Category Archives: Devon

Custom demised: Avoid eating Blackberries after Michaelmas Day

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On Michaelmas Day the devil puts his foot on the blackberries.

-Irish Proverb

Across the British isles it was believed and possibly still believed that eating blackberries after the 29th September was deemed a bad idea.

In the Western Antiquary of 1882 it is reported that:

“The belief that it is unlucky to eat blackberries after Michaelmass Day because ‘His Royal Highness’ then tampers with them, still lingers in Exeter and neighbourhood, whilst walking the country around here, a young friend who was with me warned me against picking any blackberries: Because’ said he, grimly ‘it’s past Michaelmass Day and the Devil’s been at ‘em”

F. Newman (1945) in Some Notes on Folk Medicine in the Eastern Counties in Folklore notes:

“The common blackberry is excellent either raw, stewed or as a preserve. Like most fruits with pips, it is a natural bulk food and so relieves constipation. The different varieties of blackberry ripen at varying times during late summer and autumn, but all over Great Britain and Ireland there is a general belief that blackberries must not be eaten after Michaelmas day. There are two Michaelmas days in this country-the ‘new’ quarter-day, September 29th, and ‘old’ Michaelmas, October 11th, which is still recognized over a great part of the Eastern Counties, especially in connection with farm Tenancies. It was believed that after Michaelmas blackberries were unwholesome as ” the Devil has spat on them and they were not gathered later than that date..”

Lizzie Hadley, in the Folklore of Flowers in an 1893 edition of the Journal of Education notes:

“In Scotland it is said that late in the autumn the devil throws his club at the bushes to show that the remaining berries are his.”

It some cases he wipes his club over them or his tail, or in some cases spits or even urinates over them!  Another discouraging piece of folklore is given by Lizzie Hadley, in the Folklore of Flowers in an 1893 edition of the Journal of Education:

“Children who are fond of the blackberry may be interested, but in our times I think will hardly be deterred from eating its luscious fruit by the legends attached to it. ….. Another superstition is that on this day he spits on all the bushes, and if one eats a berry after this time, he, or some member of his family, will die before the year is over”

Why?

Tradition tells us that on Michaelmas, the archangel Michael kicked Satan out of Heaven and he landed on a blackberry bush so annoyed he hit back and decided to prevent them being of use! Although the Scottish account of him wanting them for himself goes against that belief!

F. Newman (1945) in Some Notes on Folk Medicine in the Eastern Counties in Folklore notes:

“ It is true that late in the season blackberries are infested by flies especially if there are near-by cesspools and may cause acute intestinal trouble.”

Of course, the seasonal reason is that this was often the time of the first frosts and here we have a custom belief possibly affected by climate change. More often than not the weather is fine in late September and late frosts do not appear until October, so perhaps those who stuck to the old Michaelmas day were right such as the contributor to a 1909 version of Folk-lore who stated in Worcestershire that:

“All children who either gather or eat blackberries on or after the 11th October will fall into great trouble. It is said that ‘the Devil puts his paw on them’ on that day.”

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Custom demised: Midsummer Fire Cartwheel rolling

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Cartwheeling Leusdon, Devon. From The Country Life book of old English customs. by Roy Christian

Rolling a flaming wheel into a stream or river down a hill may seem an oddly dangerous enterprise but it was one which was undertaken until recent times across Britain on the eve of St. John the Baptist otherwise known as Midsummer Eve. An account from the 1820s from South Glamorgan reported in 1909 by Marie Trevelyan in her Folklore and folk stories of Wales. It notes that:

People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and Girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that the long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If the fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”

Ancient origins

In the fourth-century Acts of the Martyr St. Vincent there is a description how in Aquitane, south-western France pagans rolled a flaming wheel towards a river and the charred remains were reassembled in their Sky God temple.

Widespread custom

The custom was also undertaken in Devon. At Buckfastleigh in the mid 1850s, aptly Bonfire Hill was the location and the wheel was moved down the hill using sticks by the use of sticks. Like South Glamorgan, if it reached the stream the village would have a good year.  In the village of Leusdon it was done until recent. Eric Hemery in his 1983 High Dartmoor book records:

An old custom on Mil Tor was the ‘Rolling of the Wagon Wheels’ on Midsummer Day: discontinued in the war years, it was revised for a time during the late 1950s, since which it has again lapsed. The aim was that the wheels should reach the river, but so rock-strewn is the six-hundred foot slope that few ever did. In consequence, the old iron tyres of long-rotted wheels lie about Miltor Wood – some now encircling the trees.

At point this custom died out to be revived in 1962 but now streamers were added to give a flame effect. Without the added spectacle of fire danger it doubtless seemed even more pointless indeed Roy Christian notes in his Old English Customs

“Within the last few years the villagers of Leusdon, in Devon, have abandoned their ancient and apparently pointless practice of rolling a cartwheel down the slopes of Mel Tor on the eve of St. John the Baptists Day. Preservationists may deplore the end of his and other customs but artificial respiration will no keep them alive. A custom will only survive if a spontaneous desire by a  large body of folk to keep it going”

Yet, as the online

Minutes of Widdecombe on the Moor Parish council note:

Leusdon Church 150th Anniversary: We were informed that Leusdon Church will celebrate its 150th Anniversary of its dedication on 28th April 2013. It is understood that the church was dedicated in 1863 and its patron Saint is St John the Baptist. It was noted that historically on the Eve of St John the Baptist Day 24th June, there was held the ‘cartwheel rolling’ ceremony at Meltor. Will this be revived in 2013?”

I don’t think it was sadly

Custom transcribed: American Thanksgiving

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“Thanksgiving would never work in Britain, because it is the day that self-deprecation forgot. Is it a holiday commemorating the Anglo-Saxon invasion of a country that already belonged to someone else? Yes. And what must have been an incredibly awkward dinner party between invader and invadee? Right again.”

Speaks a correspondent to Telegraph

Thanksgiving is a quintessential stateside custom, that it may surprise you to read that it is celebrated in the UK. It is not that surprising considering there are near 200,000 ex-pat statesiders in the country not to add those tourists who may be here for a holiday.

Thankful for what?

The folklore tells that in 1620 the harvest failed at the Plymouth Foundation and half of the Pilgrim fathers died. Understandably when in 1621 there was a better harvest and so understandably they wanted to celebrate a particularly good harvest with their local first nation groups the Wampanoag. Indeed, it had not been for them they would not have survived, for they taught them how to grow corn, beans and squash – future staples of Thanksgiving. You’ll notice no turkey reports suggest the three-day feast included lobster, cod, deer and goose!

Fast forward to the first President George Washington, who in 1789 proclaimed the inaugural national Thanksgiving Day. Yet despite it becoming an annual holiday in 1863 when it was set as the last Thursday in November, it too Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 to finalise the holiday setting it as the fourth Thursday in the month.

Thankful in the UK

It is unclear when Thanksgiving was first being celebrated in the UK, but I would imagine those World War II servicemen would have been privately having a toast in the dark days of the war. Indeed an account Similarly, from a young boy who happened to be visiting a base in the 1940s remarked:

 “I was invited into the dining room, and was amazed at the food that was there. It was Thanksgiving, and I thought Christmas had come early. I’d never seen so much food, as we were all living on rations. I was even lucky enough to taste some.”

And there is a comical photograph in Norfolk  which account how after being given permission by the farmer servicemen attempted to capture a turkey for their dinner – it was not clear whether they granted any of them a pardon! Similarly, the American students studying in the UK and their societies would have promoted the event and indeed it is one of the first places to look for it today.

However, ever eyeful on the commercial opportunity the main place you can find Thanksgiving in the many restaurants, often USA themed, dotted across the country and particularly in London which court American tourists. There can be found imaginative takes on the turkey, corn, pumpkin pie and other staples. Some are more than happy to spread it out to three days meaning they get lucrative weekend trade.

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Unsurprisingly one place where something more substantial is done is Plymouth. With its connection with the first pioneers, those Pilgrim fathers, Plymouth has commemorated their Mayflower and Transatlantic heritage for a number of years and in recent years it has been celebrated with some enthusiasm. The custom consists of the reading of speeches by the Lord Mayor and other figures on the Mayflower steps where those Pilgrim fathers sailed from followed by a poetry, choir. An illuminated carrying lanterns group representing the Wampanoag process from there to the Guildhall to tell the tale of Moshup the giant, a supernatural figure of the tribe. It’s the closest the UK has got yet to New York’s Macey’s parade.

The other significant event is understandably a thanksgiving to God and this is where the US Ambassador speaks at a special service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where America the Beautiful is also sung. The audience being again made up of ex-pats. However, the main stay of the celebration is the feast and now from Aberdeen to Wales, restaurants and University clubs will be serving up their feasts and providing kinship a necessary thing for those so far away.

Thankful this year?

Will it ever establish itself here in the mainstream? It seems unlikely, we already have our Harvest festivals, although the semi-secular nature and not to say the facts it’s a holiday may be an attraction. Thanksgiving is far too personal and unique to the UK and like Guy Fawkes Night, which has largely died out as the British diaspora lost their Britishness, it would be rather soulless. Sadly, perhaps many reading this would rather have this opportunity for a brief respite before the Christmas rush, a moment for family, friends, good food and company. Instead, the commercial side of the custom, Black Friday, has since 2012 been slowly establishing itself here, albeit devoid of its actual reason and purely a money-making venture. I personally think I’d rather have Thanksgiving given a choice than this buying bun fight! So to those who sit down to their turkey, pork and cornbread or sup on three sisters soup, finishing off with their Pecan pie this year – have a good one, you may be more thankful you are overseas than ever for this Thanksgiving!?

Custom demised: Queene’s or Queen Elizabeth’s Day

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“Vouchsafe, dread sovereign”

Robert Deveraux 17th November

 

It is common place now for villages, towns and cities to celebrate the succession of the monarch but until Queen Elizabeth accession it was not celebrated. Early in her reign the 17th of November became a time to celebrate the country’s powerful monarch.

However, it was not until the 10th anniversary in 1568, that the event was commemorate by the ringing of bells and slowly this became a more established event, hyped up no doubt by those who wanted it to be seen as a day of Protestant victory of the threat of Catholicism.

Long live the Queen…she’s dead

The death of the queen, unlike other accession celebrations since, did not cause the end of the custom. Fed by anti-Catholic fervour, the observations became more established. They changed from a ‘form of prayer and thanksgiving’ to out and out orgy of triumphalism. Soon the event consisted of triumphal parades, processions, sermons and burning of the Pope – sound familiar? However, they were not terribly popular by all, especially understandably the subsequent monarchs. In particular Catholic leaning Charles I was reportedly upset why his or his wife’s birthday and accession days were not recognised. His son’s reign obviously saw the Great Fire of London and it is reported that afterwards:

“these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

Chambers in his Book of Days records:

“Violent political and religious excitement characterised the close of the reign of King Charles II. The unconstitutional acts of that sovereign, and the avowed tendency of his brother toward the Church of Rome, made thoughtful men uneasy for the future peace of the country, and excited the populace to the utmost degree. It had been usual to observe the anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth with rejoicings; and hence the 17th of November was popularly known as ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Day;’ but after the great fire, these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

By the 1680s the events became more and more elaborate founded by protestant political groups keen to keep her memory fresh under the threat of Catholic insurgence under the reign of James II and calculated to whip up popular excitement and inflame the minds of peaceable citizens as Chambers puts it. The Earl of Shaftesbury as part of a group called the Green Ribbon Group, from a ribbon in their head, were the organisers and were very well connected. A pamphlet called London’s Defiance to Rome recorded how:

“the magnificent procession and solemn burning of the pope at Temple Bar, November 17, 1679.”

It was described as:

“the bells generally about the town began to ring about three o’clock in the morning;’ but the great procession was deferred till night, when ‘ the whole was attended with one hundred and fifty flambeaus and lights, by order; but so many more came in volunteers, as made up some thousands At the approach of evening (all things being in readiness), the solemn procession began, setting forth from Moorgate, and so passing first to Aldgate, and thence through Leadenhall Street, by the Royal Exchange through Cheapside, and so to Temple Bar. Never were the balconies, windows, and houses more numerously lined, or the streets closer thronged, with multitudes of people, all expressing their abhorrence of popery with continued shouts and exclamations, so that ’tis modestly computed that, in the whole progress, there could not be fewer than two hundred thousand spectators.”

In the Letters to and from the Earl of Derby, he recounts his visit to this pope-burning, in company with a French gentleman who had a curiosity to see it. The earl says:

“I carried him within Temple Bar to a friend’s house of mine, where he saw the show and the great concourse of people, which was very great at that time, to his great amazement. At my return, he seemed frighted that somebody that had been in the room had known him, for then he might have been in some danger, for had the mob had the least intimation of him, they had torn him to pieces. He wondered when I told him no manner of mischief was done, not so much as a head broke; but in three or four hours were all quiet as at other times.”

Although largely pro-establishment, it was feared that serious riots could result and in 1682 there was a call for the Lord Mayor to stop it but the civic magnates declined to interfere. In 1683, pageantry was reported to have grander than ever but the Mayor finally suppressed the display and their patrols through the streets to ensure order.  Under the reign of Queen Anne concerns over the Pretender were rife and so pageants were organised. A describe of it read:

“It was intended to open the procession with twenty watchmen, and as many more link-boys; to be followed by bag-pipers playing Lilliburlero, drummers with the pope’s arms in mourning, ‘a figure representing Cardinal Gualteri, lately made by the Pretender Protector of the English nation, looking down on the ground in a sorrowful posture.’ Then came burlesque representatives of the Romish officials; standard-bearers ‘with the pictures of the seven bishops who were sent to the Tower; twelve monks representing the Fellows who were put into Magdalen College, Oxford, on the expulsion of the Protestants by James II’ These were succeeded by a number of friars, Jesuits, and cardinals; lastly came ‘the pope under a magnificent canopy, with a silver fringe, accompanied by the Chevalier St. George on the left, and his counsellor the Devil on the right. The whole procession clos’d by twenty men bearing streamers, on each of which was wrought these words: “God bless Queen Anne, the nation’s great defender! Keep out the French, the Pope, and the Pretender.” After the proper ditties were sung, the Pretender was to have been committed to the flames, being first absolved by the Cardinal Gualteri. After that, the said cardinal was to have been absolved by the Pope, and burned. And then the devil was to jump into the flames with his holiness in his arms.”                          

However, this time the secretary of state interfered and seized the stuffed figures, and prevented the display. The very proper suppression of all this absurd profanity was construed into a ministerial plot against the Hanoverian succession.  With the stability which came with the Hanovians, the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Day began to subside and slowly disappear.

Looking back at the custom it is clear how it disappeared. In the wake of the attempt on James and his parliament, the government would be keen to re-focus this anti-Catholic feeling into a new custom – Guy Fawkes. Yet you cannot keep an old custom down, surprisingly in 2005, the Devon village of Berry Pomeroy resurrected it. This consisted of a service in the parish church finished with the burning of Satan on a giant bonfire! However I have been unable to confirm whether this still continues otherwise it will be a revived custom!

Custom revived: Lympstone’s Furry Dance, Devon

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Lympstone? Devon? Surely that is an error? The Furry or Floral Dance is a Cornish custom and one established at Helston deep in Cornwall. Well it appears the picturesque Cornish town has long had a rival – in both the custom and appearance too I might add.

In a bit of a furry!

I had discovered the custom by accident. Researching a holiday down in Devon I came across a reference and at first dismissed it as a mistake. After a rather tortured journey down to Devon – should have been four hours – but with delays, hold ups, detours etc, it took virtually all day and I just arrived 20 minutes before the dance! The sun was shining and the small town was in party atmosphere. Parking at the pub on the main road, I walked the surprisingly long walk into the town, within minutes the dance had begun.

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Furry history

Lympstone’s Furry Dance history is a bit confused. Locals will tell you it is something to do with fur hunters returning from Nova Scotia. The dance being established as some sort of celebration of their return. If so why does it have the same name as Helstons? Helston’s is associated with fertility. The coming of summer. Old pagan rites perhaps. But Lympstone’s is in high summer, although perhaps close enough to be associated with the old traditions of Lammas?

The custom is certainly over 100 years old although details are difficult to find. It appears that it was revived and associated of the Furry Dance tune in 1933 by a local band master Bill Chapman and indeed the day was established as a way to raise money for the band. The custom was suspended for the second world war, but was revived in 1946.

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Kick up your heels!

Stepping out at the front of the dance has always been a local honour and it appears traditionally the same man until they retired, Tom Kerslake did so until the 1950s, then apparently his son and then Graham Willis from until today. Dressed in top hat and tails they weave up the long street passing pubs and cheering visitors and locals, who make it a day of garden parties, kicking their heels to each side. Directly behind them the band belting out with vigour the traditional Floral dance tune. Then behind them a whole range of weird and wonderful costumes ranging Alice in Wonderland to Star Wars. The route is considerably lengthy and ends up with a well-earned rest at the Saddlers Arms where the curious assemble can be seen quaffing a drink and odd view for a passerby on the main road.

It is evident the Furry dance is more than a dance – albeit actually two, but a whole day of local of celebration with field events and some splendid fancy dress  – the town lighthouses being of particular simple ingenuity – in Candy Field and ends the day in a blaze of fireworks. After the dance there was the familiar site of some rather colourful Morris.

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One must add that the procession dance is no way as lengthy nor perhaps as impressive as that at Helston but it is nevertheless worthy of a visit if in the area.  As a postscript I noticed later in the month over the bank holiday weekend Totnes on the other side of the river Exe also had a Floral dance…it looks like there may be more than we knew! The origin of this one even more

Customs demised: Watching the sun dance on Easter Sunday

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Across the country it was traditional to get on Easter day or Sunday and see the sun dance in celebration of Christ’s resurrection from Polperro to Derbyshire, where at Castleton, locals would climb to a prominent hill to see it. Addy (1895) in his Traditional household tales notes:

“On Easter Sunday people at Castleton, in Derbyshire, used  to climb the hill on which the castle is built, at six o’clock in the morning, to see the sun rise. On this day the sun is said to dance for joy at his rising.”

In Dartmoor and Exmoor, in Devon and Somerset, there was said to be the Lamb and flag in the disc. Girls used to take smoked glass to see the sun. In Somerset Dunkery Beacon and Will’s neck were climbed and often an idea of the that it could be used to forecast the weather for the coming year Indeed Maureen Sutton (1995) in her Lincolnshire Calendar who notes that belief in the tradition was still current in the 1920s and 30s in the county and. She notes of Swineshead in the 1920s:

“Old Bert used to get up real early on Easter Day morning before the sun got up. He’ put a huge earthenware jar out and fill it up to the brim with water…when the sun rose, the reflection was shown on the jar and it made the sun dance on the water. If the water rippled it meant there was going to be enough water to last through the summer. If tyhe sun moved slowly across the water, it meant a dry summer”

In Worksop, Nottinghamshire, a correspondent in a local newspaper, a man called Thomas Ratcliffe, notes that a stream was a location:

“When I was a child this talk used to impress me very much and I persuaded my mother to take me to a spot about half a mile away, where a small stream widening out in a ford used by farmers and others. The spot was often visited on Easter Morning for the purpose of seeing the sun dance which it was sire to do if it were sunny and a soft wind rippled the surface. The sun did dance on the particular day”

Or perhaps, as the Reverend Parish notes of the tradition in Sussex:

“nobody is ever seen it because the devil is so cunning that he always puts a hill in the way to hide it”

This is echoed in The Lincolnshire magazine 1932-4 vol 1 which stated that:

“I have often heard of the sun dancing on Easter Day, but never met with anyone who had really seen it”

Although, the article goes on to report someone who had, describing it as:

“It kep on th’ dance for nigh on half an hour, dancing and turnin round all the time..There were cogwheels all round it an; it kep dartin’ out-dartin out light it did. It was most like that thing in the menagic lanten as keeps turnin round.”

It was probably due to eye strain following gazing at the sun’s disc. This activity is suggested by Addy (1895) in Derbyshire who says:

“On the Wednesday before Easter Sunday a Derbyshire man said, ” I think the sun will hardly be able to contain himself till Sunday.” In  Derbyshire they  say that the sun spins round when he sets on Easter Sunday, and people go out to see this spinning.”

Thomas Ratcliffe notes again and hints at the growing rational explanations of the event:

“I still remember the kindly lesson given me on that occasion, low I was told that the wind and water together by causing ripples made the sun to seemingly dance upon the surface of the ford.”

Perhaps this combined with the rarity of seeing it, possible ocular damage and a growing rationality lead to its demise. When the custom was no longer observed is unclear….Perhaps some people still make their quiet pilgrimage to their nearest hill or pool to see the sun’s joyous celebration of the resurrection.