Tag Archives: calendar customs blog

Custom survived: The Christmas Tree

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“Children knew nothing about Santa Claus or about Christmas Trees – those are German innovations which should be left to Germans…instead of the German tree we had the old fashioned English Mistletoe Bough.”

1890 J. S Fletcher A picturesque picture of Yorkshire

Well everyone can have an opinion but clearly J.S Fletcher was wrong…I am sitting composing this in the flickering light of mine, picture below, but on reflection cutting down, dragging in and setting up a tree in one’s house is such an odd tradition – but it is one that 8 million do each year. Indeed, in an odd way, the Christmas Tree is the most religiously neutral of Christmas paraphernalia…and for over a hundred years people have been putting up with the smell of pine and pine needles embedding in the feet, carpet, cracks of the floorboards (delete as appropriate)…the mistletoe bough was relatively simple..

Branching out from Germany

The origin of the Christmas Tree is often attributed to Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort. However, although he may have popularised it he did not introduce it. Its origins did not come as J. S. Fletcher noted came from Germany but from the Medieval region which is now Estonia and Latvia. It really only just gained popularity in Germany when George III’s wife Charlotte introduced a tree at a children’s party in 1800 it what is believed to be the first one. In a way it would be one of the most notable examples of a transcribed custom becoming a native and now surviving custom. Charles Grenville grandson of a duke was staying at Panshanger in Hertfordshire when the wide of the Russian Ambassador Princess Lieven had in 1829:

“got up a little fete such as is customary all over Germany. Three large trees in large pots were put unto a long table covered with pink linen, each tree was illuminated with three circular tiers of coloured wax candles – blue, green, red and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of toys a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, workboxes, books and various articles  – presents made to the owner of the tree. It was only for the children, in Germany it extends to persons of all ages.”

Incredibly little has changed since except now the trees tend to be dead rather than living in pots and much larger one would assume. It was evidently popular in the Royal family as Victoria recalls in her journal for 1832 at Christmas Eve that after dinner:

“ we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees.”

By the 1840s, the custom had spread to the wealthy middle-class families  followed the fashion. An 1842 newspaper advert for the Times recalls:

“GERMAN CHRISTMAS TREES. The nobility and gentry are respectfully informed that these handsome JUVENILE CHRISTMAS PRESENTS are supplied and elegantly fitted up.”

The 1844 The Christmas Tree: published by Darton and Clark also recorded:

“The ceremony of the Christmas tree, so well known throughout Germany, bids fair to be welcomed among us, with the other festivities of the season, especially now the Queen, within her own little circle, has set the fashion, by introducing it on the Christmas Eve in her own regal palace.”

Cant see the wood from the tree

Setting up a Christmas Tree is a bit of an adventure. Once you’d been around measuring up and looking at examples. And despite the fact they all are basically the same, you still go to several suppliers. Its then packaged up and the first challenge is to get it in the car, all the seats down and its head sticking out of the front passenger window!  Next challenge getting it into the house and manipulated into the drawing room. I managed to get the tree in through the door, after sawing off the base of course to supposedly keep it fresher for longer – it didn’t seem to work. Then it was a case of then inserting the mighty log in the base….now that was a  real challenge as it swayed back and fro. Was it in. Yes. No. Let’s see…oh its fallen…another go and yes finally. Next open it up. Snip snip snip…pong the branches spring out pushing me backwards but fortunately the windows survive.

The undressed tree

Then comes dressing the tree. The first dressings were wax candles – slightly impractical as much as I like to keep to tradition – electric lights are more sensible The first Georgian trees were dressed  with “roses made of coloured paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, sweetmeats”. I had a choice of baubles, ornaments, candy canes and my least favourite tinsel and after about what seemed an hour it was dressed…last state the star. I got the ladder but as I got closer I realised a problem. The ladder was tall enough but I could not safely reach the top..so no star!

Firm roots for a custom

By the mid 1840s, adverts were regularly appearing in the Newspapers such as in The Times, 23 December 1844 called it “A new pleasure for Christmas.” By 1847 Prince Albert wrote:

“I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be.”

The tradition slowly spread through the aristocracy for example a letter to William Fox Talbot on the 2nd of January from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire recorded:

“Constance is extremely busy preparing the Bohemian  Xmas Tree. It is made from Caroline’s description of those she saw in Germany.”

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The dressed tree

By January 1848,  the custom was well-enough known for The Times to compare the January budget of 1848 with gifts handed out beneath “the Christmas tree”: From this point onwards it appears that the tree spread from the wealthy families to all families and by 1906  The Poor Children’s Yuletide Association. According to the Times had

“sent 71 trees ‘bearing thousands of toys’ to the poorest districts of London.”

And by 1926 it was stated that:

“’Poor families in Lewisham and similar districts are just as particular about the shape of their trees as people in Belgravia…’ ‘Shapely Christmas Trees.”

However, it looked like this establishing custom would be cut down before it fully grew its roots. Again the Times wishing its readers  “A Merry Christmas”: The Times in, 27 December 1918, stated:

“the so-called “Christmas tree” was out of favour. Large stocks of young firs were to be seen at Covent Garden on Christmas Eve, but found few buyers. It was remembered that the ‘Christmas tree’ has enemy associations.”

But fortunately this association was soon forgotten for in 1919 again the Times noted that a charity fair in aid of injured soldiers featured ‘a huge Christmas-tree’ at St. Dunstan’s Christmas Fair. By 1937 British farmers had started to invest money in Christmas Tree Plantations and it has not looked back since. Indeed despite another conflict with Germany the tree did not wain in popularity presumably because its Germanic associations had been largely forgotten. Indeed, in 1947 as the Norwegians remind us it is Norse – not German tradition – a fact they annually remind us every Christmas in Trafalgar square. The 20 metre high towering Norway Spruce which adorns Trafalgar Square has been an annual thanksgiving gift from the Norwegian government as it states each year:

“This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.A tree has been given annually since 1947.”

And after all as we annually gather around our Christmas Tree the message that Norway gives every year is more than reticent…peace to all at Christmas.

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Custom contrived: Lord Conyer’s Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

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It is a fairly nondescript lane, and dare I say it in a non-descript part of Yorkshire, and driving by one might wonder why so many cars were parked on the verge…but the eye alights on a group of people awaiting at the edge of a small woodland just beside the road. Cars and woods? Is this a mass dog walking exercise or ramble? No the crowd await something quite magical – Lord Conyer’s Morris Men’s rendition of the fabled Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance.

Horny subject

An account on line entitled A STRANGE ENCOUNTER IN TODWICK (As witnessed by one Tobias Jugg around 16:40)

“Passing through the South Yorkshire village of Todwick during the late afternoon of the last Saturday before Christmas, a strange sight befell us. My companion and I, weary and tired of the road as we headed south towards Newstead, stumbled across a small crowd of like travellers, numbering about twenty-five in all, and gathered by the wayside. Each did gaze silently into the nearby wood, close to the site where Robin Hood’s Trysting Tree does stand.”

What is Robin Hood’s Trysting tree you may ask? Well firstly it no longer stands and its replacement also went in 1973. Lord Conyer’s Morris men website relates:

“At the beginning of the twentieth century at Todwick in South Yorkshire, an ancient oak known as the Trysting Tree blew down in a gale. This tree was connected to the legend of Robin Hood and is mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel ‘Ivanhoe’. The Duke of Leeds decided to replace the stricken tree, both to mark the turn of the century and to celebrate the birth of his son and heir, the Marquis of Carmarthen, and on the 3rd October 1901 he planted a sapling grown from an acorn which had fallen from the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. The day was declared a holiday and all the people from the Duke’s estate were invited to the ceremony. A sit-down meal was provided for the guests in a large marquee and in return the villagers then presented the Duke with a silver rose bowl to mark the birth of his son.
And there it stood, at the edge of Bluebell Wood at Kiveton Hall Farm, until 1973 when the council, in their infinite wisdom, decided to cut down the tree whilst widening the road nearby. Then, a Mr Bishop, who was at that time tenant of Kiveton Hall Farm, planted a third oak complete with iron fence to protect the young sapling; the Trysting Tree was back again.
Then the Kiveton Park Folk Club erected a stone post furbished with a brass plaque nearby, the occasion being commemorated by G.F. Young, the Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire, and the legend was back also. On the 18th May 1974 the folk club held a trysting fair with music, dance and song; stalls, working craftsmen, and, of course, the marquee with food and drink….”

As they note:

“The legend of the trysting tree is now in the safe hands of Lord Conyers Morris Men who have danced at the site every May Eve at dusk and every May Day at dawn without fail since 1974.”

The removal was clearly a controversial subject but one which was the catalyst of a custom. For it has been since 1978 on the last Saturday before Christmas Day the twilight crescendo of a day of carols, sword dancing and Derby Tup – a sort of pick and mix of Christmas calendar customs of the North one could say.

Taking it by the horns

The Lord Conyer’s Abbot Bromley Horn dance is one of two imitations and there is no doubt to my mind this is the most evocative; more so perhaps than the real one! I had read of the custom but in a way had thought as I had been to the real one why see the imitations but I feel I was wrong so last year I decided to organise myself and go along and see.
There was a curious and eerie feel standing at the edge of the wood. The sun was setting spreading a red light across the landscape as a mist developed all around and the air became chilly. The account beautifully summed it up:

“It was dusk. It was cold, and it was damp and misty. We dismounted to see what the crowd were looking at but could see nothing; only the dark outline of trees against the grey mist. Just then, strains of music emanating from deep within the wood began to reach our ears; a strange mediaeval-sounding tune being played on a solo fiddle. Some minutes later a group of figures began to emerge from out of the dank mist as the music became louder. The crowd we had joined, their eyes transfixed on the scene before them, stayed silent as if in awe and there was an unearthly atmosphere about the place to which the music only added.”

The performers maintain the mystery by preparing and dressing out of sight. The first we experience is that weird sound which moves like the mist slowly enveloping the crowd. There’s an unworldly menace to the dancers who weave in and out holding their antlers aloft from a far. They appear to be stuck in the distance the full moon picking off their antlers and firms. As they came closer one could start to see the group’s form. The team comprise of six men carrying large red deer antlers with others bearing smaller fallow deer antlers. Together with these is a fool, a hobby horse, Maid Marian and a bowman – presumably Robin Hood. The last to be seen as they move down a path between the dense undergrowth despite them first to be heard. All in all they appear to be completely different to the Morris men I had seen earlier doing their sword dancing.

The Morris Men portray the dance well. It is simple one enacting the fighting of deer with the dancers facing each other in a line. The antlers raised up and down facing each other silently and smoothly. The chime of a bell as they go to fight. The repetitive nature of tune making the whole experience hypnotic! The account again describes it well:

“The dance itself appeared to reach a chilling climax as it approached the Trysting Tree, at which point the procession turned and headed slowly back from whence it came. One by one the dancers melted away into the mist, leaving us spellbound until the last haunting notes of the fiddle died away into the distance.”

All in all a great re-enactment and one which deserves notice in folklore calendars. A copy it may be, but one which has developed its own mythos, for atmosphere it cannot be beaten!

Custom demised: Holy Innocent’s Day or Childermas

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History of Childermas: Feast of the Holy Innocents

Holy Innocent’s Day or Childermas is a forgotten date in the calendar but in Britain it was recorded. The day still remembered beyond the British Isles records the slaughter by Herod of the boy children born in Bethlehem in his attempt to remove the Christ child. As these the first murdered associated with the burgeoning faith, they became the first martyrs and as such became marked in the church calendar.

Generally the day was thought to be unlucky and nothing would be organised on this day, Richard Carew noted on 17th century Cornwall:

“that proves as ominous to the fisherman as beginning a voyage on the day when Childermas day fell doth to the mariner.”

Similarly in Shropshire Charlotte Burne in her 1883 book of Shropshire folklore recorded:

“Innocent’s Day sometimes called Cross day is a day of ill omen. The ancient people of Pulverbach applied this name not only to Innocent’s day but throughout the year to the day of the week on which it had last fallen, such day of the week being believed to be an unlucky day for commencing any work or undertaking. A popular saying about any unfortunate enterprise was ‘It must have been begun on a cross day.”

As children were the forefront of the custom it was important to remember them. In some parts of the country the youngest child “rules the day.” It was the youngest who decides the day’s foods, drinks, music, entertainments. In Rutland, according to Leicestershire notes and queries:

“Playing in Church – When living in the Parish of Exton, Rutland, some 15 years ago. I was told by an old lady that in her girlhood, in the very early years of this century, it was custom for children to be allowed to play in the church on ‘Innocent’s day.’”

Still today, Boy or Youth Bishops, rule until Holy Innocent’s day and often a mass is held to commemorate their hand over. In the 17th century, Gregorie’s Works of 1684 noted a contrary custom:

“It was at one time customary on this day to whip the juvenile members of a family. Gregory remarks that ” it hath been a custom, and yet is elsewhere, to whip up the children upon Innocents’ Day morning, that the memory of this murder might stick the closer ; and, in a moderate proportion, to act over the cruelty again in kind.”

According to Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1900 British Popular customs past and present Gregory was informed of another custom told to him by his friend, Dr. Gerard Langbain, the Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, from which it appears that, at the church of Oseney, associated with the old abbey. He notes:

“They were wont to bring out, upon this day, the foot of a child prepared after their fashion, and put upon with red and black colour, as to signify the dismal part of the day. They put this up in a chest in the vestry, ready to be produced at the time, and to be solemnly carried about the church to be adored by the people.”

This too has been forgotten and perhaps what with Christmas’s secular approach more and more skewed to children it appear unlikely that any customs are going to be revived

Custom survived: Remembrance Day Poppies

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Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae 1915

For 100 years the red poppy has been a poignant sign to remember those which had fallen serving in the British Armed Forces and those linked to it. The Royal British Legion who have the poppy as its trademark

“worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today”.

From tiny seeds

Soon after McCrae’s powerful poem became popular it inspired Moina Michael who was an American academic, , to construct red silk poppies which she would see in remembrance. These were then brought to England by a French women called Anna Guérin as a traditionally. She wrote in her 1941 Synopsis:

“Field Marshall Haig , the President , called a meeting where I explain the Idea which was adopted immediately , but they had no money in the Treasury to order their Poppies .  It was September and the Armistice day in November.  I offered them to order their Poppies in France for them , so my own responsibility , that they would paid them after . Gladly they accepted my offer .

Sir Francis* went to Paris with me and we made the arrangement , we ordered for 1 million flowers of silk poppies.  Their first National Flanders ‘ Poppy day was an enormous success and it has developed so well , so big that for the past 15 years the ENGLISH EMPIRE was selling 25.000.000 flanders ‘ Poppies on Armistice day , poppies made by the disabled soldiers in a factory near Birmingham.”

Finally when the British Legion as it was then called, formed in 1921, it then made an order for 9 million and then sold them on that year’s Armistice’s Day which developed into Poppy Day raising an incredible £106,000; as they all sold out and the money was used to support the World War One Vets find jobs and homes. In 1921 a Major George Howson set up a factory employing disabled ex-Servicemen to make the poppies. This Poppy Factor still continues this aim.

It is reported in the Aberdeen Journal on 12 November 1921 that: 

“POPPY DAY” IN ABERDEEN.  A regrettable hitch, occasioned by a mistake on the other side of the Channel, and also by the unsettled weather, was accountable for the non-arrival in Aberdeen yesterday of the poppies which were to be sold in the streets on behalf of Earl Haig’s Fund for ex-Service men.  The blood-red poppy is the flower most associated with the campaign in Flanders, and everyone who took part in the devastating battles of Ypres and other war-torn villages and plains of France and Belgium will readily remember the blazing mass of colour which used to brighten the shell-scarred trenches and fields when the poppies were in bloom. 

To make up for the lack of poppies, flags were distributed, and a large staff of willing helpers, ex-Service men, women, and others were early on the streets collecting for the good cause. Although the stock of flags was limited there was no limit to the amount of the contribution, and everyone gave liberally.  Many citizens wore scarlet flowers in their buttonholes as symbolic of the poppy and the sacred nature of the occasion.

On the 11th November 1921, the Dundee Courier recorded:

PREPARING FOR POPPY DAY IN DUNDEE.    Owing to Poppy Day being announced so shortly before the event, Dundee was at first faced with a shortage of “poppies,” but matters have taken a different complexion during the past few days through the efforts of a large number of willing workers in the city. 

The number of poppies sent from France was very much less than the estimated requirements, Edinburgh receiving only 100,000 to serve the whole of Scotland.  It was evident that of these Dundee could get only a small proportion, and Lord Provost Spence accordingly made it known that something would have to be done to make the effort on behalf of ex-service men more of a success by the manufacture of more poppies.

A few years later as a response to the lack of poppies over the border, Earl Haig’s wife established in Edinburgh, the Lady Haig Poppy Factory which continues to independently distribute their versions of the poppy.

The poppies are the main way in which the Royal British Legion raise money. paper and plastic poppies are sold throughout Britain but vary slightly, in England, Wales and Norther Ireland they have two red paper petals with a single green paper leaf and plastic central head and sits on a green plastic stem and until 1994 it stated Haig Fund but now just Poppy appeal. The poppies have four petals and are curled in Scotland.

Poppy Power

The Poppy appeal has become the most successful and highest profile charity in the UK. As a result the scope of the use of flowers has grown considerably being seen not only on lapels but cars, buses, public buildings, magazines and even lamp-posts. The period of which it is worn has also increased. For the first few years after the first world war it was only worn on Armistice Day but now it is common to see the flower appear from late October to the 11th November and quite often for some the whole winter period firmly attached to coats. Sold now at every street corner or event around this time it is now impossible to avoid a seller. The poppy itself has multiplied in its nature no longer just the paper ones but ceramic and metal ones, some being dated and some so heavily bejewelled that fraudsters have sadly muscled in on the money!! Interesting early on in its history a division between the types of poppy was thought to be counterproductive. In a newspaper letter in Hull a seller wrote:

“Sir. Why should there be a distinction between the silk and cotton poppies.  I, one of the many collectors, think it is a very wrong idea. The poor man’s penny, given with a free heart (in many cases it is a struggle to spare) is belittled by the ones who wish their gifts to be advertised … many a working girl and man gave their silver, but asked for no distinction, whilst one with a haughty demeanour asked for a silk poppy.  On being told that our stand had no silk poppy, he replied, “Very well, I will go to another stand where they have the silk flowers. …”

The poppy has entered the art world for example when an installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies each for each solder killed from the British Empire in WWI was set up in 2014 in the Tower of London moat to amazing and poignant affect.

War of the poppies

“presenters and politicians seem to compete in a race to be first – poppies start sprouting in mid-October while the absence of a poppy is interpreted as absence of concern for the war dead, almost as an unpatriotic act of treachery.”

In recent years there have developed a number of controversies. Some have suggested that the compulsory wearing for public figures has been used to give support to current military action. Some people such as newsreader, Jon Snow has called the demand that all public figures where one as ‘poppy fascism’ and others have complained it has become a seasonal “fashion accessory” There has been concerned that a web of lies has been established using the selling of poppies as a way for the Far right to engender hatred of religious minorities who ‘try to ban it’ not that this has ever been proved!

As a response to this there has been a growing development of the white poppy as an alternative. Some appear to have railed against this as a modern anti-British Legion response, thought as disrespectful and some apparently have lost their jobs. However, this poppy was introduced in 1933 and now sold by the Peace Pledge Union which is worn:

“in remembrance of all casualties of war including civilian casualties, and non-British casualties, to stand for peace, and not to glamorize war.”

Despite the White Poppy and a more recent Purple Poppy representing animals lost in conflict increased popularity it is evident that the red Poppy will continue to be a symbol of remembrance for our fallen soldiers..but let’s hope one day it only remembers conflicts long in the past of our memory.

Custom transcribed: Polish Andrzejki or St Andrew’s Day love divination

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“ The St Andrew Day –

Young girls hope and pray…”

The UK’s burgeoning Polish community has added and as well augmented our calendar customs. In many cases they have revived those customs which fell into abeyance at the Reformation due to the prominence of Catholism but in some cases they have introduced something unique. The Polish observance of St Andrew’s Day eve is one.

The observations on St Andrew’s Day or Andrzejki is about games associated with the future romantic encounters of the participants. Today these observations are perhaps not done in earnest but as a piece of juvenile fun. I was invited to see these prognostications one St. Andrew Day evening to a private party of young girls who had planned to celebrate the evening accordingly with some music, laughter (there was a lot of giggling) and predicting their love life…oh and giggling. Did I mention this? They weren’t keen on being photographed but were happy for me to photograph their activities

Paper kisses

When I turned up the girl’s dinning room was set up with paper, pens, keys and bowls of water…as well lots of sweets and cups for drinks. I asked them what the paper was for. I discovered that they planned to write all the names of the boys they all knew (jointly I imagine for what it entailed). With lots of chatting, much due to it being Polish, unintelligible, the girls closed their eyes and taking it turns one of the girls help up the paper and then another with a pin closed her eyes and inserted it into it..it missed a name. One of the girls examined it and decided it was Alex and then they went on becoming more and more giggly especially when one of the names transpired to be a boy who the older girl did actually fancy!

Soul mate

Then the girls turned sat down and took off their shoes. They then decided from the back wall to place them in sequence, a shoe at a time, along a line to the door. As the door got nearer there was genuine excitement to see who’s would cross the threshold. It was Amanda who was embarrassed to found she’d be the first to marry.

Sincerely, I love you, without wax

But wax will help! A few drinks later and the evening ended with the girls picking up a key and as she held it over a bowl of water another tipped a candle over the it and it flowed through the key and into the water. The other girls looked intently to try and work out what shape the wax had cooled and solidified into…it looked like an S, was it Symon? Clearly as the giggles developed one who was already again favoured. Each girl took turns and tried to interpret which in the main looked like an S or a splodge!

See the source image

Why St. Andrew’s Day?

As St Andrew’s Day often came with the start of Advent in the Catholic Church it was a good time for reflection, and prayer to  develop spiritual contact with God. As a result St Andrew became a patron  of young girls looking for love guidance as such since at least the 16th Century in Poland such fortune  telling has been recorded. St Andrew’s Eve was also the last day when dancing parties were permitted. Therefore, understandably with discussion of future spouses enterprising people have identified the night as an opportunity to have discos and club nights encouraged by the idea that any partner found on that night would be the one.

Custom demised: Medway St Catherine’s Day procession

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Image result for Victorian rope makers chatham

According to N, & Q. (2nd S. vol V. p. 47) they record that:

“On Wednesday (the 25th) night last the towns of Chatham, Rochester, and Brompton exhibited considerable excitement in consequence of a torchlight procession appearing in the streets, headed by a band of fifes and drums.”

This was to celebrate the association of Chatham with the making of ropes and its founder Queen Catherine and as it notes:

“Notwithstanding the late hour (eleven o’clock) & large number of persons of both sexes, accompanied the party. The demonstration was got up by the rope-makers of the dockyard, to celebrate the anniversary of the founder of the ropery (Queen Catherine). The female representing her Majesty (who was borne in a chair of state by six ropemakers) was dressed in white muslin, wore a gilt crown, and carried in her hand a Roman banner.”

It is evident that there was so confusion her between Queen and Saint and surely it was the saint who was being commemorated. When the custom disappeared is unclear and it is perhaps surprising that the Chatham Historic dockyard have not thought to revive this custom.

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Sheriff’s Ride

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

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

This was confirmed by Charles II which read:

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

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

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

Ride on time

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

Horsing around and around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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