Category Archives: Staffordshire

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Sheriff’s Ride

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In a 1553 Charter of Mary Tudor’s reign she bestowed upon them their own Sheriff and separated it from Staffordshire being its own County. Amongst the duties of this newly appointed post was to oversee the boundaries of the fairly newly instated city and such the Sheriff’s Ride was established:

“perambulate the new County and City annually on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.

This was confirmed by Charles II which read:

“the balliffs and common councilmen shall annually on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin perambulate the boundaries of the city and county of Lichfield and the precincts thereof”

….and it has continued ever since. The Sheriff’s ride rather than taking place on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary…the 8th of September it is the nearest Saturday. And despite Lichfield becoming party of Staffordshire back in 1888 the ride still goes on! An early reference is from 1638 in St Michael’s church registers which reads:

Paid for an horse for Mr Hobbocke the curate at ye Perambulation xii d”

Ride on time

I arrived in Lichfield just as the party was leaving the Guildhall. They were moving at quite a pace and the sight and sound of 50 riders on the hard road surface was something to witness. Of they were to go around the 20 miles of the border. In the morning the group followed the northern and eastern boundaries and stopped for lunch at Freeford Manor. After their break they returned to their horses and surveyed the western and southern areas and again stopped for tea at Pipe Hall.

Horsing around and around

F. W. Hackwood (1924) in their Staffordshire Customs, superstitions and folklore records that in 1921 it:

“was large as ever. The assembly (which included the Mayor, the corporation nd the city officials) met at the Guildhall where the Sheriff Councillor F. Garratt entertained his friends with light refreshments before starting. A number were mounted on horseback, but every other known means of road transport was also brought into use, a curious admixture of the ancient and the modern”

This must have been an odd if slightly dangerous site and although people follow with cars it is now at a respectful distance and the perambulation is only done by horses who pay £30 to join. Recently a so-called ‘Alternative Sheriff’s Ride’ with push bikers has been established and one day perhaps it might take over! I was also amused to see the Sheriff wearing a day-glo jacket as if 50 odd horses isn’t as noticeable on their own cantering down the road! Hackwood (1924) continues:

“The route lay up Beacon street to cross-in-hand lane, and on to the Stafford Road at Lyncroft Hill. From thence to Lea Grange the way lay across fields till the lane leading to Elmhustr and Stychebrook was reached, and hence in the direction of Curborough to Brownsfields. After traversing more fields the way lead to Gosling land and then on to the Trent Valley Road; the railway was crossed and thence by way of Darnford Mill the party came to Horse and Jockey Inn at Freeford where they were entertained at luncheon by the sheriff with all he customary festivities.”

It is interesting to note that the party has a more upmarket luncheon location!

“Resuming the Ride the way led across fields to Knowle, then to the Birmingham Road, through fields again to Aldershawe, Sandyway, Pipe Grange, Maple Hayes, and Pipe Green and so out to Abnalls Lane back to Cross-in-hand Lane. Here a touch of the picturesque was lent by the presence of the Macebearer and other uniformed attendants, aided by the glorious weather of a fine autumnal day.”

Very little has changed. Except I imagine the smarter dress of the participants who must wear hunting or dressage and indeed there is a prize for the best dressed. At around 6 the perambulators arrive back at the city where the ceremonial sword and the Macebearer still met them now with the Dean of the Cathedral and then ceremonially leads the retinue down back to the Guildhall where a crowd was waiting to welcome the tired party and their even more tired horses!

It is worth noting that the length of this boundary appears to change according to who reports it. Hackwood states its is upwards of 16 miles, Jon Raven in his 1978 The Folklore of Staffordshire states it is 24 miles and latterly 20 miles is quoted – they appear to be doing more that perambulating if the length is increasing.

What is unusual is that this ceremony takes place in September which is a less convenient and less calendrically significant time. It seems likely that the ride was a possibly originally done at Rogation and by church authorities before the charter but no evidence can be found. And it was probably not a ride – but a walk – a rather long one…which would have been difficult to do in one day no doubt!

 

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Custom demised: Visiting St. Helen’s Wells on St. Helen’s Feast Day

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After St. Mary or Our Lady, the greatest number of Holy wells across Britain are dedicated to St. Helen. St. Helen, the mother of the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity is a complex folklore figure and authorities have placed her birth at Colchester Essex where there is a well and chapel dedicated to her. It is reported that at Rushton Spencer in Staffordshire, processions were associated with the date 18th August, St. Helen’s Feast Day. Baines notes in his 1836 History of the County of Lancashire:

“Dr. Kuerden, in the middle of the seventeenth century, describing one in the parish of Brindle, says: ‘To it the vulgar neighbouring people of the Red Letter do much resort with pretended devotion, on each year upon St. Ellin’s Day, where and when, out of a foolish ceremony, they offer, or throw into the well, pins, which, there being left, may be seen a long time after by any visitor of that fountain.’”

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The Med. Mvi Kalend notes a similar custom was he states:

“observed some years ago by the visitors of St. Helen’s well in Sefton, but more in accordance with an indent ractice than from any devotion to the saint”

At Walton, near Weatherby, Yorkshire, villagers would also visit their St. Helen’s well whose water was said to be effective as a cure for many ailments on this day. A story is told that once the infamous highwayman Swift Nick Nevison was on St. Helen’s Day, found having fallen asleep after drinking from the well, but still alluded capture after an ill attempted capture attempt by some local youths!

Hatfield’s St Helen’s well – rags tied after a service at the well although now not on St Helen’s day!

In Great Hatfield, Yorkshire, there St. Helen’s Well was restored on the 18th August in 1995 and since then on or near the feast day, a service is held at the well. Perhaps not the same as the times of old, and although no one betakes of the water it clearly has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the community.

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 survived: Lichfield’s Court of St. George

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Currently, towns and villages are awash with St. George’s day celebrations, this is a recent thing. For many years the day went without notice, bar a few scouts groups, but keeping the flame alight during those dark days was St. George’s court, Lichfield. A custom which continued since at least 1600.

If there was a competition to name the place outside of London with the most traditions in England, I am sure Lichfield would win it. What with commemorations of their greatest son, Samuel Johnson to the Sheriffs ride, with all sorts of pancake tomfoolery and mock courts and processions in between, Lichfield is the place to be. But despite these rich traditions, there it has never paraded in any pomposity but lays on the laughs. This is not to say it treats these traditions with a lack of respect, but have realised or such customs to survive they have be enjoyable.

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Under ancient regulations set up by Edward VI, Lichfield’s mayor was also Lord of the Manor and thus was entitled to call a Court Baron and View of Frank Pledge.

Frank Pledge was a system whereby small groups of people were bound to and mutually responsible for one another. Court of View of Frankpledge meant that male subjects of over fourteen years swore allegiance to the King and if any disputes arose within the group the court settle by the View of Frankpledge. Nice idea but totally defunct, but that does not stop Lichfield. Each year officials are appointed and a jury selected and sworn in. None of the attendees take the job seriously although the ale taster was very happy to fully fulfil his job! This was no jingoistic flag waving overtly patriotic event though comical plastic St. George’s Day hats were made available and everyone wore a red rose. No one was making a point…well actually they were…

Court up with it

I arrived at the Guildhall to find nearly all the seats were gone…this is a popular fixture, often people go each year. Why? Well it is not to see court matters as the event is purely ceremonial and has no powers at all! A roll call of all citizens who should attend is read out, most of which do not attend..especially on a week day but are fined a groat…let me see I do have one somewhere!

The court consists of the Mayor, sheriff, the steward, High constables, Pinners, Ale Tasters, Bailiff, Dozeners and Pinlock Keepers are there giving their reports for the year. Such strange names you may say what did they do? Well Commoners – took care of the common lands, Pinlock Keepers tended stray animals, and Dozeners maintained general order in the ward of the city assigned to them…or they should do, all they hear now are complain..comically of course!

The Court started like any normal court, with the audience being called for order and the court standing for the ‘judge’ except most were wearing plastic St. George’s Day hats. A jury stood to hear complaints although they did not appear to take action.

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Court in the act

The first to take the stand to read their report were the high constables. Amongst a number of comical observations and an obvious in joke reference to a spate of wallet thefts, a valid point was made. Being very pertinent to readers of this blog ‘why does to cost to police a procession but it’s free for a riot?’

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In stormed the ale tasters waving their flags and proclaiming independence for Market Street even waving their own currency. They again worked excellently a comical team and it was evident they were regularly looked forward to. A Laurel and Hardy-esq pair of characters – one even donned a moustache and the other scratched his head to emulate them too – their discussion riddled with local political jokes was rapturously received. A pint was poured for the ‘judge’ and the clerks as they discussed their grievances. The pint was found to be more than adequate.

At the end refreshments were served and the loyal toast raised and then ended a great hour or so of entertainment…but no actions taken…I think?

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Custom demised: Clementing and catterning

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Cattern and Clemen, be here be here! Some of your apples and some of your beer!”

It is unusual to find two days which become tied together in folklore and belief – obviously there are the obvious Christian festivals, but for a long time St Clement’s Day – 23rd November and St Katherine’s Day – the 25th of November became unified as a season for mainly children to beg. Often this was for fruit and nuts and was once down in churchyards associated with the saints. Henry the VIIIth banned the practice in churchyards…yet outside it could continue.

Plot in his History of Staffordshire 1686 notes:

“a Pot is marked against the 23rd November, the Feast of St. Clement, from the ancient custom of going about that night to beg drink to make merry with.”

An 1914 article in by Charlotte Burne in Folklore called Souling, clementing and catterning – three November customs of the western Midlands emphasizes the wide range of begging chants for this custom:

“Clemeny, Clemeny, year by year, Some of your apples and some of your beer I. Up with the ladder and down with the can ! Give me red apples and I’ll be gone !”

Or “Dame come down and deal your dole ! And the Lord have mercy on your soul! “

Or “We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door, But we are neighbours’ children whom you have seen before.”

Or “The master and the missis are sitting by the fire, While we poor children are a-trudging in the mire. The lanes arevery dirty, our shoes are very thin, We’ve got a little pocket to put a penny in! “

Or “Roll, roll ! Gentleman butler, fill the bowl! If you fill it of the best, God will send your soul to rest ! If you fill it of the small You shall have no rest at all!”

Or

“If you fill it from the well God will send your soul to Hell!”

The range of chants is interesting and it is clear that some overlapping with souling, itself only 22 days earlier is evident. Indeed, the distribution geographically shows overlap. The custom was particularly strong in the midlands – Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire. Indeed it was in Staffordshire that the last clementing custom existed. It is thought that the employment of nail and chain makers in the industrialised areas may have caused the frequency of the celebration of St. Clement being considered the patron saint of blacksmiths.

Indeed, it is Staffordshire-Shropshire boarders where we see record of the last surviving Clementing. Unsurprisingly it is a school. The Stourbridge Express of 27th November 1965 reported:

“that over 60 children at Enville School celebrated the Feast of St Clement in the traditional manner on Thursday. The feast which symbolised the gathering of the apple crop, was revived by the headmistress Miss Steward in 1961. The children marched to Enville Hall where they sung the Clemeny Song, they then received an apple each. Afterwards the butler, Mr Longbottom showered the children with hot pennies.”

These pennies were placed on a heated shovel and tossed into the air. It was a self-conscious effort for the owner of the hall obviously with an eye for the quaint but perhaps one which was doomed to disappear as the estate changed. Indeed in correspondence with Mrs Sandy Haynes, archivist to the Enville Estates she believed the custom continued until the 1970s when the school was closed..certainly it was still listed in some early 80s folk custom books such as Bernard Schofield’s 1981 Events in Britain who adds:

“St Clement’s Day Ceremony Enville. A procession of children from the local school proceeds to Enville Hall where the Clemeny-song of the district is sung. They are given an apple apiece and then scramble for hot pennies.”

However it was probably extinct by then. Recently I have read of a revival of sorts by the teams behind the Hastings Bonfire, although this time there are no begging children and probably few apples!

Custom survived: Leek Club Day

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The Staffordshire town of Leek nestling on the edge of the Peak District looks like a place which should preserve some old and curious traditions. One of these is Leek Club Day. A custom, despite being largely little known outside of the town, it is not mentioned in any customs books I am aware of, is worthy of standing up there with similar events

A Leek of Faith

The day begins with all the local churches and organisations such as Cubs, Scouts, Guides and Brownies assembling in the Market Square. Here hymns were sung and prayers given…then it was off. The procession snakes around the town pronouncing their faith and a colourful visage is created. Each church and organisation rallies beneath their banner which are held high proudly as they processed. The custom is simply a walking exercise – hence the name Walking Day – and was one of a number of similar customs, often around Whitsun time. Indeed like the Whit Walks famed from Chesterfield to Manchester, many children attend in their first Holy Communion dresses and hence once it was called Cap Sunday around the early 1800s because girls wore white caps. These caps appear to have disappeared.

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Culture club

The first thing that you experience is the sound of the bagpipes and occasional glimpse on the horizon. Then drums. Then as the procession nears the bright colours of the church banners – St Matthew’s Meerbrook, Waterhouses Sunday School, All Saints, St Luke’s and St Paul’s, Youth of Leek, Community of St Mary, Trinity Church, Edward the Confessor’s Parish Church, St John the Evangelist, St Edward’s Mission Church and so.

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Each of these banners were held high by proud members and pulled along by ropes attached to some of the attendees. I was particularly interested to see what appeared to be Maypoles with their ribbons attached and decked in flowers being carried aloft.

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Nearly each church, group or club, was ushered in by its own band – brass, wind and percussion – sometimes provided by the scouts or guides although they themselves formed a large contingency carrying their rolled standards. One of the best, unsurprisingly perhaps, was the Salvation Army who produced stirring music for their march. A sea of sound, a soundwave, passes you and then fades in time for the next one…and so it continues for about 20 minutes.

The formality of earlier years has perhaps waned, some children were dressed up, mainly those in the Scouting and allied organisations, but few adults. However, I noticed that the wearing of roses was undertaken by one group.

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In this day and age when individuals can be afraid to be proud of their beliefs it is good to see that Leek’s club day being still embraced by the churches around the town as a great celebration. It still appears to be going strong over 100 years later and despite what one correspondent to the BBC website said in the 1980s:

“I have been in Club Day and I liked it. It makes your legs tired though, but the party is good.”       

Custom survived: The Abbot Bromley Horn Dance 100th Post!

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An obvious choice for the 100th post but there is something mesmerising about this perhaps the oldest dance ritual in Europe. Many have said this was the first custom which made them fascinated in our strange customs, such as Averil of the excellent Calendar Customs website.  My first experience is back in the 1990s and I travelled from Bristol to see it! It is perhaps one of the most instantly recognisable and iconic, with its olde world dress and impressive reindeer antlers- the horns- which are danced with.

A horny subject?

How old is it? This is a moot subject and depends on whether you need hard evidence. The earliest reference is in Plots 1686 Natural History of Staffordshire, but there reference of a hobby horse being used in 1532 with ‘six men carrying rain deer heads’ but that does not necessary mean the dance is that old. More convincing is the evidence of the Carbon dating of the Horns, which dates them to the 11th century, 1056 more accurately, suggesting an Anglo-Saxon origin perhaps. It has been suggested that it may have pagan origins, certainly it is significant that reindeer would have been extinct by the 11th century. Does this suggest the custom had a Norse origin, as reindeer are still extant there? Did the horns come later if so why? Some authorities had related the custom to privileges from the time when hunting was undertaken in the nearby Cannock Chase. Interestingly, the appointment of a forester continued until the 16th century and that they were called the Forester of Bentylee and it is the name of Bentley which continued organising the events until 1914. Coincidental perhaps?

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Keeping on dancing

The horn dance as Plot noted is on Wakes Monday which is after the first Sunday after the fourth of September. It’s a long day…the antlers are removed from the wall location early at 8 am after a blessing at the church, where they lay for 364 days a year and the dancing begins. Already there is a sizeable crowd ready to watch as they weave in and out of themselves on the green as the six dancers face each other and try to avoid the heavy horns, weighing around 25lbs, clashing. Interestingly, red deer antlers are used when the team perform outside of the village making witnessing the custom in situ more special.

The dancers have a quaint dress which might suggest evidence for an early origin but sadly these have a fairly recent origin, 1880s by the vicar’s wife, and before then they would wear normal clothing.

Clashing horns

Then off they went around the Parish, stopping in back lanes and open spaces to hypnotically play their tune and do their dance. One of the notable locations is Blithfield Hall. Here one can get a view of the dancers without the throng of observers and often photographers and get a real feeling of its ancient mesmeric nature.

There are twelve dancers, which consist of six horn carriers, an accordion player and unusually two children one with a bow and arrow and the other a triangle. There is also a Fool, Maid Marian character and Hobby Horse, features of Morris teams across the country

Then at eight in the evening the horns are returned back to the church a service is undertaken and its over for another year.  What is splendid about the dance is its simplicity and authenticity, as the author of a piece in the Times from 7th September 1936 wrote:

“The whole thing is done unassumably and with a quite purposefulness which is the keynote of the whole proceedings. One feels they are not dancing for joy or self-expression, but going quietly about a task which must be accomplished with necessary fuss.”