Monthly Archives: April 2019

Custom Survived: Rivington Pike Good Friday Walk and Fair

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 “When I lived in Horwich in Lancashire (UK) in the early 1950s, we used to walk up to the old hunting lodge on the top of Rivington Pike on Easter Monday. There was always a fair up there – heaven knows how they got up there in those days – and we kids would roll our hard-boiled, hand-painted Easter eggs down the hill and chase after them. Then, having looked at all the stalls and tried out some of the treats, filled with candy-floss and ice-cream and carrying cheap wooden toys, we’d walk home through the Chinese Gardens. ….Then it was back to work for the men on Tuesday morning, and back to school for us. Anyone else ever go up the Pike at Easter? Is the fair still there, and do kids still roll eggs? Probably not, but I’d be interested to hear.”

Mudcat Cafe forum Will Fly in 2010

Rivington Pike arises like a large beacon on the horizon, glinting in the sunlight. It appears to calling people to come, climb and reach the summit and on Good Friday the surrounding towns and villages make the pilgrimage to the top; although perhaps they don’t really know why! Or rather the origins, for today the pleasures of the view, some pace egging or egg rolling and a fun fair are more than enough to pass the day.

This year the sun was shining, a rarity for Good Friday, but again it was late April and more than ever Rivington was a draw. As one drove through the villages, scores of people carrying picnics and surrounded by children appeared to heading to it. The closer one became, the road became more and more choked up with cars jockeying for position, for someone to park. At the slopes thousands of people were gathered and hundreds of cars, each possible place was filled and after a while a small gap on the road was found. Parked I made my way to summit and joining the thousands who had decided to.

Pike walk

How long people have been walking to the summit is not really known. It is known that a fair was established in 1900 on the lower slopes, having moved from an original Whit Sunday. This became a major draw card for visitors however it is only here because of the large numbers not caused by them! A local newspaper reports how in the 1920s that the holidaymakers of Lancashire towns such as Chorley would make a beeline for the hill:

“Chorley people will tonight commence the Easter holiday all the more cheerfully in the knowledge that there will be no extended stoppages at local mills over the holiday period. Chorley people as a rule do not go away for the Easter holiday, though the day excursions being run from the town are expected to be fully utilised. Weather permitting there will be the traditional trek on Good Friday to Rivington Pike.”

Such large numbers attracted more than just fairs and Christian groups would ascend the Pike to orate on the Good Friday message. It is very probable that the walk to the top was by church congregations to celebrate Good Friday. Today the message is still there, proclaiming ‘Jesus Saves’ on a banner across the Pike but no organised services appear to be there. An account from 2009 at least suggests local people remember the importance of the day in the church:

“A special mention must go to an excellent and original effort from a couple of charity fundraisers we witnessed at the Pike, dressed as Jesus and The Queen. Complete with wooden cross and thorny crown Jesus ascended the Pike where he spoke to the multitude offering to perform a “sponsored walk on water”. The characters were portrayed in a completely inoffensive manner, and very popular with the crowd.

Just keep climbing

It was so hot and the walk was punishing, perhaps reminding those of the Passion, and when one thought one was close there were still more to go. Finally past the delightful gardens which cloak the slope, the moorland opened up and the Pike could be seen as could the snake of people reaching the top. As one got closer, crushed eggs could be seen by the wayside. Worn eggs or those who didn’t make it.

Then finally the Pike was in reach and its swarmed with people of all ages. I watched as one by one the stream of pilgrims reached the summit and ceremonially placed their hand on the odd monument at the summit. Each person did it and in one crevice, flowers were placed to remember someone who was not able to reach it this year. I asked one of the people who was most determined to place their hand there. ‘It’s a good luck for the rest of the year’ they said.

Just keep rolling

As I surveyed the area, it was evident that this was a family affair – three or sometimes more generations made it to the top. Speaking to Jean, in her 70s, she said she been going on and off since the 1960s and remember her grandparents coming with them. Why? Well the view was amazing, the fair was always a draw and the pace egging. Yes, for on the top hundred of children had assembled with their coloured eggs to roll down the steep slopes. Unlike other places, such as Fountains Abbey, where the rolling is organised with prizes, here it was completely impromptu – well as impromptu as climbing a hill with some pre-prepared eggs can be. Everywhere eggs were tumbling and in some cases children too down the very steep slopes. The dogs around getting confused by the balls they could eat as well! This again was a generational thing, the adults having as much fun rolling – without any kids and playing an egg rolling equivalent of dodgeball or dodge-egg! A real tradition untainted by commercialisation.

Finally after admiring the rolling, the views and enjoying the sunshine I walked down, trying to miss the flying eggs, to the fair below. This laid on a dirt track below the hill but apparently was once on the upper slopes holding on, on those fierce Good Friday winds, precariously holding on, the bouncy castles almost bouncing off. A small fair but popular, Northern soul tracks pumping out of the hook a duck stall…creating a special northern feel. The Rivington Pike Good Friday walk is one of those sort of spontaneous customs which are rare today, it may have had a fair attached to it, the walk still appears rain or shine, wind or calm conditions, to be the goal. I was just thankful that it was warm and sunny!

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Custom transcribed: The Easter Garden

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Visit virtually any church whether Anglican, Methodist or Catholic and you are more likely to come across an Easter Garden or Tomb. Like the Christmas crib scenes it is slowly becoming an Easter stable. However, unlike the crib whose origin can be traced back to St Francis Assisi, the Easter garden is less clear with its origin.

A precursor of the Easter garden was the Easter Sepulchre. However, this is an English tradition. Indeed in a number of churches in England can be still seen the remains of these Easter Sepulchre, where the host was placed before Easter and revealed on Easter Sunday. Such practices at the Reformation were treated as Popish and many were destroyed and the custom forgotten.

However, across the mainland of Europe it is thought since the medieval times, the church would make a temporary garden inside the church on Maundy Thursday which would last through Easter week to around Pentecost.

How does your garden grow?

Trying to trace the first appearance of the custom in Britain is difficult no-one appears to have recorded when first it happened. However, a clue can be found in Cecil Hunt’s 1954 British Customs and ceremonies when, where and why book who states that:

“The Easter Tomb and Easter Garden are to be found in an increasing number of churches, though not yet claiming the wide acceptance of the Christmas crib.”

The ‘increasing number’ statement suggests it was a fairly newish custom and the author goes on to record a notable example, possibly the oldest in the county. He notes:

“At Harbledown, near Canterbury, Kent, on the Pilgrim’s Way, the parish church of St. Michael has since 1939 presented an Easter Garden that brings thousands of pilgrims from afar. It depicts in miniature, on platforms occupying a large part of the east end of the church, the whole story of the Passion and the Resurrection. It is a custom of singular beauty and reverence, conceived and executed with remarkable artistry, by Mrs. John Allen, wife of the Rector.”

Christ Church at Church Crookham: Easter Garden

Christ Church at Church Crookham: Easter Garden © Copyright Basher Eyre

Sheila Macqueen, describe possibly the British Easter garden which influenced the other in her 1964  Flower Decoration in Churches: which set about the font in 1955 in west transect of St Paul’s Cathedral:

“The area around  was transformed into a little formal garden divided into sections, each one surrounded by a box hedge.”

It was designed:

“Against the background of tall cupressus, silver birch, and also rhododendron, forsythia, and other flowering shrubs, daffodils, hyacinths and polyanthuses were planted….The beds were planted with the little flowers which children like, such as daisies, forget-me-nots, and primroses.”

Now the main Easter Garden is a much smaller affair but perhaps its fame has spread. The Easter Garden unlike the Christmas crib has perhaps grasped the zeitgeist more. It is a lot easier to make. Indeed, a quick search online shows many churches and church schools have introduced competitions to make them. I had in fact come across a small group of children happily carrying their handiwork into a church on the way to Rivington Pike. Another search online reveals websites instructing how to make them.

Easter garden

Easter garden. In the porch at St. Martin’s church, Woolstone. © Copyright Jonathan Billinger

Oasis in the church

The Easter garden has three main components: a stone or stone structure to represent the empty tomb, a mound with three crosses and lots of flowers around it. However, this apparently limited features has not restricted the artistic flair of the creators. In some gardens the creator places the soldiers who look over the tomb, the last supper table and associated figures and Jesus They can consist of a small garden set in the base of a pot stand or cover part of a church. In Burwell church, Cambridgeshire, they had a happy and sad Easter gardens, a sort of before and after! Indeed some Easter Gardens are an opportunity for artistic excellence. In 2017 Worcester Cathedral had:

“As well as the traditional Easter Services, to which all are welcome, ‘Stations of the Cross: Via Dolorosa – Christ’s Sorrowful Way, an exhibition by Sara Hayward RCA is on display from 4 to 27 April 2017 in the Dean’s Chapel of the Cathedral. Worcester based artist Sara Hayward has created a dramatic exhibition this Easter time depicting Christ’s final hours before his death which is open daily from 9am to 4.30pm until 27 April. The exhibition of fifteen colourful oil paintings, and boxes containing contemporary artefacts to aid reflection for visitors, create a poignant sequence about Good Friday.”

Now that’s some garden

Custom demised: Visiting Wilcote Lady well on Palm Sunday

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“Just over the boundary, in the parish of Wilcote, is an old well of beautiful clear water, surrounded by a wall, with stone steps going down to it. It is called the Lady’s Well, and on Palm Sunday the girls go there and take bottles with Spanish juice (liquorice), fill the bottles, walk round the well”

Violet Mason, SCRAPS OF ENGLISH FOLKLORE, XIX. Oxfordshire Folklore, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1929), pp. 374-384

My first visit to the Lady or Lady’s Well at Fincote was on a misty cold December walking down from the village I was struck by the old gnarled elms which lined the way to the well and the feel of an ancient processional route to it. Back then in the 90s I was unaware of the folk customs associated with it as hinted above.

The well itself is a small affair enclosed as stated above in a high wall. The gate was locked and so sadly I could not access the water directly. However, it followed from beneath the wall and nearby was what appeared to be a trough or perhaps even a bath half sunk into the ground. It is known that the water was used by Wilcote Grange for water and filled a series of ponds nearby now gone. Interestingly there is a Bridewell Farm nearby so was the well originally dedicated to St. Bridget or the pagan Bride? What the well lacks in structure is made up by its association with the curious custom noted above which existed until recently and may still do locally. On the Finstock Local History website it is recorded:

Mrs. Ivy Pratley, describes the making of the Spanish Water. “On the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday, we children would crush humbug sweets and white peppermints together and to this we would add some pieces of chopped liquorice stick, the mixture was then added to a bottle of water and we would sit around the room shaking the bottles until it had dissolved”.

The correspondent notes that:

“This bottle of liquid was drunk the following day while walking to Ladywell. They also carried with them, in a paper bag, some of the dry mixture, which was mixed with water from the well to drink on the way home. Early on Sunday afternoon the walkers would set off, one group using the footpath by the Plough Inn and another group near the top of High Street using the path to the left of the road about 50 yards east of Gadding Well. The groups then merged to follow the path through Wilcote Field Longcut or the Longcut as it was known locally. Most of the girls were given a new straw hat for the occasion and these were filled with primroses and voilets on the way through Sumteths Copse. They then crossed the field to the front of Wilcote Manor and followed a route past St. Peter’s Church to the Ash Avenue which leads directly to Ladywell.”

The custom was still current when Violet Mason in 1929 recorded it but little beknown to her it was soon to disappear. The Finstock Local History society record that it died out at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, Janet Bord in her excellent Holy Wells in Britain a guide(2008) received correspondence which suggests later. She notes:

“The one-time vicar of Wilcote, J.C.S Nias, informed me that when he first went there in 1956, ‘numerous members of county families used to go to that well in Palm Sunday with jam jars containing crushed peppermint and (I believe) liquorish.”

Interesting the vicar then goes on to suggest what might have been the original reason for the Spanish water:

“they pour water from the well on to this mixture which, they believed, would then be a specific for certain ailments during the following year.”

Another correspondent noted:

“Local historian Margaret Rogers noted in a letter to me in 1984 that ‘local people do not any longer visit it on Palm Sunday’ she added; Occasionally one elderly lady visits it, but way back in 1934 there used of a substantial number of people going down on lam Sunday to make liquorice water.”

Bord’s correspondent may give another reason for the custom’s demise:

“Quite a few elderly members of the village remember with indignation that they did not get Sunday school stamps for going down there.”

Now that’s a way to kill a custom off! Perhaps some people still make their private pilgrimage but whatever there is something otherworldly about the Lady Well. It’s a recommended walk.