Category Archives: Procession

Custom contrived: Sheringham Viking Procession and Long Ship burning

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When one thinks about Viking festivals one will probably say Up Helly Aa, some may mention York’s Yorvik festival or even Flamborough – only one of which unfortunately I have had the pleasure of attending. Few might say Sheringham, a fantastic week long event, has rapidly getting a reputation to rival the others.

Taking a Viking to the place

Sheringham takes it name from Shira meaning a Viking Lord and Heim meaning home. The custom, fairly young, was started by a local artist called Colin Seal who saw a potential to both honour its heritage, raise its profile and produce some well needed money for the seaside town in a time which is traditionally very quiet and not a time we think of visiting the seaside. In an interview for North Norfolk Press he stated:.

“After Christmas, it’s a bit of a let-down…January and February are quite miserable, so it’s nice to have something to do and, even though it’s cold, people wrap up and we go ahead whatever the weather.”

Cold it was, but at least the sun was shining as we arrived. It had certainly lived up to its promise. The town was very busy with adults and children milling around awaiting the procession.

Over the week there had been all manner of Viking themed events in the museum and local Oddfellows Hall transformed into a Viking Hall from shield and axe making to talks on Viking history but it was the final day which attracted my interest – a whole day of Viking re-enacting culminating in a splendid Viking Longship burning.

Been inViking to a great event

The event now run by a carnival committee also attracts a considerable number of reenactors from Essex to Leicestershire; although the local Gorleston Wuffa group were the main group. There was said to be around 200 and they certainly looked impressive. These re-enactors were excellent looking very convincing both in dress and hair. There were beards a plenty and lots of menace. It really did feel as if the Vikings really had landed that day as they assembled on the clifftop showing off their archery and axe throwing.

However it was the torchlit procession that I was waiting for. Slowly the sun was setting glimmering across the water and people were massing along the road and on the beach.  The Vikings then began to march, both men and women, holding their torches to the side. The warm of the torches certainly helped keep the crowd warm but it was about to get a lot warmer. Behind them came their Long boat and slowly they dragged it to the beach down the ramp followed by two Vikings carrying their torches aloft and the crowd behind them. Two groups of Vikings awaited holding their torches facing each other ready to burn it as the boat was physically raised over the pebbles to its burning place.

Do Burn your boats

Soon the Viking crowd threw bits of wood and other combustibles. The 28 foot long Longboat was an impressively made piece and a shame to see it burn, with its menacing dragon head. According to the Eastern Daily Press it:

“built by West Runton carpenter Brian Howe and his son Henri.Featuring a dragon-like figurehead with mythical creatures and Norse themed decorations on the bow, the boat also includes a mast and sail, as well as more than 30 hand-painted Viking shields emblazoned with the names of the town businesses sponsoring the festival. Weighing in at around 500lb, it has been painstakingly painted over hundreds of hours by a team of volunteers led by artist Jill Brammer, Viking Festival founder Colin Seal and former TV and film set designer Chris Neville.”

It was slowly lowered by the awaiting torch bearers on the softer and flatter sand. More and more wood was laid within it and one by one the torch bearers threw their torches in. A blast of the horn went out and the crowd cheered high above beach at a safe distance as the Vikings magically bathed in its glow. Raising their axes and swords the Vikings formed a group menacingly! Cheers went out from the Vikings and slowly but surely the boat began to be engulfed in the flames. As the sea lapped at its footings the flames continued to burn until after around an hour it was nothing but burn scraps, flames leaping into the air as it lay on its side collapsing. All in all a remarkable end to an excellent day and week.

 

Custom contrived: Chepstow Wassail and Mari Llwyd

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Each January the boarder town of Chepstow becomes home to a fascinating mix of Welsh and English customs – The Chepstow Wassail. A colourful picandmix custom.

On arrival it is very evident this has become a rallying place for all people who wish to celebrate the winter and as such Morris teams from a wide area attend. The town is awash with blacks, purples and the sounds of bells, cries and clashing of sticks.

Strictly speaking the custom is divided into two – the wassail an English luck giving custom previously described here and the Mari Lwyd – a Welsh house visiting good luck custom which has not been fully covered yet in this blog.

When I arrived there a large group had assembled around a rather raggedy looking tree below the grounds of the castle. Here some Border Morris were half way through an apple wassail, pouring ale over the roots whilst the congregation assembled singing a wassailing song, toast attached to trees and ribbons swaying.  Everyone despite the cold was enjoying themselves smiling and enjoying the special bond the custom had established.

A few metres away were some dancers and weaving in an out of the crowd were Kentish Hooden Oss making the children laugh and look bemused in equal measure. They were a fair way from home again indicating the countrywide popularity of the custom.

No room at the inn or stable!

However in the pub nearby was a Mari Lwyd, one of a number in the town, which was about to go through the Pwnco, a rhyme/song full of riddles – a sort of old Welsh rap battle! The landlord was preventing the Mari Lwyd and his team from entering. From a casual observer one might agree for outside clad in a white sheet was a scene from perhaps from a horror film – a bleach white horses skull. The Mari Lwyd is a curious custom and one we will only briefly discuss here.

“The discussion was From inside the house

What, ho! Morganwg’s happy land
Is full of corn and barley
What, ho! is your request – demand?
Answer! We grant short parley

From the Mari Lwyd party outside

Honest men are we, who sue

Favours many, money due
To the Mari Llwyd from you!

From inside the house to end the contest

Come in, come in, and sit at ease

Ye merry sons of Cymru
Here’s sweet metheglin, here’s cream cheese
With milk, cream cakes and flummery!”

The Mari Lwyd is a strange mixture of macabre and marvellous. Its empty eye sockets filled with sparkling green glowing glass eyes, upon its head a crown of flowers with ribbons attached which flew in the cold winds. Its head shrouded to make it look even more mysterious – and hide the pole. Its jaw open and closing like a clapperboard.

Once inside it joined a whole throng of Mari Lwyds snapping and leaning over into people’s lunches and attempting to drink their lemonades! Those who expected them were very amused but there one or two who found it all a bit too weird.

Border Morris on the border

As darkness fell the main proceedings begun. At first the Mari Lwyds went to the bridge for the famed “Meeting Of English and Welsh at the border  Here a large crowd had assembled at the ‘border’ some carrying England flags on the English side and the others Welsh flags. The official start begun when a large rocket was sent into the air to tell the Mari Lwyd that the English wassailers had finished and that they were about to reach the bridge’s middle. With them the group carried lanterns, played music and carried a large apple cart carrying the symbol of their wassailing – a decorated apple tree. As a horn sounds, the sign of the English approach a which both them move slowly to the centre shouting and cheering carrying their flags. Warlike in a way if it wasn’t so surreally apparelled. Despite their menacing approach as soon as the middle is meet celebrations break out, hand shaking, flag exchanging and singing. Wassail to everyone and happy new year. If only every border was like. The Welsh invite the English over to join them in Chepstow. After then the Mari Lwyd descended upon the Chepstow Museum. Here the crowd once again got into good spirited boisterousness, name calling and ilk. Here the Pwnco continued until the Lord and Lady of the ceremony appeared at the museum door and offered a wassail cup full of mulled cider.

A meeting of skulls

Organised as event to revive local music dance and folk customs locally by the The Widders Welsh Border Morris and Tim Ryan of the Severn Princess ferry restoration since 2005 and has grown from strength to strength. As mentioned teams come from far afield across Wales and into the midlands and beyond. In 2019 there were 30 Mari Lwyds although this included some out of area versions such as Kimberley’s Owd Oss! For a custom once in decline it is clearly more and more popular. Indeed popularity has been an issue and in 2020 the custom went for a rest and a re-think due to its massive success. An article in a local newspaper stated that:

“It has grown so much in popularity since it began 15 years ago, to the extent that organisers have pulled the plug while they ponder how best to reorganise it. Mick Lewis, a member of the organising committee, said he is proud that they have built such a popular event, and confirmed the festival will return in 2021 after a period of “soul-searching”.”

One of the organisers stating:

“Fifteen years ago we started with just one Mari Lwyd, and now we get over 30 turn up, along with hundreds of people,”

Such can happen to customs, that their popularity outweighs their origin provision and thought. Bloggers like myself must be very aware of the impact our reviews can have. So I should state that the Chepstow Wassail is a great custom perhaps to reduce numbers not one to go to every year and spectate.

Custom revived: Richmond Poor Owd Oss

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“The most exciting Christmas custom was that of the Poor Old Horse which perambulated the town from one public house to another.”

William Wise 1888

It is not very often that a revisit a custom – but the Poor Owd Oss, Old Hoss or T’Owld ‘Oss of Richmond is different enough from its southern stablemate to have a separate account – and it is also not often you come across a custom which the great legend of traditional ceremonies, customs and British culture Mr. Homer Sykes, has not attended and photographed – in conversation with him he said he hadn’t heard of it and thought ‘why have I not done that one’. So I thought I would use this post to describe my experiences with the Poor Owd Oss and the history I have gleaned of it.

Take a horse to Richmond

Richmond is a delightful old market town nestled in equally picturesque Swaledale. A place that deserves many customs – it had at least three customs which are unique to the town – the poor Owd Oss being the most curious and certainly entertaining. A town nestling in both racing and hunting territory it is therefore not surprising to see a horse based custom. One which in itself regals in the hunting pink and crops of its attendants.

The words for the song were possibly first recorded academically by Robert Bell’s  1857 Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England, under the title The Mummers’ Song; or The Poor Old Horse, As sung by the Mummers in the Neighbourhood of Richmond, Yorkshire, at the merrie time of Christmas who adds:

“‘The rustic actor who sings the following song is dressed as an old horse, and at the end of every verse the jaws are snapped in chorus.”

The song sung is as follows although not all verses were sung dependent on the time the group wanted to spend in the place!:

You gentlemen and sportsmen,
And men of courage bold,
All you that’s got a good horse,
Take care of him when he is old;
Then put him in your stable,
And keep him there so warm;
Give him good corn and hay,
Pray let him take no harm.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

Once I had my clothing
Of linsey-woolsey fine,
My tail and mane of length,
And my body it did shine;
But now I’m growing old,
And my nature does decay,
My master frowns upon me,
These words I heard him say,
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

These pretty little shoulders,
That once were plump and round,
They are decayed and rotten,
I’m afraid they are not sound.
Likewise these little nimble legs,
That have run many miles,
Over hedges, over ditches,
Over valleys, gates, and stiles.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

 I used to be kept
On the best corn and hay
That in fields could be grown,
Or in any meadows gay;
But now, alas! it’s not so,
There’s no such food at all!
I’m forced to nip the short grass
That grows beneath your wall.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

I used to be kept up,All in a stable warm,
To keep my tender body
From any cold or harm;
But now I’m turned out
In the open fields to go,
To face all kinds of weather,
The wind, cold, frost, and snow.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

 

My hide unto the huntsman
So freely I would give,
My body to the hounds,
For I’d rather die than live:
So shoot him, whip him, strip him,
To the huntsman let him go;
For he’s neither fit to ride upon,
Nor in any team to draw.
Poor old horse! you must die!

So at each location, the group discuss ‘first three?’, ‘last two?’ In reference to what verses they recite. It is said that there were once 20 verses but the six verses above make sense, it would be difficult to see how any more verses would add anything.

During the song the ‘horse’ performs a number of actions. He even ‘nuzzles up to the huntsmen gallops and leaps, over hedges, over ditches, over valleys, gates and stiles’ and chomps on the ‘best of corn and hay’ and then forced to nibble the short grass and he is turned out to winter. In the winter he trembles with cold until he is finally beaten down by all the attendants with their whips and dies when he is neither fit to ride upon nor any teams to draw’. However, after he falls he is up again in the death and revival seen in all ‘mummer’s plays’

In the past it was accompanied by a fiddle, fife and drum, with a number of attendants, two of which were huntsmen, who carried long whips which they cracked throughout the song. In those days all of the T’owld ‘Oss party blacked their faces, which of course is the best way to disguise oneself.’

This is seen in a photo from around the turn of the century. Not so now and he does not appear to have been so since modern times. Now these attendants were in a well-dressed – possibly the best dressed – uniform as noted of hunting pink and top hats, these being adorned with holly and mistletoe.

I attended on their annual outing in and out of shops, cafes, banks and hairdressers in the town but days before they had done a prestigious circuit of villages and surrounding towns, going as far east as Malton. On the night of Christmas eve they extend their travels into the larger houses of the district being the guest of Aske Hall’s the Duke of Zetland. I was impressed by their routine but what is noticeable that unlike virtually all over such teams they do not collect for charity, indeed there is no evidence of any money collected. I enquired of this, one of the attendants explained that ‘Charity is a very personal thing and they did not feel it was right to impose a charity on people.’ They said they made it clear that any money given went to maintaining the costumes and ‘horse’ which do need to dry cleaned, tidied up and re-upholstered on occasions which is expensive.

Was is also interesting is that the group is not made of off duty Morris, as nearly all over ‘mummers’ are. Indeed, one too issue over the name ‘mummer’ although from an academic viewpoint this is what such customs would be called. Nor are the group, folk singers or folkies in general. No the team were local people who wanted to keep the custom going.

Horse has bolted?

When I turned up I thought I had missed it as a stream of people left the Town Hall and one of two of his attendants separated from the party and only partly dressed stood around drinking outside. Inside the town hall, the group were being feted by the town’s mayor with copious amounts of whisky after having entertained children and their parents in a show. Had they been around and this was their finally? I asked one of the company ‘what time do you start again?’ hopefully.

Julia Smith (1989) in Fairs, Feasts and Frolics states:

“My original informant remembered how she had been frightened when she came upon the ‘horse’ prancing through the streets when she was a child. She thought it had been connected with one family, and she was right, as I discovered when I found Mr Bill Ward. It was Bill Ward’s maternal grandfather Edward Peirse went out with the horse in the late nineteenth century and various members of the family have been involved with it over the 100 years.”

Although Julia Smith (1989) states that:

“the custom has never died out completely’

Image may contain: 5 people, people standingThough as she herself was told by Mr Ward ‘the horse may have remained stabled for short periods of time’. The Second World War was one period of rest and as Julia Smith states:

“After the second world war, when Mr Ward first became involved, he and his cousin visited a horse slaughterer to obtain a house’s skull which was boiled for them. They fitted the skull with eyes of black glass, painstakingly chipped from the bottle of old wine bottled and rounded on the inside. The skull was wired together so that the jaws could be opened and closed, while the inside of the mouth was lined with red plush velvet. The whole skull was covered with material to represent the skin….the horse…was adorned with artificial Christmas roses and poinsettias”

Horsing around again

Following the Old Oss for the day it was evident it was a welcome sight. We entered a barbers, where one of the team explained it to the hairdresser, into a packed Costa Coffee where the horse attempted to steal sandwiches and drink coffees, interacting with young children with a mixture of fear and confusion. We travelled down to the Old Station where a large crowd were entertained and terrorised. Some appeared to find it a little strange and odd! Perhaps the oddest was in Barclay’s Bank.  Here the team were rewarded with mince pies and wine by the bank manager – you don’t get that with internet banking.

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Back from the knacker’s yard!

However, this is not exactly accurate as a house or pub visiting custom it appears to have died out shortly after the second world war, in the 1950s. The reason given is the impact of TV. When the teams visited the houses with the Horse, they felt they had been intruding and that people were more interested in the TV. As a result I was informed that the head was buried for a long period in Mr Ward’s back garden.

It was not until the early 80s I believe that a local man interested in the custom, called Mick Sheenan, asked Mr Ward if he could revive the custom. No one appeared very clear on the date but I wonder if Julia Smith’s not being aware of it suggests close to the publication date of her book? It is mentioned in Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1996 Maypoles Martyrs and Mayhem:

From the week before Christmas, pubs and parties around Richmond, North Yorkshire are the main targets of the Richmond Poor Horse players. These mummers perform and sing the Poor Old Horse which describes a horse’s life and death. One man, dressed in garish mock-horse guise – complete with decorated horse skull – mimes the appropriate action.”

The horse is looked upon a bringer of luck and fertility and indeed as the group moved around people rushed up to engage with the horse, rub its head. However, the visitations have not always been popular and as is experienced by many teams visiting pubs you can find you are not as popular as you thought. In one visit a drunken squady thought it would fun to show it who was tough and headbutted it – the result blood and a broken nose. In another the horse was worse for wear when after accidentally hitting someone at a bar, it was repeated pummelled so much that they had to drag the horse out of the fight!

Horse whispers?

How old is the custom? Bell was emphatic stating that the:

The ‘old horse’ is probably of Scandinavian origin,– a reminiscence of Odin’s Sleipnor

Quentin Cooper and Paul Sulivan’s 1996 Maypoles Martyrs and Mayhem state:

“The creature dies, and then rises again; at which point you realise that you have strayed into totem-beast-as-Celtic-god territory.”

Whilst that is possible that the ‘horse’ remembers something ancient, it is more probable that the song is more contemporaneous to Bell’s time. Steve Roud in his 2005 The English Year places the custom between 1840 and the middle of the 20th century. The death and rebirth is always cited by folklorists as evidence of the ancient origins tied to the dying of the sun at winter and indeed the song does have a similarity to the seasons. However, one can argue so does all life and thus it could be a pure coincidence. I have argued that it was done during winter for pure financial reasons people were in greater need and others such as the landed gentry more generous. Were they trying to remind us of how poor they were with their dead horse? Is it possible that the custom was a simple house visiting custom as like the Mari Lwyd, a welsh horse, in which a team decided to add a song perhaps when it translated across to England? Or are the Mari Lwyd and poor old oss a coincidence? The financial impact of which meant an increase in popularity and the spread of the song. The limit of the song to Yorkshire, north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire suggests that it had slowly spread from a point of creation – likely to be Yorkshire – and had not fully spread when it had begun dying out as Roud notes in the mid 20th century. However does it really matter? For some the custom harks back to our old pagan times some like it for the weirdness.

Richmond’s T’owd Oss ended up for the last time on Christmas Eve in the pub where he was beaten to death for the final time that year…but he’ll be back next year no doubt!

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Custom revived: Spalding Pumpkin Parade

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Mention Spalding and customs and most people will recall the famous and much lamented flower parade. Sadly that demised in the early 2000s but in an odd way as local growers have changed with the time another parade has arisen – the annual pumpkin parade – capitalise in the growth of the local pumpkin growing capitalising itself on the increased in demand since the 1990s.

Turn into a pumpkin

You might think that Halloween items appear in the shops far too early but in Spalding it is like they are already celebrating Halloween! Spalding’s Pumpkin parade has really grown from strength to strength, held on the second Friday in October, it acts as a herald to Halloween like advent does Christmas perhaps – well at least locally.

The streets of the market town when I arrived was already a throng, I had been told that 10,000 people had turned up and it certainly felt lie it. Whilst none had them had dressed in Halloween customs many of them had orange balloons and some even dressed orangey!  Amongst the attractions were a small local farmers markets and stalls for children making pumpkin based crafts…and lots of carved pumpkins. These are apparently donated by the local company. As the light began to fade people waited the parade.

Leading the parade was the town’s Flower queen, although what she does now without the flower parade I am not sure! Obviously she would have been in a pumpkin coach like a real Cinderella which glimmered with its lights in the darkness. She was then followed by school children, hundreds of school children and their families carrying lanterns, pumpkins and scarecrows. There were dancing troupes and one group dressed in carnival clothing – which looked a bit too cold and damp for that. Overall it was a vision in orange and flashing lights,, inflatable pumpkins, paper pumpkins and flashing lights..and there were plenty of them in the crowd too, spinning, flashing and flapping courtesy of the hawkers who turn up to any firework or lantern parade. Then to finish it off fireworks…to remind us Bonfire night was also around the corner!

From tiny seeds grow big pumpkin parades

Back in 2000 was the first parade and it has become more and more popular although relatively unknown outside of Lincolnshire it would seem, although in 2004 it won a local award and became a week of events culminating in the parade night in 2009, The catalyst for the custom is a local company which decided to grow pumpkins in the 1990s. Mr Bowman the owner came up with the idea and its grown in size every since. He stated in Spalding Today that:

“We’re really pleased to support the Pumpkin Festival – when I was first approached about it I thought it was going to be a one-off! It’s a great community event, bringing lots of people together and we’re really pleased to be involved – it’s nice for us to be able to give something back to the community.”

However, success comes with a price as noted this year in the Spalding today when rumours have suggested that its popularity could result in its demise Stating that there was concern over public safety but local councillor Roger Gambba Jones stated:

“I doubt very much there would ever be consideration to stop it (the pumpkin parade) because it’s something that people enjoy doing.”

He added it will continue under his present administration – which might mean only for the next four years…which would be a shame as Spalding needs a great custom to put it on the map..the Pumpkin parade is certainly unique!

Custom demised: Nativity of the Virgin Mary Boar’s Hunt, Grimsby, Lincolnshire

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The town of Grimsby has three boars on its crest you may ask why?

The origin comes from when the town was surrounded by wild woods and when boars were common in these areas. The tradition having two parts the main part being the presentation of a boar’s head. T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1975) notes:

“An old tradition existing within the town of Grimsby asserts that every burgess at his admission to the freedom of the borough anciently presented to the mayor a boar’s head, or an equivalent in money when the animal could not be procured.”

Indeed, an 1828 copy of The Gentlemen’s Magazine states that the Mayor of Grimsby would have three boars heads at the table at his feast. Part of the tradition would be to hunt, for it is also recorded that:

“The lord, too, of the adjacent manor of Bradley, it seems, was obliged by his tenure to keep a supply of these animals in his wood for the entertainment of the mayor and burgesses, and an annual hunting match was officially proclaimed on some particular day after the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. In the midst of these extensive woods the sport was carried on, and seldom did the assembled train fail to bring down a leash of noble boars, which were designed for a public entertainment on the following day. At this feast the newly-elected mayor took his seat at the head of the table, which contained the whole body corporate and the principal gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood.”

When did this custom begin? The coat of arms is 17th century but it may go back to a Viking or Saxon tradition. Interestingly, the last boar in England was said to have hunted in Bradley which may have been for the Mayor of Grimsby.

Custom survived: South Ronaldsay Festival of the Horse and Boy ploughing, Orkney

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St Margaret at Hope is a settlement which sweeps along its harbour, an important port for the ferry too and from mainland Scotland. I wonder how many passengers are aware of the village’s unique custom – the festival of the horse and boy’s ploughing – really in essence two customs.

Plough a deep furrow

As I arrived boys and their parents were arriving clutching their tiny ploughs. Inside the school other parents feverishly dressed their children to resemble shire horses, perhaps one of the county’s most curious of customs. Outside a crowd gathered entertained by a local band doing their own rendition of ‘Road to’ in a Phoenix Nightseque fashion. At first the boys existed proudly holding their ploughs and sat down on a bench. Then the sound of a piper could be heard flowing out of the school and then sparkling and clanking lined up in front of the ploughboys, ready to be judged.

The aim of the costume is to represent the shire horses which would drive the plough in their ceremonial dress. As such the dress would include a large collar, blinkers and feet decorations. Around their neck was a large heart which would indicate symbolically their name. The costumes are a mixture of old and new, some of the oldest being handed down through generations having real horse red white and blue pompoms and horse hair dating back 50 years ago. The basis of the dress would be the Sunday suit which could be easily adapted to do the job. In a report Moira Budge chairperson of the South Ronaldsay Ploughing Match in The Scotsman :

“We have known of a baker’s family who used cake frills around the feet to look like the feathers of a heavy horse. There was also a newsagent who used the trinkets and brooches that sometimes came with magazines…People just used what they had and the adornments were sewn onto the Sunday suit. In the past it was very basic as it had to be sewn on and taken off again before Sunday…Once people had more money, they could keep a suit aside and the decorations became more fancy. Next year, they would add a bit more.”

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Just horseplay

To ensure the costumes were ready and in their finest condition work would begun back in April I was told, often old broaches and personalised jewellery would be added. Despite their apparent complexity many parts of the costume would be easily made. For example the collar would be made first from cardboard with foam laid on it and them covered in fabric. The backs are almost as decorated as the fronts with gold braiding, necklaces, broaches, tiny mirrors and shining bells perhaps to ‘reflect away’ bad luck. The costumes themselves have a sort of Scandinavian feel about them – perhaps not surprising as Orkney was Norse until the 1400s.

Brian Shuel (1985) National Trust guide to Traditional customs describes it well:

“All the items are profusely decorated literally like the most overloaded Christmas tree, with bells, baubles,, tinsel, beads, rosettes, ribbons, tassles, plastic flowers, cracker novelties and anything else which may come to hand during the several generations it took to being hem to their present advanced state. You could hardly see the girls underneath it all.”

The array of costume differences is quite amazing considering the limited pallet of what this costume could consist of. Some incorporated real horse harness and I was amused to watch one participant chewing on their bit. Girls with long hair would have it platted to mimic that done to the shire horses and fake tails would also be added.

The parade did not last long, soon a massive cloud appeared from nowhere and the brightness which bounced off the bangles and bits disappeared and everyone ran inside. Here dutifully the ‘horses’ stood on their podium and the judging continued. Amusingly like horses, parents administered cold drinks by holding them up to them with draws or feeding their sweets as the ‘horses’ could not hold them themselves as they had fake hooves in some cases. I was very impressed with the stoic nature of the ‘horses’ standing so still under what must be very heavy and hot clothing and conditions. Even the youngest were patient and keen to smile when the cameras looked in their direction. Only one after around an hour of standing decided to have a break. On the announcement of the best dressed and best harness, the winners dutifully stood forward. I spoke to the two judges, who had just that week come from a judging of real horses, said it was difficult to judge the best dressed as it was subjective, but as the harness had to have specific pieces – eg bit, blinkers etc, this was easier as some had forgotten to include some items – no doubt out of comfort!

Plough on

Not only would the horses be judged but careful consideration was made of the ploughs. These ploughs being often family heirlooms and could be nearing 100 years old. The judge carefully examined each running their hand gently along the side, feeling the balance and examining carefully the blades. Then there would write careful notes in their notepad considering the best wooden and metal ploughs. Originally they pretended with a stick with an Ox hoof tied to it. Then a local blacksmith called Bill Hourston made a replica plough in 1920 which clearly caught on and subsequently all the participants had miniature ploughs.

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Ploughed up

When does the custom come from? I have heard it claimed that the dressing of the children as horses has pre-Christian origins being linked to the horse whispering tradition. However, as in many other counties the farmers of the settlement would have ploughing matches, where their skills would be tested and ploughs and horses inspected. Uniquely, however in this part of Orkney perhaps the children looked on and wanted to copy or some farmer worried about the lack of youth uptake in ploughing established it to encourage both the development of ploughing skills and foster a community spirit and good old fashioned competition. Early records of the custom are hard to locate and everyone I spoke to their stated it probably started in the late 1800s. The ploughing match has a common sense origin it was for the ploughmen to teach their sons the technique.

Perhaps as one could not breed miniature horses, the girls would have to get involved and pretend to be the horses. A far more sensible explanation, and so much for the pagan origins claimed by some reporters! Apparently there were similar events held at Burray and Stronsay. That of South Ronaldsay almost died out and the second world war being revived after a ten year hiatus by a local bank manager Norman Williamson and it has continued ever since. It is thought that the girls became involved after World War II, beforehand the horses were younger boys and indeed despite it being stated that the horses were girls there was one boy in attendance which in a way is probably more traditional and less likely to be highlighted as sexist! Always aware of the potential of how bad weather and tourism can stall and feed a custom, in the 1960s it was moved from the children’s Easter holidays to the summer in hope of better weather and more tourists!

God speed the plough

As soon as the ‘horses’ were judged and the dark clouds disappeared everyone jumped into their cars and off to the Sand O’Wright for the ploughing. Originally done inland, at Hope Kailyard, and at some point it was noticed that judging would be easier on the sand. Here earlier two ploughing veterans select an area of sand with minimal stones and the right moisture – too wet nor too dry. They then scrapped off seaweed, measuring the area out with a wooden set to square off the flats. Soon small groups of plough boys were practicing, listening to the sage advice of the adult, themselves retired boy ploughman.

Each boys selects a four square area called a flat each which are numbered and compete for the three categories Champion, Ordinary and under 8s. As the Boys ploughing began to start there was a real look of concentration on the faces of all the boys and a nervous look on their helpers. The boys had 45 minutes to do the plough their lines. I asked what the judges would be looking for. One told me it was for straight and consistent lines in the upward and both downward plough, equal spacing neat and evenness being particularly valued. Indeed, I was impressed how neat they were and it was clear considerable pride was taken in them.

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It was difficult not to be impressed and the way in which children from 5 to 15 got involved with intensity and enthusiasm. I spoke with one of last years’ champion class who was nervous at winning this year and remarked that he was not as neat with his handwriting as he was with the plough.

Sadly the ferry prevented me for attending the whole session and seeing who obtained the best finish and start, the straightest and the evenest. However, as a custom it is without doubt the most successful in providing both a community spirit and a colourful and unusual spectacle.

 

 

Custom survived: The Worshipful Company of Vintner’s Installation Day Procession, London

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It’s hardly one of the longest processions in fact my conversation to the wine porter as we awaited the assembled group was longer, but if you want to get a feel of medieval London, the Worshipful Company of Vintner’s procession to install their new Master, or Installation Day fits the bill.

The City of London has many livery companies and many processions but despite its shortness the Company of Vintner’s procession to the local parish church from their Livery Hall is certainly unusual .

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Making a clean sweep of it

The procession is to bless the inaugurated new Master of the Vintners and to ensure that the journey is both a safe and pleasant one two additions are required. Firstly, ahead of the procession is the Wine Porter who carries a broom with a top hat and white smock. This is ceremonially brushed from one side to another in front of the procession traditionally to remove any detritus from the Medieval world which lay in front of them. He uses a birch broom which would have been that available to his medieval forbearers rather than a flat headed modern broom which might have been a bit more successful removing the chewing gum and sweet wrappers. Originally there were two who were employed with:

‘full besoms…that the Master, wardens and his warden and brethren of the Court of Assistant step not on any foulness or litter in our streets’

No new broom sweeping clean

The history of the Company may go back to the Norman Conquest although as its first formal charter was signed in 1363 which gave them a monopoly of trade with Gascony. As wine was an important and valuable commodity in the medieval world the Vintners were a very important although its importance waned when like many companies their monopoly was removed in the Victorian period. The Wine porter has exclusive rights to handle wine in the Pool of London, as the Hall which doubled as a warehouse backing on to the Thames, but they were disbanded in 1963 as numbers dwindled as wine arrive by other means. Today it is more of a charitable organisation. Indeed Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“Harry Darude, the last surviving Wine porter, was wielding his broom for the twenty-fifth time while a,l the other present were wondering who would be doing it if he passed on.”

However it was and despite their reduction in role the Wine porter survives if purely ceremonially. Behind the Wine Porter are the outgoing and incoming Master and three Wardens, Bargemaster, Beadle with their mace, Stavemens, members of Court of Assistants, Clerk and the vicar. Appearing like they had stepped out a Holbein painting they wear furred gown, Tudor caps and carry posies of flowers.

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A good nose for a wine

These posies or rather nosegays are not flowers to be laid at some grave or tomb at the church but had a functional purpose. In the medieval period the streets smelled bad, sewage line the footpath and fires filled the air. The posies made of strong smelling flowers and herbs were thought to keep the air fresh around the carrier and:

“their nostrils be not offended by any noxious flowers or other ill vapours.”

In those days thought to prevent diseases caused by bad air! Mind you it would have been made worse surely but the broom sweeping it up into the air! One wonders how good they are at covering car pollution!

When the time came the police appeared and stopped the traffic. Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“It was in this year, 1982, that Harry was much disconnected to find his normal route barred by impenetrable roadworks, causing him to improvise a long diversion. Furthermore it was pouring with rain, necessitating the addition of large black umbrellas to the usual regalia.”

The weather was thankfully fine and despite a strange journey over a bridge it was uneventful as they arrived in good time at St. James Garlickhythe. Once the service was over it was repeat performance sweeping back to the Livery Hall. Hopefully for a celebratory glass of wine. It’s taken me longer to open some wine bottles to be honest. However, one cannot perhaps find a more accessible procession.