, near Ebernoe, heard the broadcast and obtained permission for the song to be sung at the Horn Fair. In August, 1955, Mr. Morrish told me that when he first introduced it to the Ebernoe people in 1951, one of the company, Mr. Tom Stemp, then aged 75, said he could well remember it being sung by an old Ebernoe woodman, David Baker, who died in 1943 at the age of eighty. This was valuable confirmation of the song’s former association with Ebernoe, though, as will appear below, it cannot lay sole claim to it. Tom Stemp, who remembered the song, first played for the Ebernoe Horn Fair cricket team in 1900 and in 1954 his son was captain of the team. Such family traditions are still strong in this remote place, isolated geographically, with its school, church and cottages hidden behind a thicket, independent spiritually and (in normal times) to a great extent, materially. Another well-known Ebernoe family, the Holdens, have been associated with the Fair since 1876. Ephraim Holden, who died in 1954 at the age of 87, had attended every year since he was nine.”

Horn of plenty?

It is clear that there is some underlying belief in the horns. It is indeed recorded that even if the day was beset with thunderstorms that was thought to be good for the crops and that it was the day to sow cabbages!

In the piece on Another English Head luck custom notes:

“A horned sheep was roasted whole in a pit of embers with the head projecting over the end, so that the horns are not damaged. It was ‘lucky’ to baste the sheep which, when cooked, was de capitated. The rival cricket teams, from Ebernoe and a neighbouring village, dined on the mutton, while spectators had mutton sandwiches. After the match the winning team got the head which they hung in their favoured pub. In a letter to me Miss Dean-Smith commented: It is not a horn fair as the term is generally understood …. It is not a patronal feast… the presentation of the horns suggests something more significant.”

Of course, it could all be some Victorian vicar’s embellishment but in a way there’s no better way to spend a warm July day and think of its origins!

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Custom contrived: Brinsley Coffin Walk

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Many remote hamlets and small villages before the 1800s had no church and so it was not unusual to see a group of men winding their way through paths carved into the landscape carrying a loft a coffin. These coffin or funeral paths can be seen preserved in the place names and folklore across the country. They lay remembered but used say for recreational walkers adopted into the public footpath system. Brinsley in Nottinghamshire had one from its Chapel of Ease to the older medieval church of Greasley some three miles away. But whereas the others are unused, Brinsley for one day of year remembers the toil of its pallbearers in its annual Coffin Walk

Putting the fun in funeral?

The customs started some 14 years ago as an interesting way to remember Brinsley’s local history and celebrate its patronal day, St. James, as a consequence the custom is held on the Saturday nearest 25th July. What might sound a solemn affair is not and intend it wasn’t back in the 1800s when the parties would stop for a rest on specific resting stones on the route and drink to the memory of the occupant. It is said they could often turn up too late to the church for the funeral and find it locked up and vicar at home! Although now a more sober affair the walk was not solemn either but a good chance for local people to get some exercise and have a chat away from the hustle and bustle of daily life…albeit following a coffin! The website said wear lilac – but as the only lilac I had was a 70s disco shirt and fuzzy minion wig I thought that might be taking it too far!

Dying to find out more

I’d discovered the custom by accident searching for another event for my forthcoming book on Nottinghamshire customs and ceremonies – unfortunately the week after it had happened.

I woke up on the allotted Saturday and looked outside, the premise for a three mile walk-starting at 9.30 – did not seem promising as outside it was raining and raining heavily! Then around half seven the clouds appeared to disappear and so I thought I’d risk it. Turning up just before the 9.30 walk off at the church I came across a small group of local people and members of the local funeral directors Gillotts and Steve Soult Ltd, coffin makers who may not equally had been looking forward to the walk through the rain. The weather had certainly put off the attendees, the year previous there was 28, this year around 7. After a brief blessing by the church warden and a group photo the curious cortege was on its way…without  a drop of rain!

The custom started when local historian, Stan Smith, researched the route of the funeral procession and thought it would be an interesting exercise to walk it. The first walks included a small doll’s house coffin with its doll. In an article in Nottinghamshire Post Stan Smith noted:

“Believe it or not it came from a dolls house catalogue!….It’s about four inches long and there’s even a body in a shroud inside it if you look closely enough. We really can call it a coffin walk now that we’ve got a coffin!”

Then local coffin maker Steve Soult offered to make a bespoke one. An altogether more authentic if heavier option. This coffin being a fine piece of workmanship having ‘Brinsley Coffin Walk’ on the side and the village’s famous headstocks, relics of its mining heritage, splendidly carved on the other side. Leading the coffin was the funeral director wearing a splendid period suit and top hat and lilac flower.

The year previously had been a sad event for it remembered also its founder local historian Stan Smith Yet despite the thought that the custom may end with him, a not uncommon occurrence with revived or contrived customs, it has continued – and I am sure he’d be happy to know that.

Walk of death?

Of we went out of the church and along the road to the bemusement of drivers who must have thought ‘there appear to be going the wrong way the church is behind them!’, then across the road and into the fields. The first gate was a fairly easy affair but after a while it appeared how arduous a task this would be. At one stile, the pallbearers had to propel the coffin akin to a basketball player through the narrow gap, gingerly guiding it through a narrow gap in the hedge. It didn’t rain but the evidence was there to see and feel, a flooded pathway resulted in the coffin being carried along a thin ledge under a railway arch! At one point the carriers zoomed off into the distance to overcome the only incline we had surprisingly in the journey. Finally, we were in sight of Greasley church where tea and biscuits awaited. The walk again garnered pace and the pallbearers naturally sweaty and worn out awaited those much-needed refreshments! A tiring exercise but think what it would have been like with a body inside! At the church, a sort service was given with a suitable walk based hymn sung and we gathered around the Rev John Hides who was the first joint vicar of the two parishes which finally in 1869 Brinsley was allowed to bury its own dead. All in all a great little unique tradition attended by friendly and helpful individuals…a great walk albeit a bit unusual but recommended!

Custom demised: Crabbing the Parson, Clent, Worcestershire

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A.M Protheroe and T. E. Jones in their Scraps of English folklore X in Folklore record in the Worcestershire village of Clent:

“The strange annual custom of ” crabbing the parson ” was followed on ” Wake Sunday ” at St. Kenelm’s, the wake being held on the first Sunday after July 28th, or St. Kenelm’s Day. The custom was discontinued more than a hundred years ago, and in the St. Kenelm’s of to-day seems to be quite forgotten.”

John Noake in his 1848 The Rambler in Worcestershire, or, Stray Notes on Churches and Congregations relates comically that:

“The last clergyman but one who was subjected to this process was a somewhat eccentric gentleman named Lee. He had been chaplain to a man-of-war, and was a jovial old fellow in his way, who could enter into the spirit of the thing. My informant well recollects the worthy divine, after partaking of dinner at the solitary house near the church, quietly quitting the table when the time for performing the service drew nigh, reconnoitering the angles of the building, and each “buttress and coign of vantage” behind which it was reasonable to suppose the enemy would be posted, and watching for a favourable opportunity, he would start forth at his best walking pace (he scorned to run) to reach the church. Around him, thick and fast, fell from ready hands a shower of crabs, not a few telling with fearful emphasis on his burly person, amid the intense merriment of the rustic assailants; but the distance is small; he reaches the old porch, and the storm is over.”

However, not always did the vicar join in the fun as Noake continues:

“Another informant, a man of Clent, states that he has seen the late incumbent, the Rev. John Todd, frequently run the gauntlet, and that on one occasion there were two sacks of crabs, each containing at least three bushels, emptied in the church field, besides large store of other missiles provided by other parties; and it also appears that some of the more wanton not unfrequently threw sticks, stakes, &c., which probably led to the suppression of the practice.”

Sadly, the author is probably correct and like many customs which tread the line between violence and fun it did disappear, but why did it exist. Noake again gives a reason:

“The custom of crabbing the parson is said to have arisen on this wise. ‘Long, long ago,’ an incumbent of Frankley, to which St. Kenelm’s was attached, was accustomed, through horrid, deep-rutted, miry roads, occasionally to wend his way to the sequestered depository of the remains of the murdered Saint King, to perform divine service. It was his wont to carry creature comforts with him, which he discussed at a lone farmhouse near the scene of his pastoral duties. On one occasion, whether the pastor’s wallet was badly furnished, or his stomach more than usually keen, tradition sayeth not, but having eat up his own provision, he was tempted (after he had donned his sacerdotal habit, and in the absence of the good dame) to pry into the secrets of a huge pot in which was simmering the savoury dinner the lady had provided for her household; among the rest, dumplings formed no inconsiderable portion of the contents; whether they were Norfolk or apple dumplings is not mentioned, but the story runs that our parson poached sundry of them, hissing hot, from the cauldron, and hearing the footsteps of his hostess, he, with great dexterity, deposited them in the ample sleeves of his surplice; she, however, was wide awake to her loss, and closely following the parson to the church, by her presence prevented him from disposing of them, and to avoid her accusation (‘a guilty conscience needs no accuser’) he forthwith entered the reading desk and began to read the service, John Clerk beneath making the responses. Ere long a dumpling slips out of the parson’s sleeve, and falls plump on sleek John’s head; he looks up with astonishment, but having ascertained that his reverence is not labouring under the effects of an emetic (‘vomits’ they called them in those days), John took the matter in good part, and proceeded with the service; by and bye, however, John’s pate receives a second visitation, to which he, with upturned eyes and ready tongue, responded, ‘Two can play at that, master!’ and suiting the action to the word, he forthwith began pelting the parson with crabs, a store of which he had gathered, intending to take them home in his pocket to foment the sprained leg of his jade of a horse; and so well did the clerk play his part that the parson soon decamped, amid the jeers of the old dame, and the laughter of the few persons who were in attendance; and in commemoration of this event (so saith the legend), ‘crabbing the parson’ has been practised on the wake Sunday from that time till a very recent period.”

Perhaps, but one cannot feel they may be a connection between the church’s association with the martyred king and perhaps it was done as a type of atonement or originally a scape goat was used transferring to the parson over time. We may never really know but rest assured the vicar is safe on the 28th July every year….unless one of us lies in wait!