Category Archives: Leicestershire

Custom contrived: Long Clawson Conker Championship

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Stilton Cheese. That is what Long Clawson means to most people who know it but 1 day out of 365 the cheese making takes a back seat for a great slice of quirky Britishness – a conker championship.

Passing through the village it looks like nothing is going on. No one is walking the street. Houses look empty and then turning the corner one come across the green and there were hundreds of people bathing in the warm October sunshine and enjoying a conker fight or two.

Around the green were set up platforms were the conker pugilists, each pair intensely focusing on their fight cheered on by the audience behind the barrier.

From tiny conkers grow….

Robert Southey’s memoirs of 1821 first mentions but this was done with hazelnuts or snail shells or hazelnuts. It was on the Isle of Wight in 1848 that the first game is recorded and it spread rapidly across the UK by the 1900s.

The idea of a championship was started by an outsider, from Nottinghamshire, a Mr Haythornthwaite who met up at the Crown and Plough one night with brothers Terry and Robin Bailey and set out the idea to raise charity money back in 1984. Robin Bailey went on to be the first winner of the Championship and was given the name King Conker and he has been involved every since. From that chat in the pub the competition has gone on for 30 years! King Conker being easily found with his chain of office – made of conkers of course.

But everyone on the green is competing to become the new King or Queen Conker. Over 100 people had entered and there was a thriving children section. Indeed I was very impressed with the younger entrants who were practicising intensely at the edge of the arena. Although I am not sure why I’d be so surprised it is a kid’s game after all!

2018’s competition like many through the 2010s has had the threat of conkers being in short supply due to disease. Certainly the sizes of conkers did look quite meek in the bucket for collection remembering that one could not bring your own conker save you immerse it in vinegar to make it stronger. They take fair play seriously at Long Clawson.

 

All hail the conkerer!

Its so serious that the pub runs a pre-Tournament conker off to ensure that the very best players are playing on the day. Indeed the competition was intense. A particularly tournament I observed appeared to go on with no result. Whack. Conker one was intact. Whack. Conker two was intact. Whack again. Ditto. Whack again. Ditto. The crowd watched on tenterhooks as The Melton Times noted:

“The number of entries was again solid with over 100 competitors on the day all aiming to be crowned King Conker 2018,” said Bryan Lovegrove, one of the organisers. “There were a number of prolonged battles, sometimes with no conker being broken. These then went into a sudden death test of skill with the winner being the one to gain the greatest number of conker strikes from a set number of attempts.”

After all the knockouts, split conkers laying forlornly on the floor we reached the final and it was a men vs women final. Amy Goddard vs Jamie King..after a valiant attempt Jamie appropriately could add Conker to the add of his name as he gained the prize and was very pleased with himself. The junior competition was between Jessica Traquir and Yasmin Bursnall of which the later one showing that the future of the conker championship may well lay with the women.

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Custom survived: Royal Maundy Thursday

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Maundymoney (14)

Royal events are a special kind of event. When combined with a calendar custom it can really create a spectacular event, certainly in the amount of interest shown by all and sundry and especially the world’s media. Whereas the Haxey Hood might create a few minutes on the TV’s local news; Royal Maundy can sometimes be fully televised. Royal events also attract a special kind of person as well.

Royally treated!

Top Tip. Royal events attract a lot of people as well. Maundy is perhaps the most pre-Televised event as well. So you have to get there early. My first experience of Maundy Thursday was at Derby in 2009 which in retrospect was a good choice as a later Maundy did not let me experience much of the custom first hand.

It was an early Maundy. March had a considerable chill exacerbated by standing around for so long for the Royal party’s arrival. The experience being improved by the crowd and their curious idiosyncrasies. Royal events attract a certain type of follower. Royalist to the core. Dedicated to the Queen and very keen to show it. You would not see a Morris follower decked out in whites and bells turn up to May Day event waving their white handkerchief at the dancers or a Mummer fan dressed in drag awaiting the arrival of Dame Jane! No! But here surrounded me were the Royal followers, the Queenies, some were draped in the Union flag, another head to toe in a suit made from it. A small group of women had T shirts with the Queen emblazoned on it. However, my attention was drawn by two elderly men standing patiently at the front of the barrier. One saying to the other as they unfurled a large union flag ‘this will attract her’ as if somehow the Queen was a like a raging bull to the old Jack! They conversation then went rather curious “I wonder if it’ll be her Wakefield one said to another, could be her Manchester. I bet it’ll be the Westminster replied the other then.” What were they talking about, it was only when the Queen did arrive in a blue ensemble, that it was clear it was her clothing they were referring to and the locations the times they’d be at Maundy! All the time they referred to her as Liliput, an apparent childhood name of the Queen, said as if they’d just finished high tea with her that morning!

To be a Royal must require a great deal of patience I would reckon. The flag did attract here and she made a beeline to the men. Surprisingly to me one of the men struck up a conversation with her and she responded warming, the other dug into a bag, emblazoned with a flag of course, and brought out a large table book on the British Landscape, the sort of thing on remainder bookshelf. She took it graciously as would be expected, and handed it to a Lady in waiting. No wonder she has so many houses with rooms in it – she’d need it for all those gifts.

This is a stage managed event and even those not decked in the appropriate clothes were provided with a flag to wave at the Monarch when she arrived. Maundy is like so some of rock tour; the Queen appearing at every Cathedral in the Kingdom like some aged rocker ploughing out their greatest hits. However, there is no sign of a faded career here, the monarchy really pull out all the stops of pump and circumstance and the roadies are London’s Beefeaters.

Money, money, money

Many years ago my father was clearing some old draws of a Georgian desk at work once and found a Queen Anne coin. It was unusual having a large number 2 on one side and the other the Queen with a wreath around it. It took a few years to find out it was a Maundy coin, one of the first set because until the 18th century during William and Mary, the coins given were circulating coinage, the modern coinage has not changed par the monarch’s head of course. These coins struck in denomination of one penny, two pence, three pence and four pence and presented in a leather purse. The money counts up to the monarch’s age and another purse has a £5 coin and 50p. Originally, the poorest received it but today it those in the church communities recommended by the clergy for their service to the church and community.

Maundymoney (25)

Maundy, maundy, maundy

Based on Jesus’s direction, maundatum, at the last supper, originally the ceremony was one for high churchmen such as Archbishops and the Pope and involved the washing of feet, called pedilavium, as well as giving alms to the poor. This ceremony then moved to the monarchy The custom started with possibly the least likely Monarch – King John. Much maligned he distributed clothes, food and forks (!) to the poor in the Yorkshire town of Knaresborough as well as washing their feet. This was in 1210. However, by 2013 whilst visiting Rochester in Kent, coins had been minted for 13 poor residents to represent the twelve apostles. By Edward I the monarch was giving monies exclusively only on Maundy Thursday. The custom evolved over time, by the late 1300s, Edward III was giving money related to their age. He was fifty and gave fifty pence to fifty poor men, however, it was not until Henry IV, that this feature now part of the current distributions became established.

The custom survived pestilence and Reformation. During plague times, the Lord High Almoner was sent and nosegays of flowers held to cover the smell of those feet that needed to be washed! These nosegays survive as part of the custom today. Despite differing views both Mary and Elizabeth both performed the custom, although the washing of the feet started to become less done by the monarch. However, Charles I was less enthusiastic and indeed Charles II appeared to use the custom as a means to restore popularity of the restored Monarchy after the Restoration. The custom however was sporadic whilst James II performed it, William III less so and by this time, the washing of the feet had disappeared and more often the Lord High Almoner did it.

By the 20th century, the Monarch was absent. The royal presence returned with George V in 1932 and as such we could see this as a revived custom. The Monarch has continued the custom with Elizabeth naturally being the longest running. Originally the custom was held in the London area, the moved to alternating between another Cathedral and Westminster. Then developed into a grand tour of all the Cathedrals in the Kingdom…finishing in 2017 with Leicester!

Maundymoney (19)

Leicester was the second time I attended and the crowds were much larger, much much larger! Unlike Derby, where one could get close to the actual ceremony the whole area around the cathedral was blocked off but a huge screen showed all of it. Realising the route wouldn’t afford a good view of the Queen, I though where is she coming from? The train station and so made my way there to find no-one there. Was she arriving there? Yes, there was a man dressed head to toe in the Union flag again clutching flowers. We did not have long to wait soon all the regular passengers disappeared and the Queen arrived. She could be clearly seen if only I had a large flag or a book on British landscapes!

Custom survived: Loughborough’s November Fair

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“The People of Loughborough are very proud of their ancient Fair, dating back to the thirteenth century and held in the streets and squares of the town.”

World Fair 1949

Fairly old

There are many seasonal fairs but few are as old and as visually imposing as Loughborough’s November fair. It has survived in its town centre location fighting against all attempts over the years to marginalise and send it to some park or outskirts of the town despite the complaints of ‘as a Fair with a mile of caravans’

Loughborough famous for its University, Ladybird books, bell making and the first package tour in that order; is perhaps not the first location for an ancient fair yet it is the fourth oldest in the country. The fair was granted back in 1229 by Henry III and has been continuing albeit in the format now of a fun fair ever since. The record stating:

“Of the Market Of Loughborough The lord the King grants to Hugh Dispenser that He have ,until his (Lawful ) age ,one market every Week, on Thursday, at his manor of Loughborough. Unless that market and the Sheriff of Leicestershire Is ordered to cause him to have that market. Of the Fair of Loughborough. The lord the King grants to Hugh le Dispenser that He have until the (lawful) age of the lord the King One fair at his manor of Loughborough every year In the vigil and in the day of St Peter ad Vincula And the Sheriff of Leicestershire is ordered to cause him To have that fair. Witness as above by the same(at Westminster,xxviith day of January in the fifth year of our reign).”

This was the third Charter fair for the town, given to Hugh Le Despenser Lord of the Manor of Loughborough. The fair was associated with the Feast of All Souls, perhaps an unusual date for a fair. However, when the calendar was changed in 1752 it moved to the 13th of November. Then finally local authorities in 1881 made it fall on second Thursday in November.

Open it fairly

Opening ceremony is itself a custom in itself, It is open like other fairs by the Town’s mayor but unlike other fairs where they are called to order by the ringing of the bell by a town crier, Loughborough does something fairly unique.

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The local Grammar School itself a mere youngster compared, starting in 1595, provides three or four, smartly dressed trumpeters in suits and red ties. First they announce the Mayoral party outside the town hall and then go to the steps of the Waltzer where the Mayor of Charnwood officially calls the fair open. It is a decidedly medieval feel to the opening and quite fitting.

A fair change

Originally a cloth fair and wool. Then horses, cow and sheep. By the late Victorian period the invention of steam powered amusements meant that these were slowly taking over the trading fair until today they dominate it.

Interesting shows over the years have been the Phantoscope, a sort of cinema, a boxing booth and a lion show. Making today’s dodgems, ghost trains and spinners sound rather boring!

By the 1920s after a spell when the November streets were quiet due to WWI the fair saw the arrival exciting spectacles such as the Wall of Death. Indeed, the 1929 Leicester Mail romantically reported:

“That most ancient form of diversion, the fair, is still attractive because it appeals to the people’s robust sense of fun … Thousands of people are attracted to the town to participate, much to their own and other people’s enjoyment … if they remove it from the centre of the town it would dwindle and decay as so many other fairs have done, and an old age channel that has brought grist to the town would be permanently closed. So Loughborough as a whole, is not only disposed to grin and bear it, but to welcome it somewhat in the spirit of the song that bids us `Come to the fair.”

By the 1940s the side attractions which once were the main attractions were gone and the establishment of Ghost trains and dodgems and the establishment of families such as Collins’, Proctor’s and Holland which gave the fair a real feel of an annual reunion. In 2014 according to the Loughborough Echo the fair:

The Star Flyer will be one of 20 massive rides brought along by the more than 100 show people along with other attractions, games, novelty stalls and refreshment stands. The fair, which spreads throughout the town centre, is organised by Charnwood Borough Council and attracts thousands of families. Pleasure rides this year include fairground favourites such as the Waltzers, Loop Fighter, Dodgems and Galloping Horses as well as more spectacular rides such as the Dominator and Extreme Ride. There is the ‘Kiddies’ Corner’ and perhaps one or two surprise attractions.”

And so it continues. The roads may have been closed off permanently now by pedestrianisation but this does not distract from the amazing site of these huge metal leviathans sitting cheek by jowl to the shop fronts. Every space is filled. Every side street. Like a maze and a cacophony of sound and blaze of light. The food. The lure of hook a duck, with a prize cheaper than that in the pound shop perhaps, but we still keep trying. All the fun of the fair is so true at Loughborough

Custom Survived: William Hubbard Graveside Easter Singing, Market Harborough, Leicestershire

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An Easter Custom. — On each recurring Easter Eve, in pursuance of a custom which has continued for more than a century (and which, as a fund was left for the purpose, will continue for centuries to come), the church choir of Market Harborough visit the ‘God’s Acre’ of St. Mary’s, and sing at midnight the beautiful Easter hymn over the grave of Mr. Hubbard, the founder of the chantry of that name.”

The History of Market- Harborough in Leicestershire and its vicinity by William Harrod (1808)

On the outskirts of Market Harborough is a ghostly shell of a church twixt between an industrial site, the railway station and the urban sprawl. Surrounded by a few graves it is a mysterious place. There are many such derelict churches open to the elements slowly decaying, unvisited all bar the curious- this one is an exception though for despite being a ruin once year on the evening before Easter Sunday this desolate place is warmed by the sounds of heavenly voices in a custom which has been done for over 200 years.

Willed to sing

The originator of this unique bequest was William Hubbard, a gardener and more importantly churchwarden. When he died in 1786, aged 63 his will stipulated:

“at the decease of his wife to the Singers of Harborough for the time being for ever the sum of One Guinea yearly on condition of their finding over his grave every Easter eve the EASTER HYMN the said guinea to be paid out of the rent of a house now in the tenure of Mr Clark painter &c In cafe the singers should neglect complying with the donor’s desire the said legacy is to be applied to purchasing shoes for widows.”

Sadly those local widows have shoeless because without fail the congregation of the more substantial St. Dionysius church dutifully come here every Easter Saturday to sing since 1807, presumably the death date of his widow. That guinea has gone a long way! I am not sure whether it pays for anything now but in 1957 a rent charge was still being taken.

Sing when you’re winning!

When I first came to experience this custom, it was a balmy Easter Saturday in 1996, 7th of April. The churchyard was quiet, mysterious and unloved. I located the grey slate gravestone of William Hubbard and waited.

Soon a small choir appeared. Arched around the grave the vicar, curate and choir made a fine sight in themselves but when the hymns were sung it was magical.

1996

2016 – Spot the difference!

Obviously it is a short service. It started with Chorus novae Jerusalem

“Ye choirs of new Jerusalem, your sweetest notes employ, the Paschal victory to hymn in strains of holy joy. For Judah’s Lion bursts his chains, crushing the serpent’s head; and cries aloud through death’s domains to wake the imprisoned dead. Devouring depths of hell their prey at his command restore; his ransomed hosts pursue their way where Jesus goes before. Triumphant in his glory now to him all power is given; to him in one communion bow all saints in earth and heaven. While we, his soldiers, praise our King, his mercy we implore, within his palace bright to bring and keep us evermore. All glory to the Father be, all glory to the Son, all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee, while endless ages run.”

Then a reading is given in 2016, the Gospel for Easter was Matthew 27 a very adapt piece about Jesus’s burial:

“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

The Guard at the Tomb: The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.”

The Easter Hymn was sung

“Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia! our triumphant holy day, Alleluia! who did once upon the cross, Alleluia! suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia! Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia! unto Christ, our heavenly King, Alleluia! who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia! sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia! But the pains which he endured, Alleluia! our salvation have procured, Alleluia! now above the sky he’s King, Alleluia! where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!”

Then an Easter Collect and Prayer finishing with a sung grace

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

Eighteen years later passing this way I came to again experience it. However, my sources were incorrect and I’d missed it by an hour! Finally, again in 2016 I came again, on a most appalling Easter evening. Dark clouds were building up and the wind howled through the ghost of the church. After a while I was beginning to think my sources had been incorrect, had the weather put them off…no soon more and more people arrived. The first thing I noticed is how much the congregation had grown since 1996; despite the awful weather it was clear that this custom was still a popular one…and even the dreadful rain was not going to stop the custom. In 1984, so Brian Shuel in his Traditional Customs of Britain was informed by the vicar:

“in really nasty weather, such as the previous year when it was snowing, they have been known to do it themselves”

It did not stop them, nor did it in 1876 as a local newspaper reports:

“Easter Eve – The old custom to sing the Easter hymn over Mr. Hubbard’s grave, in St. Mary’s burial ground, was carried out again on Saturday last, at 8.30, by the church choir. To get to the grave yard this year there was something very unusual. The waters, from the rapid melting of the snow which had fallen on the two preceding days, were out, near the Toll-gate and Gas works, but this obstruction was bravely encountered by about thirty of the choir, besides a few others. Many more who intended to go, declined, when they got to the end of the walk, not liking to got through the flood, and returned again to the town. One gentleman was kindly carried over the flood by a young man named Toomes. This little incident amused the choir boys and one of them was overheard to whisper, ‘I wish he’d drop him.’ We understand this is the 70th year that the above custom has been carried out.”

The only shame was that the weather had prevented the congregation wearing their traditional choral attire. Yet in a way it made the custom seem even more bizarre.

Before the Reformation, sung songs and prayers were common from chapels to great Cathedrals, but although these Chantry chapels survive the bequests have long gone, siphoned off to support schools such as Thomas Burton’s in Loughborough or incorporated into general funds. What is of course unusual with Hubbard is that this is a post-Reformation one. Little did he also know that he think that when he made the bequest that the church would fall into disuse and ruin. Yet this is part of the curious nature of the custom, despite the church and the possible temptation of removing the grave to somewhere more convenient the custom continues.

All in all, Hubbard’s bequest is without doubt one of the countries, a beautiful uplifting tribute to a man long forgotten but still remembered!

Custom transcribed: Christmas Tree Festivals

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I was recently asked how long does something have to go for, for it to be considered a tradition. I answered ten years because once you’ve gone past the decade there’s a feeling of ‘let’s keep it going’. Christmas Tree festivals appear to be the fad new fashion of the 21st century…last century I had never heard of them…now search for them on-line and you’ll find one in virtually all the counties of Great Britain! The website http://www.christmastreefestivals.org/ has 176 of them recorded.

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Branching out!

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of this modern custom. The oldest I can find go back to the mid 1990s such as those of Hitchin, Hertfordshire and Brighstone on the Isle of Wight. Further back and we get an answer of where this custom arose from – festivals over 24 years are firmly US based. But why start them?

Deep roots

It seems curious that the modern church, protestant and Catholic could be combined with celebrating such a pagan thing as a dressed tree – a tradition linked to pagan tribes from the Romans to the Celts. They appeared soon to be Christinanised being adorned by fruits and nuts such that by the 1500s they were being brought into the house, popularised by Martin Luther who encouraged fir trees to be brought into the house and lighted by candles on the branches. By 1800 it had become popularised in the UK, its famed being cemented by Victoria’s Prince Albert. Since then the Christmas essential for every house, shop, mall, restaurant and everything in between, was the fir tree -real or fake!

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From tiny acorns

It is quite remarkable how quickly both this custom has spread and how popular the customs have become locally. The best example of this can be seen at Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. In 2016 it topped 1378 different trees and thus became the largest collection in the country. A good tourist attraction for the town in a time of year in which tourists may well be thin on the ground. Of course, churches are constantly looking for something to reconnect what is slowly becoming a secular celebration to its Christian original message (leaving aside for a moment its hijacking of the pagan one!) The Christmas tree is a focal point. Everyone likes a colourful Christmas trees, being establishing such a festival not only brings communities together, after all everyone can dress a tree and there is no set way to do it, but brings people in. Walking into a church there is something indeed magical about the array of trees glistening and sparkling in the gloom. One is reminded of the magic of the season and the creativity of the people responsible. A new custom yes, but one based in an old tradition and one which is very welcome to add to the custom list.

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 contrived: The Bluebell Service, Swithland Woods, Leicestershire

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“Strangers enjoying an afternoon stroll in Swithland Woods on Sunday might have been surprised to hear the strains of All Things Bright and Beautiful coming through the trees near the old slate quarry.”

Loughborough Echo 14th May 1993

Indeed, almost hidden in a natural amphitheatre beside a great water filled hollow can be found around two hundred worshipers – why are they there? What are they waiting for? A service which is possibly unique in England yet surprisingly still little known – the annual Bluebell service.

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If you go down to the woods today

Arriving at the north car park to the wood, the existence of the event, one follows the small blue signs. I must admit during my half hour or so walk, I did not see a single blue flower. This was despite seeing great swaths of them on the way, particularly in Stoneywell Wood. This might not have been a one off. S. R. Meadows in the 1965 Swithland noted that in an early ceremony an early spring had meant there were no flowers in the woods and the Vicar had to:

admit the bluebells had already come and departed. Whereupon a Salvation army lady, who had attended the corps band stepped boldly forward and presented him with a single bloom, which appropriately she had saved for him.”

All things bright and beautiful

The custom begun soon after the estate was given to the public in the 1920s. The area had long been known as a beauty spot, where bluebells proliferated in great number and so the Rotary Club decided to instigate an annual event. It was a Walter Kilby and a Mr Harry Gimson who conceived the idea of the service with Reverend Frederick Oliver, then vicar of Swithland in 1928 and it has been going ever since then. Indeed until recently, the daughter and the daughter in law of the founders still attended. A search of copies of the Leicestershire mercury or Loughborough Echo recording such regular annual devotion. In 1997 14th May the Leicester Mercury, noted that a Mrs Gweneth Gimson:

“has been present at every single Bluebell service.”

The Leicester Mercury reported on the 6th May 1998 adding next year:

“Swithland churchwarden, Mrs Gweneth Gimson 85 first attended as a 13 year old girl when the service begun in 1927.”

Although the Loughborough Echo of 13th May 1994, suggests that:

“played the harmonium for the service at the age of 10!”

The paper claims that she had been present at every one forget that in 1993 it was noted that:

“Mrs Gweneth Gimson, who has supervised the event for many years, was missing as she suffered an accident at home.”

Fortunately, as it was later testament she did regularly attend thereafter. I did not enquire whether she still attended, she’d be 101, but I am sure she would be there in spirit. Regular attendance is clearly an important aspect of any custom and especially this one. Even when there is a clear threat of rain or in the 1990s murder as the paper stated:

“The worship is expected to go ahead as planned despite the inquiry into the fatal stabbing of Leicester man Esmail Hassan whose body was discovered in the woods just over a week ago.”

Coming up smelling of…bluebells!

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In the small amphitheatre I found the congregation, some were in rows of seats, many with their dogs sat on the hill behind them. In front of them was an outside altar, a table covered with a cloth with a sizeable silver crucifix upon it. There was the vicar of Swithland church, the Mayor and Lady Mayoress and a brass band from Welbeck College. The service which was pleasantly succinct and under an hour long – perhaps they feared the rain – was very focused on giving homage to nature. Guest preachers have varied over the time and in I1997, The Bishop of Leicester, the right Rev. Dr. Thomas Butler was the preacher. The year I attended, the guest was xxxx. The sermon, short and focusing on amongst other things Leicester City’s triumphant Premier League win…a link to the blue of the bluebells! The knowledgeable sermon drew reference to some of the wonderful plants and animals around the woods. The sermon underlined the reason for the service perhaps as a correspondent recorded:

“It’s a country service for those who enjoy the countryside. In a way it’s a celebration of the Creation.”

An earlier Leicester Mercury reference also agreeing to consider that:

“As the sun shone through the delicate green leaves of late spring on the bluebells of Swithland wood on Sunday afternoon, it was not difficult to respond to the invitation from the preacher to ‘consider the flowers of the field’ which more wondrous than Soloman in his glory.”

Swithland (8)Swithland (9)I was particularly impressed by the volume of the singing from the congregation, albeit supported by an excellent choir and especially impressive considering the congregation was seated. Understandably All Things Bright and Beautiful was sung with great gusto. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National anthem and it was easy to agree with the sentiment again of the Leicester Mercury which recorded:

“as singing the National Anthem to enjoy the bluebells in the afternoon sun, it was obvious that this event in Swithland had lost none of its appeal for visitors to the area.”

All in all an uplifting pause to consider the wonderful world around us and give thanks for it.