Category Archives: Royal

Custom occasional: Abingdon Bun Throwing

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Abingdon has a custom which has been undertaken rather on and off over 200 years. Principally associated with Royal events its irregularity means that it does not fit the categories on this blog so I have made a new category – custom occasional!

How did this curious custom begin? Abingdon claims its unique. In the way it does of course, but there are other bun throws such as that I recorded at Wath upon Dearne. It may not have started as bun throwing and it is suggested that it may have been a dole probably done to recognise the importance of the event it was associated with. During the 1760 for George III coronation, a John Waite records catching a cake thrown from the Market House. The Borough Minutes of 1831 record that 500 penny cakes distributed. In the Abingdon Herald’s it states that:

500 cakes … were thrown from the tops of houses into the dirt to be scrambled for, in accordance with ancient usage”.

From 1761 until 2016 34 bun throws have been done of these 27 have been for Royal occasions – 8 coronations, 6 jubilees, 5 birthdays, 4 marriages, 2 anniversaries of a marriage and one Royal visit. Other events have been celebrated by buns such as VE Day and its 50th anniversary and the end of the Crimean War or Charter days and even an International Day. In the museum can be seen evidence of the last 17 bun throwings, the earliest being from 1887 Golden Jubilee of Victoria. The museum was closed on the day unfortunately. The number of bun throws appear to have increased in the year, possibly as a result of a wise tourist drive – nothing wrong with that of course!

Bun time for all

I turned up a few hours earlier to see the town preparing. Abingdon is a classic town – a real life Trumpton and as such I expected Trumptonesque activities For of course it was not just bun throwing to keep the crowd happy the organisers had put on some other entertainments. Very Trumptonlike with Town Crier, band and Morris.

One of the attendees was morning about the need for signs for the ingredients of the buns and morning ‘EU regulation’. I smiled wryly…although I noted there wasn’t a sign saying ‘don’t eat the ones on the floor’.

As the crowds begun to assemble, the local band cheerfully entertained them from everything from Hope and Glory to Sex Bomb! As we approached nearer to launch time, it was time for the famed Abingdon Morris Men to appear with their Bull mascot, sword and pewter mug. They enthralled those assembled with their dances and this was a good advert for their more famous Mock Mayor custom the week after. The crowd looked very responsive to them and so no doubt that boded well for the following week!

Whilst this was going on Union Jack flags were enthusiastic delivered through the crowd with children leaping on the opportunity to give them a way and occasionally poke an eye out no doubt.

Then a small procession came to the town hall attended by the Mayor, the town dignitaries, local MP and the winners of a furthest bun throwing competition a few weeks earlier!

The band then struck up the National Anthem and the crowd sung. And yes in the crowd, there was that embarrassing moment where no one remembers the words to the second verse! Then there was a cheer as they turn around and ascended the town hall. A few minutes later they appeared on the roof.

Bun fight

In what appeared an aeon, peppered with false starts teasing the crowd, limbering up and chants of ‘we want buns’, the later could be misinterpreted Versailles style!

“please do not use upturned umbrellas’ You don’t see signs like that everyday do you? But it was clear that one of the greatest aspects of bun throwing is the chance to catch as many as possible. However, there was no unruly scramble, this was genteel Oxfordshire after all.

Then the clock struck 7 and we were off. And some off it was literally raining buns. There was no let off. Over 2500 were being launched and it felt like it. The sky was almost darkened over with buns! Catching them was another matter. One bounced off my shoulder and another with some force hit me squarely on the head ‘ouch’. Some people were clearly having greater luck. A girl behind had about eight and we were only four minutes in! Two children had baseball gloves..very ingenious!

Then I began having luck and soon caught a special celebratory bun with 90 piped onto it. I appeared to be the only one I found one I noticed in the same area, so I did not know how many were being released but I would imagine 90. So if so catching 1 out of 90 out of the 2500 was I suppose a bit of a chance happening. The sound of excitement was getting fever pitch and more and more buns fell from the sky and then 15 minutes in the sky cleared. No more buns. The crowd cheers and began to dispersed. Around me there were lots of grinning children clutching their happy hoards…and off everyone went…roll on the 100th?

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Custom revived: Stir Up Sunday

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“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

The first sentence of this passage of the Common Book of Prayer appears to be rationale behind the establishment of a curious domestic custom, called Stir-up Sunday. This was a custom that arose to recognise the Sunday before Advent.

As most fruit cakes and puddings taste better let to stand it was a likely one to connect to the day, especially with the added pun of fruit in it! It is thought that as cooks, wives and servants going to church would hear this and after hearing this would rush home and make a pudding.

 Raisin to the occasion!

The custom involves the making of the Christmas pudding. This is traditionally made of 12 ingredients to represent the 12 apostles and stirred East to West to represent the journey of the Wise Men. Each member of the family must stir the pudding and whilst doing it a wish is made.

The custom was said to have originated from Victoria and Albert however a London tradition associated with the day suggests it might have an older origin or else an older custom became fused to it. One of the only non-domestic traditions associated with the Day is the Temple Inn’s Queen’s Pudding. A newspaper report in the Mail from the 16th December 1944 record the legend:

The pudding is a link with the days of another Queen Elizabeth. It seems that Good Queen Bess was taking a stroll through the gardens of the Temple when the smell of cooking assailed the Royal nostrils. She, tracked the smell to the Middle Temple kitchen. .There she found the cook preparing a pudding for the judges, barristers, and students to eat that night. History doesn’t say if she rolled up her sleeves, but it does all ere that she stirred the pudding: The cook didn’t throw away? what was left over after the meal. He kept it, and used it as the base for the next pudding. His successors have been doing the same each year for the past350 years, so the chances of Queen Elizabeth getting any of the original pudding would be mighty slim.”

Although the author probably did not know much about atoms! Apparently some time obviously after this date I assume, someone threw away all the pudding or scoffed it all thus ending this 350 odd year old tradition. But then, a visit by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, provided the answer in the 1970s. A pudding was provided and she dutifully stirred it! However, in communication with the Temple they informed me that it had not been done for many years. I imagine the pudding was too good to not eat! But the loss was probably in line with the demise of the custom in general.

Bowled out

The custom is a domestic and private one, so it is difficult to gauge how it is upheld, however the rise of the shop bought pudding appears to have in the latter half of the 20th century saw the demise of the custom. My mother was a keen cook and she never prepared one.  A survey in 2007 stated that two-thirds of British children had never made a pudding from scratch and certainly as the 21st century continued the downward trend to its demise..and then in a culture of TV bake-off unsurprisingly it has returned and it is everywhere. In 2007 even the Government got involved. Celebrity chef from Raymond Blanc to Jamie Oliver being pulled in to save the pudding!  The later stating:

“Stir Up Sunday is a great way for families to start cooking together – it’s high time we brought the tradition back into our kitchens”

In the last few years I’ve been entering into the spirit. On the 23rd this year I opened the cupboard and compared with my ingredients list. Well I had the spices..that was it… so I hurried down to the shops. Struggling back through the rain I was ready and getting the bowl and scales, spoon and the most important ingredient – some young enthusiastic helpers – I set about it.

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They enjoyed measuring everything out, resisting all temptation of eating the dried fruit, cracking eggs and whisking. However, the stirring was a little beyond them especially working out the East to West..and they seemed to put off by the smell of the rum. Well at least it stopped them licking out the bowl. Then I poured the mixture into the bowl, then into a large saucepan, put on the lid and set it to steam. Two hours later or rather one and half later and I forgotten it and burnt the base…and I had a nice spongy pudding. I cut off the bit that was a bit burnt, that aside it tasted nice..the bits around it..not the pudding. No that was wrapped up put in a cupboard ready for Christmas! By this time of course I was on my own with the enterprise…they’ll be back in a month time to eat it no doubt!

I for once could see why a custom like this could die out! It was time consuming, but enjoyable and if I was to be honest much more expensive than buying a pre-made one. But money is not everything of course. Will the revival spread? Who’s to know, especially with 50% of young people not liking it! I was convinced mine would be nice but after all the proof of the pudding will be in the eating!