Custom demised: Whirlin’ cakes of Cambridgeshire


Culinary customs are unusual ones in that they can, being domestic in origin, survive unnoticed. The Whirling cakes made traditionally around Wisbech may be one. The earliest record being in the Gentleman’s Magasine in 1789 which reports

In several villages in the vicinity of Wisbeach, in the Isle of Ely, the fifth Sunday in Lent has been, time immemorial, commemorated by the name of Whirlin Sunday, when cakes are made by almost every family, and are called, from the day, Whirlin Cakes.”

The legend behind it originates in the village of Leverington. Here an old woman made some cakes which were so enjoyed by one of her guests. Unfortunately, this guest was Satan in disguise and so keen was he with the cakes that he decided to carry both her and her cakes off in whirlwind – hence the name. A curious origin of a tradition. Fenland Notes and queries states from a correspondent that:

“Whirlwind Cakes at Leverington  — It is many years now since I was at Leverington , but I well remember that it used to be the custom at the feast then to make Whirlwind cakes. There was a curious Old folklore legend attached to this custom. It was to the effect that while a certain old lady of Leverington was one day making cakes for the purpose of entertaining her guests at the feast, the devil came to her, and creating a whirlwind carried her Off over the church steeple . In commemoration of this improbable event the custom had grown of making Whirlwind cakes. T . LAWRENCE, The Grove, Hammersmith”

The Cambridge Chronicle in 1865 reported:

 “The Sunday before Palm Sunday, in the Parish of Leverington, is called Whirling Sunday. We are not aware that the origin of it is anywhere recorded, or that in any other place there is a similar observance. It is very probable that the name is a corruption, and the tradition of its having originated in a whirlwind is too glaring an absurdity. The superstition attached to it, which, a few years since, had not entirely died away, was, that if you did not spend your penny in the purchase of whirling cake, you be unlucky the year through. Under cover of this excuse it became the scene of rioting and drunkenness. Of late years the disgraceful part of the observance has had scarcely any existence; but still great numbers, particularly from the town, walk down in the afternoon, with no other object than to walk back again. Some of the older inhabitants of the village invite their friends to tea, and treat them with hot whirling cakes, which, we believe, in their composition is nothing more than ordinary buns.”

In 1891 Frederick Carlyon, rector of Leverington, described it as “Whirling Sunday:

“None of the old people know anything of the origin of the Legend. But there are still many who recollect when there was a regular pleasure fair held in Leverington on Whirling Sunday, when a particular kind of whirling cake was made in most houses, and sports of all kinds, especially boxing matches, were carried on, and a regular holiday observed. There was no religious ceremony that I can hear of observed of on the day beyond the ordinary Church Services. Whirling cakes still continue to be made in one or two houses, but that and the memory of the day only remain. The Legend of the old woman being whirled over the church steeple is still repeated.”

It would seem that by the 20th century the custom had demised probably with the disappearance of the fair…so much that no-one knew what the cakes looked like.


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