Category Archives: Kent

Custom survived: Biddenden’s Chalkhurst Dole

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“There is a vulgar tradition in these parts, that the figures on the cakes represent the donors of this gift, being two women, twins, who were joined together in their bodies, and lived together so till they were between twenty and thirty years of age. But this seems without foundation. The truth seems to be, that it was the gift of two maidens, of the name of Preston ; and that the print of the women on the cakes has taken place only within these fifty years, and was made to represent two poor widows, as the general objects of a charitable benefaction.”

So records Edward Hasted in his History of Kent in 1812, about what is perhaps the most famed of annually distributed doles that of the picturesque Wealden village of Biddenden; which happens every year on Easter Monday. It is a custom which features in virtually every book on calendar customs but why?

Two rectangular cakes, one showing two women apparently conjoined at the shoulder and the other one damaged in such a way that it is not clearly apparent whether the women are conjoined. Each cake has the word "Biddenden" written above the women.

The earliest surviving depiction of Biddenden cakes, 1775. The figures are shown as conjoined, but the names, ages and 1100 date are not shown source Wikipedia Public Domain

Two’s company

T. F. Thistleton-Dyer (1911) in his British popular customs past and present tells us:

“The cakes distributed on this occasion were impressed with the figures of two females side by side, and close together.”! Amongst the country people it was believed that these figures represented two maidens named Preston, who had left the endowments; and they further alleged that the ladies were twins, who were bond in bodily union, that is, joined side to side, as represented on the cakes ; who lived nearly thirty years in this connection, when at length one of them died, necessarily causing the death of the other in a few hours. It is thought by the Biddenden people that the figures on the cakes are meant as a memorial of this natural prodigy, as well as of the charitable disposition of the two ladies.”

Local tradition records that the benefactors of the charity were Eliza and Mary Chalkhurst, the name Preston has never been traced locally, who gave their lands those twenty acres to the poor on their death in 1134. Now there is nothing unusual in sisters joining giving monies this example however is possibly unique – the sisters were conjoined twins – as shown by the biscuit or cake given out. They lived jointly to the age of 34 with one dying and the other giving up her life at the same time.

The custom has changed a little over the years as Hasted again notes that:

“Twenty Acres Of Land, called the Bread and Cheese Lands, lying in five pieces, were given by persons unknown, the yearly rents to be distributed among the poor of this parish. This is yearly done on Easter Sunday in the afternoon, in 600 cakes, each of which have the figures of two women impressed on them, and are given to all such as attend the church; and 270 loaves, weighing three pounds and an half a-piece; to which latter is added one pound and an half of cheese, are given to the parishioners only, at the same time.”

The following account was written 1808 to be provided as a broadside which featured a woodcut of the twins and a brief history of their alleged story was sold outside the church at Easter:

“A Short but Concise account of Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst
who were born joined together by the Hips and Shoulders
In the year of our Lord 1100 at Biddenden in the County of Kent, commonly called
The Biddenden Maids
The reader will observe by the plate of them, that they lived together in the above state Thirty-four years, at the expiration of which time one of them was taken ill and in a short time died; the surviving one was advised to be separated from the body of her deceased Sister by dissection, but she absolutely refused the separation by saying these words—”As we came together we will also go together,”—and in the space of about Six Hours after her Sister’s decease she was taken ill and died also.
By their will they bequeath to the Churchwardens of the Parish of Biddenden and their successors Churchwardens for ever, certain Pieces or Parcels of Land in the Parish of Biddenden, containing Twenty Acres more or less, which now let at 40 Guineas per annum. There are usually made, in commemoration of these wonderful Phenomena of Nature, about 1000 Rolls with their Impression printed on them, and given away to all strangers on Easter Sunday after Divine Service in the Afternoon; also about 500 Quartern Loaves and Cheese in proportion, to all the poor Inhabitants of the said Parish.”

Copies of this account are still distributed. What is interesting as this is the first to make mention of the names of the twins. Did it invent them?

Two’s a crowd

The dole has had many threats put upon it partly as a consequence of its size and fame. In 1656 the Rector, a John Horner, then the rector of the parish, claimed the Bread and Cheese lands as being given to augment his glebe, but the Court of Exchequer did not agree.

Many villages had doles, indeed the majority provided for their poor, so it surprising to record that the dole became increasingly more and more popular. In the late 1700s for those attending the service were given six hundred cakes whilst ironically only two hundred and seventy loaves of three and a half pounds weight each, with a pound and a half of cheese, were given in addition to the parishioners. It was clearly more popular outside of the village. For example the following from Hone’s Everyday Book account of 1830 states that the custom:

“attracted from the adjacent towns and villages by the usage, and the wonderful account of its origin, and the day is spent in rude festivity

By 1872, 538 loaves were being distributed. Indeed as an article in 1992 by Jan Boderson called  The Biddenden Maids: a curious chapter in the history of conjoined twins in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine stated that these large crowds became problematic and at one occasion an unruly mob had developed that was kept in order by the church wardens using their staffs to keep them back. All this did not impress the church and By 1882 the village’s rector again, this time Rev Giles Hinton had petitioned to abandon the dole stating that:

“even to this time is with much disorder and indecency observed and needs a regulation by His Grace’s authority.”

His Grace, Sancroft Archbishop of Canterbury allowed it to continue minus the free beer! It was also at this time that it moved from the church to outside. Very wise! Even so it is worth observing that even in 1902 as a picture by noted photographer Sir Benjamin Stone showed three severe looking policemen watching the assembled queue. By this time the date had changed and the workhouse its location.

When in 1907, the Chulkhurst Charity was joined with other local charities with similar purposes, to form the Biddenden Consolidated Charity the distribution survived where in other villages such moves removed the ceremony. Even when the charity’s Bread and Cheese Lands were sold for housing the custom survived indeed the profitability of the land provided the opportunity for better provision. As a result not only is bread, cheese and tea provided but cash payments are made at Christmas. Again, the custom survived the 1940s and 1950s food rationing where cocoa replaced the cheese until it resumed in 1951.Finally the closure of the village’s bakery in the 1990s which for generations had provided the bread closed…the dole soldiered on.

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Custom revived: Coddington Mothering Sunday, Nottinghamshire…where it all begun!

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“Thank you God for the love of our mothers;

Thank you God for their care and concern;

Thank you God for the joys they have shared with us;

Thank you God for the pains they have borne for us;

Thank you God for all that they give us:

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”

‘I’ve lost my mothering’ service

The origins of Mothering Sunday are little obscure although in the Christian calendar the Sunday of the Golden Rose which dated back to the 11th century.  It was believed to date from when communities from satellite churches could pay tribute to the mother church or even communities who rarely made it to church due to their remoteness did so on this date. This then manifested itself as the time when the servants would have the day to visit far off relatives. Various foods became associated with the day, in North in particular, Carlins, a type of pea soaked and then fried in butter was eaten and a cake Simnel cake was baked. Over the years, the religious aspects of the custom, as a result of the Reformation, disappeared and the secular observation slipped away similarly.

Keep Mum! Mothering Sunday and Mother’s day are not the same!

It may not be wise to mention it but every year there are two days which celebrate mothers and two card giving days. The Americans were first. However, it is Constance Penswick Smith that we can thank for the modern revival, for it was whilst reading an article in the Evening news of a lady in Philidelphia was thinking down similar lines. This was in 1906, Miss Anna Jarvis created a secular tradition, set down for the second weekend in May where Mothers were celebrated. It is thought that like Hallowe’en and Valentine’s day, the Stateside Mother’s day was also imported by servicemen in the 1940s and this coincided with the church’s attempt to revitalise the custom.

Setting up headquarters at 15 Regent Street Nottingham, she and a friend Ellen worked tireless to get the ceremony re-established, even designing cards, collected appropriate hymns and approached the Mother’s Union who were keen but thought the custom too long dead to be revived. She published a book in 1921 and from this the idea spread. First locally, when the Reverend Killer of St Cyprians Nottingham and when the new church was consecrated in 1936, mothering Sunday became an annual event and then using her four brothers, who took holy orders, introduced the service into their churches. By the end of the Second World War, the amalgamation of the two customs had become entrenched and despite a few cards which proclaim the correct name, they are generally inseparable as names now especially since the 1950s when merchants realized the commercial potential!

Back to mum! Where it all begun

One of the most important places to celebrate the day must of course be where it was first revived. Coddington’s Mothering Sunday service is like everywhere a very popular service, but here there is perhaps more of an appreciation. So in 2013, on Sunday the 10th March, the parish church of Coddington in Nottinghamshire celebrated the 100th anniversary of the re-foundation of Mothering Sunday by Constance Smith.

The church was packed with some of the congregation even having to sit in the bell tower, or on some of the older pews to the side! The talk used the children to find the words around the church and used these to discuss the important qualities of mothers (as well as saying dads could be the same!) The Revd David Anderton, the present day vicar of All Saints Coddington, said of the service:

“Mothering Sunday is important in the life of the church and it is one of our most popular services – thanks to Constance, who is buried here in the churchyard. The choir of Coddington Church of England Primary School join us and mothers are given a Primula plant.  It’s a wonderful celebration and I’m encouraging people to post their prayers for mothers online as we mark 100 years of Mothering Sundays.”

A different clyp ‘round the ear!

“The congregation then takes part in ‘clipping the church’, forming a ring around the building and, holding hands, embracing it.”

The church service led by the Rev William Thackrey and the curate Rev. David Anderson and notable features of the service was the delightful touching tribute to mothers made by the children of Coddington primary school, and then their clyping of the church. This is done in a number of churches, including some Nottinghamshire churches, although usually this is done outside, the horrendous wintry weather meant it was more sensible to clyp the inside of the church. The origins of this custom are obscure but it is associated with Mothering Sunday in Staplehurst in Kent. Some authorities have tried to link the custom to pagan origins but certainly the idea of embracing the mother church is wholly appropriate to the theme of the celebration. Whilst clyping a special hymn ‘We love the place O Lord’ was sung to recognise the importance of the church. The children in this circle then processed through the vestry and into the chancel where the vicar and curate awaited holding trays of primroses; free gifts for their mothers.

Just like mum’s cake

With a final hymn and blessing the congregation were given a bookmark commemorating Constance Smith and Simnel cake. This is of course an old food traditionally associated with the custom of Mothering Sunday. Its creation put down to an argument between Sim and Nell how to cook it; one boiling and one baking.  Some people don’t like it but it always reminds me of my mum’s cakes which I suppose is the point.

A hundred years on from the thought, Mothering Sunday in its religious and secular guise is with us as long as we need to appreciate mothers…and sell cards no doubt!

Find out when it’s on:

Calendar Customs link: The Coddington celebration is not on there but if you need to find out when Mothering Sunday is…

http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/mothering-sunday-mothers-day/

 

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Custom contrived: Apple Day

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An Apple a Day

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

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

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

Apple of your eye

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

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

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

From the seeds…

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

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

Things to do on the day:

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

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

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

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

Custom survived: Folkestone’s Blessing the sea and fisheries

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God bless you!

The ceremonies of blessing the sea and fisheries are perhaps one of the best examples of a Christianisation of a pagan ritual. They originated as early man’s way of giving thanks to ensure good harvests for the next year. Yet, it is clear that they are part of the ‘revived’ or rather ‘cleaned’ harvest thanksgiving ceremonies, which have become quite familiar, thanks to this revival or rather adoption by the church perhaps, in the mid-1800s. Found around the country in a number of maritime locations (even in locations where fishing has become a matter of academic history). Kent, being a county surrounded on two sides by sea naturally it has a fair number of these ceremonies. Traditionally they were help around Ascension Day or during the three days of ‘Rogationtide’ (during which beating the bounds ceremonies would also be undertaken), many have moved to either dates nearing Patronal saints (Fishermen saints Peter or James), or when tourists are more frequent!

 

 

 

Folkestone’s ceremony claims to be the oldest continually undertaken still surviving. One of these occurs in the ancient fishing town of Folkestone, being associated with the chapel of St. Peter, dedicated to the town’s fisher folk with fine views of the harbour.

The earliest traceable record is an account in the Folkestone Express of July 8th 1883. However, according to Mr. Fisher of Folkestone St Peter’s Church, this ceremony may have already been of some age then. This is because, the report laments that it was a depressed event with a low tide and sluggish boats. Traditionally it was held in the old fish market. At the time he notes that there must have been 100 boats in the inner harbour. Photographs of the 1920s show a large number of smocks attending. The Folkestone Herald of July Seventh 1906, noted an addition to the traditional service in the form of prayers. It added:

“that it may please Thee to bless the waters of the sea that they may bring forth fish abundantly.. bless and preserve the fishermen of these waters…and lift their minds to heavenly desires.”

Something fishy?

In 1935 was the last year to be held in the old fish market, and since it has been held overlooking the harbour. The parish priest had worked hard to have all the old hovels removed and replaced by the terrace housing which remains to today.

In a press report of 1958, it noted that it was then attended by the Bishop of Dover, the Rt. Rev. L. Meredith, and the Mayor, F. W. Archer as well as other members of the Corporation, Choristers, Scouts, members of the Old Contemptible and the Royal Naval Association and children dressed in traditional fishermen’s clothes.

In this report it was sadly noted that service lacked the gaiety of previous years as the little fisherman’s cottages were not bedecked with flags and nor were the boats in harbour decorated as they were for previous occasions. Furthermore, no fishermen were to be found in the procession. A 67 year old fishermen, Bill Harris who had fished the waters from Folkestone some 50 years, noted that: ‘Things had certainly changed’, he could remember those times when the harbour was full of fully decorated boats and all the houses were flying flags and bunting. He bemoaned that no-one was interested. The then Bishop said that Blessing the Fishermen, fell into two groups those which do it for fun and those who did it for a life’s work. He said that:

” It is those who devote their whole lives to fishing in the sea that we are asking for God’s continued blessing this afternoon.’” 

This blessing attracted television coverage from both the BBC and ITA, and the service was performed by Bishop Noel Hall, formerly Bishop of Vhota Nagpour, India with two Deacons of Honour (Rev. W. H. Bathhurst Vicar of St. Saviours) and Rev. J. Meliss (curate of Folkestone Parish church). The ceremony was conducted by the Rev. H. J. L. Stephens (Vicar of St. Peters).

The lack of fishermen was what doubtless prompted the event to be renamed ‘blessing the sea’ rather than ‘fisheries’ and by doing so saved this the oldest of such blessings. Tony Foxworthy (2008) in Customs in Kent describes it well:

“The evening starts with service in St. Peter’s church. After the service a procession is formed consisting of a local band in the lead followed by the children of St. Peter’s primary school, with the girls carrying small posies of flowers, and the boys carrying a large model of a fishermen’s boat. Following the children comes the church choir then the processional cross, then the clergy and local dignitaries like the Mayor, the Mayoress and local councillors, then the invited guest preacher, usually a local Bishop. The procession winds its way to the harbour where a large crowd has assembled. The fisheries are then blessed by the visiting Bishop, who then leads to a short service and addresses the hundreds of people attending this very picturesque custom.”

 

The custom retains a very colourful and evocative feel especially as the clergy process down from St. Peter’s Church, (usually on the first Sunday after St. Peter’s Day (29th June), at around three o’ clock). Also attending this ceremony, are the Lord Mayor and his barker. After a series of hymns, and readings, the sea is blessed by splashing holy water and shaking incense over the harbour railings.

 

Custom demised: Eynsford Arbour Day

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arbor

A common claim made by people is that British culture is being taken over by US ones – however, not all US customs that have come over have survived – Arbour Day – is one of those. Its establishment in the Victorian period was sporadic across the country and it appears the only place it set down roots – so to speak – was the picturesque village of Eynsford, England.

Arbour Day was established as an annual custom to encourage the planting of trees and it appears the town of Eynsford took it on in a unique fashion. This was promoted by Mr. E. D. Till who was keen to plant trees not only as commemorations but acrostically, meaning spelling out words or sentences.

The custom began in 1897, as a celebration of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. This involved not only planting an orchard of apple trees but a series of different species, spelling out a motto, utlising poetry, Robert Brownings ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’ stating:

“The best is yet to be: The last of life for which the first was made.”

The trees that were known being:

“Turkish Hazel Horse Chestnut Elm (Wych) Beech Elm Sycamore Thorn (American) llex (Holly) Sloe Yew Elder Turkish Hazel T? Oak Beech (Purple) Eucalyptus Turkish Hazel Hickory Eucalyptus Lime (Common) Acacia (False) Sycamore Tilia x europaea 0? (Horse Chestnut) Fagus (Beech) Laburnum llex (Holly) Fagus (Beech) E? Fagus (Beech) 0? Robinia W? Holly llex (Holly) Cypress Hickory Tilia petiolaris H? E? F? llex (Holly) R? S? Tilia x europaea Walnut Acacia (False) S? M? Acacia (False) D? Elm (Wych)”

This being a row of fifty-two trees set along the main street from the railway to the village centre. Furthermore, the successful defence of Kimberly, Ladysmith, and Mafeking, battles of the South African Wars, were similarly commemorated. 1n 1902, four years after the Queen’s death, in a nearby meadow ambitiously were planted a line of thirty trees of no less than twenty-two species. The initial letter of each tree spelt out a line from Tennyson’s ode to the Queen:

“She wrought her people lasting good.”

Over a quarter of mile of trees were planted. Around the War memorial four trees read:

“ L(ime),O(live), V(eronica) and E(Im)”

What has happened to the trees?

Of his tribute to Victoria’s 1902 memorial only the Sycamore survived the rest being felled to provide playing fields for the Anthony Roper Country Primary School. However, of the trees of her Jubilee memorial, a number survive. These being:

“Horse chestnut, Elm, Beech, Thorn, Ilex, Oak, Beech, Lime, Sycamore, Tilia, Horse chestnut, Fagus, Fagus, Robinia, Holly, Hickory, Tilia, Ilex, Tilia, Walnut, Acacia, Elm”

But they don’t make any sense now!!

Despite Eynsford’s enthusiasm and the support of the fledgling R.S.B.P who tried to name it Bird and Arbour Day, Arbour Day didn’t really catch on. Awbridge, in Hampshire, a festival was organised in 1902 in Awbridge Hampshire and Touchen End, Berkshire although neither were in April. E. D. Till, won a prize from R.S.P.B. for an essay on the best means of establishing Bird and Arbor Day in England the custom died out. Whether it was the lack of room in Eynsford or the death of its founder – Arbour Day never caught on or returned from US soils. Today a National Tree Day is established in December but this has failed to capture the uniqueness of Till’s acrostic cleverness.

Custom survived: Edenbridge’s Guy Fawkes Night

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

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Fired up

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

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

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

“lighted barrels with turpentine balls”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One hell of a Guy

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

Pray for fine weather?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custom revived: St. Edith’s Day, Kemsing

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

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

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Well met

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

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

Well they have arrived

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

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

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

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

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

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Well meet again

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

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

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