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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!

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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

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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

Custom revived: The May day Islington Milkmaid’s Garland dance

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“Many people must still remember the milk maids garland and dance now quite extinct The garland which was very splendid was at first carried by one of the milk maids but afterwards by men accompanied by the dancers and a fiddler In a scarce tract printed in 1623 eating cakes and cream at Islington and Hoxton is also mentioned as a custom on May morning To Islington and Hogsdon runnes the streame Of giddie people to eate cakes and creame.”

Hugh F. Martyndale 1831’s A familiar analysis of the calendar of the Church of England

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During my attempt to attend as many May Day customs over the weekend of 2015, details of which are available in an article for the Company of the Green Man, one firmly in my sites was the New Esperance Morris’s May Day Islington Milkmaid’s Garland. Why? One because the team, a women only one is historically important, secondly because this was no ordinary Morris dancing but a reconstructed milkmaid’s dance and third and finally it was only done on the 1st of May and as this time the 1st fell on Bank Holiday it was an ideal opportunity.

My milk dance brings…

The Milkmaid’s dance is quite well described by early writers. Thistleton Dwer (1900) Popular customs notes that the Milkmaid’s Dance. On the first day of May, was described in the Spectator (vol. v.):

“the ruddy milkmaid exerts herself in a most sprightly manner under a pyramid of silver tankards, and, like the virgin Tarpeia, oppressed by the costly ornaments which her benefactors lay upon her.”

Shaken not stirred

Timings were working well so far on the day. I had attended the May Day morning at Oxford, came into to London and made my way to north-east of the city where their guide suggested they would be present. This is not always the best guide as Morris groups can often be late or else early on a tour and missed. I placed my luck on the former being true. However on arrival at the allotted pub I found the group mid-dance at the side of a pub with a group of bemused on lookers. Light hit off their buckles and bows and made them look majestic in their dance. However, when I arrived the first I noticed was the decorated milk pail, it was a faithful reproduction of what Thistleton Dwer in his 1900 Popular customs notes:

“These decorations of silver cups, tankards, and salvers were borrowed for the purpose, and hung round the milk-pails, with the addition of flowers and ribbons, which the maidens carried upon their heads when they went to the houses of their customers, and danced in order to obtain a small gratuity from each of them. Of late years the plate, with the other decorations, was placed in a pyramidical form, and carried by two chairmen upon a wooden horse. The maidens walked before it, and performed the dance without any incumbrance.”

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Pail into insignificant

Strutt in his 1801 Sports and Past times notes:

“Sometimes in place of the silver tankards and salvers they substituted a cow. The animal had her horns gilt, and was nearly covered with ribbons of various colours, formed into bows and roses, and interspersed with green oaken leaves and bunches of flowers.”

In a set of prints called the Tempest Cryes of London, one is called the Merry Milkmaid, whose proper name was Kate Smith. She is dancing with her milk-pail on her head, .decorated with silver cups, tankards, and salvers borrowed for the purpose, and tied together with ribbons, and ornamented with flowers. Misson, too, in his Observations on My Travels in England, alludes to this custom, lie says:

“On the 1st of May, and the five and six days following, all the pretty young country girls that serve the town with milk dress themselves up very neatly, and borrow abundance of silver plate, whereof they make a pyramid, which they adorn with ribbons and flowers, and carry upon their heads instead of their common milk-pails. In this equipage, accompanied by some of their fellow milkmaids and a bag-pipe or fiddle, they go from door to door, dancing before the houses of their customers, in the midst of boys and girls that follow them in troops, and everybody gives them something.”

Of course these women are no milkmaids and are not dressed like milkmaids but traditional Morris and the group espoused the carrying of these pails on their heads. However they do carry on a platform a splendid pail adorned with cutlery.

In Head’s Weekly Times, May 5th, 1733, occurs the following :

“On May-day the milk-maids who serve the Court danced minuets and rigadoons before the Royal family, at St. James’s House, with great applause.”

Pepys in his Diary, May 1st, 1667, says,

“To Westminster; on the way meeting many milkmaids, with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them, and saw pretty Nelly [Nell Gwynne] standing at her lodgings’ door in Drury Lane in her smock sleeves and bodice, looking upon one; she seemed a mighty pretty creature.”

Milk gone sour

Hone accounts for their demise in his Every Day Book of thirty years ago. He described them then as :

“ Themselves in comely colours dressed, Their shining garland in the middle, A pipe and tabor on before, Or else the foot-inspiring fiddle. They stopt at houses where it was ‘I’heir custom to cry ‘ milk below ! And, with the music play’d, with smiles join’d hands and pointed toe to toe. Thus they tripp’d on, till —from door to door The hop’d-for annual present sent — A signal came, to courtsey low, And at that door cease merriment. Such scenes and sounds once blest my eyes.”

He then notes:

“And charm’d my ears ; but all have vanished. On May-day now no garlands go, For milkmaids and their dance are banish’d.”

Why? I am not sure they were banished in the real sense but I would imagine changes in London’s urbanisation slowly pushed out this rural pursuit and as such it lay lost for over a hundred years.

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Someone else’s churn

The revival of this old custom is intrinsically linked with the development of female Morris dancing. Unfortunately Morris dancing and women are not something which is linked in most peoples mind when Morris dancing is mentioned. Yet early accounts do mention women Morris indeed some of the earliest mentions of Morris involve women. Will Kemp, a Shakespearian actor danced the Morris from London to Norwich in 1600 states that:.

“In Chelmsford he met “ a Mayde not passing 14 yeares of age… made request … that she might dance the Morrice with me in a large great roome. …I was soone wonne to fit her with bels… and to our jumps we fell. A whole houre she held out…”

Later on in Sudbury he came across:

“a lusty country lass …saying “If I had begun to dance, I would haue held out one myle though it had cost me my life. … if the Dauncer will lend me a leash of his belles,  ile venter to tread one mile with him my selfe. (sic)”

Fast forward several hundred years to a pioneer named Mary Neal who set up the first women’s Morris, Esperance Club, which was a social club for London’s working-class in 1896. Encouraged by Cecil Sharp the great collector of Morris and other traditional dances in 1905 who provided dances he had recorded from his notebook. The Esperance girls were soon displaying at schools and other places up and down the country and to teach the dances in schools and other places. However, differences in ideas and a fear that Neal’s views on the dances will taint the traditional aspects of the dance, Sharp and Neal parted company. Neal became involved with the suffrage movement and the group disbanded around the First World War. Morris fostered and developed by the Morris Ring became a male preserve and everything died down on the women’s front.

However, the 70s folk revival saw the birth of new women’s Morris and then finally in 1975 a London group named after that founding group the New Esperance – named for the original women’s team and practicing in the same area (of which I was proud to with them came the revived milkmaid’s dance which has continued ever since. And so they do a great effort to keep Morris in the city and raise the profile of the women’s essential role in the development of Morris and it is good to hear in this celebration of the Suffragette movement and consideration all things equality that finally the Morris ring has allowed women teams to join. Long long overdue!

Custom contrived: Blessing St. John’s of Harpham’s Well

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“In days of old in country ways, In Yorkshire woods, John sang they praise. Each year on the springtime wold, he saw the primroses unfold, the bleating lambs, the breaking sea. God gift to man eternally. Mist-laden nights, the shepherd’s crook, he left for cloister and for book, Through psalm and vigil, fast and prayer he grew in soul and found the three. But as he served n land of Kent. His winging thoughts still northernly.”

St John of Beverley’s anthem

It is a quiet village. Bypassed by a major room which brings excited tourists from York to Bridlington. Harpham lies to the south perhaps sleeping, except on the Thursday nearest the 7th May when the village and nearby town Beverley celebrate the village’s famous son, Saint John of Beverley. Indeed apart from the fine pub named after the local landowners, it is the relics of the saint which draw people to the village – the fine church and down a lane his old holy well. Although the well is one of two ancient ones in the village, itself unusual, this one is dedicated to the saint. Indeed it is claimed that the saint who was born in the village is said to have struck the ground with his staff and this spring arose

Well established tradition

Despite a claim that the visits to the well go back a 1000 years, the current custom dates back to the 2nd of May 1929, when the Minster at Beverley decided it was time to celebrate their own saint once encased in a fine shrine in that church, by visiting the place of his birth and paying homage to the spring. The date now moving to the Thursday nearest to the Saint’s feast day, the 7th of May. John born in Harpham in AD 640, would become an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Hexham and York, being educated at St Hilda at Whitby and retiring back home at Beverley where he was buried and until the Reformation a fine shrine housed his relics. A number of posthumous miracles are associated with the saint in particular his ability to tame wild bulls brought into the church yard. As William of Malmesbury records in his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum:

“Savage bulls are brought up, tied fast, by strong men sweating profusely; but as soon as they enter the churchyard they lose all their ferocity and become, you might suppose, no more than innocent sheep. So they are untied and left to frolic in the yard, though previously they used to go for anything in their way with horns and hooves.”

Well dressed

St John’s Well, the very one said to have been made by his staff is the focus of the ceremony held on this evening. In the nineteenth century the spring was enclosed in its current stonework and surrounded by a circle of railings. During the afternoon St John’s Well is dressed. However, this is not one of those Derbyshire well dressings made of clay and petals, it is sometime for simpler but just as impressive and pleasing to the eye. Around the base of this well are placed primroses and on top of the railings

Blooming Hawthorn crowns the top of the railings, beneath the hawthorn, are three wreaths of mixed seasonal foliage and flowers mainly rosemary, gorse and forget-me-not on each side with another just above the small opening. In other years ivy and adorned with a cross and garlands of tulips and daffodils had been used but the year I went the simple adornment was most effective in the evening sunshine. Similarly in previous years had meant only a slight representation of primroses making the well dressing a little lacking in impact. The year I went it was a glorious attempt. Primroses were still a little short in number in May and so much of the yellow was provided by mimulus.

Well remembered

Inside the church people were gathering excitedly. Dark clouds had threatened all day but as soon as the choir appeared from the church the sun started to shine. This choir which come from Beverley Minster, consisted of 27 men and boys of all ages enthusiastically were gathered beneath the church tower. They were running hither and thither; it looked like getting them to be in an orderly row would be difficult – but the choir master called out and they arranged themselves ready to go. The crucifer appeared and clutching their hymnals they were off through the churchyard down the lane to the church and then across the main road. Unlike similar processions there were no police in their bright jackets obscuring the spectacle. No cars appeared in the time they processed, it is an obscure village after all or was it the miracle of John taming the bullish motorcar. Behind the choir were the rest of the congregation which was added to as the procession went as curious onlookers, photographers and locals who had not managed to get to the church joined in.

In such a small village such a procession was quite a spectacle: with its crucifer holding their cross up high and proud, snaking down the lanes to the well, with the white tunics of the choir shining in the evening sunshine.

Soon the choir reached St. John’s Well and they arranged themselves on the bank opposite and opened their hymnals ready to sing. The rest of the congregation arrived at the well and a silence descended as they prepared. Previous years one of the congregation, a young boy or girl, stooped down and placed a small pot of primroses at the base of the well to add to the others. As the well was fully decorated perhaps this was missed. Once the congregation was in position, appropriately the vicar started with John 7:

“Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.”

The followed the Collect for St John of Beverley

Afterwards the choir sang St. John of Beverley’s Anthem:

“In days of old in country ways, In Yorkshire woods, John sang they praise. Each year on the springtime wold, he saw the primroses unfold, the bleating lambs, the breaking sea. God gift to man eternally.

Mist-laden nights, the shepherd’s crook, he left for cloister and for book, Through psalm and vigil, fast and prayer he grew in soul and found the three. But as he served in land of Kent. His winging thoughts still northernly.”

It was a short but evocative ceremony remembering this local Anglo-Saxon saint and the gift he gave to the village…once they had done their service they turned around and processed back to the church were a sung eucharist uplifted the spirits more. A delightful event which is nearing is 100 years and long may it be celebrated.