Category Archives: Effigy

Custom survived: St. Walstan’s Day pilgrimage, Bawburgh, Norfolk

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“Come journey in St. Walstan’s way, Come make a start this joyful day; And as he turned from wealth and ease, Go forth in prayer to seek God’s peace.”

The hymn of St. Walstan

Laying in a small private orchard beside the Parish church, St Walstan’s Well has been, on and off,  the goal of many pilgrims over the centuries. Here beside the church was once his chapel and in times before the Reformation, it doubtless swarmed with pilgrims visiting the shrine and well. The most auspicious date to visit the shrine and well would be the saint’s feast day the 30th May. How many pilgrims, what stories of their journeys and stories are now unknown. Little is recorded of the site before the Reformation but thanks to a return of pilgrimage and a greater tolerance and acceptance from Anglican Church and adoption by a revitalised Catholic church, St Walstan is now regularly remembered.

Saints alive!

Who is St. Walstan? He’s a little known saint today but his spread was once considerable through the agricultural heartlands of East Anglia and beyond. A Saxon saint, said to have been of royal lineage, who forwent this to be a farm hand, giving his riches to the poor. He died on the 30th May 1016, and legend tells us that three springs arose, one at his place of death, at Taverham, another, Costessey, where a cart pulled his body dragged by two white oxen and the final at Bawburgh, where his body was laid to rest and a shrine established which was very popular. Indeed, in a region rich with such shrines it attracted considerable miracles and money, it and his nearby well being the goal of man and beast. Then the reformation came, the shrine dismantled and attendance at the well discouraged! Put you cannot put a good saint down…nor more importantly his well.

Spring back

This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:

“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”

Author J. C. Husbenbeth in 1859 Life of St Walstan, confessor wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:

“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”

The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that:

“much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.”

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pilgrims bless themselves at the well

Still waters run deep

A number of cures were associated with the well and these combined with the spreading Anglo-Catholic ethos of the Oxford Movement renewed worship of the well. Among the colourful characters to have been connected with this revival at the time was Father Ignatius. He founded a monastic settlement called the Third Order in Norwich and led the first official pilgrimage to the well in 1864. Those attended it could have described it as did one of them Baronness de Bertouch:

“A Public pilgrimage in full feather to the St Walstan’s Well – a said to be miraculous source of water, four miles out of Norwich referred to on the programme of old world religious revivals. It was hundreds of years since a single pilgrim had dipped his cup into that long forgotten spring, or breathed a prayer to its derelict Patron; so the occasion was an historical one, and worthy of the pageant with which it was commemorated by the Monks and their contingent.”

Nearby Norwich, a strongly Protestant city viewed the whole affair differently as unwanted Popery and many opponents tried by any means possible to discourage the activities. To prevent any conflicts on the day of the procession it was suggested that constables should be placed on specific cross roads to monitor and thus remove any problems. Ignatius ignored this problem and marshalled his 400 pilgrim’s to the well. The crowd of pilgrims being so great that they moved as:

‘one long flexible column through the town.’

Critics in the press ridiculed their actions, a broadsheet entitled ‘The Monks Pilgrimage to Bawburgh’ was printed by Robert Cullum of Norwich and scathingly described their activities in a poem ridiculing the miraculous waters in the cure of Brother Stumpy’s leg:

“Why what in the world were these Monks now about,

They’re Lately been having a rather grand turn out,

To astonish the joskins the whole country round,

Such a set of poor simpletons elsewhere can’t be found.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Last Week they slipp’d out of Town one by one,

And people were puzzled to know where they’d gone,

In a fly there fine dresses and gimeracks were carried,

And some said that Blazer was gone to be married.

There’s Old Ginger Giles he vow and protest,

That he won’t work for farmers the Monks pay him best,

Seven shillings a week is not worth looking arter,

He can get twice as much from selling the water.

But soon they meet on the Earlham Road,

And some of the finery began to unload,

Pockthorpe famed Guild this rum lot would beat,

All it warned was Old Snap to make it complete.

The People of Bawburgh they never did ill,

And don’t know the want of a doctor or pill,

But if it is true what they say unto me,

‘Tis by using the water in making the tea.

 

‘And when all were muster’d under the trees,

Down went the whole lot right on to their knees,

On the dusty road Monks and Women were seen,

With their fine Sunday Dresses and smart Crinoline

There’s old mother Smith that lives by the Cock,

Declares that whenever she washes her smock,

With the water although she now getting old,

If she puts it on wet she never catch cold.

 

Then up they all got and made a great noise,

for some begun singing at the top of their voice,

Each village they came the people turned out,

For they could not imagine what t’was all about,

Brother Stumpy too met a wonderful cure,

You remember the wooden leg he had to be sure,

After bathing it well for an hour or two,

A beautiful new leg appeared to view.

 

But at Bawburgh is said that they have found out a well,

The water of which all others excel,

It will cure all complaints of those who receive it,

And keep out the Devil if you can believe it,

 

Poor neighbour goose who in St Lawrence now dwell,

Strange is the tale I’m about to tell,

Though the mother of eight children of late it is said,

Through drinking Holy Water, looks more like a maid

When they got there with fasting they turn’d very faint,

All were eager to drink at the well of the saint,

And some simpletons were heard to declare,

They could without victuals the rest of the year.

The blind made see, the lame made to walk,

The deaf made to hear and the dumb made to talk,

If you like to believe all the cures they tell,

That’s done by the water and moss from this well

Such a sight there was seen when they’d got to the well,

For flat on their faces these Pilgrims all fell,

And began kissing the ground as if they were crazed,

While the poor people looked on amazed.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Brother Magentis then said that when the saint died,

(Though between you and me I think that he lied)

The water was seen from this place to run,

And thousands of cures by it had been done.

 

Now take my advice, don’t be galled by such stuff,

Of Monks and Miracles were had quite enough,

If you go to their chapel and learn at their schools,

You’ll find that they think you a great set of fools.

They’ll make you believe every Pulk hole they find,

Sprung up where some saint died if they have a mind,

But I hope folks know better in the present age,

And won’t join the monks in their next Pilgrimage.”

The pilgrims decorated the well with flowers and lights. Various vials and vessels were filled and handed out among the crowd. Locally people begun to realise that the water was still profitable; Ginger Giles, the supplier, stating that he received more money from selling its water, than from working on the local farm. However the anti-popish feeling ran high and sadly the Order suffered under physical and literary abuse, and after a scandal involving the luring away of a young boy, Father Ignatius, in 1866, left following a serious illness.

However despite this scandal the well was not forgotten. Indeed the revival had the desired effect in re-establishing the power of its water, the Norwich Mercury even noted effectiveness in the cure of sick animals. In 1912, the Third National Catholic Congress, organised a mass pilgrimage to the well, after a successful one to Walsingham. It was the result of this congress that the first chronicled and official miracle of the twentieth century occurred, after a London man attending the pilgrimage took back with him some moss. Later that year he found his eyes failing and was diagnosed to be becoming blind. Yet after washing his eyes in the well’s water and placing the moss on his eyes for four days – and his eyes were restored. He vowed to make a second pilgrimage and did the following September. This story had been circulated and another Catholic Pilgrimage was organised. This procession starting in the grounds of Bawburgh Hall, and Mr Sparrow the farmer again helped with the water access, however someone was over zealous by bringing a gallon-sized beer bottle.

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Pilgrims pass Chapel Farm – a clue to an ancient pilgrim route?

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The banner held proudly aloft

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Through the fields they travelled..

Well look who’s here!

Despite the anti-pilgrimage opinions it would only 20 years for the Church of England moved towards revitalising the saint and that year saw the first of many Anglo-Catholic Pilgrimages and even worship of the saint included Bawburgh Methodists. Today there is a regular service at the well on the saint’s day 30th May.

In 1976 there was established an Anglo-Catholic pilgrimage. Indeed since the 1970s every year there has been an observance of the custom, with the Methodist joining in 1982. In 1989 an interfaith pilgrimage from Taverham to Bawburgh was established to recognise the saint’s adoption by the British Food and Agriculture year. How things have greatly and thankfully changed from the ‘stumpy’ protestations!

Actually there are three separate observations – on the Sunday nearest to St. Walstan’s Day for Anglicans and the Sunday after St. Walstan, the first in June for Catholics processing from the local Catholic Church at Costessey, with the Orthodox coming the week after. However, in the last few years the first two days have coincided in the calendar and thus the observation combined. The Catholic church processing and being met on the old packhorse bridge by the local Anglican church. A school visit on the 30th for children even being organised on year with an re-enactment of the cart carrying the body of the saint.  In 2016, the community commemorated the saint’s millennia again with a joint celebration with the Bishops of Norwich/East Anglia, Rt Reverend Grapham Jones and Rt Reverend Alan Hopes (both Catholic and Anglican).

Well trod

For the commemoration of the 1000th anniversary of his death, the village established a number of events. In the church was a flower festival based on the saint’s life and a special extended processional pilgrimage walk. In the village I even saw a man carrying an old scythe like St. Walstan.  A large group had assembled for the mass pilgrimage from Marlingford village hall for this walk, I waited for the man with the scythe to lead us – he didn’t turn up – did I imagine it At the hall I asked one of the organisers why this route. Apparently there was evidence that the route, now over private land, was an old pilgrim route – it does pass by a chapel farm – although more functionally a procession with large numbers from Taverham, the place of his death to Bawburgh, would be problematic for safety purposes. A shame but the essence of a pilgrimage was upheld nevertheless, and if we were walking in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims that added to it. The walk, which was around 3 miles took in some of the great agricultural landscapes that would have made this farming saint at home. Indeed half way we rested and paused to give thanks for what Norfolk and its agriculture had provided and the people who’s livelihood depended on it. The walk continued, with the banner of St Mary and St Walstan Catholic church proudly leading the way. Soon the church was in sight and after a long walk it was a welcome site.

Alls Well, that ends well

The procession made its way via St. Walstan’s Well, sadly we couldn’t refresh ourselves there as the water was unfit for drinking, fortunately there was tea and coffee available, a much needed physical refreshment. At the well a medieval band played and song, a St Walstan inspired madrigal, as the weary pilgrims took a blessing from the well’s water instead from bowls by the side. Some attached blessings to a tree nearby, a resurrected St. Walstan’s bush perhaps said to lie nearby. I went for the tea and coffee.

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BBOGOF – Bishops Buy one get one free!

In a field near the church and well, a large congregation had gathered, augmented by the pilgrims, to hear the unusual sounds of a joint Anglican-Catholic service, at one point read in union, which I must admit was quite unusual. The Catholic Bishop recalling the legend of St. Walstan and hymns included one dedicated to the saint. The Bishop double act entered the congregation and went around sprinkling blessings with holy water – although the Catholic bishop seemed a bit more expedient and appeared to cover more ground! The service ended with the clergy praying homage to the Well and remembering the saint and the gift of his water. Remarkable for such an obscure saint that his memory is still important 1000 years on..but then again very little has changed to mean that his message is no longer relevant !

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Wait all this time for some clergy and nine come at once. The Bishops bless the well.

Custom demised: The Vessel or Wassail Cup

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The demise of this custom shows how easily common traditions can be lost. So popular was the custom that it had a place in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica:

“What is popularly known as wassailing was the custom of trimming with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary a bowl which was carried round the streets by young girls singing carols at Christmas and the New Year. This ancient custom still survives here and there, especially in Yorkshire, where the bowl is known as `the vessel cup,’ and is made of holly and evergreens, inside which are placed one or two dolls trimmed with ribbons. The cup is borne on a stick by children who go from house to house singing Christmas carols.”

In the 1800s up to around 1920s, local children around the midlands and northern England, County Durham, Lancashire, and particularly Yorkshire, would enact a curious custom like a mix between carol singing and May Dolls. The custom had many names, often localised Wesley Bob, a Wassail Bob, a Vessel Cup, a Pretty Box or a Milly Box. When the custom was done varied. Visitation days varied accounts recorded in Yorkshire emphasis this variation in Thorpe Hesley it began at Christmas Eve and went on for two to three days. Whereas Hoyland Common only on Christmas day morning. West Melton and Hemingfield it was Boxing Day and Rawmarsh it was New Year’s Day. Generally though the tradition would begin at Advent or more often St. Thomas’s Day, although in some areas it was November, suggesting there is nothing new in the early celebration of Christmas!

How the custom was organized differed from place to place. Sometimes it was a private form of begging and at others organized by the church. The basic approach was as follows: two girls would be the ‘vessel maids’ and they carried a box, decorated with evergreens, often fruit and spices, from home to home, covered in a white cloth. At the people’s homes, the girls would sing a carol and solicit the homeowner for some money, usually a penny, to reveal what was under the sheet. This was a scene of the Holy Family.

Clement Miles in his Christmas in Ritual and Tradition notes that:

“At Gilmorton, Leicestershire, a friend of the present writer remembers that the children used to carry round what they called a “Christmas Vase,” an open box without lid in which lay three dolls side by side, with oranges and sprigs of evergreen. Some people regarded these as images of the Virgin the Christ Child and Joseph.”

Wassail song

As Wright, in their A Yorkshire Wassail Box in Folklore (1906) notes the song sung varied. Sometimes it was the familiar ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen’ followed by:

God bless the master of this house,

Likewise the mistress too,

And all your pretty children

Around your table go.

For it is the time of year

When we travel far nad near;

So God bless you and send you

A Happy New Year.

We have a little purse,

It is made of leather skin,

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Our boots are very old,

And our clothes are very thin;

We’re tired out with wandering around,

And if we cannot sing,

If you only spare a copper

To line the purse within.

So God prosper you and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

At Normanton the following could be heard:

“Here we come a–wessailing (sic), among the leaves so green.

And here we come a—wandering, so fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too,

And God send you a Happy New Year, a New Year!

And God send you a Happy New Year!

“We are not daily beggars, that beg from door to door,

But we are neighbour’s children, that you have seen before.

Love and joy come to you

I have a little purse lined with stretching leather skin,

And I want a little of your money to link it well within.

Love and joy come come to you.”

Then the box contents were revealed!

A description of the box from the Yorkshire village of Wheatcroft described it as follows:

“The dolls in it have been carried round for twenty–five years.  The box measures 111/4 in. x 7 1/2 in. by 3 in. deep.  It has a lid, but this is not always the case, though the contents of a box are always covered. The box contains besides the two dolls (the large of which is dressed in red), paper flowers, a lemon, holly and mistletoe, a purse, and an artificial orange and an artificial apple, both the artificial fruits containing sweets.  If all the fruits are real, it is necessary to put in a bag of sweets.  The purse should have a hole in it… S.A.’s mother says that the dolls represent the Virgin and Child, and that the box should be made of “parch–board” and lined with moss and ivy. 

Curious origins

Bad luck was associated with the vessel cup if the householder denied it or if it did not arrive. Duncan (1925) in his Second book of carols notes a saying:

“As unhappy as the man who has seen no Advent Images.”

Thistleton Dyer in his British Popular Customs,

“The household visited by the party were allowed to take from these decorations a leaf or flower, which was carefully preserved as a sovereign remedy for toothache.”

All these associations perhaps link it to a possible pagan origin. Certainly, Wright (1906) believed it was associated with pre-Christian deity Dionysius. For as a baby he was placed in a cradle and surrounded by flowers, although it is more likely the biblical crib story derives from that. He also notes that the name vessel came from ship and that the effigy was the boy Sceaf (afterwards changed to Jesus) as a representation of the birth of a new year. Support for this comes from author such as Chaucer who does record the belief that New Year “like a child, came over the sea in a ship.” However it is more likely that it comes from wassail as in was hael ‘good health’.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren

Death of the custom

When the custom died out is unclear but certainly by the 19th century it was coming under some criticism being described as ‘impious,’ being celebrated by ‘the lowest dregs of humanity,’ and ‘the singing so wretched caterwauling.’

Interesting like many customs it appears in the early 20th century to have gone through a transformation. Dunstan in his West Riding Vessel Cup or Wassail Song states the song is:

“as now generally sung by children decked and carrying evergreens and sometimes having blackened faces.”

And no actual cup! Thomas et al (1926) in their Advent Images and Lucy Green, continues on the theme, the Lucy green is a small child dressed in evergreen branches and called it “Lucy Green.” And another called “Turkey Claw Chori” where a turkey claw as a badge of office for those soliciting money. Even the song changed ‘Seven Joys of Mary’ but sung to the tune of ‘God rest you merry.’ However, a search on the internet shows people are keen to revive and presenting some stateside Catholics have revived it…will it ever return here…time will tell.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren

 

Custom survived: Edenbridge’s Guy Fawkes Night

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Sussex is famed for its impressive celebration of Guy Fawkes in a season which runs from August to Mid-November! Wrapped into this so called Sussex Bonfire season is Edenbridge – which is in Kent! However, this and just over the border Hawkhurst, are the only two Kent commemorations worthy of inclusion in this cannon…Many Kent villages and towns have bonfires and fireworks. None by this village go all out with processions and giant effigies as does Edenbridge.

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Fired up

Edenbridge has been commemorating for many centuries this unsuccessful attack on democracy. Records in the 18th century record:

“Paid for guarding the bridge at Gunpowder Treason 10/”

Why? For many years it was the aim of those organising the event to light the bonfire in the centre of the main bridge into the town! An expensive business all around – especially for the authorities who paid £3 15s 2d was spent on liquor for the guards in 1709. Clearly this method did not stop the riotous aspects for by 1886 there is a record of:

“lighted barrels with turpentine balls”

being rolled down the town. However, as such dangerous behaviours were causing out and out conflict and the curtailing of such commemorations, Edenbridge formalised their procedures in 1928, forming like others a Bonfire Society…their first event attracted 700 people and made 25s. Basically all that has changed over those years is the numbers of attendees and the money raised. A report in 1946 by a John Pudney in The Illustrated called BIG BANG AT EDENBRIDGE notes:

“If all the three thousand inhabitants of a township in the county of Kent were to emerge from their homes waving lighted torches upon a November evening, it would be considered quite a party. But I have to report, better than this. In the midst of our autumnal austerity there is to be a great outburst of light: and happiness which will shine throughout the weald of Kent. Ten thousand torches, made of tow wrapped upon the ends of stakes and dipped in waste oil are to flare for fifteen minutes each in the enterprising township of Edenbridge on the evening of November 5.”                                                                                    

What has changed is unity. Back in 1946 as noted:

“The township is divided into three rival sections: Marlpit Hill, Church Street and Lingfield Road. Each of these sections works, in the friendliness of deadly rivalry, to produce the most fancy and colourful procession.”

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Now only one procession travels through the town. I arrived a few minutes beforehand just as the crowds were building up and lining the road through the town from the bridge to the main road which passed around. There was a tangible feeling of excitement in the air, children hang onto railings swinging their glowing swords, adults peered down the road…could they hear something. There was a slight muffled sound of a band which could be hear ahead in the gloom, but soon a glow…a glow which became brighter and brighter…the flaming torches were coming our way. Soon they were hear headed suitably or ironically enough by a fire engine. Behind could be seen the Gunpowder Bishop and his assembled priests, who chanted “what shall we do to him?”…”burn him”. Just behind him were large walking effigies of Guy Fawkes, local Catholic although rather an innocent in the whole affair, Anne Boleyn (headless with her head tucked under her arm) and probably at the time, the biggest culprit Pope Paul IV. According to Tony Foxworthy’s Customs in Kent these were on spikes but they certainly looked more impressive as walking giant puppets. Behind Cowboys and Native Americans and then there were the familiar Bonfire boys in their black and red ‘smuggler’s” attire also carrying torches. It was pleasing to see a number of other teams joining especially as some such as Ifield do not have their own processions so nice to see them included, then some Mexican day of the dead characters. Then came the themed floats – children’s TV and games old and new – to which we saw Pacman, Endoman, Ghostbusters and some rather incredible Alice in Wonderland characters, Cheshire Cat, Playing cards etc…the parade passing by with much noise and cheering on its way to the fireworks field.

What strikes you is that compared to other Bonfire processions, this is very clearly a community event. Especially children, indeed the majority of floats contained cheering children who were clearly loving every minute. Even the local Catholic school used to get involved. An account by Jon Mitchell amusingly recalls:

“One of my funny memories came a couple of years later, when I asked dear Reverend Mother Barnes of St Andrews Convent whether she thought it would be appropriate for the convent school (now sadly closed) to enter a float in the procession. After all, bonfire is about celebrating the failure of the Catholic plot of 1605 to blow up Parliament and all the Protestants within it. She had a very broad mind, a sense of humour and thought it would be good for the School. Our first float at St Andrews celebrated the opening of the new Dartford Crossing in 1991.

After that came a succession of floats and walking parties including the Election of Bill Clinton (with Leslie Dix dressed as the Statue of Liberty 20 feet up in the air), The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express (it was amazing to watch parents scrabble to be in the team and learn to roller skate just so that they could take part in the procession), and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

 Today schools, scouts and many local firms get involved in the colourful procession.

One hell of a Guy

The huge congregation poured into the field..the grounds of which were muddy to say the least. We all waited facing the gloom and in some distance could be seen faintly the effigy of Guy Fawkes and his companion. Edenbridge is justly famous for producing the country’s largest Guy a two dimensional wooden caricature. However it is the companion as which has become the main reason why Edenbridge’s commemoration has become world famous..and yes I mean world famous..as it was reported in all the national and many international websites and papers as far as Japan. There might have been a bigger reason for the coverage this year. These have ranged from Jacque Chiraq in 1997, Gordon Brown in 2000 and Blair in 2004. However, previous ‘victims’ have generally been parochial – such as soon to be forgotten Katie Hopkins – in 2015 it was FIFA president Seth Blatter.

Pray for fine weather?

Every bonfire organisers scans the local weather for a promising, hoping and praying for no rain or strong winds. In 2015 the weather was quite mild. But of course there is another prayer – the bonfire prayer. The account from 1946 reads:

“Here beside the bonfire, ‘the Bishop,’ Harry Oliver; who in calmer times paints houses, delivers the traditional set-piece address, which goes like this:

“We are assembled here tonight to try the arch-traitor, Guy Fawkes – a renegade Yorkshireman, soldier of fortune, who fought for Continental, overlords, who paid him the biggest remuneration, regardless of religion, breed or political faith. In 1605 he was eventually commissioned by Lord Percy and Catesby, chief conspirators in the Gun Powder Plot, brought back to the country and ordered to blow up the King and Parliament.

“A message was, however, sent by one of the conspirators, a double crosser, to a peer of Parliament when this dirty deed would be perpetrated – on receipt of this message the cellars were caused to be searched, with the result that the dastardly plot was frustrated.

“Guy Fawkes was arrested and, in the face of all these facts. I ask you. girls and boys-shall this traitor die?” (Response):” Yes!” “What shall we do with him?” (Response): “Burn him!”

This is the climax, dedicated to the evil memory of a gentleman \undoubtedly brave, and by many accounts honest, who desired to blow up the very substance of English liberty.”

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As we waited for 8 pm the allotted time for the fireworks, the Bishop with his congregation eerily carrying their flaming torches marched across the field to an illuminate area and more importantly a microphone to read the so called ‘prayer’. In 1946 the account records:

“Every time the Edenbridge “Bonfire Boys,” as they delight to call themselves, meet together they conclude their proceedings with a solemn recitation of the Bonfire Prayers, These prayers are a bit of that stubborn Old English magic, whose purpose’ is almost forgotten, whose exhortation is almost irrelevant, but whose words somehow stick upon the young tongues of our children, even in these atomic times, when barrels of gunpowder would seem to be almost an old-fashioned remedy.”

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Yet 60 years later they hadn’t changed and despite some of the audience being unaware of the words and even in one case criticising the historical accuracy of it, the main parts were still gleefully recited:

“Remember, remember the 5th of November The Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, I see no reason why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot. Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent To blow up the King and Parliament Three score barrels of power below Poor old England to overthrow, By God’s providence he was catched With dark lantern and burning match Just about to light the prime Caught him in the nick of time. Holla Boys, Holla Boys, ring boys ring, Holla Boys, Holla Boys,God save the King.”

DSC_0432At the very moment as the crowd cried ‘holla holla boys holla’ there was an almighty bang and Guy’s face was blown off. Then began one of the most impressive and loud firework displays I had ever heard. After about half an hour of bombarding..silence descended and a voice could be heard over the speakers introducing their next victim – Seth Blatter…at this point he was lit up and the ‘Bishop’ cried out ‘what shall we do with him?” “Burn him!”…then there was another enormous explosion and Seth lost his head! This heralded even more fireworks! Soon the large flurry of sound and light ended and the town’s commemoration of this event 400 years ago ended for another year.

Custom revived: St. Edith’s Day, Kemsing

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DSC_0135I say revived, for although the celebrations of this local saint were apparently established in the 1920s there does not appear to be any evidence of what form of celebration, if any existed, before this. This 1920s custom may have itself been short lived and indeed the 1951 revival of this may as we shall read not be related. One could easily say this is a contrived custom for although it likely that the parish commemorated a patronal day, what is undertaken today is pure supposition.

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Despite living not far away and having an interest in holy wells, it has took me a long time to find out and visit this custom. A number of reasons appear to have compounded this – firstly bad weather (more of that later) and secondly the lack of any information about it. Indeed as regards the later, I once rang up and they said they did an event in November…clearly they were confusing it with Armistice Day…thankfully the internet has been more helpful, supported by an improvement to the event which arose in 2011 the 1050th anniversary of her birth – a well dressing.

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Well met

Weather was not a problem when I arrived in the morning of 2013. Sun shone majestically over the delightful village and I turned in Kemsing just as the well dressing board was being wheel barrowed down to the holy well. I naturally helped lift it and put it into place. The well dressing was a fine attempt. The artists being two local ladies, one of which would appear to have the tradition running through her veins coming from Elmton in Derbyshire, a village with a well dressing tradition, albeit a modern one. Subsequently, the frame is soaked in a paddling pool each year and taken to the village hall where on a table the two worked away using templates to create their art over the week finally finishing on the Saturday before. In the last three years, since the 2011 festival, a well dressing has been undertaken place, last year’s was the Olympics, 2011’s was a picture of the village. This year’s was the harvest and delightfully it was rendered too with a good use of rhubarb seeds for a field and gravel for the signage. Next year’s is planned to be the First World War.

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The small group admired their handiwork and then it was covered for the arrival of the church and its congregation.

Well they have arrived

A few minutes later this congregation, following their cross, but sadly no banner, and holding their posies, arrived. The service with the prayer which begins:

“Father each St. Edith’s day, we bring flowers to this well….”

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Then the posies were placed upon the walls of the well, the service continuing with a reading of St. Edith’s hymn:

“At this well with great thanksgiving, blessed Edith we record, her short years of holy living, chaste handmaiden of the Lord, May we in her Lord believing, be like her his living sword.”

A thanks giving was given for the water and then the well dressing was revealed to the delight of the congregation. It was great to see that the well continues to be celebrated and the well dressing is a more than welcome innovation. The ceremony ends with prayers of intercession and a collect for St. Edith’s Day, Lord’s Prayer, hymn and blessing. It was a bit disappointing I felt that the support from the village was quite small, especially as everyone here seemed so inviting, but as the service was at 9.45, perhaps it was too early. I recommend moving the service an hour forward and more visitors may be attracted.

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Well meet again

However, although the congregation now dispersed to their church hall for tea and cakes..this is not the end of the observation. For in the afternoon, a Catholic pilgrimage occurs from the nearest Catholic Church based in Sevenoaks. In 2013 they planned to meet at 3.00 with the Holy Rosary, prayers and St. Edith’s hymn, followed by the Benediction of the blessed sacrament in a nearby garden about 200 yards from the well.

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Interestingly, Christopher Bells’ Centenary History of the Catholic Church of St Thomas of Canterbury states that Father Phillips, Sevenoaks parish priest from 1916 to 1946, probably revived it around the 1920s.  An elderly parishioner told Mr Taylor that the pilgrimage was going in the 1930s, but this was actually on the 16th, not the nearest Sunday as of recent. It is possible that as the village was home of Catholic convert Monsignor Robert Benson, son of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1890s the observation may be older. I was told that now parishioners come from all part of the parish which covers the villages of Kemsing, Otford, Weald, Borough Green and West Kingsdown as well as Sevenoaks, some walking 8 miles as well journeying by car from London.

But the weather delightful in morning closed in and a note wrapped in plastic was affixed to the well read…moved to Otford Catholic church..that weather again…hopefully the weather will be more favourable next year and they will return.

Custom demised: Jack O’ Lent

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jack of lent

“you little Jack-a-Lent, have you been true to us;”

Shakespeare Merry Wives of Windsor

Aside the obvious Christian observation of the day, Ash Wednesday, is little else noted. However certainly from the Tudor period onwards, and possibly earlier, a curious custom was widespread across the country. For at the beginning of Lent, communities would make a straw figure called Jack O Lent which was paraded through the streets and abused. Often made up of straw and castoff clothes, he would be burnt, shot at, or thrown down a chimney to much merriment and pleasure.

By Tudor and Elizabethan times it was well known, as noted by Shakespeare who quotes it twice, for Falstaff remark later in the Merry Wives states:

“how wit may be made a Jack-a-Lent, when ’tis upon ill employment!”

Beaumont and Fletcher’s A Tamer Tam’d  in 1606-7 state:

“If I forfeit, Make me a Jack o Lent and break my shins, For Boys to hurl three throws a penny at thee.”

And in the Coxcomb 1608-10:

“Come, I’ll lead you in by your Jack a lent hair, go quietly, or I’ll make your crupper crack.”

A Shakespearian actor, Elderton, even recalled the custom in a ballad called Lenton Stuff:

“When Jakke a’ Lent comes justlynge in,
With the hedpeece of a herynge,
And saythe, repent yowe of yower syn,
For shame, syrs, leve yowre swerynge:
And to Palme Sonday doethe he ryde,
With sprots and herryngs by his syde,
And makes an end of Lenton tyde”

Who was Jack?

Generally it is thought that the image was said to be Judas Iscariot, but it may have an older and deeper meaning. Considering the time of year it may be a pagan figure who’s ritual abuse would record the turn of the year, a Winter god who dies when Spring is reborn. Sadly, as Ronald Hutton (1996) in his Stations of the Sun notes there does not appear any pre-Tudor note but its widespread discussion suggests an older origin. What is particularly interesting is the prevalence of the custom in the city of London and indeed he was seen in pageants. Such as pageant of Easter 1553 had him on his death bed, with a priest shriving him of sin and a wife begging a doctor to save his life for a thousand pounds, as a Lord of Misrule, representing the feasting of Easter looked on. Certainly, this is a symbolism that supports the Winter-Spring iconography. When Henrietta Maria made her entry into London, on June 16th 1625, a ballade called ‘Jack of Lent’s Ballad’ was constructed recalling such rich pageantry. Indeed, Jack O Lent figures highly through Jacobean to Restoration times if his numerous literary references are to be believed as a figure of worthlessness and ridicule. In 1611 John Crooke’s Greene’s Tu quoque notes of it

“for if a Boy, that is throwing at his Jack o’ Lent chance it hit me on the shins.”

Ben Jonson, in his 1633 Tale of a Tub, makes light of someone in need of begging by stating:

Thou cam’st but half a thing into the world,

And wast made up of patches, parings, shreds;                                                      

that when last thou wert put out of service, 

Travell’d to Hampstead Heath on an Ash Wednesday 

where thou didst stand six weeks the Jack of Lent, 

For boys to hurl three throws a penny at thee 

To make thee a purse.”

In Francis Quarles Shepherd’s Oracles dating from 1646

“How like a Jack a Lent, He stands for Boys to spend their Shrove-tide throws, Or like a puppit made to frighten crows.”

Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene note in the Old Comedy of Lady Alimony of 1659:

“Throwing cudgels, At Jack a lents or Shrove Cocks”

However, as figure of ridicule and pageantry it appears to disappear, certainly from London, probably as a result of Puritanism’s effect on Lent. However, it appears to survive elsewhere in name and occasionally in physical form until recent times. In Oxfordshire children would cry at least until the 17th century:

“Harings, harings white and red,

Ten a penny Lent’s dead,

Rise dame and give an egg,

Or else a piece of bacon,

One for Peter two for Paul

Three for Jack a Lents all,

Away Lent throw away.”

Elsewhere, mention is made of shying a Jack O Lent at Minehead by Palmer in Folklore of Somerset (1976). Oddly, in one case a permanent Jack O Lent existed. This was at Midsomer Norton, where a church effigy of the Gourney family was the subject of local egg and rock throwing when he ended up in the vicarage garden after the old church was demolished.  Whether in any cases it was paraded as such is unclear.  However, such parades may have been widespread. A mention is made of him in supposedly a similar procession at Worcester according to Chamberlain accounts of 1653. More significantly on Nickanan night in Cornwall and a parade of a Jack O Lent is noted in Polperro Cornwall as late as 1876. Indeed, in Lincolnshire the custom survived until the 1920s, when a Swineshead man in recalls perhaps the last Jack of Lent:

When I was about 15 years old, 70 years ago, they used to make an effigy of Judas from straw and hang it up on Boston market place near the old stocks. The idea was for folks to throw a clod of muck at it for betraying Jesus. If any of it was left at the end of Lent it was torn down or set on fire to: that was to make sure it got finished properly.”

This may not be strictly true of course, as the last although again not perhaps called as such burned away in Liverpool in the incendiary custom of Burning Judas, although Steve Roud (2008) in his The English Year believes this association to be a latter one…probably the Liverpool custom has the same origin but were not related. Perhaps we will never know…

copyright Pixyledpublications

Custom contrived: The Bankside Twelfth Night Wassail

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Wassailing appears to be all the rage in folk circles with revivals occurring all over. I had planned to discuss another custom for January, but after travelling back from Australia for Christmas and as I was in London, I decided to see this event and became so entranced by it that I felt I needed to extol its virtues.

Appropriately for someone coming from overseas, Bankside is a sort a microcosm of the modern day Britain. Old terraces share their boundaries with a resurrected Elizabethan Theatre, The Globe, whilst the shell of a monstrous power station holds a bizarre collection of art nearby. All lay along a mighty river. Quintessentially Britain in a nutshell. So it seems appropriate to establish a folk custom here which distils a number into one event!

Roaring success!

Mark Rylance, artistic director of the Globe was apparently the inspiration for this enterprise. A group, The Lions Part, being a spin of the Original Shakespeare Company based at the Globe, established the event in 1994 and it has gone from strength to strength since. For many there, this may be the first and only encounter with British folk customs and so the Lions Part have a large responsibility placed upon their shoulders. I did feel considering the enormous numbers watching the Mummer’s play, that someone should have been leafleting for mummers play countrywide…Like this? Why not try a Plough Monday play?

Despite the contrived nature of the custom, this is a custom which works…many because of the enthusiasm and professionalism of the performers but also because it is a curious amalgam of great British customs…a Green Man, Wassailing, Mummer’s Play, Molly dancing, Father Christmas, Twelfth Night cakes and the Lord and Lady of Misrule and even a tree dressing. Nothing was missed to make this smorgasbord of customs.

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A Holly Man for all seasons

The arrival of the Holly Man despite the modern panorama before us still has an ancient evocative appeal. Rowed by an old Thames Cutter, his image comes closer to view. To a number of people watching on the embankment, this must have been a very bizarre sight and not one they thought they may have encountered as they checked out Tate Modern! On the steps awaited Beelzebub carrying two flaming torches, a stag and a white bear (based on the Polar bear of the medieval Tower).

The Holly Man is a fine if possibly rather uncomfortable sight! Impressively covered head to toe in a variety of holly, ivy and yew, his face painted green with tendrils and leaves applied overall very otherworldly. Potentially the Holly Man looks very scary indeed but fortunately David Ridley who play him, spends a lot of time smiling.

The Holly Man is a curious character in folklore, identified by Robert Graves in The White Goddess as the Holly King who represented one half of the year being at his strongest at the Midwinter period and weakest naturally at Midsummer, when the Oak King ruled.  Whilst as an archetype it is an obvious model, there is no evidence that such a figure existed in England, although he is clearly popular with Neopagans.

And it Wassail from him and Wassail from me!

“Wassail” cried the crowd in unison! They had been here before I feel. Holding a wooden bowl filled with alcohol a scrib sheet was unfurled for the crowd and the first Wassail was read:

“Blow wind. Blow boat well, Ride well on the tide, Every beam and every sail, Bear the crew bravely home each sailing day.”

The group then moved through the massed crowds like rock stars at a concert to the steps of the Globe theatre. Here the doctor unfurled the second sheet and the crowd shouted:

“Blow wind. Globe bear well, Spring well in playing, Every lath and timber, Bear the tongues of poets, Next New Year’s summer.”

BanksideTwelfth Night Traditioncustomandceremonies.wordpress.com (44)Keeping mum

The group then moved with their swarming crowd to an arena nearby for their mummer’s play. The characters of this play ranged from those still in circulation in the ‘modern’ mummers – St. George, Turkish Knight, Father Christmas, Beelzebub and the Doctor. To this they added Prudence, Gill Finney, Cleverlegs and Twelfth Bake, some of which have an authentic Elizabethan flavour.

The play, which was certainly longer than your average Mummer’s performance had all the usual ingredients, conflict between St. George and Turkish Knight, his death and resurrection at the hand of the Doctor with various add on scenes. The play was without doubt the slickest and best mummer’s play I had seen. That is no slight upon the many extremely enjoyable amateur performances, but of course, when professionals are involved like the theatre the result can be excellent. The best performance was by Justin Brett who played Beelzebub, he easily embodied the mischief and devilish nature of the character….very much like a court jester, and indeed he reminded me of Timothy Claypole of BBC TV classic show Rentaghost.  He was very amusing and played the crowd excellently during a section where he cried out for topics from 2013 to create rhymes…although I worried I had gone through a time worm hole when someone shouted ‘Olympics’. Certainly amongst the topics such as flooding, a rhyme about the death of Margaret Thatcher was well pitched to the clientele of Southwark and ‘arty’ establishment who were not exactly big supporters of the Iron Lady…it engendered the biggest laughs let us say!

Mind you Peas and Beans

After the Mummer’s play, cakes are distributed for the crowning of the King Bean and Queen Pea. Twelfth Night is an event that now has only become synonymous with taking the decorations down, (see a forthcoming February post for comment on this), but from medieval times to early 1800s it was a time to celebrate often with feasts and fun. Often the day would be associated with a Lord of Misrule character that would overturn the usual master and servant relationship. As time went on, many of the traditions associated with it died out…the cake lasting the longest before being brought back to Christmas Day itself. Yet despite its apparent demise it is interesting to see that you can’t keep an old custom down!

Cakes were duly given out…although I was missed…and the Holly Man held their twig crowns awaiting the discovery of the King and Queen. Poet Herrick noted the “King of the Bean” in the 17th century:

“Now, now the mirth comes,
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here;
Besides we must know,
The pea also,
Must revel as queen in the court here. Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not,
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here, Which known, let us make,
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink,
To the base from the brink,
A health to the king and the queen here.”

 This custom appears to have been popular in Tudor times having been imported from France or Spain, the finder of the bean would be the King and the pea the Queen As a custom it died out in the 1700s I believe and so again it was great to see the group revive it. However, this year there was some problem finding the pea I believe, someone must have swallowed it unbeknownst and so someone volunteered to be the King Bean. So the King and Queen, both women. After this we travelled to the George Inn, Southwark. The curious assemble of onlookers, now becoming entranced by the whole spectacle gladly held hands and made their way to the watering hole in a giant unbroken daisy chain. Once at the pub, the Holly Man with his Bean and Pea royalty read their third Wassail.

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“Wassail to this old building, Long may she stand, Every barrel and every brew, Cheer the company bravely, Every drinking day!”

Here a miniature tree was also wassailed

“Here’s to this little apple tree, Long may it bear fruit, Every barrel, every brew, Cheer the company bravely, every drinking day.”

The group promised storytelling and dancing. I stayed for the dancing, Molly dancing from East Anglia, just to collect the folk collage.

What is curious is that the Bankside Twelfth Night, despite its twenty year vintage has soon become a focus for modern pagans. Like a modern day fertility symbol, there appeared to be no shortage of young women wishing to pose with the Holly Man, again underlining our need in this modern world for a fertility symbol. Perhaps for many here the surrealist day they might experience…especially for me with my day starting with a cup of tea with Noel Gallagher sitting beside me in Tate Modern. Rock stars. Modern Art. Holly Man…it’s difficult to work out what is more surreal!

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Find out when it’s on:

Calendar Customs link http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/bankside-twelth-night-celebrations/

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Custom demised: Jack of Hilton and his curious tenure

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Jack (2)

In the Ashmolean museum in Oxford is a very strange effigy called Jack of Hilton. It was once the property of the manor of Essington between Wolverhampton and Walsall was subject to a strange feudal service custom from the neighbouring Lord of Hilton. An account by topographer Plot (1686) describes it as:

“a hollow brass image, about a foot high, representing a man kneeling in an indecorous posture. …..There were two apertures, one very small at the mouth, another about two-thirds of an inch in diameter at the back..”

Why the holes? Well the structure is what is called an Æolipile, named after Aeolus the Greek God of air and wind, for such a device would spin when heated due to the force of pressure by water. In a way it was the precursor of the engine. An account of one describes it as:

“an instrument consisting of a hollow metallic ball, with a slender neck or pipe, arising from it. This being filled with water, and thus exposed to the fire, produces a vehement blast of wind.”

Jack of Hilton would hold more than four pints of water, of which the Plot notes:

“which when set to a strong fire, evaporates after the same manner as in an Aeolipile, and vents itself at the smaller hole at the mouth in a constant blast, blowing the fire so strongly that it is very audible, and makes a sensible impression on that part of the fire where the blast lights, as I found by experience”

Plot (1686) adds:

“Now the custom was this. An obligation lay upon the lord of the adjacent manor of Essington, every New-Year’s Day, to bring a goose to Hilton, and drive it three times round the hall fire, which Jack of Hilton was all the time blowing by the discharge of his steam. He was then to carry the bird into the kitchen and deliver it to the cook; and when it was dressed, he was further to carry it in a dish to the table of his lord paramount, the lord of Hilton, receiving in return a dish of meat for his own mess.”

Whatever this custom was about is unclear, and it is certainly unique in the country. It is possible that the figure is quite ancient although the museum dates it to 1300. An author in the Mirror of the 18th century notes:

“Besides Jack of Hilton, which had been an ancient Saxon, image, or idol, Mr. Weber shows, that Pluster, a celebrated German idol, is also of the Aeolipile kind, and in virtue thereof, could do noble feats: being filled with a fluid, and then set on the fire, it would be covered with sweat, and as the heat increased, would at length burst out into flames….Some late authors have discovered the extraordinary use to which the frauds of the heathen priesthood applied the Aeolipile, viz. the working of sham miracles.”

So perhaps the custom has very ancient origins. Sadly no-one appears to have investigated. Similarly I question why he is so positioned if the steam only leaves his mouth at force and no where else!

Custom survived: The Lewes Guy Bonfire Fawkes Night

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This November the 5th, as I stood warming myself at the considerable pyre at are our local bonfire celebrations, I was thinking it was a rather hollow experience. Don’t get me wrong, the effort was excellent: a brilliant spectacle of fireworks, a massive whirling and pulsating fun fair, a very welcome fire and even topped by a guy. Yet, there is something missing. The celebratory aspect has gone. It’s understandable, who 500 years on really celebrates the foiling of a plot?  Well plenty do, for several hundred miles away something all together more spectacular is going on….the Lewes Bonfire.

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005. Website: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/ My photos from back there were a bit rubbish!

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005.
Website: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/
My photos were a bit rubbish!

Indeed its own website proclaims the ‘greatest bonfire celebrations in the world’ in ‘the bonfire capital of the world’. It’s been a long time since I experienced this grand event of Guy Fawkes celebrations, back in the early 90s, but I wouldn’t expect much has changed. Indeed a report in the 1930s described something not much different:

“The greatest of all bonfire celebrations is held at Lewes, Sussex and in 1929 no less than one hundred thousand torches were burned during the evening. Here the observance partakes of the character of a religious ceremony….the most historic is the Cliffe Society, which still uses a real eighteenth century ‘No Popery’ banner, and figures of Pope Paul IV and Guy Fawkes are carried in procession and burned. The effigies are filled with fireworks which explode when the fire reaches them…the processions start at 5.30 p.m., and each society in turn marches to the war memorial…the Cliffe Society, which alone retains the historic character of the proceedings, still uses the old eighteenth century Bonfire Prayers. Torchlight processions continue all the evening, and the effect is most impressive as the long lines of flaming torches wind through narrow, steep streets of the ancient town. The final scene takes place about 11.15 p.m., when each Society marches to an open place outside the town and burns its effigies. …lighted tar barrels were rolled through the main thoroughfares.”

Having said that it’s certainly moved on a bit since the account of 1733 which says:

“Nov ye 5th. Item pd ye ringers being ye day of Deliverance from ye powder plott 2/6d”

Or thankfully the use of live cats in the burning effigies anymore. However, as a custom it is hard to beat and the town comes alive. Indeed, there are some many parts of the Lewes Bonfire celebration, that you would need several years to experience them all.  I decided to follow the Cliffe Bonfire, the oldest of the Bonfire boyes. They never join the united parade and stand fiercely for their traditions.

It’s all his fawk!

Lewes takes its protestant heritage very seriously. Elsewhere, such as my local bonfire celebration all mention of point of it is forgotten. Speaking to the organisers of the event I was at this year even the Guy had to be fought for.  Here in Lewes, it is the impact of the Marian persecutions, as well as Guy’s foiled plot are remembered. These martyrs are recognised by the carrying of seventeen burning crosses. Pretty impressive and slightly shocking! Not only that but if you thought that only during an Orange March, in Belfast, would you see such a celebration of Protestantism, you’d be wrong. On arrival one of the main streets has a banner proclaiming ‘No Popery’. During the march, this banner is held proudly up again, as is declaring ‘the Glorious revolution of William of Orange and Mary’ itself on the 5th.  How do the Catholics feel about it? Understandably it has not been popular, in 1933 the town’s Mayor wrote to the society to ask them to stop it…they did not. Although theses traditional parts were only revived after World War One, they hold onto these elements which make them unique and controversial such as the burning of the Pope.

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005. Website: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005.
Website: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/

Another guy

The burning or rather exploding of such effigies is a Lewes speciality, and boy, are they special. These put those Guys of old firmly in the shade and there worth certainly more than a penny! They are amazing and very well judged. Lewes has always been a supporter of the downtrodden and fighter against injustice. The making of effigies aside the Guy was to lampoon individuals who were against British interests or local notorieties…. including the local Catholic priest, Father Flood once….It’s all harmless fun! Remember that! When I was there it was the height of the Balkan’s conflict so it was not surprising that there was impressive effigy of Radovan Karadzic. As always a barometer for current hate figures yet always courting controversy, these effigies try to grab the zeitgeist of public feeling. For example in 2001, aptly perhaps, Osama Bin Laden was chosen… but let’s be fair so was George W Bush with fireworks in his ears! Other effigies have been Colonel Gadadafi, Rupert Murdoch and Rebecca Brookes, Cameron and Clegg (Lewes is a liberal constituency), during the expenses debacle, a MP beside Westminster was made in 2009, fat cats on a piggy bank for the banking crisis and so on! Their choice in 2003 of a Gypsy caravan was a bit more regrettable, and bizarrely a Nelson effigy was blown up in 2005! This year’s President Assad effigy was amazing by all accounts! Guy is not forgotten but here of course they do burn the Pope…they stress it’s not the current one, but the one who was responsible for the plot.

Fire up the imagination

Even more amazing are the costumes, and the Native American costumes are particularly impressive and have history as the local community supported the American natives…Roman centurions, traditional smugglers and Tudor dress add to the spectacle. by 1861 costumes included Bedouin Arabs, highwaymen, soldiers, sailors, clowns and North American Indians. During the 1870’s Pioneer groups became a regular feature, the first group to lead the Cliffe’s processions being members of the Cliffe Volunteer Fire Brigade. Reflecting Britain’s expanding Empire, firemen were superseded by Squads of Bengal Lancers and, leading up to World War One, by Indian Princesses. In 2013 even Doctor Who had a look in.

Fire and brimstone 

Back in those days, I didn’t have any idea of what exactly went on at the bonfire site except that the organisers gave a mock sermon. This is linked to 1850 which was a flash point. Pope Pius IX re-established the Catholic hierarchy in England, this led to the return of the Bonfire boys and within three years processions had started. By 1856, saw the introduction of the ‘Lord Bishop’ wearing full clerical uniform and gave a ‘sermon’. What a sermon! Dressed as bishops they gave a tirade about the evils of popery, not that it could be heard clearly, with all the hubbub. Then whizz! What was that? it couldn’t be? It was a fire work. People in the group were throwing fireworks, and no just bangers but it looked quite substantial ones. Now I realised why wore wielder’s masks. Then as the Bonfire prayer was proclaimed the crowd become more animated:

“Remember, remember the Fifth ofNovember
The Gunpowder Treason and plot
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holler boys, holler boys, ring bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God Save the King!”
This part being  familiar to most, but in Lewes we add:
A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o’cheese to choke him
A pint of beer to Rinses it done
A faggot of sticks to burn him
 
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we’ll say old Pope is dead
 
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!”
Then there was a crackling noise and the Milosovec effigy blew up sending sparks into the air followed by a barrage of fire works…then came the Pope to cheers and more chanting…its all harmless fun!Lewes Bonfire Night is a brilliant experience. Something that you would have thought would have died out. Would I go again? Yes but I don’t think I’d take the kids…its too mad! But if you follow this blog and have never been, you must…even if you are a Catholic! It’s nothing personal and it’s all harmless fun! Remember that! This video sums it up brilliantly http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc1lwKfSQ1g  

Custom survived: Redcliffe Pipe Walk

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“For the health of the soul of Robert Berkeley, who gave to God and the church of St. Mary Redcliffe and its ministers the Rugewell and conduit. AD 1190 Erected.”

So reads the tap head beside that ‘most beautiful church in England’ (according to Elizabeth I and who’s to argue?) and when Robert Berkeley gave this gift, back in 1190, one wonders if he would have been amazed that some 800 years on, those same church ministers, several generations on of course, would ensure that the supply was still available by this annual custom. I wonder whether he would have been impressed that some 800 years, that his direct descendent would be joining the annual walk to reinforce the ownership of that water, as for the first time possibly ever a member of the Berkley family attended the walk, a Mr. Charles Berkeley from the impressive Berkeley Castle (although it was his father who lived there!). A point I was quickly aware would be a good bargaining point for any naughty children on the walk. Behave! This man has a castle and dungeon he could throw you in. It worked!

Well meaning!

I lived for many years in this crown of the South West, but surprisingly never joined the party which have continued this fine if perhaps defunct tradition. Bristol weather is not always the best and any custom taking place outside at the end of October looks like one which might be prone to the vagaries of the weather! However, I checked the weather it suggested overcast with sunshine, fine by me.

A lot of water under the bridge

The Redcliffe pipe walk is the oldest observed custom of its kind. It survived the Reformation, a time when many church related endowments would be lost or transferred. However, at some point the inspection appears to have fallen into abeyance and was revived in 1928s as a report in a newspaper records as ‘after a lapse of some time’. One assumes it died out at the First World War, a common time for such ceremonies to die out a result of the loss of men in that terrible conflict. A similar custom was established to check the more substantial Temple Conduit which died out in 1835. Why is unclear, but around this time the Corporation would be establishing their water works. If the Redcliffe custom died out then, it seems strange that it would be re-established almost 100 years later, unless there was some need to re-emphasise some other endowment or right associated with the original gift. We really don’t know. Even when a bomb hit through the pipe line, the custom never ceased. Even when the flow became a trickle or ceased filling the tap head the custom never ceased. So it seems likely that a big event, the War being most likely. Since the late 1920s it has continued unbroken and as I have accepted the World Wars as being acceptable gaps in an over 100 year tradition I shall with this one.

The pipe walkers

The pipe walkers are ready!

Well met

I arrived early and headed for St. Barnabus Church, Knowle where the walkers would traditionally in recent times gather for refreshments and soon was made very welcome. As soon as ten o’clock arrived we all congregated in an area behind the church. The group, 24 in, made up the surveyor, the vicar, churchwardens, and large number of curious bystanders. Here the leader of the group, the aforemention church’s surveyor introduced himself and gleefully asked who was new to the walk..I wasn’t the only ones there was quite a few! We would  find out why later. He also introduced the vicar of St. Mary Redcliffe who led us in a prayer for the provision of water and in memory of the vicar of St Barnabus’s church who was presently ill.

Well thought of

From the vantage point we made our way into the allotments where the spring, called the Huge Well, still arises. We were shown the possible actual site of the well and a part of a conduit which had recently collapsed and revealed the channel beneath. As we stood surveying this site: it began to rain!! Very typical Bristol. However, as soon as we walked a few places to the well head chamber: it stopped! This was especially opened by the surveyor and we all peered in to this considerable stone lined chamber. One wonders what went through the mind of Mr. Berkeley’s descendent as he peered 800 years of reflecting on the everflowing gift. It was a good photo opportunity I thought to mark the event.

Mr Charles Berkeley, the descendent f the original benefactor.

Mr Charles Berkeley, the descendent of the original benefactor.

Here though I was asked to say a few words myself. Why? I by virtue of my other main interest (and blog) I was the well expert! I said a few words. I hope they were okay, although I did rather put my foot in it with my discussion of St. Anne’s well nearby…but that’s for another blog.

Inspecting the huge well

Inspecting the huge well

Walking on water

From this well head, a pipe line was laid travelling about two miles to a tap conduit head near the church of St. Mary Redcliffe. And of course we were there to survey it, the check at regular points that the pipe was still there and that access was still present. A two mile walk over the pipe, which was fortunately it was all downhill! For the next few 100 yards we travelled without any indication of a pipe, indeed the talk was more like a mass trespass through gardens and allotments, pass chickens and chard, raspberries and radishes…it wasn’t until we reached a garden on Raymend Walk that we saw our first real pipe laying under a metal manhole cover and flows through a Victorian metal pipe, replacing the lead and probably even wooden one of old. The family who owned the garden were very accommodating and offered the group apples from the tree. I asked them if they knew they’d be a yearly congregation of pipe walkers each year when they bought it! Fortunately they did. From here we had a bit of a detour as the surveyor worried that a wall on the route might be too prone to collapse to allow 20 odd people to pass it…but did this detour invalidate the claim I wondered! We still checked the stone, labelled SMP, which obviously reasserted the claim!

Through the allotments we go!

Through the allotments we go!

A bumping journey

Soon we arrived at Victoria Park, here the water filled a maze based on a labyrinth in St. Marys. It looked fairly clean and small shrimps disported themselves within it…but not sure I would drink it. At this point it was revealed why it was important to know who the newcomers were. At a larger pipe boundary stone the surveyor called forward newcomers to be bumped on the stone. This is probably the most traditionally part of the walk, often done of course at beating of the bounds, when mainly children were done. At first he said there were too many of us and he’d only do the children…however, this caused a bit of a ripple of indignation and so he offered anyone that wanted to be bumped would be done. I of course offered myself up. Followers of this blog will know that I’ve had a vicar on my chest being shoed at Hungerford Hocktide and this was much gentler. So I was lifted one…two…three. The vicar carrying me this time didn’t inflict any bruises. Also bumped was Mr. Berkeley. I am not sure his predecessor would have approved of the commoners manhandling him but of course this Berkeley thoroughly enjoyed it..and no-one would be sent to that castle dungeon.

The pipe inspected.

The pipe inspected.

All ages bumped!

All ages bumped!

The descendent gets bus bumps!

The descendent gets the bumps!

Pipe down we’re nearly there!

after the bumping, we examined another pipe. This one being much deeper, being reached by a ladder, and apparently had a tap where previous surveyors would take a sip. I noticed no-one appeared to volunteer this time. Then we regrouped and went under the railway, in the early 20th century we would go over the railway and the group had the power to stop the trains! Fortunately, we didn’t risk it. We were close to the final tap head and deep into the buzzy thrall of Bristol a big change from these peaceful allotments. Crossing the Avon, and two major roads, one could be forgiven in forgetting we were following a pipe, but soon at the church we saw the tap head.   Charles Berkeley was impressed by this tap head with its fine Lion mouth. Another good photo opportunity, as this descendent peered into the source of water which was of great benefit to the people of Bristol.  Nothing flowed from this tap, but above it the final manhole cover revealed oily irony water. I jokingly offered Mr. Berkeley a sip. He politely refused.  The arrival at the church was very welcome as was the spread of sandwiches, cakes and very refreshing tea topped off by a nice choir, welcoming us in song!

A custom which involves a long walk might not be everyones cup of tea but the Redcliffe Pipe Walk is an enjoyable experience coupled with some friendly folk. And perhaps it’s this sense of camaraderie which despite there being a lack of water and purpose the walk continues.

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– images copyright Pixyled Publications

 
Mr Charles Berkeley inspects the tap.

Custom survived: Burning Owd Bartle!

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When my sister-in-law and her family came over from Australia two years ago I planned to show them some quaint customs as foreigner would say, and although August is not a great time of year for such things, their stay did coincide with the Burning of Bartle in the delightful Wensleydale village of West Witton.

West Witton is a village shrouded in mystery with its crags and woody valleys hiding mysteries such as ancient springs, Templar properties and supposedly a giant hill figure. We arrived early evening in the village and noticed the village was deserted. Had I made a mistake with the date? Entering one of the local inns for need a something to eat, it was clear by the number of reserved tables and slowness of service that this was the correct night and the in inn to the occasion. When we were served, I showed the bar lady the book I had with me which contained some pictures from the 1980s; she was very surprised to see her relatives in it and herself as a young girl.

Bartle about

At the allotted time of 9 o’clock darkness had cloaked the village and assembling at one end of the village we waited. Soon an eerie pipe begun to play and appearing from the darkness was a green man playing his pipe…soon a cottage door opened in a cul-de-sac and the figure of Bartle appeared carried like a sort drunken demon, his body made of a jumper and tracksuit bottoms but his face a hideous hallowe’en mask covered by a grey wig. It was a strange and bewitching site, made even more bizarre by every now and again his eyes flashed on and off!

His carries made their strange procession around town, followed by an odd assortment of camera laden tourists and enthusiastic locals. But this is more than a simple procession for at regular points, Bartle was greeted by hotel owners and often some of the community’s older residents who probably could not process around, who upon offering ‘Bartle’ a drink (eagerly taken by its escorts), probably looked upon themselves as being given some sort of blessing of good luck. At these points, one of the following verses are evocatively chanted, in an accent which could easily sounded Viking in its origin. Each place being significant to the story…

On Penhill Crags he tore his rags

Hunters Thorn he blew his horn

Cappelbank Stee happened a misfortune and brake his knee

Grassgill Beck he brake his neck

Wadhams End he couldn’t fend

Grassgill End we’ll make his end

Shout, lads, shout!”

The Bartle-bum The origins of the custom

Several claims are made for the origins of the custom suggesting its great age. The most popular is that Bartle was a local sheep thief that the local people chased out of town and dispatched according to the chant. This appears to be a rather unlikely (and unpleasant) reason and may have been a Victorian attempt to tidy up the custom’s origin. Furthermore it misses the obvious, that the church is dedicated to St Bartholomew and the event is down around what would have been its patronal day. This suggests that the custom arose from the traditional carrying of an effigy around the village as is seen in many Catholic countries and now with Our Lady in places such as Walsingham. If the starting point is tradition it is interesting that there is an old well at the start point suggesting that perhaps some libation was done of over the effigy from its waters. Yet why would they be destroying it? Perhaps it was an accident or a fight to preserve it at the Reformation when pious locals were trying to hide it at Grassgill. The alternative theory was that a local Abbot, Jervaulx’s Adam Sedburgh  was that he was avoiding the Pilgrimage of Grace and was chased for his lack of commitment. The book I had, the excellent Penhill Giant linked it to a giant…This again looks very unlikely….

My personal view is that originally it may have been a pagan effigy which was ritually sacrificed hence some of the terms, which was of course Christianised and the custom of carrying the effigy was continued long into the Catholic period until the Reformation when the Bartholomew effigy was lost.

Burn Bartle Burn

When they finally reached Grassgill Lane, the effigy was placed against the wall. The full moon pour open the scene giving an otherworldly nature as for the final time, the truncheon was push into Bartle’s chest and the chant repeated with considerable enthusiasm. The figure was doused in petrol and set light to the scene being surrounded by a reverential hush. I wondered the age of the location as it was clearly much used as a stone had been set into the ground to prevent the fire spreading. As the flames engulfed the body, kids lined up on the wall nearby oblivious it seemed to the potential danger of the flames and the crowd circled around it’s warmth to hear as it burned brighter and brighter that chant. People lined up to have photos with the burning body…as if perhaps it was again a good luck motif. Then the flames began to subside, and more smoke than flame was emanating from Bartle. At this point the organised seeing their work done, left the smouldering ‘corpse’ for another year.

What makes the ceremony one of the best of England’s customs is that it remains a local event. There is no police presence, no hoards of TV cameras and only a few visitors (like us!). Indeed during the burning the only safety precaution I saw was a solitary cone beside the flaming Bartle!

And where sheep stealer or pagan deity, whatever the origins, it is without doubt one of the most evocative of all English customs.

copyright Pixyled publications