Category Archives: Pub

Custom revived: Richmond Poor Owd Oss

Standard

“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.

Image may contain: shoes and outdoor

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!

Image may contain: 10 people, people smiling, people standing

Custom revived: The Wild horse of Antrobus and the Soulcakers

Standard

I have previously reported on soulcaking before but the most famous team, the Wild horse of Antrobus. When I first got into calendar customs it was via books like Homer Sykes’ Once a Year and Brian Shuel’s National Trust Guide to Traditional Customs. From the later I was enthralled by what he called the Wild Horse of Antrobus:

“The nine players dress in character. When I saw them back in 1972 King George looked like a bandsman, the Black Prince – mysteriously like an old fashioned police constable, the Quack doctor as normal for the part. Mary was a ‘splendid old woman’ bag to disguise his masculinity. Beelzebub was a dreadful old man with a big black beard. Derry Doubt not only dressed like a schoolboy but very probably was one. The letter in did not appear to be in costume at all. The driver was resplendent in full and immaculate, hunting pink, The Wild Horse , was a man bowed forward from the waist beneath a canvas cover which was attached to a real horse skull. This was painted shiny black and mounted on a pole which the man held. Thus with two black legs, a bulky canvas body, one front leg and ferocious snapping head, a reasonably convincing – if bizarre – horse was achieved.”

Now I had seen the Warburton soulcakers and similar ‘horses’ with them, the Winster Guisers and the Poor Owd Oss, of course, but this the oldest of the revived teams haunted me. So this year I finally decided to get myself organised to see them and they did not disappoint.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling

Soul for the caking

For those unfamiliar and who have not read my earlier post on the topic. Soul caking is a custom now largely confined to the North-west of England, in particular in Cheshire. Chris Eyres in a piece on the website http://warrington.westlancsfreemasons.org.uk/soulcaking-revisited explains:

“As far as Soulcaking is concerned, we believe that these rituals will have changed over time and the characters in such ‘plays’ will also have changed to reflect the good and bad omens and heroes of the day. It is also likely that, during the middle ages, in order to curry favour with communities, the Church will have ‘hijacked’ some of these beliefs and Christianised them in some way and added them to the Church calendar. It is clear that such rituals would have been an important part of village life and ones which all villagers would have looked forward to. It is also significant that the play is performed after harvest time. This would have been a time of great celebration within a rural village community. There would also be some concern that the earth would be required to produce crops for the following year. The raising of the dead in the play and the inclusion of a horse are believed to relate to superstitions surrounding fertility.”

There are now around half a dozen souling gangs surviving in Cheshire, they were once much more common.  It seems that many large villages had a gang until the start of the 20th century.  Most of today’s groups have arrived in the folk revival of the 1960s-70s, though Antrobus Soulcakers are claimed to be an uninterrupted tradition since the late 19th century, that is not strictly true as the evidence appears to be that they were revived in the 1930ss after a brief hiatus which could have seen it gone for good. Like many customs it was the First World War put an end to almost all of the Soulcakers but at Comberbach, the old tradition survived into the 1920s, when Major A Boy heard it and published the text in 1929. Following his encouragement several young farmers clubs in the Antrobus area undertook to carry out the performances and the revival begun. The revival was noted by Christina Hole noted that:

“On October 31st 1934, the Comberbach Soulcaking play was broadcast from Frandley House near Northwich, the home of Mr. W. A. Boyd. Mr Boyd

The Comberbach soulcaking play was that undertaken by the Antrobus Soulcakers and so the revival continued.

Popped in…not souled out

Arriving at the venue it was a wet Friday evening. Like many times with such plays one never knows if they came early and missed it. However, soon a minibus loomed into view and out poured not dissimilar to the arrival of tour bus of some famous band; one by one in their curious costumes. They assembled themselves around the front of the pub for their entrance. Quite often with such plays the reception can be variable, but here quite a crowd had assembled awaiting the Soulcakers. The team was much as described by Shuel:

“The dress of the characters is modern King George appearing in Khaki, and the Black Prince in a bandsman’s tunic and a spiked helmet. The characters in this version are the Letter -in, who announced that ‘there’s going to be a dreadful fight’, King George, who in many versions has taken the place of St George, and who, in this case is the slayer, the Black Prince the victim, and Old Woman, his mother and the Quack Doctor who raises the corpse to life. In addition there are dairy doubt and Beelzebub, the Driver and the Wild Horse.”

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling

Horse play

The main draw of the Antrobus Soulcakers is the Wildhorse. The horse is described as having been bred from Marbury Dun, a famous animal who really existed and is buried at Marbury Hall, not far off.  As Steve Roud in his 2005 The English Year notes the play is standard until the end when the Wild horse and his Driver appear:

“In comes Dick and all his men,

He’s come to see you once again,

He was once alive and now he’s dead

He’s nothing but a old horses head,

Stand around Dick and show yourself,

Now ladies and gentlemen just view around,

See whether you’ve seen a better horse on any ground,

He double ribbed sure footed

A splendid horse in any gears

And him if you can

He’s travelled high, he’s travelled low,

He’s travelled through frost and snow,

He’s travelled the land of Ikerty Pikkery.

Where there’s neither land nor city….

The horse was bred in Seven Oaks

The finest horse e’er fed on oats,

He’s won the Derby and the Oaks,

And now pulls an old milk float,

Now I ask you all to open your hearts to buy Dick a newsprung cart,

Not for him to pull, oh dear no! For him,

To ride in. If you don’t believe these words I say ask those outside here They’re better liars than I am.”

Indeed much of the play’s charm and enjoyment came from this wild horse who certainly lived up to his name as he threw itself around the pub to equal amounts of fear and laughter. It was remarkable how a skull, a stick and blanket can have the appearance of something alive. Indeed, one woman found the whole experience a little too weird and was quite scared of it! I myself never stopped laughing as its handler resplendent in his hunting pink pulled and yanked at its chain and tried to keep it under control. The audience were soon getting their phones out to film this curious encounter and it was clear that the team bounced off the rapport in such venues.

There is certainly something otherworldly in the Wildhorse with its black head, gnashing teeth and staring white eye. A good mix of horror and hilarity and may it long entertain the Cheshire pubs.

Custom revived: Luddenden’s Mock Mayor

Standard

Nestling in deep valleys with its stone buildings and winding streets, Luddenden looks like a place where traditions survive and indeed on the second Saturday in September crowds assemble to see a wide range of weird and wonderful events from bale, maggot and duck racing – not together of course culminating in a making of a local mayor – a mock mayor, although they are never called that, of Luddenden!

The Mayor making day certainly brought the village alive with a  range of events and stalls around the village’s pub and spilling through the churchyard. The bale race was exciting to watch as they raced around the town carrying straw bales on their shoulders. Indeed, there are a lot of races going on – a maggot, duck, bale and pint. The pint race was particularly enjoyable watching a rather fast and then slow race of people carrying a pint in each hand around the outside of the pub. I did wonder why I had not seen this before. And don’t worry there was a tee-totalers one with water.

By half past four crowd had formed around the Lord Nelson Inn in Luddenden to see the 157th Mayor elected (although not strictly true as the event as we shall see when through a bit of a hiatus ). Then the main event the inauguration of a new Mayor. Standing in front of a large St George’s flag and an equally large Yorkshire flag on the raised area of the war memorial, the outgoing Mayor wearing the red coat, tricorn hat, frilly shirt, chain and ermine gave an leaving speech and then it was over to the new Mayor to be announced by the master of ceremonies in morning suit and top hat. The crowd cheered and laughed as the new Mayor gave their incoming speech full of local in jokes.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

May or May not

Like other Mock Mayors the custom begun as a slight at the growth of local towns such as Halifax and a self-acknowledgement of the settlement’s own growth. The town resented Halifax’s growth encompassing the town and thus having a Mayor who would govern over the settlement. So if one town could have one why could we not? So in 1861, the customs of the local Lord Nelson Inn elected their first Mayor. To make it official they bought a chain of office to match that of Halifax in its elaborate nature and set about giving the Mayor a suitable location. However, Luddenden could not claim to have a Town Hall like Halifax and so the snug of the Nelson became the ‘Mayor’s Parlour’ with a bench known as the Mayor’s chair.

To be elected Mayor one had to sit in the chair. Whether this was by design or accident is unclear. For the person who sat in the chair would become by custom Mayor for a month. However, they were also invited to pay for drinks for everyone in the bar. It seems likely these two aspects might well have arisen after the decline of the custom and that the Mayor role might have been for a year at least! Then after years in abeyance in 1996 the local community decided to revive the custom. Today local people are invited to become the Mayor back in June when adverts appear in the village.

Now though the Mayor is treated a real bone fide entity, especially by the local press. Like a real Mayor Christmas lights are turned on and social events such as Burn’s Night attended.

It is evident that part of this view that the role is a real Mayor is due to the role the Mayor has in the community. As Committee member and licensee of the Lord Nelson pub, Debbie Collinge in the 2005 Halifax Courier:

“It brings the community together and it is all fun and games. The money from the fund-raising keeps things alive in the village.”

In essence she said it ‘keeps the area strong. This is due in no small part to those fund raising activities. The Mayor has a Mayor’s fund with a committee elected at the same time. Fund raising over the years have included money raised for local swings

Each year the Mayor picks a challenge. These have ranged from cycling the equivalent distance between Paris to the village and raising £1600 for Breast Cancer charities to climbing Yorkshire’s Three Peaks for the Atrial Fibrillation Association.  The former being on static bikes and I assume they will be climbing real peaks though!

Luddenden’s Mayor – a mock mayor in principle but one that does not make a mockery of their responsibilities.

Custom survived: The South Queensferry Burryman

Standard

At the time I was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe – but that’s another story – and as a break from the incessant publicity I decided to take myself to find the Burry man. These were the days before the Internet and asking at the Tourist Information in Edinburgh they thought it was some sort of Fringe event..but I thought it is only a few miles out I would try and find it.

The Burryman is perhaps the most bizarre of our customs. A man covered head to toe with burrs with a flowery hat of roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. No skin is visible. Just a slit for the mouth. So much that his humanity appears to stripped for him, from a far he is most alien only a cummerbund adorned with a red lion suggesting he is human. He walks with two smartly dressed attendees, who help him hold onto to two hydrangea filled poles.

I located the Burryman easy enough propped outside of a pub like a rag doll. He appeared to acknowledge me but did not say. A few moments later a man appeared with a glass of something – whisky –  what else? Of course drinking the Whisky was a challenge; he only had a slit for a mouth. A straw was provided and it was steadily consumed..one of many it would appear.

As I followed him around some local children cheered his arrival, others watched from behind their parents more suspiciously. The lack of sound perhaps making it more curious for unlike every other similar custom, there is no associated music, no accordions, no violins, no bagpipers and no Morris!

Burry little clear on the origins

History is silent on its origin. Being linked to the local fair, which although medieval in origin only established a charter in 1687 suggests that it dates from then. Very unlikely I would feel and the two has become coincidentally associated. Some state it has a 900 year origin but it only has a recorded history since 120 odd years ago. Interestingly, the date 1687 was when the town became a burgh – burgh – burr – was this a local joke go on and on?

The Burryman is clearly a very odd folk figure. If there was a list of scary English folk figures he would be up there with the Straw bear and Bartle. Indeed, some believe that was part of its function, a mechanism to ward off evil spirits. One belief is that he is a sacrificial scape goat, much akin to the theory of Burning Bartle and the custom’s date being close to the ancient Lammas it is not difficult to reason with its association with harvest fertility, rebirth and regeneration. Certainly, the lack of speech and painfulness of the whole process suggests sacrifice as Brian Shuel notes in his 1984 Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain:

“It has to be said that by the late afternoon the Burry Man’s attendants were proping him up. Exhausted and full of whisky he was extremely relieved to get back to the Town hall where they stripped him in moments and left him comatose in his underpants for ten minutes before his wife, Julia, managed to prod him back to life. Suddenly he revived and in no time was himself again.”

But why here and why no-where else? Well it was found associated with Scottish fishing communities on the Moray Firth and was used to protect against poor fishing seasons. In Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire in the 1860s and their Burryman was on horseback and travelled through the town with a piper. In Buckie it appears to have been only done in response to a failure of the fishing fleet but curiously it was a Cooper who was wheelbarrowed around the town.  Queensferry is near the Sea so it is understandable it would survive there. But why the burrs? The provision of whisky is said to give the provider good luck; a clever way to ensure a free supply.

See the source image

Burrly able to move

There are many foliage people – Jacks, Straw men etc – but the Burryman has got to be the most strikingly unusual and uncomfortable. He is covered head to toe with sticky flower heads of the burdock. These being collected on the Friday morning before the parade These burrs, of which 11,000 is the average number which cover him, would be almost impossible to bear on a person’s normal clothing so he is covered head to toe in thick longjohns, vest, heavy sweeter and a balaclava which in August must be just as bad as being covered it spikey foliage! The burrs also cause the wearer to walk awkwardly with an open leg gait and arms outstretched which adds to the curious appearance! As if being covered with burrs and wearing a balaclava is not bad enough the Burryman has to walk a seven-mile route which usually takes nine hours!

The whole event begins in the Staghead Hotel at around 7am. The Friday previous the Burryman collects burrs and places them on newspaper make A3 size burr squares their natural Velcro like ability enables them to form ready-made fabrics. Overall 25 are made. The would then be placed on the volunteer and slowly but surely he becomes the Burryman. His first stumbling steps make it to the Town Hall where traditionally he receives his first dram of whisky.

Only locals can be the Burryman and despite the discomfort they are repeat performances one man Alan Reid having the pleasure for 25 years. He was only a few years from retirement when I ‘met’ him in the 1990s. Since 2012 an Andrew Taylor has the honour.

Burrly there!

I spent a couple of hours in the middle of the day which the Burryman, watching as he was greeted with great enthusiasm from pubs, shops, passerbys and a local factory. At lunchtime his attendees arrived at a local pub, where after having some difficulty getting him through the doorway, left him in the hall way again propped against the way – he could not sit down. Half an hour passed and he was still there but appeared like a forgotten rag doll! After a number of drams he looked decidedly jaded, although his foliage had jet to droop! In the bar I managed to speak to renowned custom hunter Doc Rowe and it is great to know Doc has returned regularly ever since. He was particularly amazed when in less than a month later he recognised me at Abbott Bromley at the Horn Dance and the mad search for customs has not stopped since!

With the modernity’s shadow of the Forth Bridge looming over the town, the curious juxtaposition survival of ancient and modern are very clear here. As the bizarre Burry man parades pointlessly around the town – the fair it was associated with long gone – it is evident that the locals need him like they would the whiskey he imbibes or the cars they drive. He is part of the fabric of the community. A mysterious almost mesmerizing old custom, one which would drag people back to see it again. It has been over 20 years since I experience the Burryman and I feel a revisit is long overdue!

Custom survived: Ashbourne Shrovetide Football

Standard

Keep the ball out of churchyards, the cemetery and the Memorial Gardens Do not trespass on other people’s property You must not intentionally cause harm to others The ball must not be hidden in bags or rucksacks The ball must not be transported in, or on, motorised vehicles.”

So are the rules of the ancient game of Shrovetide in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Standing at the throwing in stand which for 363 days sits rather pointlessly in the town’s car park the organiser reminded the throng below him these rules….but within 10 minutes it had ended up in the cemetery

Up’ard and down’ard

There is a festival feeling in Ashbourne with town proclaiming the day with bunting. An odd festival feeling with all the shops and houses on the main streets boarded up that is. That said, this is not a war zone but everyone is excited and in the nearby hall a big meal is being held. The crowds await outside. Then after some rapturous applause. Like most mob games football is a bit of misnomer. It was hugged, punched and rolled but rarely kicked. Once I stood there motionless, like a rabbit stuck in headlights, as the ball rolled towards me and between my legs. A few seconds later a mass of men came my way shouting ‘get out the way’ or something like that! I soon jumped to the side and the ball disappeared under a mass of writhing men.

It all starts rather incongruously in a car park at the back of the shops…in truth the only large space in the town. Here is a large platform, redundant for 363 days, but today no card but people. Tourists look over from the edge, in the centre excited and waiting. After the aforementioned announcements as above, the ball was thrown in, or turned up in the local language….and of it went over the heads of the crowd and then disappeared into. The scrum held for a while, someone broke through and then went into the cemetery!

As soon as the ball was retrieved from the cemetery it found its way into the pool beside the park. At first eager members tried to use the branches to precariously perch themselves and lean over the water to get it…I winced…had they not seen the public information films from the 70s…and then plop in the water. It must have been cold..one then two, then three risked the cold depths. Soon there was a struggle for the ball in the water and then a cheer as it was hit skyward. Not enough.

Again the town divides teams into two geographical locations: Up’ards (north of the River Henmore) and the Down’ards (south). This was clearly a necessity to get a team together back in the day but nowadays anyone joins in and it’s a bit irrelevant..

On the head mate

Although called football, the Ashbourne game like many similar games is not often kicked but scrummed. Indeed it appears to have been called hugball, at some time and is believed to date from mediaeval times, although finding exact date is unknown, exacerbated by the fact that in the 1890s the archive was destroyed

One interesting theory states that the ball was originally a severed head thrown into the crowd after an execution – it seems unlikely to be honest!

The current ball is a large and beautiful item, sadly quickly smeared and obscured by the grasp of many hands. Often it is painted, a common image is that of the Cockayne coat of Arms: three cocks. This itself is interesting and was traced in 2012 to a game called La Soule played on the first Sunday of Lent and Easter Monday in the Picardy town of Tricot. Why? Because Tricot’s emblem is three cockerels . Coincidence possibly not and that

What is also unusual is that this is a two day game each day starting at 2 and going on until 10.00pm; but if the ball is goaled before half five it starts all over again! They do like their game! This goal consists of hitting the milestone this goal three times…when done, always under the cover of darkness, cheers erupt and the winner is carried on the crowd’s shoulders back to the pubs in the town.

I’ve never made it too the end mind. The cold keeps putting me off! They are made of tough stuff in Ashbourne.

Custom contrived: Waitangi Day Pub Crawl, London

Standard

Its horrible February weather. Cold, made colder by a sharp wind and every now and again they is a flurry of snow…down in New Zealand its Summer of course ; perfect al fresco drinking weather…but that doesn’t stop the New Zealander’s enthusiasm for the day. I’m wrapped up in a coat, scarf and hat and there a group of men in shorts!

What is Waitangi Day?

This is the national day of New Zealand commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – the founding document of New Zealand on the 6th February 1840. New Zealand citizens across the two islands celebrate and naturally where so ever the diaspora end up….in Britain it appears to around Paddington

I turned up at the Pride of Paddington Pub at 10. Yes the aim of the day is a fancy dress pub crawl basically using the Circle line as the template. It is understandable that having the largest expatriate community London would have a big event. The ‘official’ events are a church service at St Lawrence Jewry and a posh event is the Waitangi Day Ball with cultural entertainment from Maori groups and fine food and wine..

However since 1986 on the nearest Saturday to 6th February a mighty pub crawl has evolved from a small gathering to a mighty fancy dress parade – of sorts! The event is almost at risk of being closed down by the want of its own publicity. After all fancy dress, drinking alcohol and large numbers do not make for a hassle free event necessarily. Indeed, it would be evident from the organisers plea on his the website that often this undesirable elements are overblown because it is easier to comment on what goes on over seas than at home:

“We’re trying to avoid having overexcited NZ TV crews beam us back home as looking disrespectful.  Considering we have had no arrests in years and only 1 complaint in 2014, our pub crawl is nothing compared to something like to what it was like at the Wellington 7’s and a night out in any big Kiwi city.”

Tiki Tour

The most impressive were the Kiwi fancy dressed individuals who when bent over looked quick convincing; well as convincing as a person dressed as a one foot bird can be! Outside one train station a group of men dressed in Cricketing whites proved or perhaps not how the country was famed for its sport. Nearby Gandolf – Lord of the Rings was filmed there – chatted with a giant beer can! At a later stop there was a large group of bare chested men…this was early February remember!!

No automatic alt text available.

Hangi over

There were some sore heads on the next day and it was clear that by the end some of the bravado seen at the beginning was waning. Having said this enough enthusiasm was recovered from the traditional ending – the Hakka in Trafalgar Square.

It is interesting to note that Waitangi day means different things to different people. In an online article when the attendees were asked the views were different.

“I think it’s really great that we celebrate how the English invaders made a great peaceful treaty with the indigenous people of New Zealand,” said one.

“It’s not like a ‘yeah New Zealand’ kind of day, but it is a reflective kind of day,” said another.

Others said it simply meant a day off.”

Like many ex-pats, views differ at home and abroad: clearly it’s better to celebrate being a New Zealander when not in New Zealand, as a study suggested on 38% where proud of their country! As one attendee notes:

“Maybe back home it’s different, but definitely when you go overseas you realise how special New Zealand and being a Kiwi is.”

Hence the enthusiasm for this grand Kiwi pub crawl. But, of course such a custom can survive only when those involved are there. Numbers have dropped from in 2005 over 12,000 visas were granted dropping to 6,940 visas in 2016. Political motivations have a reputation for ruining customs and it would shame that changes to the visa rules kill of this joyous national celebration.

Custom survived: Curry Rivel Wassail and Ashen Faggot

Standard

Curry Rivel Somerset

“Wassail O Wassail all over the town,                                                         

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown,                                                   

The cup it is made of the good old ashen tree.                                            

  And so’s the beer from the best barley,

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O here we take this door held fast by the ring,                                        

Hoping Master and Missus will let us all walk in And for to fill our wassail bowl and sail away again.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O Master and Missus have we done you any harm                                          

Pray hold fast this door and let us pass along                                         

And give us hearty thanks for the singing of our song.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail

Wassailing is becoming all the rage in folk circles and beyond. It seems that like Morris dancing in the 20th century, wassailing is the 21st century revival equivalent. However these revived wassails appear to be those associated with trees, the original surviving one of which I discussed here, there does not appear to be a similar revival in house visiting wassailing, which one could claim probably was the original approach. Therefore when given the chance to experience one of the few surviving wassails one jumps at the chance. Such happened last Twelfth Night at the small village of Curry Rivel in Somerset.

Wassail in

Arriving at the King William IV I found a group of men standing around. “Are you the wassailers?” I asked “Yes” they replied “Do you mind if I join you and take some photos?” They were a bit perplexed by my enquiry but the reply was positive‘Yes that’s okay as long as you don’t mind being shoved in the back of the van?!”

Next minute I noticed I was in the back of transit van with six strangers. We were off to pick up the oldest member of the group, a sprightly 93 year old Harry Richards, one of them joking that the thud was the van knocking him over! A joke of course and no disrespect was intended as these men whose ages ranged from 20s to 60s had a great pride in their venerable leader.

Soon as he was in thou, sitting at the front, not crammed in the back, we were off. I had no idea where we were going and indeed at one point we appeared to go off-road, but that’s Somerset roads for you. A large crowd had congregated at the first house and as they assembled with their venerable leader at the front. Then they opened their mouths and the wassail song came out.

Curry Rivel Somerset

I was impressed how forceful it sounded considering this was the first time they’d sung it together – they had small wordsheets to help them but only one member appeared to be struggling to remember and it didn’t really notice.

The door opened with a warm welcome and the wassails entered. Inside across the kitchen table was a fine spread of food and drink. The Wassail evokes a party atmosphere in the village and to be one of the houses chosen is a great honour especially as it is thought that the wassailers would bring good luck as emphasised by the toast given by their leader

“God bless Master and Missus and all the family. Hoping they’ve had a Merry Christmas and wishing them a Happy New Year.”

After satiating themselves at the first house it was off to the next. Back in the van. Hold on as we swerved a tight corner. A makeshift light being provided by a blinking torch or on occasions someone’s lighter. When we arrived at the next house, we leaped out into the gloom of a remote house. Here an even warmer welcome and spread was available. Then off the next and the next. At each more and more food, and more and more alcohol was being taken. This meant that the groups ability to hold on to the string and sides of the transits less easy and some thought it was best just to sit down. .

The food was indeed quite exquisite and it was obvious that the great honour of being a wassailed house asked for more than just supermarket fayre! At one of the houses an actual wassail bowl was provided which the members took a sip readily from. The wassail bowl being of course mentioned in their song but surprisingly absent I thought! Despite the amount of alcohol imbibed the song did not waver in its nature and indeed appeared to get stronger and song with more vigour! The final stop was one of the younger members of wassailer where again like in all the houses I was warmly welcomed and treated.

Ashen faces

Back at the William IV pub faces were squashed against the windows awaiting the wassails. They were late – I was glad I had attended the wassails and not waited at the pub – then a window was opened and their final wassail was song

Despite accounts to the contrary the Ashen Faggot is not carried around by the wassailers but awaited them at the bar. The Faggot is a fine construction, made traditionally by the same family in the valley below the village.

It consisted of ash logs tied together neatly with ash withies, nine in all, a magical number. Walker in her Old Somerset Customs tells us that it was once as long as five feet and four oxen were employed to drag it to the hearth…no wonder it wasn’t carried! Now it’s a more manageable foot or so to fit into the rather small fireplace at the pub.

Curry Rivel Somerset

It is evident that the Ashen Faggot is an older custom, possibly pre-Christian. This is especially evident in Curry Rivel when it is claimed that its burning has happened for at least 200 years but the Wassailers only date back to 1900.

The Ashen Faggot is a Somerset and Devon tradition and Curry Rivel is not the only village to have one. In a way it is the local version of the Yule log but were as this has died out in Britain, the Ashen Faggot survives and indeed in some places has been revived.

Curry Rivel Village

Muriel Walker in Old Somerset Customs tells us that the Ashen Faggot was said to have been first made by the shepherds to warm the baby Jesus, another version tells that Joseph had collected the bundles and Mary had lighted it to wash the baby Jesus.

Ashen faced?

At the allotted time, Mr. Richards was assisted carrying the Ashen Faggot to the fireplace and saying a few words placed it in the fireplace giving it a ceremonial kick into place.

Willey notes:

“after it has been burnt none of the remains are saved for the next year’s faggot. Free food and drink go around once the faggot is on the fire; the food is bread and cheese etc. and usually the brewery to which the inn is tied supplies a free firkin of ale. The landlord makes up a hot punch based on scrumpy (rough cider) and a scrumpy and wine mixture – home-made wheat wine and scrumpy is particularly potent and highly recommended by the locals. Each time a band on the faggot burned through the landlord was expected to drain a pint of beer or cider.”

Curry Rivel Somerset

Apparently the brewery ceased the free beer a few years back. Yet despite this there was a real party atmosphere and as the embers flickered and faded from the old faggot I made my goodbyes and left. As Willey notes:

“In a village where, during the same period, other traditions, for example the annual ploughing match, the Silver Band, have completely disappeared as casualties of suburbanization, the survival of wassailing in any form is perhaps both curious and heartening.”

Indeed it is and it is evident from the warm welcome and full spreads from the houses that there is no fear of wassailing dying out any time soon in Curry Rivel. A tradition grasped by the younger community as well and a great tradition with some great people as well.

Curry Rivel SomersetCurry Rivel Village