Tag Archives: customs and traditions

Custom contrived: Brinsley Coffin Walk

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Many remote hamlets and small villages before the 1800s had no church and so it was not unusual to see a group of men winding their way through paths carved into the landscape carrying a loft a coffin. These coffin or funeral paths can be seen preserved in the place names and folklore across the country. They lay remembered but used say for recreational walkers adopted into the public footpath system. Brinsley in Nottinghamshire had one from its Chapel of Ease to the older medieval church of Greasley some three miles away. But whereas the others are unused, Brinsley for one day of year remembers the toil of its pallbearers in its annual Coffin Walk

Putting the fun in funeral?

The customs started some 14 years ago as an interesting way to remember Brinsley’s local history and celebrate its patronal day, St. James, as a consequence the custom is held on the Saturday nearest 25th July. What might sound a solemn affair is not and intend it wasn’t back in the 1800s when the parties would stop for a rest on specific resting stones on the route and drink to the memory of the occupant. It is said they could often turn up too late to the church for the funeral and find it locked up and vicar at home! Although now a more sober affair the walk was not solemn either but a good chance for local people to get some exercise and have a chat away from the hustle and bustle of daily life…albeit following a coffin! The website said wear lilac – but as the only lilac I had was a 70s disco shirt and fuzzy minion wig I thought that might be taking it too far!

Dying to find out more

I’d discovered the custom by accident searching for another event for my forthcoming book on Nottinghamshire customs and ceremonies – unfortunately the week after it had happened.

I woke up on the allotted Saturday and looked outside, the premise for a three mile walk-starting at 9.30 – did not seem promising as outside it was raining and raining heavily! Then around half seven the clouds appeared to disappear and so I thought I’d risk it. Turning up just before the 9.30 walk off at the church I came across a small group of local people and members of the local funeral directors Gillotts and Steve Soult Ltd, coffin makers who may not equally had been looking forward to the walk through the rain. The weather had certainly put off the attendees, the year previous there was 28, this year around 7. After a brief blessing by the church warden and a group photo the curious cortege was on its way…without  a drop of rain!

The custom started when local historian, Stan Smith, researched the route of the funeral procession and thought it would be an interesting exercise to walk it. The first walks included a small doll’s house coffin with its doll. In an article in Nottinghamshire Post Stan Smith noted:

“Believe it or not it came from a dolls house catalogue!….It’s about four inches long and there’s even a body in a shroud inside it if you look closely enough. We really can call it a coffin walk now that we’ve got a coffin!”

Then local coffin maker Steve Soult offered to make a bespoke one. An altogether more authentic if heavier option. This coffin being a fine piece of workmanship having ‘Brinsley Coffin Walk’ on the side and the village’s famous headstocks, relics of its mining heritage, splendidly carved on the other side. Leading the coffin was the funeral director wearing a splendid period suit and top hat and lilac flower.

The year previously had been a sad event for it remembered also its founder local historian Stan Smith Yet despite the thought that the custom may end with him, a not uncommon occurrence with revived or contrived customs, it has continued – and I am sure he’d be happy to know that.

Walk of death?

Of we went out of the church and along the road to the bemusement of drivers who must have thought ‘there appear to be going the wrong way the church is behind them!’, then across the road and into the fields. The first gate was a fairly easy affair but after a while it appeared how arduous a task this would be. At one stile, the pallbearers had to propel the coffin akin to a basketball player through the narrow gap, gingerly guiding it through a narrow gap in the hedge. It didn’t rain but the evidence was there to see and feel, a flooded pathway resulted in the coffin being carried along a thin ledge under a railway arch! At one point the carriers zoomed off into the distance to overcome the only incline we had surprisingly in the journey. Finally, we were in sight of Greasley church where tea and biscuits awaited. The walk again garnered pace and the pallbearers naturally sweaty and worn out awaited those much-needed refreshments! A tiring exercise but think what it would have been like with a body inside! At the church, a sort service was given with a suitable walk based hymn sung and we gathered around the Rev John Hides who was the first joint vicar of the two parishes which finally in 1869 Brinsley was allowed to bury its own dead. All in all a great little unique tradition attended by friendly and helpful individuals…a great walk albeit a bit unusual but recommended!

Custom demised: Crabbing the Parson, Clent, Worcestershire

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A.M Protheroe and T. E. Jones in their Scraps of English folklore X in Folklore record in the Worcestershire village of Clent:

“The strange annual custom of ” crabbing the parson ” was followed on ” Wake Sunday ” at St. Kenelm’s, the wake being held on the first Sunday after July 28th, or St. Kenelm’s Day. The custom was discontinued more than a hundred years ago, and in the St. Kenelm’s of to-day seems to be quite forgotten.”

John Noake in his 1848 The Rambler in Worcestershire, or, Stray Notes on Churches and Congregations relates comically that:

“The last clergyman but one who was subjected to this process was a somewhat eccentric gentleman named Lee. He had been chaplain to a man-of-war, and was a jovial old fellow in his way, who could enter into the spirit of the thing. My informant well recollects the worthy divine, after partaking of dinner at the solitary house near the church, quietly quitting the table when the time for performing the service drew nigh, reconnoitering the angles of the building, and each “buttress and coign of vantage” behind which it was reasonable to suppose the enemy would be posted, and watching for a favourable opportunity, he would start forth at his best walking pace (he scorned to run) to reach the church. Around him, thick and fast, fell from ready hands a shower of crabs, not a few telling with fearful emphasis on his burly person, amid the intense merriment of the rustic assailants; but the distance is small; he reaches the old porch, and the storm is over.”

However, not always did the vicar join in the fun as Noake continues:

“Another informant, a man of Clent, states that he has seen the late incumbent, the Rev. John Todd, frequently run the gauntlet, and that on one occasion there were two sacks of crabs, each containing at least three bushels, emptied in the church field, besides large store of other missiles provided by other parties; and it also appears that some of the more wanton not unfrequently threw sticks, stakes, &c., which probably led to the suppression of the practice.”

Sadly, the author is probably correct and like many customs which tread the line between violence and fun it did disappear, but why did it exist. Noake again gives a reason:

“The custom of crabbing the parson is said to have arisen on this wise. ‘Long, long ago,’ an incumbent of Frankley, to which St. Kenelm’s was attached, was accustomed, through horrid, deep-rutted, miry roads, occasionally to wend his way to the sequestered depository of the remains of the murdered Saint King, to perform divine service. It was his wont to carry creature comforts with him, which he discussed at a lone farmhouse near the scene of his pastoral duties. On one occasion, whether the pastor’s wallet was badly furnished, or his stomach more than usually keen, tradition sayeth not, but having eat up his own provision, he was tempted (after he had donned his sacerdotal habit, and in the absence of the good dame) to pry into the secrets of a huge pot in which was simmering the savoury dinner the lady had provided for her household; among the rest, dumplings formed no inconsiderable portion of the contents; whether they were Norfolk or apple dumplings is not mentioned, but the story runs that our parson poached sundry of them, hissing hot, from the cauldron, and hearing the footsteps of his hostess, he, with great dexterity, deposited them in the ample sleeves of his surplice; she, however, was wide awake to her loss, and closely following the parson to the church, by her presence prevented him from disposing of them, and to avoid her accusation (‘a guilty conscience needs no accuser’) he forthwith entered the reading desk and began to read the service, John Clerk beneath making the responses. Ere long a dumpling slips out of the parson’s sleeve, and falls plump on sleek John’s head; he looks up with astonishment, but having ascertained that his reverence is not labouring under the effects of an emetic (‘vomits’ they called them in those days), John took the matter in good part, and proceeded with the service; by and bye, however, John’s pate receives a second visitation, to which he, with upturned eyes and ready tongue, responded, ‘Two can play at that, master!’ and suiting the action to the word, he forthwith began pelting the parson with crabs, a store of which he had gathered, intending to take them home in his pocket to foment the sprained leg of his jade of a horse; and so well did the clerk play his part that the parson soon decamped, amid the jeers of the old dame, and the laughter of the few persons who were in attendance; and in commemoration of this event (so saith the legend), ‘crabbing the parson’ has been practised on the wake Sunday from that time till a very recent period.”

Perhaps, but one cannot feel they may be a connection between the church’s association with the martyred king and perhaps it was done as a type of atonement or originally a scape goat was used transferring to the parson over time. We may never really know but rest assured the vicar is safe on the 28th July every year….unless one of us lies in wait!

 

 

Custom revived: Winster Morris and Winster Wakes

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This is it and that is it and this is Morris dancing

Think Morris, think Cotswolds perhaps, however Derbyshire has a long tradition and Winster is without doubt the oldest traditional team in the county which survives, Tideswell’s team although mentioned in the late 1700 appears to have vanished. Winster also does not fit into the other types not boarder nor clog, molly or Cotswold. Winster of course have many interesting customs, its pancake race and the Guisers, which themselves are made up of Morris team members.

It was 1863 when Morris groups are first mentioned in the town and it is believed that they were well established by then. Renowned English Folk Music enthusiast Cecil Sharp visited the town in 1908 to record the dances in his Morris Book Part 3 1924. The team then wore white shirt and trousers, with cross-belts with rosettes, black shoes and bells. They continue to do so. The team consists of 16 dancers, rather than the traditional six, who split into two files of eight and an unusual four characters. This is a unique feature.

Another unique feature is its nature of its dance which consists of processional and stationary dances: The Processional, The Blue-Eyed Stranger, The Morris Reel, The Morris Gallop and The Morris March.  The most famed the Gallop is now performed by Morris teams across the world.

Dancing in and out of time

However, despite surviving until 1908, its demise was just around the corner and as men went to fight in the First World War the dancing disappeared. However, it was revived in the 1920s and could be seen throughout the county at fetes but again another war happened of course and the Morris died out. It was revived however in 1951 on the back of Festival of Britain by the headmaster of Winster School, George Noton, and as such the Morris team was made up by school boys. The revival lasted 4 years. It was revived again in 1977 on the back of the Silver Jubilee, but apparently lapsed and the modern team dates from 1979.

In 2008 the team decided to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Cecil Sharp’s visit called ‘Look Sharp’. The Derbyshire Times recorded that involved a that was a re-enactment of Sharp’s arrival in Winster by an actor Steve Tomlin. He arrived by steam train at Darley Dale and took a pony and trap to the town. The Times noted:

“On Saturday there will be a “mass morris” when more than 100 dancers from as far away as Oxfordshire and Essex will get together on Winster’s Main Street to dance. Six teams will also tour at least eight Peak District villages on their way to Winster.”

Wake up

The Winster Morris today are one of the main features of the town’s Wake week – a unsurprisingly week-long celebration of the town which originated from the patronal festival connected with the church.

On their day of dance is the best time to see this team and see its unique featured characters. These traditional characters were a King (in a military uniform), Queen (a man dressed in Victorian dress), Jester and a Witch (another man dressed in black). These survive today. The later two go around entertaining the crowd, although I could not see what the King did another than march around looking ceremonial which he did very well.

The event started with a procession in which the Winster team and their invited team, the equally fascinating Ock Street Morris with the freshly appointed Mock Mayor. However the main attraction are the Winster team who on the bright summer’s day are radiant as they jump and skip in and out of each other to the sound of the music. The Morris Gallop is the set piece of course and to watch this classic piece of folk dance in its natural home is a privilege.

“This is it and that is it

And this is Morris dancing

The Piper fell and broke his neck

and said it was a chancer

 

you don’t know and I don’t know

what fun we had at Brampton,

a roasted pig and a cuddle duck,

and a pudding in a lantern.”

 

 

 

Custom demised: Midsummer Fire Cartwheel rolling

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Cartwheeling Leusdon, Devon. From The Country Life book of old English customs. by Roy Christian

Rolling a flaming wheel into a stream or river down a hill may seem an oddly dangerous enterprise but it was one which was undertaken until recent times across Britain on the eve of St. John the Baptist otherwise known as Midsummer Eve. An account from the 1820s from South Glamorgan reported in 1909 by Marie Trevelyan in her Folklore and folk stories of Wales. It notes that:

People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and Girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that the long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If the fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”

Ancient origins

In the fourth-century Acts of the Martyr St. Vincent there is a description how in Aquitane, south-western France pagans rolled a flaming wheel towards a river and the charred remains were reassembled in their Sky God temple.

Widespread custom

The custom was also undertaken in Devon. At Buckfastleigh in the mid 1850s, aptly Bonfire Hill was the location and the wheel was moved down the hill using sticks by the use of sticks. Like South Glamorgan, if it reached the stream the village would have a good year.  In the village of Leusdon it was done until recent. Eric Hemery in his 1983 High Dartmoor book records:

An old custom on Mil Tor was the ‘Rolling of the Wagon Wheels’ on Midsummer Day: discontinued in the war years, it was revised for a time during the late 1950s, since which it has again lapsed. The aim was that the wheels should reach the river, but so rock-strewn is the six-hundred foot slope that few ever did. In consequence, the old iron tyres of long-rotted wheels lie about Miltor Wood – some now encircling the trees.

At point this custom died out to be revived in 1962 but now streamers were added to give a flame effect. Without the added spectacle of fire danger it doubtless seemed even more pointless indeed Roy Christian notes in his Old English Customs

“Within the last few years the villagers of Leusdon, in Devon, have abandoned their ancient and apparently pointless practice of rolling a cartwheel down the slopes of Mel Tor on the eve of St. John the Baptists Day. Preservationists may deplore the end of his and other customs but artificial respiration will no keep them alive. A custom will only survive if a spontaneous desire by a  large body of folk to keep it going”

Yet, as the online

Minutes of Widdecombe on the Moor Parish council note:

Leusdon Church 150th Anniversary: We were informed that Leusdon Church will celebrate its 150th Anniversary of its dedication on 28th April 2013. It is understood that the church was dedicated in 1863 and its patron Saint is St John the Baptist. It was noted that historically on the Eve of St John the Baptist Day 24th June, there was held the ‘cartwheel rolling’ ceremony at Meltor. Will this be revived in 2013?”

I don’t think it was sadly

Custom demised: May Goslings

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May Gosling’s dead and gone You’re the fool for thinking on

We all know of April Fool’s day but in many places, especially in the North, it was the first of May which was associated with pranks. The receivers of which were called May Goslings.

According to a contributor to the Gentleman’s magazine of 1791:

“A May gosling on the 1st of May is made with as much eagerness in the North of England, as an April noddy (noodle) or fool, on the first of April.”

Despite the unlikeliness of needing two fool’s days back to back it was apparently still current in the 1950s in Cumbria and north Yorkshire according to Opie in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959)

Indeed Nicholas Rhea’s diary, a blog site records:

“One very popular May Day game when I was a child in Eskdale was May Gosling. It was rather like April Fool pranks played on April 1 because children played jokes upon each other. Anyone who fell victim was known as a May Gosling. Just like April Fool jokes, the pranks had to be perpetrated before noon.”

He notes he has not heard any reference to it recently suggesting its demise.  Like April Fool’s Day, as noted above one must do all the pranks by none otherwise you would be taunted with:

May Gosling’s dead and gone, You’re the fool for thinking on.”

Even TV celebrity and gardener Alan Titchmarsh notes in his 2012 Complete Countrymen illuminates and suggests it did indeed survive longest in Yorkshire:

“As a Yorkshire lad, born on 2 May, my Yorkshire grandmother would ask me ‘Have you been christened a May Gosling?” I wondered what she meant then I discovered there had been a Northern custom, akin to April Fooling, which took place on 1 May. Tricks were played and successful perpetrators would cry ‘May Gosling!’ presumably implying the victim was a silly as a young goose. The response would be: ‘May Gosling past and gone. You’re the fool for making me one!”

John Brand in his 1810 Observations on Popular antiquities noted a ritual associated with it:

“The following shews a custom of making fools on the first of May, like that on the first of April “U.P.K spells May Goslings” is an expression used by boys at play, as an insult to the losing party. U.P.K is up pick that is up with your pin or peg, the mark of the goal. An additional punishment was thus: the winner made a hole in the ground with his heel, into which a peg about three inches long was driven, its top being below the surface; the loser with his hands tied behind him, was to pull it up with his teeth, the boys buffeting with their hats and calling out “Up pick you May Gosling” or “U.P.K Goslings in May.”

Robert Chambers in 1843’s Everyday Book noted also that:

“There was also a practice of making fools on May-day, similar to what obtains on the first of the preceding month. The deluded were called May-goslings.”

Perhaps it is due for a revival for in response to the above’s Nicholas Rhea’s article a commenter notes:

May gosling mischief

Having been born and bred in Yorkshire, but lived all my married life in the Vale of Evesham, I could hardly believe my eyes on reading Nicholas Rhea’s tale in the May edition – someone actually knew of May Gosling! Fifty or so years ago when I tried to describe May Gosling Day to my husband, I got some very strange looks. I gave up in the end! Had you been caught out on April Fool’s Day, it was such a joy to get your own back on May Gosling Day. Thank you, Nicholas Rhea. Mrs E B Palfrey, Pershore”

What with Yorkshire’s continuation of Mischief Night perhaps another day of pranks might not be needed!

Custom Survived: William Hubbard Graveside Easter Singing, Market Harborough, Leicestershire

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An Easter Custom. — On each recurring Easter Eve, in pursuance of a custom which has continued for more than a century (and which, as a fund was left for the purpose, will continue for centuries to come), the church choir of Market Harborough visit the ‘God’s Acre’ of St. Mary’s, and sing at midnight the beautiful Easter hymn over the grave of Mr. Hubbard, the founder of the chantry of that name.”

The History of Market- Harborough in Leicestershire and its vicinity by William Harrod (1808)

On the outskirts of Market Harborough is a ghostly shell of a church twixt between an industrial site, the railway station and the urban sprawl. Surrounded by a few graves it is a mysterious place. There are many such derelict churches open to the elements slowly decaying, unvisited all bar the curious- this one is an exception though for despite being a ruin once year on the evening before Easter Sunday this desolate place is warmed by the sounds of heavenly voices in a custom which has been done for over 200 years.

Willed to sing

The originator of this unique bequest was William Hubbard, a gardener and more importantly churchwarden. When he died in 1786, aged 63 his will stipulated:

“at the decease of his wife to the Singers of Harborough for the time being for ever the sum of One Guinea yearly on condition of their finding over his grave every Easter eve the EASTER HYMN the said guinea to be paid out of the rent of a house now in the tenure of Mr Clark painter &c In cafe the singers should neglect complying with the donor’s desire the said legacy is to be applied to purchasing shoes for widows.”

Sadly those local widows have shoeless because without fail the congregation of the more substantial St. Dionysius church dutifully come here every Easter Saturday to sing since 1807, presumably the death date of his widow. That guinea has gone a long way! I am not sure whether it pays for anything now but in 1957 a rent charge was still being taken.

Sing when you’re winning!

When I first came to experience this custom, it was a balmy Easter Saturday in 1996, 7th of April. The churchyard was quiet, mysterious and unloved. I located the grey slate gravestone of William Hubbard and waited.

Soon a small choir appeared. Arched around the grave the vicar, curate and choir made a fine sight in themselves but when the hymns were sung it was magical.

1996

2016 – Spot the difference!

Obviously it is a short service. It started with Chorus novae Jerusalem

“Ye choirs of new Jerusalem, your sweetest notes employ, the Paschal victory to hymn in strains of holy joy. For Judah’s Lion bursts his chains, crushing the serpent’s head; and cries aloud through death’s domains to wake the imprisoned dead. Devouring depths of hell their prey at his command restore; his ransomed hosts pursue their way where Jesus goes before. Triumphant in his glory now to him all power is given; to him in one communion bow all saints in earth and heaven. While we, his soldiers, praise our King, his mercy we implore, within his palace bright to bring and keep us evermore. All glory to the Father be, all glory to the Son, all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee, while endless ages run.”

Then a reading is given in 2016, the Gospel for Easter was Matthew 27 a very adapt piece about Jesus’s burial:

“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

The Guard at the Tomb: The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.”

The Easter Hymn was sung

“Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia! our triumphant holy day, Alleluia! who did once upon the cross, Alleluia! suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia! Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia! unto Christ, our heavenly King, Alleluia! who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia! sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia! But the pains which he endured, Alleluia! our salvation have procured, Alleluia! now above the sky he’s King, Alleluia! where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!”

Then an Easter Collect and Prayer finishing with a sung grace

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

Eighteen years later passing this way I came to again experience it. However, my sources were incorrect and I’d missed it by an hour! Finally, again in 2016 I came again, on a most appalling Easter evening. Dark clouds were building up and the wind howled through the ghost of the church. After a while I was beginning to think my sources had been incorrect, had the weather put them off…no soon more and more people arrived. The first thing I noticed is how much the congregation had grown since 1996; despite the awful weather it was clear that this custom was still a popular one…and even the dreadful rain was not going to stop the custom. In 1984, so Brian Shuel in his Traditional Customs of Britain was informed by the vicar:

“in really nasty weather, such as the previous year when it was snowing, they have been known to do it themselves”

It did not stop them, nor did it in 1876 as a local newspaper reports:

“Easter Eve – The old custom to sing the Easter hymn over Mr. Hubbard’s grave, in St. Mary’s burial ground, was carried out again on Saturday last, at 8.30, by the church choir. To get to the grave yard this year there was something very unusual. The waters, from the rapid melting of the snow which had fallen on the two preceding days, were out, near the Toll-gate and Gas works, but this obstruction was bravely encountered by about thirty of the choir, besides a few others. Many more who intended to go, declined, when they got to the end of the walk, not liking to got through the flood, and returned again to the town. One gentleman was kindly carried over the flood by a young man named Toomes. This little incident amused the choir boys and one of them was overheard to whisper, ‘I wish he’d drop him.’ We understand this is the 70th year that the above custom has been carried out.”

The only shame was that the weather had prevented the congregation wearing their traditional choral attire. Yet in a way it made the custom seem even more bizarre.

Before the Reformation, sung songs and prayers were common from chapels to great Cathedrals, but although these Chantry chapels survive the bequests have long gone, siphoned off to support schools such as Thomas Burton’s in Loughborough or incorporated into general funds. What is of course unusual with Hubbard is that this is a post-Reformation one. Little did he also know that he think that when he made the bequest that the church would fall into disuse and ruin. Yet this is part of the curious nature of the custom, despite the church and the possible temptation of removing the grave to somewhere more convenient the custom continues.

All in all, Hubbard’s bequest is without doubt one of the countries, a beautiful uplifting tribute to a man long forgotten but still remembered!

Custom revived: Beltane Fires, Port Meadow, Oxford

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INVITE YOUR ENTIRE FRIENDS LIST PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: This is the last year May Day falls on a weekend or Bank Holiday until 2021. This is the last massive May Day for the next four years. I suggest you go large. CALLING ALL LOSERS, HARD BOOZERS, QUEEN BEES, WANNABES, FULL TIME PUNKS, SHIPS THAT SUNK, MONKS, TIGERS, RAVERS, LIFE SAVERS, MAYBES AND CRY BABIES, MISFITS AND WOTSITS, DAILY FAILURES, DAILY MAILERS, HEATHENS AND FIRE BREATHERS, NORMS, TEACUP STORMS, OLD TIMELYS AND ACID CASUALTIES, THE TUNELESS, TONEDEAF AND ALL THE OTHER DISCORDANT OR OTHERWISE ARE ALL WELCOME!!! ALL WHO FEEL THEY CAN ADD TO THE ATMOSPHERE, WHATEVER YOUR SKILL, POET, JUGGLER, POI, MUSICION, SPEED DRINKER, JOKER, PROFFESIONAL…”

So reads the Facebook invite to Beltane 2017

Last year I started my mammoth quest to visit as a many May Day customs as I could. I started my journey begun with planning to experience May Day at Oxford. The well renowned University town is noted for its unique May Day morning;  a strange smorgasbord of customs. However, I had read a small note of something rather unique and low key the night before and after checking into my accommodation I decided to investigate.

May it be on?

This supplementary custom occurred on the common at the edge of Oxford, so I decided to venture in the darkness of the wide open space. It was an all or nothing venture. This was something not official nor confirmed – I couldn’t find anything online particularly on Facebook. But nevertheless I decided it was worth exploring.

It was pitch black and I walked a few yards along the causeway looking for evidence of any activity. I felt quite unnerved to be honest. The common was a black void, lonely and forbidding. After an hour I couldn’t see anything and was about to turn back when I saw a flickering light in the distance. Was this it? I walked nearer and could hear music. Closer and it revealed itself to be a small group of twenty somethings around a fire listening to music. They were quite bemused by my appearance and said ‘They is a much larger bonfire around the corner’.

May it be a survival?

Of course, folklorists will be intrigued by these fires, being lit as they are on the eve of May Day, or Beltane. In parts of Northern Britain and Ireland the lighting of such fires has a long possibly pre-Christian origin, dating back to our dark Celtic times. Indeed the first written evidence comes from a 900 CE Irish glossary called the Sanus Chormaic which states:

“Beltaine. May Day i.e bil-tene i.e lucky fire i.e two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle against disease of each year to those fires they used to drive cattle between them.”

Interesting until recently cattle were being pushed through such fires in Ireland and Scotland until the 19th century. As a form of purification for the new year. A survival in the Celtic homelands is plausible – but in genteel Oxfordshire unlikely. Despite the link between Port Meadow and grazing thereabouts!

Beltaine and braces!

Well I decided to explore with some degree of trepidation! After a fair walk, I thought it was a wind up. But then I could again hear sounds and see flickering flames in a small opening in the woody area. Making my way through the foliage I found a larger group of people surrounding a larger bonfire. In their little arbour surrounded by fairy lights tangled through the undergrowth there was much chatting and laughter as they listened to the music and drank. Nearby was a reveler spinning around some flaming balls to great effect. All in all ,a typical rave akin to those of the 1990s, but this one being tied to a date made it of interest to the folklorist.

I asked about the history of the custom. One of the organisers said that their parents used to do it and they would attend as children. It was more a town event than the May morning after was most definitely gown event and had been going at least 40 years. She then said that a few years back they as adults went out looking for the fires one May Day Eve and being disappointed in not finding any decided to get organised the year after and do their own. Ten or so years later they were still doing it. This was a big one of course as May Eve was on the weekend without any work restrictions. She was unaware of its significance of the fires, but her name ‘Stardust’ I think explained its origins! A new age custom taken up and brought back to life by the neo-pagan parents, but now strangely like many ancient customs its significance not known to the current celebrants. This in a way indicates how quickly the meaning behind customs is forgotten.

Which in a way is good as its celebrated as deemed fit. The whole affair was very convivial and relaxed; so much that I wish I had stayed longer and not booked somewhere to stay, especially as it was such a fine evening.

Oxford’s May Eve celebrations are the very best of our British customs – an event special to its community, secretive but not exclusive.