Tag Archives: Cheshire

Custom revived: Bawming the Appleton Thorn, Cheshire


“The Maypole in spring merry maidens adorn,
Our midsummer May-Day means Bawming the Thorn.
On her garlanded throne sits the May Queen alone,
Here each Appleton lad has a Queen of his own


Up with fresh garlands this Midsummer morn,
Up with red ribbons on Appleton Thorn.
Come lasses and lads to the Thorn Tree today
To Bawm it and shout as ye Bawm it, Hooray!

The oak in its strength is the pride of the wood,
The birch bears a twig that made naughty boys good,
But there grows not a tree which in splendour can vie
With our thorn tree when Bawmed in the month of July.


Kissing under the rose is when nobody sees,
You may under the mistletoe kiss when you please;
But no kiss can be sweet as that stolen one be
Which is snatched from a sweetheart when Bawming the Tree.


Ye Appleton Lads I can promise you this;
When her lips you have pressed with a true lover’s kiss,
Woo’ed her and won her and made her your bride
Thenceforth shall she ne’er be a thorn in your side.


So long as this Thorn Tree o’ershadows the ground
May sweethearts to Bawm it in plenty be found.
And a thousand years hence when tis gone and is dead
May there stand here a Thorn to be Bawmed in its stead.

If there was a custom which could claim to have been revived the most it could be Appleton’s Bawming the Thorn in Cheshire.. The current version was invariably described as being revived in 1967 or 1973, by headmaster, Bob Jones, itself based on a 1930 revival which again was a probable Victorian revival of the 1860s when a Bawming song was written. The present version appears to be in good health and is now a pivotal event in the village and indeed in the wider Warrington area. Why did it die out? Christine Hole in her 1937 Traditions and customs of Cheshire noted that

“it was allowed to lapse because so many strangers came to see it that it became rowdy, and property was damaged.”

Thorn in the side?

A few miles from the metropolitan Manchester and Warrington is Appleton Thorn, a village which happily celebrates in its name with a unique custom; called Bawming the Thorn. It is not difficult to find the thorn it sits surrounded by a protective metal fence on an island near the church. Early in the day the tree is adorned with red ribbons and children place some plant boxes/pots/bouquets or wreaths, small gardens set out with colourful collections of flowers living and dead. These are similar to those laid at the John Clare memorial, called Midsummer Cushions and indeed maybe exactly the same. However, it is the tree we are here to see, here to celebrate. An ordinary looking thorn covered in leaves and between the leaves red ribbons and small flags.

Soon one can hear a brass band further along the road and soon a large procession comes into view. The children, usually the year 6s of the local primary school, appear dressed in a red and white. They snake their way towards the tree ready to dance around the titular tree.

A thorny subject

What does bawm mean? Well the Oxford English Dictionary does not include it but Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary does and Roger Wilbraham’s 1817 An attempt at a glossary of some words used in Cheshire suggests

“At Appleton it was custom at the time of the Wake to clip and adorn an old hawthorn which till very lately stood in the middle of the town. The ceremony is called Bawming the Appleton Thorn.!”

As Steve Roud notes in his 2006 The English Year the inclusion of the term Wake is significant and that as such it was part of the decoration of the village like many others. As such it was not a custom on its own but a vestige of the festivities of the wake. However, why would someone remember the tree and establish a new custom of dancing around it? Would not a maypole be easier? What is also worth noting is the word clip however, which Roud does not discuss that, clipping or clypping being the custom in which on patronal days a church is encircled but its parishioners. As such one could argue that the clypping had a pre-Christian origin originally being associated with stone circles, was it done around sacred trees? It is pure conjecture of course. Hole notes that in the Warrington Journal it was recorded as:

“The tree and its protective railings were decorated with garlands, flags and red ribbons and sang a song written by the late Mr. Egerton-Warburton. Country dancing, sports and a procession round the village are part of the modern ceremony.”

All a bit bawmy?

A local legend has it that the original thorn was brought from Glastonbury by Adam de Dutton, an Appleton landowner who has also returned from the Crusades. How genuine this story is, is difficult to say, but of course as reported before Glastonbury thorns were distributed across the country. The only curious question is why this particular offcut is not associated with flowering on Old Christmas Day? Dare I say the story may have been concocted to explain the phenomena which could be construed as pagan?

Local author William Beament included the story of the thorn’s arrival in his 1877 An Account of the Cheshire Township of Appleton Thorn, but even he states in 1844 that he was unaware of it custom’s origin

The custom starts when a boy dressed as Sir Adam and his squire enter the area around the Thorn. He is the first to start the proceedings off. Clutching a sword and a leafy branch he declares:

“I Adam de Dutton, raise plant this thorn, on this morn in Appleton Thorn”

It is clear that the village are keen to recognise this benefactor however genuine he is. After his speak, the other children then add their bouquets to the fence.

Then the dancing begins. A choir in black and red sing the Bawming the Thorn hymn This is Maypole dancing albeit without a Maypole the children dance around in pairs swirling, skipping, joining hands. The clipping is in evident when the children hold hands in a big circle they move in and out enclosing the tree in a grand hokecokey! Then it is over and off everyone goes for the supplementary events and a well earned ice-cream no doubt!

Custom revived: The Warburton Soul Cakers


There's a fight in the pub

Folk plays are a fascinating pieces of traditional custom and one which is surviving well in the 21st century. One particular strand of this tradition is the Cheshire Souling or Soulcakers. Presently, there are a number of groups which enact this strange ritual usually from 1st November (All Souls Eve) until the 4th November in pubs, inns, houses and sometimes churches in the Cheshire and Lancashire region. Although the Antrobus Soulers may disagree, all of the groups are revivals (this means there has been a break in the last 100 years). The second oldest revival group is that which tour with the Warburton Play.

I decided to track them down in the picturesque town of Knutsford, I had read of their website, a very informative site where I found some of the information for the blog, which gave the name of the first pub in the town. I turned up and enquired behind the bar “Are the Soulcakers arriving tonight”. The “What?” said the manager; she appeared to be blissfully unaware. They planned to do a quiz at 8 when the group arrived. However, her younger colleague did seem to know what I was on about, so 50% was good enough for me! I sat down with my drink and some free sandwiches. Later a couple arrived and the manager pointed over to me, at least this was some support for the fact I had arrived at the correct destination.

What is a Souling Play?

Souling in the strictest form is a custom associated with the souls of the dead’s journey through Purgatory. This would involve the collection of money or the giving of cakes, soul cakes, hence the name soulcakers. To eat such soulcakes would then involve the eating of the sins of those unable to get to heaven. Of course you may ask “but that means the consumer gets the sins!” Yes, but by continuing the tradition ad infinitum there would always be someone eating sins for those just departed. Of course as the custom faded to be replaced largely by Hallowe’en’s trick or treaters, those who were the last to buy the soulcakers must have never left purgatory so heavy the burden of the sins they inherited!! You may of course look scornfully at the custom but this is the origin of the funeral wake.

What’s this got to do with a play?

Good point. It appears at some point to warrant the giving of money or cakes, some bright spark either the receiver or giver thought they wanted something a bit more substantial and so the play was probably born. This may account for the similarity to the Christmas Mummer’s Play, because it’s easier to convert something to write from scratch. Indeed, to the uninitiated there does not appear to be much difference between the Soulers and the Plough Monday play. Indeed, both share a similar plot, both being about death and revival, and share in some cases the same characters: the quack doctor, Beelzebub, and the familiar drag-act, so to speak. However, there are differences, the Sergeant is replaced by King George, the Tom Fool replaced by the Turk and there’s a decent bit of sword play in it…and there’s the Horse.

A horse, a horse….

The horse is a unique feature of the Soulers and one which has created the most interest amongst folklorists. In the present guise, the horse is an old hunt horse befitting its trainer in hunting pink and treated with upmost almost quasi-religious respect, it being hidden from view when not in the play almost as if this might detract from its powers.

Close up of the HorseTaming the Wild Horse!

Perhaps the horse survives in Cheshire plays because of the proximity of the Welsh boarders with their Mari Lwyd horse tradition existed (or vice versa), although of course there are the Poor Old Oss traditions and to some extent Derby Tup traditions surrounding it to the east. Many folklorists have commented that the Horse was an important figure in Celtic paganism, which is significant being that All Souls Day replaced the ancient Samhain. Certainly the horse is no Hobby Horse, but a dark rather sinister creature, a skull on a stick with a black cape beneath hiding is manipulator. In response to key phrases, its mouth opens and closes with a menacing clap! It is interesting to note that there is record in the 1930s that the Warburton horse was buried in the grounds of the pub at the end of the performance. This is referenced once it appears and perhaps this was a ceremonial aspect, rather than an end point, emphasizing the death and resurrection aspect again.

In comes I…

The only one drinking!

Around 8, these plays never seen to be on time, we heard the rowdy chorus of the soulers and soon after in bursts Big Head, much to the amazed and giggled bewilderment of the table nearest the door. The plot was as follows…in comes the Turk who does a bit of boasting, to be challenged by King George, there a fight, Turk dies, in comes his mum (that old standard a bit of drag), calls for the doctor who revives in, in comes Beelzebub who steals a drink from those bewildered beer drinkers and the Horse with its rider.

The revival

There may have been many different local variants of the play perhaps every village had one, but as the 19th century came to close the numbers began to dwindle, the final nail in the coffin being the First and Second World Wars. Indeed the Warburton play was last performed in 1936. However, after only a gap of 42 years, it was revived, thanks to being written down before its demise. The revived play centres around the Saracens Head in Warburton where the play is performed for the first time that year and then after 4 days ends there.

A group called the Bollin Morris revived the play in 1978 and continued to be the preserve of this group until the 1990s, when the group became a mixture of Morris and non-Morris, and then finally in the 2000s the group began unconnected with Bollin Morris. The establishment of set characters for each member of the group appears to have introduced a degree of professionalism and the play was delivered word perfect and with great vigour and enthusiasm despite in some cases the paucity of punters. I was impressed by the fact they took notes and appeared to be organised to get the best performance each time like a real play and this was not some amateur effort.

So if you find yourself next year around Cheshire, I suggest following the Warburton play, it will be enjoyable evening.

Come here oftenThe Doctor deals with the dead TurkThe Doctor deals with the dead Turk (2)

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