Category Archives: Customs contrived

Custom contrived: The White Peace Poppy

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Each year on the run up to the 11th November, there is a sea of red poppies but occasionally one comes across a white poppy and a fair few people look down on this flower but its association with Remembrance is almost as old as the more familiar red one. In 1926 a member of the No More War movement mooted the idea that pacifists should make and distribute their own poppy which would differ from the red one not only in colour but the centre would read ‘No More War. As such its plan was a remembrance of all victims of war, challenging militarism and a commitment to peace; whereas the red poppy would be remembering the military dead – which it remains symbolising. Despite the idea it was not developed and the Co-operative Women’s Guild were the first to sell white poppies in 1933 and then the Peace Pledge Union also begun distributing them in 1936 with wreaths being laid in 1937.

Interestingly white poppy sales rose in 2010 and in 2014 the 110,000 topped the previous sales of 80,000 in 1938. 

Up the Armistice centenary  there was a noticeable rise in the adoption of the white poppies as noted by the Coop News website

“According to PPU, the number of shops and other outlets known to be selling white poppies has risen by almost a third. Some Co-op Group supermarkets and Co-operative Bank branches also sell the poppies. Schools have made 70 orders for the white poppies schools pack, more then double the figure in 2017. The PPU received 34 orders for the new White Poppies for Churches pack as well.

In the end, the Armistice resulted in a record 122,385 being sold.

“Of course we are very pleased to have distributed so many white poppies but it is the meaning behind the symbol that matters. If everyone who wears a white poppy takes action against militarism and war, and works for peace and active nonviolence, that would be a fitting memorial to the millions of civilians and combatants whose lives have been wasted in war.””

This is however not to say that the rise of the white poppy has not and continues to not have its controversy and whilst the Royal British Legion has no opinion on whether it should be red or white poppy worn, plenty of others appear to have spoken on their behalf – unofficially I’d add. As early as the 1930s some women lost their jobs for wearing them. Yet in Northern Ireland where the red poppy is associated with the British; those seeking unification can accept the white poppy with no issue. Local debates have arisen such as that between the then Bishop of Salisbury, John Baker in 1986 who when asked about the appropriateness said:

“let’s not be hurt if we see a white poppy…there is plenty of space for red and white to bloom side by side.” 

This however resulted in Robert Kay the Salisbury MP disagreeing and even bringing then British PM Thatcher into the debate who said during Prime minister’s question time that she had a “deep distaste” for the symbol. This created much attraction and doubtless more adherents to the white poppy cause despite several negative articles in The Daily Star. 

This debate appears not to be disappearing yet even as late as 2014, at the Aberystwyth War Memorial,  white poppy wreaths were binned and in 2018 a similar report perhaps from Somerset when:

“A white poppy wreath laid at the Bath War Memorial on Remembrance Sunday has been ‘pinched’ – for the third year in a row. The wreath was laid by Bath Quakers, who had called for it to be ‘respected’ ahead of the commemoration.However, the wreath has disappeared again – and in record time. The group said it was gone within 24 hours of the ceremony, having previously taken ‘a week or so’ to vanish.”

This resulted in an open letter:

“Dear Editor, On Sunday 11th November, Bath Quakers will again be taking part in the ceremony at the Bath War Memorial. With the respectful acknowledgement of the British Legion, we have laid a white poppy wreath for the last two years. Each time the wreath has been removed in the days after the event. We are hurt by this action and would like to take the opportunity to explain the origins and purpose of the white poppy. It was launched in 1933, a few years after the red poppy, by the Co-operative Women’s Guild. These were wives, daughters, sisters and cousins of soldiers killed and wounded, who were challenging society to prevent this kind of catastrophe happening again. They were seeking to find other ways to resolve conflict and an end to all war. Proceeds from the sale of white poppies fund peace education work. Our white poppy wreath is laid out of respect for all people killed, maimed, wounded and traumatised by war, civilians and military personnel from all sides involved in conflict. Many people wear both the white and red poppy. This year Bath Quakers will be laying two attached wreaths, one white and one red, to convey the complexity of this issue. It demonstrates our respect for the event and all participants, and our compassion for fallen military personnel and their families. At the same time it confirms our remembrance of all victims of war and our determination to work for the peaceful resolution of all conflicts. We hope that this year our wreath will be respected and remains where it is laid.”

Whilst St Mary’s Torquay make a point of stating on their social media:

“Come and see these incredible creations by our local Yarn Fairies – a poppy for each person remembered on the War Memorial and a ring of 24 white poppies for the 21 children and 3 teachers killed when St Mary’s was destroyed by enemy action on the 30th May 1943.  May they all rest in peace.”

 

Yet the conflict over white and red continues with a regular appearance of some aggrieved MPs or newspapers looking for copy, and the unfortunate link with the term ‘snowflake’ with equal amounts of those in the entertainment world supporting it. Michael Morpurgo, children’s author writing in a Radio times article: 

“Wearing the red poppy for me is not simply a ritual, not worn as a politically correct nod towards public expectation. It is in honour of them, in respect and in gratitude for all they did for us. But I wear a white poppy alongside my red one, because I know they fought and so many died for my peace, our peace. And I wear both side by side because I believe the nature of remembrance is changing, and will change, as the decades pass since those two world wars.”

I shall leave the last word to poet Professor Benjamin Zephaniah

“Rise above the wars The folly of endless fight, Let’s try making love, Let’s make our poppies white.”

Custom contrived: October Plenty

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“October Plenty is such a special way to celebrate the Autumn Harvest and show off the beautiful colours of the season’s fruit & veg piled high on our traders’ stalls. We are really looking forward to welcoming the event back to the Market this year and sharing festivities, stories and dancing for a lovely family event. The Corn Queene and Berry Man are always particular favourites of ours and we are excited to host visitors as well as the many different characters in the procession!”

Kate Howell, Director of Communications and Engagement at Borough Market

The autumn period is packed with curious customs and celebrations associated with the changing seasons; from harvest festivals to Hallowe’en, from Diwali to Bonfire Night. In recent years, a celebration of that quintessential season fruit; the apple has attracted its day. Attempting to join many ideas together in one place; as a sort of smorgasbord of autumn, is the Lion’s Part’s October Plenty, which is undertaken in London’s Southwark. Indeed, as the organiser’s website records:

Over 20 years ago, fired with enthusiasm for amazing autumn festivies that people celebrated world wide and influenced by the organisation Common Ground, whose creation of Apple Day has inspired so many, I gathered with local friends and members of the Lions part and we launched October Plenty. At the heart of it was the iconic Corn Queene. Since then, in collaboration with Roots and Shoots, Lambeth, through David Perkins and Sarah Wilson, she has become an annual wonder.”

A bit corny!

The most remarkable feature is the Corn Queene whose appearance at the front of the Globe marks the beginning and is central to the procession. The website for the event records how this Corn Queene has been made since 2004 and that:

“she has emerged each year at Roots and Shoots in Lambeth and, like another mythical old bird, she takes form, rises, briefly reigns, before dissipating in a great shout…..Her demeanour can seem bemused, condescending, even dismissive, of the antics of much smaller humans.”

What is interesting about this Corn Queene is that although clearly a modern invention it has the feel of something more ancient and authenticate. She plays a central role in the October Plenty festival and her annual reincarnation is a central point and theme to this custom. Each year although she follows a similar design, she is also different; she metamorphosizes and since 2003 she parades on an old market barrow. She is described as:

“The Queene’s facial features are very colourful, often with an interesting complexion and skin texture. Her nose generally resembles a small gourd (regrettably warty at times) and she almost always has decidedly hot lips. Lashes can be long, perhaps enhanced with extensions (wire, right). Beauty spots have appeared now and then and she has favoured ear decorations on a number of occasions (small gourds or radish, maybe).”

Originally it was made by the actors on the day then as the event became more successful and merged with the markets own Apple Day since 2012 it had allowed the Queene to take place under cover in a then newly refurbished area of the Market; taking around 3 or 4 days to build her. 

The procession has also changed and since 2019, the Queene now emerges from Lambeth, passes the Tibetan Peace Garden/Imperial War Museum via Lambeth Walk.

On my visit this Corn Queene was indeed a very odd, comical but still rather eerie ‘creature’ looming over the crowd that had assembled for the start of the procession. Joining her was the equally odd Berry Man..now we had seen him before at the beginning of the year as the Green man of course and this autumnal version adorned with shades of brown and orange and suitably seasonal fruits and berries was perhaps even more impressive. It certainly turned a few heads as he, the Corn Queene and the Mayor headed a procession of players down the streets on the southbank and into the market. 

Here one could sample that wonderful autumnal produce, and the assembled crowd certainly took advantage of that opportunity as the market was bustling. Soon as a large enough audience had developed the actors presented them with Tudor dancing and a Georgian play which was the correct mix of bawdy and bizarre. Once the play had been presented the procession reformed and made its way to the George Inn, a delightful galleried inn which has survived considerable progress around. Here there was conker competitions, apple bobbing, a wishing tree….and that traditional staple of a countryside custom – Morris dancers.

October Plenty is certainly a fun and colourful custom; completely made up with a feel of authenticity, a modern take on the Harvest home perhaps, and one might add playing a vital role in our modern life. Especially in the city. For in our modern city lives it’s important to understand the countryside and how we are very dependent on it. October Plenty provides a historical nod to how this was done in the past in a very modern spin. When seasonality often lost in the 21st century, when everything is available irrespective of the time of year, October plenty allows the city folk to reconnect in a fun way, with the season and the wonderful colours and bounty that autumn provides.

Custom contrived: Annual service at the St Benet’s abbey ruin, Norfolk

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It would be hard pressed to find a more evocative and romantic site for a religious nestled in the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey is not only spiritual but a functional one because St Benet’s is the only Abbey in Britain never to be dissolved at the Reformation. This means to all intense and purposes when the lands were given over to the newly established Bishop of Norwich, he also became the Abbot of the Abbey and the local vicar the Prior, a detail we shall explore later. Therefore, not only can the custom be seen as a service of remembrance but a service to allow the rights of the Bishop to continue. However, this would suggest a long history but that is not true. Indeed, if the press are anything to go by the service was established as a publicity event. The Sunday Mirror of the 02 July 1939 records:

“Abbey Holiday Worship – Holidaymakers will, on the first Sunday in August, be the first congregation at St Benets Abbey, Norfolk, since the Reformation…the Bishop of Norwich has already held special services in the holiday camps who would otherwise not have time for worship.”

Sail in

In this first service one of the key features of the service was established:

“The Bishop of Norwich, as Abbot of Benet will travel by boat to the ruined abbey standing far from any road, on the banks of the river Thurne”

In a 1953 account this had become:

“a fifty-year-old wherry. Solace, sitting up for’ard in his cope and golden vestments, with his pastoral crook in his hand.”  

Not much had changed except he now sailed down from Horning and not Wroxham as in the 1950s…and seeing the power of the wind on the day I attended I am sure that was a sensible decision! However, this has become perhaps the most picturesque part of the tradition, many people coming to see the 150 year old wherry, a boat once common on the broads, but now much rarer. When I arrived there I was kindly directed to the landing point which was further up from the main ruin. There was a more solid mooring near to this and at first I thought this was the most likely location, the Bishop then procession through the ruins making a very good picture. However, upon surveying the location it would have been a long procession…as it was a long way over rough grass to the site of the high altar of the abbey’s church now little more than low rubble walls.

The arrival time was 3.15 but as the time neared there was little sign of the Bishop, just a few excited false starts – one actual wherry and others sailing boats…then the boat sailed into view. The first thing that caught the eye being indeed the Bishop, holding on with a great deal of pose but also tenacity as the wind blew again the boat with some force…indeed I was surprised he did not lose his mitre to the water below. Greeting him at the bank were two men dressed in cloaks who were said to be of the order of St Benet thus keeping the Abbey’s association with an order alive.

Down among the ruins

One wonders if similar issues happened in 1953 when the event received national press due to its attendees, the Illustrated London News of the 8th August 1953 recorded a royal visit:

“QUEEN ELIZABETH THE QUEEN’S MOTHER, AND PRINCESS MARGARET SAIL TO THE SERVICE AT ST. BENET’S ABBEY. 

ON Sunday, August 2, after unveiling a memorial to the nine men of Sandringham village and estate who died in the last war. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother with Princess Margaret and the Princess Royal took luncheon up the Bure in his yacht Capricorn to attend the annual open-air service at the site of the ruined St. Benet’s Abbey. This service, for holiday-makers on the Broads, was taken by the Bishop of Norwich, who is the titular Abbot of St. Benet’s ; and for this service he had sailed down from Wroxham in a fifty-year-old wherry. Solace, sitting up for’ard in his cope and golden vestments, with his pastoral crook in his hand. The Bishop preached the sermon and a special prayer of thanksgiving was offered for the armistice in Korea. A farm-cart was used as the pulpit and there was a congregation of about a thousand. There were very many boats taking part in the journeys to and from the service, and during it white sails could be seen moving against the sky at all points of the horizon.”

Since then, the farm cart pulpit has been gone replaced by a mighty cross cut from the trees of the Sandringham estate. I was told by one of the attendees that at the time Prince Philip when asked if they could use a tree from the estate said of course yes, but was shocked when he saw the size of it. It certainly is an impressive place to hold a service twixt the rubble ruins and the long brown grass.

Once the Bishop reached the ruined church the choir and local vicar joined him at the ruined gateway to process down the aisle and to the altar. The service continued a similar vein as a usual Anglican service, with the choir sounding very angelic as their sound drifted across the ruins and there was even a collection at the ruined doorway…easily avoidable if you wanted to unlike others!

However ,there were some more unique features of the service focused on its association with the order and rule of St Benet. Firstly there was a reading from the Prologue of the rule of St Benedict. Then the members of the community of St. Benet’s gathered at the cross facing the Bishop – called as he can be the Abbot and read the traditional Act of commitment, probably unique, of which the following were particularly unusual:

“Abbot: As the present day Community of St Benet’s, will you continue to foster the ancient traditions of worship, prayer and hospitality, upon which the Abbey was founded.” Community: With the help of God, we will.

Abbot: Will you support and pray for the Abbot in his ministry, and each other in mutual fellowship?” Community: With the help of God, we will.”

The service also had the Prayer of St Benedict and the Nunc Dimittis sung by the community with the choir. Then the service finished with a blessing with local vicar, or Prior as he was called in the service sheet, telling us to go in peace and serve the Lord.

The annual service, very much an important fixture in the church calendar locally, is not only a picturesque one but one which connects us back to times before the Reformation and allows us to bring these ruins back to life again.

Custom contrived: Queen’s Birthday service and procession, Southwell

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This year being a jubilee year the celebration of Queen has been everywhere, from shop windows to suburban streets, the country has been on full on royal revels and rejoicing. However, one town has been celebrating the Queen annually for much longer. This is Southwell. Southwell is a very picturesque small town which as I have said before should have more traditions especially considering the delightful ancient minster.

The Queen’s birthday surprisingly is not celebrated much in the United Kingdom, bar a gun salute and Trooping the Colour. However, in much of the Commonwealth it is annually celebrated and is indeed a national holiday in such places. Not so here, so Southwell’s tradition is on the Sunday closest to the Queen’s official birthday in June.

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It’s my birthday and I’ll have two if I want to!

Indeed although Elizabeth II’s real birthday is in April, the tradition of celebrating a set date irrespective of who the king or queen is, is older. This set monarch’s birthday has been celebrated in the United Kingdom since the reign of King George II in 1748 being subsequently determined by  at first the British Empire and then the Commonwealth of Nations and the date set by each country depends on that country although to make use of supposed good weather in the northern hemisphere June is set.

Originally Queen Elizabeth II’s was the same as her father the second Thursday but was changed in 1959, and since then her Official Birthday has since then been celebrated on the second Saturday of June. Southwell undertake it usually the day after.

Queening up for the day

The service starts with a procession of the dignitaries attending this civic event and in the bright June sunshine it is an eye catching spectacle. Just a way down from the entrance of the Minster, mace bearer lead the Queen’s representative in the county, the Lord-Lieutenant, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, officers of the local army and judges in their ceremonial robes. They processed through the Minster archway and were created by the dean and church officials for the final procession into the church for the service.

How long the service has been undertaken I have been unable to fully discover but one of the local attendees suggested since the silver jubilee, another said the 80s, however the earliest newspaper account I can locate is from 1994 but it is clear that it was already been established by then:

“SWORD CARRIED TO SERVICE TRADITION was broken on Sunday when Mrs Richard Abel Smith, the first woman High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, took part in the Queen’s official birthday service in Southwell Minster. Instead of wearing her ceremonial sword, it was borne in front of her by grand-daughter Amelia Beaumont (6), who travelled from Ireland for the occasion. The sword was used by Mrs Abel Smith’s father, General Sir Douglas Kendrew, when he was Governor of Western Australia. Preacher at the service was the Bishop of Southwell, the Rt Rev Patrick Harris, and prayers were led by the high sheriff’s chaplain, the Rev Keith Turner, Vicar of Linby-cum-Papplewick. The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry were ushers and Nottinghamshire Constabulary Band provided music before and after the service.”

Little did I know but I was to attend the last one before the national Covid lockdown. The year after it went digital and was reported more than any time before by the press. An article on the Southwell Minster website, the Queen’s Birthday Service: A Unique Celebration of Public Service in Nottinghamshire, reported that the then High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Dame Elizabeth Fradd, explained that:

“The Queen’s Birthday Service is usually a grand occasion at Southwell Minster but this year, like so much else, it will take a very different form. It will also have a new significance as a result of the pandemic and the public’s renewed appreciation of the value and importance of public service in all its forms.”

The Queen’s representative in Nottinghamshire is the Lord-Lieutenant, Sir John Peace, who said:

“What I see in local communities, across Nottinghamshire and across the country is an unprecedented crisis; what provides room for hope is the commitment to work together for the common good. Front line workers of all kinds deserve the public’s praise and appreciation but it is just as important to recognise the immense contribution of those behind the scenes. As Her Majesty said in her speech to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day: ‘We will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us’. Following Her Majesty’s lead, this online service will be an occasion for us to demonstrate our pride in all aspects of public service and common endeavour. I invite everyone to join us online for this special celebration.”

Southwell’s Queen’s birthday celebration may be a small custom but it is certainly unique and worthy of attending.

Custom contrived: Dancing in the May at Laxton

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“Dawn jig on misty mount – walking through the mist towards Castle Hill, Laxton, and hearing bells jingling in the distance at 5.15 am on Tuesday, it was easy to imagine you had stepped into a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel.”

Newark Advertiser Friday 04 May 1990 by Samantha Pease

Arriving in Laxton the only indication anything is going on is the sign at the top of the lane down to the castle with its instruction to remember to not disturb the neighbours – riotous bunch these Morris…mind you I say only indication…when I turned up a man appeared carrying a horses head over his shoulder and realising he must know the way…I followed him! Due to a rather dodgy gate I missed the exact start of the custom but in a way that added to it; the sounds of the assembled teams singing a May song as the first glints of the Sun arose tentatively on the horizon, was magical…as the author alludes to above.  The custom established on this old castle mound with its extensive views across Nottinghamshire and beyond has the feel of some older custom and so I was interested to know more of its origins and despite a splendid book which has brought the forgotten Morris traditions of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire greater acknowledgement the more recent history of this customs appears to have been forgotten about!

May be older than it looks!

Another newspaper cutting from 2002 is interesting for it states that:

The dancing was done at Castle hill after a two year absence because of the foot and mouth crisis.

But also:

“It was also the first time at the event for the newly-formed Rattlejag Morris from Retford.”

A year later:

“Dance return – Morris dancers return to Castle Hill, Laxton on May Day, after the foot and mouth crisis prevented them from performing there last year. The event, hosted by the Rattlejag Morris Dancers of Retford, starts at sunrise at about 5.29 am, and finishes with a cooked breakfast.”

Thus indicating that the custom predated the Rattlejag Morris and further digging was required. In 2007 the Newark advertiser stated that 

“The welcome has been performed by morris dancers at the village’s motte and bailey castle site every May 1 for 35 years.

It was carried out by Broadstone Morrismen for many years but Rattlejag Morris took over 15 years ago.”

 

This would date it back to 1972 but so far I cannot find any information recording this fact and the Broadstone Morris appear to be extinct. The earliest reference I can found is from the Newark advertiser which records for the Friday 28 April  1989:

Members of Retford based Broadstone Morris Men plan to dance at sunrise on Laxton Castle Hill. The dancing is due to start at 5.32 am and will be followed by a cooked breakfast”

The year later on The Retford Gainsborough and Worksop Times of 1993 record:

“The Broadstone Morris Men begin their summer programme on May 1 when they will be up early to see the sun rise at 530am and celebrate in traditional dance style The public are warmly invited to join them at Castle Hill Laxton “

Then on the 12th May 1994:

“May Day dancers On May Day the Broadstone Morris Dancers came and danced at sunrise on the hill of the castle ruins at Laxton It was a lovely morning and breakfast was served for anyone who wanted it “

On the 30th April 1999 Tiggy Trotter gives a vivid account of the custom for the younger readers of the Newark Advertiser Retford based Broadstone Morris as the following account informs us.

“Early risers mark start of summer Dear boys and girls, Have you ever thought about getting up at 4.30 m to watch the Morris dancers welcome in the summer of May 1st. I can tell you that it is a most memorable experience for those who can muster the enthusiasm to rise at such a time…..if it is fine the scene at Laxton is spectacular. As the sun begins to rise above the mote, the head of the team, known as the squire starts by singing an unaccompanied solo, Summer is a comin’un.

Whatever happened to Broadstone I do not know, but what is excellent to know that rather than let this custom die, that team who made their 2002 debut would be one day running it!

May I have this dance?

A 2002 newspaper account describes the costume and it what can be seen today:

“Dancing started at 5.30 am. Traditional costumes of flat caps with ribbons, open-necked white shirts, black waist-coats with ribbons and black trousers and shoes were worn.”

Each dance accompanied by a fiddle or a squeezebox has its own meaning and this year the team discovered more traditional local dancers. The clashing of sticks in the air represents the warding off of evil spirits, and the sticks are also used to strike the ground to initiate the dibbing action used by farmers when sowing their seeds.”

The dancing was memorising weaving in and out the sound of bells and squeezebox filling the air. At certain times another May carol was sung again filling the air with tingling melodies on this very crisp dawn. Each year following on it would appear from the Broadstone Morris tradition other teams were invited. Joining the Rattlejag in white with green and blue were local team the Trentside Holmes Morris who stood out in their glaring white in the darkness. They put on a great show of Cotswold Morris dancing and clearly enjoyed being involved.

 

Standing or rather looming rather ominously over the proceedings was that man with his horse’s skull, forming a large owd oss, covered in greenery with its ‘owner’ hidden under a cloak. It added some mystery to the event, especially when upon asking about it, the members of Rattlejag did not know who he was or where he came from! At the end everyone assembled was encouraged to do an en-mass Morris dance and dutifully everyone did! A fair size crowd clung to the top of the old castle and looked on. It was evident that Laxton’s May is becoming a regular ritual for its attendees as well many of whom had made the effort in dressing ‘in the May’ and they stood cheek by jowl with locals who also felt compelled to get up so early!

One cannot agree more with the summing up The Newark Advertiser‘s piece from 2002:

The sun now well up and the dancing nearly done, the sound and smell of sizzling bacon brings on a healthy appetite…what a way to start the day.”

Laxton’s May Day is a splendid custom, very evocative, and should be on anyone’s list of customs to experience.

 

 

Custom contrived: Visiting St Valentine’s Shrine Glasgow

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Many of us may have heard of the term Glasgow kiss; but that does not have anything to do with love…whereas just on the outskirts of the city in the Gorbals is something truly connected with love – the remains of St Valentine himself!

But how did the saint end up here? 

Valentine was a 3rd century priest or bishop in Rome, who Roman emperor Claudius II jailed undertaking Christian marriages which the emperor had ruled against. According to tradition he finally befriended Claudius and his daughter – with letters signed off – your valentine, but when he tried converting them to Christianity he was beaten with clubs, stoned and beheaded and was buried in the Via Flamina cemetery in Rome. So how did he end up in Glasgow?

It is said that in 1868 a wealthy French family donated some relics of Saint Valentine to the Franciscan Catholic church. These French monks then brought the relics to Glasgow and donated them to the Church of St Francis a Gothic style church designed by Peter Paul Pugin and then when they moved to a new church in the Gorbals they brought the relic with them to Blessed John Duns Scotus Church in Ballater Street. This was in 1993 and then an examination 6 years later of a cardboard box sitting on a wardrove revealed the reliquary casket. Soon publicity of the possession of the relics was better known encased in a reliquary box. The outside of this box having carved “Corpus Valentini Martyris,” or “the Body of Saint Valentine” in gold lettering.

Be my Valentine

“Following extensive publicity, Glasgow proclaimed itself City of Love and in February 2002 launched to the City of Love Festival, an event which has been repeated in subsequent years.”

Glasgow has really capitalised on the relic’s presence. The church itself have encouraged a low key custom and as such a new pilgrimage has begun. Every year on the Feast of St Valentine, the casket holding the relic is bedecked with flowers and the friars say prayers for lovers who petition to do so. A statue of the saint is covered in red roses as is a sheet beside it

The Scotsman reports:

““Each year on Valentine’s Day, visitors—mainly couples—will visit the shrine,” Smulski says. “Some come to renew their wedding vows and, in one known instance, to make a proposal of marriage to his intended.”

Another account states on the proposals:

“They have done so, yes,” says Rev Edmund Highton of the impromptu marriage proposals at the church, “I’ve seen it happen while I’ve been here. They just come in, and you see one of them get down on the knee, and so on.

 

Over the day I attended in the early 00s there was a steady stream of curious onlookers some just curious, others more devout making blessings as they gently touched the casket. Its an organic custom, not much it seems encouraged by the church:

“Father Edmund’s shrug is quite audible when I ask him about St Valentine. “It’s not an important one for me. That’s just a matter of history. We’ve got these relics, people come in, and they have a devotion. They see it as a focus for themselves, that’s all. St Valentine was a martyr saint who gave witness to his faith, that’s all I’m interested in. That’s good.”

Despite this some couples did come to feel romantic in the casket’s presence and whilst it is not well advertised – there is no signpost unlike its nearest St Valentine shrine competitor in Dublin it has attracted people on the feasts day. I did see some couples kissed in its presence but I did not see any proposals sadly…mind you the fame of the casket has probably grown since then and its fame has developed into a more concrete custom and as such I am overdue a visit.

 

Custom contrived: Tenby Boxing Day swim

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Boxing Day dips and swims have become a modern phenomena and the desire to throw oneself into the icy cold waters around Britain just as the Christmas excesses has worn off can be found all around the country. Perhaps the oldest now over 50 years old is that at Tenby. A local news website stated:

“Named as one of Britain’s top ten barmiest winter dips, TENBY’s famous Boxing Day Swim has been an institution in the small West Wales town for decades and has recently featured in the ITV Wales series The Harbour, which was filmed in Tenby and shows a year in the life of the seaside community.”

The Tenby Boxing Day Swim is organised by the Tenby Sea Swimming Association, which dates back to the early 1900s as the organisers website states:

” In 1910, Arthur Dickinson – Quaker, lay preacher, artist and keen swimmer – brought his family from Yorkshire to live in Ruabon House, South Parade. Arthur was a year-round swimmer, and family legend has it that he was the first person to swim to Caldey. His son-in-law, Ossie Morgan, who was appointed as headmaster of the Tenby Council School, carried on the family tradition of teaching children to swim. When Mr Morgan retired, his own offspring decided to get non-swimmers afloat, and in the 1960s, Idris Morgan, Gly Osborne, Alan Morgan and Ray Lowe formed the Tenby Sea Swimming Association (TSSA). The opening of Tenby’s first indoor swimming pool could have spelled the end of TSSA, but the organisation then took on a new lease of life in 1970 when Tenby’s publicity officer, John Evans, came up with the idea of a charity Boxing Day Swim to put Tenby on the map. “

And pandemic aside it has thrived every since with numbers reaching the high 100s with around 800 in 2019 all amassed on the town’s North Beach excitedly staring into the grey waters. The event is of course a charity one and one which attracts a fair bit of eccentricity! Lined up on the beach awaiting its less than inviting waters are a wide range of young and old, some just in shorts and bikinis, some in full body costume – giant bananas appear to be popular – an Father and more often Mrs Claus. In 2020 Wales online recorded that the theme was Climate change:

“Ahead of the mad dash into the ocean, swim chairman Chris Osborne said: “Our seaside environment, which we proudly treasure, is under threat so it seems absolutely right that we support efforts to raise awareness of climate change and its impact. We hope our swimmers’ imaginative fancy dress will help in this cause.”

Indeed they did as:

“People embraced the theme of climate change for what was the 49th event, with even a polar bear spotted marching into the water complete with a sign proclaiming “Lost home to climate change”….There was even a Swedish-style ark, complete with endangered species, inspired by teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg.”

Large crowds watch on with the compulsory local photographers who encourage the usual high activity types of photos – often with the more glamorous members of the local community! Boxing day swim was for many just a dip in, although some plunged deeper into the waters watched with eagle eyes by boats from the RNLI for safety sake, Sensibly a large bonfire was set up on the beach and hot soup handed out – which was very welcomed. Perhaps less out of place with their full regalia the town’s Mayor than presents each of the  swimmers with a commemorative medal which this year. In the year of recognising the impact of climate change these were made out of wood instead of plastic or metal. For the 50th the theme of Golden was chosen and with its triumphant post lockdown return the beach was awash with shiny yellow suits and yes more bananas of course.

Custom contrived: The Bog Snorkelling championships

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Perhaps king of the crazy customs dreamt up one day in the pub is the World Bog Snorkelling Championship. Started in Llanwrtyd Wells, a fairly forgotten place not really on the way to anywhere but once in the eye of attention when it was developed as a spa. That was long ago and despite some grand buildings its been largely forgotten by the outside well. It is certainly a great candidate for a bizarre sporting custom and being surrounded by boggy highland areas – bog snorkelling is it.

Not bog standard

Legend tells that that seed of an idea begun in an chat in the town’s Neuadd Arms between a few regulars and Gordon Green in 1976. The seed was sown but the first championship largely a quiet affair by comparison of today was held at the Waen Rhydd bog near the town in 1985. The winner (or winners as it was doubtless like today men and women championships) has not been recorded or rather I have been unable to find. Since then the world’s stage has come to Wales to enter with competitors coming as far as way as South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, USA and even England. As such its been on German and Australian TV as a regular ‘wacky world’ component on the news. 

The BBC website covering the event neatly described the bizarreness of it:

“Taking an activity normally associated with the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean and moving it to a large drain in Dungannon may not be to everyone’s taste.”

And yet people flock to get into those murky dirty water to race down two lengths of a 60 metre drain in the bog and be the winner.  The continue: 

“Why someone would want to dive into a deep cold, very dirty, and slightly smelly bog drain is a moot point, even among the competitors.”

Some competitors said they may need to find a different hobby, but one man said he had set a record for the sport, mainly because no-one else had been timed yet.

“It’s cold, yes, when you get in, but it’s good for your skin,” said one female devotee of the sport.”

Personally I was not convinced by the later reason. looking down into the water and watching the competitors emerging from the murky waters like a modern day creature of the black lagoon some covered with floating pieces of moss!

Bog trotters

Each year 200 entrants sign up. All that is needed of course is a pair of goggles and a snorkel – you don’t even need a wetsuit – but this does not stop the competitors turning up in more and more bizarre costumes. Many looking like a stag or hen night which has somehow got lost from their evening pub crawl and ended up bewildered at the edge of a peat bog and say ‘oh well we are here now might as well join in – be rude not too.’. Some costumes are of course completely impractical in a peat bog as well blowing up like balloons in the murky water and sadly making them too buoyant like someone going for one of those school safety certificates. 

I turned up in 2017 and was confronted by a considerable number of men in dresses, nuns and a person dressed as a bumble bee – whose wins when she entered caused considerable drag and slowed them down.

Bogged down

There was a considerable bit of cockiness from some who waited bathing in the warm sun, dismissing the enterprise as easy and upon entering the cold brown waters looked rather shocked to find and were huffing and puffing at the end. Tempting as it looked – and I did have a snorkel and glasses in the car – I wasnt tempted.

Some individuals were more determined  such as Mr Neil Rutter who took the crown in 2017. The challenge was on. The year before a 1 minute 19 seconds was the world record (but that was over in Ireland). Mr Rutter shouldn’t have been upset he came in a very respectable 1 min 26.15 secs. Little did I know the very next year spurned on by this perhaps he broke the world record at 1 min 18.81 secs. He remains the title holder as well as the current Bog Snorkelling champion due to the impact of Covid of course. The only other time it had been cancelled was in 1995 due to a drought! 

The Bog Snorkelling has become the catalyst of other smaller events expanded into a sort of triathlon approach. And somewhat prescient the Royal Mail included the event in a celebration of UK Weird and Wonderful Customs it would seem in 2019 – a few months before the pandemic would stop them!! When it is bet I could not think of a better way to spend an August bank holiday…if you havent been get your flippers on an attend. 

 

 

Custom transcribed: Wife carrying races

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The UK Wife Carrying Race has taken place since in 2008 in Dorking, Surrey, and from tiny acorns it has grown as it only attracted only three competitors in its first year growing to include 23 couples. The official website states that:

“Unlike the Finnish World Championships where pairs of carriers run against each other, in the UK Wife Carrying Race all couples run against each other in one wild mix of flailing arms, legs and buttocks. The UK race also differs from the Finnish competition in that the course is not flat: carriers have to tote their ‘wives’ uphill to the half way point, with an altitude gain of around 10m, before running back downhill to the finish line. Hay bales are used to provide hurdles on both the outward and return legs and while the course does not feature a pool, like in Finland, there is a ready supply of volunteers with water pistols and buckets of water to soak the competitors as they near the finish.”

The website continues:

“The race in Dorking has also seen the full spectrum of carrying styles: the piggyback (popular, but tiring and not very fast); the bridle carrying (almost impossible to keep up for long); the Fireman (across the shoulders); the shoulder ride (precarious but surprisingly swift) and the Estonian hold, where the ‘wife’ hangs upside down on the man’s back with her legs over his shoulders: This is the hold that is now almost invariably used in competition, being swift and relatively comfortable for both carrier and ‘wife.”

Carried away with a good story

Lou Ambers on the blog post ‘The strange sport of wife carrying’ :

There are three stories that people say form the basis for this strange sport. The first of these stories is one where an ancient Finnish robber and his gang of thieves used to plunder the land. The leader of the gang was named Ronkainen the Robber and he and his gang used to steal food and women from surrounding villages in the area where he lived. They would carry the women away on their backs and that evolved into the wife carrying race of today. The other legend behind this race is the one about a practice in 19th century Finland when young men used to go to neighbouring villages and steal other men’s wives and claim them for themselves. The practice was known as wife stealing and may have contributed to the sport of today. The final origin story is a little bit mundane and ordinary. This again features the character named Ronkainen the Robber but this time he used to train his thugs to become faster and stronger by carrying big heavy sacks on their backs.”

The homeland of wife carrying is thus Scandinavia and with a cheeky node to that origin claims that the British one was established:

 “with help from our Scandinavian cousins” for around 300 years from 793AD when Viking raiders raided villages and abducted wives.”

Wives tales

The race has tried to be inclusive – apparently in 2015 Joel Hicks carried “Tiny Tina” a male friend in drag who was 7’4″ and 22 stone – although I am not sure that it ticked any transgender inclusivity box and in 2016 he apparently carried two wives to tick the polyandry box. Indeed the website records:

“The UK Wife Carrying Competition has now seen all combinations of competitors: men carrying women, a man carrying a man and a woman carrying a woman, and in 2013 welcomed a woman carrying a man fir the first time: The BBC’s Stephanie McGovern carried 78-kg Mike Bushell around the course (they came last by a long way, but they did finish!)”

Lou Ambers on the blog post ‘The strange sport of wife carrying’ :

“This odd race is not the most politically correct though. As the world moves on in terms of male and female equality we still have a race where women are carried by big strong men to the finish line. It does not say a lot about gender rights. But the race is a tongue in cheek kind and is only done to keep old traditions alive and relive the olden days of Finland. The sport seems to be more of a joke event and it is not to be taken seriously.”

Of course the whole event is very tongue in cheek and no pollical points are being made. In 2019 the website reported:

“Three brave couples took part: Joel Hicks and Wendy Cook, Ian and Kath Phillips, and Kevin Bailey and Kim Lowe. Joel opted for the transverse fireman’s carry, while the other two couples went for the classic piggyback. Joel Hicks (a veteran fundraiser who had travelled from Hinkley, Leicestershire, in order to take part) was dressed as a baby, complete with nappy and fetching blue bonnet.

Joel took an early lead, and hardly slowed down to walk until the climb to the half way high point, whereupon he accelerated away again, leaving the other two couples jostling for second place. Joel – a well-built young gent, to say the least – sprinted home in just 1 minute 59 seconds for the 380m course, although Kevin Bailey was a close-run second in 2:13. Ian jogged in a breathless but happy third, to win the last-placer’s Pot Noodle, in 2:30.”

 Sadly, although perhaps social distancing might not impact upon true husbands and wives it would preclude any causal ‘wives’ if the reader understands me, so the race has been given a well-earned rest time for the contestants to practice in lockdown no doubt!

Custom contrived: London’s New Year Parade

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“Executive director Bob Bone started the event with his wife Geri in the 1980s after they had wanted to take their children out on New Year’s Day and found most museums, theatres, cinemas, restaurants and shops were closed.”

And thus was born what would become the world’s largest New Year’s Day street parade.

 

It was new year 2019 and I had a busy day ahead. I got up early to attend a rather empty local radio studio for a breakfast show about new day customs and so it was rather appropriate to take the opportunity to attend one of the few New Year Day customs – the London New Year parade.

New year new custom

It was in 1987 that the first New Year’s Parade was started under the name Lord Mayor of Westminster’s Big Parade..surprisingly this rather clunky and rather lacking in details (or perhaps too much detail) name survived until 1994. I am sure that someone in the organisation thought to themselves it does not really say anything about when it is…and who outside of London would care about the Lord Mayor of Westminster was. So clearly with an eye on its commercial survival and its familiarity with tourists…the more obvious New Year’s Parade was coined. A name which would have greater resonance.

Certainly the organisers have their eye on the tourists. For example probably when another member of the teams rightfully observed that the parade route missed the big tourist locations the route was wisely reversed in 2010. This was done to:

“appease US television broadcasters and give the American audience the best views of the capital’s landmarks, such as the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster (The Houses of Parliament, also known as Big Ben) and Trafalgar Square”.

The article continues

“The reverse route will give the American audience the best views of the capital’s landmarks, such as Big Ben and Trafalgar Square. The annual parade is popular in the US and an estimated 100 million viewers are expected to tune in. Last year nearly 4,000 Americans took part, representing 24 different bands.”

A wise move with the event being televised now in 900 countries – although not broadcast live in the UK!

 

Parading about

I arrived around an hour before the parade was about to start and arrange myself in a place a mile or so down from the starting block. One could soon see the crowds awaiting and hear the sound coming of bands – that staple of all parades.

The event is certainly a big one with 32 London boroughs involved and all manner of commercial enterprises. At the head of the parade was a huge inflated Mayor of London and soon after an inflated red phone box! There was a clever nod to the other parades – yellow NYC taxis, a Chinese Dragon and some rather brave Brazilian dancers – a veritable smorgasbord of parade icons – through into this some classic cars, motor cycles and tickertape and reference to west end shows such as the Wicked! All in all on a rather dull January Day a bright and vibrant injection.

 

Whilst the New Year’s Day Parade is certainly an impressive and joyful event personally it is not one I hurry back to experience again. Why? The crowds surprisingly and perhaps not surprisingly because as the founder did state there is still little else to do in London on the 1st of January are a little intense. However, I have coped with crowds. No I feel it is more the overt commercial aspect of the event. It is an event purely for the tourists devoid of any real tradition. That’s fine the city needs to keep those tourists happy. However, I found it rather soulless! Loud, bright, engaging…perhaps fun…but soulless. I would certainly recommend it to anyone to see once and certainly if they in London over NYE but perhaps not to travel especially for..and indeed in 2021 one didn’t need to we all joined remotely!