Category Archives: Pub

Custom demised: Holly Day, Brough, Cumbria

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In the Cumbrian town of Brough, once in Westmorland was an unusual Twelfth night custom which appeared to be the extension of the usual burning of the greenery on Twelfth night as now enacted at London’s Geffrey Museum. An account by Reuben Percy and John Timbs in their 1828 The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction which states:

“Holly Tree At Brough it is called night because it was customary at time of the year to decorate the altars holly There are two head inns in town at which the holly is provided alternately Early in the morning send out a body of husbandmen to fell large ash tree for although it is called night yet holly being a scarcity ash substituted They then affix torches of greased reeds to each bough tree and then take it into the inn to remain till seven o clock in At that hour a gun or pistol is fired the tree is taken out into a convenient part of the town where it is lighted after huzzaing for about half an hour is carried up and down the town on shoulders followed by the and stopping every time they the cross at the top of the town again salute the holly and fireworks are discharged It is taken town again and so on till it is The person who carries the his shoulders is named Ling who it is extinguished carries it to of the town and after throws it among the crowd eagerly watch the opportunity of away with it for I should observe two separate contending parties to whichever inn it is carried the to spend the evening in drinking very often it terminates with a name given to all their The origin of the custom as I observed from the offerings to the altars at of the year which is the by the name given to it WHH”

William Hone in his 1827 Everyday book added:

“Twelfth Night, or Holly Night, was formerly celebrated at Brough, by carrying through the town a holly-tree with torches attached to its branches. The procession set out at 8 o’clock in the evening preceded by music, and stopped at the town-bridge, and again at the cross, where it was greeted each time with shouts of applause. Many of the inhabitants carried lighted branches as flambeaux; and rockets, squibs, &c, were discharged on the joyful occasion. After the tree had been carried about, and the torches were sufficiently burnt, it was placed in the middle of the town, when it was again cheered by the surrounding crowd, and then was thrown among them. The spectators at once divided into two parties, one of which endeavoured to take the tree to one of the inns, and the other to a rival inn. The innkeeper whose party triumphed was expected to treat his partisans liberally.”

A curious custom which appears to be a mixture of burning out bad spirits into the new year with some survival of a pagan tradition mixed up with wassailing. What is more curious is that in some form we have not seen it restored.

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 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.

Custom survived: Atherstone’s Shrove Tuesday Football

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Atherstone is a curious town, setting on the ancient Watling street, about give or take 100 miles from London, famed for its hats and now a great place for books…it one of those British towns which has gone through many phases but never aspiring to be a metropolis – happy to be a small county town. A small proud county town it is at that – justly proud of its Ball Game. There are of course a number of such games, and I have covered Hallaton and Sedgefield in my accounts..there’s something a bit to coin a term often used in football ‘ a bit special’ about this one!

A load of balls?

In 1999 the town proudly celebrated the 800th anniversary of the event. However, this is perhaps a bold claim. Locally they will tell you that the town was granted the game in 1199 on the accession of King John. However, details are scant if that. Indeed, the claim seems to rest upon the vague suggestion of a Ralph Thompson who wrote in 1790:

“It was a match of Gold that was played betwixt the Warwickshire lads and the Leicestershire Lads on Shrove Tuesday; the Warwickshire Lads won the Gld. It was in King John’s reign…Atherstone, being the nearest town to the place where they play’d it, it is and has been a custom to turn a Foot Ball up Atherstone on Shrove Tuesday every Year since that time.”

What time? No date is given. Hugh Hornby in his excellent compendium of football games Uppies and Downies states that even if John did grant it on his accession he didn’t become king until the 6th of April! Never mind. It is certain that the Game has a long origin and was certainly continually played from the 1700s and despite the absence of any mention of the custom in the 1700s we can assume it happened.

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Game over?

In the early 20th century many Shrove tide games were quashed. An 1835 Highways Act prevented Football played in the street had attempted to stem them and combined with the potential drinking and civil unrest which could ensue, one by one across the country the red card was shown and the game stopped. When in 1901 the Warwickshire County Council tried to move in on the game, then then Chairman of the Parish Council in a meeting on the issue, a Mr. C Orton asserted:

“the custom had been observed so many years that it had become to be looked upon as a kind of charter by the working classes and not only by them but by others as well.”

And it was observed by a Mr. H. E. Vero that:

“The reason that football kicking has been stopped in other towns was because the tradespeople objected to it, but in Atherstone they did not.”

The meeting apparently concluded to support the custom and continue removing panes of glass from the gas lamps. The game went ahead, despite Warwickshire Country Council’s wishes and so it has been – ironically that same council trumpet it as a tourist event – how times have changed! The game continued unabated until in 1974 an committee was established to organise it and focus the action in Long Street and prevent the rampage around the town and then in 1986 established players were used a stewards. Indeed the focus in one street meant that unlike other more rural shrovetide games it was saved from a ban in 2001 foot and mouth outbreak and continued through both World Wars.

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Kick about

One of the reasons why it has remained I believe because unlike its counterparts it is far more a spectator sport. The ball is much larger and hence more visible in the scrum, it is focused on more place and more importantly everyone gets a chance to kick it. For during the first 90 or so minutes the game seems quite complexing – is this a ‘game’ or not? Why is no one trying to score? During this time all and sundry are given a go. I saw children of all ages getting involved, women – including quite an elderly one I feared might fall over and even a policeman! There’s no competition only for catching it and returning it and often a steward is on hand to make sure anyone who wants a kick has a go. This is clearly a great way to engender both interest and inclusion and whether or not any of the kickers really get involved in the game is irrelevant they had a kick – added to the apparent luck of doing so – its eagerly taken on.

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Jumpers for goal posts

I must admit to having a soft spot for Atherstone’s football and its only one of two I have been to more than once because of its accessibility. The last time I went I had come fresh from a pancake race elsewhere to be confronted with another just about to start down Long Street by the Major and other local dignitaries. A nice addition. Indeed, Atherstone’s Shrove Tuesday is not just about the Football it developed another custom to compliment it – a sweet presumably originally a penny scramble. With the addition of the pancake race it could be seen to be developing a shrove tide triathlon!

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The sun was bright and the white walls of the Angle Inn glistened its warming rays as a crowd of youngsters gathered beneath it. In the windows shadows can be seen. The children below appeared to move closer and stand eyes gazing up and hands ready. Soon a plastic pot appeared and a hand. Then a hand full of sweets and then to cheers below the sweets were cast upon the crowd. The children ducked, dived and tussled below. As more and more sweets descended the crowd went crazier and crazier. The face of the children more determined and fevered. It was quite intense and after a while it was clear that some of the younger children were dragged out of the mix. In the distribution was a giant Golden penny I saw it go out…but didn’t see it after, but presume the lucky child returned it for the £10 prize. The scramble was a clever device, a way both to attract fresh blood to the football, get them trained for the future and possibly satisfy their need to get into the throng.

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Golden balls

Then at 3 pm a new face appeared at the window. The children had dispersed and those that hadn’t were quickly removed. Now a new crowd arrived. Often burly men, clothed in rugby shirts and old jeans and trousers, probably ritually worn each year for the game. The guest of honour appeared holding the ball. A cheer went out and people positioned themselves. Interesting I noticed a few likely characters standing a drift from this throng..biding their time and conserving their energy for the right time to pounce on the ball. For unlike other Shrove football competitions and similar, there are no goals and unlike others there is a time limit. The winner? They who should have the ball when the horn is sounded. It was thus wise to wait. Then after a pep talk from one of the organisers asking for good conduct the ball was held ready to be through, attached to it three ribbons and off it went. The ribbons did not last long as the ball made its first appearance from the throng a few minutes they were gone grabbed by the attendees and again latter exchanged for their £10 prize money.

Then around 4.30 the crowd became to thicken and the ball’s direction changed. The game had really begun as the first attempt was made to take control. A big kick sent it down the street to a waiting pair of hands. The crowd surged towards it. It soon disappeared. The ball surfaced again. The crowd separated into participants and observes. The throng rushes downhill as the ball is kicked out of sight. I rushed down as a wall of people are looked against a wall with the ball somewhere within. The ball breaks free and is kicked again up the street. It does not go far as the throng and ball bow to gravity and roll further downhill. A steward steps in and a break occurs to refocus back to prevent it spilling too far. The ball is seen for a fleeting moment and then its gone. Too and fro. Piles of bodies encase the ball. Then it is out off and with it the crowd. Those watchers appear then to make their move, fresh of energy then enter the fray, ready to put their full weight and effort taking possession. Then the horn sounds, a cheer is let out, but the scrum does not disperse readily the scene is brightened by the reflective coats of the stewards, who now gently peel the bodies from each other to release the ball and the winner. Weary, bruised, shirt torn, sweaty the winner emerges, a smile beams across his face – he’s won – the ball looks a little worse for the encounter, its flat and devoid of any spherical appearance. Everyone is off to celebrate and it is over for another year.

Custom demised: Carlow’s dole, Woodbridge

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Candlemas is often associated with charities especially doles. Whilst most of these appear to have died out around 100 years ago, one survived until recently and indeed may soon return. This is Carlow’s Dole. Carlow’s Dole is also one of those customs which is repeatedly referred to it folk custom almanacs and now online lists as a surviving custom – however that is far from the truth. Even Malcolm Taylor, Doc Rowe and Carolyn Robson’s 2014 school resource British Folk Customs From Plough Monday to Hocktide state:

“a dozen loaves are still distributed each Candlemas by the rector and churchwardens of St. Mary’s parish church.”

What makes the charity stand out is the nature of bizarre distribution and the origins of its founder.

George Carlow was a member of a religious sect long extinct called the Separate Congregation who’s chief belief was keeping Saturday sacred it seems. Being not accepted for burial in the church or chapel, he therefore was interred in his own private tomb in his garden. As the year’s passed this garden became the property of the Bull Hotel. Arthur Mee (1939) in his Suffolk notes:

“…we come upon the tiny walled garden of the Bull Hotel, the old coaching inn on Market Hill where Tennyson stayed… Through the hotel yard we come to the grave of George Carlow, who owned the inn in 1738, when he died and was buried here. He left the inn a small charity to distribute bread each year to the poor, and the bread is still distributed at his grave.”

The will stipulated that whosoever lived in his house paid for the loaves. As the Bull Hotel’s annex covered this property for many years they took responsibility for the tomb’s upkeep and helped with the charity. Homer Sykes (1975) who chose the custom to feature in his excellent Only Once a Year notes that the hotel had a room called Carlow’s and that those involved would be served sherry by the hotel. Landlord Neville Allen noted in Ben Le Vay’s Eccentric Britain:

“we mark it some years with children coming from one of the local schools to get rolls which we have baked. Of course, they’re not that poor nowadays but it’s very educational.”

The some years is a clue of how the custom appeared to die out but not the full story which I will explain in a moment. What makes this dole so interesting is the tomb of course on which is inscribed:

“Weep for me dear friend no more for I am gone a little before. But by a lite of pity prepare yourself to follow me. Good friends for Jesus sake forbear. To move the dust entombed here. Blessed be he that spares these stones. Cursed be he that moves my bones.”

Now Mr. Carlow being not associated with a church realised he would not be able to display his bequest on a Charity board as many others still do and did, so he also cleverly had the instructions carved also into his tomb:

“Twenty shillings worth of bread to be given on this stone to the poor of the town on the second of February forever.”

These loaves were purchased from the two poorest bakers in the town for the town’s poor, by doing so helping both parts of the community. Interestingly, St. Mary’s Church were charged with organising this distribution being done by the verger and two church wardens.

Interestingly, unlike other customs which clearly don’t pay for themselves, Carlow’s dole was not subsidised. Sykes (1975) notes in 1975:

“At present, since loaves cost more than two pence, only twelve loaves are purchased and distributed…”

Malcolm Taylor, Doc Rowe and Carolyn Robson’s 2014 British Folk Customs From Plough Monday to Hocktide also astutely note:

“whereas once 20/- (£1) would have provided the 120 ‘two-penny loaves’ originally intended, today it would buy but one large loaf.”

Interestingly Sykes appears to show the dole being given to elderly people but by Brian Sheul’s (1983) time in the 1980s it was children.

The dole was clearly also an attempt at sin eating where the sins of the incumbent would be passed onto the living. This was done by eating food off the grave. This is still enacted at Butterworth’s Dole at Smithfield’s London and of course is one of the concepts behind the Wake. Of course within recent times of the dole it was more hygienically distributed on a table near the tomb.

Carlow’s Grave, Woodbridge where the dole should have been distributed. Copyright Richard Wisbey Flikr

Forever?

As stated Carlow’s dole is often described as being still extant but it sadly has now become lost. Why? The reason is rather pathetic to be honest – and that is not meant to be a criticism of St. Mary’s – but the owners of the land in which the tomb is enclosed. For although it is often noted that the tomb is in the Bull Hotel garden this is no longer true. Houses were built on land adjacent to the Hotel and the tomb was incorporated into one of the house’s private gardens. According to the Rector Canon Kevan McCormack access was prevented by the owner of the land but this appears to have arisen from a dispute regarding who owned the small piece of land, a dispute which had apparently been going on for several years. Promisingly he noted that the previous owners believed that if it was resolved there would be no problem reinstating the tradition. The owners were very gracious to Richie Wisbey who managed to get access and take a recent photo of the grave now overgrown in the garden. Back in 2012 I was told:

“A brief response is that we ceased a few years ago from giving out bread at the tomb, because the owner of the land where the tomb is would not allow us to do it.  However, there has now developed a dispute as to who owns this small piece of land and if this is resolved it may be possible to reinstate this next year.”

2013 I was told:

Sadly this dispute has been going on for several years and we just have to wait.”

2016 and I think we are still waiting. A shame that such a dispute could stop the custom and we hope that it either has now been revived or will be soon.

Custom revived: Wassailing the Apple Trees Carhampton

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If there is one custom which appears to have defied reason with its reason – it is apple wassailing – 30 years ago the surviving wassail was on rocky ground – 100 years or so before nearly all of them had died out…fast forward to the 21st century..and it is in very good health indeed with a large number of ‘revivals’ across the country. Why is perhaps the difficult question considering what it involves..we shall explore that later. Carhampton, a small village, not far from the holiday metropolis of Minehead (with its colourful Hobby Horse), is the grandfather of all such modern revivals, where these upstarts take their lead, the oldest by 80 years.

Keeping my eyes peeled!

Arriving on a fine and remarkably mild 17th January it looked like the Wassail was about to just get on its way. I asked in the pub the Butchers’ Arms and they directed me a few yards away to an orchard. This did not fit the description of the location I had read. However, at the orchard I was greeted by a large friendly number of adults and children off all ages. Some were handing out free food and hot drinks, the others wrapped up warm, but all congregated in the large orchard around a large central tree. It had not started yet, which was great I was lucky but I also thought had the guides been wrong..it was about an hour too early!

Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (64)Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (47)

he Wassail had all the features I had heard about. Pieces of cider soaked toast – although it looked pretty sturdy if it was – were placed in the trees by eager children. The roots were fueled by a libation of cider and all circled around to sing songs with the fine accompaniment of the squeezebox and the fine rich voice of the leader. A few metres away for obvious safety reasons were a row of riflemen poised to fire…ready for the signal…they fired their rounds, not as more traditionally read into the branches, but into the air…much safer! The event ended and the congregation quickly dispersed some to their cars, homes and some to the pub. I was informed that this was not the original wassailing of the apple tree but a younger upstart…the original was still to occur.

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That’s Wass-al

I returned to the Butchers Arms to be told the original orchard was tucked behind it, although not accessible from the pub, a small walk down the footway and then up a small lane, through some old farm buildings led me there. Here the first thing to hit you was the heat. A large bonfire sparked away just behind the pub where a small collection of ancient old apples resided. The orchard was small, much smaller than the community one, an old relic. Indeed, the custom was once close to extinction when almost all orchard was almost purchased for houses. At the time the pub’s landlord wisely stepped in and purchased it. Today the other houses loom over.

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A 1970s Wassail?

Getting to the core

But is the Wassail? Starting simply Wassail is said to derive from a Saxon word ‘was hael’ meaning ‘good health’ and it applied to two related by separate customs. The first involves a custom akin to carol singing usually involving house visiting and a cup called the Wassail bowl (this is different from the extinct Vessel or Wassail cup which was a box holding the nativity) and this which involves ‘toasting’ trees with song and libating them with cider. The first records of the custom show how widespread it is, perhaps indicating an older origin, are St Albans in 1486 and 1585 in Fordwich Kent and by 1630s Robert Herrick writes about Devon orchards wassailing to ensure good yields. John Aubrey is the first to record it in the West Country noting that the men on Twelfth Night:

“go with the Wassail bowl into the orchard and go about the trees to bless them, and put a piece of toast upon the roots in order to it.”

Little has changed remarkably though now the 1752 calender change has meant the date is now firmly the 17th January – old Twelfth Night – unless it is a Sunday. By the 1700s the custom appears to be proliferating, or is better recorded being recorded as far apart as Worcestershire and Sussex. Yet by the 1800s it was in decline so much that as the 20th dawned only one –Carhampton- had survived. In the West country the custom was the work of the farm workers, supposedly necessary to ensure a good harvest in autumn. Recent revivals wisely organised by breweries! In an article called West Country raises a glass to Wassailing in The Telegraph the then Butcher’s Arms, Kevin Nicholls noted:

Wassailing has been going on in Carhampton for 150 years…I used to come out here as a kid and watch it. When I took over the pub 10 years ago the local wassail was dying so I helped to bring it back. It’s a special occasion: I make a cider and then mull it using a recipe that has been handed down from landlord to landlord. It’s good for the village, especially in changing times when so many people move into an area and don’t know its traditions.”

Although an 150 year old history at least can be claimed it did slip for a few years being revived around the 1930s, and then in the 1980s but perhaps not long enough to be a real revival, just a reboot in today’s language to attract more people.

Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (108)Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (53)

To toast the tree

Soon the chief wassailer, Gordon Holt (for what of another term) looking around for the oldest tree and upon recognizing it beckoned the assembled around. To be honest this original wassail appeared a bit rough and ready – the chief did not have a torch – I lent him mine! However, it followed the classic formula. Again pieces of toast were distributed amongst the tree. He was also holding the pub’s noted cider in a yellow bucket and he distributed it around and poured it over the roots of the plant. A small crowd gathered around him and three men stood close by with their shot guns. It was bizarrely a smaller affair than that at the community orchard. He said a few words of welcome and soon we sung the wassailing song:

“Old apple tree, we wassail thee,                                                               

And hoping thou wilt bear                                                                         

For the Lord doth know where we shall be                                                

Till apples come another year.                                                                   

For to bear well, and to bloom well,                                                          

So merry let us be,                                                                                      

Let every man take off his hat,                                                                           

And shout to the old apple tree!                                                                           

Old apple tree, we wassail thee,                                                                        

And hoping thou wilt bear,                                                                    

Hatfuls, capfuls and three bushel bagsful                                                         

And a little heap under the stairs,                                                             

Hip, Hip, Hooray!”

The last three lines were spiritedly repeated with the small but vocal crowd who joined in the chant. Guns were fired and the event was over! Although the event continued with further folk songs. I notice that Kingsley Palmer and Robert Pattern in their 1971 Some notes on Wassailing and ashen faggots in south and west Somerset notes a three handed wassail cup. They note:

“is inscribed: International Wassail Bowl 1960 Yakima USA-Carhampton England….a visiting American saw the wassail and took the idea back to Yakima whi ch is in a large apple growing area, where it was used as publicity. Each year a young lady from Yakima attends…to act as an ambassador.”

With no sign of the vessel, although similar ones can be seen in early 20th century photos, one wonders if the ambassador turns up still.

Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (105)Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (93)

Wass al it about?

The actions of the Wassailers appear rather curious. Why toast? Why fire guns? Why pouring cider? Well there are as always two reasons – one deep and meaningful, the other more prosaic. The folklorist believed that the toast placated folk creatures who looked after the tree and preserved the crop. More functionally it attracted song birds, especially robins who after eating it would eat any pest on the tree – but of course Robins have a spiritual significance themselves. The firing over the trees is said to ward away evil spirits, it could equally scare away mice and especially deer who nibble the developing buds. Certainly it is noted that sometimes when no shotgun is available, pots and pans are used to make as much noise as possible. Perhaps even the provision of cider provided antiseptic antifungal solution to the infections that rested in the roots of the trees? The song of course – unless you believe the power of sound in helping plant developments – is slightly harder to explain scientifically, but of course you have got to have a reason for a get together and a song which ties hopes together. The age is difficult to say..is it pagan? Well despite claims and the real pagan feel about a ritual regarding fertility, there is no pre1400 record.

Wass-al the rage

I noticed Wikipedia states that the traditional one is preceded by a smaller affair at the community orchard. This appears to have flipped over and the traditional event is the more modest one. What was particularly odd was that there did not appear to be much overlap. Why was this? Was it that the community orchard’s wassail was more functional, more relevant to the community? It would be very ironic if the grandfather of these wassails finally died out due to indifference. It’s nearly happened at least a couple of times, in the 1970s when the orchard was nearly lost and not so long ago in the 1990s and whilst apple wassailing is all the range from Bedfordshire to Yorkshire, the unique nature of this event is slipping away. Clearly, apple wassailing is in no fear of dying out…but Carhampton’s on and off 150 year old tradition I cannot be so certain.

 

Custom contrived: Grenoside Traipse

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“The team would go for many miles on foot to perform for the local gentry, calling at all the public houses on the way. Even if they arrived home at 2 or 3 in the morning, they still insisted on their white trousers being washed and pressed for the next day’s outing.”

Harrington Housely 1973 after 51 years of dancing!

Grenoside Sword Dancers are the other surviving Sheffield team, its earliest reference being in 1750. Sheffield was a stronghold of the custom which appears to have arisen as a means to make money for workers in the city’s cutlery industry who were often layed off over Christmas when the companies did their stock taking. This was a means to raise so much needed cash.

Walk this way

Like Wentworth Boxing Day is the famed outing for the Grenoside Sword Dancers, but this is a fairly recent invention for many years the main outing was the traipse – a walking tour of nearby houses. An account of the team visiting one of these houses is recorded in visitation is made by Lady Tweedsmuir of Wortley Hall in her The Lilac and the Rose:

“Before I leave the subject of Wortley, I would like to recall a strange little episode. We children were told that mummers were coming one evening to sing and dance. What that meant we had of course no idea, but we were allowed to sit up later than usual when they came, and that in itself gave us keen pleasure. We assembled in a room with a stone floor. In came a party of men dressed entrancingly in short coats with bright coloured patterns on them, and long dark trousers. Their leader wore a large rabbit-skin cap with a small rabbit’s head in front.

The songs and dances were charming, and the men’s faces interesting and serious. These mummers were the real thing, and their dances were not inscribed on any printed page, but had come down to them from their forebears. Harry Gust, who was married to our cousin, Nina Welby, was there, and he took down songs and stories from one of the mummers. The man was surprised and reluctant, but eventually told him in scraps and fragments something of his own and his friends’ mumming activities.       One of the songs began pleasantly with,

Tantiro Tantiro, the drums they do beat, The trumpets they do sound upon call, Methinks music’s here, some bold captain’s near, March on, my brave soldiers, away!

I remember now Harry Gust’s face alight with interest as he talked to the captain of the mummers. He wrote an article about them in the Pall Mall Gazette, which he was then editing for Waldorf Astor. I do not know if it interested people. It should have, because it was brilliantly written, but the cult of English folk lore had not dawned then on the horizon of the intelligentsia.

I remember in a childish way being interested in the mummers, realising dimly that they came from an alien world, quite different to the ordered and staid mode of life in that staid and orderly household of Wortley Hall, and that they represented something historical, rough, and elemental.”

A large area, well beyond the Parish would be covered on foot. The intention that between Christmas Eve and the end of January, all of the large manor houses and stately homes, like Wortley Hall would be visited, entertained and money would be given. Indeed the largess was considerable an article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1895 notes each team member could accrue 30 to 35 shillings over the period (which would be a staggering £530 in modern money). One notable visit to Wentworth Woodhouse managed to collect a staggering £25 at Earl Fitzwilliam’s Christmas party – around  a £1000 worth today!!.

After the Great War, the length and duration of the walking tours were less ambitious year by year until in 1937 the outing was restricted to a Boxing Day tour of the large houses of the Parish Whitley Hall, Greno Lodge, Chapeltown Club and the house of a Dr Moles at Ecclesfield, now the Boxing Day event is associated with only one pub – the Harrow! Then after 57 years a walking tour returned in a way, a custom more contrived to give an idea than a true revival – and it’s not surprising considering the distances! On the 8th of January 1994. A much shorter tour around the Parish’s pubs and some private houses but a homage to those great walks of yore.

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (92) Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (193)

At the sharp end

I first found them finishing a set at the ….well they were getting in their cars – not really a walking tour after all I thought. A bit of a shame but then again the members were not spring chickens!! At Stone house farm despite the remote location attracted quite a crowd of curious onlookers all enraptured and perhaps hypnotised by the ins and outs of the dance. Indeed, there was something quite evocative and magical watching and hearing the dancers, especially when their clogs tapped on the stone floor. Douglas Kennedy in his 1949 England’s Dancers records a scene that has little changed:

“…the dance is performed by six men wearing clogs and carrying straight swords. Associated with it is a certain amount of dialogue and a song ‘calling on’ the dancers, sung by the leader, who brandishes a curved sabre and wears a cap of rabbit’s skin, with the head of the animal set in front. The dancers tie the ‘lock’ at the beginning of their performance, the leader (or Captain as he is called) kneels down in the centre, and afterwards the ‘Lock’ has been placed around his neck the swords are drawn. His cap of skin is knocked off in the process and rolls on the ground, looking like a decapitated head.”

Interesting unlike 1949’s observation where:

“the captain himself does not fall down to become the centre of a dramatic resurrection but just slips away from the dance, which continues its course.”

Now a special sheet is laid and the captain comically falls dead and lays in a foetus position as if dead…although his resurrection still does not occur!

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (86)

What does the dance mean? One of the commonest explanations is that it has a pagan origin, a celebration of the turning year as this evocative account below recalls:

“The Captain sings a song of bravery and love and the dance proceeds with his symbolic beheading and death. The main part of the dance then starts and immediately the Captain revives and “rises from the dead” to lead the dancers in reviving the spirit of the New Year. The six dancers weave intricate patterns with their swords and equally complicated rhythms with their steel-shod clogs. The dance reaches its climax as the fiddler increases the tempo of the dance whilst the dancers perform a rolling figure. The dancers finally form a tight circle and perform a fervent tattoo on the floor before raising their swords, pointing upwards to the sky and, one hopes, a mid-winter sun.”

However convenient this would be the evidence is difficult to find. But do we need a reason?

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (89)

At the farm I finally met up with fellow folklorist Richard Bradley, we walked back to the Harrow to see the final dance talking of folk customs. As we arrived at the pub the Sword dancers began to arrive – they looked up as the drizzle became to form and become heavier – not sure if we’ll be doing it inside or out one remarked. We retreated inside for a cup of tea, at the other end of the bar the Sword dancers too rested…however we were so engrossed in our conversation that we did not notice that the dancers had gone. Rushing outside we just saw them finish their dance! Oh dear!