Category Archives: Bedfordshire

Custom contrived: Apple Day

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An Apple a Day

Apples and the British. We do love an apple! Whether its plucked from the tree, in a sauce for pork or fermented in a cider, there’s something quintessential about apples and the British. We’ve sung to give good crops and bobbed at Halloween so it is about time they had their own custom.

National Apple Day is a contrived custom which has spread remarkably quickly. Started in 1990 on the 21st October. Like the trees themselves they have grown and grown! Its unusual compared to some contrived customs because firstly it has spread and secondly it was the establishment on one organisation, Common Group, an ecological group established in 1983

The rationale by the initiators the Common Ground was to celebrate the richness and variety of the apples grown in the UK and by raising awareness hopefully preserve some of the lesser known types, hopefully preserving old orchards and the wildlife associated with them

Apple of your eye

The Common Ground website describes how by reviving the old apple market in London’s covent garden the first apple day was celebrated:

The first Apple Day celebrations, in the old Apple Market in London’s Covent Garden, brought fruit to the market after 16 years’ absence. Forty stalls were taken. Fruit growers and nurseries producing and selling a wide variety of apples and trees rubbed shoulders with juice-and cider-makers, as well as writers and illustrators with their apple books.

Representatives of the WI came laden with chutneys, jellies and pies. Mallorees School from North London demonstrated its orchard classroom, while the Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust explained how it manages its orchard for wildlife. Marks & Spencer helped to start a trend by offering tastings of some of the 12 ‘old varieties’ they had on sale that autumn. Organic growers were cheek by jowl with beekeepers, amidst demonstrations of traditional and modern juice presses, a calvados still and a cider bar run by the Campaign for Real Ale. Experts such as Joan Morgan identified apples and offered advice, while apple jugglers and magicians entertained the thousands of visitors – far more than we had expected – who came on the day.”

From the seeds…

From that first Apple Day, it has spread. By 1991 there were 60 events, growing to 300 in 1997 and now 1000s official and unofficial events, mainly but not wholly focusing on traditional apple growing regions such as Herefordshire. It has grown to incorporate a whole range of people to include healthy eating campaigns, poetry readings, games and even electing an Apple King and Queen in some places festooned with fruity crown. In Warwickshire the Brandon Marsh Nature reserve stated in 2016:

Mid Shires Orchard Group are leading a day celebrating the wonders of English apples. Learn about different varieties, taste fresh apple juice and have a go at pressing (you can even bring your own apples to have turned into juice for a donation).

Things to do on the day:

  • Play apple games •Learn about local orchards •Discover orchard wildlife •Enjoy the exhibitions •Explore the Apple Display • Buy heritage apple trees.”

Whilst a Borough Market, London, a blessing is even involved:

“Borough Market’s neighbour Southwark Cathedral will also celebrate the day with a short act of harvest worship in the Market, accompanied by the Market’s choir.”

Apple Day shows us that however urban our environment we can still celebrate our rural connections and with the growing number of events it is clear Apple Day is here to stay!

Custom revived: Listening to witches

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Shrove tuesday…is full of customs, mostly pancakes. In this Bedfordshire village they don’t make them but listen for them in perhaps the country’s strangest custom.

Let’s all do the conger

As St. George’s church bell rings, a crocodile of children leave the local primary school and head towards a small hill. The hill called Conger Hill, a 12th century motte and bailey, is said to hold a strange captive. Once there they all kneeled down, on positioned mats or sheets so as not to get their clothes dirty and placed their ears to the ground.

What were they listening to? Doris Jones-Baker (1977) provides the notes. She states in her Folklore of Hertfordshire:

“The best-known maker of Shrove Tuesday Pancakes in Hertfordshire, however was no mortal but the Pancake Witch of Toddington….She fries her yearly batch deep inside Conger Hill.”

She continues to add:

“The Toddington village school bell rings five minutes before noon to give the children time to scurry along to the top of the hill nearby. Here putting their ears to the ground, they listen for the sizzle of the pancakes as they fry in the old witch’s pan.”

And so was written the last account of the custom whilst still undertaken. The origins of the custom are not clear, but it is believed to be at least 150 years old. The earliest account is in 1885 although it does not mention the hill stating:

“Being Shrove Tuesday, according to ancient custom, the children have a half holiday.”

However, it was common to give the children the afternoon off everywhere so it is difficult to judge. Jones-Baker  when she described the custom was recalling a revival or was it made up then by Richard Dillingham the primary school’s headmaster, from the 1940s (according to the Bedfordshire archives) or 1950s which continued until the 1970s (and into the 1990s according to many folk custom books).  And for many years that was that. It was a demised custom. Why perhaps parents moaned about dirty clothes or someone suggested it was a bit too pagan!

However, some customs refuse to die, especially when you have a thriving community and its spirit.  The Toddington Old Boys’ Association decided to revive the custom in 2011 after checking with a former pupil from the 50s that the witch was still there! And she was! So to ensure that the custom was understood the legend was told at the school and now the children are firmly involved.

Witch is it? Witch or not?

Cynics may argue that the sound is the reverb of the church bells vibrating in the ground. Others disagree “I heard the witch cackle” I can hear it…”quiet but evil” but another child would say “It’s just the ground.” I would say it could the M1 hurtling by nearby…a local legend recalls that the Lord of the Castle wanting pancakes imprisoned a witch in the dungeon. Looking around is quite surreal lots of children lying down with their heads buried in the grass, at a brief moment silent and giggling and chatting! My children thought it was all rather weird…but they believed. I think!

Whatever is the truth it’s nice to see the custom revived….and lets hope it continues.

My hard drive is playing up and I cannot access photos, the grainy photo from the following website where I found the majority of the information. Hope they don’t mind. It has a great video as well…

http://www.lutontoday.co.uk/news/local/video-conger-hill-witch-heard-frying-pancakes-on-shrove-tuesday-1-5913751

Find out when it’s on….

its not on Calendar customs yet, but there’s a lot on Shrove Tuesday there

http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/shrove-tuesday/