Category Archives: Somerset

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.

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Custom survived: Minehead Hobby Horse

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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.

Customs demised: Watching the sun dance on Easter Sunday

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Across the country it was traditional to get on Easter day or Sunday and see the sun dance in celebration of Christ’s resurrection from Polperro to Derbyshire, where at Castleton, locals would climb to a prominent hill to see it. Addy (1895) in his Traditional household tales notes:

“On Easter Sunday people at Castleton, in Derbyshire, used  to climb the hill on which the castle is built, at six o’clock in the morning, to see the sun rise. On this day the sun is said to dance for joy at his rising.”

In Dartmoor and Exmoor, in Devon and Somerset, there was said to be the Lamb and flag in the disc. Girls used to take smoked glass to see the sun. In Somerset Dunkery Beacon and Will’s neck were climbed and often an idea of the that it could be used to forecast the weather for the coming year Indeed Maureen Sutton (1995) in her Lincolnshire Calendar who notes that belief in the tradition was still current in the 1920s and 30s in the county and. She notes of Swineshead in the 1920s:

“Old Bert used to get up real early on Easter Day morning before the sun got up. He’ put a huge earthenware jar out and fill it up to the brim with water…when the sun rose, the reflection was shown on the jar and it made the sun dance on the water. If the water rippled it meant there was going to be enough water to last through the summer. If tyhe sun moved slowly across the water, it meant a dry summer”

In Worksop, Nottinghamshire, a correspondent in a local newspaper, a man called Thomas Ratcliffe, notes that a stream was a location:

“When I was a child this talk used to impress me very much and I persuaded my mother to take me to a spot about half a mile away, where a small stream widening out in a ford used by farmers and others. The spot was often visited on Easter Morning for the purpose of seeing the sun dance which it was sire to do if it were sunny and a soft wind rippled the surface. The sun did dance on the particular day”

Or perhaps, as the Reverend Parish notes of the tradition in Sussex:

“nobody is ever seen it because the devil is so cunning that he always puts a hill in the way to hide it”

This is echoed in The Lincolnshire magazine 1932-4 vol 1 which stated that:

“I have often heard of the sun dancing on Easter Day, but never met with anyone who had really seen it”

Although, the article goes on to report someone who had, describing it as:

“It kep on th’ dance for nigh on half an hour, dancing and turnin round all the time..There were cogwheels all round it an; it kep dartin’ out-dartin out light it did. It was most like that thing in the menagic lanten as keeps turnin round.”

It was probably due to eye strain following gazing at the sun’s disc. This activity is suggested by Addy (1895) in Derbyshire who says:

“On the Wednesday before Easter Sunday a Derbyshire man said, ” I think the sun will hardly be able to contain himself till Sunday.” In  Derbyshire they  say that the sun spins round when he sets on Easter Sunday, and people go out to see this spinning.”

Thomas Ratcliffe notes again and hints at the growing rational explanations of the event:

“I still remember the kindly lesson given me on that occasion, low I was told that the wind and water together by causing ripples made the sun to seemingly dance upon the surface of the ford.”

Perhaps this combined with the rarity of seeing it, possible ocular damage and a growing rationality lead to its demise. When the custom was no longer observed is unclear….Perhaps some people still make their quiet pilgrimage to their nearest hill or pool to see the sun’s joyous celebration of the resurrection.