Tag Archives: calendar customs blog

Custom survived: London Harvest of the Sea Festival

Standard

“O Lord Jesus Christ, who after thy glorious resurrection didst prepare by  the waterside a breakfast of fish for disciples that had toiled the whole night  long; Come amongst these thy servants who toil beside our river day by day  to provide food for their fellow men, and bring thy blessing both on their  work and on their lives, O Lord our Saviour and help for ever. Amen.”

The Billingsgate Market Prayer – specially written by the late Very Rev. E. Milner-White

London has many traditions and customs as indeed this blog has detailed. One of the most visually arresting and unique is the Harvest of the Sea Harvest festival which is celebrated at St Marys at the Hill tucked away up the narrow Lovat Lane in the shadow of London’s famed Monument and a few yards from the Old Billingsgate Market.

May be an image of 1 person, food and indoor

I remember as a child once being brought early in the morning to see this vibrant fish market in action. The seafood smells, the sounds and sights of the white coated porters rushing around delivering their valuable fish stock was a heady and confusing. Little did I know that a few years later this venerable market, which had traded here since Viking times, would move forever more from its famous location to the Isle of Dogs and the noise and smells lost forever here….that is until the second Sunday in October when the smells and memories return to the church nearby. 

Plenty of fish in the sea!

The custom is famed for its seafood display which is not only visually impressive but fills the air with a fresh maritime aroma; a unique experience in a London church. Brian Shuel  in his 1985 a Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain states:

“Early in the morning a vanload of fish arrives to be laid out just inside the door of the church. In 1984 it took four men just two hours to create the astonishing display.”

He continues to state that one of the porters remarked:

“We counted fifty-four varieties of fish and shellfish…something like £500 worth of fish donated by the Billingsgate Fish Merchants.”

The display was similarly adorned with a large display of fish and seafood, with a separate stall of prawns, shrimps and cockles to the side. Nets were hung above and over a considerable monument which loomed above and crab and lobster pots – indeed two live crabs sat rather dazed upon the later awaiting their fate. 

May be an image of 4 people, people standing and indoor

Fishing around

I spied beneath the stall, one of the traditional bobbins. These were unique hats once worn by the porters to enable quick and efficient movement of their wares. Recalling my childhood visit I do remember the considerable skill involved and was in awe of those men rushing around carrying several boxes of fish balanced on their heads. The hats themselves are of wooden construction, covered with canvas and coated with bitumen to make them long lasting. Held together with studs and understandably having a brim to prevent any unnecessary fluids reaching the face, they are now rare pieces and in the modern Billingsgate not required.  The hat belonged to Mr Billy Hallet, who was one of two senior porters in white overalls who obliged for a photo. 

But one may ask why were they needed then? The original Billingsgate and the areas around was largely cobbled and so wheeled trolleys would be difficult to maneuver. I was informed by one of the oldest ex-Porters there, Reg Condon, of a tradition which enabled them to get up the more challenging hills locally. Upon reaching such a local, a cry of ‘hill up’ would be called by the porter. This then awoke the various rough sleepers who rested in the area who would then appear to help push the porter up the hill! They would then would be rewarded a shilling for their help. Apparently, this was a long standing tradition known by the homeless community who would make sure they were local to help and receive their monies.  

The service begun with a traditional blessing of a small section of the fish by the Bishop of Birmingham – an interesting choice perhaps being a clergyman from a landlocked location. This blessed firsh  was later returned to the whole display, with a remark that this was probably more desirable as it had been blessed.  The service had other unique maritime features such as the unique Billingsgate Prayer and prayers for Seafarers as below:

“For Seafarers  O eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, rulest the raging  of the sea: Be pleased to receive into thy protection all those who go down to  the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters. Preserve them  both in body and soul; prosper their labours with good success; in all time of  danger be their defence, and bring them to the haven where they would be;  through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

O God our heavenly Father, we pray to thee for all seafarers and those who serve their needs; for keepers of lighthouses and the pilots of our ports; for all who man the lifeboats and guard our coasts; for the men of the fishing fleets and those who carry out the services of docks and harbours; for the guilds and societies which care for the wellbeing of fishermen and their families. Bless them according to their need, and shield them in all dangers and temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

There was an uplifting rendition of the “For those in peril on the sea” even more poignant with the aroma of the sea drifting across the congregation. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem with the new amendments and soon food and drink was being served to the departing congregation. 

A different kettle of fish?

How old the current custom is is difficult to ascertain. It certainly is not mentioned in any of the books on customs and traditions from the 1800s or early 20th century. I spoke with a Mr Reg Condon who had worked in Billingsgate in the 50s, 60s and 70s and was 85. He could recall that the first service at St Mary’s was in the 1960s and that he did recall it being held in St Magnus. This would be in line with the reference in the Times of the 3rd October 1922 which describes a similar event. It seems likely that the custom moved perhaps after the second world war to its current location. Although St Magnus state that the service moved in 1923 to St Dunstan in the East and then to St Mary at Hill, Alternatively, Brian Shuel  in his 1985 a Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain states:

“This unique Harvest Thanksgiving began in the 1930s.. The Church Army  approached the market and suggested it as a charitable exercise. Sam Shepherd, a former Superintendent of the market told me they were delighted to agree. The occasion continues on the same basis; the Church Army still claims the fish and distributes to the needy.”

He adds surely with a tongue in cheek:

“I was grateful to accept a pair of dover sole myself, from the artistic fishmongers, who recognised my own unfortunate circumstances.”

Today a considerable queue forms and many happy congregations left with some quality seafood ready for that special occasion and despite the concerns over overfishing the display is as remarkable as ever. 

Custom contrived: October Plenty

Standard

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“October Plenty is such a special way to celebrate the Autumn Harvest and show off the beautiful colours of the season’s fruit & veg piled high on our traders’ stalls. We are really looking forward to welcoming the event back to the Market this year and sharing festivities, stories and dancing for a lovely family event. The Corn Queene and Berry Man are always particular favourites of ours and we are excited to host visitors as well as the many different characters in the procession!”

Kate Howell, Director of Communications and Engagement at Borough Market

The autumn period is packed with curious customs and celebrations associated with the changing seasons; from harvest festivals to Hallowe’en, from Diwali to Bonfire Night. In recent years, a celebration of that quintessential season fruit; the apple has attracted its day. Attempting to join many ideas together in one place; as a sort of smorgasbord of autumn, is the Lion’s Part’s October Plenty, which is undertaken in London’s Southwark. Indeed, as the organiser’s website records:

Over 20 years ago, fired with enthusiasm for amazing autumn festivies that people celebrated world wide and influenced by the organisation Common Ground, whose creation of Apple Day has inspired so many, I gathered with local friends and members of the Lions part and we launched October Plenty. At the heart of it was the iconic Corn Queene. Since then, in collaboration with Roots and Shoots, Lambeth, through David Perkins and Sarah Wilson, she has become an annual wonder.”

A bit corny!

The most remarkable feature is the Corn Queene whose appearance at the front of the Globe marks the beginning and is central to the procession. The website for the event records how this Corn Queene has been made since 2004 and that:

“she has emerged each year at Roots and Shoots in Lambeth and, like another mythical old bird, she takes form, rises, briefly reigns, before dissipating in a great shout…..Her demeanour can seem bemused, condescending, even dismissive, of the antics of much smaller humans.”

What is interesting about this Corn Queene is that although clearly a modern invention it has the feel of something more ancient and authenticate. She plays a central role in the October Plenty festival and her annual reincarnation is a central point and theme to this custom. Each year although she follows a similar design, she is also different; she metamorphosizes and since 2003 she parades on an old market barrow. She is described as:

“The Queene’s facial features are very colourful, often with an interesting complexion and skin texture. Her nose generally resembles a small gourd (regrettably warty at times) and she almost always has decidedly hot lips. Lashes can be long, perhaps enhanced with extensions (wire, right). Beauty spots have appeared now and then and she has favoured ear decorations on a number of occasions (small gourds or radish, maybe).”

Originally it was made by the actors on the day then as the event became more successful and merged with the markets own Apple Day since 2012 it had allowed the Queene to take place under cover in a then newly refurbished area of the Market; taking around 3 or 4 days to build her. 

The procession has also changed and since 2019, the Queene now emerges from Lambeth, passes the Tibetan Peace Garden/Imperial War Museum via Lambeth Walk.

On my visit this Corn Queene was indeed a very odd, comical but still rather eerie ‘creature’ looming over the crowd that had assembled for the start of the procession. Joining her was the equally odd Berry Man..now we had seen him before at the beginning of the year as the Green man of course and this autumnal version adorned with shades of brown and orange and suitably seasonal fruits and berries was perhaps even more impressive. It certainly turned a few heads as he, the Corn Queene and the Mayor headed a procession of players down the streets on the southbank and into the market. 

Here one could sample that wonderful autumnal produce, and the assembled crowd certainly took advantage of that opportunity as the market was bustling. Soon as a large enough audience had developed the actors presented them with Tudor dancing and a Georgian play which was the correct mix of bawdy and bizarre. Once the play had been presented the procession reformed and made its way to the George Inn, a delightful galleried inn which has survived considerable progress around. Here there was conker competitions, apple bobbing, a wishing tree….and that traditional staple of a countryside custom – Morris dancers.

October Plenty is certainly a fun and colourful custom; completely made up with a feel of authenticity, a modern take on the Harvest home perhaps, and one might add playing a vital role in our modern life. Especially in the city. For in our modern city lives it’s important to understand the countryside and how we are very dependent on it. October Plenty provides a historical nod to how this was done in the past in a very modern spin. When seasonality often lost in the 21st century, when everything is available irrespective of the time of year, October plenty allows the city folk to reconnect in a fun way, with the season and the wonderful colours and bounty that autumn provides.

Custom demised: Great Crosby Goose Fair

Standard

Many readers will know the Tavistock Goosey Fair, certainly Nottingham’s Goose Fair but Great Crosby once a small village, now a considerable settlement, seven miles from Liverpool also had its ‘Goose Fair.’

Notes and queries records that the feast took place when the harvest is gathered in about that part of the country, and so it forms a sort of “harvest-home” gathering for the agriculturists of the neighbourhood. Thus, it appears to have developed from a feast day and was associated with St Luke’s Day or rather the nearest Sunday. Notes and queries continues to state that:

“It is said also that, at this particular period, geese are finer and fatter after feeding on the stubble-fields than at any other time.”

And the comments that:

“Curious to say, however, the bird in question is seldom, if ever, eaten at these feasts.”

A reason for this being given that George Henderson’s 1911 Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, states that:

“At ‘Goose Fair’ at Great Crosby, Lancashire, the goose was held as too sacred to eat.”

Whether is true is unclear and it may have been that it was simply a trade fair and once does not eat the profits. Similarly when it demised is not known. 

Custom transcribed: London Rathayatra

Standard

Occasionally London surprises you and you discover a fairly long running and sizeable custom such is the remarkable Hare Krisna Rathayatra custom which fills the streets of London with incredible sounds and sights in what could be described as London’s most vibrant religious customs. 

Hare Hare

The custom begun when eight devotees and their congregation organised the first procession from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square in 1969. Devotee Shyamasundar Dasa constructed the first chariot for Lord Jagannath making the deities of Jagannath Beladeva and Subhadra ‘so beautiful that everyone will be attracted to them’ as Indian Guru Srila Prabhupada instructed, and these are the deities which still process today. The Back to Godhead Magazine stated:

“Londoners still have not recovered from that initial shock of that transcendental sound vibration in 1969. The Radha Krishna Temple (music band) has not let them”

In those first headlines in national papers read “Krishna Chant Startles London”. In those early years the congregation was small around 30 but their presence was increasing particularly when in 1970 a new 50 foot chariot was built and  Hare Krishna devotees overtook Leicester square with huge flashing billboards announcing “Holy Jagannath Car Procession”. The Godhead magazine, the magazine of the Hare Krisna movement, stated

The second annual London Rathayatra festival happened just like that. Two years before, when six disciples of the Hare Krsna Movement first invaded British soil, the newspapers declared: “KRSNA CHANT STARTLES LONDON.” Londoners still haven’t recovered from that initial shock of transcendental sound vibration. The Radha-Krsna Temple (London) hasn’t let them. The devotees there (now numbering near thirty) have continued to bombard England with Hare Krsna on records on television and radio, in the movies, in newspapers and magazines, and daily the sankirtana party of saffron-clad chanters dance their way down Oxford Street.”

In 1973 the Rathayatra was attended by His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada Founder Acharya of ISKCON. It was reported that:

 “although Srila Prabhupada was 74 years of age, he chanted and danced throughout the entire procession. He ignored the elegant seat on the chariot, which was offered to him, much to the delight of the assembled devotees. This festival was Srila Prabhupada’s triumphant moment looking out at thousands of people chanting the Holy name in Trafalgar Square.”

A future leader of the Hare Krishna movement Maha Vishnu Swami organised the event and donated £10,000 pounds to publicise it. The next day Guardian newspaper read “ISKCON Rathayatha is rival to Nelson’s column” and the Srila Prabhupada stated that:

“Just as the residents of Puri compared the Rathayatra cart to Mount Sumeru, the residents of London considered the cart rival to the Nelson Monument.”

By 1985 the Rathayatra now proceeded from Marble Arch to Battersea Park, allowing for a larger festival at the end of the procession and here for a number of years a big festival was established in the park. In 1996 the procession had swelled to around 8000 members and by 1999 it had returned to its original route combined with the fact that Trafalgar square was traffic free and it was attended by 10 Sannyasis, the movement’s senior leaders and was filmed for an international TV series Abhay Charan. 

By 2004, two more chariots were built and thus the procession consisted of three chariots and in 2008 the oldest chariot was rebuilt utilising the skills of the Queen’s wheelwright to construct the huge wooden wheels in the traditional style with the rest of the work such as the painting done by volunteers. In 2018, the custom celebrated its 50th anniversary. 

Hare along to see

I stopped outside the Ritz as a wave of Hare Krishna devotees flowed down from Marble Arch. First one noticed the sound of chanting ‘Hare Krisna’ and a blur of distinctive orange as large numbers of people danced in and out of the crowd. As they got closer one could see that the procession was not only made up of joyous dancers but consisted of portable shrines, individuals dressed as deities and of course the enormous chariot which soon loomed into view and filled the sky. 

The chariot is a remarkable construction, although initially disappointed that there was only one as I was under the impression there would be three. A huge wooden construction covered in maroon, yellow and blue proclaiming Hare Krishna, covered in garlands upon which sat a smiling figure of the late spiritual leader Srila Prabhupada; there in spirit if not sadly in body. The canvas top of the 

Soon the massed procession passed by Eros and the intrusive neon commerciality of Piccadilly Circus which in a way was a curious juxtaposition; but that is London after all. After around an hour the whole procession and the cart arrived in Trafalgar Square where the celebration continued. There was more dancing, weaving in and out and chanting. However, the most remarkable site became the queue for the free food; a common feature of the Hare Krishna movement. 

All in all, the procession was a remarkable visual and auditory experience. One of the great customs of the capital and one which clearly drew many people from different backgrounds together to celebrate life and devotion. Long may it continue.

Custom survived: Lee Gap Fair, Yorkshire

Standard

“Stallions proud and ribbands prancing

Joyous fiddling and dancing

Isaac Horsfield who was there

He made sport for all the fair.

A handsome show of china ware

Of much variety was there

Cheesecakes plenty might be got

Gingerbread and good tom-trot.”

 

Lee Gap Fair was founded over 800 years ago been chartered by King Stephen in 1139, thus it can rightly claim to be England’s oldest horse fair only the local church is older and the two are linked.  Traditionally the fair took place on the Feast of the Assumption (15th September) and finished on the Nativity of the  blessed Virgin (8th September) and thus was linked to the church.

Making leeway

The fair became a major event People travelled vast distances to attend the fair. In the Middle Ages Lee Gap Fair attracted merchants from France, Spain, Florence and the low lands of Germany. Not only Horses bur cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock were sold at the fair.

Such was the occasion that people attending are said to have married or got their children baptised and hence the fair was good revenue for the church who had a priest on call the whole fair. Miracle plays were also performed to bring the faith to the masses.  The fair was owned by Nostell Priory until the Reformation when it was granted to a Dr Leigh and the fair moved to West Ardsley and took on his name although written as Lee and I am unsure where the Gap came from. However, there is some confusion over whether the Nostell Priory Fair and the current fair are the same continuation as their fair was five days starting on St Oswalds’s feast day on the 9th not 24th and early writers state that it was discontinued ‘centuries ago’.

Interestingly, the Charter does not tie the fair to one site only that it be held in the parish of Woolkirk or West Ardsley. Which is good because its most traditional site was lost to building many years back forcing a new location to be held. However, not only is its location fluid but its function too. Originally it was wool fair only becoming a horse fair as the need for horses through increasing warfare and agriculture forced the necessity.

Fairly well met

On first arrival you think there cannot be a horse fair here its too urban as you survey the neat gardens, hedges and waxed cars in their drives. And indeed, the first site was built upon a few years on. However, soon there appear to be see a parade of cones and then a small handwritten sign Lee Fair at the side of a farm lane. Going down here past some rather large houses the lane snakes down into a small, enclosed field and here 100s have gathered. A detailed sign at the gate informs me of what I can and cannot do there – no racing of horses and silly string stand out!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A fair assessment?

Attending a horse fair is one of those rare experiences. A completely unvarnished natural organic custom devoid of any tourist pretensions. Indeed, at one point I think I am the only non-traveller there! Certainly, the only one with a camera around my neck which makes me self-conscious as I snap away but despite one boy asking for a photo; I appear invisible and inconsequential to those assembled. Such events always appear to be associated with problems

The horse fair is a window on another world. A world within a world. A world divorced from the mainstream. The stalls mainly sell materials which only suit its close clientele – metal churns, horses’ bits and various nick-nacks. There are of course cloth stalls but again in the main their apparel appeal to those who are there particularly the young girls who view these events as both a fashion parade and an opportunity to meet boys. Indeed, I came across and listened in on one such approach by a boy who runs over and asks ‘excuse me but my friend really likes you will you talk to him?’ None of that grabbing that was parade in the populist media a few years back.

Standing on the corners one comes across groups of old men. They had seen it all before. They appear the more traditionally dressed in their tweeds and barbers catching up with old friends and looking on at the young folk and their courting. Unlike a more formal selling environment with an arena and animals paraded in and out it is in these huddled groups that the horse trading is done. So often seeing or hearing a deal can be a rarity.

Walking around I noticed lots of strands of green, pink, blue materials and soon come across some younger kids attacking each other with kit and then looking like they immediately regretted it and set about removing it from each other’s hair! The silly string! Looks good they heeded then warning!

Every now and then a horse rushes by ridden, trotted or on occasion on its own! The crowd parts and everyone watches – again I am sure they said there was none of this-but I am glad there is because it adds some degree of excitement and authenticity.

Occasionally there are some other animals – chickens and caged canaries seem to be popular, and I see a number wandering around with the birds in colourful quaint wooden cages. The community are keen to maintain their traditions but unlike other customs where such things are kept up, here it seems natural and functional, rather than tradition for its own sake.

A fair representation?

Sadly, fairs and antisocial behaviour seem always to go hand in hand. One only need to delve into the records to see. The earliest being the 1315 Wakefield  Court Rolls which records three complaints brought against John  de Heton. He was accused of assaulting a man and a woman and overturning a stall, causing the owner damages and injuries totalling a loss of forty shillings. Regular accounts in the local press record thefts, selling of stolen horses and pick pockets litter the 19th century press accounts. Fairs always attract all types and certainly over the years drunkenness, damage to property and indeed bloodshed forced the local residents in 1656 to petition the West Riding justices to have it abolished stating that it was a nuisance and Wakefield market could provide their needs. It did not work of course, especially as the local community had not grasped that the fair whilst open to them was not really for them. By end of the 18th century the fair did indeed last from 24th August (St. Bartholomew’s) until 17th September. As the twentieth century developed it was moved to have the fair only on the starting date- 24th August and its last day and thus gave the name early Lee and Later Lee.   Alcohol was highlighted as a cause for much of the issues and as such there is no license to sell it at the fair.

Fairly well remembered

Julia Smith in the excellent 1989 Fairs, Feasts and Frolics spoke with a Mr J A Rawson, who she met at the ‘latter Lee’ in 1985. She said that he remembered when the fair was on the Baghill site. She says:

“He had been coming regularly for almost sixty years, and was only fourteen when he bought his first pony there for £4. 10S. He recalled once buying a foal and taking it home on the bus! He had spent his working life down the local pit and drove a pit pony when he first went underground. In order not to miss the fair, he would work the night shift and so have the day free. In the past a Welsh dealer had brought ponies and kept them on the moors at Hartshead to fatten them up for a few weeks prior to the fair, and Mr Rawson had often helped to drive them from there to Lee Gap. A Welsh dealer had been at the fair last year but had not returned this year, much to the disappointment of many of the visitors. Forty or fifty years ago, Irish traders also came to the fair bringing crates of geese and pullets, and the locals would buy a goose from them to fatten up for Christmas.”#

Little appears to have changed over the years since Smith’s description although gone have the:

“big chromium-plated gypsy caravans with their displays of Crown Derby china and their owners sitting on the steps, ‘as if they were showing off their homes and vying to outdo each other’.”

But the display of traditional wooden caravans appears to have increased in their absence as the community looks to continue its traditions. Everything else is almost identical to what greets the curious today she states that:

“the edges of the field were lined with horse boxes, vans and trailers. Horses for sale were tethered at the sides of them and tack, leather and ironwork were displayed on the tail-gates which were turned into makeshift stalls. Some of the traps and carts were decorated with delicately painted designs, I saw little actually changing hands, apart from a pedigree pup and a painting. Men huddled together in groups, deep in earnest conversations; it was here the real trading was done. At various intervals a shout would go up, a path would be cleared down the middle of the field and a horse would come galloping through the crowd, its bareback rider putting it through its paces. Buyers and sellers appeared to know each other, and there were shouts of encouragement or criticism as horse and rider sped by. Two minutes later and warning shouts would proclaim the presence of a huge shire horst being trotted, its owner running furiously alongside. Things would

quieten down for a little while and the huddles be reformed, but before long there was the crack of a whip and a pony and trap would dashdown the field.”

Interestingly unlike other fairs Lee Gap has not been swallowed up by its fringe activities and whilst Smith could watch:

“a man swallow and regurgitate a seven foot long chain! In the afternoon he escaped from a series of bonds and chains, accompanied by a good line in patter.

The business of the day was decidedly the buying and selling horses; four small swing-boats and a couple of slot machines were only concession to entertainment, apart from the escapologist of course.”

Today there are no fringe entertainments, certainly no miracle plays, only than the entertainment of meeting old friends, making new ones and silly string.

Of this buying and selling despite the lowkey nature of trading, I was fortunate to watch a number of deals which involved much too-ing and fro-ing, bluff and counter bluff, persuasion and the final slap of each other’s hands in a motion quite rhythmic and poetic. The deal being sealed and the horse sold.

It is a privilege to be able to see the Horse Fair, one which has remained unbroken for 800 years and whilst it may have its detractors its function being so pivotal to its community means it is a custom that on its own is in no danger of dying out as long as it is protected from those outside forces with their blinkered ways of looking at it!

Custom revived: Egmanton pilgrimage, Nottinghamshire

Standard

The UK has a number of pilgrim locations – Walsingham, Canterbury – being well known and each have their set days in which pilgrimage would be particularly valuable. Our Lady of Egmanton is not one of those places which comes to mind when the world pilgrimage is raised. But a pilgrimage site it is and for three set feast days in the year – it becomes the focus of those seeking devotion. Being a Marian shrine- the Assumptiontide – is the most important. Thus, on the first Saturday of August the church becomes a pilgrim site.

Lady Luck?

Why Egmanton? That is a good question. It is believed that the shrine was established when apparition of the Virgin Mary to a local woman in nearby Ladywood, sometime prior to the 12th century. A similar tradition is of course associated with Walsingham but there a firm date and name of the women are given. It seems a bit coincidental for the church which became a stopping off point for Walsingham to have a similar story. Come what may the shrine did become a site of pilgrimage. There is evidence of pilgrims is evident at the church with the discovery of pilgrim ampulla and the scratched crosses on the door jam said to have been done as evidence of the completion of a vow. Then in 1547 it was destroyed.

In many cases that would have been that if it was not for the Duke of Newcastle. He had a desire to restore the shrine to its former glory employing Ninian Cowper to improve much of fabric, repaint and return the effigy of Our Lady. Such a splendid job being done that upon opening the door and seeing it one is at first shocked by its splendour.

Once the church had been restored it seemed obvious that pilgrimage would be soon revived.  A Guild of Our Lady of Egmanton society was formed  in 1912 and regular assumption tide pilgrimages begun in 1929. The ceremony consists of Mass, outside afternoon procession of the effigy of Our Lady and benediction. with pilgrims coming from Leicester, Leeds, Sheffield, Lincoln, and more locally. A year later the Rev. Alfred Hope Patten, who had restored the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, made the trip along with a group of his people and gifted a banner to the church, which is still there today. Since then many other pilgrimages have been made to Egmanton. It has been a popular pilgrimage for members of the Anglo Catholic movement and on its Golden Jubilee in 1979, the High Mass was undertaken by the Lord Bishop of Southwell, the Rt. Revd. John Denis Wakeling. Even today those attending came from different both geographically and religiously with a congregation made up of High church Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Orthodox.

I asked the question about the relationship between the diocese, the local vicar and the use of the church for Anglo-Catholic services. I was informed that it had been a fraught one and originally, a vicar was appointed to close the church down as surplus to requirements in the 1930s instead this appeared to springboard the further revival. It has not been plain sailing since though with some incumbents refusing to attend and sitting in the vicarage when the pilgrimage was on. Today there appears to be a more ecumenical approach.

Lady Day

Bar a lady in the church, which was also open, it is usually only open Thursday afternoon, there was little sign that this was a pilgrimage day. I crossed the road into the village hall where a splendid array of cakes and food was being prepared including one of the most delightful pavlovas I had ever seen! Soon a few people appeared and became to make their way to the church. In the past there had been a formal procession around the village as described below:

“I visited Egmanton as a pilgrim on several occasions in the late 1980s and early 1990s and on a couple of occasions helped carry the portable statue of Our Lady along the village street and back to the church. It was all rather charming in a very Anglo-Catholic way –  some of the villagers getting on with their Saturday afternoon gardening as we pilgrims wended our way past, and some of the artificial silk flowers falling out of the holder on the plinth as we processed along…symbolic of graces bestowed by Our Lady I decided.”

I was told that in the 1960s the Marian statue was being carried into the church proudly when it hit against a low yew tree branch fell of its platform and smashed on the floor. The effigy had been borrowed so the congregation were keen to to repair it and fortunately it was put back together as good as new! This would happen before the service but the organisers this year felt that due to covid numbers may well be down and so it was not organised. Which of course was disappointing and one hope it returns in the near future. Today the pilgrims flowed many touching the carved crosses left by medieval pilgrims of the past.

The service begun with devotions to the effigy of our lady within the shrine beside the altar and one feels like we are brought back to the pre-Reformation time. Soon the church filled with incense and song. The most remarkable was an elderly lady who stood up and gave a spine-tingling Ave Maria….then after the service back to sample that pavlova!

All in all Egmanton pilgrimage can be seen as one of the purest of the revived pilgrimages. It isn’t overly gaudy or over commercialised but it fulfils the need to connect spiritually with a place, a moment in religious history, and it is more evocative because of it. A small pilgrimage perhaps but one which connects with the real heritage of our Christian past.

Custom demised: Gule of August and Lammas Towers, Lothian

Standard

“The herdsmen within a certain district, towards the beginning of summer, associated themselves into bands, sometimes to the number of a hundred or more. Each of these communities agreed to build a tower in some conspicuous place, near the centre of their district, which was to serve as the place of their rendezvous on Lammas Day. This tower was usually built of sods, for the most part square, about four feet in diameter at the bottom and tapering to a point at the top, which was seldom above seven or eight feet from the ground. In building it, a hole was left in the centre for a flagstaff, on which to display their colours.”

Scottish traditions - Lammas Day - History ScotlandSuch records an unusual custom in the Trans. Soc. Antiq. of Scotland, vol. i.  It continues to state:

“From the moment the foundation of the tower was laid, it became an object of care and attention to the whole community; for it was reckoned a disgrace to suffer it to be defaced; so that they resisted, with all their power, any attempts that should be made to demolish it, either by force or fraud; and, as the honour that was acquired by the demolition of a tower, if effected by those belonging to another, was in proportion to the disgrace of suffering it to be demolished, each party endeavoured to circumvent the other as much as possible, and laid plans to steal upon the tower unperceived, in the night time, and level it with the ground. Great was the honour that such a successful exploit conveyed to the undertakers; and, though the tower was easily rebuilt, yet the news was quickly spread by the successful adventurers, through the whole district, which filled it with shouts of joy and exultation, while their unfortunate neighbours were covered with shame.”

There appeared to be some competition arisen which may have lead to some desire to knock over the rival’s effort there for it continues to state:

“To ward off this disgrace, a constant nightly guard was kept at each tower, which was made stronger and stronger, as the tower advanced; so that frequent nightly skirmishes ensued at these attacks, but were seldom of much consequence, as the assailants seldom came in force to make an attack in this way, but merely to succeed by surprise; as soon, therefore, as they saw they were discovered, they made off in the best manner they could.”

The night watch would have a horn and this was called the “tooting horn,” which was described as a “horn perforated in the small end, through which wind can be forcibly blown from the mouth, so as to occasion a loud noise” And it said that there was need for great dexterity and that “they practised upon it during the summer while keeping their beasts; and towards Lammas they were so incessantly employed at this business, answering to, and vieing with each other, that the whole country rang continually with the sounds.”

The custom was organised and the report continues:

“As Lammas Day approached each community chose one from among themselves for their captain, and they prepared a stand of colours to be ready to be then displayed. For this purpose they borrowed a fine table-napkin of the largest size from one of the farmers’ wives within the district, and ornamented it with ribbons. Things being thus prepared, they marched forth early in the morning on Lammas Day, dressed in their best apparel, each armed with a stout cudgel, and, repairing to their tower, there displayed their colours in triumph, blowing horns, and making merry in the best manner they could: about nine o’clock they sat down upon the green and had their breakfast.”

There would still be concerns over attacks from other parties and thus:

“In the meantime scouts were sent out towards every quarter to bring them notice if any hostile party approached, for it frequently happened, that, on that day, the herdsman of one district went to attack those of another district, and to bring them under subjection to them by main force. If news were brought that a hostile party approached, the horns sounded to arms, and they immediately arranged themselves in the best order they could devise; the stoutest and boldest in front, and those of inferior prowess behind. Seldom did they await the approach of the enemy, but usually went forth to meet them with a bold countenance, the captain of each company carrying the colours, and leading the van. When they met they mutually desired each other to lower their colours in sign of subjection. If there appeared to be a great disproportion in the strength of the parties, the weakest usually submitted to this ceremony without much difficulty, thinking their honour was saved by the evident disproportion of the match; but, if they were nearly equal in strength, neither of them would yield, and it ended in blows, and sometimes bloodshed. It is related that, in a battle of this kind, four were actually killed, and many disabled from work for weeks.”

However it then states that:

“If no opponent appeared, or if they themselves had no intention of making an attack, at about mid-day they took down their colours, and marched, with horns sounding, towards the most considerable village in their district; where the lasses and all the people came out to meet them, and partake of their diversions. Boundaries were immediately appointed, and a proclamation made, that all who intended to compete in the race should appear. A bonnet ornamented with ribbons was displayed upon a pole as a prize to the victor; and sometimes five or six started for it, and ran with as great eagerness as if they had been to gain a kingdom; the prize of the second race was a pair of garters, and the third a knife. They then amused themselves for some time with such rural sports as suited their taste, and dispersed quietly to their respective homes before sunset. When two parties met, and one of them yielded to the other, they marched together for some time in two separate bodies, the subjected body behind the other, and then they parted good friends, each performing their races at their own appointed place. Next day, after the ceremony was over, the ribbons and napkin that formed the colours were carefully returned to their respective owners, the tower was no longer a matter of consequence, and the country returned to its usual state of tranquillity.”

When this curious custom died up exactly is unclear it was still being described in the 18th century but as a possible more ancient pagan custom it is a shame and surprised in some format it has not been revived!

 

Custom contrived: Annual service at the St Benet’s abbey ruin, Norfolk

Standard

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It would be hard pressed to find a more evocative and romantic site for a religious nestled in the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey is not only spiritual but a functional one because St Benet’s is the only Abbey in Britain never to be dissolved at the Reformation. This means to all intense and purposes when the lands were given over to the newly established Bishop of Norwich, he also became the Abbot of the Abbey and the local vicar the Prior, a detail we shall explore later. Therefore, not only can the custom be seen as a service of remembrance but a service to allow the rights of the Bishop to continue. However, this would suggest a long history but that is not true. Indeed, if the press are anything to go by the service was established as a publicity event. The Sunday Mirror of the 02 July 1939 records:

“Abbey Holiday Worship – Holidaymakers will, on the first Sunday in August, be the first congregation at St Benets Abbey, Norfolk, since the Reformation…the Bishop of Norwich has already held special services in the holiday camps who would otherwise not have time for worship.”

Sail in

In this first service one of the key features of the service was established:

“The Bishop of Norwich, as Abbot of Benet will travel by boat to the ruined abbey standing far from any road, on the banks of the river Thurne”

In a 1953 account this had become:

“a fifty-year-old wherry. Solace, sitting up for’ard in his cope and golden vestments, with his pastoral crook in his hand.”  

Not much had changed except he now sailed down from Horning and not Wroxham as in the 1950s…and seeing the power of the wind on the day I attended I am sure that was a sensible decision! However, this has become perhaps the most picturesque part of the tradition, many people coming to see the 150 year old wherry, a boat once common on the broads, but now much rarer. When I arrived there I was kindly directed to the landing point which was further up from the main ruin. There was a more solid mooring near to this and at first I thought this was the most likely location, the Bishop then procession through the ruins making a very good picture. However, upon surveying the location it would have been a long procession…as it was a long way over rough grass to the site of the high altar of the abbey’s church now little more than low rubble walls.

The arrival time was 3.15 but as the time neared there was little sign of the Bishop, just a few excited false starts – one actual wherry and others sailing boats…then the boat sailed into view. The first thing that caught the eye being indeed the Bishop, holding on with a great deal of pose but also tenacity as the wind blew again the boat with some force…indeed I was surprised he did not lose his mitre to the water below. Greeting him at the bank were two men dressed in cloaks who were said to be of the order of St Benet thus keeping the Abbey’s association with an order alive.

Down among the ruins

One wonders if similar issues happened in 1953 when the event received national press due to its attendees, the Illustrated London News of the 8th August 1953 recorded a royal visit:

“QUEEN ELIZABETH THE QUEEN’S MOTHER, AND PRINCESS MARGARET SAIL TO THE SERVICE AT ST. BENET’S ABBEY. 

ON Sunday, August 2, after unveiling a memorial to the nine men of Sandringham village and estate who died in the last war. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother with Princess Margaret and the Princess Royal took luncheon up the Bure in his yacht Capricorn to attend the annual open-air service at the site of the ruined St. Benet’s Abbey. This service, for holiday-makers on the Broads, was taken by the Bishop of Norwich, who is the titular Abbot of St. Benet’s ; and for this service he had sailed down from Wroxham in a fifty-year-old wherry. Solace, sitting up for’ard in his cope and golden vestments, with his pastoral crook in his hand. The Bishop preached the sermon and a special prayer of thanksgiving was offered for the armistice in Korea. A farm-cart was used as the pulpit and there was a congregation of about a thousand. There were very many boats taking part in the journeys to and from the service, and during it white sails could be seen moving against the sky at all points of the horizon.”

Since then, the farm cart pulpit has been gone replaced by a mighty cross cut from the trees of the Sandringham estate. I was told by one of the attendees that at the time Prince Philip when asked if they could use a tree from the estate said of course yes, but was shocked when he saw the size of it. It certainly is an impressive place to hold a service twixt the rubble ruins and the long brown grass.

Once the Bishop reached the ruined church the choir and local vicar joined him at the ruined gateway to process down the aisle and to the altar. The service continued a similar vein as a usual Anglican service, with the choir sounding very angelic as their sound drifted across the ruins and there was even a collection at the ruined doorway…easily avoidable if you wanted to unlike others!

However ,there were some more unique features of the service focused on its association with the order and rule of St Benet. Firstly there was a reading from the Prologue of the rule of St Benedict. Then the members of the community of St. Benet’s gathered at the cross facing the Bishop – called as he can be the Abbot and read the traditional Act of commitment, probably unique, of which the following were particularly unusual:

“Abbot: As the present day Community of St Benet’s, will you continue to foster the ancient traditions of worship, prayer and hospitality, upon which the Abbey was founded.” Community: With the help of God, we will.

Abbot: Will you support and pray for the Abbot in his ministry, and each other in mutual fellowship?” Community: With the help of God, we will.”

The service also had the Prayer of St Benedict and the Nunc Dimittis sung by the community with the choir. Then the service finished with a blessing with local vicar, or Prior as he was called in the service sheet, telling us to go in peace and serve the Lord.

The annual service, very much an important fixture in the church calendar locally, is not only a picturesque one but one which connects us back to times before the Reformation and allows us to bring these ruins back to life again.

Custom occasional: Corby Pole Fair

Standard

“At Corby near Rockingham, every twentieth year, the inhabitants assemble at an early hour, and stop up all roads and bye-ways in the parish, and demand a certain toll of every person, gentle or simple, who may have occasion to pass through the village on that day. In case of non-compliance a stout pole is produced, and the nonconformist is placed thereon, in a riding attitude, carried through the village, and taken to the parish stocks and imprisoned until the authorities choose to grant a dismissal. It appears that Queen Elizabeth granted to the inhabitants of Corby a charter to free them from town toll throughout England, Wales, and Scotland; and also to exempt them from serving on juries at Northampton, and to free the knights of the shire from the militia law. This custom of taking toll has been observed every twenty years in commemoration of the granting of the charter.—N. & Q. 3rd S. vol. i. p. 424.”

And much as the notes and queries records this is what greats the visitor today on Corby’s most important day.

Be fair

My first and at that time only experience of the Corby Pole fair was unsurprisingly 20 years previous in 2002. I had found out about it from Charles Kighty’s The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain which at the time was one of my sole sources for calendar customs and was curious to see this rare event. However, I must admit it did not impress; true there were the gates and the stocks, but no riding the stang, more of in a moment. It was to all intents and purposes it was just a big funfair sandwiched into a suburb. The sky was grey and the town busy. I did not find it an interesting experience. Thus 20 years later I was slightly wary of what I would experience. To be fair to the fair, I did not experience the traditional proclamation – which the book did not mention, and it was this I was particularly interested in experiencing!

Staying overnight within the village is to be recommended because then you can appreciate the rather surreal nature of being enclosed with a fair village. One of the traditions of the custom is the setting up of the barriers, the tolls, which are then covered with flowers. For 2022 these were set up in three places and decorated with foliage and children’s artwork. Being within the boundary of course also meant no toll!

Fairly early

Fairs like their proclamations and they are always colourful but I would say that Corby’s proclamation is one of the most interesting starting as it does at dawn with the chiming of the bells of St John the Baptist Church in Corby Old Village to gather all the village folk to hear it. I could not hear the bells but fortunately my alarm had got me up early enough and I made my way to the church following the then obvious chimes. There a fair sized congregation had assembled; many of which were press. At the foot of the church steps were three wooden sedan chairs as part of the tradition is the chairing of the proclamation party between the sites. This party consists of the vicar, the Mayor and the oldest resident of the village. Soon the bells stopped and a small choir appeared and started to sing; their sound magically swirling around in the air as the vicar read out the proclamation. Then Rev Paul Frost was given the honour of reading the Charter granted to the village in 1585 by Queen Elizabeth I. After it was read for the first time in public for 20 years of course; the three walked down and settled themselves into their chairs ready to be carried. There was a considerable amount of laughter and nervousness from all involved, as well as considerable press interest, as the volunteers grabbed each corner of the chairs and one by one, they lifted their charges up – first the oldest resident, an overjoyed June Thompson, then the vicar and lastly the mayor, Tafadwa Chikoto.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The crowd parted and off they paraded down the street to the next proclamation point – a local pub, the White Hart, located at another entrance. Here standing on a wall the proclamation was again read and the party moved back to their chairs…noticing the lack of volunteers I opted to help. Well, it would be another 20 year until I have the next chance and I do not honestly think I’d be able to carry the vicar. Plus I noticed it was downhill from here and surprisingly it was quite easy…and I hoped that it put a good word in for me ‘upstairs’. At the final pub, the Jamb, it had been moved to accommodate the radio show, the chairs were lowered for a final time and the proclamation read for the final time. Then it was time for another Pole fair tradition, missed last time also – the free breakfast! Rather surreally attended by Vikings, knights and ordinary people…

Pole axed!

T. F. Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1875 British Popular customs present and past notes that:

“Why it is held every 20 years has never been discovered, nor why it is called a pole fair. But one theory suggests that when the Danes settled in the area, naming Corby village ‘The BY of Kori’, they brought many customs and punishments with them.

One such punishment, which lends itself to the theory, was ‘riding the stang’.

This involved men who had committed minor offences being carried astride an ash pole or stang. Insults and missiles where then thrown at the punished as they were carried through the town or village.”

Further ‘The Rutland Appendix to Almanacks for 1826’ states

“They went on to describe the demands for tolls from every person who passed through Corby that day with non-payers being made to ride through the town to jeers and shouts from the locals as penance, followed by a period of time spent in the stocks.”

This was one of the aspects I had missed in 2002 and despite seeing the stocks there was no-one in them and at the point of entry I was half minded not to pay so that that I would have to be carried ‘riding the stang’…but I don’t think that was the done thing or not! Photos of the custom show up – including in 1982!

Twenty years on and there were new stocks at Stock’s Lane and plenty of people queuing up to be put inside them for their amusing photo. But would there be a stang? Then by chance I was standing by the stocks when three people arrived two carrying a pole between their shoulders…and then as modern electro soundtrack blasted out the entered into a fluid dance, weaving in and out of each other and the pole in an interpretative dance the aim to avoid the stang! Then after much toing and froing one of them was captured onto the stang and was raised into the air and carried to the stocks. It was certainly a very interesting way of keeping the tradition alive and one which was certainly an improvement from 2002 (I could not be sure that they did this then to be honest)

There was also the traditional procession with large figures of important Corby people, including Queen Elizabeth of course and a colourful interjection of Romanian folk dancers – who indeed added a delightfully unique experience at one of the stages. Later in the afternoon was the pageant, and after a technical issue, was a splendid re-telling of the Elizabeth charter giving in wonderful custom.

There were other traditions associated with the custom which continued – the ox roast and the greasy pole – however, unlike 2002, the dreaded health and safety had prevented anyone attempting it and it was replaced by a photo opportunity…shame but also I thought I was glad that the healthy and safety brigade had not stopped the sedan chair carrying.

Fairly old?

The agreed account is that Elizabeth gave the fair but needless to say that no such charter can be found, but Charles II did confirm the fair in 1682, Furthermore, there is evidence of fairs in 1226. Henry III granted the right to hold two annual fairs and markets. Of the Pole fair first documented account is written in Latin which is said to be the charter authorising the event, which states the last time it was celebrated was the 11th of June 1821. Furthermore, The Mercury Herald of November 6, 1936 has an article recalling the memories of a Miss Collier recalls attending five Pole Fairs, the earliest being 1842, 21 years later!1862 appears to be the possible date when after which the 20 years was introduced…but why is unclear! Perhaps it was a cost thing? However, the pole fair is a real boost to the local economy and a joyful experience and as by Laura Malpas in an article for Northamptonshire surprise notes:

“The last five Pole Fairs have come at a time when the people of Corby most needed to be cheered and to celebrate life. In 1922, the effects of the Great War were still evident as the village had lost forty-one men, and the fragility of the peace in Europe was still a concern. In 1942, the country was still in the grip of the Second World War and so the Pole fair was delayed until 1947, when the celebration was sweet indeed. 1962 saw the growth of the new town and an increased population as Corby was strong economically, but the following fair in 1982 was very different. Corby had suffered dreadfully from hardship following the decision by British Steel to close the steelworks and let the blast furnaces go out. However, there was still steel inside the hearts of the people of Corby to survive and thrive. The 1982 Pole Fair was a much-needed boost to the locals, and in 2002, the most recent fair held was a great celebration by the newly revitalised town which even today is still experiencing spectacular growth.”

And one could add 2022 with the cost of living crisis and Ukraine conflict. With the fantastic Viking camp, jousting knights, Morris dancers and all the fun of the fair…2022 was one of those rare things for me; much much better than last time! See you in 2042!

 

 

 

Custom contrived: Queen’s Birthday service and procession, Southwell

Standard

This year being a jubilee year the celebration of Queen has been everywhere, from shop windows to suburban streets, the country has been on full on royal revels and rejoicing. However, one town has been celebrating the Queen annually for much longer. This is Southwell. Southwell is a very picturesque small town which as I have said before should have more traditions especially considering the delightful ancient minster.

The Queen’s birthday surprisingly is not celebrated much in the United Kingdom, bar a gun salute and Trooping the Colour. However, in much of the Commonwealth it is annually celebrated and is indeed a national holiday in such places. Not so here, so Southwell’s tradition is on the Sunday closest to the Queen’s official birthday in June.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It’s my birthday and I’ll have two if I want to!

Indeed although Elizabeth II’s real birthday is in April, the tradition of celebrating a set date irrespective of who the king or queen is, is older. This set monarch’s birthday has been celebrated in the United Kingdom since the reign of King George II in 1748 being subsequently determined by  at first the British Empire and then the Commonwealth of Nations and the date set by each country depends on that country although to make use of supposed good weather in the northern hemisphere June is set.

Originally Queen Elizabeth II’s was the same as her father the second Thursday but was changed in 1959, and since then her Official Birthday has since then been celebrated on the second Saturday of June. Southwell undertake it usually the day after.

Queening up for the day

The service starts with a procession of the dignitaries attending this civic event and in the bright June sunshine it is an eye catching spectacle. Just a way down from the entrance of the Minster, mace bearer lead the Queen’s representative in the county, the Lord-Lieutenant, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, officers of the local army and judges in their ceremonial robes. They processed through the Minster archway and were created by the dean and church officials for the final procession into the church for the service.

How long the service has been undertaken I have been unable to fully discover but one of the local attendees suggested since the silver jubilee, another said the 80s, however the earliest newspaper account I can locate is from 1994 but it is clear that it was already been established by then:

“SWORD CARRIED TO SERVICE TRADITION was broken on Sunday when Mrs Richard Abel Smith, the first woman High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, took part in the Queen’s official birthday service in Southwell Minster. Instead of wearing her ceremonial sword, it was borne in front of her by grand-daughter Amelia Beaumont (6), who travelled from Ireland for the occasion. The sword was used by Mrs Abel Smith’s father, General Sir Douglas Kendrew, when he was Governor of Western Australia. Preacher at the service was the Bishop of Southwell, the Rt Rev Patrick Harris, and prayers were led by the high sheriff’s chaplain, the Rev Keith Turner, Vicar of Linby-cum-Papplewick. The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry were ushers and Nottinghamshire Constabulary Band provided music before and after the service.”

Little did I know but I was to attend the last one before the national Covid lockdown. The year after it went digital and was reported more than any time before by the press. An article on the Southwell Minster website, the Queen’s Birthday Service: A Unique Celebration of Public Service in Nottinghamshire, reported that the then High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Dame Elizabeth Fradd, explained that:

“The Queen’s Birthday Service is usually a grand occasion at Southwell Minster but this year, like so much else, it will take a very different form. It will also have a new significance as a result of the pandemic and the public’s renewed appreciation of the value and importance of public service in all its forms.”

The Queen’s representative in Nottinghamshire is the Lord-Lieutenant, Sir John Peace, who said:

“What I see in local communities, across Nottinghamshire and across the country is an unprecedented crisis; what provides room for hope is the commitment to work together for the common good. Front line workers of all kinds deserve the public’s praise and appreciation but it is just as important to recognise the immense contribution of those behind the scenes. As Her Majesty said in her speech to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day: ‘We will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us’. Following Her Majesty’s lead, this online service will be an occasion for us to demonstrate our pride in all aspects of public service and common endeavour. I invite everyone to join us online for this special celebration.”

Southwell’s Queen’s birthday celebration may be a small custom but it is certainly unique and worthy of attending.