Category Archives: Food

Custom demised: Love divination on St. Faith’s and St. Luke’s Day

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On the eve of St Faith’s Day, a 3rd century Aquitaine resident, Virgin and Martyr,  being burned on an iron bed placed over a flame pit. Thomas Thistleton- Dyer (1875) British Popular culture records the procedure:

“On this day a very curious custom is observed in the North of England. A cake of flour, spring-water, salt, and sugar must be made by three maidens or three widows, and each must have an equal share in the composition. It is then baked before the fire in a Dutch-oven, and, all the while it is doing, silence must be strictly observed, and the cake must be turned nine times, or three times to each person. When it is thoroughly done it is divided into three parts. Each one taking her share, and cutting it into nine slices, must pass each slip three times through a wedding-ring previously borrowed from a woman who has been married at least seven years.”

He records that each one must eat her nine slices as she is undressing, and repeat the following rhyme:

“good St. Faith, be kind to-night, And bring to me my heart’s delight; Let me my future husband view, Aud be my visions chaste and true.”

Another source suggests that it consisted of:

“An egg-shell-full of salt, An egg-shell-full of wheat meal. An egg-shell-full of barley-meal. Water.”

Notes and Queries appears to record another less prescription method undertaken in October across Ireland:

“In Ireland, this season is celebrated by the making of the Michaelmas cake. A lady’s ring is mixed in the dough, and, when the cake is baked it is cut into sections and distributed to the unmarried people at table, and the person who gets the slice with the ring ” is sure to be married before next Michaelmas”

Of course, like many calendar custom allowed a second attempt to discover your sweetheart, this time without making a cake. Thomas Firminger and Thistleton Dyer in their 1884 work Folklore of plants.  On the eve of St. Luke. In this case it could be found by rubbing dry marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, thyme and a wormwood. These were sifting through a fine piece of lawn and simmer over a slow fire. To this honey and vinegar was added. After doing all this one anointed oneself before going to bed and recite the following:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me. In dreams let me my true love see”

She must turn around three times and cast over their left shoulder. If on falling the mixture forms a letter this was your sweetheart and if it fell apart dead would happen! Was it worth doing I wonder…a cake would be better!

 

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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 demised: Avoid eating Blackberries after Michaelmas Day

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

-Irish Proverb

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

In the Western Antiquary of 1882 it is reported that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

Custom survived: Brent Harvest Home, Somerset

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As cars thunder by on the busy M5 or more closely slope by as hereabouts its notoriously poor traffic, the little village of East Brent at the end of August celebrates the harvest. In most villages across the country Harvest festivals reign supreme as the communities big if rather sombre thanksgiving a contrast to often debauched Harvest celebrations of yore…East Brent’s harvest home, one of a small group of traditional celebrations you could say sits between the two…how close to the second depending on how much alcohol is in the summer puddings!

Feast for the eyes

East Brent is also the oldest surviving Harvest Home, having been started in 1857 by the then archdeacon George Denison, then  held on the 3rd of September as a holiday for workers. He described as:

“in 1857 my Churchwarden, Mr. John Higgs, a constant communicant and near and dear friend, came to me to suggest having every year a harvest home at East Brent. I entered into the proposal immediately and heartily. It had long appeared to me that we wanted recognised holidays for the working-men, women and children; and here was a step in that direction, specially recommended by one of its leading features, that it was not only a holiday for all classes alike, but a holiday which all classes kept and enjoyed, in close contact with one another. The proposal was generally welcomed as soon as made, and we held our first harvest home Sept. 3rd, 1857. At that time there was, I believe, northing of the kind in this part of England. The East Brent harvest home has become a Somerset institution; and although it has long ceased to retain all its original character in respect of gathering together here many chief people on the harvest home day who came to see what we were about, and whether it would be good to follow suit at home, it has retained, and more than retained, it has increased all its original popularity; and I am enabled to say, having watched everyone of them from year to year – with rare intervals every year has had its harvest home, beginning with 1857 – that each one has been an improvement upon its predecessor. The original scheme has in all its substance remained intact. Alterations have come in matters of details. I have read and heard of, and have seen other schemes of harvest home arrangement; but of no one which was, I think, so good as our own.”

An attendee described it thus:

“How they poured in, one after another, an endless string. Huge joints of meat decked with flowers, large banners on the walls, and plum puddings by the dozen. How the meat went, and then the puddings. And so the dinner was over. Waistcoats strained, then sweat poured down, the cider was quaffed, and they were happy!”

This was the men’s celebration, the women had a separate one. An account states:

“The ladies had their meal the following day and it was very different. The next evening the school-room was again filled, but this time it was by the poor women to partake of tea, when bread and butter, cake, ham, tea, and other good things were soon made use of in a truly interesting manner.”

This first Harvest Home attracted 300 for dinner and 500 for tea, but soon over the years the celebration lengthened to four days and attracted 6000 people. However over the years it has lost the days, the formality of man and women separate dinning and in a way its true function. Few people directly work on the land and so this is celebration of agriculture rather than a thanksgiving feast!

The Weston Mercury recalled that in 1859:

“ a capacious tent erected in the grounds adjoining the Vicarage, was decorated with appropriate designs, mottoes and emblems, which included: ‘Long life to our worthy Vicar and to his benevolent Lady;’’G. Reed, Esq., Lord of the Manor of East Brent, and Burnham’s Benefactor;’ and ‘G.Reed, Esq., the friend of the Poor.’  The large company included the Bishop of the Diocese, Members of Parliament, the principal parishioners, and clergy and gentry for the neighbourhood. The rich plum puddings and the immense loaf, for which East Brent harvest home has always been famous, figured in the menu.”

More of those plum puddings in a moment!

Feastive fun!

Over the years it has lost it’s purpose in thanking the workers during the harvest and has become more of a celebration to agriculture and various village activies Muriel Walker in her Old Somerset customs describes the scene in 1984 regarding what needed to be done before the great day:

“after some months of planning the villagers start a busy work on the Monday with s waiters meeting, there are luncheon tickets to deal with as the repast is no longer free. Later in three week enormous ivy ropes are made the menfolk having gathered the required ivy) to go the entire length of the marquee in which the meals are served. Hoops and banners are hung around and still later in the high table is decorated with corn and flowers. The president who happens to be the vicar has he privilege of having his chair decorated as well.

On the day itself, the women turn up as early as before seven o’clock in the morning to lay the tables, make salads and do other preparatory work.

Following a procession, led by the band, and a church service, the main meal is eaten. The men, kit seems, still do the meat carving. Afternoon teas follow in due course with sports, fancy dress and a tug o war.”

She noted that the remaining food was auctioned the following day, although now it is done in the afternoon.

 Harvest Bestival

In the 150th anniversary booklet,  Rita Thomas (nee Poole), stated:

“I heard the talk but couldn’t imagine what a Harvest Home was like; but anything happening in a village in 1957 had to be worth a try. My first job was to sell centenary programmes at 6d each. This meant a half day off work, which was great! I got more involved as the years went by, doing all sorts of jobs, laying tables, washing china, trimming ivy ropes, flowers for the high table, making hoops and banners. For example:- ‘many hands make light work’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘make hay while the sun shines’, ‘the best in the west’, ‘1973 the year of the tree’ and many others.

We try to keep the event as traditional as possible but have also streamlined some jobs to make use of modern ways to save time. It is still a traditional feast day which starts with a church service at St Mary’s followed by lunch in the marquee which includes the procession of 90 Christmas puddings, a 120lb cheddar cheese and a 6′ x 2′ harvest loaf. The ladies carry the puddings to the marquee from the village hall and the men carry the bread and cheese.”

Oh and them Puddings before the feast officially begins. Waiting by the marquee you see a joyous procession of puddings! Yes those puddings that culturally appear restricted to Christmas but you would like to have them at other times well here you can and why not. They glint held high by their makes – only women I note pity as I can do a mean pudding too! The harvest loaf carried proudly on the shoulders of six male bearers is similarly an impressive piece of culinary art and finally the cheeses – not all Cheddar one would note but I think some Stinking Bishop was there too!

The account continues:

“The lunch is followed by the toast to ‘agriculture and kindred industries’ proposed by a guest speaker and someone else replies. A second toast is made to ‘the visitors and helpers’ and a response to this. The prizes for decorated hoops and baskets are then awarded followed by an auction of any surplus food. During the afternoon, tea is served, and there is a fancy dress competition followed by sports, so quite a busy day. In the evening we have various bands, a disco, licensed bar, funfair etc.”

Little has changed. Today tickets are £18 and it starts at noon, a religious service is held at 12.30 for 15 minutes and then luncheon is had. Tea is served from 4.30 followed by free children’s entertainment and sports for all. The bar closes at 8.45 so it is not a late one but it certainly is a packed one.  Although this is very much a local event with access to the marquee ticket only one can still experience the festive nature of the day when this tiny Somerset village keeps up its proud tradition and thanks is given as a great feast is undertaken!

 

Custom survived: Ebernoe Horn Fair

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What could be more quintessentially English; a large village green, the sound of leather on wicket, cries of Owzat and a sheep roasting! The latter is perhaps not the most English but this game of cricket is not all what it appears either!

Ebernoe is a small village, so small it is difficult to define as a village which each 25th July since 1864, a revival after a long lapse, the village come together to celebrate the Horn Fair. A correspondent to Folklore recorded its popularity in an 1950s edition:

everyone goes, by car, bicycle, bus or push-chair, and on Shanks’ pony up the steep track through scrubby woodland to the hill-top common where the hamlet encircles the open ground.”

All’s fair in horn fair

The origins of the Horn Fair are difficult to pin down, particularly as the only places it is recorded is in this village and Charlton near London. In the olden days the day was one of considerable ribaldry as it is believed to be derived from a custom of celebrating cuckoldry which would happen at the fair as it was probably a more riotous affair with dressing up. All this has gone but it is the roasting of the sheep whose head was traditionally presented that is significant.

That’s not cricket!

Indeed it is an odd association – cricket and a sheep roast – but one which is closely protected. There’s only been one interruption from 1940 until 1954 although this didn’t affect the cricket and a pair stag antlers were used as a suitable replacement so its not really a break – the cricket must go on!

There is a fair, a fun fair albeit a small one . It was described in Folklore as:

“with roundabouts and swings, hot-dogs and china dogs.”

The China dogs have gone but everything else survives!

Turning up on the day what first impresses you is the normality of the custom the cricket and the roast could be like any village fete where roasts have become common place, but there is something curiously ancient about this sanitised custom. The scene today is no different than that described by Stanley Godman in his 1957 article Horn Fair in Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society:

“It is a specially fattened sheep, roasted whole. A pit is dug in the ground, four and half feet long, and three feet deep. A big wood fire is lighted inside this trench and kept burning until approximately one and a half feet of cinders and hot ashes have accumulated. The carcass is rubbed with salt, red pepper and oil . . . A long pole is driven through the carcass and fixed in such a way that the sheep turns with the spit . . . the sheep is cooked for at least four hours and turned once every fifteen minutes. It is basted with oil at least once every half hour .”

Round the horn!

At the end of the day all the attendees assemble by the club house. The horns are given to the highest scoring batsman although it is no longer the head of the sheep roasted on the spit rather a specially mounted one. The reasons for this maybe explained in an account by a Mr A.W. Smith, in Folklore he states that a:

“spectator’s dog…a year or two ago ran off with the head pursued by the butcher (in white coat and straw hat) brandishing his knife, and a string of shouting onlookers determined to avert a disaster.”

Although its more likely to be health and safety concerns! This notwithstanding organisation has not changed since it was reported in Folklore which recorded:

The head is presented by a local notability with a suitable speech, of which the most memorable that I myself have heard was made by the parson of the parish, a man of striking presence. Holding in one hand the head – a horrid object prudently provided with a wire handle – he proclaimed ‘We men of Ebernoe know where the men of – [who had won rather too often] are going – and jerking his free thumb over his shoulder, we are giving them the Horns to help them get there !”

Ebernoe had won the year I turned up too and its best turned up to collect the head from the local lord residing at Petsworth I believe. Then sheets are handed around and the Horn Fair song is sung:

As I was a-walking one fine summer morn,

So soft was the wind and the waves on the corn.

I met a pretty damsel upon a grey mare,

And she was a-riding upon a grey mare.

‘Now take me up behind you fair maid for to ride.’

Oh no and then, Oh no, for my mammy she would chide,

And then my dear old daddy would beat me full sore,

And never let me ride on his grey mare no more.”

‘If you would see Horn Fair you must walk on your way,

I will not let you ride on my grey mare today,

You’d rumple all my muslin and uncurl my hair,

And leave me all distrest to be seen at Horn Fair.

‘O fairest of damsels, how can you say No?

With you I do intend to Horn Fair for to go,

We’ll join the best of company when we do get there,

With horns on their heads, boys, the finest at the Fair.”

Stanley Godman in his article Horn Fair in 1957 for the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society attempted to find out more of the song’s origins he noted:

Thanks to the kindness of Miss Marie Slocombe it is now possible to specify the Country Magazine programme which led to the revival of the Horn Fair song at Ebernoe. It was broadcast on May 28th, 1950, and the song had been sung to Mr. Collinson two weeks before. As Mr. Collinson said, Jimmie Booker was a trug-basket maker. He had learnt the craft in East Sussex and carried it on until his death in 1951. In the broadcast the song was sung by Cyril Tucker. Mr. Morrish of Great Allfields Farm, Balls Cross, near Ebernoe, heard the broadcast and obtained permission for the song to be sung at the Horn Fair. In August, 1955, Mr. Morrish told me that when he first introduced it to the Ebernoe people in 1951, one of the company, Mr. Tom Stemp, then aged 75, said he could well remember it being sung by an old Ebernoe woodman, David Baker, who died in 1943 at the age of eighty. This was valuable confirmation of the song’s former association with Ebernoe, though, as will appear below, it cannot lay sole claim to it. Tom Stemp, who remembered the song, first played for the Ebernoe Horn Fair cricket team in 1900 and in 1954 his son was captain of the team. Such family traditions are still strong in this remote place, isolated geographically, with its school, church and cottages hidden behind a thicket, independent spiritually and (in normal times) to a great extent, materially. Another well-known Ebernoe family, the Holdens, have been associated with the Fair since 1876. Ephraim Holden, who died in 1954 at the age of 87, had attended every year since he was nine.”

Horn of plenty?

It is clear that there is some underlying belief in the horns. It is indeed recorded that even if the day was beset with thunderstorms that was thought to be good for the crops and that it was the day to sow cabbages!

In the piece on Another English Head luck custom notes:

“A horned sheep was roasted whole in a pit of embers with the head projecting over the end, so that the horns are not damaged. It was ‘lucky’ to baste the sheep which, when cooked, was de capitated. The rival cricket teams, from Ebernoe and a neighbouring village, dined on the mutton, while spectators had mutton sandwiches. After the match the winning team got the head which they hung in their favoured pub. In a letter to me Miss Dean-Smith commented: It is not a horn fair as the term is generally understood …. It is not a patronal feast… the presentation of the horns suggests something more significant.”

Of course, it could all be some Victorian vicar’s embellishment but in a way there’s no better way to spend a warm July day and think of its origins!

Custom demised: Crabbing the Parson, Clent, Worcestershire

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A.M Protheroe and T. E. Jones in their Scraps of English folklore X in Folklore record in the Worcestershire village of Clent:

“The strange annual custom of ” crabbing the parson ” was followed on ” Wake Sunday ” at St. Kenelm’s, the wake being held on the first Sunday after July 28th, or St. Kenelm’s Day. The custom was discontinued more than a hundred years ago, and in the St. Kenelm’s of to-day seems to be quite forgotten.”

John Noake in his 1848 The Rambler in Worcestershire, or, Stray Notes on Churches and Congregations relates comically that:

“The last clergyman but one who was subjected to this process was a somewhat eccentric gentleman named Lee. He had been chaplain to a man-of-war, and was a jovial old fellow in his way, who could enter into the spirit of the thing. My informant well recollects the worthy divine, after partaking of dinner at the solitary house near the church, quietly quitting the table when the time for performing the service drew nigh, reconnoitering the angles of the building, and each “buttress and coign of vantage” behind which it was reasonable to suppose the enemy would be posted, and watching for a favourable opportunity, he would start forth at his best walking pace (he scorned to run) to reach the church. Around him, thick and fast, fell from ready hands a shower of crabs, not a few telling with fearful emphasis on his burly person, amid the intense merriment of the rustic assailants; but the distance is small; he reaches the old porch, and the storm is over.”

However, not always did the vicar join in the fun as Noake continues:

“Another informant, a man of Clent, states that he has seen the late incumbent, the Rev. John Todd, frequently run the gauntlet, and that on one occasion there were two sacks of crabs, each containing at least three bushels, emptied in the church field, besides large store of other missiles provided by other parties; and it also appears that some of the more wanton not unfrequently threw sticks, stakes, &c., which probably led to the suppression of the practice.”

Sadly, the author is probably correct and like many customs which tread the line between violence and fun it did disappear, but why did it exist. Noake again gives a reason:

“The custom of crabbing the parson is said to have arisen on this wise. ‘Long, long ago,’ an incumbent of Frankley, to which St. Kenelm’s was attached, was accustomed, through horrid, deep-rutted, miry roads, occasionally to wend his way to the sequestered depository of the remains of the murdered Saint King, to perform divine service. It was his wont to carry creature comforts with him, which he discussed at a lone farmhouse near the scene of his pastoral duties. On one occasion, whether the pastor’s wallet was badly furnished, or his stomach more than usually keen, tradition sayeth not, but having eat up his own provision, he was tempted (after he had donned his sacerdotal habit, and in the absence of the good dame) to pry into the secrets of a huge pot in which was simmering the savoury dinner the lady had provided for her household; among the rest, dumplings formed no inconsiderable portion of the contents; whether they were Norfolk or apple dumplings is not mentioned, but the story runs that our parson poached sundry of them, hissing hot, from the cauldron, and hearing the footsteps of his hostess, he, with great dexterity, deposited them in the ample sleeves of his surplice; she, however, was wide awake to her loss, and closely following the parson to the church, by her presence prevented him from disposing of them, and to avoid her accusation (‘a guilty conscience needs no accuser’) he forthwith entered the reading desk and began to read the service, John Clerk beneath making the responses. Ere long a dumpling slips out of the parson’s sleeve, and falls plump on sleek John’s head; he looks up with astonishment, but having ascertained that his reverence is not labouring under the effects of an emetic (‘vomits’ they called them in those days), John took the matter in good part, and proceeded with the service; by and bye, however, John’s pate receives a second visitation, to which he, with upturned eyes and ready tongue, responded, ‘Two can play at that, master!’ and suiting the action to the word, he forthwith began pelting the parson with crabs, a store of which he had gathered, intending to take them home in his pocket to foment the sprained leg of his jade of a horse; and so well did the clerk play his part that the parson soon decamped, amid the jeers of the old dame, and the laughter of the few persons who were in attendance; and in commemoration of this event (so saith the legend), ‘crabbing the parson’ has been practised on the wake Sunday from that time till a very recent period.”

Perhaps, but one cannot feel they may be a connection between the church’s association with the martyred king and perhaps it was done as a type of atonement or originally a scape goat was used transferring to the parson over time. We may never really know but rest assured the vicar is safe on the 28th July every year….unless one of us lies in wait!

 

 

Custom revived: Beltane Fires, Port Meadow, Oxford

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INVITE YOUR ENTIRE FRIENDS LIST PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: This is the last year May Day falls on a weekend or Bank Holiday until 2021. This is the last massive May Day for the next four years. I suggest you go large. CALLING ALL LOSERS, HARD BOOZERS, QUEEN BEES, WANNABES, FULL TIME PUNKS, SHIPS THAT SUNK, MONKS, TIGERS, RAVERS, LIFE SAVERS, MAYBES AND CRY BABIES, MISFITS AND WOTSITS, DAILY FAILURES, DAILY MAILERS, HEATHENS AND FIRE BREATHERS, NORMS, TEACUP STORMS, OLD TIMELYS AND ACID CASUALTIES, THE TUNELESS, TONEDEAF AND ALL THE OTHER DISCORDANT OR OTHERWISE ARE ALL WELCOME!!! ALL WHO FEEL THEY CAN ADD TO THE ATMOSPHERE, WHATEVER YOUR SKILL, POET, JUGGLER, POI, MUSICION, SPEED DRINKER, JOKER, PROFFESIONAL…”

So reads the Facebook invite to Beltane 2017

Last year I started my mammoth quest to visit as a many May Day customs as I could. I started my journey begun with planning to experience May Day at Oxford. The well renowned University town is noted for its unique May Day morning;  a strange smorgasbord of customs. However, I had read a small note of something rather unique and low key the night before and after checking into my accommodation I decided to investigate.

May it be on?

This supplementary custom occurred on the common at the edge of Oxford, so I decided to venture in the darkness of the wide open space. It was an all or nothing venture. This was something not official nor confirmed – I couldn’t find anything online particularly on Facebook. But nevertheless I decided it was worth exploring.

It was pitch black and I walked a few yards along the causeway looking for evidence of any activity. I felt quite unnerved to be honest. The common was a black void, lonely and forbidding. After an hour I couldn’t see anything and was about to turn back when I saw a flickering light in the distance. Was this it? I walked nearer and could hear music. Closer and it revealed itself to be a small group of twenty somethings around a fire listening to music. They were quite bemused by my appearance and said ‘They is a much larger bonfire around the corner’.

May it be a survival?

Of course, folklorists will be intrigued by these fires, being lit as they are on the eve of May Day, or Beltane. In parts of Northern Britain and Ireland the lighting of such fires has a long possibly pre-Christian origin, dating back to our dark Celtic times. Indeed the first written evidence comes from a 900 CE Irish glossary called the Sanus Chormaic which states:

“Beltaine. May Day i.e bil-tene i.e lucky fire i.e two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle against disease of each year to those fires they used to drive cattle between them.”

Interesting until recently cattle were being pushed through such fires in Ireland and Scotland until the 19th century. As a form of purification for the new year. A survival in the Celtic homelands is plausible – but in genteel Oxfordshire unlikely. Despite the link between Port Meadow and grazing thereabouts!

Beltaine and braces!

Well I decided to explore with some degree of trepidation! After a fair walk, I thought it was a wind up. But then I could again hear sounds and see flickering flames in a small opening in the woody area. Making my way through the foliage I found a larger group of people surrounding a larger bonfire. In their little arbour surrounded by fairy lights tangled through the undergrowth there was much chatting and laughter as they listened to the music and drank. Nearby was a reveler spinning around some flaming balls to great effect. All in all ,a typical rave akin to those of the 1990s, but this one being tied to a date made it of interest to the folklorist.

I asked about the history of the custom. One of the organisers said that their parents used to do it and they would attend as children. It was more a town event than the May morning after was most definitely gown event and had been going at least 40 years. She then said that a few years back they as adults went out looking for the fires one May Day Eve and being disappointed in not finding any decided to get organised the year after and do their own. Ten or so years later they were still doing it. This was a big one of course as May Eve was on the weekend without any work restrictions. She was unaware of its significance of the fires, but her name ‘Stardust’ I think explained its origins! A new age custom taken up and brought back to life by the neo-pagan parents, but now strangely like many ancient customs its significance not known to the current celebrants. This in a way indicates how quickly the meaning behind customs is forgotten.

Which in a way is good as its celebrated as deemed fit. The whole affair was very convivial and relaxed; so much that I wish I had stayed longer and not booked somewhere to stay, especially as it was such a fine evening.

Oxford’s May Eve celebrations are the very best of our British customs – an event special to its community, secretive but not exclusive.