Category Archives: Staffordshire

Custom contrived: Grindon Hedgehog rolling, Staffordshire

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Yes you did read that right! Hedgehog rolling. However, whilst you may think you have identified one of the main sources of their unwanted decline and reaching for animal welfare organisation phone number; let me explain.

Grindon is a very small Peakland village, in Staffordshire, but close to the Derbyshire border. It seemed pretty remote especially considering the road taken by the SatNav took a narrow overgrown lane with grass in the middle. Remote places create remote traditions and here Grindon claims hedgehog rolling. Don’t worry no real hedgehogs were involved they use cones.

 (Hedge) hogwash?

The village claim that hedgehogs were kept as pets to remove pests from the home and that they were especially trained to take part in the race. They go on to claim that Lewis Carroll came to Grindon’s hedgehog rolling day and got the idea for the Flamingo and Hedgehog Croquet game in Alice in Wonderland. They also claim the tradition died out early last century. However in Grindon Action Group committee revived it in 2002 and it has gone on from strength to strength since then. This claimed origin all sounds more than dodgy to me and I have been unable to provide any evidence of the custom bar its’ appearance in the Ashover May Day.

Go the whole (hedge) hog

These cone hogs all have painted faces with names beginning with H, Harriet, Herbert, Henry…you get the idea. For these ‘hogs’ which are rolled nowadays are giant fir cones imported from France and they are brushed around the village course by ‘rollers’ armed with traditional besoms (brooms).

The rolling sandwiched between other various events, a fine display of Morris from Black Dog Molly, egg and spoon sack races etc came in age group rounds or heats.

Sonic the hedgehog!

Picking ones’ cone or rather hedgehog and broom appeared to be important to winning. Too large and too heavy and the cone was difficult to manoeuvre similarly if the broom had too long a head it too much force would be produced. Thus it looked easier than it was as the teams had to circumnavigate around a rectangular shape – although the children only needed to go half way! Despite this there didn’t appear to be much difference in the vigour between the ages although sometimes too much force meant the cone pinged off and away from the route.

Making a clean sweep of it

In the Men’s heat it was good to see one of the Molly dancers there, but despite Molly dancing being associated with brooms it appears not to have helped and he loped into last place. Local rivalry holds strong here and it was evident that reputation was important as last year’s winner triumphantly came second!

Perhaps the hottest heat was the husbands and wives which showed there was no love lost and everyone to themselves as the men speeded ahead leaving the women far behind. A gentle hit being more successful in getting you to control your hedgehog. I would feel that a real one would be slightly easier to control.

The day ended with a tug of war, enthusiastically grasped by young and old. The Grindon Hedgehog rolling may be a local event but it was a very welcoming and unusual one so if you happen to be there in July use your map to find it and get involved.

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Shrovetide Fair

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I’ve decided to do sometime a bit different for this month’s post which is to divide two customs into its traditional part and its contrived form.

Lichfield as I said before is justly proud of its customs and I have had the pleasure of attending all of them (and it is only the Bower and Court of Array I have yet to record in this blog). The last Lichfield custom I had yet to attend was the Pancake Toss and Shrovetide Fair

This blog post as the page records is about the Shrovetide Fair and its traditional opening.

A fair market

The shrovetide Fair is often the earliest traditional fair in Britain if the date of Shrove Tuesday is early. It was established by the 14th century survived the Reformation and Parliament to be given a Royal Charter of James 1 which then set the date that it was proclaimed on Shrove Tuesday, usually started on Ash Wednesday and finished on Friday. By the late 17th century it was known as the Old Fair.

As the fair was held on the eve of Lent it capitalised on the needs for people who would observe fasting over this period. And thus it was once famous for the sale of cured fish. Tolls, which were recorded as 4d, record that salt fish, salmon, herrings, eels, stock fish were common. Detailed records show that in 6000 red herring and two barrels of herring prepared in stock were purchased in 1367 by Halesowen abbey. A fair record of the mid 1520s show that the stock was diversifying for Sir Henry Willoughby of Wollaton Hall not only included fish and seafood: eels, herring, salmon, mussels, but also honey, oil, and currants. By the mid 1820s the Ash Wednesday fair was dealing in sheep, cattle, horses, cheese, and bacon.

The official day of the fair changed a number of times from Shrove Tuesday to Ash Wednesday until the 1870s when St Mary’s church complained the fair which did sit beneath it was disturbing the solemnity of the Ash Wednesday service; although this was not permanent until 1890. Over time though it was clear that the mercantile opportunities of the fair had been reduced and by the late 1980s only a pleasure fair was held which then continuing for the rest of the week. This has continued to the present day.

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Fair appraisal

As the Civic procession made their way to the market square for noon to open the fair. Now as noted above this fair has changed over the years but I could imagine it was a bit more exciting years back for now it only consisted of a few small rides. In previous year the Mayoral party decamped on a exciting pulsating ride like the Waltzers as above. The year I attended the group then met up beside heady delights of spinning teacups (!) with the fair organiser as the Towncryer proclaimed the fair open he discussed the Pie Powdre which was for

“the redressing of all grievances or complaints that shall happen to arise during the time of the fair”

This was established in 1464 Now despite I am sure some complaints being raised at the fair over the grabbers or the size of the candy floss, the court no longer sits. At the point that the proclamation was made the bells of St. Mary’s church which beamed over the small fair rang out. The Mayor then invited the children for their free ride – there wasn’t exactly a rush the cold and inclement weather had rather discouraged a crowd of onlookers. A small somewhat reluctant toddler was removed from their pushchair into a cup close by the Mayor – it looked very bemused – and the Mayor wisely jumped out to be replaced by the girl’s mother. As regular readers of my blog will know I do enjoy a Mayoral fair opening but this one really did have the feel of Trumpton about it as the party slowly glided around in those heady teacups!

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One ride was enough and the party then processed back to the Guildhall where those who attended were given free victuals –this in itself was one of the oldest surviving traditions recorded at the Ash Wednesday fair of 1747 as ‘simnels and wine’ – I enjoyed a rather nice cup of tea and a peace of that delicious traditional Simnel Cake.

I have always noted not only does Lichfield have some great colourful customs but they also are very welcoming and inclusive of strangers with great food and drink! It’s so great that Lichfield has so many customs as well!

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Pancake Toss

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I’ve decided to do sometime a bit different for this month’s post which is to divide two customs into its traditional part and its contrived form.

Lichfield as I said before is justly proud of its customs and I have had the pleasure of attending all of them (and it is only the Bower and Court of Array I have yet to record in this blog). The last Lichfield custom I had yet to attend was the Pancake Toss and Shrovetide Fair

This blog post as the page records is about the Pancake Toss. After the civic opening of the Shrovetide Fair the Mayor and Town cryer returned to see the pancake race.

Trying to find how long this race had been done is difficult. It is not mentioned by any folklorists  and everyone I asked at the event suggesting that it probably arose in the 1980s. Of course it is a clever addition to the probably receding custom of the Shrovetide discussed above and ensures a fair crowd around for that..ahem…fair.

I arrived when Shrove Tuesday was at its earliest it seemed a very cold and snowy early February day, this year it was a very pleasant and warm March. Despite the wet and wintry nature, people were there to race and watch. Those in fancy dress were certainly better off!

It was a well organised event, there were the ‘traditional’ steel barricades down the side of bore street and some very clear guidelines:

“Runners will line up at the start and the Starter will declare: – “Are you ready?”  And then give the starting signal, at which point runners MUST TOSS THE PANCAKE ONCE BEFORE SETTING OFF.  

Runners will run down Bore Street, with the pancake in the frying pan; flip the pancake once at the designated point before sprinting to the finishing line.

At the finish the first runner across the line will be declared the winner.

In the event of a tie, the 2 runners will enter the final heat until one overall winner is declared.

In the event of a dispute, the Mayor’s decision is final.”

Despite the sleet and snow, it didn’t dampen the onlookers enthusiasm as they cheered on the runners. If I am to be honest I wasn’t 100% sure they all tossed as well as each other -but as I remembered ‘the Mayor’s decision is final’ – but their enjoyment was clear to see.

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There a plenty of pancake races of course and it appears to be a growing trend but I think this maybe the only one where the finishing line tape is held up by two beadles in full regalia who still manage to keep the tape tort and hold onto their maces! The prizes were particularly impressive with a frying pan attached to a plinth!

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!

 

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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