Custom revived: Ripon’s Candlemas Festival of Lights

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“having visited Harrowgate for his health a few years before, he resided for some time at that pleasant market town Ripon, where, on the Sunday before Candlemas day, he observed that the collegiate church, a fine ancient building, was one continued blaze of light all the afternoon from an immense number of candles.”

So wrote a 1790 account in the Gentlemen’s magasine. Yet despite this note reference to this rare survival is no existent. Candlemas is a curious feast which went through a revival in the mid-20th century in a number of churches. The feast celebrates the Presentation of the Infant Christ to the Temple, and traditionally marked the end of the Christmas season (and when the Christmas decoration could be removed). As a custom it is a very curious hybrid of Hebrew – in the remembrance of the tradition of presenting children to the temple and pagan sitting as it does upon the old pre-Christian Imbolc, the coming of spring. The name Candlemas is of course itself rather odd. Most other masses relate to saints or biblical events – this does not.

En-lightening origin

In those dark days of winter, the lighting of candles marked the beginning of the days getting lighter and the rise of spring and the strength of the sun. All pure paganism. At some point the Christians adopted this ancient event and looking at the timing associated it with presentation, a facet still remembered in Blidworth with its unique cradle rocking. The association with candles was convenient as Christ was seen as ‘the way and the light’ and as candles were such a valuable commodity against the evils of darkness the needed to be blessed and be thankful – hence a mass for candles. As the tide turned against such curious Catholic practices at the Reformation, many died out. It survived Henry VIIIth’s purge, but was reformed the blessing of candles was thrown out and so was the Mary’s role focusing on Jesus solely. The custom continued until the late 1700s and as Hutton notes had died out by the 1800s. It is not surprising the North clung onto Catholic traditions longer than elsewhere finally dying out and being revived in the 20th century.

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Candle in the wind

A description by Dean John of the church records on the church website sums it up perfectly:

“Many of you will know that here at Ripon Cathedral the Candlemas Sung Eucharist has long been established as one of the most spectacular services of the year. The light from five thousand candles, the glorious music, and several hundred people gathering from across the region all combine, with the grace of God, to make this a great occasion of celebration and spiritual encounter.”

5000 candles surely that must be a record? Where as many churches and cathedrals now mark Candlemas none do it in a way as spectacular and uplifting as Ripon. As one enters the cathedral on the night one’s senses are assailed. Cathedrals in the night are dark, gloomy, foreboding places. The chill runs down the spine…especially on those cold snow laden February nights. As one enters from the crisp air, one enters a glowing magical place of warm both physical and spiritual. There’s the smell of wax and the hushed sounds which only can be heard in some august edifices.

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The full wax

A few years ago when the 2nd arose on the weekend I made my way to the service to see this great festival of lights. Throughout the service all modern forms of lighting are vanquished and only that of the flickering candle. Throughout the whole building there appear to be candles, hither and thither, placed feverishly earlier by the church’s vergers and lit equally efficiently no doubt.

The triumph of their work is a giant cross arranged in the chancel with the date arranged in candles, fortunately roped off though but easily observed. The service is of course a traditional one of Evensong, but during it the congregation is invited to process around the Cathedral holding their candles lead by the Bishop. This was a magical moment as we processed around remembering the importance of this great building to the spiritual needs of its community and how it had sat as safe refuge from Saxon times and beyond. There also is something quite magical about the sound of evensong sung under the dimness of a candle. Indeed, Ripon’s Candlemas service can give us a real insight into what the pre-Reformation church would have been like. A mysterious evocative dark world lit only by the candle.

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Custom demised: Taking down Christmas decorations on Candlemas Eve

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What? Surely it’s Twelfth Night or Twelfth Day. Indeed, whilst that debate rages about….and some people take them down on Boxing Day I hear. But the real debate is Twelfth Night or Candlemas?.

This debate certainly is quite germane with me, who sits here, composing this post on the 25th January in the shadow of a fully decorated Christmas tree! Why I’ll explain in a minute. However, when discussing the fact I still had the tree up on Plough Monday, Frank a folklorist and local Historian said ‘You’ll get back luck then’ to which I replied with the following fact from what I had discovered researching customs, that Christmas decorations were to be burnt at Candlemas north of the Trent of Nottingham, where it is said that candles must be thrown away.

He was apparently unaware of the custom, but delving into an array of customs it appears that the Northerners were not the only ones exempt! Further research suggests that it is a custom which has waxed and then waned over the centuries to such a point that no-one would be aware of it largely. Certainly in the 17th century the custom prevailed as noted by the poem ‘Ceremony upon Christmas Eve’ written by Robert Herrick in 1648. He records:

“Down with the rosemary, and so,

Down with the baies, and mistletoe

Down with the holly, ivie and all,

Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall,

That so the superstitious find

No one least branch there left behind;

For look, how many leaves there be

Neglected, there (maids trust to me)

So many goblins you shall see.”

 

The poem was adapted by Edgar Pittman into Candlemas Eve Carol and similarly the carol Farewell to Christmas notes:

“Here have I dwelled with more & less
From Hallowtide till Candlemas,
And now must I from your hens pass;
Now have good day”

Herrick in his Upon Candlemas Day poem also wrote:

“End now the white loaf and the pie, and let all sports with Christmas die.”

Despite this the custom is largely forgot. This is surprising considering how widespread the observance was.  Raven (1977) records it in Staffordshire:

“in the mid-nineteenth century, the Christmas decorations used at Stone Mill were taken to the cowsheds and fed to the cattle to prevent them ‘casting’ their calves.”

Palmer (1976) noted that this was the tradition too in Warwickshire, as was it in Worcestershire:

“It is unlucky to keep Christmas holly about the house after Candlemas Day, as the Evil One will then come himself and pull it down.”

The custom would indeed appear to be commonly encountered in the west far more than in the North.  In Burne’s () Shropshire, she was told by a servant that holly and ivy was taken down on Candlemas Eve so as to put snow-drops in their place.  In 1864 it is also recorded in Suffolk:

“If every scrap of Christmas decoration is not removed from the church before Candlemas-day there will be a death within a year in the family occupying the pew where a leaf or berry is left.”

This latter belief still associates with our modern date. Udal (1922) in his Dorsetshire folklore records too:

 “Candlemas Day or Eve – was the great occasion in Dorsetshire, as in other counties, when all Christmas decorations, such as holy, mistletoe, and evergreens, should be taken down…but care should be taken not to throw away as ordinary rubbish, but should entirely destroyed in the fire. If otherwise, it portends death or misfortune to some one of the household before another year is out.”

Yet despite this Hardy’s poem Burning the Holly still favours Twelfth Night but its date of 1898 agrees with Roud (2004) that opinion was changing by the turn of the 20th century. However even in the United States, in Williamsburg,  a 18th century poem records:

“When New Year’s Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.”

 It makes good sense as Candlemas was the Feast of the Purification, the last feast which signified the baby Jesus’s acceptance at the Temple. Being no longer a baby in a Manger but a baptised child. Furthermore as this was a lean time of the year agriculturally it would have little impact. It may also be significant to note that Candlemas Eve was and is Imbolc, the old Pagan celebration and perhaps taking down before may have been a way of distancing from the pagan past.

 Why the change of date?

Is it possible that the authorities wanting to discourage the festivities which associated with the date, especially the Lord of Misrule, established this date as the one when Christmas officially finished and everyone went back to work, especially as in the 1800s communities moved from largely agricultural to industrial.

 Burn the lot!

The majority of correspondent’s state that these decorations should then be burnt and if not bad luck would befall anyone who did not. Roud (2004) notes that there is no geographical spread of the custom and that there was more likely to be disagreement due to changing attitudes over time. He refers to records burning the decorations recorded as far back as the eleventh century but the earliest anti-burning being from 1866.  I’m quite sure the family would want me to burn the decorations though, especially the large ‘plastic’ tree. Burning would bring more than bad luck….but a deadly cocktail of chemicals

Well perhaps it’s not quite a demised custom, I inadvertently have done so and so I gather do some churches, mainly Catholic, although I have not heard of any from Britain.

Custom demised: Carlow’s dole, Woodbridge

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Candlemas is often associated with charities especially doles. Whilst most of these appear to have died out around 100 years ago, one survived until recently and indeed may soon return. This is Carlow’s Dole. Carlow’s Dole is also one of those customs which is repeatedly referred to it folk custom almanacs and now online lists as a surviving custom – however that is far from the truth. Even Malcolm Taylor, Doc Rowe and Carolyn Robson’s 2014 school resource British Folk Customs From Plough Monday to Hocktide state:

“a dozen loaves are still distributed each Candlemas by the rector and churchwardens of St. Mary’s parish church.”

What makes the charity stand out is the nature of bizarre distribution and the origins of its founder.

George Carlow was a member of a religious sect long extinct called the Separate Congregation who’s chief belief was keeping Saturday sacred it seems. Being not accepted for burial in the church or chapel, he therefore was interred in his own private tomb in his garden. As the year’s passed this garden became the property of the Bull Hotel. Arthur Mee (1939) in his Suffolk notes:

“…we come upon the tiny walled garden of the Bull Hotel, the old coaching inn on Market Hill where Tennyson stayed… Through the hotel yard we come to the grave of George Carlow, who owned the inn in 1738, when he died and was buried here. He left the inn a small charity to distribute bread each year to the poor, and the bread is still distributed at his grave.”

The will stipulated that whosoever lived in his house paid for the loaves. As the Bull Hotel’s annex covered this property for many years they took responsibility for the tomb’s upkeep and helped with the charity. Homer Sykes (1975) who chose the custom to feature in his excellent Only Once a Year notes that the hotel had a room called Carlow’s and that those involved would be served sherry by the hotel. Landlord Neville Allen noted in Ben Le Vay’s Eccentric Britain:

“we mark it some years with children coming from one of the local schools to get rolls which we have baked. Of course, they’re not that poor nowadays but it’s very educational.”

The some years is a clue of how the custom appeared to die out but not the full story which I will explain in a moment. What makes this dole so interesting is the tomb of course on which is inscribed:

“Weep for me dear friend no more for I am gone a little before. But by a lite of pity prepare yourself to follow me. Good friends for Jesus sake forbear. To move the dust entombed here. Blessed be he that spares these stones. Cursed be he that moves my bones.”

Now Mr. Carlow being not associated with a church realised he would not be able to display his bequest on a Charity board as many others still do and did, so he also cleverly had the instructions carved also into his tomb:

“Twenty shillings worth of bread to be given on this stone to the poor of the town on the second of February forever.”

These loaves were purchased from the two poorest bakers in the town for the town’s poor, by doing so helping both parts of the community. Interestingly, St. Mary’s Church were charged with organising this distribution being done by the verger and two church wardens.

Interestingly, unlike other customs which clearly don’t pay for themselves, Carlow’s dole was not subsidised. Sykes (1975) notes in 1975:

“At present, since loaves cost more than two pence, only twelve loaves are purchased and distributed…”

Malcolm Taylor, Doc Rowe and Carolyn Robson’s 2014 British Folk Customs From Plough Monday to Hocktide also astutely note:

“whereas once 20/- (£1) would have provided the 120 ‘two-penny loaves’ originally intended, today it would buy but one large loaf.”

Interestingly Sykes appears to show the dole being given to elderly people but by Brian Sheul’s (1983) time in the 1980s it was children.

The dole was clearly also an attempt at sin eating where the sins of the incumbent would be passed onto the living. This was done by eating food off the grave. This is still enacted at Butterworth’s Dole at Smithfield’s London and of course is one of the concepts behind the Wake. Of course within recent times of the dole it was more hygienically distributed on a table near the tomb.

Carlow’s Grave, Woodbridge where the dole should have been distributed. Copyright Richard Wisbey Flikr

Forever?

As stated Carlow’s dole is often described as being still extant but it sadly has now become lost. Why? The reason is rather pathetic to be honest – and that is not meant to be a criticism of St. Mary’s – but the owners of the land in which the tomb is enclosed. For although it is often noted that the tomb is in the Bull Hotel garden this is no longer true. Houses were built on land adjacent to the Hotel and the tomb was incorporated into one of the house’s private gardens. According to the Rector Canon Kevan McCormack access was prevented by the owner of the land but this appears to have arisen from a dispute regarding who owned the small piece of land, a dispute which had apparently been going on for several years. Promisingly he noted that the previous owners believed that if it was resolved there would be no problem reinstating the tradition. The owners were very gracious to Richie Wisbey who managed to get access and take a recent photo of the grave now overgrown in the garden. Back in 2012 I was told:

“A brief response is that we ceased a few years ago from giving out bread at the tomb, because the owner of the land where the tomb is would not allow us to do it.  However, there has now developed a dispute as to who owns this small piece of land and if this is resolved it may be possible to reinstate this next year.”

2013 I was told:

Sadly this dispute has been going on for several years and we just have to wait.”

2016 and I think we are still waiting. A shame that such a dispute could stop the custom and we hope that it either has now been revived or will be soon.

Customs revived: the Blidworth Baby rocking

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 “Twas in a cradle, decked and graced, With flowers and antique ornament Mothers and their infant children placed.And up the hill to church they went,From Fishpool cots they duly came.From Blidworth and Fountain Dale;And the good folk did just the same who lived in Blidworth in the vale.Many such good rocking’s there have been, In the old church the good loved well,Which sanctifies the expanding scene within the sound of Blidworth bell”

The Church of St. Mary of the Purification is a rather uninspiring edifice from the outside, very modern, it was rebuilt in (the remains of the original church lie close by) but it is associated with a ceremony, unique in England. Go inside and on the back wall are two boards with names inscribed ‘cradle rockings’ with dates and a pulpit with a cradle carved on it. These may appear appear strange but this is a church proud of its revived tradition. For on the Sunday nearest the 2nd of February, Candlemass and the Feast of the Purification of Mary, a baby boy who must be born nearest to Christmas, as well as being born to married, Christian parents living in Blidworth (or now nearby), is “rocked” in a cradle.

According to one of its earliest accounts in Notes and Queries of 1926, the ceremony dates from 1200. However, the earliest reference appears to be a rather unfortunate one.   It is recorded in Blidworth burial register:

“Thomas Leake esquire, 11 February AD. 1599, killed at Blidworth Rocking”

At first hand before concerns set in, this was not a boy thrown by too much enthusiastic rocking. For the rest of the entry reads:

“two days before aged sixty years after a brawl”

For there are two traditions strictly speaking rolled into one here! The surviving cradle rocking and like many feast days, the actually partying part! For many years there was a feast day which coincided with this ceremony. People from Derbyshire and Yorkshire attended and it was often a time for family reunions.

It appears to have been a time of sports such as in 1758 according to Old Nottingham a man called Bullcalf brought a team of Derby wrestlers to compete with a Nottingham side. Nottingham won! To return back to Leake, he was killed in a duel. A captain Salmon of Salterford being on leave to go to the village feast encountered Tom Leake who was a Forest Ranger, and they soon argued in the Archer’s tavern over the Landlords daughter and Leake lost the ensuing sword fight….such incidents may have precipitated both the end of the feast and the ceremony. It appears to have been getting a little out of hand around the nineteenth century.  a report from the Daily Express of the 26th Feb of 1915 recorded police arrests of drunkenness on the day clearly indicating that ‘Rocking Sunday’ as it was called was still celebrated in public houses, although by then the actual rocking had fallen into abeyance.

Indeed we do not hear about the Rockings until it was revived in 1842 after a lapse of 150 years. It soon lapsed and, its final revival was in 1921, when Revd John Lowndes discovered an accord by the Revd Whitworth “there was a beautiful custom in Blidworth church called the Rocking ceremony” written in 1896. He thus thought it was a good idea to revive it and asking around found a Eliza Pointon of Fairlight Cottages who had an ancient cradle which she donated. The earliest report I could find is Notes and Queries 1926 states that the inclement weather had prevented the carrying of the cradle from the church. In this first report:

“The revd John Lowndes officiated and this rocking was the fifth that he has conducted, he having revived the custom, which had been started in 1200 and discontinued a century ago”

Although the report is possibly factually inaccurate this part. It does go on to state that the Bishop of Grantham was present and that the child was named Samuel. A report in 1936:

“In the picturesque village church at Blidworth, the usual annual crowd assembled at Candlemass to witness the medieval customs of ‘rocking the baby’as an act symbolical of the presentation of the Child Christ, in the Temple. The last baptised baby boy in the parish is taken by its parents to the church at Evensong and during the service, the baby is presented by the priest at the altar and dedicated to the service of God. The Vicar Rev. W.T.C. Swingler, placed the baby in a century old cradle, decorated with snowdrops, narcissi and foliage, within the altar rails, and rocked the cradle to and fro several times.”

A report on the 12th February 1938 recorded:

“The baby was John Ramond Bennett, the only child of Mr and Mrs John Bennett, of White Lion..both natives of Blidworth…..Taking the baby to the altar which was decorated with snowdrops and white tulips, the vicar said ‘John Redmond I present you at this altar. Turning to the congregation he pronounced may he grow never to be ashamed to confess the cross of Christ… manly to fight under his banner to fight sin, the world and the devil and to continue as a faithful soldier and servant to his life’s end”         …

The vicar then rocked the baby in a cradle also decorated with snowdrops, immediately in front of the altar”

In the Bulwell dispatch from 1963 a report read:

“Dating back to the middle ages, the annual rocking ceremony took place at St. Mary’s Church Blidworth on Sunday night in the presence of a large congregation. The custom is for the last baptised baby in the parish to be rocked before the altar in an old wooden cradle symbolising the presentation of the boy Jesus at the Temple. Four week old David John Mason, whose parents have been the newsagent’s shop in Mansfield Road, Blidworth was selected for this year’s rocking ceremony. He slept peacefully throughout the service. The baby’s parents, Mr and Mrs. Stuart Mason, knelt beside the flower decked cradle with the provost of Southwell (the very Rev H. C. L. Heywood) during the ceremony. The service was conducted by the rev J. W. Busby (vicar of Blidworth) and the address was given by the provost who spoke of the importance of family life. Snowdrops and violets have decorated the cradle for the last seven years, but this year it was impossible to obtain these flowers, even at Covent Garden, owing to the severe winter. Instead white carnations and blue hyacinths were used.”

A report of 1967 Guardian Journal notes:

“There was a packed congregation – extra chairs were placed in the aisles-at Blidworth parish church yesterday for the annual Rocking Ceremony, a custom dating back to the Middle Ages. The latest Baptised boy in the parish, four week old Michael Anthony Griffith was blessed before the altar by the vicar, the Rev J. W. Busby, and then placed in a century old cradle and gently rocked. The Archdeacon of Newark the Ven Brian Woodham also took part. The baby the first child of Mr. and Mrs. James Griffith of 53 Preston road Rainworth was well behaved until the closing stages of the service when he burst out crying. A tape recording was made of the intercessions for the vicar who, after 11 years in Blidworth is leaving for a Lincolnshire benefice in March”

The Bishop of Southwell Denis Wakeling performed the rocking in 1980 and the child Edward William Tristram received a commemorative bible to mark the occasion inscribed by the Bishop.

It is interesting to note that the accounts given here and what I saw in 2009 are not wildly dissimilar. It is pleasing to note that the cradle is that found by Eliza Pointon and the order is much the same In 2009, the tradition was much as described above except the church had considerable difficulty finding a suitable boy, although girls were available, and a boy was finally found in Mansfield I believe but the cradle was duly rocked as described and the congregation held long candles to remember candlemas.

Rock a bye baby – the function of the rocking

The 2nd of February is Candlemas associated with the presentation of the baby Christ at the altar. In pre-Reformation England, mass at this time would have included the rocking of a cradle in the service as a visual aid for the largely illiterate congregation. It is possible that the baby rocking replaced the idea of Doves being sacrificed as in The gospel of Luke when Joseph and Mary went to the temple for Mary’s ritual purification and to perform the redemption of the first born, by giving a poor sacrifice of two doves.

Little appears to be recorded about this tradition countrywide but it is thought to have died out at the reformation. Blidworth’s church of the purification is the only church in England which undertakes this unique tradition on the Sunday nearest to the date.  However, some authorities linked the tradition with St Distaff’s day and ‘rocking’ appears to have taken to a wider context especially as it is reported that much celebrations occurred after the service with the baby processed around the town.

Whatever the origins if you are around in February in Nottinghamshire it is worth witnessing this truly unique custom.

About traditional ceremonies and customs

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England has and had 100s of special ceremonies, traditions and customs. Some are group events some private, some ancient and unfathomable, some recent and understandable. For the last 30 years I have been travelling across the country and experiencing these unique curiosities which sprinkle British eccentricities into an otherwise mundane life. Each month we’ll be looking at customs survived those 100 years or older, revived those newer customs many reestablished and those demised, lost but not always forgotten. Join me in these travels.

2013 I’ve added customs contrived, that is new customs that have no traditional aspect yet. Why? Two reasons one because they deserve attention and secondly it allows me to keep the three posts a month up especially in August and January when there are few surviving customs.

2014, I’ve added customs transcribed, that is old customs from overseas. Why? Because many such as Chinese New Year and Divali have become just as widespread and important as native customs, others such as the Australia Breakfast deserve wider knowledge.

2015 I’ve added customs occasional for customs which are based around one off events or a number of dates or days in the year.

I’ve also added a link to Calendarcustoms.com website as well so you can find out when the events are on next. It’s good to see that this site is expanding as a result of my exploits here!

Links to customs covered

2012
January Custom   survived: Haxey Hood GameCustom   revived: Nottinghamshire plough Monday plays

Custom   demised: Cream of the well

February Custom   survived:  Winster Pancake raceCustom   revived: Blidworth Baby Rocking

 

Custom   demised:  29th February

March Custom   survived:  Tichborne DoleCustom   revived:  Hercules Clay sermon

 

Custom   demised: Washing Molly Grime

April Custom   survived:  Hungerford HocktideCustom   revived:   Easter heaving

 

Custom   demised:   Watching the sun

May Custom   survived: Minehead hobbyCustom   revived: Lambley Cowslip Sunday

 

Custom   demised: Pinch bottom

June Custom   survived: Youlgreave well dressingCustom   revived: Gate to Southwell

 

Custom   demised:  White black and ram nights

July Custom   survived:  Dunmow Flitch TrialCustom   revived:  Shell grottoes

 

Custom   demised:  Ilford Flitch

August Custom   survived:  Burning BartleCustom   revived:    Saddleworth   Rush bearing

 

Custom   demised: Harvest Home

September Custom   survived:   Preston GuildCustom   revived:  Wirksworth clypping

 

Custom   demised:  Newcastle Mock mayor

October Custom   survived: Goose fairCustom   revived: Trick or Treat

 

Custom   demised:  St Crispin day and cobblers

November Custom   survived:  Firing the Fenny PoppersCustom   revived:  Warburton Soulcakers

 

Custom   demised: Stamford Bull run

December Custom   survived:  Beeston CarolsCustom   revived:   Ripley Guisers

 

Custom   demised: Kissing Bush

 

2013
January Custom survived:  Mappleton JumpCustom revived:  Straw bear

Custom demised:  Pilgrimage to the Holy Thorn

February Custom survived:   Blessing ThroatsCustom revived: Valentine cards

Custom demised:   Wooton Penny Day

March Custom survived:   Mary Mallatrat’s doleCustom revived:  Old Bolingbroke Candle auction

Custom demised:  Burning Judas

April Custom survived: Hallaton Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle kickingCustom revived:  Egg rolling Fountain’s Abbey

Custom demised:  Primrose Day

May Custom survived: Merrie May Queen FestivalCustom revived:  Calder Valley Spa Sunday

Custom demised: Empire Day

June Custom survived:  Rothwell Proclaimation DayCustom revived:  Knolly’s rose

Custom demised: Scouring the White Horse

July Custom survived:  Selston tower sermonCustom Contrived:  John Clare cushions

Custom demised:   Little Edith’s Treat

August Custom survived:   Bourton Water FootballCustom revived:  Woodstock Mock Mayor

Custom demised:  Tutbury Bull run

September Custom survived:  Matlock IlluminationsCustom revived:  Gloucester day

Custom demised:  Kissing the old man

October Custom survived: Redcliffe Pipe walkCustom contrived: Fright Night

Custom demised:    The Rhyne Toll of Chetwode Manor

November Custom survived:  Lewes Bonfire NightCustom contrived: Oasby Baboon Night

Custom demised: Squirrel hunt

December Custom survived:  Handsworth Sword DanceCustom revived:   Poor Old Horse

Custom demised:  Thomasing on St. Thomas’s Day

2015

2016

2017

Enjoy