Category Archives: Singing

Custom revived: Richmond Poor Owd Oss

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

William Wise 1888

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

Take a horse to Richmond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horse has bolted?

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

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

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

Although Julia Smith (1989) states that:

“the custom has never died out completely’

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

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

Horsing around again

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

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Back from the knacker’s yard!

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

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

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

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

Horse whispers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Custom survived: Somerleyton Bun and Penny Day, Suffolk

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To most people Valentine’s Day means cards, flowers, romantic meals, but to the staff and pupils of Somerleyton Primary School it is Bun and Penny Day, a unique custom.

Not a bun fight

Each year on or the nearest school day to, St Valentine’s Day, the children of Somerleyton Primary school make the journey to the impressive Hall where the Lord and Lady of the manor welcome the excitable children in their bright blue jumpers into the spacious main hall of the house. Here awaits them crates of iced buns and piles of money. The children are naturally very excited. This is clearly a highlight of their year and the older children have been every year of their primary school tenure.

Sing for your supper…or rather bun

This is not a simply turn up and get your bun and money, the children have to perform, although they were clearly happy. The children had practiced for a series of traditional songs. Lined up neatly in front of the red flock wall-paper and gold of the room, nervously at first they begin. In 2013 to link in with their studies on World War II the children attended in 1940s fancy dress. The Lowerstoft Journal reported that they were:

“ singing war time songs for Lord and Lady Somerleyton in the ballroom of the hall. They also gave a performance of 1940s-style dancing Nyree Martin, the acting head of the school, said: “The children were really excited about the visit. They were quite overwhelmed by the grandeur of the building and knew it was a really special occasion. “It was very special for them to perform in such a grand venue. They are really good singers. They performed a selection of nine songs from war time including Goodnight Sweetheart, The Quartermaster’s Store, Bless Them All and White Cliffs of Dover.”

Certainly the children soon get into the swing and clearly enjoy the performance. The children also showed their talent with performing with flutes, cellos and violas showing a wide range of talent from the children.  

No penny pinching

It is good to see that the custom has moved with the times. Whilst a penny might have bought a few sweets years back, it would not garner much excitement now. So it is reassuring that inflation has hit the custom is a good way and now each child collects a shiny a 50p piece as well as an iced bun from Lord and Lady Somerleyton, currently the Hon Hugh Crossley and his wife Lara.

In for a penny in for a pound

How did the tradition begin? East Anglia has a strong connection with Valentine’s Day (or especially Eve as I have reported with Father Valentine). It is possible that the tradition was to remember the custom of Valentining, when local children the country over would visit houses to beg for gifts. What is known for sure is that the custom dates back to when Sir Morton Peto lived in the house in the 1840s.  Why he decided to start the custom is unclear. One theory suggested is that it was a way of saying thank you to the children who worked in the fields over the summer. Although one would ask why it was done on Valentine’s Day. Another possibility is that it was originally associated with Shrove Tuesday a date more commonly associated with the giving of children buns. What is interesting is the lack of any reporting by folklorists of this custom.

Sadly like any school customs there will always be an end as noted by a Year Six pupil, Eden, said:

“This is the seventh time I have done Penny and Bun Day. It’s always really fun singing there and the buns are really tasty especially when you can eat them with your friends.”

Hopefully his secondary school could introduce a similar custom!

 

Custom demised: Valentining on St. Valentine’s Day

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

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

In Northamptonshire it is recorded that:

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

The rhyme

In Cambridgeshire the rhyme would go:

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

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

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

Another rhyme went:

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

or

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

In Kyburgh Norfolk it was a bit more specific going:

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

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

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

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

 

Custom survived: Thomas Jones Day, Wilden All Saints, Worcestershire

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“to be applied by the said Managers for the benefit of the said school…….and that it is my desire that some reasonable portion thereof may be applied towards the expense of providing the children attending the said school with a treat on St. Swithin’s Day in every year…….”

Thomas Jones’s Will

For many people on the 15th July will mean dread – they look at the forecast, up to the sky, await upon the rheumatism to kick in – all to tell us that rain is on its way. Yes for the 15th July is St Swithun’s Day and as I am sure you aware if it rains then it does so for 40 days and night! Well in the tiny village of Wilden All Saints – the 15th does not mean awaiting the gloom of a soggy summer. No it means something altogether more spiritually uplifting – Thomas Jones’ Day. Who you may ask…well let me elaborate

Firstly, I’d like to explain that this custom is a rather private one. It involves primary children, over 100 of them, and as such they are rather concerned about unwanted visitors taking photos. So as you will see there are no children in this photos and you’ll have to imagine behind the photographer a great throng of singing infants and juniors.

A day to remember

In this village school the name Thomas Jones is a prevalent one. Awards are given out in his name and a mural is displayed in the school about him. Unlike other schools he is not the founder but a benefactor with a curious story. After making some enquiries I was invited to witness this curious unique custom. I arrived at the school just as the children were being delivered by parents and grandparents. I overheard one saying ‘I nearly forget it was his day today so we stopped by the roadside and picked some flowers in the hedgerow’

After being introduced to the current and old head I sat in the hall to hear about what Thomas Jones Day was about. As the hall filled with children each clutching their flowers. I could not help thing about which ones looked suspiciously like it had been plucked along the way…there were a few I thought! However, far in the majority, the parents had done the school proud, there were some rather splendid blooms help proudly by the children

Hearts and Flowers

Thomas Jones asked for the school children to sing songs over his grave and lay flowers and dutifully it was done. This was not due to his fear of St Swithun but the date was his birthday. This was a clear idea for unlike the graves of the schools founder Baldwin, which lay forgotten and unremembered by the children, every child through the school will recall celebrating this poor cowherder! As such Thomas Jones Day must be unique – many schools have a Founders Day but this one celebrates one who provided money for trips and ice-cream not the foundation stones of the school! As Mr Nick Liverly recalls when the name is mentioned to old alumni they all hold their hands out to represent holding flowers!

After hearing the story, the processed out of the school and into the graveyard making a circuit of the church and back to the grave. It was quite an odd site; the children clutching their flowers earnestly and proudly. Their goal, Thomas Jones’ Grave, was a typical Victorian pitched stone tomb looking like any other such grave – but that was about to change.

The teachers with their head stood around the grave, with one teacher guitar in hand, ready to play the music for their hymns, them the flowers were handed to the teachers to place on the grave. Soon they began to grow in number, 1, 2, 3 soon it was in the 10s and then after around 30 minutes the grave was hidden by bouquets, posies and large clumps of flowers – flowers of all types laid there making the final product a remarkable multi-coloured patchwork shining in the bright July day. As the flowers were laid the children sung a song which had a line giving thanks to their benefactor.

Keeping up with the Joneses!

Who was this curious benefactor. Born on the 15th July 1820, Thomas Jones earned as a Cowman 12/- or 60p today. He was a simple man, who lived very frugally and was thought to be poor. So much that when in June 1899, a Mr. Millward was called by a local doctor to write a dying man’s Will. When Mr Millward arrived and saw who it was, he was understandably doubtful as he knew Thomas was a mere farm worker and earned a modest wage. However, Thomas revealed a number of bank books which revealed several hundred ponds. This was collated from the rents taken from a field on Wilden Top as well as other pieces of land around. In all £385 was left to local people. The 4/5 acre field raised £303 18s 6d and his estate was worth £1211 18s 0d, a very large sum in 1899. The money was used to set up a trust at the school used to provide an annual treat. In the early 20th century they were treated to an outing with a picnic with journeys to London and Weston Super Mare being recorded.

Part of his Will stipulated that the children of the school must remember his day with singing around his grave and flowers and despite the money running out this has been fervently upheld.

Thomas Jones Life and Soul of the Party

“A sum of money having been left by an old gentlemen (Mr. Jones) for providing a tea annually for the Day School Children. The first was given on Wednesday when the whole holiday was granted for the occasion and the children showed their appreciation and respect for the old gentlemen by placing a number of wreaths upon his grave.”

20th September 1900

It would appear that the tradition begun with a tea party and then laying of flowers but first held in September in 1902 to 1911, this was probably because the school would have been closed for the Harvest by the 15th! It is recorded that in 1902 after the tea party the children received a new pinny from Lady Poyner, who was Louisa Baldwin’s sister and thus related to the founder. Then in 1911, it moved to the 3rd July and this year Louisa Baldwin donated some pictures. How the money was used varied over the years. In 1918 it was suspended and the money apparently going to sports and school work prizes. Yet in 1919 the money was instead used to start a school library with £5 awarded for books and 180 Peace day cups were bought for a shilling each from Selfridges and given to the students who had attended in the last three years. The giving of gifts appeared to continue, books in 1921 and the Vicar and Headmistress distributing in 1924. In 1945 his Legacy had accumulated £100 and it was then spent on strip lighting to benefit the students By 1925, the Tea party had been resumed after the headmistress addressing the children and presumably reminding them of Thomas Jones. I am sure the children were equally happy to hear that the school would close midday for a tea as well. Then in 1926 the school was closed for an excursion and in 1930 this went as far as Weston Super Mare – a two hour car journey today I could not imagine how long by coach it would have been and then in 1933 to London, again a three hour journey – presumably by train it may have been easier! From that point on the treats involved coach trips to Dudley Zoo, Droitwich, Bromsgrove, Kinver, Habberley Valley, Drayton Manor, Warwick, Worcester, Birmingham, Telford, Cardingmill Valley.

Party’s over

By the mid 1970s the legacy had diminished considerably and all that was left was £13 just enough for an ice-cream for each child. However, it was believed that the school should continue to honour him and make sure funds available to honour the expression that sometime should ‘benefit the children’. So distance achievement badges and later certificates were awarded annually in his name

The centenary was celebrated in 1999 with the children dressed in Victorian clothes and a wall mural was erected in the school. The church was also used as a display area with posies and drawings, two concerts were held and a wedding with the whole school in attendance.

Flower of youth

Interesting although the end of the legacy, although meant no money, didn’t mean no custom Now unlike Little Edith’s Treat. But of course we could consider the customs in two parts and of course the second was not dependent on any endowment! After the final flowers were laid the children a rousing rendition ‘Our Lord is a great big god’ with all the hand actions and then it was back to class, back to the three Rs. A delightful custom and one that the weather did not spoil that day. However, as Mr Nick Lilvery recalled in the great drought of the summer of 1976 – it rained so much on the 15th that they could not do the ceremony….St Swithun no doubt stamping his authority on the day!

 

Custom revived: Bawming the Appleton Thorn, Cheshire

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“The Maypole in spring merry maidens adorn,
Our midsummer May-Day means Bawming the Thorn.
On her garlanded throne sits the May Queen alone,
Here each Appleton lad has a Queen of his own

Chorus

Up with fresh garlands this Midsummer morn,
Up with red ribbons on Appleton Thorn.
Come lasses and lads to the Thorn Tree today
To Bawm it and shout as ye Bawm it, Hooray!

The oak in its strength is the pride of the wood,
The birch bears a twig that made naughty boys good,
But there grows not a tree which in splendour can vie
With our thorn tree when Bawmed in the month of July.

Chorus

Kissing under the rose is when nobody sees,
You may under the mistletoe kiss when you please;
But no kiss can be sweet as that stolen one be
Which is snatched from a sweetheart when Bawming the Tree.

Chorus

Ye Appleton Lads I can promise you this;
When her lips you have pressed with a true lover’s kiss,
Woo’ed her and won her and made her your bride
Thenceforth shall she ne’er be a thorn in your side.

Chorus

So long as this Thorn Tree o’ershadows the ground
May sweethearts to Bawm it in plenty be found.
And a thousand years hence when tis gone and is dead
May there stand here a Thorn to be Bawmed in its stead.

If there was a custom which could claim to have been revived the most it could be Appleton’s Bawming the Thorn in Cheshire.. The current version was invariably described as being revived in 1967 or 1973, by headmaster, Bob Jones, itself based on a 1930 revival which again was a probable Victorian revival of the 1860s when a Bawming song was written. The present version appears to be in good health and is now a pivotal event in the village and indeed in the wider Warrington area. Why did it die out? Christine Hole in her 1937 Traditions and customs of Cheshire noted that

“it was allowed to lapse because so many strangers came to see it that it became rowdy, and property was damaged.”

Thorn in the side?

A few miles from the metropolitan Manchester and Warrington is Appleton Thorn, a village which happily celebrates in its name with a unique custom; called Bawming the Thorn. It is not difficult to find the thorn it sits surrounded by a protective metal fence on an island near the church. Early in the day the tree is adorned with red ribbons and children place some plant boxes/pots/bouquets or wreaths, small gardens set out with colourful collections of flowers living and dead. These are similar to those laid at the John Clare memorial, called Midsummer Cushions and indeed maybe exactly the same. However, it is the tree we are here to see, here to celebrate. An ordinary looking thorn covered in leaves and between the leaves red ribbons and small flags.

Soon one can hear a brass band further along the road and soon a large procession comes into view. The children, usually the year 6s of the local primary school, appear dressed in a red and white. They snake their way towards the tree ready to dance around the titular tree.

A thorny subject

What does bawm mean? Well the Oxford English Dictionary does not include it but Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary does and Roger Wilbraham’s 1817 An attempt at a glossary of some words used in Cheshire suggests

“At Appleton it was custom at the time of the Wake to clip and adorn an old hawthorn which till very lately stood in the middle of the town. The ceremony is called Bawming the Appleton Thorn.!”

As Steve Roud notes in his 2006 The English Year the inclusion of the term Wake is significant and that as such it was part of the decoration of the village like many others. As such it was not a custom on its own but a vestige of the festivities of the wake. However, why would someone remember the tree and establish a new custom of dancing around it? Would not a maypole be easier? What is also worth noting is the word clip however, which Roud does not discuss that, clipping or clypping being the custom in which on patronal days a church is encircled but its parishioners. As such one could argue that the clypping had a pre-Christian origin originally being associated with stone circles, was it done around sacred trees? It is pure conjecture of course. Hole notes that in the Warrington Journal it was recorded as:

“The tree and its protective railings were decorated with garlands, flags and red ribbons and sang a song written by the late Mr. Egerton-Warburton. Country dancing, sports and a procession round the village are part of the modern ceremony.”

All a bit bawmy?

A local legend has it that the original thorn was brought from Glastonbury by Adam de Dutton, an Appleton landowner who has also returned from the Crusades. How genuine this story is, is difficult to say, but of course as reported before Glastonbury thorns were distributed across the country. The only curious question is why this particular offcut is not associated with flowering on Old Christmas Day? Dare I say the story may have been concocted to explain the phenomena which could be construed as pagan?

Local author William Beament included the story of the thorn’s arrival in his 1877 An Account of the Cheshire Township of Appleton Thorn, but even he states in 1844 that he was unaware of it custom’s origin

The custom starts when a boy dressed as Sir Adam and his squire enter the area around the Thorn. He is the first to start the proceedings off. Clutching a sword and a leafy branch he declares:

“I Adam de Dutton, raise plant this thorn, on this morn in Appleton Thorn”

It is clear that the village are keen to recognise this benefactor however genuine he is. After his speak, the other children then add their bouquets to the fence.

Then the dancing begins. A choir in black and red sing the Bawming the Thorn hymn This is Maypole dancing albeit without a Maypole the children dance around in pairs swirling, skipping, joining hands. The clipping is in evident when the children hold hands in a big circle they move in and out enclosing the tree in a grand hokecokey! Then it is over and off everyone goes for the supplementary events and a well earned ice-cream no doubt!

Custom contrived: Blessing St. John’s of Harpham’s Well

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“In days of old in country ways, In Yorkshire woods, John sang they praise. Each year on the springtime wold, he saw the primroses unfold, the bleating lambs, the breaking sea. God gift to man eternally. Mist-laden nights, the shepherd’s crook, he left for cloister and for book, Through psalm and vigil, fast and prayer he grew in soul and found the three. But as he served n land of Kent. His winging thoughts still northernly.”

St John of Beverley’s anthem

It is a quiet village. Bypassed by a major room which brings excited tourists from York to Bridlington. Harpham lies to the south perhaps sleeping, except on the Thursday nearest the 7th May when the village and nearby town Beverley celebrate the village’s famous son, Saint John of Beverley. Indeed apart from the fine pub named after the local landowners, it is the relics of the saint which draw people to the village – the fine church and down a lane his old holy well. Although the well is one of two ancient ones in the village, itself unusual, this one is dedicated to the saint. Indeed it is claimed that the saint who was born in the village is said to have struck the ground with his staff and this spring arose

Well established tradition

Despite a claim that the visits to the well go back a 1000 years, the current custom dates back to the 2nd of May 1929, when the Minster at Beverley decided it was time to celebrate their own saint once encased in a fine shrine in that church, by visiting the place of his birth and paying homage to the spring. The date now moving to the Thursday nearest to the Saint’s feast day, the 7th of May. John born in Harpham in AD 640, would become an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Hexham and York, being educated at St Hilda at Whitby and retiring back home at Beverley where he was buried and until the Reformation a fine shrine housed his relics. A number of posthumous miracles are associated with the saint in particular his ability to tame wild bulls brought into the church yard. As William of Malmesbury records in his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum:

“Savage bulls are brought up, tied fast, by strong men sweating profusely; but as soon as they enter the churchyard they lose all their ferocity and become, you might suppose, no more than innocent sheep. So they are untied and left to frolic in the yard, though previously they used to go for anything in their way with horns and hooves.”

Well dressed

St John’s Well, the very one said to have been made by his staff is the focus of the ceremony held on this evening. In the nineteenth century the spring was enclosed in its current stonework and surrounded by a circle of railings. During the afternoon St John’s Well is dressed. However, this is not one of those Derbyshire well dressings made of clay and petals, it is sometime for simpler but just as impressive and pleasing to the eye. Around the base of this well are placed primroses and on top of the railings

Blooming Hawthorn crowns the top of the railings, beneath the hawthorn, are three wreaths of mixed seasonal foliage and flowers mainly rosemary, gorse and forget-me-not on each side with another just above the small opening. In other years ivy and adorned with a cross and garlands of tulips and daffodils had been used but the year I went the simple adornment was most effective in the evening sunshine. Similarly in previous years had meant only a slight representation of primroses making the well dressing a little lacking in impact. The year I went it was a glorious attempt. Primroses were still a little short in number in May and so much of the yellow was provided by mimulus.

Well remembered

Inside the church people were gathering excitedly. Dark clouds had threatened all day but as soon as the choir appeared from the church the sun started to shine. This choir which come from Beverley Minster, consisted of 27 men and boys of all ages enthusiastically were gathered beneath the church tower. They were running hither and thither; it looked like getting them to be in an orderly row would be difficult – but the choir master called out and they arranged themselves ready to go. The crucifer appeared and clutching their hymnals they were off through the churchyard down the lane to the church and then across the main road. Unlike similar processions there were no police in their bright jackets obscuring the spectacle. No cars appeared in the time they processed, it is an obscure village after all or was it the miracle of John taming the bullish motorcar. Behind the choir were the rest of the congregation which was added to as the procession went as curious onlookers, photographers and locals who had not managed to get to the church joined in.

In such a small village such a procession was quite a spectacle: with its crucifer holding their cross up high and proud, snaking down the lanes to the well, with the white tunics of the choir shining in the evening sunshine.

Soon the choir reached St. John’s Well and they arranged themselves on the bank opposite and opened their hymnals ready to sing. The rest of the congregation arrived at the well and a silence descended as they prepared. Previous years one of the congregation, a young boy or girl, stooped down and placed a small pot of primroses at the base of the well to add to the others. As the well was fully decorated perhaps this was missed. Once the congregation was in position, appropriately the vicar started with John 7:

“Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.”

The followed the Collect for St John of Beverley

Afterwards the choir sang St. John of Beverley’s Anthem:

“In days of old in country ways, In Yorkshire woods, John sang they praise. Each year on the springtime wold, he saw the primroses unfold, the bleating lambs, the breaking sea. God gift to man eternally.

Mist-laden nights, the shepherd’s crook, he left for cloister and for book, Through psalm and vigil, fast and prayer he grew in soul and found the three. But as he served in land of Kent. His winging thoughts still northernly.”

It was a short but evocative ceremony remembering this local Anglo-Saxon saint and the gift he gave to the village…once they had done their service they turned around and processed back to the church were a sung eucharist uplifted the spirits more. A delightful event which is nearing is 100 years and long may it be celebrated.

Custom survived: Curry Rivel Wassail and Ashen Faggot

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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