Category Archives: Cambridgeshire

Custom contrived: Apple Day

Standard

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!

Advertisements

Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

Standard

Many wells and springs were believed to increase in proficiency either Midsummer (Eve or Day). Often such wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton, Northamptonshire or St John’s Well, Shenstone, Staffordshire, whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire, Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes in her Lincolnshire folklore that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible and indeed likely that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day, By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well; The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Nottinhamshire’s Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

It was suggested that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. Nowadays if you visit these wells at Midsummer you will find yourself alone…but in a way that may have been the way it had always been.

Custom revived: Ely Hoop Trundle

Standard

“It is up there with rolling a Gloucester cheese down a hill and Eton’s Wall Game,”  

Principal Sue Freestone.

School customs are a fascinating, if frustrating group of customs..many have a long and fascinating history, but often understandably due to the nature of the establishments difficult to witness. Ely’s Hoop Trundle although a fascinating custom it is unlike say Westminster School’s pancake grease inaccessible to the custom crawler…as it is done in public on the Green behind Ely’s imposing cathedral and although not always in May, so a bit of a cheat, it appears to often be on that month and appears set for that day from now on. Easily the best of such events for the spectator with no barriers, it is easy to watch and subsequently become part of the action…as the hoops rolled into the audience on a number of occasions.

DSC_0473

What the hoop-la?

The customs is liked to a tradition of the re-founding of the school by King Henry VIIth in 1541. As he dissolved its educational predecessor Ely monastery, he appears to have had a pang of guilt and so established the school with its first charter with 12 schoolars. Apparently he allowed them to play games in the Cathedral grounds and although this does not appear to happen anymore, by rolling a hoop they retain that right and remember that re-founding.

DSC_0471DSC_0470DSC_0340

Cock a hoop

Despite the press releases which state it has continued since the time of Henry VIIIth,  I believe this is a revived custom probably as the principal agreed being resurrected by a 20th century predecessor probably around the time of the school’s adoption of Queen’s Schoolars in 1973 but I have yet to have that confirmed.

DSC_0503

Hoops outside your head

At the allotted time the green began to fill with the students, staff and parents of the school. An oil can was carefully placed in the middle of the grass and the wooden hoops and sticks collected ready to be distributed. Then scholars appeared in their red gowns and the wooden hoops and sticks were passed amongst. No soon as this happened then they were off rolling them and racing backwards and forth.  I was told that originally it was ran down the road outside the Cathedral but too many grazed knees and cuts would occur and problems with traffic no doubt. Despite what would appear to be a fairly innocuous event danger clearly awaited. For whilst practising, one of the prospective contestants in the clashed with another and when head over hills and appeared to damage his ankle. This appeared to be a fairly rare occasion as he had to be carried off in a work van! Well it was one way of reducing the odds.

DSC_0589

Then the two heats produced their winners, a Euan Richards and Yuki Kimura who proudly, picked up their commemorative wooden tankards and their names entered in the history of Hoop trundling. They posed for pictures holding their hoops aloft and everyone disappeared into the city.

So keep an eye out for the next trundle, I spoke to the principal who said they aimed to ensure it was always on the same weekend as the Ely Eel festival…details of that for another May.

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs …its not on there yet

Copyright Pixyledpublications

Custom contrived: Yaxley Jack in the Green

Standard

Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (128)May the best event win!

This May I experienced two ‘revived’ or rather ‘contrived’ May Day events. Events which attempted to instil the traditions of the time of year with a modern twist. One was fairly dreadful, a travesty, no better than a glorified car boot sale with a May theme tacked on…that wasn’t Yaxley! I won’t say where the other was but Yaxley’s event really showed how such an event, albeit based on an older Fair tradition can be both credible and relevant to a whole range of people. The fair itself dates back from the 13th century when Royal decree, Henry III granted a fair to be held on Ascension Day in Yaxley to Thornton Abbey. I am unaware of the survival of this Fair into modern times, but the modern event is clearly not tied to Ascension Day.

I’m alright Jack

Furthermore, no Jack in Green is not recorded in Yaxley either, but he does have a history in the Cambridgeshire area. The Women’s Institute recorded of Melbourn: “A procession of dancers, headed by Jack in the Green, the local sweep, who walked in a framework of boughs, made their way through the village to the Maypole” Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (203) I arrived at the Three Horses Pub, a delightful thatched establishment on the main street to see all the procession assembled and some organiser towering above them on a wall giving directors.  Here the shell of the Jack was being prepared, with ribbons attached and a man stood green faced waiting with his attendants, a Sap-Engro and Copperface wearing the original Ancient Order of the Foresters sash, which was worn in the village’s parades in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Then at the allotted time, the shell was raised and the man enclosed. Then we waited for the other star, a larger one, a star of stage and screen, Warwick Davis. A local celebrity to the village who has gladly became a patron of the festival. He soon arrived and climbing into a car with the other patron, the local MP, the procession continued. Although the procession had all the clichés of a parade: marionettes, Saxon and Civil War re-enactors and of course Morris, or in this case Molly, dancers, it does not feel predictable…perhaps as a result of the inclusion of the Jack and his sweep attendees, something only seen in 16 other places and not always in a procession. Thus it makes the procession feel unique and certainly ancient. Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (455)

Down to earth

At the recreation ground the procession greeted an impressive spread of fun fair and fete. At the arena awaiting Jack and the patrons was a square sod of earth. Here Warwick Davis was asked to cut a Y into a piece of pre-cut turf. The cutting of a Y was obvious but despite Mr. Davis’s enquiring no-one could immediately tell him. Perhaps summing up many an English tradition,, but if you going to do something pointless…you’ve got to have a reason for it I say. The reason was that during the fair, any house which cut a piece of turf and displayed it, could sell alcohol and function as a pub even without a certificate. I am sure that had this been explained one of the crowd would have rushed forward to affix to their house and make a quick buck!

Jack of all trades

Warwick was the genial host freely entering into the spirit of the event. He enjoyed a fair bit of kick about humour from the parliamentarians who accused Warwick Davis of sorcery saying that he was digging a big hole for himself…and you can make up the rest of the joke. Afterwards, the day continued with the local primary undertaking some Maypole dancing and the Pig Dyke Molly dancers regaling the crowds in their black and white garb and curious dancing. Outside the arena was an expansive funfair, the usual collection of novelty stalls and even a Guess your age stall who got my age wrong by 10 years! Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (502)Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (529)           The organisers of Yaxley’s festival are to be congratulated they have pulled off a credible event which mixes a bit of folklore tradition with a modern concert and all the fun of the fair. If you find yourself in the area do come; it’s a village fete par excellence! Find out when its on Calendar Customs …its not on there yet. Yaxley festival website is Copyright Pixyledpublications

Custom demised: Thomasing on St. Thomas’ Day

Standard

image

This was a common begging custom nationwide, where poorer households would avail themselves upon wealthier houses for simple provisions for the Christmas period and is recorded in most counties it appears in variants of names from Mumping from Mompen (Saxon to beg), Gooding, Corning and Thomasing or Washaeling surprising in Leicestershire. One would have thought these may have been local variants of the name but as Porter (1969) in Cambridgeshire Customs and folklore gives Gooding (Haddenham), Gathering (Doddington) or Mumping (Chatteris) as names all in the same county. Despite an association with St. Thomas the Apostle, there is no early reference. One of the earliest accounts is from an 1870s Hertfordshire notes:

“The women that I knew always called at the same houses and were evidently expected, for they told me that they always got a something at each place of call. One gentleman gave a new sixpence each year to every Thomaser at his house. I asked what they said or did when calling at the houses. Said they: All we ses is o please we’ve cum a Thomasing, remember St. Thomas’s Day.”

In Dorset it was called Christmasing and a note made in Notes and Queries from 1872 records they would ask:

“Please give me something to keep up Christmas or keeping up o’Christmas’

Palmer (2003) in his work on Worcestershire tells us that:

“wives, mothers, and children of all those who worked on the Beckford Estate were expected to call on Mr. King-Ross at Beckford Hall to be given a six penny piece each which was solemnly produced from a leather bag. The recipients, some 40 in number, then went round the back to be given a steaming hot cup of hot coffee and plenty of bread, spread thickly with lovely farm butter.

In Lincolnshire Ethel Rudkin in Lincolnshire folklore records:

“The women of Hemswell used to join together and go around ‘mumping’ to the various houses on St. Thomas’s Day-women who were ashamed to beg – but it was not looked on as begging, but as their due. They were given goods in kind.”

Sutton in her Lincolnshire Calendar notes that in Connisby in 1914:

“Old women would come mumping and mother would give them homemade cakes, half a cake or a whole one sometimes.. They came very early, I was still in bed, before 7 o’clock. They used to sing ‘Here we come a mumping..”

Whilst commonly old women, particularly widows were central to the custom, the men at the time were probably working, a contributor to Fenland Notes and Queries said:

 “old men and old women and even young women pass from house to house begging for alms.”

.A common rhyme was:

“Bud well, bear well, God send spare well, A bushel of apples to give on St. Thomas’s morning”

In Staffordshire a local author notes:

“In the days of the Georges, when red cloaks were commonly worn by the beldames of every parish, it was a usual sight to see, in the grey light of a December, groups of figures bent and withered, going from door to door, wrapped in these curious garments and hear them piping ‘in a childish treble voice; the following rhyme:

“Well a day, well a day, St Thomas goes too soon away, the yiyr goodinf we do pray, For the good time will not stay, St Thomas grey, the longest night and shortest day, please remember St. Thomas’s Day.”

Palmer (1976) notes in Warwickshire the rhyme would go:

“A Christmas gambol oft can cheer, The Poor man’s heart through the year.”

Another Warwickshire chant went:

“Little Cock Robin sat on a wall, We wish you a merry Christmas, and a great snowfall, apples to eat and nuts to crack, we wish you a merry Christmas, with a rap, tap, tap.”

In Mansfield they said the following:

Hip-Hip hurray, Saint Thomas’ Day Fetch a bit, And leave a bit, Hip-Hip hurray.”                                          

The food varied in Dorset they:

“Receive substantial pieces or ‘hunks or bread and cheese, bread and meat, or small sums of money.”

Some specifically asked for corn and hence the term ‘a-corning’ was used. More often it was used to make frumenty, with it baked and sugar and currants being added, it was then boiled in milk and egg and flour added.  In Worksop, Jackson (1992) notes that gifts of money, foodstuffs, oatmeal, potatoes, pieces of bacon, milk, eggs, currants and cheese were commonly given. Rudkin (1936) notes that in Willoughton, they were always given potatoes and on the Isle of Axholme tea or bread. In East Anglia they often took a spray of holly as a gift of thanks according to Porter (1974). In Staffordshire, gifts of a substantial amount were given a mistletoe sprig instead.

The decline

The decline was in the 1930s it appears, although Palmer notes someone undertaking it in the 1950s. Perhaps this snippet from Sutton (1996) gives an idea of one of the reasons why:

“This old lass went mumping for spuds, the farmer told her to clear off. so she said ‘You might not get a good crop next year’. The funny thing was, he didn’t. Not many were as mean as that.”

An account in the Lincolnshire Magazine from 1932-4 bores:

“Look out of the window facing the road and on the 21st, any time between 7.30 am and 12 noon, you will probably see groups of women apparently eagerly discussing where to call. They will cast dubious looks at some houses, shake their heads at others and finally decide on points of attack, chiefly amongst the old residents. Those residents who favour old customs are usually armed with small change, coppers, or food tickets of small value, such will have as many as seventy or eighty callers.”

Of course this indicated the ultimate reason for the decline, as communities became disparate and less cohesive, the very close knit nature of these villages began to disappear and so the custom began to die out. Sometimes as in Dorset this lead to Thomasers going further afield:

“those only refused the dole who did not belong to the parish.”

Not only that, but as Charlotte Burne notes in Shropshire folklore of 1883:

“It is in fact a custom very likely to be abused and to degenerate into a nuisance; the strongest, who could walk farthest, getting the greater number of doles; several members of a family going to the same house at different times in the day, and thus getting an unfair share.”

Such an action lead to the establishment of doles and Burne notes that in:

“1870, the farmers around Clun determined to put a stop to the begging, and instead of giving to all comers, they agreed to send their contributions of corn to the town hall to be distributed under proper supervision to the deserving poor.”

Nottinghamshire had a large number had a dozen with doles ranging from 3s to £50 for 10 poorest widows and at Worksop Priory in 1884 upwards of two hundred people, mainly widows, received a few shillings each. In the Warwickshire the Rev. John Dobyn left a bequest to ‘aged widows, and parents of large families’ in Beckford and Grafton and they would receive tickets which could be exchanged for food supplies from local tradesmen. At Alfrick, twelve penny loaves were given to each of five poor people under Thomas Markham’s 17th century Will. Some had stipulations, such as Samuel Higgs’s Will for the poor of Farnsfield and the interest given on the 21st December for equal numbers of men and women who could recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments before the vicar. This may have seen hard, but if they could do it they would have the money each year for the rest of their lives. Others provided garments. In Sturton-Le-Steeple, it is noted that the work of the charity worked in 1911:                                                                  

“They received suits ranging from 2s to 10s according to circumstances. The suits of the clothes were arranged who were to have them this Christmas. Finally it was restricted to have six suits to be given to the deserving of the village. The distribution took place in the school at noon. There was, however, very little mumping around the village this year, this old practice is obsolete.”

In Nottinghamshire, Diana Gibson left £50 at Rolleston in 1882 to invest the interest being paid to 10 of the poorest families on St. Thomas’s Day. The dole was worth £21 74p between 1967 and 1972 and it was noted locally such small amounts could be considered demeaning and divisive in a small community as Rolleston and as such it was wound up by 1996, the £450 being used to provide a village seat, with plaque and fine trees. With such movements clearly this was the final coffin in the custom.

Custom contrived: John Clare memorial midsummer cushions

Standard

Cushion star!

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (99)

Often commemorations record pious politicians and mighty military men, every now and again it is nice to see a much more humble and harmless professions being celebrated: writers, poets and clowns being amongst them! At Helpston, since the 1980s a local festival has been established to toast a local and little known servant of the muses, the so-called ‘peasant poet’ John Clare. The event focuses around the weekend closest to his birth date, the 13th July and includes concerts and readings. However, it is the picturesque midsummer cushion ceremony which concerns us here. John Clare himself reported in his manuscript called Midsummer cushion in 1832:

“It is a very old custom among villagers in summer time to stick a piece of greensward full of field flowers and place it as an ornament in their cottages which ornaments are called Midsummer cushions.”

Glorious sunshine beamed down into the small churchyard of St. Botolphs and a crowd had begun to assemble around the tomb of this lauded local, some devotees of the verse, some curious bystanders and the rest dutiful parents. The later naturally swelled the churchyard as the custom is enacted by the pupils of John Clare Primary school naturally enough.

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (36)

At the allotted time 1.30, a stream of students holding proudly their creations entered beneath the churchyard arch, up the lavender lined path and towards the grave where under the direction of their head teacher, they laid their cushions around his grave. Slowly and surely they formed a picturesque patchwork, their vibrant colours glimmering in the mid day sunlight.

These cushions was composed in a fashion similar as possible to Clare’s description, using an ice cream tub crammed as much as possibly with colourful blooms and in one case a whole plants. The tradition perhaps should be a revived custom; although it is more a transferred custom as clearly it would not have been associated with the poet. Speaking to a local man he informed me it was a Northamptonshire custom, to which I added Cambridgeshire as well, to which he replied ‘sadly the village is now’ showing how still some are not happy to see the Soke of Peterborough be absorbed into the modern Cambridgeshire. However, the custom is not unique to this region as an MA Denham wrote in 1850s of a version in northern England that:

“The young lads and lasses of the town or village having procured a cushion…and covered it with calico, or silk of showy and attractive colour, proceeded to bedeck it with every variety of flower which they could procure out of their parents’ and more wealthy neighbour’s gardens, displaying them in such a manner so as to give it a most beautiful appearance. All this is done, they placed themselves with their cushion of Flora’s choicest gems, in the most public place they conveniently could soliciting of every passer-by a trifling present of pence, which in numerous cases was liberally and cheerfully bestowed…the custom prevailed from Midsummer Day to Magdalene Day (22 July), which latter has long corrupted to ‘Maudlin Day’.”

As early as 1778 John Hutchinson reported a similar custom in Northumberland but the cushions were made out of stools, with a layer of clay smeared on top and flowers stick into it much like a well dressing.

How long the ceremony has been enacted I am unclear, speaking to a regular attendee he said he had seen 30 years of them and suggested it had been done at least another 30 years previous by the school.

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (131) John Clare Midsummer 2013 (133)

Once all the children had assembled, a small group remained in the blazing sunlight to serenade the grave perhaps with songs based on Clare’s work set to music. After which the children then sat down in the shade to hear an introduction and explanation by the society’s representative and one could see a degree of anticipation on their faces. Was it the usual boredom? No it was awaiting the results of the poetry competition. Winners and commended were read out from each class with a nervous but surprisingly confident approach, there were no shy moments and the pieces had a surprising maturity, clearly the influence of Clare has had a positive effect. All in all it is very pleasant to see such a charming custom given such enthusiastic support…even during the heavy storms of 2012! Long may it continue.

copyright Pixyled publications

Custom revived: The Whittlesea straw bear

Standard

Whittesey Straw Bear (2)

Turning up on the second Saturday in January to the little known town of Whittlesea one will be greeted by a fantastic site – the Straw bear festival.
My one and only attendance was with my family and mother-in-law. Understandably it was freezing, a factor not appreciated by my Australian mother in law. I tended to agree, the wind blows hard and sharp across those fens…there’s nothing in the way until the Friesland (appropriately) on the European mainland. This wild and desolate landscape is befitting of such a weird and wonderful tradition.
Despite the weather we braved it and upon entering the town square we could see the assembled mass of the procession in the far distance. Soon they were upon us and the Straw bear could be seen, a strange otherworldly creature and quite frightening..well it was to be eldest, then two who upon seeing it come towards me screamed the loudest I have ever heard him. It’s obviously had an effect on him because in idle conversation he brought it up…more than the monsters of Doctor Who which haunted my nightmares but appear to have little effect on him. Reference to Doctor Who is certainly appropriate for this creature has much in common with the creations of that show. Its stomping gate a locomotion many a monster would be glad of, its lack of features a step perhaps too scary for the show’s producers to attempt.

The bear essentials – the history

Plough Monday as you know if you’ve been following this blog was an unofficial day off when farm workers travelled the parish begging. In the east midlands, mainly Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire these were plays, East Anglia celebrated with molly dancers and in some places the celebration was spread out to the next day Plough Tuesday. In the fens it would appear this was the day for the most curious and impressive of beasts, the Straw Bear.
No one appears to know the age of the tradition, a newspaper report in 1882 states:

“he was then taken around the town to entertain by his frantic and clumsy gestures the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef.”

It is clear that its antics and the combination of alcohol saw its demise in 1909 said to be the result of an over-zealous police inspector who banned them because they were begging.
The official website on the bear relates that it was made of:

“great lengths of tightly twisted bands prepared and wound up the arms, legs and body of the man or boy who was unfortunate enough to have been chosen. Two sticks fastened to his shoulders met a point over his head and the straw would around them to form a cone above the bear’s head. The face was quite covered and he could hardly see.”

This later fact would explain why he would be guided by a rope fastened around him by one of the farmers. He was made to dance outside houses and gifts of money, food and beer were given.

Bear bones of a theory

Bear traditions have been recorded in Ramsey Cambridgeshire (revived 2009) and associated with a plough Monday play in Holton-le-Clay, Lincolnshire (yet to revived!) Furthermore there are traditions in places as far apart as Andorra and Germany. Indeed, since 1999 a bear from Walldurn Frankfurt, slightly slimmer and associated with Shrove Tuesday joins in the Whittlesea fun (and unlike those well known pandas have yet to breed!)
The behaviour of the straw bear clearly indicates some relationship with the performing bears which were common in Europe from the 13th century onwards and indeed I remember seeing in the 1980s in Spain (incidentally it is now illegal in the EC but cases have been reported as late as 2007!). However, several aspects suggest trace memory of an older tradition: the selecting of the best straw, the date of course and the ritual burning.

An ex-straw-ordinary Morris meeting

If you had only one day in England and you wanted to get a flavour of English tradition and especially folk dance you could do no better that Whittlesea Straw Bear. Why? Because in this small rather non-descript town are gathered every type of folk dancer; from molly dancer to handkerchief bothering Morris, from cluttering clog dancers to stylish long sword dancers, and in such a small area one can experience it all!. Between 250-600 dancers can be seen on the main day and
What is amazing is this tradition was only revived in 1980 and yet it has all the vim and vigour of something which has continued forever, such is the tribute to its organisers

Whittesey Straw Bear (3)