Category Archives: Boundary

Custom survived: Chalking on Epiphany Eve

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At the local catholic church I noticed at the mass before Twelfth night that they would be blessing chalk and handing it out to the congregation. Why is this you may ask? Well the church as does many across the Christian world – Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox continue a curious custom which has its roots deep within the superstitious world of the medieval mind.

At the chalk face

The custom appears to have originated in central Europe at the end of the middle ages and spread. When it first arrived in Britain is unclear and indeed it is equally unclear how long as a custom it has been undertaken but a cursory check online would suggest it is fairly widespread from Paisley to Plymouth.

When and actually what is done varies in some places it would be done on New Year’s Day, but more commonly it would be done on the more traditional Feast of the Epiphany. Indeed, as noted in the introduction it would take place after the Epiphany Mass when blessed chalk would be taken home for it to be done at home by either a priest or more often the father of the family.

Chalk and talk

The chalking the doors follows the following formula for the ritual; over a door would be written for 2020 for example:

20 + C+M + B + 20.

The numbers refer to the year but what do the letters refer to? Like many religious activities it has two meanings. Firstly C M and B are the initials of the first names of the Magi who visited Jesus on Twelfth Night, Caspar, Malchior, and Balthazar. But also they mean:

Christus mansionem benedicat

A Latin phrase meaning:

 “May Christ bless the house.”

The “+” signs represent the cross.

The purpose of the chalking those is to request the house is blessed by Christ and this good will is taken for the rest of the year and secondly that it shows those passing of the family’s faith and welcoming nature. Sometimes the custom is simply chalking but it some causes holy water is used and prayers said

Chalk it up

What is particularly interesting is that the custom is a widespread survival of a much more curious lost custom; that of making ‘witch marks’ or ‘apotropaic’ marks to protect the house and its occupants from evil forces. The carving of sunwheels, Marian symbols, pentagrams, etc can be found on entrances or exits of old houses across Britain. By doing so it prevented the evil spirits from entering and protect and bless the house. Chalking the door is the only survival as far as can be ascertained of this custom and as such is of considerable interest.

Traditionally the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can be performed simply by just writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water. An example below being given:

Prayer:

On entering the home,

Leader(Priest, if present, or father of the family) : Peace be to this house.
All: And to all who dwell herein.

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

All Pray: The Magnificat. During the Magnificat, the room is sprinkled with holy water and incensed. After this is completed,

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

Leader: Our Father. . .
And lead us not into temptation

All: But deliver us from evil.
Leader: All they from Saba shall come
All: Bringing gold and frankincense.
Leader: O Lord, hear my prayer.
All: And let my cry come to You.

Leader: Let us pray. O God, who by the guidance of a star didst on this day manifest Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we who know Thee by faith may also attain the vision of Thy glorious majesty. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

Leader: Be enlightened, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee—Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary.

All: And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the splendor of thy rising, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee.

Leader: Let us pray.
Bless, + O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfillment of Thy law, the thanksgiving to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

After the prayers of the blessing are recited, each room of the home is sprinkled with Epiphany water and incensed. The initials of the Magi are inscribed upon the doors with the blessed chalk. (The initials, C, M, B, can also be interpreted as the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat” which means “Christ bless this house”.)

Example: 20 + C + M + B + 20 

Another possible prayer to say during your Chalking:

May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.

God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

It appears that the custom is in some sort of revival of interest. It is described in St Asaphs, Wales,  St Paul’s Wokingham, St Giles Matlock and St Mary’s Hardwick, Derbyshire. An account from the COE website states how the custom can fall again into abeyance often to do with the views of the incumbent:

This used to be an annual feature of the Epiphany ceremonies conducted by the Revd Brian Brindley of Holy Trinity, Reading, who was something of a dramatist in liturgical matters.

The idea was that the members of the congregation took home a blessed piece of chalk, and also a piece of black paper, on which they were asked to write the traditional names of the three Wise Men. This was taken home and attached to the front door of one’s house in order be identified with the aim of the pilgrimage of the kings.”

Interestingly, in the 1800s custom appears to have become secularised if this account is any suggestion:

“At Skipsea, in Holderness, Yorkshire, the young men gather together at twelve o’clock on New Year’s Eve, and, after blackening their faces and otherwise disguising them- selves, they pass through the village, each having a piece of chalk. With this chalk they mark the gates, doors, shutters, and waggons with the date of the new year. It is considered lucky to have one’s house so dated, and no attempt is ever made to disturb the youths in the execution of their frolic.”

Such secular exuberance appears to have died out but its religious observance continues.

Custom contrived: Chepstow Wassail and Mari Llwyd

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Each January the boarder town of Chepstow becomes home to a fascinating mix of Welsh and English customs – The Chepstow Wassail. A colourful picandmix custom.

On arrival it is very evident this has become a rallying place for all people who wish to celebrate the winter and as such Morris teams from a wide area attend. The town is awash with blacks, purples and the sounds of bells, cries and clashing of sticks.

Strictly speaking the custom is divided into two – the wassail an English luck giving custom previously described here and the Mari Lwyd – a Welsh house visiting good luck custom which has not been fully covered yet in this blog.

When I arrived there a large group had assembled around a rather raggedy looking tree below the grounds of the castle. Here some Border Morris were half way through an apple wassail, pouring ale over the roots whilst the congregation assembled singing a wassailing song, toast attached to trees and ribbons swaying.  Everyone despite the cold was enjoying themselves smiling and enjoying the special bond the custom had established.

A few metres away were some dancers and weaving in an out of the crowd were Kentish Hooden Oss making the children laugh and look bemused in equal measure. They were a fair way from home again indicating the countrywide popularity of the custom.

No room at the inn or stable!

However in the pub nearby was a Mari Lwyd, one of a number in the town, which was about to go through the Pwnco, a rhyme/song full of riddles – a sort of old Welsh rap battle! The landlord was preventing the Mari Lwyd and his team from entering. From a casual observer one might agree for outside clad in a white sheet was a scene from perhaps from a horror film – a bleach white horses skull. The Mari Lwyd is a curious custom and one we will only briefly discuss here.

“The discussion was From inside the house

What, ho! Morganwg’s happy land
Is full of corn and barley
What, ho! is your request – demand?
Answer! We grant short parley

From the Mari Lwyd party outside

Honest men are we, who sue

Favours many, money due
To the Mari Llwyd from you!

From inside the house to end the contest

Come in, come in, and sit at ease

Ye merry sons of Cymru
Here’s sweet metheglin, here’s cream cheese
With milk, cream cakes and flummery!”

The Mari Lwyd is a strange mixture of macabre and marvellous. Its empty eye sockets filled with sparkling green glowing glass eyes, upon its head a crown of flowers with ribbons attached which flew in the cold winds. Its head shrouded to make it look even more mysterious – and hide the pole. Its jaw open and closing like a clapperboard.

Once inside it joined a whole throng of Mari Lwyds snapping and leaning over into people’s lunches and attempting to drink their lemonades! Those who expected them were very amused but there one or two who found it all a bit too weird.

Border Morris on the border

As darkness fell the main proceedings begun. At first the Mari Lwyds went to the bridge for the famed “Meeting Of English and Welsh at the border  Here a large crowd had assembled at the ‘border’ some carrying England flags on the English side and the others Welsh flags. The official start begun when a large rocket was sent into the air to tell the Mari Lwyd that the English wassailers had finished and that they were about to reach the bridge’s middle. With them the group carried lanterns, played music and carried a large apple cart carrying the symbol of their wassailing – a decorated apple tree. As a horn sounds, the sign of the English approach a which both them move slowly to the centre shouting and cheering carrying their flags. Warlike in a way if it wasn’t so surreally apparelled. Despite their menacing approach as soon as the middle is meet celebrations break out, hand shaking, flag exchanging and singing. Wassail to everyone and happy new year. If only every border was like. The Welsh invite the English over to join them in Chepstow. After then the Mari Lwyd descended upon the Chepstow Museum. Here the crowd once again got into good spirited boisterousness, name calling and ilk. Here the Pwnco continued until the Lord and Lady of the ceremony appeared at the museum door and offered a wassail cup full of mulled cider.

A meeting of skulls

Organised as event to revive local music dance and folk customs locally by the The Widders Welsh Border Morris and Tim Ryan of the Severn Princess ferry restoration since 2005 and has grown from strength to strength. As mentioned teams come from far afield across Wales and into the midlands and beyond. In 2019 there were 30 Mari Lwyds although this included some out of area versions such as Kimberley’s Owd Oss! For a custom once in decline it is clearly more and more popular. Indeed popularity has been an issue and in 2020 the custom went for a rest and a re-think due to its massive success. An article in a local newspaper stated that:

“It has grown so much in popularity since it began 15 years ago, to the extent that organisers have pulled the plug while they ponder how best to reorganise it. Mick Lewis, a member of the organising committee, said he is proud that they have built such a popular event, and confirmed the festival will return in 2021 after a period of “soul-searching”.”

One of the organisers stating:

“Fifteen years ago we started with just one Mari Lwyd, and now we get over 30 turn up, along with hundreds of people,”

Such can happen to customs, that their popularity outweighs their origin provision and thought. Bloggers like myself must be very aware of the impact our reviews can have. So I should state that the Chepstow Wassail is a great custom perhaps to reduce numbers not one to go to every year and spectate.

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Sheriff’s Ride

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In a 1553 Charter of Mary Tudor’s reign she bestowed upon them their own Sheriff and separated it from Staffordshire being its own County. Amongst the duties of this newly appointed post was to oversee the boundaries of the fairly newly instated city and such the Sheriff’s Ride was established:

“perambulate the new County and City annually on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.

This was confirmed by Charles II which read:

“the balliffs and common councilmen shall annually on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin perambulate the boundaries of the city and county of Lichfield and the precincts thereof”

….and it has continued ever since. The Sheriff’s ride rather than taking place on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary…the 8th of September it is the nearest Saturday. And despite Lichfield becoming party of Staffordshire back in 1888 the ride still goes on! An early reference is from 1638 in St Michael’s church registers which reads:

Paid for an horse for Mr Hobbocke the curate at ye Perambulation xii d”

Ride on time

I arrived in Lichfield just as the party was leaving the Guildhall. They were moving at quite a pace and the sight and sound of 50 riders on the hard road surface was something to witness. Of they were to go around the 20 miles of the border. In the morning the group followed the northern and eastern boundaries and stopped for lunch at Freeford Manor. After their break they returned to their horses and surveyed the western and southern areas and again stopped for tea at Pipe Hall.

Horsing around and around

F. W. Hackwood (1924) in their Staffordshire Customs, superstitions and folklore records that in 1921 it:

“was large as ever. The assembly (which included the Mayor, the corporation nd the city officials) met at the Guildhall where the Sheriff Councillor F. Garratt entertained his friends with light refreshments before starting. A number were mounted on horseback, but every other known means of road transport was also brought into use, a curious admixture of the ancient and the modern”

This must have been an odd if slightly dangerous site and although people follow with cars it is now at a respectful distance and the perambulation is only done by horses who pay £30 to join. Recently a so-called ‘Alternative Sheriff’s Ride’ with push bikers has been established and one day perhaps it might take over! I was also amused to see the Sheriff wearing a day-glo jacket as if 50 odd horses isn’t as noticeable on their own cantering down the road! Hackwood (1924) continues:

“The route lay up Beacon street to cross-in-hand lane, and on to the Stafford Road at Lyncroft Hill. From thence to Lea Grange the way lay across fields till the lane leading to Elmhustr and Stychebrook was reached, and hence in the direction of Curborough to Brownsfields. After traversing more fields the way lead to Gosling land and then on to the Trent Valley Road; the railway was crossed and thence by way of Darnford Mill the party came to Horse and Jockey Inn at Freeford where they were entertained at luncheon by the sheriff with all he customary festivities.”

It is interesting to note that the party has a more upmarket luncheon location!

“Resuming the Ride the way led across fields to Knowle, then to the Birmingham Road, through fields again to Aldershawe, Sandyway, Pipe Grange, Maple Hayes, and Pipe Green and so out to Abnalls Lane back to Cross-in-hand Lane. Here a touch of the picturesque was lent by the presence of the Macebearer and other uniformed attendants, aided by the glorious weather of a fine autumnal day.”

Very little has changed. Except I imagine the smarter dress of the participants who must wear hunting or dressage and indeed there is a prize for the best dressed. At around 6 the perambulators arrive back at the city where the ceremonial sword and the Macebearer still met them now with the Dean of the Cathedral and then ceremonially leads the retinue down back to the Guildhall where a crowd was waiting to welcome the tired party and their even more tired horses!

It is worth noting that the length of this boundary appears to change according to who reports it. Hackwood states its is upwards of 16 miles, Jon Raven in his 1978 The Folklore of Staffordshire states it is 24 miles and latterly 20 miles is quoted – they appear to be doing more that perambulating if the length is increasing.

What is unusual is that this ceremony takes place in September which is a less convenient and less calendrically significant time. It seems likely that the ride was a possibly originally done at Rogation and by church authorities before the charter but no evidence can be found. And it was probably not a ride – but a walk – a rather long one…which would have been difficult to do in one day no doubt!

 

Custom demised: Huntingdon Freeman’s Boundary Walk

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cow skull

Sometimes old customs and ceremonies are very bizarre, confusing and mixed. An account written in the Pall Mall Gazette, September 16th 1892 records a custom was enacted every 15th September.  The custom begun with the whole of the freeman of the borough assembling in the market place in the morning. The paper reports:

“The freeman of the borough of Huntingdon have this week been engaged in the observance of a curious and ancient local custom…The skull of an ox borne on two poles was placed at the head of a procession, and then came the freemen and their sons, a certain number of them bearing spades and other sticks. Three cheers having been given, the procession moves out of the town, and proceeds to the nearest point of the borough boundary, where the skull is lowered. The procession then moved along the boundary line of the borough, the skull being dragged along the line as if it were a plough. The boundary holes were dug afresh, and a boy thrown into each hole and struck with a spade. At a particular point, called Blackstone Leys, refreshments were provided, and the boys competed for prizes.”

In the book by P. H. Ditchfield 1896 Old English Customs still extant notes that:

The skull is then raised aloft, and the procession returns to the market-place, and then disperses after three more cheers have been given. There are no allusions to this strange custom in any of the topographical books of reference, and it is an instance of the strange and curious customs which linger on in the obscure corners of our land.”

Clearly the event was a confused beating of the bounds, especially with the beating of the children and giving of gifts to encourage remembering the boundaries. The skulls suggest a possible older origin when the skull had a more sacred origin perhaps. The Freeman of Huntingdon still exist but this curious and bizarre event no longer exists.

 

Custom demised: Yarnton Lot Meadows Ceremony, Oxfordshire

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In this quiet Oxfordshire village each July all eyes would be on their meadows. Here survived until fairly recently, a peculiar and potentially ancient custom which would allocate these meadows, called Lot Meadows, according to the drawing of balls – called Mead Balls.

Balls up

These meadows were arranged in 13 lots. There were divided in strips called customary acres which covered as much land as one man could mow in a day or ‘man’s mowth’. The balls represented by these inch in diameter balls, made of cherry or holly wood were inscribed with the name of each lot and of which 4 belonged to the neighbouring Begbroke. The names were thought to represent the names of tenant farmers: Boat, White, Dunn, William, Water Molly, Green, Boulton, Rothe, Gilbert, Harry, Freeman, Walter Jeoffrey and Parry. Traditionally the organisers, called the Meadsmen would proceed to a certain spot in the meadow where the balls were to be draw, but at later times they met at the Grapes Inn in the village.

Here a ball was drawn from the ball and its name proclaimed and as this is done a man would scythe six feet of hay and another would cut the initials of the winner. This was repeated until all the lots were drawn and which point the Meadsman would write down the owners of each strip.  Disputes would occur. A report records that:

“There is a record of one disagreement over trespassing after the lots had been drawn and a fight resulted. This was in 1817, in the reign of George III, and in the ancient warrant for the arrest of the participants the Sheriffs are entreated to keep them safely, so that you may have their Bodies before us at Westminster’. To Westminster they went for their trial and careful record of their expenses they kept, even down to two shillings and ten-pence for the hire of a coach!”

To distinguish the boundary, men would tread up and down the edges and this was ‘running the treads’.

Having a Field Day

The cutting of the meadows themselves developed into a popular intense one-day custom with large quantities of plum puddings and plum pudding being consumed. The day ended with some subsequently rather drunken races for the honour of ‘securing a garland’ which would be proudly displayed in the church.  It was not always good humoured; as riots and one man died as a result in 1817. Consequently, the vicar gave a severe sermon that Sunday and the mowing was spread over three days to even out the alcohol!

Blackballed!

Despite a survival from the Norman conquest and its survival post fatality, numbers dwindled and then in 1978 as a consequence of the area becoming a nature reserve. The balls and the Meadsmen survive however, the latter being a hereditary title should the meadows return to service!  Until then the fields at this time of year are a blaze of local wild flowers and I suppose this can easily replace the loss of an ancient custom.

Custom contrived: Grenoside Traipse

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“The team would go for many miles on foot to perform for the local gentry, calling at all the public houses on the way. Even if they arrived home at 2 or 3 in the morning, they still insisted on their white trousers being washed and pressed for the next day’s outing.”

Harrington Housely 1973 after 51 years of dancing!

Grenoside Sword Dancers are the other surviving Sheffield team, its earliest reference being in 1750. Sheffield was a stronghold of the custom which appears to have arisen as a means to make money for workers in the city’s cutlery industry who were often layed off over Christmas when the companies did their stock taking. This was a means to raise so much needed cash.

Walk this way

Like Wentworth Boxing Day is the famed outing for the Grenoside Sword Dancers, but this is a fairly recent invention for many years the main outing was the traipse – a walking tour of nearby houses. An account of the team visiting one of these houses is recorded in visitation is made by Lady Tweedsmuir of Wortley Hall in her The Lilac and the Rose:

“Before I leave the subject of Wortley, I would like to recall a strange little episode. We children were told that mummers were coming one evening to sing and dance. What that meant we had of course no idea, but we were allowed to sit up later than usual when they came, and that in itself gave us keen pleasure. We assembled in a room with a stone floor. In came a party of men dressed entrancingly in short coats with bright coloured patterns on them, and long dark trousers. Their leader wore a large rabbit-skin cap with a small rabbit’s head in front.

The songs and dances were charming, and the men’s faces interesting and serious. These mummers were the real thing, and their dances were not inscribed on any printed page, but had come down to them from their forebears. Harry Gust, who was married to our cousin, Nina Welby, was there, and he took down songs and stories from one of the mummers. The man was surprised and reluctant, but eventually told him in scraps and fragments something of his own and his friends’ mumming activities.       One of the songs began pleasantly with,

Tantiro Tantiro, the drums they do beat, The trumpets they do sound upon call, Methinks music’s here, some bold captain’s near, March on, my brave soldiers, away!

I remember now Harry Gust’s face alight with interest as he talked to the captain of the mummers. He wrote an article about them in the Pall Mall Gazette, which he was then editing for Waldorf Astor. I do not know if it interested people. It should have, because it was brilliantly written, but the cult of English folk lore had not dawned then on the horizon of the intelligentsia.

I remember in a childish way being interested in the mummers, realising dimly that they came from an alien world, quite different to the ordered and staid mode of life in that staid and orderly household of Wortley Hall, and that they represented something historical, rough, and elemental.”

A large area, well beyond the Parish would be covered on foot. The intention that between Christmas Eve and the end of January, all of the large manor houses and stately homes, like Wortley Hall would be visited, entertained and money would be given. Indeed the largess was considerable an article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1895 notes each team member could accrue 30 to 35 shillings over the period (which would be a staggering £530 in modern money). One notable visit to Wentworth Woodhouse managed to collect a staggering £25 at Earl Fitzwilliam’s Christmas party – around  a £1000 worth today!!.

After the Great War, the length and duration of the walking tours were less ambitious year by year until in 1937 the outing was restricted to a Boxing Day tour of the large houses of the Parish Whitley Hall, Greno Lodge, Chapeltown Club and the house of a Dr Moles at Ecclesfield, now the Boxing Day event is associated with only one pub – the Harrow! Then after 57 years a walking tour returned in a way, a custom more contrived to give an idea than a true revival – and it’s not surprising considering the distances! On the 8th of January 1994. A much shorter tour around the Parish’s pubs and some private houses but a homage to those great walks of yore.

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (92) Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (193)

At the sharp end

I first found them finishing a set at the ….well they were getting in their cars – not really a walking tour after all I thought. A bit of a shame but then again the members were not spring chickens!! At Stone house farm despite the remote location attracted quite a crowd of curious onlookers all enraptured and perhaps hypnotised by the ins and outs of the dance. Indeed, there was something quite evocative and magical watching and hearing the dancers, especially when their clogs tapped on the stone floor. Douglas Kennedy in his 1949 England’s Dancers records a scene that has little changed:

“…the dance is performed by six men wearing clogs and carrying straight swords. Associated with it is a certain amount of dialogue and a song ‘calling on’ the dancers, sung by the leader, who brandishes a curved sabre and wears a cap of rabbit’s skin, with the head of the animal set in front. The dancers tie the ‘lock’ at the beginning of their performance, the leader (or Captain as he is called) kneels down in the centre, and afterwards the ‘Lock’ has been placed around his neck the swords are drawn. His cap of skin is knocked off in the process and rolls on the ground, looking like a decapitated head.”

Interesting unlike 1949’s observation where:

“the captain himself does not fall down to become the centre of a dramatic resurrection but just slips away from the dance, which continues its course.”

Now a special sheet is laid and the captain comically falls dead and lays in a foetus position as if dead…although his resurrection still does not occur!

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (86)

What does the dance mean? One of the commonest explanations is that it has a pagan origin, a celebration of the turning year as this evocative account below recalls:

“The Captain sings a song of bravery and love and the dance proceeds with his symbolic beheading and death. The main part of the dance then starts and immediately the Captain revives and “rises from the dead” to lead the dancers in reviving the spirit of the New Year. The six dancers weave intricate patterns with their swords and equally complicated rhythms with their steel-shod clogs. The dance reaches its climax as the fiddler increases the tempo of the dance whilst the dancers perform a rolling figure. The dancers finally form a tight circle and perform a fervent tattoo on the floor before raising their swords, pointing upwards to the sky and, one hopes, a mid-winter sun.”

However convenient this would be the evidence is difficult to find. But do we need a reason?

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (89)

At the farm I finally met up with fellow folklorist Richard Bradley, we walked back to the Harrow to see the final dance talking of folk customs. As we arrived at the pub the Sword dancers began to arrive – they looked up as the drizzle became to form and become heavier – not sure if we’ll be doing it inside or out one remarked. We retreated inside for a cup of tea, at the other end of the bar the Sword dancers too rested…however we were so engrossed in our conversation that we did not notice that the dancers had gone. Rushing outside we just saw them finish their dance! Oh dear!

 

 

Custom survived: Mollicar Sing

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One minute it was UK null points…and a disappointing result for the Eurovision and the next a whole different musical experience..the Mollicar Sing.

Songs of praise

The origins of the Sing are difficult to find. Group singing in the open is not unique to this small part of Huddersfield, especially at Whitsun, but this would appear to be the oldest and the only one woodland based. Why? The accepted view was that the local choir in 1903 were looking for somewhere peaceful and isolated to practice choose these woods. Were they too noisy? Or did they want to scare the local wildlife? As three locations are chosen over a distance of two miles in the remote wilds behind the urban edifice of Huddersfield, one feels it may be older. The singing in these three prescribed locations is highly suggestive of a rogation activity perhaps. The West Yorkshire Federation of Women’s Institutes recorded in 1996:

“The annual event on Whit Sunday was first held in 1900. It was started by the Zion Chapel, Almondbury, later amalgamated with the Wesleyan church. The work always started at 7.30 am mainly through the Mollicar…with singing of hymns at allotted places through the walks. The woods were there best, with new green folliage and birds in full song. The sing finished about 9am, and in earlier years Mr. and Mrs. Gostridge of Farnley Hey boundary provided the breakfast – ham and eggs for the grown ups and bantam eggs for the children.”

If you go down to the woods today your sure of a big surprise

Given copious notes of the location I thought I wouldn’t get lost…usually one would have associated such instructions for a rave, but this was a more acceptable musical experience, but I did. But in a way that was quite rewarding for I soon found the group’s location by the sound of their voices singing ‘praise ye the Lord’ echoing through the sun soaked woods. Tracing my tracks back I soon discovered the origin of those dulcet sounds in a small field before the woods. They looked a little surprised. I introduced myself. The conductor said Early…no sorry I was late. I’d misheard him he was a Mr. Michael Early…starting at 7.30 a.m on a Sunday morning, a very befitting name for such an antisocial custom you might think..but despite the early morning everyone was very welcoming and full of that Yorkshire vim and vigour other counties can never match it seems! I was given a hymn sheet which included a selection of well known Wesleyan works, some more familiar than others.

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When Whitweek and Late Spring bank holiday coincide may be good for the working folklorist but not for the custom…a lot are on holiday, last year there were around 40 and we’ve even had 100s, I was told, the Sunday I went 15…still they made up for it well, a few joined mid route. They weren’t letting numbers dampen the experience. They sung with all their hearts singing in a gallery fashion at points a mechanism much beloved of the counties carols.

It was interesting to hear that the choir had differing associations, the older ones had only being going a few years it seemed compared to some of the younger ones, two had been all their life it appeared over 60 years attending when babies and every year since which is a remarkable feat.

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Singing from the same hymn sheet

After singing in the outside we moved to the woods walking through broad waves of bright bluebells and the smell of ransoms. In fact in one wood and out into another, the Mollicar, and here in a specific place the group stopped and returned to their repertoire. As the morning I went was a mixture of sunshine and showers it was fortunate we were inside the shelter of the woods when it decided to rain…the sound of the tapping on the leaves creating a sort of polite percussion. When the rain stopped the other sounds of nature become evident. These sounds of the enveloping canopy complimented the chorus..the tweets of nesting birds, the calls of the occasional cuckoo and the wooing of a wood pigeon. Who wouldn’t want to swap the claustrophobic confines of chapel to experience it. Sadly despite one rather bemused dog walker there was little in the way of an audience.

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Song of life

The final singing point affording the group a view which was in the heart of all Huddefieldians..that of Castle HIll. It was shrouded in a glowing mist that morning that gave it an ethereal atmosphere. Here the choir finished off with ‘guide me O thou great Jehovah’ and ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ two I felt confident enough to join in with. Finally a short prayer was given and the Doxology was song the event was over…and the group dispersed to various cars and houses doted around. Sadly as Mr Early noted the breakfasts were a much missed thing of the past.

Whatever your religious view…there’s something life affirming and enriching about experiencing all that nature has and singing thanks for it. There would be no null points from me, full marks. I recommend that as next year is the 200th anniversary of the local Almondbury Methodists it would be great to see the numbers swell…