Category Archives: Food

Custom demised: Leap Year Agricultural and garden lore

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Today is the 29th of February – a date which as you know only comes around every 4 years- intercalary year or bissextile year. Readers may be familiar with the belief regarding “Ladies Day” or “Ladies’ Privilege,” but there were other beliefs and customs associated with the day due to its rarity.

With a day made up of .25 of a day, there would be bound to be issues and the most wary of this change as always was country folk.  Weather governs agriculture and it according in a year leap the weather always changes on the friday and considering the awful windy and rainy weather of 2020 so far, I did notice that it did change accordingly…but lets see how that changes over the year.

Leaping lambs

Often the presence of an extra day appeared to knock the whole calendar both literally and folklorically out of kilter. One Scottish countryside view was regarding sheep and it was said that:

Leap year was ne’er a good sheep year”

This is reported in an 1816 edition of the Farmer’s Magazine:

“It has long been proverbial here that ‘leap year never was a good sheep year,’ an observation which this winter has been fully realized.”

Interesting in 1816 there was a considerable drop in temperature which meant that the snow quickly turned to ice and many lambs died. Whether it happened on a Friday though is unknown!

Not bean a good year

Planting crops were particular affected by Leap Day and the whole year. New plant fruits should not have been planted on the day as they only bore fruit once every four years. But the most reported was that broad beans and peas grew the wrong way in that their seed would be set in the pods in a different way to other years i.e back to frint. The reason for this appears to be that as this was the Ladies Privilege year when the idea of proposing was upside down the bean would lie the wrong way but why broad beans (and often peas) should be associated with this is unclear.

The custom even got to the ears of the great scientist Charles Darwin who in his autobiography stated who discussion of his scepticism:

“In illustration, I will give the oddest case which I have known. A gentleman (who, as I afterwards heard, is a good local botanist) wrote to me from the Eastern counties that the seed or beans of the common field-bean had this year everywhere grown on the wrong side of the pod. I wrote back, asking for further information, as I did not understand what was meant; but I did not receive any answer for a very long time. I then saw in two newspapers, one published in Kent and the other in Yorkshire, paragraphs stating that it was a most remarkable fact that “the beans this year had all grown on the wrong side.” So I thought there must be some foundation for so general a statement. Accordingly, I went to my gardener, an old Kentish man, and asked him whether he had heard anything about it, and he answered, “Oh, no, sir, it must be a mistake, for the beans grow on the wrong side only on leap-year, and this is not leap-year.” I then asked him how they grew in common years and how on leap-years, but soon found that he knew absolutely nothing of how they grew at any time, but he stuck to his belief.

After a time I heard from my first informant, who, with many apologies, said that he should not have written to me had he not heard the statement from several intelligent farmers; but that he had since spoken again to every one of them, and not one knew in the least what he had himself meant. So that here a belief—if indeed a statement with no definite idea attached to it can be called a belief—had spread over almost the whole of England without any vestige of evidence.”

With all this in mind I thought I might go ahead and plant some beans and see what happens! I’ll report back in 2024 – hopefully – at the latest.

A.C. Smith in their 1875 article from Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine on Wiltshire Weather Proverbs and Weather Fallacies they note:

“I must also call attention to the remarkable prejudice against Leap-year, a prejudice as common and as widely spread as it misunfounded. It is popularly supposed that neither children nor  domestic animals born in that year will thrive and that neither ” Leap year never was a good sheep year.”

Perhaps the last word though should be for A.C Smith’s who states:

“I need scarcely say that these are all popular delusions, founded on no reliable basis, though doubtless they do occasionally, however unfrequently, by accident, come true ; and then they attract unmerited attention, and are held up to admiring disciples as infallible weather-guides.

One thing however seems quite certain, and that is that if our observations are recorded through a long period of time, there will be found to be a balance of averages, both as regards heat and cold, and wet and dry weather: and in short the general average through the whole period will be found to be maintained.”

And with such cynicism and logic the custom must have died out!

Custom contrived: Matlock Raft Race, Derbyshire

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

Draft idea or not

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

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

Raft of ideas

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

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

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Raft of missiles

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

“No Eggs No Plastic bags”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It made no effect as I saw in 2018!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custom survived: Halloween Apple bobbin

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Long before we were seeing hoards of children traipsing the street dressed up as ghosts, goblins and ghouls, children would be found inside with their heads down in water. Why? For many people apple bobbing was Hallowe’en and indeed for many it still is a fun part.

At first glance these parties appear to be influenced by American popular culture and certainly have been growing in popularity since the 1970s and 80s. Indeed Enid Porter in their 1974 Folklore of East Anglia suggests so by stating:

“East Anglia has no long-established customs observed at Hallowe’en, 31 October. Of recent years, however, probably due to the ever increasing interest in witchcraft, parties are often held in private homes and clubs and societies in which some old Halloween games such as bobbing for apples in a pail of water are played.” 

This would appear in line with the growth of Trick or Treat however this would be wrong.  For in Nella Last’s wartime diary she records parties in the 1920s and 30s, pre-war family:

“Hallowe’en 31 October 1939…my towels all in a drawer and not in a wet heaps in the garage where everybody would have been ducking for apples.”

Indeed in Stamford, a correspondent in Maureen Sutton’s 1996 A Lincolnshire Calendar records in 1940:

“At school we would stop lessons. A large bowl would be filled with cold water in which the teacher would float the apples. We’d have to have our hands behind our backs. Three or four of us would get round the bowl and we’d try to bite and retrieve the apple floating in the water, while at the same time the teacher would gleefully dunk our heads in it.”

  1. S Burne records that an extract from an old notebook records:

“Malvern, Ist November, 1888. Colonel C.- G.- tells me that when he was a boy, I suppose about 1845-48, he stayed in a Denbighshire farmhouse, where the sons (young men) stripped to the waist and ‘bobbed’ for apples in a tub of water on All Saints Eve. They urged him to join them, in the presence of the full family circle, and laughed at his modest scruples.”

In fact Owen’s Account of the Bards, preserved in Sir R. Hoare’s Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales (vol. ii. p. 315), provides more evidence of the ancient origin of the custom:

“The autumnal tire kindled in North Wales on the eve of the 1st of November is attended by many ceremonies, such as running through the fire and smoke, each casting a stone into the fire, and all running off at the conclusion, to escape from the black short-tailed sow ; then supping upon parsnips, nuts, and apples ; catching at an apple suspended by a string, -with the mouth alone, and the same by an apple in a tub of water.”

The presence of the names for Hallowe’en as Duck in Newcastle or Apple or Dookie Apple Night in Swansea, ‘Apple and candle night’ in Pontypool, ‘Bob apple’ or ‘crab apple Night’ in Durham. Opie and Opie (1956) Folklore of Children record that:

“like most British games the games on Hallowe’en give the onlookers splendid entertainment, but demand fortitude on the part of the players.”

Image may contain: one or more people and foodThey describe the method as follows:

“Duck Apple. A large bowl or tub is filled with cold water (sometimes soapy water) and a number of apples floated in it. One or two players a time get down on their knees and, with their hands behind their backs (not infrequently tied behind their backs) try to get hold of one of the apples with their teeth ‘when they have done this they must lift the apple out of the basin. If they do this they may eat it.” In Monmouthshire, as the game begins the children shout gleefully: Crab Apple Night is my delight. If you take a bite of the apple nothing will happen to you, but, exults the 11 year old ‘if you miss, your head goes into the water with a splash’ ”

Variants of the game exist with Forking for apples, using a fork or Bob Apple or Snap Apple being on the line.

Silver RavenWolf  in his 1999 Hallowe’en links the custom to the Roman invasion of Britain where she states that they brought with them their deity Pomona and her sacred apple tree. It is said that during the annual celebration, young unmarried people would use it as a way to determine who was next to marry and indeed it is recorded in the 1800s a maiden would place the apple under a pillow to dream of this future husband. However, the first custom is mentioned by Charles Vallencey in his 1789 book Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis as occurring in Ireland. An Irish origin seems more likely than a Roman one

Whether Roman or Irish it is good to see amongst all the pointless plastic and pumpkins it remains and is even features amongst the Youtube influencer generation.

Custom revived: Spalding Pumpkin Parade

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

Turn into a pumpkin

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

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

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

From tiny seeds grow big pumpkin parades

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

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

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

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

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

Custom demised: Nativity of the Virgin Mary Boar’s Hunt, Grimsby, Lincolnshire

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The town of Grimsby has three boars on its crest you may ask why?

The origin comes from when the town was surrounded by wild woods and when boars were common in these areas. The tradition having two parts the main part being the presentation of a boar’s head. T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1975) notes:

“An old tradition existing within the town of Grimsby asserts that every burgess at his admission to the freedom of the borough anciently presented to the mayor a boar’s head, or an equivalent in money when the animal could not be procured.”

Indeed, an 1828 copy of The Gentlemen’s Magazine states that the Mayor of Grimsby would have three boars heads at the table at his feast. Part of the tradition would be to hunt, for it is also recorded that:

“The lord, too, of the adjacent manor of Bradley, it seems, was obliged by his tenure to keep a supply of these animals in his wood for the entertainment of the mayor and burgesses, and an annual hunting match was officially proclaimed on some particular day after the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. In the midst of these extensive woods the sport was carried on, and seldom did the assembled train fail to bring down a leash of noble boars, which were designed for a public entertainment on the following day. At this feast the newly-elected mayor took his seat at the head of the table, which contained the whole body corporate and the principal gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood.”

When did this custom begin? The coat of arms is 17th century but it may go back to a Viking or Saxon tradition. Interestingly, the last boar in England was said to have hunted in Bradley which may have been for the Mayor of Grimsby.

Custom demised: Martin o’ Balymas Day or St Bulgan’s Day, Caithness and Shetland

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In the Highland county of Caithness and the isles of Shetland, the 4th of July was thought to be an important day to observe the weather to ensure safe sailing for the fisher folk. On the Shetland islands this day was called “Martin o’ Balymas Day” but in Caithness, it was “St Bulgan’s Day”. The names being a corruption of “St Martin of Bullion’s Day” in turn a mispronunciation of “Martin le Bouillant” meaning boiling referring to the hot summer feast.

152 best images about Caithness on Pinterest | Old ...

In the Northern Isles, this feast day took over the day traditionally ascribed to St Swithin and was said to mark the beginning of six weeks of dry weather. If the feast was greeted by a gale of wind, however, as is unfortunately all too common, rain would be sure to follow. An anonymous folklorist recorded:

“If the morning be fine, they had no hesitation to go to sea, because they knew the day would be good throughout, but they invariably avoided going the preceding day, lest they be overtaken by bad weather on the 4th or as they call it here St. Martinabilumas Day. By a few it is called St Martins, and the legend regarding the name of the day is that a dutch man, unjustly accused and condemned was put to death on this day and at the time of his execution stated that the day might be particularly distinguished in all time as proof of his innocence. The prayer of the righteous man was heard, and six weeks of dry or raining weather have annually commenced at this date, and he rainy season always begins with a gale of wind.”

St Martin of Bullion’s Day and its derivative is now forgotten and St Swithun has taken over!

Custom demised: Visiting Downpatrick’s wells on Midsummer’s Eve, County Down

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Midsummer is a time often associated with visiting wells. In the July 1817 Hibernian Magazine it is reported:

“At Struel, near Downpatrick, there is a ceremony commencing at twelve o’clock at night on Midsummer Eve. Its sacred mount is consecrated to St. Patrick ; the plain contains three wells, to which the most extraordinary virtues are attributed.”

The account continues:

“Here and there are heaps of stones, around some of which appear great numbers of people, running with
as much speed as possible ; around others crowds of worshippers kneel with bare legs and feet as an indispensable part of the penance. The men, without coats, with handkerchiefs on their heads instead of hats, having gone seven times round each heap, kiss the ground, cross themselves, and proceed to the hill ; here they ascend, on their bare knees, by a path so steep and rugged that it would too difficult to walk up. Many hold their hands clasped at the back of their necks, and several carry largo stones on their heads. Having repeated this ceremony seven times, they go to what is called St. Patrick’s Chair, which are two great flat stones fixed upright in the hill ; here they cross and bless themselves as they step in between these stones, and, while repeating prayers, an old man, seated for the purpose, turns them round on their feet three times, for which he is paid; the devotee then goes to conclude his penance at a pile of stones, named the Altar. “

The report concludes by stating:

“While this busy scene is continued by the multitude, the wells and streams Issuing from them arc thronged by crowds of halt, maimed, and blind, pressing to wash away their infirmities with water consecrated by their patron saint, and so powerful is the impression of its efficacy on their minds, that many of those who go to be healed, and who are not totally blind, or altogether crippled, really believe for a time that they are by means of its miraculous virtues perfectly restored.”

Image result for downpatrick stoole "st patrick's chair"

Francis Dixon Hardy in his 1840 Holy Wells of Ireland provides greater details;

“About one mile and a half to the east of Downpatrick, and within about half a mile of Slieve-na-Grideal, one of the most celebrated of the ancient Pagan high places is a hill of about 150 feet of perpendicular elevation, called Struel Mountain, which remains uncultivated, producing a little mixture of grass and shamrock, with a few hawthorns, and an abundant crop of furze. At the foot of this hill, which is looked upon as holy ground, at about two miles distance, a monastery, built, as it is said, by St. Patrick and St. Bridget, formerly stood; near which is a well, bearing the name of the former saint, and supposed to possess extraordinary virtues, both in healing the diseases of the body, and in cleansing the pollutions of the soul; a sacred stream, supplied by this spring, runs unpolluted by any other stream until it arrives at Struel. It then flows through the consecrated plain, by a channel covered over with flags and large stones, and supplies in its course two of the four wells which it originally fed. Two of these wells, which are in a higher situation, appear to have been formed by hollowing out a little ground near the course of the rivulet; while the water enters the other two by spouts, having a fall of three feet into one, and six into the other. To these there are coverings in the form of sentry-boxes; the covering of the third is of the form and size of a moderate pig-sty; and that of the fourth is a kind of little cottage, consisting of two apartments.”

He continued rather disparagingly:

“To this place about one thousand people resort every midsummer, for the purpose of doing penance. They come from all parts of Ireland, and even from England and Scotland. Besides these, there is always a large crowd of spectators, amounting probably to another thousand. For the comfort and accommodation of both, a number of tents are erected in the plain, where whiskey is sold, and entertainment of every kind is afforded. The ceremonies commence upon the Sunday preceding, and commonly end upon the Sunday succeeding midsummer-day. As it is not necessary, however, that each penitent should continue here during all this period, few remain longer than one half of the week. The latter half seems to be regarded as the more holy; for the place is, during that time, more frequented, particularly on the last day, which is for that reason called “big Sunday.” No one appears to act as a general superintendent, but the multitudes appear to be left to themselves in submitting to the penance, and performing the ceremonies with which it is connected.”

Downpatrick Struell wells By Ardfern – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8104076

He continues:

“This portion of the penance being over, the penitents descend into the plain, where they move round certain cairns of stones, some crawling, and others running, as before. Each individual, however, must here carry a stone, which he adds to the heap. These cairns are in groups of seven and twelve, which respectively denote the days of the week, and the months of the year; or, as some will have it the seven churches and the twelve apostles. Around these they go seven times, or seven times seven, and twelve times, or twelve times twelve – measured as before by their various degrees of criminality. The next part of the ceremony is to proceed to the large well, termed the body-well, or, by some, the well of sins.  Before entering it, however, they approach with profound reverence a flag of freestone, which is placed in the wall, and is possessed of some peculiarly sanctifying powers. This they touch with their fingers, and then cross themselves repeatedly, and thus become prepared for the purifications of the holy wells. If they can afford a few pence of admission money, they may enter the larger well, where they have room to undress if not, they must content themselves with the second or limb-well, into which they are admitted free of expense, being obliged, however, to strip themselves in the adjoining fields. All modesty is here thrown aside. As they approach the well, they throw off even their undergarments, and with more than Lacedemonian indifference, before the assembled multitudes, they go forward in a state of absolute nudity, plunge in, and bathe promiscuously. After such immersion, they go through the ceremony of washing- their eyes, and conclude the whole by drinking from the fourth well, called by some the well of forgetfulness, and by others the water of life.”

Like many customs involving large numbers the side entertainments developed:

“Thus end the ceremonies of the day. Those of the evening follow, and form a remarkable contrast. The employments of the day seem to be considered as the labours of virtue, those of the evening are her rewards, by which they are amply compensated. Their eyes, after having been bathed in the sacred stream, instantly discover the flowery path of pleasure, which conducts them to the tents prepared for their reception, where they are supplied with copious draughts, of which the water of life was but a faint emblem. In these tents, and in the adjoining fields, under the canopy of a pure sky, they spend the whole night, quaffing the soul-inspiring beverage, and indulging in various gratifications to which the time and place are favourable; for it is understood, that while the jubilee continues, and as long as the happy multitudes remain on the sacred ground, they cannot contract new guilt.”

Sadly, no more, the springs remain but few people visit at Midsummer. They continued until the 19th century but a combination of a drop in water levels and prohibition of devotional exercises by the ecclesiastical authorities due to rowdy behaviour meant the custom slowly died out. People still visit the wells but perhaps the springs are now doomed as 2006 Environment and Heritage Service officials stated that the wells were drying up and two no longer contained water.