Tag Archives: customs blog

Custom contrived: Kew Gardens Clog and Apron Race

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Kew is a delightful retreat in west London. Its splendid glasshouses, incrediable arrays of perrenials and peaceful vistas. That is unless you happen to be there when the Clog and Apron race is on. For a few minutes only one of the main paths in the gardens thunders to the sound of wooden clogs and cheering!

Clogged up

But why clogs and aprons? Well clogs were traditionally the footwear of all gardens long before crocs and wellies appeared.They were better than leather boots to keep one’s feet dry Aprons being used for holding garden tools. Each year first year horticultural students are given a pair of wooden soled leather clogs and an apron in a ceremonial way as symbols of their profession. Whilst the aprons may be worn by these students, the clogs are purely symbolic most preferring those rubber shoes.

Runners (but not beans or strawberry)

The exact origins of the race are unclear as records have only been kept since the 1950s but it is thought to have started in the 1920s. It was one of a whole range of running events such as one which was between rival RHS Wisley and all around the garden race – must be all that propogating demanding some serious leg stretching.

The clog and apron race was a way of the older students to welcome the newer ones without any form of reward but glory.; more recently the Student Union has provided medals for first, second and third place.

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One of the earliest records in is the 1952 version of the Kew Journal where the extracts below are taken, which was the first after the interregnum that the second world war had enforced. The Clog and Apron Race was again held this year after a long interval, as the last race was run in 1939. Interesting it was held in the early summer:

“The race was held in fine weather on Friday, May 25th and the number of runners was so large that the field had to be divided into two heats. The first hear was run in the time of 59 seconds, being won by Mr P. Nutt ( -pixyledpublications honestly that was his name!) whilst the second heat, which like the first consisted of thirteen runners, was won by Mr. G Fuller. The first four from each heat lined up for the final and in this a very exciting race resulted. The ultimate winner, Mr Nutt, went into the lead very early, and despite all the efforts of the other runners, continued to gain until he ran hime an easy winner in a remarkable time of 49 seconds. Having regard to the fact that the course was from the Circle in the Broad Walk to No 3 Museum, measuring 375 yards and in view of the handicap of clogs and apron, the time is one which will be very difficult to beat in any future race.”

59 seconds seemed to be the model average. Nine runners in 1951 with a D. Hubbard gaining that time. It seems a few years later this Hubbard, becoming Dr Hubbard who in 1955:

“who started the race, gave a bottle of sherry and also cider to the winners. It was an exciting finish. J Eaton just beating A Keevil in 57 secs with D. Coleman third. J. Eaton also received the Pearce Cup, presented for the first year by Mr Pearce for the winner of the Race. Cynthia Warner also received a bottle of cider for being the only girl brave enough to challeng the lads. Mr Pearce provided cider to revive all the competitors. “

Then in 1976, the race then being held in October recorded that:

“The race started in failing light and finished up in almost total darkness. A record time was established by a second year student, Miss Sally Vernon, who became the first female to win the face but also claims the honour of breaking P. Nutt’s record time which was 49.0 seconds in 1951, by a clear 4 seconds. Sally with the speed of a 8.30 Trident, zoomed in at 45.9 seconds. “

However there were some recriminations

“Paul Potter, who came second in 55.0 seconds a clear 10 seconds behind speedy Sall, says that the girls should have been given only two little bins start, instead of the four they were allowed this year. I think that Paul knows that Sally would have still burnt him out if she had not been given any start at all. “

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In 1979 the race for the first time was organised so that members of the public could experience it. The Press release read:

“The Clog and Apron Race Thursday 27th September 1979 for the first time ever, the annual Clog and Apron Race wil be staged whilst the Gardens are opens so that those members of the public who wish can witness the special occasion. The race is held on Thursday 27th September and will start at approximately 5.00 pm and the activities should be finished by 5.45pm”

It adds;

“The event recaptures some of the ancient apprenticeship traditions and colour of the former days. The Race competitors, all dressed in horticultural aprons and heavy clogs, pound the full length of Broadwalk a wide 375 yard long avenue (running from the Palm House Pond and Orangery)….Lady students are given a 50 yard start.”

Alan Titchmarsh in his Knave of Spades notes the event, failing to mention this was perhaps his sole sporting success:

“The clogs were used competitively each autumn in the Clog and Apron Race, which took place o the Broad Walk that runs from Kew’s Orangery to Palm House Pond, a distance of perhaps a hundred and fifty yards. Clad in this traditional apparel (both still worn by Kew students in the late 1960s) those who were rash enough to enter would clatter their way down he wide Tarmac path, sparks flying from their footwear and their denim aprons billowing like kites. The prize was a crate of beer, which was shared round anyway, so it mattered not who won or lost, but how they clattered down.”

Clogging on

It was a very fine evening with the warmth of the fading sun on my face, I awaited on the grass verge the runners. Running in clogs must be a strange experience. The weight of the wooden shoes suggesting the need for some strength in those gardening muscles. I don’t think it would be an event you would want to do every day. Fortunately it was quick for them for in less than a minute the first runner appeared. One could hear them approaching before seeing him or rather them as there was he was closely followed behind by the rest. The winner made a respectable timing and looks very happy to hold aloft the prize. Then it was back to the hard work of horticulture.

 

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Custom demised: Little Coxwell’s Educational Charity

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Henry Edwards in their 1842 Old English Customs and Charities notes on the 29th of September the village enacted an unusual custom. He noted that:

“the Rev. David Collier charged certain lands in the hamlet of Little Coxwell with the payment of eight bushels of barley yearly…. for teaching the poor children of this parish to read, write, and cast accounts, for three years, when they were to be succeeded by two others to be taught for the same term, and so on successively for ever, and he empowered the vicar and churchwardens, or the major part of them (the vicar being always one) to nominate the children.”

This was back in 1724 and those these were the times when the poor were rarely educated and as such a benefactor who provided money to enable education would be gratefully received. Edwards notes that:

“The payment has been regularly made, sometimes in kind, but latterly in money estimated at the price of barley, at the Farringdon market, the nearest to the day when the annual payment becomes due. The payment is made, under the direction of the churchwardens, to a schoolmistress for teaching three children to read, and, if girls, to mark also. The number of children was formerly two only, who were further taught to write and cast accounts.”

However by the time of Edwards the charity was already appearing to die out in reference to teaching them to write and cast accounts:

“but this part of their education was discontinued many years ago in consequence of the inadequacy of the fund, and, instead thereof an additional child was sent to be instructed with the others.”

Now education is free and as such the provision of the money has long gone.

Custom survived: The South Queensferry Burryman

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

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

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

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

Burry little clear on the origins

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

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

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

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

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Burrly able to move

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

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

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

Burrly there!

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

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

Custom demised: Shooting the silver arrow, Harrow School

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Our historic independent school are a rich source for calendar customs and indeed many still survive. Formerly Harrow schools Silver Arrow competition was annually held, to be shot for by the scholars of the Free School at Harrow. The following extract is taken from the Gentlemen Magasine 1731, vol. i., p. 351 :

“Thursday, August 5th, according to an ancient custom, a silver arrow, value £3, was shot for at the butts on Harrow on-the-Hill, by six youths of the Free School, in archery habits, and won by a son of Captain Brown, commander of an East Indiaman. This diversion was the gift of John Lyon, Esq., founder of the said school.”

An archery scorecard, showing a contest with spectators watching contestants at the left shooting at targets. 1769 Etching with engravingThe origins of the custom are described by Paul Goldman, in Sporting Life’ BM 1983 cat.2 who states that:

“In 1684 Sir Gilbert Talbot presented a silver arrow worth three pounds to Harrow School as a prize for shooting. The contest eventually became a regular fixture and although interrupted by the reign of James II, lasted until 1771. The tradition lives on, at least in name, in a rifle match called the Silver Arrow Competition, and as part of the crest of the school which bears two crossed arrows.”

It was abolished by a headmaster called Heath for unknown reasons but it is not forgotten. For such a relatively short lived custom, just over a 100 years, its impact on the school psyche is considerable. It is immortalised in its emblem, a Harrow song and remembered as a trophy in an annual sailing, but the competition did not survive, part of the reason no doubt being that the school is closed now over August; being the school holidays.

 

 

Custom contrived: Congham Snail Racing World Championships, Norfolk

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“Congham is to snail racing what Newmarket is to horse racing.”

The British like to create contradictory oxymorons: snail racing must be one of the best. Snails not renowned for their speed so a snail race has a perverse feel to it. For those who wish to race their snails the place to be in a little known village, Congham. For once, the world addition is valid, there are other lesser snail racing competitions. Why Congham? The organiser, Hilary Scase explains this is due to the fact:

“Snails like damp conditions and as Congham is surrounded by ponds and is very low lying it is just right for snails.”

Not the best place for growing veg and hostas then?! The Snail Racing started 27 years ago as a unique way to attract visitors to their village fete. And indeed, that has worked and Congham is firmly on the wacky calendar customs list.

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Snail’s pace

The event has become a popular one amongst all ages and childrens and adults can be found clutching a plastic tub or jam jar full of leaves and snails, some with their shells painted, some cases with some degree of artistry. They were warming up as they gracefully slide around the sides…although some appear to be sulking and deep within their shells; well it was a hot July day – not the best for snails to be honest.

Those competing – although why else would they be there -are taken to the arena and small circular stickers with their racing numbers are affixed; afterall they all do look very alike. The arena consists of a white sheet with two red circles on it one smaller one where the snails are placed and another larger one which is the goal for the snails, with a 13 inch radius.

A group of around 20 to 30 and a forest of tripods surround the arena. Their cameras posed with telephoto lens of the arena and the snails.

Ready Steady Slow

So shouts the Snail Trainer wearing a white shirt with his role clearly proclaimed. A round of cheers erupts from the audience….but not much from the snails who sit stubbornly on the middle red circle! Then suddenly one breaks free; head pokes out and antenna snake out and its off…slowly! Then another appears to be making a break and soon catches up with the other. Water is poured on the snails to keep them going although they duck back into their shells in shock…this would not be allowed in other sports dousing in water – they I am sure in hot weather they would like it! Being snails some decide to climb over another – highly irregular and still some go backwards! Strangely enough despite their reputation for being a bit slow the snails do pick up speed and by three minutes we get a winner as first its antenna and then its head eases over the red line and is lighted off and announced the winner. Apparently, the world record stands at 2 minutes over the 13 inches, achieved in 1995 by a snail called Archie. It wasn’t beaten.

Coming out of your shell

The event was attended by some very excited. As the press release said:

Children take snail racing very seriously. When 9-year-old Thomas Vincent won the championships with his snail Schumacher, he said: “I have achieved my lifetime’s ambition.”

Indeed, the children, some dressed up in fancy dress, were clearly very into the event chanting the names of snails. Even the adults looked anxious at the results,.

After a number of heats, the snails slugging it out to be the ultimate winner! The heat’s winners were selected for a final. It was tense thing. The winner, at 2 minutes 47 seconds, was quite a smaller snail by comparison, had gone from chewing the veg patch to winning avoiding the slug pellets on the way. It had beaten 200 other snail attendees.

Its all very tongue in cheek of course but local farmer, Neil Riseborough, who is the competition Snail Trainer to the World Championships is there according to the press release to keep:

“order, tests for drugs, watches out for cheating and starts the races.”

Fortunately there were not any random drug tests nor steward’s inquiries whilst I was there. It was a thoroughly enjoyable event and one dare I say which has created some good PR for snails. The winner received lettuce leaves and its trainer a silver tankard which had the leaves in it! Very pleased with themselves they posed with their snail and prize for the press and another snail racing had ended for the year.

Farmer,.

Custom revived: Bawming the Appleton Thorn, Cheshire

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“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

Chorus

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.

Chorus

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.

Chorus

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.

Chorus

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 demised: Chalvey Stab Monk Ceremony, Berkshire

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Anyone born and bred in the village of Chalvey, now absorbed into the urban sprawl of Slough, is called a ‘stab Monk’. Why? Well the name is associated with a strange legend with an even more bizarre custom which became held annually on Whit Monday usually in June.

Despite some attempts in linking the custom to Roman pagan traditions and parallels can be drawn to Oasby’s Baboon night and the famed monkey hangers of Hartlepool, it appears to be based on a fairly recent story. This story apparently dates from between 1850-1880 and tells how on Sunday an Organ Grinder visited the village to entertain the villagers, especially the children. However, one child teased the monkey and unsurprisingly perhaps he was bitten on the finger. When he rushed home to tell his father, who understandably having been drinking all Sunday the Cape of Good Hope Pub all day quickly responded by storming over to the Organ Grinder and stabbing the monkey to death! To recompense the Organ Grinder, a collection was made, a funeral arranged and a wake organised. It is said that this wake was so popular, providing as it did free beer, that it was repeated the next year!

The next year, a plaster monkey made by a local craftsman and another wake was organised, although the model appears to be something that has come from a pub and one wonders whether it was originally came from the pub and was totally made up. During this one, a person fell into the Chalvey Brook and he was proclaimed the Mayor of Chalvey for that year! This also became a tradition and each year the person who fell into the brook was so proclaimed, in as much a person would be purposely pushed into it. One year it was a policemen watching the procession that was pushed in.

Of course, the popularity of the event was firmly based on alcohol and as such it frequently became notorious. One notable event was when revelers were caught drinking out of hours at the Cape of Good Hope Pub in 1919 during Victory celebrations. The landlord a George Holdway, was summoned to court to explain the situation. He won the case explaining that it was the funeral procession passing the pub which he invited to celebrate the end of the war. He won the case and just paid court costs.

This most bizarre event dragged itself through the early part of the 20th century and photos exist from the 30s and 40s showing robbed and top hat wearing processors, the latest being 1947 but it became less frequent, until it appears to have died out. Although apparently for charitable reasons he can re-appear, he resides in Slough museum for all who are curious to hear about this most unusual and perhaps pointless custom.

The name is preserved locally, in the football team with its logo of a monkey and knife, in the name of a local park the term ‘stab-monk’ used to describe man born and bred in Chalvey, having been pushed or fallen, into the Chalvey Brook