Category Archives: Surviving

Custom survived: The South Queensferry Burryman

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At the time I was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe – but that’s another story – and as a break from the incessant publicity I decided to take myself to find the Burry man. These were the days before the Internet and asking at the Tourist Information in Edinburgh they thought it was some sort of Fringe event..but I thought it is only a few miles out I would try and find it.

The Burryman is perhaps the most bizarre of our customs. A man covered head to toe with burrs with a flowery hat of roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. No skin is visible. Just a slit for the mouth. So much that his humanity appears to stripped for him, from a far he is most alien only a cummerbund adorned with a red lion suggesting he is human. He walks with two smartly dressed attendees, who help him hold onto to two hydrangea filled poles.

I located the Burryman easy enough propped outside of a pub like a rag doll. He appeared to acknowledge me but did not say. A few moments later a man appeared with a glass of something – whisky –  what else? Of course drinking the Whisky was a challenge; he only had a slit for a mouth. A straw was provided and it was steadily consumed..one of many it would appear.

As I followed him around some local children cheered his arrival, others watched from behind their parents more suspiciously. The lack of sound perhaps making it more curious for unlike every other similar custom, there is no associated music, no accordions, no violins, no bagpipers and no Morris!

Burry little clear on the origins

History is silent on its origin. Being linked to the local fair, which although medieval in origin only established a charter in 1687 suggests that it dates from then. Very unlikely I would feel and the two has become coincidentally associated. Some state it has a 900 year origin but it only has a recorded history since 120 odd years ago. Interestingly, the date 1687 was when the town became a burgh – burgh – burr – was this a local joke go on and on?

The Burryman is clearly a very odd folk figure. If there was a list of scary English folk figures he would be up there with the Straw bear and Bartle. Indeed, some believe that was part of its function, a mechanism to ward off evil spirits. One belief is that he is a sacrificial scape goat, much akin to the theory of Burning Bartle and the custom’s date being close to the ancient Lammas it is not difficult to reason with its association with harvest fertility, rebirth and regeneration. Certainly, the lack of speech and painfulness of the whole process suggests sacrifice as Brian Shuel notes in his 1984 Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain:

“It has to be said that by the late afternoon the Burry Man’s attendants were proping him up. Exhausted and full of whisky he was extremely relieved to get back to the Town hall where they stripped him in moments and left him comatose in his underpants for ten minutes before his wife, Julia, managed to prod him back to life. Suddenly he revived and in no time was himself again.”

But why here and why no-where else? Well it was found associated with Scottish fishing communities on the Moray Firth and was used to protect against poor fishing seasons. In Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire in the 1860s and their Burryman was on horseback and travelled through the town with a piper. In Buckie it appears to have been only done in response to a failure of the fishing fleet but curiously it was a Cooper who was wheelbarrowed around the town.  Queensferry is near the Sea so it is understandable it would survive there. But why the burrs? The provision of whisky is said to give the provider good luck; a clever way to ensure a free supply.

See the source image

Burrly able to move

There are many foliage people – Jacks, Straw men etc – but the Burryman has got to be the most strikingly unusual and uncomfortable. He is covered head to toe with sticky flower heads of the burdock. These being collected on the Friday morning before the parade These burrs, of which 11,000 is the average number which cover him, would be almost impossible to bear on a person’s normal clothing so he is covered head to toe in thick longjohns, vest, heavy sweeter and a balaclava which in August must be just as bad as being covered it spikey foliage! The burrs also cause the wearer to walk awkwardly with an open leg gait and arms outstretched which adds to the curious appearance! As if being covered with burrs and wearing a balaclava is not bad enough the Burryman has to walk a seven-mile route which usually takes nine hours!

The whole event begins in the Staghead Hotel at around 7am. The Friday previous the Burryman collects burrs and places them on newspaper make A3 size burr squares their natural Velcro like ability enables them to form ready-made fabrics. Overall 25 are made. The would then be placed on the volunteer and slowly but surely he becomes the Burryman. His first stumbling steps make it to the Town Hall where traditionally he receives his first dram of whisky.

Only locals can be the Burryman and despite the discomfort they are repeat performances one man Alan Reid having the pleasure for 25 years. He was only a few years from retirement when I ‘met’ him in the 1990s. Since 2012 an Andrew Taylor has the honour.

Burrly there!

I spent a couple of hours in the middle of the day which the Burryman, watching as he was greeted with great enthusiasm from pubs, shops, passerbys and a local factory. At lunchtime his attendees arrived at a local pub, where after having some difficulty getting him through the doorway, left him in the hall way again propped against the way – he could not sit down. Half an hour passed and he was still there but appeared like a forgotten rag doll! After a number of drams he looked decidedly jaded, although his foliage had jet to droop! In the bar I managed to speak to renowned custom hunter Doc Rowe and it is great to know Doc has returned regularly ever since. He was particularly amazed when in less than a month later he recognised me at Abbott Bromley at the Horn Dance and the mad search for customs has not stopped since!

With the modernity’s shadow of the Forth Bridge looming over the town, the curious juxtaposition survival of ancient and modern are very clear here. As the bizarre Burry man parades pointlessly around the town – the fair it was associated with long gone – it is evident that the locals need him like they would the whiskey he imbibes or the cars they drive. He is part of the fabric of the community. A mysterious almost mesmerizing old custom, one which would drag people back to see it again. It has been over 20 years since I experience the Burryman and I feel a revisit is long overdue!

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

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

Thomas Jones’s Will

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

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

A day to remember

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

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

Hearts and Flowers

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

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

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

Keeping up with the Joneses!

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

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

Thomas Jones Life and Soul of the Party

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

20th September 1900

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

Party’s over

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

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

Flower of youth

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

 

Custom survived: Biddenden’s Chalkhurst Dole

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“There is a vulgar tradition in these parts, that the figures on the cakes represent the donors of this gift, being two women, twins, who were joined together in their bodies, and lived together so till they were between twenty and thirty years of age. But this seems without foundation. The truth seems to be, that it was the gift of two maidens, of the name of Preston ; and that the print of the women on the cakes has taken place only within these fifty years, and was made to represent two poor widows, as the general objects of a charitable benefaction.”

So records Edward Hasted in his History of Kent in 1812, about what is perhaps the most famed of annually distributed doles that of the picturesque Wealden village of Biddenden; which happens every year on Easter Monday. It is a custom which features in virtually every book on calendar customs but why?

Two rectangular cakes, one showing two women apparently conjoined at the shoulder and the other one damaged in such a way that it is not clearly apparent whether the women are conjoined. Each cake has the word "Biddenden" written above the women.

The earliest surviving depiction of Biddenden cakes, 1775. The figures are shown as conjoined, but the names, ages and 1100 date are not shown source Wikipedia Public Domain

Two’s company

T. F. Thistleton-Dyer (1911) in his British popular customs past and present tells us:

“The cakes distributed on this occasion were impressed with the figures of two females side by side, and close together.”! Amongst the country people it was believed that these figures represented two maidens named Preston, who had left the endowments; and they further alleged that the ladies were twins, who were bond in bodily union, that is, joined side to side, as represented on the cakes ; who lived nearly thirty years in this connection, when at length one of them died, necessarily causing the death of the other in a few hours. It is thought by the Biddenden people that the figures on the cakes are meant as a memorial of this natural prodigy, as well as of the charitable disposition of the two ladies.”

Local tradition records that the benefactors of the charity were Eliza and Mary Chalkhurst, the name Preston has never been traced locally, who gave their lands those twenty acres to the poor on their death in 1134. Now there is nothing unusual in sisters joining giving monies this example however is possibly unique – the sisters were conjoined twins – as shown by the biscuit or cake given out. They lived jointly to the age of 34 with one dying and the other giving up her life at the same time.

The custom has changed a little over the years as Hasted again notes that:

“Twenty Acres Of Land, called the Bread and Cheese Lands, lying in five pieces, were given by persons unknown, the yearly rents to be distributed among the poor of this parish. This is yearly done on Easter Sunday in the afternoon, in 600 cakes, each of which have the figures of two women impressed on them, and are given to all such as attend the church; and 270 loaves, weighing three pounds and an half a-piece; to which latter is added one pound and an half of cheese, are given to the parishioners only, at the same time.”

The following account was written 1808 to be provided as a broadside which featured a woodcut of the twins and a brief history of their alleged story was sold outside the church at Easter:

“A Short but Concise account of Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst
who were born joined together by the Hips and Shoulders
In the year of our Lord 1100 at Biddenden in the County of Kent, commonly called
The Biddenden Maids
The reader will observe by the plate of them, that they lived together in the above state Thirty-four years, at the expiration of which time one of them was taken ill and in a short time died; the surviving one was advised to be separated from the body of her deceased Sister by dissection, but she absolutely refused the separation by saying these words—”As we came together we will also go together,”—and in the space of about Six Hours after her Sister’s decease she was taken ill and died also.
By their will they bequeath to the Churchwardens of the Parish of Biddenden and their successors Churchwardens for ever, certain Pieces or Parcels of Land in the Parish of Biddenden, containing Twenty Acres more or less, which now let at 40 Guineas per annum. There are usually made, in commemoration of these wonderful Phenomena of Nature, about 1000 Rolls with their Impression printed on them, and given away to all strangers on Easter Sunday after Divine Service in the Afternoon; also about 500 Quartern Loaves and Cheese in proportion, to all the poor Inhabitants of the said Parish.”

Copies of this account are still distributed. What is interesting as this is the first to make mention of the names of the twins. Did it invent them?

Two’s a crowd

The dole has had many threats put upon it partly as a consequence of its size and fame. In 1656 the Rector, a John Horner, then the rector of the parish, claimed the Bread and Cheese lands as being given to augment his glebe, but the Court of Exchequer did not agree.

Many villages had doles, indeed the majority provided for their poor, so it surprising to record that the dole became increasingly more and more popular. In the late 1700s for those attending the service were given six hundred cakes whilst ironically only two hundred and seventy loaves of three and a half pounds weight each, with a pound and a half of cheese, were given in addition to the parishioners. It was clearly more popular outside of the village. For example the following from Hone’s Everyday Book account of 1830 states that the custom:

“attracted from the adjacent towns and villages by the usage, and the wonderful account of its origin, and the day is spent in rude festivity

By 1872, 538 loaves were being distributed. Indeed as an article in 1992 by Jan Boderson called  The Biddenden Maids: a curious chapter in the history of conjoined twins in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine stated that these large crowds became problematic and at one occasion an unruly mob had developed that was kept in order by the church wardens using their staffs to keep them back. All this did not impress the church and By 1882 the village’s rector again, this time Rev Giles Hinton had petitioned to abandon the dole stating that:

“even to this time is with much disorder and indecency observed and needs a regulation by His Grace’s authority.”

His Grace, Sancroft Archbishop of Canterbury allowed it to continue minus the free beer! It was also at this time that it moved from the church to outside. Very wise! Even so it is worth observing that even in 1902 as a picture by noted photographer Sir Benjamin Stone showed three severe looking policemen watching the assembled queue. By this time the date had changed and the workhouse its location.

When in 1907, the Chulkhurst Charity was joined with other local charities with similar purposes, to form the Biddenden Consolidated Charity the distribution survived where in other villages such moves removed the ceremony. Even when the charity’s Bread and Cheese Lands were sold for housing the custom survived indeed the profitability of the land provided the opportunity for better provision. As a result not only is bread, cheese and tea provided but cash payments are made at Christmas. Again, the custom survived the 1940s and 1950s food rationing where cocoa replaced the cheese until it resumed in 1951.Finally the closure of the village’s bakery in the 1990s which for generations had provided the bread closed…the dole soldiered on.

Custom survived: Royal Maundy Thursday

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Maundymoney (14)

Royal events are a special kind of event. When combined with a calendar custom it can really create a spectacular event, certainly in the amount of interest shown by all and sundry and especially the world’s media. Whereas the Haxey Hood might create a few minutes on the TV’s local news; Royal Maundy can sometimes be fully televised. Royal events also attract a special kind of person as well.

Royally treated!

Top Tip. Royal events attract a lot of people as well. Maundy is perhaps the most pre-Televised event as well. So you have to get there early. My first experience of Maundy Thursday was at Derby in 2009 which in retrospect was a good choice as a later Maundy did not let me experience much of the custom first hand.

It was an early Maundy. March had a considerable chill exacerbated by standing around for so long for the Royal party’s arrival. The experience being improved by the crowd and their curious idiosyncrasies. Royal events attract a certain type of follower. Royalist to the core. Dedicated to the Queen and very keen to show it. You would not see a Morris follower decked out in whites and bells turn up to May Day event waving their white handkerchief at the dancers or a Mummer fan dressed in drag awaiting the arrival of Dame Jane! No! But here surrounded me were the Royal followers, the Queenies, some were draped in the Union flag, another head to toe in a suit made from it. A small group of women had T shirts with the Queen emblazoned on it. However, my attention was drawn by two elderly men standing patiently at the front of the barrier. One saying to the other as they unfurled a large union flag ‘this will attract her’ as if somehow the Queen was a like a raging bull to the old Jack! They conversation then went rather curious “I wonder if it’ll be her Wakefield one said to another, could be her Manchester. I bet it’ll be the Westminster replied the other then.” What were they talking about, it was only when the Queen did arrive in a blue ensemble, that it was clear it was her clothing they were referring to and the locations the times they’d be at Maundy! All the time they referred to her as Liliput, an apparent childhood name of the Queen, said as if they’d just finished high tea with her that morning!

To be a Royal must require a great deal of patience I would reckon. The flag did attract here and she made a beeline to the men. Surprisingly to me one of the men struck up a conversation with her and she responded warming, the other dug into a bag, emblazoned with a flag of course, and brought out a large table book on the British Landscape, the sort of thing on remainder bookshelf. She took it graciously as would be expected, and handed it to a Lady in waiting. No wonder she has so many houses with rooms in it – she’d need it for all those gifts.

This is a stage managed event and even those not decked in the appropriate clothes were provided with a flag to wave at the Monarch when she arrived. Maundy is like so some of rock tour; the Queen appearing at every Cathedral in the Kingdom like some aged rocker ploughing out their greatest hits. However, there is no sign of a faded career here, the monarchy really pull out all the stops of pump and circumstance and the roadies are London’s Beefeaters.

Money, money, money

Many years ago my father was clearing some old draws of a Georgian desk at work once and found a Queen Anne coin. It was unusual having a large number 2 on one side and the other the Queen with a wreath around it. It took a few years to find out it was a Maundy coin, one of the first set because until the 18th century during William and Mary, the coins given were circulating coinage, the modern coinage has not changed par the monarch’s head of course. These coins struck in denomination of one penny, two pence, three pence and four pence and presented in a leather purse. The money counts up to the monarch’s age and another purse has a £5 coin and 50p. Originally, the poorest received it but today it those in the church communities recommended by the clergy for their service to the church and community.

Maundymoney (25)

Maundy, maundy, maundy

Based on Jesus’s direction, maundatum, at the last supper, originally the ceremony was one for high churchmen such as Archbishops and the Pope and involved the washing of feet, called pedilavium, as well as giving alms to the poor. This ceremony then moved to the monarchy The custom started with possibly the least likely Monarch – King John. Much maligned he distributed clothes, food and forks (!) to the poor in the Yorkshire town of Knaresborough as well as washing their feet. This was in 1210. However, by 2013 whilst visiting Rochester in Kent, coins had been minted for 13 poor residents to represent the twelve apostles. By Edward I the monarch was giving monies exclusively only on Maundy Thursday. The custom evolved over time, by the late 1300s, Edward III was giving money related to their age. He was fifty and gave fifty pence to fifty poor men, however, it was not until Henry IV, that this feature now part of the current distributions became established.

The custom survived pestilence and Reformation. During plague times, the Lord High Almoner was sent and nosegays of flowers held to cover the smell of those feet that needed to be washed! These nosegays survive as part of the custom today. Despite differing views both Mary and Elizabeth both performed the custom, although the washing of the feet started to become less done by the monarch. However, Charles I was less enthusiastic and indeed Charles II appeared to use the custom as a means to restore popularity of the restored Monarchy after the Restoration. The custom however was sporadic whilst James II performed it, William III less so and by this time, the washing of the feet had disappeared and more often the Lord High Almoner did it.

By the 20th century, the Monarch was absent. The royal presence returned with George V in 1932 and as such we could see this as a revived custom. The Monarch has continued the custom with Elizabeth naturally being the longest running. Originally the custom was held in the London area, the moved to alternating between another Cathedral and Westminster. Then developed into a grand tour of all the Cathedrals in the Kingdom…finishing in 2017 with Leicester!

Maundymoney (19)

Leicester was the second time I attended and the crowds were much larger, much much larger! Unlike Derby, where one could get close to the actual ceremony the whole area around the cathedral was blocked off but a huge screen showed all of it. Realising the route wouldn’t afford a good view of the Queen, I though where is she coming from? The train station and so made my way there to find no-one there. Was she arriving there? Yes, there was a man dressed head to toe in the Union flag again clutching flowers. We did not have long to wait soon all the regular passengers disappeared and the Queen arrived. She could be clearly seen if only I had a large flag or a book on British landscapes!

Custom survived: Curry Rivel Wassail and Ashen Faggot

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Curry Rivel Somerset

“Wassail O Wassail all over the town,                                                         

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown,                                                   

The cup it is made of the good old ashen tree.                                            

  And so’s the beer from the best barley,

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O here we take this door held fast by the ring,                                        

Hoping Master and Missus will let us all walk in And for to fill our wassail bowl and sail away again.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O Master and Missus have we done you any harm                                          

Pray hold fast this door and let us pass along                                         

And give us hearty thanks for the singing of our song.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail

Wassailing is becoming all the rage in folk circles and beyond. It seems that like Morris dancing in the 20th century, wassailing is the 21st century revival equivalent. However these revived wassails appear to be those associated with trees, the original surviving one of which I discussed here, there does not appear to be a similar revival in house visiting wassailing, which one could claim probably was the original approach. Therefore when given the chance to experience one of the few surviving wassails one jumps at the chance. Such happened last Twelfth Night at the small village of Curry Rivel in Somerset.

Wassail in

Arriving at the King William IV I found a group of men standing around. “Are you the wassailers?” I asked “Yes” they replied “Do you mind if I join you and take some photos?” They were a bit perplexed by my enquiry but the reply was positive‘Yes that’s okay as long as you don’t mind being shoved in the back of the van?!”

Next minute I noticed I was in the back of transit van with six strangers. We were off to pick up the oldest member of the group, a sprightly 93 year old Harry Richards, one of them joking that the thud was the van knocking him over! A joke of course and no disrespect was intended as these men whose ages ranged from 20s to 60s had a great pride in their venerable leader.

Soon as he was in thou, sitting at the front, not crammed in the back, we were off. I had no idea where we were going and indeed at one point we appeared to go off-road, but that’s Somerset roads for you. A large crowd had congregated at the first house and as they assembled with their venerable leader at the front. Then they opened their mouths and the wassail song came out.

Curry Rivel Somerset

I was impressed how forceful it sounded considering this was the first time they’d sung it together – they had small wordsheets to help them but only one member appeared to be struggling to remember and it didn’t really notice.

The door opened with a warm welcome and the wassails entered. Inside across the kitchen table was a fine spread of food and drink. The Wassail evokes a party atmosphere in the village and to be one of the houses chosen is a great honour especially as it is thought that the wassailers would bring good luck as emphasised by the toast given by their leader

“God bless Master and Missus and all the family. Hoping they’ve had a Merry Christmas and wishing them a Happy New Year.”

After satiating themselves at the first house it was off to the next. Back in the van. Hold on as we swerved a tight corner. A makeshift light being provided by a blinking torch or on occasions someone’s lighter. When we arrived at the next house, we leaped out into the gloom of a remote house. Here an even warmer welcome and spread was available. Then off the next and the next. At each more and more food, and more and more alcohol was being taken. This meant that the groups ability to hold on to the string and sides of the transits less easy and some thought it was best just to sit down. .

The food was indeed quite exquisite and it was obvious that the great honour of being a wassailed house asked for more than just supermarket fayre! At one of the houses an actual wassail bowl was provided which the members took a sip readily from. The wassail bowl being of course mentioned in their song but surprisingly absent I thought! Despite the amount of alcohol imbibed the song did not waver in its nature and indeed appeared to get stronger and song with more vigour! The final stop was one of the younger members of wassailer where again like in all the houses I was warmly welcomed and treated.

Ashen faces

Back at the William IV pub faces were squashed against the windows awaiting the wassails. They were late – I was glad I had attended the wassails and not waited at the pub – then a window was opened and their final wassail was song

Despite accounts to the contrary the Ashen Faggot is not carried around by the wassailers but awaited them at the bar. The Faggot is a fine construction, made traditionally by the same family in the valley below the village.

It consisted of ash logs tied together neatly with ash withies, nine in all, a magical number. Walker in her Old Somerset Customs tells us that it was once as long as five feet and four oxen were employed to drag it to the hearth…no wonder it wasn’t carried! Now it’s a more manageable foot or so to fit into the rather small fireplace at the pub.

Curry Rivel Somerset

It is evident that the Ashen Faggot is an older custom, possibly pre-Christian. This is especially evident in Curry Rivel when it is claimed that its burning has happened for at least 200 years but the Wassailers only date back to 1900.

The Ashen Faggot is a Somerset and Devon tradition and Curry Rivel is not the only village to have one. In a way it is the local version of the Yule log but were as this has died out in Britain, the Ashen Faggot survives and indeed in some places has been revived.

Curry Rivel Village

Muriel Walker in Old Somerset Customs tells us that the Ashen Faggot was said to have been first made by the shepherds to warm the baby Jesus, another version tells that Joseph had collected the bundles and Mary had lighted it to wash the baby Jesus.

Ashen faced?

At the allotted time, Mr. Richards was assisted carrying the Ashen Faggot to the fireplace and saying a few words placed it in the fireplace giving it a ceremonial kick into place.

Willey notes:

“after it has been burnt none of the remains are saved for the next year’s faggot. Free food and drink go around once the faggot is on the fire; the food is bread and cheese etc. and usually the brewery to which the inn is tied supplies a free firkin of ale. The landlord makes up a hot punch based on scrumpy (rough cider) and a scrumpy and wine mixture – home-made wheat wine and scrumpy is particularly potent and highly recommended by the locals. Each time a band on the faggot burned through the landlord was expected to drain a pint of beer or cider.”

Curry Rivel Somerset

Apparently the brewery ceased the free beer a few years back. Yet despite this there was a real party atmosphere and as the embers flickered and faded from the old faggot I made my goodbyes and left. As Willey notes:

“In a village where, during the same period, other traditions, for example the annual ploughing match, the Silver Band, have completely disappeared as casualties of suburbanization, the survival of wassailing in any form is perhaps both curious and heartening.”

Indeed it is and it is evident from the warm welcome and full spreads from the houses that there is no fear of wassailing dying out any time soon in Curry Rivel. A tradition grasped by the younger community as well and a great tradition with some great people as well.

Curry Rivel SomersetCurry Rivel Village

Custom survived: Colchester Oyster Proclaimation

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Customs which are firmly attached to a specific date are today a rarity; many have now slipped the more convenient nearest weekend – but not Colchester’s Oyster Proclamation, itself a bit of a rarity being an Essex custom. Firmly fixed to the first Friday in September originally the first of September. Why September? Well this is the first month with an R in it!

Now there is another aspect which means witnesses the custom can be a problematic – it is held on a boat in the middle of the estuary. However, this year for logistical reason it returned to shore.

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Shellfishly does it!

Dating from 1540 it is a colourful event full of the right level of pomp but not pompous. Afterall you cannot think yourself too important when you are swaying in the sea. Indeed, The Times in 22nd September 1928 recorded:

“The company were about to drink a toast in gin, in accordance with ancient custom, when the table containing the tiny glasses, filled win gin, overbalanced ad fell, crushing to the deck, together with the small cakes of gingerbread provided for the occasion. Amid hearty laughter fresh supplies were soon forthcoming and the ceremony concluded in the time honoured fashion.”

An article in the Daily Mail suggests the custom can be even more fraught with problems noting:

The oyster-opening ceremony has taken place on the sea for more than 400 years – but not this year and possibly not next year. Mrs Lewis said it was uncertain whether the tradition would even return to the water next year, when she is out of office – because of health and safety. She said: ‘The jury is still out on that one. If the next mayor wants to go back on the water, there are a couple of health and safety issues that need to be addressed. ‘The mayor nearly fell overboard last year so we had to look at the risk anyway.”

The Daily Mail had more to state:

“But because last year’s mayor almost fell into the water as he moved from boat to boat, the ceremony – which dates back to 1540 – was instead staged on land. 

And to make matters worse, the current mayor, Conservative Sonia Lewis, suffers from seasickness, further scuppering any chance of holding the ceremony on the water….Speaking about the decision, Mrs Lewis said: ‘I have never been able to attend the opening of the fisheries because of my inability to tolerate tidal waters. I confirmed on more than one occasion that I was prepared to stand down from the ‘opening of the Colchester oyster fisheries’ this year.”

So that year a Mayor nearly overboard, a seasick and a non-oyster eating Mayor made that year’s event one a memorable one in its possible 2000 year history – a claim deriving from the Roman’s love of Oysters and the significant presence in the Colchester area. Certainly it can be traced back possibly further than its 16th century record possibly to the time when the town confirmed in 1189 by King Richard I that to raise money for a crusade, its control of fishing ‘from North Bridge up to Westness was established. It is worth noting however, the Mayor came over her dislike of oysters stating:

“She had said she would not eat the oyster, describing herself as ‘more of a fish and chip girl’ but she dutifully quaffed it down with a grimace.”

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Being on land does create another obstacle. Part of the ceremony was the Mayor to dredge in the first catch of Oysters…unless he was planning to scout around on the beach or have a long net, that was not going to happen. The solution was to get a local oyster chef in and to give the Mayor the first oyster on a plate to eat.

I was informed that it was alright to attend and take photos and that it would be in the Country Park. Making my way there it was not difficult to work out where it would be happening – a small white marquee at the end of the park near the sea – planned just in case it was wet!

Inside was a hive of activity, a man was shucking oysters in remarkably quick time whilst nearby a lady was carefully filling glasses of gin and another cutting slices of gingerbread. Soon all the attendees turned up with the Mayor and at the allotted time they assembled on a bank overlooking the bay. The curious spectacle of the Sergeant with his mace and the Mayor in full regalia attracted quite a few onlookers. Then the bell was rung and the proclamation read. A toast to the queen and the Mayor tasted the first oyster of the season.

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Gingerly with the gin and gingerbread? .

Soon as the proclamation was made trays of gin and tonic and gingerbread where handed around. I didn’t partake of the G and T but the gingerbread was delightfully moist and flavoursome. I asked why it was gin and gingerbread. No one was sure but it was suggested that the ginger in the gingerbread settled the stomach on a stormy sea and the gin masked the fumes of the boat!

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The ceremony it appears has to be checked out by her majesty herself. Before it a letter is sent to The Queen. In 2004 it is said to have read:

“According to ancient Custom and Charter dating back to Norman times, the Mayor and Councillors of the Colchester Borough Council will formally proclaim the Opening of the Colne Oyster Fishery for the coming season and will drink to your Majesty’s long life and health and request respectfully to offer to your Majesty their expressions of dutiful loyalty and devotion.”

She couldn’t attend but it  was a great pleasure to attend this year’s proclamation, eat the gingerbread and be for once able to hear what is said rather than trying to hear it from the shore.

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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!