Category Archives: London

Custom transcribed: Stamford Hill Purim, London

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“Why isnt this better known? After all Chinese New Year is a big event and we are the only photographers here.”

So said a fellow photographer as we watched a man in tradition black and white Hasidic or Haredi dress (typified by long black coat and large fur hat) escort three bears on scooters, who were trying to dodge another dressed as a blue wolf! This was Purim, or rather its most public tradition associated with the Jewish festival.

Really considering there has been a Hebrew community possibly continually from the 1780s when Italian Jew Moses Vita Montefiore famously settled there. This notwithstanding the wholesale influx of the Hasidic community was not established until the 1940s. From then on the curious custom has become more and more evident and now over 30,000 Jews reside in around 19 streets which for 24 hours or so become a focus of so much attention.

I was first made aware of the custom in Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1994 Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem and had always been keen to track it down. The authors state:

“Purim takes place mainly behind closed doors. But because part of the ritual involves dressing in outlandish attire, celebrants can be seen doing the shopping or nipping to the Post Office dressed as clowns, Godzilla or Bambi”

It has took me over 20 years to track it down, probably put off by the ‘behind closed doors’ ( the authors state attending could be tricky) making me think it would be unlikely to see the curious ritual…however I was wrong. Within arriving at Stamford Hill darting across the road in front of me were two clowns and panda!

It’s in the book…

Book of Esther that is. That tells us that a man called Haman in Persia can convinced the King Ahasuerus to murder the Empire’s Jewish community. Fortunately, the King who was married to a Jewish woman by the name of Esther foiled the plot and Haman was hung. The name itself being derived from the word for lots, relating to the lots drawn in preparation of the planned massacre.

There are a number of different customs and traditions associated the day, the exploration of which would warrant another blog post, after all I’ve never done one just on ‘Christmas’ or ‘Easter’ Purim is one of those multifaceted traditions. No it’s the fancy dress I am interested in here.

But why the fancy dress? Purim also falls in the Jewish month of Adar, usually March but sometimes February, who is traditionally it is said “when Adar begins, joy should be increased’. How this fits into fancy dress I still don’t understand unless the persecuted Jews hid from their oppressor by disguise.

One cannot help draw comparisons to other Christian and possibly pre-Christian traditions of disguising especially at the turning of the year. Did Purim originate as a spring festival, a recognised turning of the world when spirit were abroad and disguise helped prevent them dragging you back?

Purim down!

Even the weather could not discourage the attendees. As the rain beat down this Purim, umbrellas were out but colourful costumes were not. In the spate of an hour wandering around I saw

The costumes could be divided into a number of categories:

Traditional – there were girls dressed as Esther, boys as Arabs some on Camels, some even smoking fake Camel cigarettes.

Work related – a number of girls dressed as air hostesses, some with trolleys which helped in the delivery of manot xxx. Soldiers, Doctors.

Comical – Clowns were the most common, but bears and animals common, one was dressed as a drink carton (!) and one in a retro Tony Blair mask!

Parody – What was interesting is the way in which these younger members are allowed to mock their elders. Amongst the costumes were girls dressed a cliché Jewish grandmas, army members, miniature versions of their fathers in full Hasidic dress and rabbis.  The latter were particularly common and they were proud to introduce themselves as such and encourage deference for them. Their costumes particularly looked well made and I would say professional.  Cooper and Sullivan (1994) state that mock-Rabbis were elected over Purim in a move parallel to mock-mayors in secular culture.

Comparing to Hallowe’en is an easy comparison but this is something more artful and clearly more wholesome. There’s no blood and guts.

Purim it about

This is really a community letting its communal hair down. At one point a bombing and pulsing could be heard, a beat a sound of music. Then around the corner, came a large red open top bus. On top it was throng with young Hasidic Jews wearing fezs and looking very jolly. They stopped tumbled out of the bus, looking a little worse for wear, some streamed into houses, others decided to let loose to the music and started twirling around in the road. At one point one grabbed me and putting his hat upon me, we spent a surreal moment dancing around each other, arm in arm, a Purim dance off. Then they were off!

Turn the corner and there are two students dressed head to toe in a white traditional dress, smiling singing and shaking hands. Their infectious enthusiasm and addictive beat even reaches an elderly member of the community who mounting the steps of a nearby house,  twists and turns, hands raised up singing along, perhaps remembering younger days.

The intoxicating joy and celebration is difficult to miss…but this is a busy day, cars rush by driven by super heroes who toss their charity contributions in awaiting collectors, one dressed as a golf course!

Purim and out

Indeed as an observer, the whole event appears to be a frenetic flash of colour, as parents escort their fancy dressed charges in and out of houses to deliver their Mishloach manot gifts. Many of these are an art form in themselves, luxury chocolates tiered into pyramids, other expensive bottles of alcohol – for this is the one time of the year the community can drink!

Doors are opened. Every door is open. Children stand and sit of steps in fancy dress! Children their faces full of anticipation sit there waiting…and waiting…sometimes with wistful places… is it me next. Closed doors have Mishloach manot awaiting – one had five bottles of wine awaiting for its owner!

After a while it all becomes a bit too dazzling and you are looking for the next more bizarre costume. At one point I was swamped by a large group of children dressed as soldiers, knights, rabbis, arabs and what in intents and purposes looked like a character off the side of Robinson’s marmalade smoking a cigarette – some costumes were perhaps a little over the right side of PC! They were keen to have their photos taken…all upon doing so they asked for a donation! Upon seeing a girl dressed as a giant fish I think I might have reached the apex!

Purim, its public face, is a crazy festival, but a great one of giving, charity itself is important on the day, but above all celebration. It is said when the Messiah does come all Jewish festivals will cease bar Purim…let the party continue

Custom transcribed: American Thanksgiving

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“Thanksgiving would never work in Britain, because it is the day that self-deprecation forgot. Is it a holiday commemorating the Anglo-Saxon invasion of a country that already belonged to someone else? Yes. And what must have been an incredibly awkward dinner party between invader and invadee? Right again.”

Speaks a correspondent to Telegraph

Thanksgiving is a quintessential stateside custom, that it may surprise you to read that it is celebrated in the UK. It is not that surprising considering there are near 200,000 ex-pat statesiders in the country not to add those tourists who may be here for a holiday.

Thankful for what?

The folklore tells that in 1620 the harvest failed at the Plymouth Foundation and half of the Pilgrim fathers died. Understandably when in 1621 there was a better harvest and so understandably they wanted to celebrate a particularly good harvest with their local first nation groups the Wampanoag. Indeed, it had not been for them they would not have survived, for they taught them how to grow corn, beans and squash – future staples of Thanksgiving. You’ll notice no turkey reports suggest the three-day feast included lobster, cod, deer and goose!

Fast forward to the first President George Washington, who in 1789 proclaimed the inaugural national Thanksgiving Day. Yet despite it becoming an annual holiday in 1863 when it was set as the last Thursday in November, it too Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 to finalise the holiday setting it as the fourth Thursday in the month.

Thankful in the UK

It is unclear when Thanksgiving was first being celebrated in the UK, but I would imagine those World War II servicemen would have been privately having a toast in the dark days of the war. Indeed an account Similarly, from a young boy who happened to be visiting a base in the 1940s remarked:

 “I was invited into the dining room, and was amazed at the food that was there. It was Thanksgiving, and I thought Christmas had come early. I’d never seen so much food, as we were all living on rations. I was even lucky enough to taste some.”

And there is a comical photograph in Norfolk  which account how after being given permission by the farmer servicemen attempted to capture a turkey for their dinner – it was not clear whether they granted any of them a pardon! Similarly, the American students studying in the UK and their societies would have promoted the event and indeed it is one of the first places to look for it today.

However, ever eyeful on the commercial opportunity the main place you can find Thanksgiving in the many restaurants, often USA themed, dotted across the country and particularly in London which court American tourists. There can be found imaginative takes on the turkey, corn, pumpkin pie and other staples. Some are more than happy to spread it out to three days meaning they get lucrative weekend trade.

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Unsurprisingly one place where something more substantial is done is Plymouth. With its connection with the first pioneers, those Pilgrim fathers, Plymouth has commemorated their Mayflower and Transatlantic heritage for a number of years and in recent years it has been celebrated with some enthusiasm. The custom consists of the reading of speeches by the Lord Mayor and other figures on the Mayflower steps where those Pilgrim fathers sailed from followed by a poetry, choir. An illuminated carrying lanterns group representing the Wampanoag process from there to the Guildhall to tell the tale of Moshup the giant, a supernatural figure of the tribe. It’s the closest the UK has got yet to New York’s Macey’s parade.

The other significant event is understandably a thanksgiving to God and this is where the US Ambassador speaks at a special service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where America the Beautiful is also sung. The audience being again made up of ex-pats. However, the main stay of the celebration is the feast and now from Aberdeen to Wales, restaurants and University clubs will be serving up their feasts and providing kinship a necessary thing for those so far away.

Thankful this year?

Will it ever establish itself here in the mainstream? It seems unlikely, we already have our Harvest festivals, although the semi-secular nature and not to say the facts it’s a holiday may be an attraction. Thanksgiving is far too personal and unique to the UK and like Guy Fawkes Night, which has largely died out as the British diaspora lost their Britishness, it would be rather soulless. Sadly, perhaps many reading this would rather have this opportunity for a brief respite before the Christmas rush, a moment for family, friends, good food and company. Instead, the commercial side of the custom, Black Friday, has since 2012 been slowly establishing itself here, albeit devoid of its actual reason and purely a money-making venture. I personally think I’d rather have Thanksgiving given a choice than this buying bun fight! So to those who sit down to their turkey, pork and cornbread or sup on three sisters soup, finishing off with their Pecan pie this year – have a good one, you may be more thankful you are overseas than ever for this Thanksgiving!?

Custom demised: Queene’s or Queen Elizabeth’s Day

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“Vouchsafe, dread sovereign”

Robert Deveraux 17th November

 

It is common place now for villages, towns and cities to celebrate the succession of the monarch but until Queen Elizabeth accession it was not celebrated. Early in her reign the 17th of November became a time to celebrate the country’s powerful monarch.

However, it was not until the 10th anniversary in 1568, that the event was commemorate by the ringing of bells and slowly this became a more established event, hyped up no doubt by those who wanted it to be seen as a day of Protestant victory of the threat of Catholicism.

Long live the Queen…she’s dead

The death of the queen, unlike other accession celebrations since, did not cause the end of the custom. Fed by anti-Catholic fervour, the observations became more established. They changed from a ‘form of prayer and thanksgiving’ to out and out orgy of triumphalism. Soon the event consisted of triumphal parades, processions, sermons and burning of the Pope – sound familiar? However, they were not terribly popular by all, especially understandably the subsequent monarchs. In particular Catholic leaning Charles I was reportedly upset why his or his wife’s birthday and accession days were not recognised. His son’s reign obviously saw the Great Fire of London and it is reported that afterwards:

“these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

Chambers in his Book of Days records:

“Violent political and religious excitement characterised the close of the reign of King Charles II. The unconstitutional acts of that sovereign, and the avowed tendency of his brother toward the Church of Rome, made thoughtful men uneasy for the future peace of the country, and excited the populace to the utmost degree. It had been usual to observe the anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth with rejoicings; and hence the 17th of November was popularly known as ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Day;’ but after the great fire, these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

By the 1680s the events became more and more elaborate founded by protestant political groups keen to keep her memory fresh under the threat of Catholic insurgence under the reign of James II and calculated to whip up popular excitement and inflame the minds of peaceable citizens as Chambers puts it. The Earl of Shaftesbury as part of a group called the Green Ribbon Group, from a ribbon in their head, were the organisers and were very well connected. A pamphlet called London’s Defiance to Rome recorded how:

“the magnificent procession and solemn burning of the pope at Temple Bar, November 17, 1679.”

It was described as:

“the bells generally about the town began to ring about three o’clock in the morning;’ but the great procession was deferred till night, when ‘ the whole was attended with one hundred and fifty flambeaus and lights, by order; but so many more came in volunteers, as made up some thousands At the approach of evening (all things being in readiness), the solemn procession began, setting forth from Moorgate, and so passing first to Aldgate, and thence through Leadenhall Street, by the Royal Exchange through Cheapside, and so to Temple Bar. Never were the balconies, windows, and houses more numerously lined, or the streets closer thronged, with multitudes of people, all expressing their abhorrence of popery with continued shouts and exclamations, so that ’tis modestly computed that, in the whole progress, there could not be fewer than two hundred thousand spectators.”

In the Letters to and from the Earl of Derby, he recounts his visit to this pope-burning, in company with a French gentleman who had a curiosity to see it. The earl says:

“I carried him within Temple Bar to a friend’s house of mine, where he saw the show and the great concourse of people, which was very great at that time, to his great amazement. At my return, he seemed frighted that somebody that had been in the room had known him, for then he might have been in some danger, for had the mob had the least intimation of him, they had torn him to pieces. He wondered when I told him no manner of mischief was done, not so much as a head broke; but in three or four hours were all quiet as at other times.”

Although largely pro-establishment, it was feared that serious riots could result and in 1682 there was a call for the Lord Mayor to stop it but the civic magnates declined to interfere. In 1683, pageantry was reported to have grander than ever but the Mayor finally suppressed the display and their patrols through the streets to ensure order.  Under the reign of Queen Anne concerns over the Pretender were rife and so pageants were organised. A describe of it read:

“It was intended to open the procession with twenty watchmen, and as many more link-boys; to be followed by bag-pipers playing Lilliburlero, drummers with the pope’s arms in mourning, ‘a figure representing Cardinal Gualteri, lately made by the Pretender Protector of the English nation, looking down on the ground in a sorrowful posture.’ Then came burlesque representatives of the Romish officials; standard-bearers ‘with the pictures of the seven bishops who were sent to the Tower; twelve monks representing the Fellows who were put into Magdalen College, Oxford, on the expulsion of the Protestants by James II’ These were succeeded by a number of friars, Jesuits, and cardinals; lastly came ‘the pope under a magnificent canopy, with a silver fringe, accompanied by the Chevalier St. George on the left, and his counsellor the Devil on the right. The whole procession clos’d by twenty men bearing streamers, on each of which was wrought these words: “God bless Queen Anne, the nation’s great defender! Keep out the French, the Pope, and the Pretender.” After the proper ditties were sung, the Pretender was to have been committed to the flames, being first absolved by the Cardinal Gualteri. After that, the said cardinal was to have been absolved by the Pope, and burned. And then the devil was to jump into the flames with his holiness in his arms.”                          

However, this time the secretary of state interfered and seized the stuffed figures, and prevented the display. The very proper suppression of all this absurd profanity was construed into a ministerial plot against the Hanoverian succession.  With the stability which came with the Hanovians, the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Day began to subside and slowly disappear.

Looking back at the custom it is clear how it disappeared. In the wake of the attempt on James and his parliament, the government would be keen to re-focus this anti-Catholic feeling into a new custom – Guy Fawkes. Yet you cannot keep an old custom down, surprisingly in 2005, the Devon village of Berry Pomeroy resurrected it. This consisted of a service in the parish church finished with the burning of Satan on a giant bonfire! However I have been unable to confirm whether this still continues otherwise it will be a revived custom!

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 revived: The Whitebait Festival

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The days when we all lived in clover, With whitebait, can never revive, I assure you,” said Lawless, “they’re over, But, oh, keep the licence alive.”

Such were the lines from ‘Punch‘ to have two politicians who were commenting on the end of the great Whitebait Feast.

The consumption of baby sprats and herring – commonly called Whitebait – was such a popular dish in Essex that it attracted much ceremony which included members of parliament and even the prime minister!

Raise to the bait

The association with an annual feast apparently is associated with those who funded the Barking Breach, a costly anti-flood venture which was built in 1707. This begun with the host Sir Robert Preson, the Dover MP inviting distinguished guests to his fishing cottage nearby. Then in 1766, the first Whitebait Feast first took place in Dagenham, this was largely a private affair, often attended by politicians and marked the end of the parliamentary season on or around Whit Sunday. The politicians would process by boat to the party. A regular attendee was the then Prime Minster, Pitt the Younger. He was concerned that the venue was too far too London and as such it moved to Greenwich. However this being a political activity there were two locales: the Trafalgar Tavern (for the Liberal members) and the Old Ship Tavern (for the Tories). The last such Dinner was held in 1894 a closure forced by the lack of Whitebait, a consequence of the Thames pollution rather than any political falling out.

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Baited breathe

Then Southend Chamber of Commerce, Trade and Industry revived it in 1934. The improvement in water quality in the Thames has resulted in spawning occurring not far from Southend pier. Of this first revived feast the Times reported:

“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds; whitebait ill-cooked is much nastier than salt cod, and many are the people who do not like whitebait because they have never tasted whitebait worthily cooked and served.”

The custom consisted of an official opening ceremony with the catch blessed at from the end of the pier with the bringing in of the first catch. This catch was then taken to the feast. However a few changes have been made – since the burning down of the pier – the event has moved to the Bawley below Cliff’s Pavillion. The Mayor of Southend, other important people of the town and the ministers of the five different denominations attend. Arriving a few moments earlier one has to peer into the nearby restaurant where the whitebait feast occurs – tickets available from the Round Table – but don’t expect any prime ministers. Here the party assembled and then vicar and mayor carrying a basket of whitebait in a white cloth. Gingerly making their way to the water’s edge, the vicar said a few words and together holding the fish and nearly dropping them they threw them back!  Then the group went to a local restaurant to enjoy the Whitebait – although this is only the first course I would imagine!

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Sadly despite the blessing – much of the whitebait is caught 100s of miles away in the Baltic..and I am not sure the blessing gets that far!

Custom transcribed: Notting Hill Carnival

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What a custom! Vibrant, splendid, colourful, joyful, loud, proud and every superlative you can think of. A custom which is British terms is 50 years young (or so). A custom which draws at least a million visitors, something that many other customs would love to achieve. A custom which despite its firm fixture in London’s event calendar is one which has had a turbulent history and continues to attract problems, although considering nearly a million people attend statistically this is likely.

Notting like it

Arriving just before the 10 o’clock starting point the first observation is that it does not look like it will start on time! Indeed, the large numbers of police I was expecting them to form a procession – a police procession now there’s a thought- soon though one can hear the pounding sounds and a swirl of colour – mainly the bright green of the stewards – a mix a wash of gold.

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Soon the Carnival begins with this first procession, dancers wrapped in gold and holding aloft huge hands with 50. Celebrating 50 years (young) of the carnival, although this was also celebrated in 2014 and 2015. Then there was a big gap – which seemed like 30 mins – the next float. This is the first of 60 floats and countless colourful costumes, it will be a long day if you wait for it all to pass by. Many of course eschew the parade and stick to the 38 static sound systems dotted around this small enclave of west London.

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These floats are not like your usual float crammed full of themed participants, there would not be room, much of it is full of booming bass and tweaking speakers. Surrounding each float are some of the most wonderful costumes to be seen outside of the Rio Carnival. Massive tableaux of faces, feathers, bright vibrant colours. Samba dancers brightly adorned in their feathers and revealing costumes weave in and out dancing to whip up the crowds. Sounds of calypso, soca and reggae boom from the floats and bounce around the street.

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Notting allowed!

Sadly for what should be a great outburst of sounds and sights, its origins have been fraught. Born as a response of racial tension and the need for a unifying social identity. Although its official ‘birth date’ is 1964 this event was a descendent of a rather less impacting event, in was January and indoors, a Caribbean Carnival on the 30th January 1959 in Pancras Town Hall. This fused with a more hippie inspired street party organised in the mid-1960s to encourage cultural unity. This street party consisted of a procession of neighbourhood kids and a steel band. Roll forward to 1970 and it was described as:

the Notting Hill Carnival consisted of 2 music bands, the Russell Henderson Combo and Selwyn Baptiste’s Notting Hill Adventure Playground Steelband and 500 dancing spectators”

By the early 70s greater sponsorship thanks to an enterprising local teacher by the name of Leslie Palmer, resulted in an increase in steel bands, reggae groups and sound systems. The event begun to develop into two strands, a masquerade procession with floats and the establishment of stationary islands with their own sound systems.

From what clearly appears to be a very valid celebration of Caribbean culture was not popular with the authorities to begin with. The riots did not help in 1976 when disaffected youths battled with police and as a result for a long period of time this became the unfortunate media representation of the colourful event. However, such action could have been a result of heavy handed approaches of the police and the constant attempt to ban the event. It would not be until 1987 that the Carnival was officially allowed to take place. This has not prevented trouble (five deaths in the years since) or the need for high levels of police, but it has certainly reduced and fallen away to the fringes. Troubles and occasional serious crimes still arise from time to time – with around a million people swarming the narrow streets it’s not difficult to understand why something could boil over – but the media is much more favourable and is seen by the authorities as a celebration of London’s multicultural society.

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In a way, the Notting Hill Carnival typifies how customs become hybridised. Carnival is of course a Roman Catholic tradition brought over from France and Spanish colonisation. Through in the displaced masses of the African slave and brought back to Europe to be enjoyed by all races. All human life is here, of all ages, sexes and races. Despite the problems which create a sometimes poor reputation I would recommend the sounds and sights (and smells…of diesel and other intoxicants) to anyone. If you want to miss the crowds get there for the start and near the start and you’ll find it a pleasant experience. Go on experience it..

Custom contrived: Tower Hill Druid Ceremony of Spring Equinox

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One of the most wonderful things about our great capital is its juxtapositions and on the spring equinox, either the 20th or 21st of March, a curious and ancient assemblage can be seen undertaking a timeless ritual on London’s Tower Hill.

London’s Tower hill has changed over the years, where the area was once one big open space, it is now carved up into areas for ticket booths, cafes and souvenir shops it has much changed since the times when this hill was sacred to the Celts and their Druid order and even since 1956!

Spring into action

Despite train delays and no Circle or Hammersmith and City Line I managed to arrive at 11.30. The sun was beginning to shine suggesting that yes spring was finally arriving. A small crowd had assembled on the Tower Hill platform. I was informed that they were waiting in the café. I thought I would investigate…I was rather intrepid in my investigation. Let me explain. I had always been fascinated by ‘modern’ Druids. Who were they? Why were they Druids? What did they do? In the days before the Internet, information was hard to come by and although I had read about the Druid’s equinox ceremony, finding any information back in the 1980s when I had first become aware of it, was difficult. Did they not want tourists to know? I was also slightly intrepid, as I thought I’d find the Druids sitting around having a latte and a piece of carrot cake. It would spoil the mystical illusion. Fortunately they were not hob-nobbing with an Earl Grey but were standing silent in their pristine white cloaks, in a small space beside the church. A symbol perhaps of their older association with the established church as many revival druids were also vicars!

Druid awakenings

Revival!? Of course these Druids are a revived group. That is not to say its members feel affinity and maybe even DNA with those ancient Celtic priests, the custom, a contrived one, in the nicest possible way. The revival of this ancient order came in the time of great enlightenment combined with a great love of the Classical and Celtic worlds and a desire to learn about the great stone circles such as Stonehenge fostered by the works of antiquarians such as William Stukeley, John Aubrey and John Toland, author of History of the Druids. It was their fascination with Avebury and Stonehenge which must have fostered a desire to restore the Druid to Britain. Stukeley is perhaps the most well-known of these ‘druids’ who despite being a vicar, sermonised Druid ideals in his church and even built a Druid Grove in his vicarage garden. He appeared to be the Arch Druid but perhaps the three men’s interests never spread further than that!

However, it another group of men, who met in taverns in London to form the Ancient Order of Druids in 1781. In the 19th century, an Edward Williams became publishing books on Druidism, said he claimed to have been based on ancient Welsh manuscripts he had discovered. Taking the name Iolo Morganwg he composed the Iolo Manuscripts in 1848 and Barddas in 1862. He held gatherings, which he called the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isles of Britain. Long after his death it was discovered his so called ancient manuscripts were fakes but nevertheless his teachings remained of importance to the growing movement. Since then the Druids appear to have quietly thrived, although divisions and tension, like any faith have and do exist. For example a break away Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids were established in 1963 leaving the Druid Order celebrate at Tower Hill.

Why the Tower of London? For the Druids it was believed that the ancient the head of the Celtic God king Bran was buried beneath the hill (his birds being the ravens which still guard over the Tower). It was also thought that the site was aligned with the midsummer sunrise. It was identified as one of the city’s sacred sites being called Bryn Gwyn. Thus in 1956, the Ceremony of the Spring Equinox was established at there and has continued ever since and say its 60th anniversary in 2016.

Towering above

The Druids process in silence behind their sword bearer out the side of the church, along Byard Street, passing iconic red telephone boxes and the dreaded Tower green across the road and even KFC and onto their ceremonial arena. Here the order form a large circle and the ritual begins. Despite the roar of the cars on the road nearby and the strange smells from KFC down below us it was still possible to be drawn into the spell of the Druids and feel as if we were experiencing this ancient ritual divorced from the hubbub of the metropolis.

The Druids like any group have specific roles. The sword bearer, the triad, the Chief, Pendragon and scribe representing the rays of Awen, the herald, who organises and announces, the Lady, brightly coloured with flowers in her crown represents the Earth Mother, Ceridwen.

 

The circle is in silence awaiting the church chiming 12 one of the congregation raises a trumpet and a blast signals the start the ritual. This ritual is done with a smooth almost mesmeric pattern, each activity set to pronounce and energise.

Indeed the ceremony’s purpose was clearly to reconnect with our natural world on this day when the day slightly becomes longer than the night. To retune and realign. The Earth Mother must be thanked, so seeds were ceremonially spread across the ground by the Presider and water libated upon the earth to simulate the rise in fertility. Indeed it was this idea of spring fed fertility that was the focus of the Chief’s ‘sermon’ who spoke of the role of the adrenal gland in our awareness of nature’s demands.

Spring into action

Despite train delays and no Circle or Hammersmith and City Line I managed to arrive at 11.30. The sun was beginning to shine suggesting that yes spring was finally arriving. A small crowd had assembled on the Tower Hill platform. I was informed that they were waiting in the café. I thought I would investigate…I was rather intrepid in my investigation. Let me explain. I had always been fascinated by ‘modern’ Druids. Who were they? Why were they Druids? What did they do? In the days before the Internet, information was hard to come by and although I had read about the Druid’s equinox ceremony, finding any information back in the 1980s when I had first become aware of it, was difficult. Did they not want tourists to know? I was also slightly intrepid, as I thought I’d find the Druids sitting around having a latte and a piece of carrot cake. It would spoil the mystical illusion. Fortunately they were not hob-nobbing with an Earl Grey but were standing silent in their pristine white cloaks, in a small space beside the church. A symbol perhaps of their older association with the established church as many revival druids were also vicars!

 

Indeed the ceremony’s purpose was clearly to reconnect with our natural world on this day when the day slightly becomes longer than the night. To retune and realign. The Earth Mother must be thanked, so seeds were ceremonially spread across the ground by the Presider and water libated upon the earth to simulate the rise in fertility. Indeed it was this idea of spring fed fertility that was the focus of the Chief’s ‘sermon’ who spoke of the role of the adrenal gland in our awareness of nature’s demands.

A pause came when the congregation held hands and for a moment, just for a small moment, their silence appeared to permeate across the hustle and bustle of Tower Hill’s tourist traps. A well needed silence in our busiest time. Then at the end, four Element –bearers representing the four elements stand in the centre facing North, South, West and East to pass on the energy to re-align and re-tune.

Whatever you feel about Druids and what they represent, who they are and why they do it, it is clear that they consider two things I feel we miss in our urban life – a time to reflect and a time for nature and I for one cannot disagree to with this. The ceremony was a very uplifting and poignant one.