Category Archives: Essex

Custom survived: Colchester Oyster Proclaimation

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Customs which are firmly attached to a specific date are today a rarity; many have now slipped the more convenient nearest weekend – but not Colchester’s Oyster Proclamation, itself a bit of a rarity being an Essex custom. Firmly fixed to the first Friday in September originally the first of September. Why September? Well this is the first month with an R in it!

Now there is another aspect which means witnesses the custom can be a problematic – it is held on a boat in the middle of the estuary. However, this year for logistical reason it returned to shore.

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Shellfishly does it!

Dating from 1540 it is a colourful event full of the right level of pomp but not pompous. Afterall you cannot think yourself too important when you are swaying in the sea. Indeed, The Times in 22nd September 1928 recorded:

“The company were about to drink a toast in gin, in accordance with ancient custom, when the table containing the tiny glasses, filled win gin, overbalanced ad fell, crushing to the deck, together with the small cakes of gingerbread provided for the occasion. Amid hearty laughter fresh supplies were soon forthcoming and the ceremony concluded in the time honoured fashion.”

An article in the Daily Mail suggests the custom can be even more fraught with problems noting:

The oyster-opening ceremony has taken place on the sea for more than 400 years – but not this year and possibly not next year. Mrs Lewis said it was uncertain whether the tradition would even return to the water next year, when she is out of office – because of health and safety. She said: ‘The jury is still out on that one. If the next mayor wants to go back on the water, there are a couple of health and safety issues that need to be addressed. ‘The mayor nearly fell overboard last year so we had to look at the risk anyway.”

The Daily Mail had more to state:

“But because last year’s mayor almost fell into the water as he moved from boat to boat, the ceremony – which dates back to 1540 – was instead staged on land. 

And to make matters worse, the current mayor, Conservative Sonia Lewis, suffers from seasickness, further scuppering any chance of holding the ceremony on the water….Speaking about the decision, Mrs Lewis said: ‘I have never been able to attend the opening of the fisheries because of my inability to tolerate tidal waters. I confirmed on more than one occasion that I was prepared to stand down from the ‘opening of the Colchester oyster fisheries’ this year.”

So that year a Mayor nearly overboard, a seasick and a non-oyster eating Mayor made that year’s event one a memorable one in its possible 2000 year history – a claim deriving from the Roman’s love of Oysters and the significant presence in the Colchester area. Certainly it can be traced back possibly further than its 16th century record possibly to the time when the town confirmed in 1189 by King Richard I that to raise money for a crusade, its control of fishing ‘from North Bridge up to Westness was established. It is worth noting however, the Mayor came over her dislike of oysters stating:

“She had said she would not eat the oyster, describing herself as ‘more of a fish and chip girl’ but she dutifully quaffed it down with a grimace.”

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Being on land does create another obstacle. Part of the ceremony was the Mayor to dredge in the first catch of Oysters…unless he was planning to scout around on the beach or have a long net, that was not going to happen. The solution was to get a local oyster chef in and to give the Mayor the first oyster on a plate to eat.

I was informed that it was alright to attend and take photos and that it would be in the Country Park. Making my way there it was not difficult to work out where it would be happening – a small white marquee at the end of the park near the sea – planned just in case it was wet!

Inside was a hive of activity, a man was shucking oysters in remarkably quick time whilst nearby a lady was carefully filling glasses of gin and another cutting slices of gingerbread. Soon all the attendees turned up with the Mayor and at the allotted time they assembled on a bank overlooking the bay. The curious spectacle of the Sergeant with his mace and the Mayor in full regalia attracted quite a few onlookers. Then the bell was rung and the proclamation read. A toast to the queen and the Mayor tasted the first oyster of the season.

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Gingerly with the gin and gingerbread? .

Soon as the proclamation was made trays of gin and tonic and gingerbread where handed around. I didn’t partake of the G and T but the gingerbread was delightfully moist and flavoursome. I asked why it was gin and gingerbread. No one was sure but it was suggested that the ginger in the gingerbread settled the stomach on a stormy sea and the gin masked the fumes of the boat!

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The ceremony it appears has to be checked out by her majesty herself. Before it a letter is sent to The Queen. In 2004 it is said to have read:

“According to ancient Custom and Charter dating back to Norman times, the Mayor and Councillors of the Colchester Borough Council will formally proclaim the Opening of the Colne Oyster Fishery for the coming season and will drink to your Majesty’s long life and health and request respectfully to offer to your Majesty their expressions of dutiful loyalty and devotion.”

She couldn’t attend but it  was a great pleasure to attend this year’s proclamation, eat the gingerbread and be for once able to hear what is said rather than trying to hear it from the shore.

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Custom transcribed: Ganesh Chaturthi – immersing of Ganesha effigies

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I followed with the greatest curiosity crowds who carried in procession an infinite number of idols of the god Ganesh. Each little quarter of the town, each family with its adherents, each little street corner I may almost say, organizes a procession of its own, and the poorest may be seen carrying on a simple plank their little idol or of papier mâché… A crowd, more or less numerous, accompanies the idol, clapping hands and raises cries of joy, while a little orchestra generally precedes the idol.”

Angelo de Gubernatis, Bombay Gazette (1886)

One of the most fascinating thing about having an interest in customs and ceremonies is the adoption of customs from other parts of the world. Even more pleasing is when on a day out at the seaside one comes across a custom quite literally whilst sitting on a deckchair having a cup of tea! It happened on Saturday in early September – unfortunately I didn’t have my SLR camera but I did manage some okay photos with my mobile!

So one minute I was sipping my tea and then just behind me I could hear the beating of drums and chanting. A small group of people had assembled with drums and some were carrying effigies. They appeared to be processing straight to the beach. What I was encountering is the very public spectacle at the end of Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival celebrating the God Ganesha, which lasts for 10 days from late August to early September.

Who is Ganesha?

It is perhaps significant that the Lord Ganesha is celebrated at this time of year, the harvest time, because he is the God of New Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles. The ceremony is focused around installation of clay idols of the god in homes or temporary stages. On the tenth day they are carried in procession to the nearest water whether river or ocean – on in this case the pool at Shoeburyness, Essex. It is believed that as the deity dissolves in the water the God is returned to Mount Kailash to fellow deities Parvati and Shiva.

It was a small but nevertheless colourful procession with three Ganesh effigies. These were adored with flowers and jewellery and looked splendid if slightly heavy. The adornments were carefully removed for what would happen next would be that they would be immersed in the sea.

Under the sea

What I found interesting and amusing about the custom is despite this being clearly a Hindu festival it was typically British in the approach some of the attendees had to it. Some of the younger members upon the moment their toes hit the water forgot all ceremony and complained about the cold of it – and then after seeing a crab – one almost refused to enter!

He was convinced and after wading to their waists, the effigies were then lowered into the water bits appearing to break off even before they were fully submerged. One of the women in the party who appeared to be organising the event reminded the men that they needed to immerse themselves fully in the water. They weren’t keen! After some berating they begrudgely lowered themselves and disappeared beneath it! They emerged looking cold but slightly enriched by the experience.

What such a custom shows is behind even the most solemn custom the comedy of human nature is always there…and that there could be a custom around the corner at any moment! Be prepared!

Custom contrived: Apple Day

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An Apple a Day

Apples and the British. We do love an apple! Whether its plucked from the tree, in a sauce for pork or fermented in a cider, there’s something quintessential about apples and the British. We’ve sung to give good crops and bobbed at Halloween so it is about time they had their own custom.

National Apple Day is a contrived custom which has spread remarkably quickly. Started in 1990 on the 21st October. Like the trees themselves they have grown and grown! Its unusual compared to some contrived customs because firstly it has spread and secondly it was the establishment on one organisation, Common Group, an ecological group established in 1983

The rationale by the initiators the Common Ground was to celebrate the richness and variety of the apples grown in the UK and by raising awareness hopefully preserve some of the lesser known types, hopefully preserving old orchards and the wildlife associated with them

Apple of your eye

The Common Ground website describes how by reviving the old apple market in London’s covent garden the first apple day was celebrated:

The first Apple Day celebrations, in the old Apple Market in London’s Covent Garden, brought fruit to the market after 16 years’ absence. Forty stalls were taken. Fruit growers and nurseries producing and selling a wide variety of apples and trees rubbed shoulders with juice-and cider-makers, as well as writers and illustrators with their apple books.

Representatives of the WI came laden with chutneys, jellies and pies. Mallorees School from North London demonstrated its orchard classroom, while the Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust explained how it manages its orchard for wildlife. Marks & Spencer helped to start a trend by offering tastings of some of the 12 ‘old varieties’ they had on sale that autumn. Organic growers were cheek by jowl with beekeepers, amidst demonstrations of traditional and modern juice presses, a calvados still and a cider bar run by the Campaign for Real Ale. Experts such as Joan Morgan identified apples and offered advice, while apple jugglers and magicians entertained the thousands of visitors – far more than we had expected – who came on the day.”

From the seeds…

From that first Apple Day, it has spread. By 1991 there were 60 events, growing to 300 in 1997 and now 1000s official and unofficial events, mainly but not wholly focusing on traditional apple growing regions such as Herefordshire. It has grown to incorporate a whole range of people to include healthy eating campaigns, poetry readings, games and even electing an Apple King and Queen in some places festooned with fruity crown. In Warwickshire the Brandon Marsh Nature reserve stated in 2016:

Mid Shires Orchard Group are leading a day celebrating the wonders of English apples. Learn about different varieties, taste fresh apple juice and have a go at pressing (you can even bring your own apples to have turned into juice for a donation).

Things to do on the day:

  • Play apple games •Learn about local orchards •Discover orchard wildlife •Enjoy the exhibitions •Explore the Apple Display • Buy heritage apple trees.”

Whilst a Borough Market, London, a blessing is even involved:

“Borough Market’s neighbour Southwark Cathedral will also celebrate the day with a short act of harvest worship in the Market, accompanied by the Market’s choir.”

Apple Day shows us that however urban our environment we can still celebrate our rural connections and with the growing number of events it is clear Apple Day is here to stay!

Custom revived: The Whitebait Festival

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The days when we all lived in clover, With whitebait, can never revive, I assure you,” said Lawless, “they’re over, But, oh, keep the licence alive.”

Such were the lines from ‘Punch‘ to have two politicians who were commenting on the end of the great Whitebait Feast.

The consumption of baby sprats and herring – commonly called Whitebait – was such a popular dish in Essex that it attracted much ceremony which included members of parliament and even the prime minister!

Raise to the bait

The association with an annual feast apparently is associated with those who funded the Barking Breach, a costly anti-flood venture which was built in 1707. This begun with the host Sir Robert Preson, the Dover MP inviting distinguished guests to his fishing cottage nearby. Then in 1766, the first Whitebait Feast first took place in Dagenham, this was largely a private affair, often attended by politicians and marked the end of the parliamentary season on or around Whit Sunday. The politicians would process by boat to the party. A regular attendee was the then Prime Minster, Pitt the Younger. He was concerned that the venue was too far too London and as such it moved to Greenwich. However this being a political activity there were two locales: the Trafalgar Tavern (for the Liberal members) and the Old Ship Tavern (for the Tories). The last such Dinner was held in 1894 a closure forced by the lack of Whitebait, a consequence of the Thames pollution rather than any political falling out.

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Baited breathe

Then Southend Chamber of Commerce, Trade and Industry revived it in 1934. The improvement in water quality in the Thames has resulted in spawning occurring not far from Southend pier. Of this first revived feast the Times reported:

“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds; whitebait ill-cooked is much nastier than salt cod, and many are the people who do not like whitebait because they have never tasted whitebait worthily cooked and served.”

The custom consisted of an official opening ceremony with the catch blessed at from the end of the pier with the bringing in of the first catch. This catch was then taken to the feast. However a few changes have been made – since the burning down of the pier – the event has moved to the Bawley below Cliff’s Pavillion. The Mayor of Southend, other important people of the town and the ministers of the five different denominations attend. Arriving a few moments earlier one has to peer into the nearby restaurant where the whitebait feast occurs – tickets available from the Round Table – but don’t expect any prime ministers. Here the party assembled and then vicar and mayor carrying a basket of whitebait in a white cloth. Gingerly making their way to the water’s edge, the vicar said a few words and together holding the fish and nearly dropping them they threw them back!  Then the group went to a local restaurant to enjoy the Whitebait – although this is only the first course I would imagine!

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Sadly despite the blessing – much of the whitebait is caught 100s of miles away in the Baltic..and I am not sure the blessing gets that far!

Custom survived: The Nepton Distribution Barking

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I have travelled and do, travel quite bit around the country visiting, experiencing and photographing old, curious and unique customs and ceremonies. I am sure if you are a follower – you’ve noticed and enjoyed!

Yet what I did not realise until recently that being enacted every year not far from my home town was a custom just as curious and old – the Nepton Distribution, a charity organised by the Poulters, a London Livery company.

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The only way is Essex

Essex has had a bad press in recent years – and often it is portrayed as vacuous, lacking any finesse or class – but scrape beneath the surface and proper pomp and circumstance can be found. Each year St. Margaret’s Church is visited by the Poulters and local dignitaries to visit the Tomb of a local worthy, Nepton and provide local people with the proceeds of his endowment.

I was informed that the custom is the longest unbroken monetary charity in the country after the Maundy Money, which if it is correct makes its lack of notice even more surprising. The money was provided by the Will of Ann Nepton, who in January 1728 set up a trust using a property in Dunning’s Alley , which after the death of her son, passed to the Company of Poulters’ who would pay forever £40 per annum to the poor people of Barking in the county of Essex those that;

“shall be the most industrious and that do not receive Alms or reliefe of the said parish”.

The property was finally acquired by the North London Railway Company and was the Great Eastern terminus site in 1865.

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In Barking on a journey

In 1890 when Ilford split from Barking it was decided that the Master and Clerk would visit both and distribute £20. This money is now topped up by the Charity fund of the Poulter’s company. It was ordered that the Master and Clerk should wear their gowns and announce:

A Committee representing the Court of the Worshipful Company of Poulters London appears here for the   purpose of paying to the Poor of this Parish the sum of £40 under the will of Ann Nepton.”

After an introduction and welcome by the town’s Mayor and then the Master of the Poulters, a local dignitary, a Mr. Glenny read out the names. Hands were raised and voices heard and a small envelope with money was hand delivered. Every now and then no one answered – absent – and the distribution went on. Records show how these distributions have fluctuated in line with the profit made on the endowment and changes in inflation:

“1771-1774      £22

1801               £34

1802-1804     £28

1822-1823     £50

1836               £30”

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 Barking mad!

The irony of this custom being enacted in my home town was that I have been generally unable to attend and having thought it would be of interest to spread the knowledge of this little known custom further, I sent a reporter – my father. However, I had forgotten, he had forgotten..and had fell asleep – only to be woken by a piece of paper which had the details of the custom. Noting it had yet occurred he speeded off to it. He made it and thanks to him for the photos and details. He was warmly welcomed by the Poulters and was the only person not part of the distribution.

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Once the distribution was over there was a more solemn task, The second part of the custom involved paying respects to the benefactor. In the churchyard is a notable table tomb, the burial place of the Barking benefactor, Thomas Nepton

“Beneath this Tomb are deposited the Remains of Mr. Thomas Nepton. Formerly of this Parish, who departed this life On the 26th day of September 1724 in the 49th year of his age. Also of Mrs. Ann Nepton Wife of the above, who departed this life On the 2nd day of May 1728 in the 64th year of her age. This tomb was repaired & beautified in the year 1825 by an order of the Court of Assistants of the Worshipful Company of Poulterers, London made on the 31st day of March in the same year to which Company the above named

Thomas and Ann Nepton gave & devised considerable Estates in Trust for Charitable purposes.”

The beneficiaries, led by the clergy, Master of Poulters and other dignitaries made their way to the tomb where prayers were said and a wreath laid. A solemn thanks. Although the upkeep of the tomb was the responsibility of the company, the wreath laying only begun in 1975. The third part as stipulated by the will was a supper – I did not get my father a ticket for that, but he appeared to enjoyed it and he too was surprised it had gone on without his knowledge.

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Indeed the custom is perhaps now unique. There were many similar charities and doles. Many survive. Yet few appear to have a real impact. Here where 160 local people are the beneficiaries – 60 from Barking and 60 from neighbouring Ilford – there’s a real feeling that the people attend out of need. Certainly the attendees were well known to the distributors. Perhaps in the 21st century that is a bitter pill to take, but the people were good humoured and appeared to enjoy the ceremony of it – as well as the Nepton’s continuing generosity.

When is it on? It’s not on calendar customs yet but it’s usually in the first week of June.

Custom survived: Good Friday Bun Hanging at The Bell Horndon on the Hill

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DSC_0938 DSC_1091 DSC_1094What do you do with your hot cross bun on Good Friday? I presume you’ll say eat it…not unless you work in the Bell Inn Hordon on the Hill, a delightful ancient 15th century inn in a surprisingly remote and unspoilt part of south Essex. Here they hang one!

Visiting on Good Friday…the first thing you notice is the crowd. Is it always like this? Probably not everyone is checking their phones…but not this time for their Facebook feeds but checking how close it was to the hanging time – 1pm! The second thing you notice are the buns…over a hundred…109 in 2015! They are of varying qualities.

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The earlier ones testament of the conditions of the pub…blackened by the century of cigarette and fire smoke. Generations of the future might well be puzzled at the difference between these and the post-smoking ban buns I wonder. Some are broken and wrapped in clingfilm..others are more curious. There are four with blackened poppies inserted within…retrospectively referring to the World Wars no doubt. Those of the War years look a little unnatural and upon closer inspection these wouldn’t make a nice snack…being made of concrete. That raised in 2006 is also a little unusual. For the 100th anniversary a wooden one was made.

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Greatest thing since sliced bread?

It is thought that in 1906 Jack Turnell became the landlord on Good Friday and so celebrate he hung a bun, having one left over…and from this rather singular act a tradition was born. However, a more plausible theory akin to this is that to advertise his new tenure he offered the buns, which was so successful a venture, he thought celebrate it. Of course this is not the only pub which hangs a hot cross bun…there are two others..and it is likely that the instigators were aware of an older tradition regarding bread and loaves backed on Good Friday. It was a widespread custom…for example a correspondent of Maureen Sutton in her Lincolnshire Calendar notes:

“You must always back your hot cross bun on Good Friday, and because that’s a holy day your bun will have magic properties…keep one back in case anyone in the family becomes ill during the following year..”

And as far south as Dorsetshire, John Symonds Udal wrote noted in 1922 Dorsetshire Folklore:-

“Good Friday Bread: It is generally believed that the bread baked on Good Friday never gets mouldy; and in some parts it is used as a charm or talisman in order to make other bread ‘keep’.”

And indeed, the custom of hanging was a much more widespread domestic one if William Hone’s everyday book is to believed

“In the houses of some ignorant people a Good Friday bun is still kept for luck and sometimes there hangs from the ceiling a hard biscuit like cake of open cross work baked on a Good Friday to remain there till displaced on the next Good Friday by one of similar make and of this the editor of the Every Day Book has heard affirmed that it preserves the house from fire no fire ever happened in a house that had one.”

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A brake (bread) with tradition?

The allotted time came and the manager of the pub came out and gave a brief history and talked about the Inn. He noted that traditionally the oldest resident of the village was hoisted up and attached the new bun to the beam. Not this year….this year it was decided that local ‘unsung hero’ Mike Tabbard, would do it. After an introduction justifying why he should do it…Mr Tabbard climbed the step ladder and reaching across attached the bun…and that was it..a brief event but a significant one.

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One a penny, two a penny…of these ones are free!

But that was not all, for after the ceremony, the staff appeared with trays heaving with freshly baked glistening hot cross buns. Three hundred in all! For many years these were baked in the high street bakery, but that has now long gone. Fortunately, the pub is one of the top 25 foodie pubs in the UK and can make a bun. Indeed,  these really were not only hot but delicious…the best buns I have tasted.

When is it on? It’s not on Calendar customs yet..I’ll change it when it is.

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Custom revived: The Fairlop Fair

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There you are just about to write a piece about a demised tradition…and lo it gets revived! The Fairlop Fair is one of these!

It’s my party!

Tradition has it that the fair begun in an unusual way. Virtually all fairs in England start with either ancient unknown origins or from a charter. No this one. No it started from a private party. It is said that in the 1720s landowner, Daniel Day decided to have a party on the first Friday in July for his friends whilst they collected his rents. This was under an ancient oak called the Fairlop Oak. This feast of bacon and beans then precipitated into something bigger. By 1725, more people joined in and soon stalls appeared! These sold at first innocent products- gingerbread men, toys, ribbons, puppets and these grew so much that in 1736 some were prosecuted for liquor selling and gambling!

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The fair was certainly an event first and fair after. Day liked to make an event of it. He was an eccentric and it was his tradition to arrive at the fair on horse drawn boat with much fanfare from some musicians. The fair grew and grew and by 1750 over 100,000 people were attending from across London and such that in 1765 it was reported that:

“a great number of people meet in a riotous and tumultuous manner .selling ale and spirituous liquors and keeping tippling booths and gaming tables to the great encouragement of vice and immorality.”

In 1767 a bough fell from the tree and Day saw that as an omen and fashioned it into his coffin. Not even death of its creator Day had an effect. Not even the authorities banning it in 1793. The Fairlop Oak fell in 1820 this did not even stop it! Not even the loss of the wood around it and its conversion to arable land in 1851. The Fair continued with controversy for in 1839 the Religious Tract Society counted 72 gaming tables and 108 drinking booths.

 Fair enough

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Despite all these issues the Fair continued to 1900…then nothing is heard until 2011! The organisers are to be congratulated in creating an event which distilled the feeling of the fair with various acts. Back was the original beanfeast. Costumed characters abounded…lots of beards particularly. In memory of the booths which consisted of the ‘living skeleton’ and the ‘real live mermaid’ we had the Fairlop Freak Show presented by the beared ladies and booths with a dancing mermaid. A story boat recreated Mr Day’s traditional boat on wheels! This arrived from Mile End and held candlelit tours! It is a splendid vehicle. There were strolling players, particularly the Highwaymen and musicians in costume which gave a real genuine flavour to the proceedings. Traditional aspects abound such as Tug of War, palmists and jugglers.  A fantastic dragon which was so real looking you could be mistaken it was real!

Of course there were fairground rides – small scale and traditional in nature and some modern aspects – singers and dancers- but after all the original fair would have moved with the times.

But gone were the gambling stalls of course until a few years time perhaps!