Category Archives: Customs contrived

Custom contrived: Matlock Raft Race, Derbyshire

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Matlock Bath is justly proud of its Venetian carnival but there is another aquatic antic which is less genteel and shows the other side of the town a more raucous one. On Boxing Day crowds line, many prepared with deckchairs and pack lunches to watch below and indeed interact with the bizarre array of rafters below, as they speed or drift passed.

Draft idea or not

Local tradition tells that in 1961 a group of divers finding little they could do over the cold winter months decided it would be a good idea to come up with a fun charity event. Obviously picking Boxing Day as a day associated with wacky races and sports in general they set about organizing their first raft race. From the first year it was a huge success with people entering from all over the country with over 100 rafts taking part. Over the years the event has become more and more popular and as befits a calendar custom more and more bizarre!

Like most races its impossible to see beginning in end and most spectators simply watch for them as they flow and often rush down river, over the weir, often creating some hilarity depending on the seaworthiness of the raft and then to Cromford meadows at the finishing line.

Raft of ideas

With around 50 rafts there was a great array of oddness. There is a prize for the best dressed raft and it did not disappoint. Dressed in their obligatory helmets and floating devices for safety reason can be seen super heroes, men in drag, cartoon characters, there was a real attempt to make a show of it. The rafts were pretty amazing too and a considerable amount of effort had gone into them. The most amazing were the cut down cars, in particular in a mini, which sadly in its appearance stuck in the water would have been seen in the 2019 floods thereabouts. An account in the Matlock Mercury published on Saturday 29 December 2012 put it well:

In a show of bravery and sheer madness the intrepid rafters dressed up as members of the Muppets and Santa Claus, furiously paddling Minis through the rapids to the delight of spectators.”

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Raft of missiles

The custom is not the most popular amongst certain quarters. Huge crowds had assembled overlooking the river cheering and waving.  Along the path by the river signs proclaim:

“No Eggs No Plastic bags”

This is reference to one of the strangest aspects of the custom, the throwing of objects at the rafts. As if navigating yourself down a river on a cold day in December was not enough the tradition of throwing eggs and flour at the participants has developed. When I arrived the whole walkway had become a slippery morass of flour and egg like some pancake making disaster. Crowds cheered as they pelted the contestants with flour bombs made on flour wrapped in clingfilm – hence the concern that these would affect the wildlife – a point I could not disagree with. Indeed, this aspect of the custom is one which would bring it close to closure I feel. One person on the bank had a whole bag full of pre-wrapped flour bundles, there must have been hundreds.

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On the Derbyshire Dales website in 2017 the following pleas were made, with Paul Reeves, Environment Officer at the Environment Agency, saying :

“We realise the Matlock Raft Race is an important social event for the area, which attracts a large number of local residents as well as visitors from further afield, has a positive impact on the local economy, and raises funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

“However, we are appealing to spectators to consider the environment by not throwing flour-filled plastic bags or other objects at the raft racers and into the water this year.

“If plastic or paper bags enter the watercourse, they pose a real threat to wildlife both locally and further afield. Last year there were sightings of water birds trying to eat floating flour-filled bags, and the deadly impact of plastics on river and sea life is well known and currently in the news.”

Councillor Lewis Rose OBE, Leader of Derbyshire Dales District Council, said:

“The Boxing Day raft race has become something of a tradition here in the Derbyshire Dales and long may it continue. However, we absolutely support the Environment Agency’s plea to spectators to refrain from activities that threaten the environment and wildlife, as well as littering our waterways and streets.”

It made no effect as I saw in 2018!

Of course the rafters do not just idly pass by and let this rain of missiles happen. No they are prepared. Many carry super-soakers and some even water cannons. A number protect themselves with umbrellas. The crowd at times can get thoroughly wet and flour covered and one wonders how this all started. Did the rafters start the war or the onlookers felt the need to get involved. It is all hilarious stuff and a cheer goes out if a hit on the raft results in a participant covered in flour – but they were soon to hit back.

I watched as a cloud of flour fell over the edge to coat a superhero below soon to be greeting the assailant with a rapid fire of the water cannon. I passed a family covered head to toe in flour who had been caught in the crossfire. They were as happy as can be. But it is messy stuff. Unpopular and from the mess and litter one could see why but it would be a shame to see one of the best aspects of the custom disappear due to a lack of lateral thinking.

Recent events with flooding meant that the Raft Race was cancelled for the first time perhaps ever. One is concerned that the gentile folk of Matlock Bath do not use its temporary cancellation as a permanent one

On their website it was clear how popular the custom is:

Social media activity around the cancellation was outstanding (the cancellation post reached over 20,000 people and shared by 1,500 people), it is clear that the event is well loved and appreciated by individuals and families, some travelling from far afield to take part and see the event.”

On the website the organised discussed its cancellation. It seemed that there were genuine reasons for the cancellation following the terrible 2019 floodings. However it did seem a shame in a year when Matlock’s river had become a threat not a gift not to allow something which would have seen it in a positive light. However I feel we will once again be covered in plumes of flower and soaked to the skin when it returns in 2020.

Custom revived: Spalding Pumpkin Parade

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Mention Spalding and customs and most people will recall the famous and much lamented flower parade. Sadly that demised in the early 2000s but in an odd way as local growers have changed with the time another parade has arisen – the annual pumpkin parade – capitalise in the growth of the local pumpkin growing capitalising itself on the increased in demand since the 1990s.

Turn into a pumpkin

You might think that Halloween items appear in the shops far too early but in Spalding it is like they are already celebrating Halloween! Spalding’s Pumpkin parade has really grown from strength to strength, held on the second Friday in October, it acts as a herald to Halloween like advent does Christmas perhaps – well at least locally.

The streets of the market town when I arrived was already a throng, I had been told that 10,000 people had turned up and it certainly felt lie it. Whilst none had them had dressed in Halloween customs many of them had orange balloons and some even dressed orangey!  Amongst the attractions were a small local farmers markets and stalls for children making pumpkin based crafts…and lots of carved pumpkins. These are apparently donated by the local company. As the light began to fade people waited the parade.

Leading the parade was the town’s Flower queen, although what she does now without the flower parade I am not sure! Obviously she would have been in a pumpkin coach like a real Cinderella which glimmered with its lights in the darkness. She was then followed by school children, hundreds of school children and their families carrying lanterns, pumpkins and scarecrows. There were dancing troupes and one group dressed in carnival clothing – which looked a bit too cold and damp for that. Overall it was a vision in orange and flashing lights,, inflatable pumpkins, paper pumpkins and flashing lights..and there were plenty of them in the crowd too, spinning, flashing and flapping courtesy of the hawkers who turn up to any firework or lantern parade. Then to finish it off fireworks…to remind us Bonfire night was also around the corner!

From tiny seeds grow big pumpkin parades

Back in 2000 was the first parade and it has become more and more popular although relatively unknown outside of Lincolnshire it would seem, although in 2004 it won a local award and became a week of events culminating in the parade night in 2009, The catalyst for the custom is a local company which decided to grow pumpkins in the 1990s. Mr Bowman the owner came up with the idea and its grown in size every since. He stated in Spalding Today that:

“We’re really pleased to support the Pumpkin Festival – when I was first approached about it I thought it was going to be a one-off! It’s a great community event, bringing lots of people together and we’re really pleased to be involved – it’s nice for us to be able to give something back to the community.”

However, success comes with a price as noted this year in the Spalding today when rumours have suggested that its popularity could result in its demise Stating that there was concern over public safety but local councillor Roger Gambba Jones stated:

“I doubt very much there would ever be consideration to stop it (the pumpkin parade) because it’s something that people enjoy doing.”

He added it will continue under his present administration – which might mean only for the next four years…which would be a shame as Spalding needs a great custom to put it on the map..the Pumpkin parade is certainly unique!

Custom contrived: Grindon Hedgehog rolling, Staffordshire

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Yes you did read that right! Hedgehog rolling. However, whilst you may think you have identified one of the main sources of their unwanted decline and reaching for animal welfare organisation phone number; let me explain.

Grindon is a very small Peakland village, in Staffordshire, but close to the Derbyshire border. It seemed pretty remote especially considering the road taken by the SatNav took a narrow overgrown lane with grass in the middle. Remote places create remote traditions and here Grindon claims hedgehog rolling. Don’t worry no real hedgehogs were involved they use cones.

 (Hedge) hogwash?

The village claim that hedgehogs were kept as pets to remove pests from the home and that they were especially trained to take part in the race. They go on to claim that Lewis Carroll came to Grindon’s hedgehog rolling day and got the idea for the Flamingo and Hedgehog Croquet game in Alice in Wonderland. They also claim the tradition died out early last century. However in Grindon Action Group committee revived it in 2002 and it has gone on from strength to strength since then. This claimed origin all sounds more than dodgy to me and I have been unable to provide any evidence of the custom bar its’ appearance in the Ashover May Day.

Go the whole (hedge) hog

These cone hogs all have painted faces with names beginning with H, Harriet, Herbert, Henry…you get the idea. For these ‘hogs’ which are rolled nowadays are giant fir cones imported from France and they are brushed around the village course by ‘rollers’ armed with traditional besoms (brooms).

The rolling sandwiched between other various events, a fine display of Morris from Black Dog Molly, egg and spoon sack races etc came in age group rounds or heats.

Sonic the hedgehog!

Picking ones’ cone or rather hedgehog and broom appeared to be important to winning. Too large and too heavy and the cone was difficult to manoeuvre similarly if the broom had too long a head it too much force would be produced. Thus it looked easier than it was as the teams had to circumnavigate around a rectangular shape – although the children only needed to go half way! Despite this there didn’t appear to be much difference in the vigour between the ages although sometimes too much force meant the cone pinged off and away from the route.

Making a clean sweep of it

In the Men’s heat it was good to see one of the Molly dancers there, but despite Molly dancing being associated with brooms it appears not to have helped and he loped into last place. Local rivalry holds strong here and it was evident that reputation was important as last year’s winner triumphantly came second!

Perhaps the hottest heat was the husbands and wives which showed there was no love lost and everyone to themselves as the men speeded ahead leaving the women far behind. A gentle hit being more successful in getting you to control your hedgehog. I would feel that a real one would be slightly easier to control.

The day ended with a tug of war, enthusiastically grasped by young and old. The Grindon Hedgehog rolling may be a local event but it was a very welcoming and unusual one so if you happen to be there in July use your map to find it and get involved.

Custom contrived: Marsden Imbolc, Yorkshire

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We have reported a number of fire festivals on this blog most of which have been associated with Guy Fawkes Day or New Years, but a relatively new fire festival has perhaps the country’s oldest credentials. Ask a person in the street when Imbolc is and they will doubtless look at you in confusion and state when is that? Spelling it out will not help either as its one of those words said differently to spoken! However, to those local to the town of Marsden in Yorkshire and they will know it for its celebration has been a major event in the town drawing 1000s of curious onlookers to witness this colourful custom.

Fire up a festival

How did this unique and remarkable event begin. In the Huddersfield Gazette Angie Boycott-Garnett the organiser records that it was the very cold winter of 1993 which made her think that:

“We wanted to put on an event in the cold winter time when people can feel down…The idea came from a group of us who were part of the now defunct Kirklees Countryside Volunteers and put on a lot of events together.”

Why might wonder why an ancient pagan festival was the event they came up with Boycott-Garnett explains that

“Duggs Carre came up with the idea for the Imbolc festival. He’d heard about the celebration, which takes place in-between two of the eight periods of the Pagan calendar year. Imbolc celebrates the end of winter and the first stirrings of spring, while encouraging the idea of regrowth and renewal.”

What started out as a local small event involving a walk through the woods with key entertainers: fire dancers and eaters and fire sculptures grew and grew. Originally they thought the event would be a one off. Angie talked about how they set up their first event.

“We thought it would be good to bring people together. The first was quite small and revolved around a walk through the woods near Stannedge Tunnel, where entertainers would be performing. We had things like fire sculptures, fire dancers and eaters. We originally thought it would be a one off but the event was very successful. So we decided to run it again but we wanted to make sure that the community involved to keep it going.”

The event has continued to go from strength to strength, although the cost of organising it, around £7000 meant that since 2014 it has been every two years.

Fire in the belly

Imbolc is an old Celtic tradition traditionally followed Candlemas and remembered the longest in Ireland. It was believed to remember the coming of spring and its etymology may refer to the pregnancy of ewes, washing oneself in a ritual cleanse or budding. Whichever the day has become an important one to neopagans and as such Marsden has developed into a major celebratory event for those in this community.

Baptism of fire

My first Marsden Imbolc I did not know what to expect except that it would be evocatively captivating and indeed it was. The event with an atmospheric procession from the Old Good’s Yard. To the sound of bagpipes and drums, hooded figures wearing animal and solar and lunar masks loom into view carrying torches.The most ominous being the large figure of a crow man who loomed over the watching crowds. Said to represent Druids and Celtic gods they certainly added an air of the mysterious. Following up these mysterious figures was a procession of lanterns made by local children and driven forward by a steel band. The crowds which watched this atmospheric entourage joined the end and we made our way to the site of the festival.

There to the rhythmic intoxicating sounds of the drums these masked figures with their torches stood in a formation and swirled around their torches in a spectacular mesmerizing pattern. Whilst they did this tableaux of Spring scenes where light and they blazed in their pure white light against the pitch black night.

No photo description available.

Fight fire with fire

The main event is the battle between Jack Frost and the Green Man. This symbolic battle is said to represent the fight between winter and spring. The towering figure of Jack Frost eerily comes into view covered in fireworks he sparkles and spits fire into the air accompanied by masked torch holding acolytes. After his display the Green man makes his appearance. He too is associated with masked and hooded figures carrying torches and accompanied by the sound of bagpipes which drifted through the cold icy air, he was ready to confront Jack Frost. They fronted onto each other whilst the hooded figures of each side swirl and throw their torches to symbolise conflict. The Green man stares into Jack Frost as they stand facing each other and then as the drum rhythm builds Jack turns and is defeated…to cheers, whistles and claps from the crowd. Winter is over and spring is here.

The evening ended with a riotous flash of white light as an array of fireworks launched into the air and overall a wonderful experience sadly one would have to wait two years to witness it again but well worth the wait!



 

Custom contrived: Lord Conyer’s Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

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It is a fairly nondescript lane, and dare I say it in a non-descript part of Yorkshire, and driving by one might wonder why so many cars were parked on the verge…but the eye alights on a group of people awaiting at the edge of a small woodland just beside the road. Cars and woods? Is this a mass dog walking exercise or ramble? No the crowd await something quite magical – Lord Conyer’s Morris Men’s rendition of the fabled Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance.

Horny subject

An account on line entitled A STRANGE ENCOUNTER IN TODWICK (As witnessed by one Tobias Jugg around 16:40)

“Passing through the South Yorkshire village of Todwick during the late afternoon of the last Saturday before Christmas, a strange sight befell us. My companion and I, weary and tired of the road as we headed south towards Newstead, stumbled across a small crowd of like travellers, numbering about twenty-five in all, and gathered by the wayside. Each did gaze silently into the nearby wood, close to the site where Robin Hood’s Trysting Tree does stand.”

What is Robin Hood’s Trysting tree you may ask? Well firstly it no longer stands and its replacement also went in 1973. Lord Conyer’s Morris men website relates:

“At the beginning of the twentieth century at Todwick in South Yorkshire, an ancient oak known as the Trysting Tree blew down in a gale. This tree was connected to the legend of Robin Hood and is mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel ‘Ivanhoe’. The Duke of Leeds decided to replace the stricken tree, both to mark the turn of the century and to celebrate the birth of his son and heir, the Marquis of Carmarthen, and on the 3rd October 1901 he planted a sapling grown from an acorn which had fallen from the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. The day was declared a holiday and all the people from the Duke’s estate were invited to the ceremony. A sit-down meal was provided for the guests in a large marquee and in return the villagers then presented the Duke with a silver rose bowl to mark the birth of his son.
And there it stood, at the edge of Bluebell Wood at Kiveton Hall Farm, until 1973 when the council, in their infinite wisdom, decided to cut down the tree whilst widening the road nearby. Then, a Mr Bishop, who was at that time tenant of Kiveton Hall Farm, planted a third oak complete with iron fence to protect the young sapling; the Trysting Tree was back again.
Then the Kiveton Park Folk Club erected a stone post furbished with a brass plaque nearby, the occasion being commemorated by G.F. Young, the Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire, and the legend was back also. On the 18th May 1974 the folk club held a trysting fair with music, dance and song; stalls, working craftsmen, and, of course, the marquee with food and drink….”

As they note:

“The legend of the trysting tree is now in the safe hands of Lord Conyers Morris Men who have danced at the site every May Eve at dusk and every May Day at dawn without fail since 1974.”

The removal was clearly a controversial subject but one which was the catalyst of a custom. For it has been since 1978 on the last Saturday before Christmas Day the twilight crescendo of a day of carols, sword dancing and Derby Tup – a sort of pick and mix of Christmas calendar customs of the North one could say.

Taking it by the horns

The Lord Conyer’s Abbot Bromley Horn dance is one of two imitations and there is no doubt to my mind this is the most evocative; more so perhaps than the real one! I had read of the custom but in a way had thought as I had been to the real one why see the imitations but I feel I was wrong so last year I decided to organise myself and go along and see.
There was a curious and eerie feel standing at the edge of the wood. The sun was setting spreading a red light across the landscape as a mist developed all around and the air became chilly. The account beautifully summed it up:

“It was dusk. It was cold, and it was damp and misty. We dismounted to see what the crowd were looking at but could see nothing; only the dark outline of trees against the grey mist. Just then, strains of music emanating from deep within the wood began to reach our ears; a strange mediaeval-sounding tune being played on a solo fiddle. Some minutes later a group of figures began to emerge from out of the dank mist as the music became louder. The crowd we had joined, their eyes transfixed on the scene before them, stayed silent as if in awe and there was an unearthly atmosphere about the place to which the music only added.”

The performers maintain the mystery by preparing and dressing out of sight. The first we experience is that weird sound which moves like the mist slowly enveloping the crowd. There’s an unworldly menace to the dancers who weave in and out holding their antlers aloft from a far. They appear to be stuck in the distance the full moon picking off their antlers and firms. As they came closer one could start to see the group’s form. The team comprise of six men carrying large red deer antlers with others bearing smaller fallow deer antlers. Together with these is a fool, a hobby horse, Maid Marian and a bowman – presumably Robin Hood. The last to be seen as they move down a path between the dense undergrowth despite them first to be heard. All in all they appear to be completely different to the Morris men I had seen earlier doing their sword dancing.

The Morris Men portray the dance well. It is simple one enacting the fighting of deer with the dancers facing each other in a line. The antlers raised up and down facing each other silently and smoothly. The chime of a bell as they go to fight. The repetitive nature of tune making the whole experience hypnotic! The account again describes it well:

“The dance itself appeared to reach a chilling climax as it approached the Trysting Tree, at which point the procession turned and headed slowly back from whence it came. One by one the dancers melted away into the mist, leaving us spellbound until the last haunting notes of the fiddle died away into the distance.”

All in all a great re-enactment and one which deserves notice in folklore calendars. A copy it may be, but one which has developed its own mythos, for atmosphere it cannot be beaten!

Custom transcribed: Polish Andrzejki or St Andrew’s Day love divination

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“ The St Andrew Day –

Young girls hope and pray…”

The UK’s burgeoning Polish community has added and as well augmented our calendar customs. In many cases they have revived those customs which fell into abeyance at the Reformation due to the prominence of Catholism but in some cases they have introduced something unique. The Polish observance of St Andrew’s Day eve is one.

The observations on St Andrew’s Day or Andrzejki is about games associated with the future romantic encounters of the participants. Today these observations are perhaps not done in earnest but as a piece of juvenile fun. I was invited to see these prognostications one St. Andrew Day evening to a private party of young girls who had planned to celebrate the evening accordingly with some music, laughter (there was a lot of giggling) and predicting their love life…oh and giggling. Did I mention this? They weren’t keen on being photographed but were happy for me to photograph their activities

Paper kisses

When I turned up the girl’s dinning room was set up with paper, pens, keys and bowls of water…as well lots of sweets and cups for drinks. I asked them what the paper was for. I discovered that they planned to write all the names of the boys they all knew (jointly I imagine for what it entailed). With lots of chatting, much due to it being Polish, unintelligible, the girls closed their eyes and taking it turns one of the girls help up the paper and then another with a pin closed her eyes and inserted it into it..it missed a name. One of the girls examined it and decided it was Alex and then they went on becoming more and more giggly especially when one of the names transpired to be a boy who the older girl did actually fancy!

Soul mate

Then the girls turned sat down and took off their shoes. They then decided from the back wall to place them in sequence, a shoe at a time, along a line to the door. As the door got nearer there was genuine excitement to see who’s would cross the threshold. It was Amanda who was embarrassed to found she’d be the first to marry.

Sincerely, I love you, without wax

But wax will help! A few drinks later and the evening ended with the girls picking up a key and as she held it over a bowl of water another tipped a candle over the it and it flowed through the key and into the water. The other girls looked intently to try and work out what shape the wax had cooled and solidified into…it looked like an S, was it Symon? Clearly as the giggles developed one who was already again favoured. Each girl took turns and tried to interpret which in the main looked like an S or a splodge!

See the source image

Why St. Andrew’s Day?

As St Andrew’s Day often came with the start of Advent in the Catholic Church it was a good time for reflection, and prayer to  develop spiritual contact with God. As a result St Andrew became a patron  of young girls looking for love guidance as such since at least the 16th Century in Poland such fortune  telling has been recorded. St Andrew’s Eve was also the last day when dancing parties were permitted. Therefore, understandably with discussion of future spouses enterprising people have identified the night as an opportunity to have discos and club nights encouraged by the idea that any partner found on that night would be the one.

Custom contrived: Long Clawson Conker Championship

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Stilton Cheese. That is what Long Clawson means to most people who know it but 1 day out of 365 the cheese making takes a back seat for a great slice of quirky Britishness – a conker championship.

Passing through the village it looks like nothing is going on. No one is walking the street. Houses look empty and then turning the corner one come across the green and there were hundreds of people bathing in the warm October sunshine and enjoying a conker fight or two.

Around the green were set up platforms were the conker pugilists, each pair intensely focusing on their fight cheered on by the audience behind the barrier.

From tiny conkers grow….

Robert Southey’s memoirs of 1821 first mentions but this was done with hazelnuts or snail shells or hazelnuts. It was on the Isle of Wight in 1848 that the first game is recorded and it spread rapidly across the UK by the 1900s.

The idea of a championship was started by an outsider, from Nottinghamshire, a Mr Haythornthwaite who met up at the Crown and Plough one night with brothers Terry and Robin Bailey and set out the idea to raise charity money back in 1984. Robin Bailey went on to be the first winner of the Championship and was given the name King Conker and he has been involved every since. From that chat in the pub the competition has gone on for 30 years! King Conker being easily found with his chain of office – made of conkers of course.

But everyone on the green is competing to become the new King or Queen Conker. Over 100 people had entered and there was a thriving children section. Indeed I was very impressed with the younger entrants who were practicising intensely at the edge of the arena. Although I am not sure why I’d be so surprised it is a kid’s game after all!

2018’s competition like many through the 2010s has had the threat of conkers being in short supply due to disease. Certainly the sizes of conkers did look quite meek in the bucket for collection remembering that one could not bring your own conker save you immerse it in vinegar to make it stronger. They take fair play seriously at Long Clawson.

 

All hail the conkerer!

Its so serious that the pub runs a pre-Tournament conker off to ensure that the very best players are playing on the day. Indeed the competition was intense. A particularly tournament I observed appeared to go on with no result. Whack. Conker one was intact. Whack. Conker two was intact. Whack again. Ditto. Whack again. Ditto. The crowd watched on tenterhooks as The Melton Times noted:

“The number of entries was again solid with over 100 competitors on the day all aiming to be crowned King Conker 2018,” said Bryan Lovegrove, one of the organisers. “There were a number of prolonged battles, sometimes with no conker being broken. These then went into a sudden death test of skill with the winner being the one to gain the greatest number of conker strikes from a set number of attempts.”

After all the knockouts, split conkers laying forlornly on the floor we reached the final and it was a men vs women final. Amy Goddard vs Jamie King..after a valiant attempt Jamie appropriately could add Conker to the add of his name as he gained the prize and was very pleased with himself. The junior competition was between Jessica Traquir and Yasmin Bursnall of which the later one showing that the future of the conker championship may well lay with the women.

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