Category Archives: Food

Custom survived: London Harvest of the Sea Festival

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“O Lord Jesus Christ, who after thy glorious resurrection didst prepare by  the waterside a breakfast of fish for disciples that had toiled the whole night  long; Come amongst these thy servants who toil beside our river day by day  to provide food for their fellow men, and bring thy blessing both on their  work and on their lives, O Lord our Saviour and help for ever. Amen.”

The Billingsgate Market Prayer – specially written by the late Very Rev. E. Milner-White

London has many traditions and customs as indeed this blog has detailed. One of the most visually arresting and unique is the Harvest of the Sea Harvest festival which is celebrated at St Marys at the Hill tucked away up the narrow Lovat Lane in the shadow of London’s famed Monument and a few yards from the Old Billingsgate Market.

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I remember as a child once being brought early in the morning to see this vibrant fish market in action. The seafood smells, the sounds and sights of the white coated porters rushing around delivering their valuable fish stock was a heady and confusing. Little did I know that a few years later this venerable market, which had traded here since Viking times, would move forever more from its famous location to the Isle of Dogs and the noise and smells lost forever here….that is until the second Sunday in October when the smells and memories return to the church nearby. 

Plenty of fish in the sea!

The custom is famed for its seafood display which is not only visually impressive but fills the air with a fresh maritime aroma; a unique experience in a London church. Brian Shuel  in his 1985 a Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain states:

“Early in the morning a vanload of fish arrives to be laid out just inside the door of the church. In 1984 it took four men just two hours to create the astonishing display.”

He continues to state that one of the porters remarked:

“We counted fifty-four varieties of fish and shellfish…something like £500 worth of fish donated by the Billingsgate Fish Merchants.”

The display was similarly adorned with a large display of fish and seafood, with a separate stall of prawns, shrimps and cockles to the side. Nets were hung above and over a considerable monument which loomed above and crab and lobster pots – indeed two live crabs sat rather dazed upon the later awaiting their fate. 

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Fishing around

I spied beneath the stall, one of the traditional bobbins. These were unique hats once worn by the porters to enable quick and efficient movement of their wares. Recalling my childhood visit I do remember the considerable skill involved and was in awe of those men rushing around carrying several boxes of fish balanced on their heads. The hats themselves are of wooden construction, covered with canvas and coated with bitumen to make them long lasting. Held together with studs and understandably having a brim to prevent any unnecessary fluids reaching the face, they are now rare pieces and in the modern Billingsgate not required.  The hat belonged to Mr Billy Hallet, who was one of two senior porters in white overalls who obliged for a photo. 

But one may ask why were they needed then? The original Billingsgate and the areas around was largely cobbled and so wheeled trolleys would be difficult to maneuver. I was informed by one of the oldest ex-Porters there, Reg Condon, of a tradition which enabled them to get up the more challenging hills locally. Upon reaching such a local, a cry of ‘hill up’ would be called by the porter. This then awoke the various rough sleepers who rested in the area who would then appear to help push the porter up the hill! They would then would be rewarded a shilling for their help. Apparently, this was a long standing tradition known by the homeless community who would make sure they were local to help and receive their monies.  

The service begun with a traditional blessing of a small section of the fish by the Bishop of Birmingham – an interesting choice perhaps being a clergyman from a landlocked location. This blessed firsh  was later returned to the whole display, with a remark that this was probably more desirable as it had been blessed.  The service had other unique maritime features such as the unique Billingsgate Prayer and prayers for Seafarers as below:

“For Seafarers  O eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, rulest the raging  of the sea: Be pleased to receive into thy protection all those who go down to  the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters. Preserve them  both in body and soul; prosper their labours with good success; in all time of  danger be their defence, and bring them to the haven where they would be;  through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

O God our heavenly Father, we pray to thee for all seafarers and those who serve their needs; for keepers of lighthouses and the pilots of our ports; for all who man the lifeboats and guard our coasts; for the men of the fishing fleets and those who carry out the services of docks and harbours; for the guilds and societies which care for the wellbeing of fishermen and their families. Bless them according to their need, and shield them in all dangers and temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

There was an uplifting rendition of the “For those in peril on the sea” even more poignant with the aroma of the sea drifting across the congregation. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem with the new amendments and soon food and drink was being served to the departing congregation. 

A different kettle of fish?

How old the current custom is is difficult to ascertain. It certainly is not mentioned in any of the books on customs and traditions from the 1800s or early 20th century. I spoke with a Mr Reg Condon who had worked in Billingsgate in the 50s, 60s and 70s and was 85. He could recall that the first service at St Mary’s was in the 1960s and that he did recall it being held in St Magnus. This would be in line with the reference in the Times of the 3rd October 1922 which describes a similar event. It seems likely that the custom moved perhaps after the second world war to its current location. Although St Magnus state that the service moved in 1923 to St Dunstan in the East and then to St Mary at Hill, Alternatively, Brian Shuel  in his 1985 a Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain states:

“This unique Harvest Thanksgiving began in the 1930s.. The Church Army  approached the market and suggested it as a charitable exercise. Sam Shepherd, a former Superintendent of the market told me they were delighted to agree. The occasion continues on the same basis; the Church Army still claims the fish and distributes to the needy.”

He adds surely with a tongue in cheek:

“I was grateful to accept a pair of dover sole myself, from the artistic fishmongers, who recognised my own unfortunate circumstances.”

Today a considerable queue forms and many happy congregations left with some quality seafood ready for that special occasion and despite the concerns over overfishing the display is as remarkable as ever. 

Custom demised: Great Crosby Goose Fair

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Many readers will know the Tavistock Goosey Fair, certainly Nottingham’s Goose Fair but Great Crosby once a small village, now a considerable settlement, seven miles from Liverpool also had its ‘Goose Fair.’

Notes and queries records that the feast took place when the harvest is gathered in about that part of the country, and so it forms a sort of “harvest-home” gathering for the agriculturists of the neighbourhood. Thus, it appears to have developed from a feast day and was associated with St Luke’s Day or rather the nearest Sunday. Notes and queries continues to state that:

“It is said also that, at this particular period, geese are finer and fatter after feeding on the stubble-fields than at any other time.”

And the comments that:

“Curious to say, however, the bird in question is seldom, if ever, eaten at these feasts.”

A reason for this being given that George Henderson’s 1911 Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, states that:

“At ‘Goose Fair’ at Great Crosby, Lancashire, the goose was held as too sacred to eat.”

Whether is true is unclear and it may have been that it was simply a trade fair and once does not eat the profits. Similarly when it demised is not known. 

Custom transcribed: London Rathayatra

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Occasionally London surprises you and you discover a fairly long running and sizeable custom such is the remarkable Hare Krisna Rathayatra custom which fills the streets of London with incredible sounds and sights in what could be described as London’s most vibrant religious customs. 

Hare Hare

The custom begun when eight devotees and their congregation organised the first procession from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square in 1969. Devotee Shyamasundar Dasa constructed the first chariot for Lord Jagannath making the deities of Jagannath Beladeva and Subhadra ‘so beautiful that everyone will be attracted to them’ as Indian Guru Srila Prabhupada instructed, and these are the deities which still process today. The Back to Godhead Magazine stated:

“Londoners still have not recovered from that initial shock of that transcendental sound vibration in 1969. The Radha Krishna Temple (music band) has not let them”

In those first headlines in national papers read “Krishna Chant Startles London”. In those early years the congregation was small around 30 but their presence was increasing particularly when in 1970 a new 50 foot chariot was built and  Hare Krishna devotees overtook Leicester square with huge flashing billboards announcing “Holy Jagannath Car Procession”. The Godhead magazine, the magazine of the Hare Krisna movement, stated

The second annual London Rathayatra festival happened just like that. Two years before, when six disciples of the Hare Krsna Movement first invaded British soil, the newspapers declared: “KRSNA CHANT STARTLES LONDON.” Londoners still haven’t recovered from that initial shock of transcendental sound vibration. The Radha-Krsna Temple (London) hasn’t let them. The devotees there (now numbering near thirty) have continued to bombard England with Hare Krsna on records on television and radio, in the movies, in newspapers and magazines, and daily the sankirtana party of saffron-clad chanters dance their way down Oxford Street.”

In 1973 the Rathayatra was attended by His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada Founder Acharya of ISKCON. It was reported that:

 “although Srila Prabhupada was 74 years of age, he chanted and danced throughout the entire procession. He ignored the elegant seat on the chariot, which was offered to him, much to the delight of the assembled devotees. This festival was Srila Prabhupada’s triumphant moment looking out at thousands of people chanting the Holy name in Trafalgar Square.”

A future leader of the Hare Krishna movement Maha Vishnu Swami organised the event and donated £10,000 pounds to publicise it. The next day Guardian newspaper read “ISKCON Rathayatha is rival to Nelson’s column” and the Srila Prabhupada stated that:

“Just as the residents of Puri compared the Rathayatra cart to Mount Sumeru, the residents of London considered the cart rival to the Nelson Monument.”

By 1985 the Rathayatra now proceeded from Marble Arch to Battersea Park, allowing for a larger festival at the end of the procession and here for a number of years a big festival was established in the park. In 1996 the procession had swelled to around 8000 members and by 1999 it had returned to its original route combined with the fact that Trafalgar square was traffic free and it was attended by 10 Sannyasis, the movement’s senior leaders and was filmed for an international TV series Abhay Charan. 

By 2004, two more chariots were built and thus the procession consisted of three chariots and in 2008 the oldest chariot was rebuilt utilising the skills of the Queen’s wheelwright to construct the huge wooden wheels in the traditional style with the rest of the work such as the painting done by volunteers. In 2018, the custom celebrated its 50th anniversary. 

Hare along to see

I stopped outside the Ritz as a wave of Hare Krishna devotees flowed down from Marble Arch. First one noticed the sound of chanting ‘Hare Krisna’ and a blur of distinctive orange as large numbers of people danced in and out of the crowd. As they got closer one could see that the procession was not only made up of joyous dancers but consisted of portable shrines, individuals dressed as deities and of course the enormous chariot which soon loomed into view and filled the sky. 

The chariot is a remarkable construction, although initially disappointed that there was only one as I was under the impression there would be three. A huge wooden construction covered in maroon, yellow and blue proclaiming Hare Krishna, covered in garlands upon which sat a smiling figure of the late spiritual leader Srila Prabhupada; there in spirit if not sadly in body. The canvas top of the 

Soon the massed procession passed by Eros and the intrusive neon commerciality of Piccadilly Circus which in a way was a curious juxtaposition; but that is London after all. After around an hour the whole procession and the cart arrived in Trafalgar Square where the celebration continued. There was more dancing, weaving in and out and chanting. However, the most remarkable site became the queue for the free food; a common feature of the Hare Krishna movement. 

All in all, the procession was a remarkable visual and auditory experience. One of the great customs of the capital and one which clearly drew many people from different backgrounds together to celebrate life and devotion. Long may it continue.

Custom demised: Eccles Wake

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Eccles Wakes Fair, 1822 | Art UK

In the town of Eccles was a famous wake, an annual festival associated with the Parish church and doubtless associated with its foundation. The event was celebrated on the first Sunday in September, and continued during the three succeeding days, and consisted of feasting upon a kind of local confectionery, called “Eccles Cakes,” and ale, with various sports. 

Edward Baines in their 1836 History of County of Lancaster: 

“On Monday morning, at eleven o’clock the sports will commence (the sports of Sunday being passed over in silence) with that most ancient, loyal, rational, constitutional and lawful diversion.”

One of the most barbaric aspects was:

 “Bull Baiting: In all its primitive excellence, for which this place has been long noted…the day’s sport to conclude with baiting the bull, Fury, for a superior dog-chain.”

The festivities continue:

“At one o’clock there will be a foot race; at two o’clock, a bull baiting for a horse collar; at four o’clock, donkey races for a pair of panniers; at five o’clock, a race for a stuff hat. On Tuesday, the sports will be repeated; also on Wednesday, with the additional attraction of a smock race by ladies. A main of cocks to be fought on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for twenty guineas, and five guineas the byes, between the gentlemen of Manchester and Eccles; the wake to conclude with a fiddling match by all the fiddlers that attend for a piece of silver.”

Such village wakes flourished throughout the midlands and northern England and were seen as holidays for working people in the industrial regions such as Wigan.  As such by the 18th century, huge crowds were attracted and by 1877 local residents complained and thus the custom stopped by order of the Home Secretary. 

Today the only relic of the Eccles wakes are those Eccles Cakes….and delicious they are too!

Custom survived: Lee Gap Fair, Yorkshire

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“Stallions proud and ribbands prancing

Joyous fiddling and dancing

Isaac Horsfield who was there

He made sport for all the fair.

A handsome show of china ware

Of much variety was there

Cheesecakes plenty might be got

Gingerbread and good tom-trot.”

 

Lee Gap Fair was founded over 800 years ago been chartered by King Stephen in 1139, thus it can rightly claim to be England’s oldest horse fair only the local church is older and the two are linked.  Traditionally the fair took place on the Feast of the Assumption (15th September) and finished on the Nativity of the  blessed Virgin (8th September) and thus was linked to the church.

Making leeway

The fair became a major event People travelled vast distances to attend the fair. In the Middle Ages Lee Gap Fair attracted merchants from France, Spain, Florence and the low lands of Germany. Not only Horses bur cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock were sold at the fair.

Such was the occasion that people attending are said to have married or got their children baptised and hence the fair was good revenue for the church who had a priest on call the whole fair. Miracle plays were also performed to bring the faith to the masses.  The fair was owned by Nostell Priory until the Reformation when it was granted to a Dr Leigh and the fair moved to West Ardsley and took on his name although written as Lee and I am unsure where the Gap came from. However, there is some confusion over whether the Nostell Priory Fair and the current fair are the same continuation as their fair was five days starting on St Oswalds’s feast day on the 9th not 24th and early writers state that it was discontinued ‘centuries ago’.

Interestingly, the Charter does not tie the fair to one site only that it be held in the parish of Woolkirk or West Ardsley. Which is good because its most traditional site was lost to building many years back forcing a new location to be held. However, not only is its location fluid but its function too. Originally it was wool fair only becoming a horse fair as the need for horses through increasing warfare and agriculture forced the necessity.

Fairly well met

On first arrival you think there cannot be a horse fair here its too urban as you survey the neat gardens, hedges and waxed cars in their drives. And indeed, the first site was built upon a few years on. However, soon there appear to be see a parade of cones and then a small handwritten sign Lee Fair at the side of a farm lane. Going down here past some rather large houses the lane snakes down into a small, enclosed field and here 100s have gathered. A detailed sign at the gate informs me of what I can and cannot do there – no racing of horses and silly string stand out!

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A fair assessment?

Attending a horse fair is one of those rare experiences. A completely unvarnished natural organic custom devoid of any tourist pretensions. Indeed, at one point I think I am the only non-traveller there! Certainly, the only one with a camera around my neck which makes me self-conscious as I snap away but despite one boy asking for a photo; I appear invisible and inconsequential to those assembled. Such events always appear to be associated with problems

The horse fair is a window on another world. A world within a world. A world divorced from the mainstream. The stalls mainly sell materials which only suit its close clientele – metal churns, horses’ bits and various nick-nacks. There are of course cloth stalls but again in the main their apparel appeal to those who are there particularly the young girls who view these events as both a fashion parade and an opportunity to meet boys. Indeed, I came across and listened in on one such approach by a boy who runs over and asks ‘excuse me but my friend really likes you will you talk to him?’ None of that grabbing that was parade in the populist media a few years back.

Standing on the corners one comes across groups of old men. They had seen it all before. They appear the more traditionally dressed in their tweeds and barbers catching up with old friends and looking on at the young folk and their courting. Unlike a more formal selling environment with an arena and animals paraded in and out it is in these huddled groups that the horse trading is done. So often seeing or hearing a deal can be a rarity.

Walking around I noticed lots of strands of green, pink, blue materials and soon come across some younger kids attacking each other with kit and then looking like they immediately regretted it and set about removing it from each other’s hair! The silly string! Looks good they heeded then warning!

Every now and then a horse rushes by ridden, trotted or on occasion on its own! The crowd parts and everyone watches – again I am sure they said there was none of this-but I am glad there is because it adds some degree of excitement and authenticity.

Occasionally there are some other animals – chickens and caged canaries seem to be popular, and I see a number wandering around with the birds in colourful quaint wooden cages. The community are keen to maintain their traditions but unlike other customs where such things are kept up, here it seems natural and functional, rather than tradition for its own sake.

A fair representation?

Sadly, fairs and antisocial behaviour seem always to go hand in hand. One only need to delve into the records to see. The earliest being the 1315 Wakefield  Court Rolls which records three complaints brought against John  de Heton. He was accused of assaulting a man and a woman and overturning a stall, causing the owner damages and injuries totalling a loss of forty shillings. Regular accounts in the local press record thefts, selling of stolen horses and pick pockets litter the 19th century press accounts. Fairs always attract all types and certainly over the years drunkenness, damage to property and indeed bloodshed forced the local residents in 1656 to petition the West Riding justices to have it abolished stating that it was a nuisance and Wakefield market could provide their needs. It did not work of course, especially as the local community had not grasped that the fair whilst open to them was not really for them. By end of the 18th century the fair did indeed last from 24th August (St. Bartholomew’s) until 17th September. As the twentieth century developed it was moved to have the fair only on the starting date- 24th August and its last day and thus gave the name early Lee and Later Lee.   Alcohol was highlighted as a cause for much of the issues and as such there is no license to sell it at the fair.

Fairly well remembered

Julia Smith in the excellent 1989 Fairs, Feasts and Frolics spoke with a Mr J A Rawson, who she met at the ‘latter Lee’ in 1985. She said that he remembered when the fair was on the Baghill site. She says:

“He had been coming regularly for almost sixty years, and was only fourteen when he bought his first pony there for £4. 10S. He recalled once buying a foal and taking it home on the bus! He had spent his working life down the local pit and drove a pit pony when he first went underground. In order not to miss the fair, he would work the night shift and so have the day free. In the past a Welsh dealer had brought ponies and kept them on the moors at Hartshead to fatten them up for a few weeks prior to the fair, and Mr Rawson had often helped to drive them from there to Lee Gap. A Welsh dealer had been at the fair last year but had not returned this year, much to the disappointment of many of the visitors. Forty or fifty years ago, Irish traders also came to the fair bringing crates of geese and pullets, and the locals would buy a goose from them to fatten up for Christmas.”#

Little appears to have changed over the years since Smith’s description although gone have the:

“big chromium-plated gypsy caravans with their displays of Crown Derby china and their owners sitting on the steps, ‘as if they were showing off their homes and vying to outdo each other’.”

But the display of traditional wooden caravans appears to have increased in their absence as the community looks to continue its traditions. Everything else is almost identical to what greets the curious today she states that:

“the edges of the field were lined with horse boxes, vans and trailers. Horses for sale were tethered at the sides of them and tack, leather and ironwork were displayed on the tail-gates which were turned into makeshift stalls. Some of the traps and carts were decorated with delicately painted designs, I saw little actually changing hands, apart from a pedigree pup and a painting. Men huddled together in groups, deep in earnest conversations; it was here the real trading was done. At various intervals a shout would go up, a path would be cleared down the middle of the field and a horse would come galloping through the crowd, its bareback rider putting it through its paces. Buyers and sellers appeared to know each other, and there were shouts of encouragement or criticism as horse and rider sped by. Two minutes later and warning shouts would proclaim the presence of a huge shire horst being trotted, its owner running furiously alongside. Things would

quieten down for a little while and the huddles be reformed, but before long there was the crack of a whip and a pony and trap would dashdown the field.”

Interestingly unlike other fairs Lee Gap has not been swallowed up by its fringe activities and whilst Smith could watch:

“a man swallow and regurgitate a seven foot long chain! In the afternoon he escaped from a series of bonds and chains, accompanied by a good line in patter.

The business of the day was decidedly the buying and selling horses; four small swing-boats and a couple of slot machines were only concession to entertainment, apart from the escapologist of course.”

Today there are no fringe entertainments, certainly no miracle plays, only than the entertainment of meeting old friends, making new ones and silly string.

Of this buying and selling despite the lowkey nature of trading, I was fortunate to watch a number of deals which involved much too-ing and fro-ing, bluff and counter bluff, persuasion and the final slap of each other’s hands in a motion quite rhythmic and poetic. The deal being sealed and the horse sold.

It is a privilege to be able to see the Horse Fair, one which has remained unbroken for 800 years and whilst it may have its detractors its function being so pivotal to its community means it is a custom that on its own is in no danger of dying out as long as it is protected from those outside forces with their blinkered ways of looking at it!

Custom survived: Good Friday Holcombe Hill Egg rolling, Lancashire

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The last custom I attended before we dived into national lockdown in 2020 was the annual Good Friday at Rivington Pike, those it seemed fitting that the first post Lockdown Easter custom I should attend is the other noted Lancashire Good Friday custom at Holcombe Hill, near Ramsbottom, Lancashire.

Rolling off

The Holcombe Hill Good Friday custom is noted in virtually all folk customs books but usually as an aside in a list of egg rolling locations; which is not particularly useful as it is often coupled with Bunker’s Hill, Derbyshire, which I am pretty sure is no longer extant. And whilst other egg rolling customs get some detailed accounts made, these days usually online, Holcombe’s custom appears to have been so under the radar, that before the pandemic hit, I doubted it actually happened. Or certainly that it did not happen in the same vigour as that of Rivington. However clearly I was wrong and it was the pandemic that indicated that it was very popular when this appeared in the 2021 Manchester Evening News:

“For the second year in a row, a popular children’s tradition is set to be cancelled.

Egg rolling at Holcombe Hill is an unusual event that takes place at Easter each year and has a history dating back centuries.

If you live in the area you will almost definitely have heard of it and might have been among the crowds of onlookers gathered to watch and cheers as youngsters roll painted boiled eggs down the hillside…..

Despite this long history, authorities have advised that no egg rolling take place at Holcombe Hill this year as large crowds ‘would make social distancing impossible’.

The car park on Lumb Carr Road will be locked over the Easter weekend to dissuade people from driving to the hill.

Coun Andrea Simpson, Bury council’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: “After a year of lockdown, we’re all desperate to get out there and enjoy the countryside, and get our lives back to normal…..Thousands of people mixing together at Easter carries a very real risk of causing infection to spread and making people very ill.”

Bar this there is little else recording it bar a mention in 1908 of someone selling sweets at the top in the Bury News and perhaps the original focus of the custom the Church service first recorded in print in 1949 as far as I can gather.  Sadly in many well-known customs people feel it is unnecessary to write anything about them…until now!

Rolling on

So I decided to attend in 2022 and experience the custom. With such rather informal affairs it is always difficult to know what time to attend. If the church custom still happened at the foot of the hill it would have been good to attend, but finding details of this was more difficult and it would appear to be bit early…so I aimed for midday.

Arriving there on a sunny Good Friday thankfully it was clear that there were already many on the summit of Holcombe Hill by the large number of cars crammed along the streets of the small village in its shadow. After finding a parking place, I noticed the large numbers of families with the children clutching egg boxes…meaning only one thing…egg rolling.

At the base of the hill one could see the small figures of people at the top appearing like spikes on dinosaur either side of the dark shadow of the Peel Monument on top. Indeed, there was a steady stream of people of all ages ascending the summit which felt at times more like a mountain than a hill! On the way, there were bits of egg shell. Did they land here or did they not make it?

I spoke to a number of people as they ascended the hill and asked them why they did it. One commented that ‘it was a family tradition’ and another said ‘I remembered going to the summit with his father and grandfather’ I asked did you go with eggs and one could not remember and the other said ‘why yes of course’. I also asked why they did it and another stated that ‘it was just a ritual a way of burning off a big lunch’ another said it was to ‘remember to the Calvary!’

At the top there was a large number of people, mainly eating their lunch, and then like a steady stream, going down to the edge of the hill with their eggs. I peered into a couple of egg boxes to see some neatly painted eggs; indeed some looked stained in the traditional fashion. I joined the families to see how they were rolling them and the answer was they werent! The hill unlike every other site for egg rolling had no good slope. Much of the hill was covered with thick heath and bracken. Instead the children went to the edge of the cliff, one ledge looked pretty precarious and there the aim being to get they either as far as possible, as smashed as possible or both and beneath a large rocky outcrop -the main aim of their projectiles, was splatted with eggs and shells like a giant omelette attempt! It seemed that this was the usual practice for the children confirmed by one of the older men with his grandchildren…and as such I was surprised it had not been recorded before!

 

Custom transcribed: Nottingham Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan

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Recently I have been highlighting the rich customs of Nottingham; a county which rarely gets a focus in folklore circles (unless it is Robin Hood of course) however in the process of writing my Customs and Ceremonies of Nottinghamshire there is a rich range and Vaisakhi the annual Sikh celebration is without doubt on of the most colourful.

Nottingham’s Sikh celebration consists of a Nagar Kirtan procession which starts at the Lenton’s Sri Guru Teg Bahadur Gurdwara early in the morning and snakes its way around the perimeter of the city arriving around three pm at the newest Gurdwara Ramgarhia Sabha to the north of the city. 

The Nottingham Sikh’s Website sums up the significance of the custom well:

“Vaisakhi has traditionally been a harvest festival in the state of Panjab, in modern day India. It is marked by the first day of the month of Vaisakh on 14th April. For Sikhs, Vaisakhi is the highlight of the year marking the Birth of the Khalsa and a time to celebrate their faith and identity.

The Sikh Gurus began their mission of teaching spiritual enlightenment at the start of the 15th century with their first Guru, Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469 – 1539). The subsequent nine Gurus contributed to making Vaisakhi an annual time of gathering for the Sikhs. Each year, at Vaisakhi, the Gurus would introduce new elements to the Sikh teachings.

At this time, the Sikh faith was under vicious attack for its revolutionary nature. The rise of the faith promoted many new freedoms, such as the outlawing (by the Sikh Gurus) of female infanticide, the affordance of equal rights for women and the advancement of an egalitarian society. The fifth and ninth Sikh Gurus were martyred whilst peacefully undergoing torture from the rulers of the time. In reaction to these martyrdoms, the Sikhs were militarised by the sixth and tenth Gurus, by varying degrees, to ensure the survival of the Sikh faith.

The Vaisakhi of 1699 was to be the most revolutionary yet.”

For Sikhs, Vaisakhi celebrates the formation of this Khalsa Panth in 1699 by their 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji and thus is a time to celebrate their faith and identity. Unfortunately, to the ill-informed, or rather local media this has been dubbed Sikh new year, but as one of the attendees told me ‘ this is a big day for Sikh’s think of it as Sikh’s equivalent of Christmas’…pure fodder for the those ill-informed newspaper hacks! However, a closer association would be the harvest home celebrations perhaps of the pre-Industrial age; although they did not include any religious associations.

Sikh more information

My first encounter of this custom was in the early 00s when it came past my house. First I heard the sound of music and chanting and then coming to the front door was confronted with its colour and splendour. According to one of the attendees it was already 10 years old by this stage and indeed the earliest account I can find is from The Nottingham Evening Post of Friday 13th 1990 which states:

“Hundreds of Sikhs formed a colourful procession through Nottingham today – to celebrate one of the most important days in their religious calendar. Ceremonial horses and a sacred float carrying a model of the Golden Temple at Amritsar in India led the way in the parade for Vaisakhi – the day when the Khalsa movement of baptised Sikhs was formed in 1699. Most of  Nottingham’s Sikh community joined the inner-city march, which visited five temples.”

A good account and informative of the reason for the custom, however, by 1993, the Nottingham Evening Post from the 22nd of April journalist sloppiness had crept in:

“HAPPY NEW YEAR s was celebrated with a spectacular procession through the streets of Nottingham At its peak up to 2000 people joined in the celebrations on the five-mile parade along a route past the city’s six gurudwaras Sikh temples People lining the roadside were handed sweets as a sign of goodwill by children Among those joining the fun for Vaisakhi the most important day in the Sikh calendar were Sukhdeep Singh Badyal seven (left) and Charn-jit Kaur Rayat eight The event was organised by the Sikh Community.”

I wonder if these children were still attending? It appeared as a regular feature in the post for the next decade and appears on line although lacks perhaps the details needed for those interested in the custom and rather focuses on the road closures!

Processing it all

I recently came across the parade, in the middle of the day, twenty years after my first encounter and it did not disappoint. The main focus was a float carrying as it traditional the turrets of the Sikh’s golden temple, bedecked with ribbons and adorned with gold as below musicians played music, sung and chanted. A LED sign informed those unaware of what it was about with a Happy Vaisakhi. In front of the float were ceremonial sword dancers and staff bearers who periodically stopped and displayed their splendid skills. Leading the procession was a truck with a large ceremonial drum which was enthusiastically beaten. Behind them helpers swept the ground and sprinkled holy water and behind them barefooted ceremonial sword bearers and flag holders shuffling along. The whole spectacle was a vibrant aural and visual delight of blue and orange, made even more palatable by the free sweets and later on the Langar (free vegetarian food). Following up the float was the assembled Nottingham Sikh congregation dressed in their finest and not looking particularly worn out as I would have done if I had been parading since the early morning. Now 40 years old this custom is a firm fixture in the city’s ceremonial customs so much I am surprised Robin Hood has yet to make an appearance!

Custom survived: Making Simnel Cakes for Mothering Sunday

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Recently I have noticed that well-known bakery Greggs had been selling Simnel cakes around March time in memory of the tradition of making Simnel Cake which if the number of recipes on the internet is anything to go by is still a commonly made cake. Here is a clip of well-known Mary Berry making one!

The association with Mothering Sunday has been so great that it became alternatively known as Simnel Sunday. 

Nathan Bailey in his 1721 Dictionary states that:

“Simnel is probably derived from the Latin Simila, fine flour, and means a sort of cake, or bun, made of fine flour, spice, &c.”

Frequent mention is made of the Simnel in the household allowances of Henry the First.

“Cancellarius v solidos in die et i Siminellum dominicum, et ii salum, et i sextarium de vino claro, et i sext. de vino expensabili, et unum grossum cereum, et xl frusta Candell.”–_Libr. Nigr. Scaccarii,”

Why a cake should be firstly established with a religious custom is unclear but some have argued that it derived from a type of bread given out on the Sunday service. Indeed a bread called “simnel bread” is mentioned by Jehoshaphat Aspin, in his Pictures of Manners, &c., of England quoting from a statue book of the 51st of Henry III:

“A farthing symnel_ (a sort of small cake, twice baked, and also called a cracknel) should weigh two ounces less than the wastel_(a kind of cake made with honey, or with meal and oil).”

At some point probably to make it more commercially viable it manifested itself into cakes with the image of Jesus to know the traditional 12 apostles and Jesus made of balls of marzipan!

Edward Baines in his 1836 History of Lancashire records that:

“At Bury, in Lancashire, from time beyond memory, thousands of persons come from all parts, and eat “simnels” on Simnel Sunday.”

However the custom nearly fell afoul of the church:

“Formerly, nearly every shop was open, quite in defiance of the law respecting the closing during “service,” but of late, through the improved state of public opinion, the disorderly scenes to which the custom gave rise have been partially amended. Efforts have been repeatedly made to put a stop to the practice altogether, but in vain. The clergy, headed by the rector, and the ministers of all denominations (save the Romanists) have drawn up protests and printed appeals against this desecration, but, as just stated, with scarcely any visible effect. It is not a little singular that the practice of assembling in one town, upon one day–the middle Sunday in Lent, to eat simnel cake, is a practice confined to Bury. Much labour has been expended to trace the origin of this custom, but without success.”

Herrick in his Hesperides has the following:

“TO DIANEME. “A CEREMONIE IN GLOCESTER.    “I’ll to thee a Simnell bring, ’Gainst thou go’st a _mothering;  So that, when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou’lt give me.”

Hone’s Book of Days gives the origin of the name

“There is a story current in Shropshire, which is more picturesque. Long ago there lived an honest old couple, boasting the names of Simon and Nelly, but their surnames are not known. It was their custom at Easter to gather their children about them, and thus meet together once a year under the old homestead. The fasting season of Lent was just ending, but they had still left some of the unleavened dough which had been from time to time converted into bread during the forty days. Nelly was a careful woman, and it grieved her to waste anything, so she suggested that they should use the remains of the lenten dough, for the basis of a cake to regale the assembled family. Simon readily agreed to the proposal, and further reminded his partner that there were still some remains of their Christmas plum-pudding hoarded up in the cupboard, and that this might form the interior, and be an agreeable surprise to the young people when they had made their way through the less tasty crust. So far all things went on harmoniously; but when the cake was made, a subject of violent discord arose, Sim insisting that it should be boiled, while Nell no less obstinately contended that it should be baked. The dispute ran from words to blows, for Nell not choosing to let her province in the household be thus interfered with, jumped up, and threw the stool she was sitting on at Sim, who, on his part, seized a besom, and applied it with right good will to the head and shoulders of his spouse. She now seized the broom, and the battle became so warm, that it might have had a very serious result, had not Nell proposed as a compromise that the cake should be boiled first and afterwards baked. This Sim acceded to, for he had no wish for further acquaintance with the heavy end of the broom. Accordingly, the big pot was set on the fire, and the stool broken up and thrown on to boil it, whilst the besom and broom furnished fuel for the oven. Some eggs, which had been broken in the scuffle, were used to coat the outside of the pudding when boiled, which gave it the shining gloss it possesses as a cake. This new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known by the name of the cake of Simon and Nelly, but soon only the first half of each name was alone preserved and joined together, and it has ever since been known as the cake of Sim-Nel or Simnel.”

Well upon cooking my Simnel cake I took pains to boil the fruit and then add it to the mix bake it slowly..and then with the marzipan on carefully place it under the grill..and very nice it was too. My mother was very pleased with it as I arrived surprising her on Mother’s Day.

Custom demised: Wetting the block

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All about shoes: Cordwainer or Cobbler : What's the difference ?

Hone’s Everyday book records a curious lost trade custom which was recorded in Berkshire and Hampshire only it appears. As the two counties are adjoining it is quite possible that it was established here but a note by the author suggests that it other places it took place in Easter. The author writes: 

“The first Monday in March being the time when shoemakers in the country cease from working by candle-light, it used to be customary for them to meet together in the evening for the purpose of wetting the block.”

The custom appears to be one done by the master of the trade to recognise the workers:

“On these occasions the master either provided a supper for his men, or made them a present of money or drink; the rest of the expense was defrayed by subscriptions among themselves, and sometimes by donations from customers.”

The custom then would have a ceremonial end which is the wetting part which consisted of the following:

“After the supper was ended, the block candlestick was placed in the midst, the shop candle was lighted, and all the glasses being filled.”

Then at the end:

“the oldest hand in the shop poured the contents of his glass over the candle to extinguish it; the rest then drank the contents of theirs standing, and gave three cheers. The meeting was usually kept to a late hour.”

As shoemaking became industrialised one imagine this custom died out!

Custom survived: St. Ives Langley Bread

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“charged his lands in St. Ives with the payment of 40s. a year to be distributed to poor widows and fatherless children, and with a further sum of 6s. to the churchwardens to be given to the bellringers.

Robert Langley by will dated 24 Aug. 1656 Charity report 1909

St Ives is a delightful small town which is noted amongst those interested in calendar customs for its bible dicing, however there is another custom that the town has undertaken for the last 300 years or so which has failed to be recorded as far as I am aware in any books on calendar customs. So for the 10th year of blogging on calendar custom it felt appropriate that I experienced and being free on the day of its distribution the 5th of January, linking it to epiphany no doubt it felt this was the ideal opportunity. 

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Bread and Butter

The custom consists of a dole given out on or around the epiphany and fortunately being free this year. It was set up as stated above in 1656 by local philanthropic St. Ives man, Robert Langley and whilst there is no stipulations about fatherless children it is still distributed to poor widows (and grammatically now widowers). The tradition is known as the Langley Bread and continues as a giving practice once a year in January.

I arrived to see the truck outside the Corn Exchange loaded with Co-op bags drive off – hand I missed it – no for as I went into the main hall of the building to see tables bellowing under a pile of green Co-op bags crammed with food and the Mayor in his chain, the trustees of the charity and town council secretary awaiting the first of the applicants.

In 2022 there were 120 bags lined up on the tables. Around 45 being delivered each year to local nursing homes. The number had been adjusted to take into account the number of recipients who came the previous year and thus the number left over. 

All doled up

Soon the first applicants appeared and many of them for familiar faces who had come previously to collect their bag of goodies and as a local newspaper account records:

“Great care is taken to ensure that only widows and widowers who are residents of St Ives benefit. As people come in to the building, they give out their addresses which are checked on the electoral roll.”

Indeed the clerks asked for names and they searched carefully their electoral role and upon finding them crossed them off and gave the recipient a ticket. However it was only a few feet away where the Mayor was ready to collect the ticket and give over the bag.

Many of the recipients were ‘regulars’ and despite having to be checked on the role many had come for the chat as well – being lonely widowers this would of course make sense. Indeed there was a sort of melancholy to the custom typified by one recipient stating

“Last year I came with my friend and wasnt eligible and this year I can come and collect one myself”

Sadly we all know what that means. But on the flipside it also encouraged people to talk to each and help each other as recorded in the newspaper article which stated:

one person is authorised to collect for friends.

“Especially where the old folks’ bungalows are, the fittest one will come down and collect them for their neighbours,” said David Hodge, who as mayor is responsible for giving out the bags. “Hence, they come with a list and they then go back with some for all their friends. It is checked, honestly!”

One could see that for many lonely widows it was a good reason to get into town and perhaps socialise or in some cases challenge the Mayor on their policies.

The trustees stick very rigidly to the wording of the charity. A man turned up from nearby Reach and politely asked if he was eligible having been born in St Ives and was a widower. He however was refused as he no longer lived in the town. He seemed okay with that and it was interesting to see that the letter of the original bequest being undertaken.  

The bags soon went down. By 10 .45 85 bags were gone. By 11.40 107 had gone. And then by 11.45 only 13 were left. It had been a successful day the previous year they had had 150 bags left but nothing goes to waste as like the earlier ones they are delivered to those in nursing homes.

Now however very little of the original charity money goes to buy the dole and is donated by local companies. In 2022 it was donated for the third year from the Co-Op. Back in the 1800s it would have simply been bread like many other doles. However, now its full of other staples.  The bag consists of digestive biscuits, tea, bread, butter and sugar and were delivered by the company on the back of truck at 8 o’clock. Usually I was informed that it was topped up by the charity and this included orange juice or jam but this year they could not be sourced. 

Two for the price of one!

The Langley bequest is actually two customs in one as he left money for the bell ringers from St Ives’ parish church. The reason being because of a very familiar story seen elsewhere is bell tolling bequests. It is said that Langley was lost in a snowstorm on nearby Hemingford Meadow walking to St Ives. Upon hearing the parish church bells he was guided back to safety and thus in gratitude he left money for the bell ringers to ring a peel. This apparently also happens in January, however the trustees did not know when.

It is heartening to see Langley’s bequest continues to give support to those in need…although he clearly had little thought of mobility in snow ladden Januaries – perhaps not the best time for aged widowers to travel about!