Category Archives: Somerset

Custom survived: Brent Harvest Home, Somerset

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As cars thunder by on the busy M5 or more closely slope by as hereabouts its notoriously poor traffic, the little village of East Brent at the end of August celebrates the harvest. In most villages across the country Harvest festivals reign supreme as the communities big if rather sombre thanksgiving a contrast to often debauched Harvest celebrations of yore…East Brent’s harvest home, one of a small group of traditional celebrations you could say sits between the two…how close to the second depending on how much alcohol is in the summer puddings!

Feast for the eyes

East Brent is also the oldest surviving Harvest Home, having been started in 1857 by the then archdeacon George Denison, then  held on the 3rd of September as a holiday for workers. He described as:

“in 1857 my Churchwarden, Mr. John Higgs, a constant communicant and near and dear friend, came to me to suggest having every year a harvest home at East Brent. I entered into the proposal immediately and heartily. It had long appeared to me that we wanted recognised holidays for the working-men, women and children; and here was a step in that direction, specially recommended by one of its leading features, that it was not only a holiday for all classes alike, but a holiday which all classes kept and enjoyed, in close contact with one another. The proposal was generally welcomed as soon as made, and we held our first harvest home Sept. 3rd, 1857. At that time there was, I believe, northing of the kind in this part of England. The East Brent harvest home has become a Somerset institution; and although it has long ceased to retain all its original character in respect of gathering together here many chief people on the harvest home day who came to see what we were about, and whether it would be good to follow suit at home, it has retained, and more than retained, it has increased all its original popularity; and I am enabled to say, having watched everyone of them from year to year – with rare intervals every year has had its harvest home, beginning with 1857 – that each one has been an improvement upon its predecessor. The original scheme has in all its substance remained intact. Alterations have come in matters of details. I have read and heard of, and have seen other schemes of harvest home arrangement; but of no one which was, I think, so good as our own.”

An attendee described it thus:

“How they poured in, one after another, an endless string. Huge joints of meat decked with flowers, large banners on the walls, and plum puddings by the dozen. How the meat went, and then the puddings. And so the dinner was over. Waistcoats strained, then sweat poured down, the cider was quaffed, and they were happy!”

This was the men’s celebration, the women had a separate one. An account states:

“The ladies had their meal the following day and it was very different. The next evening the school-room was again filled, but this time it was by the poor women to partake of tea, when bread and butter, cake, ham, tea, and other good things were soon made use of in a truly interesting manner.”

This first Harvest Home attracted 300 for dinner and 500 for tea, but soon over the years the celebration lengthened to four days and attracted 6000 people. However over the years it has lost the days, the formality of man and women separate dinning and in a way its true function. Few people directly work on the land and so this is celebration of agriculture rather than a thanksgiving feast!

The Weston Mercury recalled that in 1859:

“ a capacious tent erected in the grounds adjoining the Vicarage, was decorated with appropriate designs, mottoes and emblems, which included: ‘Long life to our worthy Vicar and to his benevolent Lady;’’G. Reed, Esq., Lord of the Manor of East Brent, and Burnham’s Benefactor;’ and ‘G.Reed, Esq., the friend of the Poor.’  The large company included the Bishop of the Diocese, Members of Parliament, the principal parishioners, and clergy and gentry for the neighbourhood. The rich plum puddings and the immense loaf, for which East Brent harvest home has always been famous, figured in the menu.”

More of those plum puddings in a moment!

Feastive fun!

Over the years it has lost it’s purpose in thanking the workers during the harvest and has become more of a celebration to agriculture and various village activies Muriel Walker in her Old Somerset customs describes the scene in 1984 regarding what needed to be done before the great day:

“after some months of planning the villagers start a busy work on the Monday with s waiters meeting, there are luncheon tickets to deal with as the repast is no longer free. Later in three week enormous ivy ropes are made the menfolk having gathered the required ivy) to go the entire length of the marquee in which the meals are served. Hoops and banners are hung around and still later in the high table is decorated with corn and flowers. The president who happens to be the vicar has he privilege of having his chair decorated as well.

On the day itself, the women turn up as early as before seven o’clock in the morning to lay the tables, make salads and do other preparatory work.

Following a procession, led by the band, and a church service, the main meal is eaten. The men, kit seems, still do the meat carving. Afternoon teas follow in due course with sports, fancy dress and a tug o war.”

She noted that the remaining food was auctioned the following day, although now it is done in the afternoon.

 Harvest Bestival

In the 150th anniversary booklet,  Rita Thomas (nee Poole), stated:

“I heard the talk but couldn’t imagine what a Harvest Home was like; but anything happening in a village in 1957 had to be worth a try. My first job was to sell centenary programmes at 6d each. This meant a half day off work, which was great! I got more involved as the years went by, doing all sorts of jobs, laying tables, washing china, trimming ivy ropes, flowers for the high table, making hoops and banners. For example:- ‘many hands make light work’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘make hay while the sun shines’, ‘the best in the west’, ‘1973 the year of the tree’ and many others.

We try to keep the event as traditional as possible but have also streamlined some jobs to make use of modern ways to save time. It is still a traditional feast day which starts with a church service at St Mary’s followed by lunch in the marquee which includes the procession of 90 Christmas puddings, a 120lb cheddar cheese and a 6′ x 2′ harvest loaf. The ladies carry the puddings to the marquee from the village hall and the men carry the bread and cheese.”

Oh and them Puddings before the feast officially begins. Waiting by the marquee you see a joyous procession of puddings! Yes those puddings that culturally appear restricted to Christmas but you would like to have them at other times well here you can and why not. They glint held high by their makes – only women I note pity as I can do a mean pudding too! The harvest loaf carried proudly on the shoulders of six male bearers is similarly an impressive piece of culinary art and finally the cheeses – not all Cheddar one would note but I think some Stinking Bishop was there too!

The account continues:

“The lunch is followed by the toast to ‘agriculture and kindred industries’ proposed by a guest speaker and someone else replies. A second toast is made to ‘the visitors and helpers’ and a response to this. The prizes for decorated hoops and baskets are then awarded followed by an auction of any surplus food. During the afternoon, tea is served, and there is a fancy dress competition followed by sports, so quite a busy day. In the evening we have various bands, a disco, licensed bar, funfair etc.”

Little has changed. Today tickets are £18 and it starts at noon, a religious service is held at 12.30 for 15 minutes and then luncheon is had. Tea is served from 4.30 followed by free children’s entertainment and sports for all. The bar closes at 8.45 so it is not a late one but it certainly is a packed one.  Although this is very much a local event with access to the marquee ticket only one can still experience the festive nature of the day when this tiny Somerset village keeps up its proud tradition and thanks is given as a great feast is undertaken!

 

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Custom survived: Bridgwater Illuminated Carnival

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Nights draw in, there’s that smell of rotten leaves, the smell of autumn, a tinge of coldness – Bonfire night approaches. Whilst many towns prepare their communal bonfires and select their fireworks for their annual community celebrations – down in the west country they do it differently.

All fired up

Bridgwater’s original celebration were much as elsewhere – the large bonfire stacked up with just about anything flammable, guys atop, except due to its association with the sea and river, a large wooden boat was used. Apparently, the over-enthusiastic desire to stack as many boats on the fire, whether seaworthy or not, stopped this custom as the town ran out of them and local fishermen got a bit angry no doubt!

Then Bonfire gangs started to develop processions which became more and more elaborate – with costumes, the participants becoming Masqueraders, a term unique to them and to get them going loud music. Then in 1913 a pivotal moment happened with made this west country carnival became unique.

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Illuminating

In 1913 electric lights were introduced. And what a result! The current carnival is a riot of sound and light (quite literally) and its extremely impressive. Around 22,000 lightbulbs on average light the floats. These floats resemble portable fairground rides in their garish and intoxicating nature.

On such a cold windy evening, the energy produced by these floats is palpable. 22,000 lightbulbs produce a huge amount of heat. Good considering the parade lasts around two hours or so.

In 200xx the parade was remarkable 40 100ft long vehicles snaked around the 2 and half mile route, crowds heaving on the pavement to see the spectacle.

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No damp squib!

Bridgwater take their Bonfire celebrations seriously. Even when WWII came a small group known as the Kilties kept the tradition, fortunately post war it was back to bonfire business.

Fortunately, one thing that has survived, despite demands to remove it are the squibs, although they have changed as insurance pressures have prevented the big bangs which culminated at the end. The squibs are large fireworks held on a cosh, long wooden handle. A hundred squibbers stand in a line in the centre of the town sending out a shower of light.

The squibbers start assembling once the illuminated carnival finishes. There is an air of anticipation, even danger in the air. The mood appears to change from family fun to something a bit darker. Some members of the crowd disappear perhaps aware of this perhaps fearing its dangerous,…but nothing happens. Its well organised and safe! A line of petrol or something similar is ran along by the squibbers and this is lit to remarkable impact! Then as the shower of lights finish; it’s all over!

Now attracting over 150,000 people and responsible for a whole West country season of illuminated carnivals across the region, Bridgwater’s spectacle is not to be missed!

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Custom contrived: Apple Day

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An Apple a Day

Apples and the British. We do love an apple! Whether its plucked from the tree, in a sauce for pork or fermented in a cider, there’s something quintessential about apples and the British. We’ve sung to give good crops and bobbed at Halloween so it is about time they had their own custom.

National Apple Day is a contrived custom which has spread remarkably quickly. Started in 1990 on the 21st October. Like the trees themselves they have grown and grown! Its unusual compared to some contrived customs because firstly it has spread and secondly it was the establishment on one organisation, Common Group, an ecological group established in 1983

The rationale by the initiators the Common Ground was to celebrate the richness and variety of the apples grown in the UK and by raising awareness hopefully preserve some of the lesser known types, hopefully preserving old orchards and the wildlife associated with them

Apple of your eye

The Common Ground website describes how by reviving the old apple market in London’s covent garden the first apple day was celebrated:

The first Apple Day celebrations, in the old Apple Market in London’s Covent Garden, brought fruit to the market after 16 years’ absence. Forty stalls were taken. Fruit growers and nurseries producing and selling a wide variety of apples and trees rubbed shoulders with juice-and cider-makers, as well as writers and illustrators with their apple books.

Representatives of the WI came laden with chutneys, jellies and pies. Mallorees School from North London demonstrated its orchard classroom, while the Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust explained how it manages its orchard for wildlife. Marks & Spencer helped to start a trend by offering tastings of some of the 12 ‘old varieties’ they had on sale that autumn. Organic growers were cheek by jowl with beekeepers, amidst demonstrations of traditional and modern juice presses, a calvados still and a cider bar run by the Campaign for Real Ale. Experts such as Joan Morgan identified apples and offered advice, while apple jugglers and magicians entertained the thousands of visitors – far more than we had expected – who came on the day.”

From the seeds…

From that first Apple Day, it has spread. By 1991 there were 60 events, growing to 300 in 1997 and now 1000s official and unofficial events, mainly but not wholly focusing on traditional apple growing regions such as Herefordshire. It has grown to incorporate a whole range of people to include healthy eating campaigns, poetry readings, games and even electing an Apple King and Queen in some places festooned with fruity crown. In Warwickshire the Brandon Marsh Nature reserve stated in 2016:

Mid Shires Orchard Group are leading a day celebrating the wonders of English apples. Learn about different varieties, taste fresh apple juice and have a go at pressing (you can even bring your own apples to have turned into juice for a donation).

Things to do on the day:

  • Play apple games •Learn about local orchards •Discover orchard wildlife •Enjoy the exhibitions •Explore the Apple Display • Buy heritage apple trees.”

Whilst a Borough Market, London, a blessing is even involved:

“Borough Market’s neighbour Southwark Cathedral will also celebrate the day with a short act of harvest worship in the Market, accompanied by the Market’s choir.”

Apple Day shows us that however urban our environment we can still celebrate our rural connections and with the growing number of events it is clear Apple Day is here to stay!

Custom revived: St Ann’s Day Pilgrimage to St. Ann’s Well, Brislington

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In medieval England, St Anne, a slightly apocraphyl saint, said to be the mother of Mary, was widely celebrated. On the outskirts of modern Bristol is one relic from this day. St. Anne’s Well is perhaps all that is left of a wider site, which included a noted chapel – indeed it is the chapel which has an older more venerable history. Said to have been visited by Henry VIIth and his queen, it is now lost beneath the urbanisation which has spread through Bristol suburbs. The delightful oasis of Brislington Brook and St. Anne’s Park similarly could have been swallowed up…but the effort of local groups has preserved its memory.

When I lived in Bristol, I knew of St. Anne’s Well but although I knew that it was visited by the local church never could find any details. I remember ringing up once and finding now further information – O the days before the internet. Now the church appears have forgotten the well, but not the locals who each Saturday nearest to the old saint’s feast day go in procession to the well.  The current celebration of this noted holy well is perhaps more of a contrived custom than revived perhaps but although it is largely stripped of its religious emphasis is no less significant.

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If you go down to the woods today!

Meeting at the pub beforehand were a curious collection of costumed punters…if you didn’t know you would blame the drink! Adults of all ages and children readily got into the spirit and as the number of potential ‘processioners’ assembled, the group posed outside of the pub, formed a procession with three knights of honour, banners aloft following a specially made flag depicting the well. Medieval music guided us as we weaved and wandered first through streets, down back passages and along streets – much to the bewilderment of people as they peered out of the windows – quintessentially British! Then as we were about to descend into the delightfully named Nightingale Valley, we stopped to hear the first of our medieval monologues – which gave us a good rest whilst we listened.

Well-watered walkers

Formally and informally over the hundreds of years many people had walked here to access the waters for whatever reason. However, first ‘modern’ processions to the well begun in 1880s with the beginning of local Catholic attendance. In 1927 the Reverend C F. Harman lead the first twentieth century procession to the well and held a service there as a result it became an annual event only declining apparently in the 1970s as the site became vandalised and slowly derelict. However, in 1986, on the anniversary the 500th anniversary of the visit by Henry VII. Then the procession was led by rural Dean Father John Bradley who according to Ken Taylor’s 2016 work on the well and chapel, The Holy Wells and Chapel of St Anne in the Wood, Brislington, Bristol:

“snaked through St. Anne’s Wood to the holy well where a service was held jointly with the Rev. Mark Waters, vicar of the church of St. Anne’s who had revived the custom.”

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In Phil Quinn’s 1999 work Holy Wells of the Bath and Bristol Region there is a photos of a small group of pilgrims at the well. He notes:

“Some 40 people taking part in 1996 service of blessing of the well. In this the priest takes water from the well and sprinkles it over those gathered around.”

Accordingly, this custom continued until 2005 but why it ceased is unclear, the church survives and is still as its website states ‘High church’ leaning!

However, this was a relatively small interregnum as on 26th July 2009 members of the Brislington Community Archaeology Project revived the pilgrimage not as Taylor (2016) notes:

“The date was not chosen for its religious significance, but because of its historical significance – this was not a pilgrimage in honour of St. Anne, but a public, guided walk into the history and archaeology of the site.”

Taylor (2016) notes:

“Ten people met at the Kings Arms in Hollywood Road, which is opposite Kenneth Road, where the medieval pilgrims are reputed to have camped prior to walking to the Chapel of St Anne in the Wood. Leaving the pub at 2.15pm the group followed as closely as possible the course of Brislington Brook, which led to the so called Pilgrim’s Path through picturesque Nightingale Valley. They arrived at the holy well at St. Anne’s Wood around 3pm, where several other people waited the arrival of the party.”

A further walk occurred a year later or so on Sunday 25th for Festival of British Archaeology and so the numbers double and at the well they added:

“more ribbons, pendants and other mementoes already there.”

By the following year, the procession had grown to around a hundred and the procession having members dressed up especially in medieval costumes. They were led by ‘King Henry VIIth’ and his Queen, ‘Elizabeth of York’. These royal personages being greeted by the Lord of Mayor of Bristol, who was also the councillor for Brislington.

This year also introduced some of the more theatrical elements of the walk, about a dozen monologues written especially by local people for the event were read along the route and beside the well.

In 2013 Discover Brislington Brook raised funds to deliver the pageant as well as raise local interest in the site via workshops with local schools and making procession puppets used in that year’s procession. By 2014 the pageant appears to have become a regular fixture in the local calendar. The procession now including traditional musicians and over 200 attendees. At the site of the well was organised a fair and BBQ.

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Alls well that ends at a well

The group, now swelled by some casual attendees made its way through the woods, along the stream, the children being enraptured by tales of wise women of the woods and trolls. Indeed, despite urbanisation being a few steps away, it was not difficult to believe their existence.  Soon the rather weary party arrived triumphantly at the well. The children enthusiastically rushed to peer into it and then throw things into it…oh well. More respectful children felt the urge to adorn it with paper pendant and these added to the ribbons which hang from the trees – evidence of more informal pilgrimage. Sadly, there was no BBQ or fair this year, which perhaps meant a rather deflated end especially for adults. However, it is clear that the procession remains a popular event locally and hopefully it will grow and with it help support the area and allow this ancient well to survive and be celebrated. If you are local or in the area next last weekend in July consider joining and remembering this ancient site.

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Custom revived: Wassailing the Apple Trees Carhampton

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

Keeping my eyes peeled!

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

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

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

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That’s Wass-al

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

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A 1970s Wassail?

Getting to the core

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

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

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

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

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

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

To toast the tree

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

“Old apple tree, we wassail thee,                                                               

And hoping thou wilt bear                                                                         

For the Lord doth know where we shall be                                                

Till apples come another year.                                                                   

For to bear well, and to bloom well,                                                          

So merry let us be,                                                                                      

Let every man take off his hat,                                                                           

And shout to the old apple tree!                                                                           

Old apple tree, we wassail thee,                                                                        

And hoping thou wilt bear,                                                                    

Hatfuls, capfuls and three bushel bagsful                                                         

And a little heap under the stairs,                                                             

Hip, Hip, Hooray!”

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

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

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

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

Wass al it about?

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

Wass-al the rage

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

 

Custom demised: Observing the holy thorn

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A thorny subject

Just before Christmas in 2010 vandals inexplicably chopped down the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury and a nation was shocked. Whatever the reason for this destruction it prevented anyone witnessing this tree blooming according to tradition. However, despite this being the most iconic and well known holy thorn, it was only one of a considerable number across the country which originates from the original tree which stood before the Parish church before being cut down by Cromwellian troops in the English civil war, the axe wielder is said to have lost an eye as a result which James Howell of odona’s grove noted:

“He was well serv’d for his blinde Zeale, who going to cut doune an ancient white Hauthorne-tree, which, because she budded before the others, might be an occasion of superstition had some of the prickles flew into his eye and made him Monoculor”

However this tree is not the holy thorn, not even in Glastonbury for its progeny is found in the churchyard and Abbey grounds. Records of other holy thorns occur not surprisingly at West Buckland, Woolmingston and Whitestaunton also in Somerset, Sutton Poyntz Dorset, but also at Houghton Le Spring, Durham, Brickendon, Hertfordshire and Shenley Church End and Quainton, Buckinghamshire. Herefordshire curiously had and has a number of examples. These listed by folklorist Leather included Wormsley, Rowlstone, Dorstone, Colwall, Stoke Edith, King’s Thorn, Tyberton with one at Bredwardine in Herefordshire. Palmer notes Alfrick, Hampton, Newland, Ripple and Tardebigge in Worcestershire.

A blossoming story

Despite being such a well known story, the thorn is only first mentioned in a 1520 work by Richard Pynson Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathea where the blooming in winter and spring are first recorded. Indeed, Joseph himself only appears in legend in the 9th century. What is interesting is that the plant, Crataegus monogyna biflora is not a native species. DNA of all known descendents match and experts in Kew have identified it from Levantine Palestine hawthorn…so there may be evidence.
To these trees it was customary for the devout to visit these bushes on Christmas Eve to see them bloom. In the 17th century Bishop Goodman of Gloucester noted:

“The white thorn of Glastonbury which usually blossoms on Christmas and Easter.”

The flowers were thought to bloom exactly on midnight, the hour Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, and then drop off an hour later. For example an account in the East Anglia Miscellany notes a thorn:

“near Parham Hall (Norfolk) is a white thorn bush which blossoms by Christmas Day, and the people of the neighbourhood flock to it in great companies upon Christmas Eve..”

Although the author does note that:

“I had some of the buds just blooming brought to me on Sunday, the 2nd of December, 1734”

But wait a minute this is January’s blog!

Yes and the date of the above account is significant, for only 22 years later it may not have bloomed. Why because in 1752, the calendar changed. Indeed, the blooming of the holy thorns was used by those critical of the date change as evidence that the new calendar was wrong. For when the calendar did change, these disbelievers of the new Calendar, waited to see when the tree would blossom the 25th December or the 6th January? The Gentleman’s magazine reported in 1753 in January:

“A Vast concourse of people attended the noted thorn on Christmas-day, new stile, but to their great disappointment, there was no appearance of its blowing,which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas-day, old stile, when it blowed as usual.”

Such begun a January tradition For example on the 7th January 1878, the author Kilvert visited a farm at Dolfach where the blossoming was witnessed by a group of fifteen people and he was given a spray of blossom by the farmer’s daughter. Kilvert notes that he grafted this cutting onto his tree and reported that on the same date the next year it bloomed despite the severe frost. Attendance to see the thorns was still current in Sutton Poyntz Dorset until 1844, Woolmingston Somerset 1898 and Wormsley at least until 1908 when folklorist Ella Mary Leather recorded it in her Folklore of Herefordshire. She also noted one of the reasons for the popularity of the custom and its demise:

“A piece of thorn gathered at this hour brings luck, if kept for the rest of the year. Formerly crowds of people went to see the thorn blossom at this time. I myself went to Wormesely in 1908; about forty people were there, and as it was quite dark and the blossom could only be seen by candle light, it was probably the warmth of the candles which made some of the little white buds seem to expand. The tree had really been in bloom for several days, the season being extremely mild. Mr Powell of Peterchurch told me he could remember that on old Christmas Eve, people came for miles round to Kingstone Grange, where a holy thorn grew in the garden; they were liberally supplied with cake and cider.”

Blooming cheek – an unpopular custom

Leather noted that such rather impromptu perhaps gatherings were not always popular she notes:

“At Cleohanger, years ago a man was very much annoyed at the damage done to his garden by those coming to see the thorn blossom which grew there, so he began to cut it down. But blood flowed from the trunk of the tree and this so alarmed him he left off at once!”
Similarly at Acton Beauchamp, the local farmer so annoyed by the concourse of people who crossed his field to see the flowering, that he destroyed the thorn but so the story says he broke both arm and legs and his farm house burnt down!”

Nipped in the bud

Not always were the crowds able to witness a show. A 100 assembled in 1934 failed to see the Cleohanger thorn bloom. Yet in 1949, it was reported by the Times that the Orcop Thorn at the Stars Little Hill in the village was to be filmed by the BBC put there was nowhere to plug in their lamps! Indeed memory of visiting the thorns is still current if a correspondent to WW2 People’s War website is anything to judge:

“I used to visit my Grandparents over Christmas and there was a thorn tree that used to flower. They had a ladder to pick the bloom..If you picked the flower when it flowered, the next morning it would have died. Young men used to pick the flowers for their girl friends. There were lots of flowers in the tree-it used to be in full bloom. Everyone got excited about it-the adults would be chattering.”

Sadly this thorn was lost in a storm of 1980. However, the third reason for the decline had already had a significant effect. The predations of the pickers which came in coach loads had their impact and weakened it. Of the other holy thorns, I am unclear of what survives or still blooms and it would be useful to do further research. Many other sacred thorns lie forgotten and unheralded. Some have died such as that of Orcop above, Shenley Church End, and Quainton Buckinghamshire and Houghton Le spring (although a cutting survives) others survive such as that of Brickenden, Hertfordshire and Glastonbury of course, but whether they can escape the joint perils of ignorance and vandalism is yet to be seen.

Custom survived: Minehead Hobby Horse

Standard

The Merry Month of May..is a great month of those fascinated with calendar customs and ceremonies, there are hundreds alone on May 1st or one some occasions to the May Bank Holiday, restricting oneself to three is difficult..so I’ve picked a favourite surviving one..

“Do you have any information on the Minehead Hobby horses, particularly the Town Horse?”

“Oh is it out today?”

So was my question and reply from Minehead’s tourist information! Now what I am inferr from this enquiry? Are Tourist Information places useful for information on customs? Perhaps not always. Is that the organisers did not want it overly advertised? Perhaps yes and in a way that is not always a bad thing….for I get the impression that this tradition, in an area over-run by the holidayer and tourist, is perhaps culturally the only remaining local thing and that this custom is done for the locals and not for us tourists…and I have no problem with that…such customs are more likely to be driven by the locals need and desire to do it. Why wonders how many of these revived customs, forced back to life perhaps by parish’s and councils with one eye on the tourist potential, will survive.

Anyhow I digress! Last year May day bank holiday fell on a convenient date for those customs who have rightly stubbornly stuck to the first of May for their observations…the Minehead Hobby Horse is one of these.

A comical aside….

I had booked a nice guest house on the route of the Hobby Horse via the internet and arriving at its location found….I wasn’t booked in! It was their fault fair enough, but wasn’t going to get me somewhere to stay….the owner rung around and finally found a room. I think I know where it is…she said and we jumped into the car and followed her…Well I thought it was here….I’ll ask a taxi driver. So she did and the Taxi driver said….yeah follow me. And so we both followed him…..back to where he had started and which he jumped out of the car and said….it’s around him somewhere! Of course all along my satnav was saying something else..but you don’t like to disagree with locals do you?

Finally following the satnav we arrived at our destination, a delightful Edwardian house high above the town and only minutes from where the Hobby Horse was to be awoken.

Back to the Hobby Horse…Warning Night

The night before the 1st May is called Warning night and sitting by the harbour at the Old Ship Aground when the sound of accordionists bursts out of the club and the hobby horse is awoken to tour the town, swirling and jumping with the joys of spring, scaring children and comforting cars with a strange children like head nod.

May Day

I had decided to see the awakening of the traditional sailor’s horse which happened at 5 am. It traditionally comes out on the eve of May Day and proceeds from the Quay over the hill through Higher town to arrive at White Cross early on May 1st. Looking out it was beginning to rain. Through the drizzle I could hear the eerie sound of the drums as they echoed from the harbour below and the addict sound of the accordionist which occasionally broke from its tradition ditty to the strains of Yankee doodle dandy!. They rain was not stopping this ancient observation which made its way through the lanes and streets of the old town ensuring that no-one slept that morning. This was a tradition in its truest sense, the hobby horse joined only by a handful of attendants and curious bystanders. At certain times the Hobby Horse changed owners with the young men seeming desperate to be part of the action.

It made its way to the white cross where it undertook a whirling and spinning dance and was joined by another horse…after a break it continued its journey back into the town. By then the town was coming alive and people were making their way around. Some particularly young women were barracked by the beast to much hilarity.

No Bootie Night for me!

Sadly I missed the famed Bootie Night. During this the horse is allowed to grab any young lady it sees with the help of two crew members who hold them by the arms and legs at the front of the horse, which rises up and down ten times as the crowd cries Bootie! The victim is said to have dance avoiding being lashed by the tail. This is done on the Cher steps and Wellington square where the horse says goodbye for the rest of the year. This appears to have originated according to an early account of 1830 to have arisen from those who did not pay it says:

many other persons, inhabitants of the places they visit, give them small sums, and such persons as they meet are also asked to contribute a trifle; if they are refused, the person of the refuser is subjected to the ceremony of booting or pursing; this is done by some of the attendants holding his person while one of the figures inflict ten slight blows on him with the top of a boot; he is then liberated and all parties give three huzzas: the most trifling sum buys off this ceremony, and it is seldom or never performed but on those who purposely throw themselves in their way and join the party, or obstruct them in their vagaries.”

Origins of the hobby horse.

Three hobby horse traditions exist along the Somerset-Devon-Cornwall coast and each claim to be the oldest and be unique. Clearly there is a link between each of them and indeed probably between these and those found through Europe, Africa and beyond! As regards Minehead, one story states that it was used to frighten off the Viking raiders and where the horse stops, the white cross, is as far as the Vikings were chased. However another account in a local newspaper of May 1863 states:

“The origin professes to be in commemoration of the wreck of a vessel at Minehead in remote times, or the advent of a sort of phantom ship which entered the harbour without Captain or crew.”

Certainly the Hobby Horse is boat like only having a length of rope for its cow tail and is covered with brightly coloured ribbons with a hole cut in for the body with a disc shaped face.

Whatever the origin Minehead’s Hobby Horse will continue to be one of the best May day customs in Britain, full of music, mischief and always mystery.