Category Archives: Oxfordshire

Custom contrived: Corpus Christi Tortoise Race, Oxford

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Dreaming spires, gowns, academic prowess – all things associated with one of Britain’s greatest academic establishment. But tortoises? Perhaps not but for Corpus Christi college and a number of other colleges who compete it has been a strong tradition and bizarre break for the academic.

Tortoise’s cannot regulate their body temperature so it did not look good promising for a race when huge clouds appeared above those dreaming spires. But everyone was in good spirits awaiting the tortoise race at the college’s tortoise fair. Many were having picnics and many were adorned with face paintings which showed their affinity with our reptilian races.

What they tortoise at University

Founded by Richard Foxe, Bishop of Worcester and famed for its role in the translation of the bible into English. Tortoise racing is not necessarily appear to come to mind in this setting. However, back in the Trinity Term, local tradition states that a student called Steve Brand, who decided to raise money for RAG by organising a tortoise race as a ‘gentlemanly challenge to Oriel College. Surprisingly, so did Freda from BBC TV’s Blue Peter. According to the College’s journal, the Pelican Record in 1974 the night before the College’s tortoise Christi had disappeared. After much searching he was found in the Cloister’s quad. This moment of freedom, may have affected the result however, the Pelican Record noted:

“Christie, obviously off form after a harrowing night, came third after 21 gruelling minutes and 40 seconds.” 

Tortoises going missing appears to be a bit of a theme. In the 2000s, Balliol College’s Rosa, a winner of number of races was kidnapped the night before and never seen again! Trinity was blamed but nothing was ever proved.

Tortoise racing itself has some history. It was apparently done at the beginning of the last century in Greece being last recorded being done by bored British soldiers on the slope of Mount Olympus using lettuce and shade apparently as lures.

The Tortoise…and the hmmm…tortoise!

In those days tortoises were a bit more common, roll or perhaps, crawl back to the 21st century, and they are not despite this a good field of candidates were produced.

Some of the tortoises however have a long pedigree. Emanuelle from Regent’s College was bought in 1976. Originally thought to be a male and so gained an extra -le. As a regular winner in the 1980s and 90s and even starred in Blue Peter. Indeed it even had a cup named after it.

Over the years there have been tortoises coming and going from Oldham, Sampras, Percy, Archibald, Theodore, Zoom, Shelley. One year there was even a red-eared terrapin for Magdalen College School’s called George! This year there was a large Leopard tortoise which I felt was, being twice as big, quicker than the others as more powerful perhaps. The best name was Aristurtle – the Classic education showing through!

 

Clearly tongue firmly in cheeks as the Oxford Cherwell in 2013 Oxford in suspense for corpus tortoise fair reports:

Sampras, Christ Church’s tortoise. Kishan Koria, the tortoise keeper at Christ Church, says of Sampras: “An understated intellectual colossus (with an IQ of 160+) it has been rumoured that Aesop’s fable was indeed based on Sampras, as was Lewis Carroll’s academic paper on logic ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’.” Kishan adds: “He has been inspired by the Olympics towards a victory for the College who are right behind him.” 

Remember, slow and steady wins the race

Suddenly the bells of the nearby college chimed and everyone descended on an area to the back of the college. We had been watching the College’s cheerleading team – yes I was surprised too – but they were excellent – throwing a man dressed as a turtle into the air when people disappeared to form a large circle crowded around an open space, the arena. To one side were an array of boxes, wooden, cardboard and plastic stuffed with straw and hay in which resided preparing themselves the colleges the tortoises cared for by their devoted keepers. The role of the keeper is a formal elected role in the College and one not taken too lightly and it was clear they really cared for their carapaced charges.

Around the circle was placed lettuce leaves as the goal as this was a race of quickest to the outer circle rather than a flat race. One by one the tortoise racers were introduced with a few words from their keepers. Cheers went up for them from their respective fellow college members. They are very loyal to their tortoises. However, I couldn’t help think that Magdalene’s College’s Oscar d’tortoise was a bit of a cheat being it was a student in a suit! Worcester did apparently plan to bring two Zoom and Shelly but only Shelly turned up. There was Turtellini from St Anne’s, a cute small Aristurtle from St Peters, Percy from University, Emmanuelle from Regent’s Park and getting the biggest cheer Foxe from the home college. Once they add been introduced them and their keepers stood in the middle facing outwards and as the crowd counted down let go of their tortoises and they were off. I must say they moved exceedingly quickly Cheers and come ons boomed from the excited crowd. The tortoises were literally biting at each other’s hills and at one point two grunting tortoises had to be separated. Then only minutes after the whistle was blown Shelly went over the line and the race was finished. Shelly sat chomping his lettuce. Like all racers they then stayed around for photographs and adoration. It was over for another year and as the crowd dispersed so did the fine weather….a huge rain cloud befell the tortoises who were quickly spirited away for some post race fruit no doubt.

Custom demised: Valentining on St. Valentine’s Day

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A forgotten tradition associated with St Valentine’s day was very widespread in the last century was Valentining and whilst the obvious assumption was that it was to do with love, the love aspect was furthest to the back of the mind. No Valentining was another form of begging in response to sung doggerel.  A detailed account in the Cambridgeshire village of Duxford and other adjoining parishes. According to the Antiquary, the custom in 1873 was ‘is still in feeble existence’. The account states that:

“They start about 9 a.m. on their expedition, which must be finished by noon ; otherwise their singing is not acknowledged in any way. In some few cases the donor gives each child a halfpenny, others throw from their doors the coppers they feel disposed to part with amongst the little band of choristers, which are eagerly scrambled after.”

In Northamptonshire it is recorded that:

“In this county children go from house to house, on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day, soliciting small gratuities. The children of the villages go in parties, sometimes in considerable numbers, repeating at each house the following salutations, which vary in different districts.”

The rhyme

In Cambridgeshire the rhyme would go:

“Curl your looks as I do mine. Two before and three behind. So good morning, Valentine. Hurra ! Hurra ! Hurra!”

In Oxfordshire the first rhyme indicates how a valentine was a random gift, later it was manifest itself as a person:

“Good morrow, Valentine, I be thine, and thou be’st mine, So please give my a Valentine.”

Another rhyme went:

“ Good morrow, Valentine God bless you ever I If you’ll be true to me, I’ll be the like to thee. Old England forever.”

or

“Good morrow, Valentine ! First it’s j’ours, and then it’s mine, So please give me a Valentine.”

In Kyburgh Norfolk it was a bit more specific going:

“God bless the baker ; If you will be the If you will be the giver, I will be the taker.”

One wonders whether the tradition of Jack or Father Valentine derived as a way to prevent unwanted begging. Interestingly in Hone’s Everyday book (1838) informs us that in Herefordshire:

“the poor and middling classes of children assemble together in some part of the town or village where they live, and proceed in a body to the house of the chief personage of the place, who, on their arrival, throws them wreaths and true lovers’ knots from the window, with which they adorn themselves. Two or three of the girls then select one of the youngest among them (generally a boy), whom they deck out more gaily than the rest, and placing him at their head, march forward, singing as they go along : “Good morrow to you, Valentine; Curl your locks its I do mine, Two before and three behind. Good morrow to you, Valentine.” This they repeat under the windows of all the houses they pass, and the inhabitant is seldom known to refuse a mite towards the merry solicitings of these juvenile serenaders.”

Interestingly this account suggests the evolution of more love related gifts given to the children and association of activities between the boys and the girls, but this form of Valentining is for another blog post.

 

Custom occasional: Hunting the Mallard at All Soul’s College Oxford

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Such elaborate junketing may sound a little odd to anyone unconnected with All Souls . . . But presumably, if Homer may be excused an occasional nod, a Fellow of All Souls may be allowed, once in a hundred years, to play the fool.”

Account from Cosmo Lang’s Biography

Back in 2001 I was invited to see a strange spectacle which by its rarity and unusual description I honestly didn’t believe actually existed, All Soul’s College Hunting the Mallard. Sadly in the end I could not go and missing out in a way cemented by desire some may say obsession to catalogue our curious and colourful customs. Why? Well because the Hunting of the Mallard is the rarest of beasts, as rare as the said Mallard, as it is only done every 100 years.

Interestingly Thistleton-Dyer in his excellent Popular customs past and present 1876 appears unaware of the 100 year cycle recording:

“This day was formerly celebrated in All Souls College, Oxford, in commemoration of the discovery of a very large mallard or drake in a drain, when digging for the foundation of the college ; and though this observance no longer exists, yet on one of the college ” gaudies ” there is sung in memory of the occurrence a very old song called ‘ The swapping, swapping mallard.”

Ducking and diving

As noted above the Mallard has a strong association with this venerable Oxford college; it is their mascot and can be seen on various objects around the college. But how did it all start? 1437 is the date given when during the digging of the college’s foundations the college’s founder Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Clichele, was indecisive of where he should build his college. But during a dream he was told that:

“…a schwoppinge mallarde imprisoned in the sinke or sewere, wele fattened and almost bosten. Sure token of the thrivaunce of his future college”

The location in the dream was next to the church and upon digging where he was directed and could hear in a hole: “horrid strugglinges and flutteringes” reaching in he pulled a duck describe as the size of “a bustarde or an ostridge.” This was a the sign and as the bird flew away the academics who were to become the Fellows of All Souls chased it, caught and then of course ate it! And so immortalised the bird in the college’s history.

When the custom started is unclear but an account by Archbishop Abbott in 1632 is the earliest recording:

“civil men should never so far forget themselves under pretence of a foolish mallard as to do things barbarously unbecoming.”

It may have been thoughts like this which resulted it in being a 100 year cycle!

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Yes Mall’ord

On the night of January 14, 2001, some of Oxford’s most learned fellows could be seen marching around All Souls College behind a wooden duck held aloft on a pole. They were engaged in the bizarre ritual of hunting the mallard that occurs once every 100 years at the College. I was up at Oxford at the time, and one of my tutors was present and so I got the eye-witness account of the matter.

After a commemorative feast the fellows paraded around the College with flaming torches, singing the Mallard Song and led by “Lord Mallard” carried in a sedan chair. They were in search of a legendary mallard that supposedly flew out of the foundations of the college when it was being built.

And so, during the hunt the Lord Mallard is preceded by a man bearing a pole to which a mallard is tied. Originally it was a live bird, by 1901 it had become a dead bird, and by 2001 it was a bird carved from wood. The last mallard ceremony was in 2001 and the next will be held in 2101.

How many hunting the mallards there officially have been is unclear – one presumes six – as little is recorded. The only one to have been documented before the 2001 one was the 1901 custom. The Mallard Lord being Cosmo Gordon Lang, who recalled via J G Lockhart, his biographer:

“I was carried in a chair by four stalwart Fellows – Wilbrahim [First Church Estates Commissioner], Gwyer [later Chief Justice of India], Steel-Maitland [later Minister of Labour] and Fossie Cunliffe – for nearly two hours after midnight round the quadrangles and roofs of the College, with a dead mallard borne in front on a long pole (which I still possess) singing the Mallard Song all the time, preceded by the seniors and followed by the juniors, all of them carrying staves and torches, a scene unimaginable in any place in the world except Oxford, or there in any society except All Souls.”

The account related that in 1901 that:

“The whole strange ceremony had been kept secret; only late workers in the night can have heard the unusual sound, though it is said that Provost McGrath of Queen’s muttered in his sleep, ‘I must send the Torpid down for this noise.”

At the end of the event Lang notes that the dead mallard was thrown on a bonfire to which Lang noted:

“some of the junior fellows could not be restrained from eating portions of its charred flesh”.

Its all quackers!

As the procession hunted the duck the procession would sing the Mallard Song:

The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon

Lett other hungry Mortalls gape on

And on theire bones with Stomacks fall hard,

But lett All Souls’ Men have ye Mallard.

CHORUS:

Hough the bloud of King Edward,

By ye bloud of King Edward,

It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

Some storys strange are told I trow

By Baker Holinshead and Stow 

Of Cocks & Bulls, & other queire things

That happen’d in ye Reignes of theire Kings.

CHORUS

The Romans once admir’d a gander

More than they did theire best Commander,

Because hee saved, if some don’t foolle us,

The place named from ye Scull of Tolus

CHORUS

The Poets fain’d Jove turn’d a Swan,

But lett them prove it if they can.

To mak’t appeare it’s not att all hard:

Hee was a swapping, swapping mallard.

CHORUS

Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,

Hee was swapping all from wing to thigh;

His swapping tool of generation

Oute swapped all ye wingged Nation.

CHORUS

Then lett us drink and dance a Galliard

in ye Remembrance of ye Mallard,

And as ye Mallard doth in Poole,

Let’s dabble, dive & duck in Boule.

CHORUS”

The song is not restricted to the Mallard and is song at events such as the Gaudy held annually.

Duck soup

In 1801 it was said that a live mallard was chased around, by 1901 it was a dead one on a pole and by 2001:

There will be a wooden mallard duck carried at the head of the procession on a pole.”

The History Girls blogsite accounted that in 2001 Dr Martin Litchfield West was the Mallard Lord it reported:

“Behind Dr West, fortified by the Mallard Feast and dressed in black tie and gowns, marched the other fellows of the college. Among those expected to participate were William Waldegrave and John Redwood, members of the last Conservative Cabinet, and Lord Neill of Bladen, former chairman of the committee for standards in public life and once warden of All Souls. All fellows taking part in the procession are expected to give full voice to the Mallard Song. …There will be 118 people, all fellows or past fellows, carrying torches. We shall go around the college and up the front tower and back again. We will then join the college servants for a lot of drinking and there will be a fireworks display.”

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An account of the custom first hand related to the blogger of the excellent History Girls blogsite notes:

“My tutor gave us the insider’s view of the Great Mallard Chase of 2001. She and the other Fellows partook of a 14 course dinner in the medieval Codrington Library, accompanied by superb wines (All Souls has the best cellar in the country – better than Buckingham Palace). I have reprinted the menu from 1901 below. Dr Martin Litchfield West as the Lord Mallard, and the Fellows sang, much as they have done for hundreds of years, the Mallard Song. The Victorians disapproved of the reference in the song to the Mallard’s “swapping tool of Generation”, mightier than any other in “ye winged Nation” (of birds) and dropped this verse from the song. It was restored in the 2001 ceremony, when the Fellows sat down to the Mallard Centennial Dinner, which did include a duck. When everyone was in an excess of good spirits, four of the younger fellows hoisted the Lord Mallard up in his special sedan chair (the same one used in 1901 – but we’re not sure if it was also used in 1801) and they chased a wooden mallard duck around the quad. In the days before Animal Rights (a very serious consideration in Oxford, given letter bombs to scientists and sabotage of laboratories), they chased a real duck. But this century, for the first time, a fake duck had to do. So, with the Lord Mallard hoisted high in his sedan chair the whole congregation of fellows chased this wood duck around the quadrangle bellowing out the Mallard Song. Now, given that he was not expending any energy and was the centre of attention, the Lord Mallard was anxious to repeat the experience. “Again, again” he cried, and he was carried around the quadrangle again, and then for a third time at his excited urging. But, when he said “Again”, wanting a fourth perambulation, the poor sedan carriers rebelled and dumped him on the ground. Then there were wonderful fireworks, including fireworks in the shape of a mallard. “

Sad to have missed it and not a single photo…ah well here’s to 2101!!

Custom revived: Beltane Fires, Port Meadow, Oxford

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

So reads the Facebook invite to Beltane 2017

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

May it be on?

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

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

May it be a survival?

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

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

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

Beltaine and braces!

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

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

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

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

Custom demised: Fig Sunday

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Palm Sunday known locally as Fig Sunday was a minor hamlet festival. Sprays of soft gold and silver willow catkins called ‘palm’ in that part of the country, were brought indoors to decorate the houses and worn as buttonholes for churchgoing. The children of the house loved fetching in the palm …..better still they loved the old custom of eating figs on Palm Sunday. Some of the more expert cooks among the women would use these to make fig puddings for dinner.’

Flora Thompson Lark Rise to Candleford

Fig Sunday was an alternative name for Palm Sunday and it appears to have been observed as a custom across the country. It is noted that at one point it was observed in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Northampton and North Wales. In Hertfordshire it is recorded in the village of Kempton:

“It has long been the custom for the people to eat figs – keep warsel! – and make merry with their friends on Palm Sunday. More figs are sold in the shops on the few days previous to the festival than in all the year beside.”

In Buckinghamshire it is noted that:

“At Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire, the children procure figs and nearly every house has a fig- pudding.”

In Dunstable, Bedfordshire:

“For some days beforehand the shop windows of the neighbouring town are full of figs and on Palm Sunday crowds go to the top of Dunstable Downs, one of the highest points of the neighbourhood, and eat figs.”  

In the 1912 Byways in British Archaeology by Walter Johnson he observes that a:

 “Ceremony was carried out on Palm Sunday by the villagers of Avebury, Wiltshire, who mounted the famous Silbury Hill, there to eat fig cakes and drink sugar and water. The water was procured from the spring below, known as the Swallow Head.”

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The author observes that real figs were often replaced by raisins as they were in the west of England and Wessex.

Why figs?

“when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.”

The Gospel of St Mark

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Palm Sunday is so called from the custom of eating figs on that day but why them? The main claim is that on Christ’s entrance to city on Palm Sunday he cursed a fig tree for not having any fruit, a barren tree, being hungry he then cursed it. Another claim is that the practice arose from the Bible story of Zaccheus, who climbed up into a fig-tree to see Jesus.

Sadly although a few food bloggers might promote fig pudding making on the day, Fig Sunday as a community custom has long ceased.

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 demised: Yarnton Lot Meadows Ceremony, Oxfordshire

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In this quiet Oxfordshire village each July all eyes would be on their meadows. Here survived until fairly recently, a peculiar and potentially ancient custom which would allocate these meadows, called Lot Meadows, according to the drawing of balls – called Mead Balls.

Balls up

These meadows were arranged in 13 lots. There were divided in strips called customary acres which covered as much land as one man could mow in a day or ‘man’s mowth’. The balls represented by these inch in diameter balls, made of cherry or holly wood were inscribed with the name of each lot and of which 4 belonged to the neighbouring Begbroke. The names were thought to represent the names of tenant farmers: Boat, White, Dunn, William, Water Molly, Green, Boulton, Rothe, Gilbert, Harry, Freeman, Walter Jeoffrey and Parry. Traditionally the organisers, called the Meadsmen would proceed to a certain spot in the meadow where the balls were to be draw, but at later times they met at the Grapes Inn in the village.

Here a ball was drawn from the ball and its name proclaimed and as this is done a man would scythe six feet of hay and another would cut the initials of the winner. This was repeated until all the lots were drawn and which point the Meadsman would write down the owners of each strip.  Disputes would occur. A report records that:

“There is a record of one disagreement over trespassing after the lots had been drawn and a fight resulted. This was in 1817, in the reign of George III, and in the ancient warrant for the arrest of the participants the Sheriffs are entreated to keep them safely, so that you may have their Bodies before us at Westminster’. To Westminster they went for their trial and careful record of their expenses they kept, even down to two shillings and ten-pence for the hire of a coach!”

To distinguish the boundary, men would tread up and down the edges and this was ‘running the treads’.

Having a Field Day

The cutting of the meadows themselves developed into a popular intense one-day custom with large quantities of plum puddings and plum pudding being consumed. The day ended with some subsequently rather drunken races for the honour of ‘securing a garland’ which would be proudly displayed in the church.  It was not always good humoured; as riots and one man died as a result in 1817. Consequently, the vicar gave a severe sermon that Sunday and the mowing was spread over three days to even out the alcohol!

Blackballed!

Despite a survival from the Norman conquest and its survival post fatality, numbers dwindled and then in 1978 as a consequence of the area becoming a nature reserve. The balls and the Meadsmen survive however, the latter being a hereditary title should the meadows return to service!  Until then the fields at this time of year are a blaze of local wild flowers and I suppose this can easily replace the loss of an ancient custom.