As cars thunder by on the busy M5 or more closely slope by as hereabouts its notoriously poor traffic, the little village of East Brent at the end of August celebrates the harvest. In most villages across the country Harvest festivals reign supreme as the communities big if rather sombre thanksgiving a contrast to often debauched Harvest celebrations of yore…East Brent’s harvest home, one of a small group of traditional celebrations you could say sits between the two…how close to the second depending on how much alcohol is in the summer puddings!
Feast for the eyes
East Brent is also the oldest surviving Harvest Home, having been started in 1857 by the then archdeacon George Denison, then held on the 3rd of September as a holiday for workers. He described as:
“in 1857 my Churchwarden, Mr. John Higgs, a constant communicant and near and dear friend, came to me to suggest having every year a harvest home at East Brent. I entered into the proposal immediately and heartily. It had long appeared to me that we wanted recognised holidays for the working-men, women and children; and here was a step in that direction, specially recommended by one of its leading features, that it was not only a holiday for all classes alike, but a holiday which all classes kept and enjoyed, in close contact with one another. The proposal was generally welcomed as soon as made, and we held our first harvest home Sept. 3rd, 1857. At that time there was, I believe, northing of the kind in this part of England. The East Brent harvest home has become a Somerset institution; and although it has long ceased to retain all its original character in respect of gathering together here many chief people on the harvest home day who came to see what we were about, and whether it would be good to follow suit at home, it has retained, and more than retained, it has increased all its original popularity; and I am enabled to say, having watched everyone of them from year to year – with rare intervals every year has had its harvest home, beginning with 1857 – that each one has been an improvement upon its predecessor. The original scheme has in all its substance remained intact. Alterations have come in matters of details. I have read and heard of, and have seen other schemes of harvest home arrangement; but of no one which was, I think, so good as our own.”
An attendee described it thus:
“How they poured in, one after another, an endless string. Huge joints of meat decked with flowers, large banners on the walls, and plum puddings by the dozen. How the meat went, and then the puddings. And so the dinner was over. Waistcoats strained, then sweat poured down, the cider was quaffed, and they were happy!”
This was the men’s celebration, the women had a separate one. An account states:
“The ladies had their meal the following day and it was very different. The next evening the school-room was again filled, but this time it was by the poor women to partake of tea, when bread and butter, cake, ham, tea, and other good things were soon made use of in a truly interesting manner.”
This first Harvest Home attracted 300 for dinner and 500 for tea, but soon over the years the celebration lengthened to four days and attracted 6000 people. However over the years it has lost the days, the formality of man and women separate dinning and in a way its true function. Few people directly work on the land and so this is celebration of agriculture rather than a thanksgiving feast!
The Weston Mercury recalled that in 1859:
“ a capacious tent erected in the grounds adjoining the Vicarage, was decorated with appropriate designs, mottoes and emblems, which included: ‘Long life to our worthy Vicar and to his benevolent Lady;’’G. Reed, Esq., Lord of the Manor of East Brent, and Burnham’s Benefactor;’ and ‘G.Reed, Esq., the friend of the Poor.’ The large company included the Bishop of the Diocese, Members of Parliament, the principal parishioners, and clergy and gentry for the neighbourhood. The rich plum puddings and the immense loaf, for which East Brent harvest home has always been famous, figured in the menu.”
More of those plum puddings in a moment!
Over the years it has lost it’s purpose in thanking the workers during the harvest and has become more of a celebration to agriculture and various village activies Muriel Walker in her Old Somerset customs describes the scene in 1984 regarding what needed to be done before the great day:
“after some months of planning the villagers start a busy work on the Monday with s waiters meeting, there are luncheon tickets to deal with as the repast is no longer free. Later in three week enormous ivy ropes are made the menfolk having gathered the required ivy) to go the entire length of the marquee in which the meals are served. Hoops and banners are hung around and still later in the high table is decorated with corn and flowers. The president who happens to be the vicar has he privilege of having his chair decorated as well.
On the day itself, the women turn up as early as before seven o’clock in the morning to lay the tables, make salads and do other preparatory work.
Following a procession, led by the band, and a church service, the main meal is eaten. The men, kit seems, still do the meat carving. Afternoon teas follow in due course with sports, fancy dress and a tug o war.”
She noted that the remaining food was auctioned the following day, although now it is done in the afternoon.
In the 150th anniversary booklet, Rita Thomas (nee Poole), stated:
“I heard the talk but couldn’t imagine what a Harvest Home was like; but anything happening in a village in 1957 had to be worth a try. My first job was to sell centenary programmes at 6d each. This meant a half day off work, which was great! I got more involved as the years went by, doing all sorts of jobs, laying tables, washing china, trimming ivy ropes, flowers for the high table, making hoops and banners. For example:- ‘many hands make light work’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘make hay while the sun shines’, ‘the best in the west’, ‘1973 the year of the tree’ and many others.
We try to keep the event as traditional as possible but have also streamlined some jobs to make use of modern ways to save time. It is still a traditional feast day which starts with a church service at St Mary’s followed by lunch in the marquee which includes the procession of 90 Christmas puddings, a 120lb cheddar cheese and a 6′ x 2′ harvest loaf. The ladies carry the puddings to the marquee from the village hall and the men carry the bread and cheese.”
Oh and them Puddings before the feast officially begins. Waiting by the marquee you see a joyous procession of puddings! Yes those puddings that culturally appear restricted to Christmas but you would like to have them at other times well here you can and why not. They glint held high by their makes – only women I note pity as I can do a mean pudding too! The harvest loaf carried proudly on the shoulders of six male bearers is similarly an impressive piece of culinary art and finally the cheeses – not all Cheddar one would note but I think some Stinking Bishop was there too!
The account continues:
“The lunch is followed by the toast to ‘agriculture and kindred industries’ proposed by a guest speaker and someone else replies. A second toast is made to ‘the visitors and helpers’ and a response to this. The prizes for decorated hoops and baskets are then awarded followed by an auction of any surplus food. During the afternoon, tea is served, and there is a fancy dress competition followed by sports, so quite a busy day. In the evening we have various bands, a disco, licensed bar, funfair etc.”
Little has changed. Today tickets are £18 and it starts at noon, a religious service is held at 12.30 for 15 minutes and then luncheon is had. Tea is served from 4.30 followed by free children’s entertainment and sports for all. The bar closes at 8.45 so it is not a late one but it certainly is a packed one. Although this is very much a local event with access to the marquee ticket only one can still experience the festive nature of the day when this tiny Somerset village keeps up its proud tradition and thanks is given as a great feast is undertaken!