Tag Archives: customs blog

Custom contrived: Blessing Speen’s Lady Well, Berkshire

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“This well is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, after whom the church is also dedicated.  However, the spring around which the well was built is much earlier than the church, and it may have been a sacred spring renowned for healing powers in pre-Christian times.  The present well was constructed in the mediaeval period, and restored in 1902 in celebration of the coronation of Edward VII.”

The wording we have used in recent years to announce the Blessing

Berkshire is not over endowed with calendar customs so when you hear of a new one (new to you that is) it is good. Considering this is associated with a holy well, which hopefully you may be aware I blog about as well (see here in March) even more good to hear. New church customs can be transitory in their nature and sometimes do not survive the enthusiasm of the vicar who often are responsible for re-founding or inventing them. This one although details are scant appears to have survived  a number of vicars.

The Lady’s day

 

Every year the service is done near or at the church’s Patronal Festival, this being the 15th August, which is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The custom has been undertaken for decades however the exact date of its foundation could not be found.

The Newbury Weekly News on the 17th August 2010 stated

“Parishioners of Speen turned out in force on Sunday to continue the traditional blessing of the Lady Well at St. Mary’s church. Around 70 members of the congregation attended. Leading the procession was Rev Canon David Winter, followed by cross-bearer Alan Booth and incense-burner Derek Shailes. Church wardens Jane Burrell and Brian Nobles were also among the procession, which followed the patronal festival service at the church. Around 50 of those who attended also joined for a lunch to mark the blessing of the Lady Well, which is thought to date back before 452 A.D.”

The ceremony begun as noted with a procession following the cross-bearer out of the church and down the lane to the well its a short distance but enough for a decent procession. Here the well is dressed. However, don’t expect Derbyshire style attempts this is a delightful low key affair with posies and bunches of flowers.  The water is not forgotten and it is sprinkled amongst the congregation. Apparently before the last five years, the liturgy was dependent upon whoever was taking the service now it goes as follows:

INTRODUCTION  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All Amen  Our help is in the name of the Lord, All Who has made heaven and earth.  The Lord be with you. All And also with you.   

PSALM 65 1 Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion:  to you that answer prayer shall vows be paid.

  To you shall all flesh come to confess their sins;  when our misdeeds prevail against us,  you will purge them away.

 Happy are they whom you choose, And draw to your courts to dwell there.  We shall be satisfied with the blessings of your house, even of your holy temple.

 With wonders you will answer us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.

 In your strength you set fast the mountains and are girded about with might.

 You still the raging of the seas, the roaring of their waves and the clamour of the peoples.

 Those who dwell at the ends of the earth tremble at your marvels; the gates of the morning and evening sing your praise.

 You visit the earth and water it; you make it very plenteous.

The river of God is full of water; you prepare grain for your people, for so you provide for the earth.

  You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; you soften the ground with showers and bless its increase.

 You crown the year with your goodness, and your paths overflow with plenty.

 May the pastures of the wilderness flow with goodness and the hills be girded with praise.

 May the meadows be clothed with flocks of sheep and the valleys stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing.

 Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;  as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever.  Amen.”

The blessing going as follows:

“BLESSING OF THE WATER   

 As St Francis prayed with great gratitude for Sister Water, so we too come in prayer to God today, full of thanks for the life-sustaining generosity of his wonderful gift of water.     In her mysterious beauty, water causes the desert to bloom.  Each tiny drop among countless thousands of other drops does its work to water seeds and plants, to provide harvests to feed us and all creatures, to quench our burning thirst.     Like the body of the earth, our bodies too are over three-quarters’ water.  We are a water people.  We are a water planet.     O compassionate Creator God, whose spirit breathed over the waters at the dawn of creation, we seek forgiveness for our mindless use of water, we beg for wisdom to understand better how to conserve and cherish water, we ask healing for the ways that we abuse and contaminate water.     And what we ask for the creation around us, we ask too for our inner lives.  We welcome the gentle rain of your grace into our souls.  Come free us from hatred, greed, fear and our lack of love for your gifts to us.  Refresh us and renew us with your living streams of water that we may flow green and moist with life, hope and love for all that you have made.     We make this prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

We bless this well in the name of God, the Father who created us, the Son who redeemed us, and the Spirit who overflows with life within is.  Amen”

Then the following hymn is sung:

“HYMN All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing: Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong, Ye clouds that sail in heaven along, O praise Him, hallelujah! Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice, Ye lights of heaven, find a voice: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Thou flowing water, pure and clear, Make music for thy Lord to hear, Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou fire so masterful and bright, That givest man both warmth and light: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Let all things their Creator bless, And worship Him in humbleness, O praise Him, hallelujah! Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, And praise the Spirit, Three-in-One: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!”

All in all a great evocative holy well and it is great to see that it is still celebrated by its community.

Church Warden Jane Burrell, and obtained some photos about the annual service which is enacted there each here.

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Custom demised: St Bartholomew’s Eve Scholar debate, Smithfield London

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Before schools closed for August, scholars and schoolmasters from the different London schools met at the St. Bartholomew’s’ Priory for disputations on grammar and logic, and wrangled together in verse These were the days when much of the learning was oral  based rather than written and such a debate would really stretch the minds of the student and test their knowledge. John Stow in c1525-1605 Survey of London book recalls that:

“the arguing of the schoolboys about the principles of grammar hath continued even till our time; for I myself, in my youth, have yearly seen, on the Eve of St Bartholomew the Apostle, the scholars of divers grammar schools repair unto the churchyard of St Bartholomew, the Priory in Smithfield, where upon a bank boarded about under a tree.”

He describes the method as:

“one scholar hath stepped up, and there hath opposed and answered till he were by some better scholar  overcome and put down; and then the overcomer taking his place, did like as the first. And in the end, the best opposers and answerers had regards, which I observed not but it made both good schoolmasters, and also good scholars, diligently against such times to prepare themselves for the obtaining of this garland.”

Stow continues to discuss who attended. And it is clear that there was a fair bit of debate and some schools, as today, had a better reputation:

“I remember there repaired to these exercises, amongst others, the masters and scholars of the free schools of St Paul’s in London, of St Peter’s at Westminster, of St Thomas Acon’s hospital, and of St Anthony’s Hospital; whereof the last named commonly presented the best scholars, and had the prize in those days. This Priory of St Bartholomew being surrendered to Henry the Eighth, those disputations of scholars in that place surceased; and was again., only for a year or twain, revived in the cloister of Christ’s Hospital, were the best scholars, then still of St Anthony’s school, howsoever the same be now fallen both in number and estimation, were rewarded with bows and arrows of silver, given them by Sir Martin Bower, goldsmith.”

Image result for St Bartholomew's church old print

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the custom also encouraged disputes of a non-scholarly kind which Stow again explained:

“The scholars of Paul’s, meeting with them of St Anthony’s, would call them Anthony’s Pigs, and they again would call the other Pigeons of Paul’s, because many pigeons were bred in St Paul’s church, and St Anthony was always figured with a pig following him; and mindful of the former usage, did for a long season disorderly provoke one another in the open street with “Salve tu quoque, placet mecum disputare?” – “Placet.” And so proceeding from this to questions in grammar, they usually fell from words to blows with their satchels full of books, many times in great heaps, that they troubled the streets and passengers; so that finally they were restrained with the decay of St Anthony’s school.”

Interesting how the use of ‘would you like to debate or discuss?’ became a stimulus for a fight and it appears when it comes to children nothing is new. Indeed, sadly, like a number of school based traditions the reactions of the students curtailed the success of the custom which Stow appears to indicate. The rewards and prizes were not always enough to encourage a positive opinion of the custom:

“The satchels full of books, with which the boys belaboured  one another, really were the weapons that had put an end to the old practice of incessant oral disputation. Schoolmasters and men of learning, years before, had also taken to the thrashing of each other with many books; and books scattered abroad “many times in great heaps” were the remains also of their new way  of controversy. If a man had learning, society no longer made it in any degree necessary for him to go bodily in search of the general public to a Fair, or in search of the educated public to the great hall of a University. Writing was no longer a solemn business, and writing materials were no longer too costly to be delivered over to the herd of schoolboys for habitual use and destruction. Written, instead of spoken exercises, occupied the ‘pigs’ and ‘pigeons’ who ran riot over the remains of a dead system.”

Of course the Reformation was also a final block on the custom and it was never revived. Such great Independent schools still exist in London, they still do Latin of course, but its more book based. Perhaps it would be interested to encourage a more oral based debate again. Time for a revival?

Custom demised: Martin o’ Balymas Day or St Bulgan’s Day, Caithness and Shetland

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In the Highland county of Caithness and the isles of Shetland, the 4th of July was thought to be an important day to observe the weather to ensure safe sailing for the fisher folk. On the Shetland islands this day was called “Martin o’ Balymas Day” but in Caithness, it was “St Bulgan’s Day”. The names being a corruption of “St Martin of Bullion’s Day” in turn a mispronunciation of “Martin le Bouillant” meaning boiling referring to the hot summer feast.

152 best images about Caithness on Pinterest | Old ...

In the Northern Isles, this feast day took over the day traditionally ascribed to St Swithin and was said to mark the beginning of six weeks of dry weather. If the feast was greeted by a gale of wind, however, as is unfortunately all too common, rain would be sure to follow. An anonymous folklorist recorded:

“If the morning be fine, they had no hesitation to go to sea, because they knew the day would be good throughout, but they invariably avoided going the preceding day, lest they be overtaken by bad weather on the 4th or as they call it here St. Martinabilumas Day. By a few it is called St Martins, and the legend regarding the name of the day is that a dutch man, unjustly accused and condemned was put to death on this day and at the time of his execution stated that the day might be particularly distinguished in all time as proof of his innocence. The prayer of the righteous man was heard, and six weeks of dry or raining weather have annually commenced at this date, and he rainy season always begins with a gale of wind.”

St Martin of Bullion’s Day and its derivative is now forgotten and St Swithun has taken over!

Custom contrived: Corpus Christi Tortoise Race, Oxford

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Dreaming spires, gowns, academic prowess – all things associated with one of Britain’s greatest academic establishment. But tortoises? Perhaps not but for Corpus Christi college and a number of other colleges who compete it has been a strong tradition and bizarre break for the academic.

Tortoise’s cannot regulate their body temperature so it did not look good promising for a race when huge clouds appeared above those dreaming spires. But everyone was in good spirits awaiting the tortoise race at the college’s tortoise fair. Many were having picnics and many were adorned with face paintings which showed their affinity with our reptilian races.

What they tortoise at University

Founded by Richard Foxe, Bishop of Worcester and famed for its role in the translation of the bible into English. Tortoise racing is not necessarily appear to come to mind in this setting. However, back in the Trinity Term, local tradition states that a student called Steve Brand, who decided to raise money for RAG by organising a tortoise race as a ‘gentlemanly challenge to Oriel College. Surprisingly, so did Freda from BBC TV’s Blue Peter. According to the College’s journal, the Pelican Record in 1974 the night before the College’s tortoise Christi had disappeared. After much searching he was found in the Cloister’s quad. This moment of freedom, may have affected the result however, the Pelican Record noted:

“Christie, obviously off form after a harrowing night, came third after 21 gruelling minutes and 40 seconds.” 

Tortoises going missing appears to be a bit of a theme. In the 2000s, Balliol College’s Rosa, a winner of number of races was kidnapped the night before and never seen again! Trinity was blamed but nothing was ever proved.

Tortoise racing itself has some history. It was apparently done at the beginning of the last century in Greece being last recorded being done by bored British soldiers on the slope of Mount Olympus using lettuce and shade apparently as lures.

The Tortoise…and the hmmm…tortoise!

In those days tortoises were a bit more common, roll or perhaps, crawl back to the 21st century, and they are not despite this a good field of candidates were produced.

Some of the tortoises however have a long pedigree. Emanuelle from Regent’s College was bought in 1976. Originally thought to be a male and so gained an extra -le. As a regular winner in the 1980s and 90s and even starred in Blue Peter. Indeed it even had a cup named after it.

Over the years there have been tortoises coming and going from Oldham, Sampras, Percy, Archibald, Theodore, Zoom, Shelley. One year there was even a red-eared terrapin for Magdalen College School’s called George! This year there was a large Leopard tortoise which I felt was, being twice as big, quicker than the others as more powerful perhaps. The best name was Aristurtle – the Classic education showing through!

 

Clearly tongue firmly in cheeks as the Oxford Cherwell in 2013 Oxford in suspense for corpus tortoise fair reports:

Sampras, Christ Church’s tortoise. Kishan Koria, the tortoise keeper at Christ Church, says of Sampras: “An understated intellectual colossus (with an IQ of 160+) it has been rumoured that Aesop’s fable was indeed based on Sampras, as was Lewis Carroll’s academic paper on logic ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’.” Kishan adds: “He has been inspired by the Olympics towards a victory for the College who are right behind him.” 

Remember, slow and steady wins the race

Suddenly the bells of the nearby college chimed and everyone descended on an area to the back of the college. We had been watching the College’s cheerleading team – yes I was surprised too – but they were excellent – throwing a man dressed as a turtle into the air when people disappeared to form a large circle crowded around an open space, the arena. To one side were an array of boxes, wooden, cardboard and plastic stuffed with straw and hay in which resided preparing themselves the colleges the tortoises cared for by their devoted keepers. The role of the keeper is a formal elected role in the College and one not taken too lightly and it was clear they really cared for their carapaced charges.

Around the circle was placed lettuce leaves as the goal as this was a race of quickest to the outer circle rather than a flat race. One by one the tortoise racers were introduced with a few words from their keepers. Cheers went up for them from their respective fellow college members. They are very loyal to their tortoises. However, I couldn’t help think that Magdalene’s College’s Oscar d’tortoise was a bit of a cheat being it was a student in a suit! Worcester did apparently plan to bring two Zoom and Shelly but only Shelly turned up. There was Turtellini from St Anne’s, a cute small Aristurtle from St Peters, Percy from University, Emmanuelle from Regent’s Park and getting the biggest cheer Foxe from the home college. Once they add been introduced them and their keepers stood in the middle facing outwards and as the crowd counted down let go of their tortoises and they were off. I must say they moved exceedingly quickly Cheers and come ons boomed from the excited crowd. The tortoises were literally biting at each other’s hills and at one point two grunting tortoises had to be separated. Then only minutes after the whistle was blown Shelly went over the line and the race was finished. Shelly sat chomping his lettuce. Like all racers they then stayed around for photographs and adoration. It was over for another year and as the crowd dispersed so did the fine weather….a huge rain cloud befell the tortoises who were quickly spirited away for some post race fruit no doubt.

Custom transcribed: Father’s Day

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Image result for fathers day advert 1970s uk

It is fair to say that unlike Mother’s Day it is not the most popular of our transcribed customs but despite the slew of comical cards, cliché toolkit adverts and reference to classic rock and beer, its beginnings had honourable origins

There is some confusion of how the custom actually begun. One This tells us it begun as a response to a local disaster which killed 361 of which 250 were fathers at the 1907 Monongah Mining disaster, not far from Grafton West Virginia where Anna Jarvis had successfully introduced a re-constructed Mother’s Day. Grace Golden Clayton was mourning the loss of her father. As the disaster had left about a 1000 children without a father, she suggested that the pastor of the local church Robert Thomas Webb honour those fathers. The event did go ahead but the event was not promoted and was a small affair. As a consequence all the details of the event have been lost and it never continued.

Father dear father

However, perhaps the true originator of the ‘real’ Father’s Day was perhaps Sonora Smart Dodd. She again was influenced by Jarvis’s Mother Day service hearing a service in 1909 at the Central Methodist Episcopal Church. She suggested to the Pastor that the fathers should have a similar event. She herself wanted to honour her father William Jackson Smart who not only was a Civil War Veteran but raised six children on his own. Dodd suggested her father’s birthday, the 5th June, but apparently did not have enough time to organise it so chose the third Sunday in June. This was thus held on the 19th June 1910 at the Spokane, YMC, Washington. At the event she got the boys to wear fresh-cut roses, red for living fathers and white for those deceased in their lapels.

This time the event was more influential and thus a number of local clergymen adopted the idea and it spread through the city.  Thus in 1911, Jane Addams proposed a citywide Father’s Day in Chicago but this was rejected.

Origin number three perhaps is Methodist pastor J.J. Berringer of Irvington Methodist Church in Vancouver Washington. It what may have been an independent invention which locally was believed to be the origin of the custom.

Origin number four was Harry C Meek, who was dubbed the ‘Originator’s of the Father’s Day’ by the Lions Club International, because he came up with the idea of the custom in 1915, picking the third Sunday in June as it was close to his birthday.

Father on in time

A move was developing to allow Americans to adopt it as a holiday and President Woodrow Wilson event went to Spokane to speak at a celebration as an attempt  to raise its profile. Due to Dodd taking up studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the 1920s, the custom looked like it would die out. However, in the 1930s she returned to Spokane and started promoting it again there and nationally speaking to companies who might benefit for promoting it by providing traditional presents.

In 1938, a Father’s Day Council was founded by the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers which aimed to further promote the custom as a holiday. It was  not successful, as newspapers, reluctant to support another commercial enterprise like Mother’s Day, made sarcastic attacks and jokes. However, the merchants fought back and even used some of the derogatory opinions in their advertising.

Even in the 1930s, a movement started to replace both Mother’s Day and the embryonic Father’s Day, with a Parent’s day. The Great Depression prevented the success of this movement as the retailers saw it as a way to promote ties, hats, socks, pipes, tobacco, golf clubs and of course greeting cards in this;

Second Christmas for all the men’s gift-oriented industries.”

 

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By World War II advertisers saw it as a way to celebrate American troops. When it arrived in the UK is unclear but one feels that again like Mother’s Day it came over with those troops. Interestingly in the Belfast Newsletter of 20th May 1930 it is referred to as American:

“FATHER’S DAY, In the United States of America they have a day called Father’s Day —this year it is the 15th of June—and the idea is that on this day presents are bought by wives and by children.”

And according to the Western Mail of the 25th July 1949 lamenting the lack of adoption stating:

“It is sad to note that there has been no nation-wide response to the proposal for an annual Fathers’ Day. It would be an occasion when ‘Poor old Poppa, who, as the Americans used to sing, He don’t get nothin’ at all, would receive due.”

Yet by at least 1952 effort was being made by companies as an advert in the Fraserburgh and Northern Counties Advertiser saying:

“FATHER’S DAY. Show your appreciation of your DAD on FATHER’S DAY by choosing him a nice gift at RUSSELL’S “The Men’s Wear Shop.”

The Tatler in 1957 had an advert which stating:

“A good new pipe is something he’s been wanting for months, maybe years. So ye him a Barling Guinea Grain.”

Or in 1966 Gift decanters were available. By the 1970s and certainly into the 1980s it had become well established and despite some who see it as a Clinton cards event it is now firmly established. Interestingly, what begun as a religious service is now almost wholly secular.

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Custom demised: Visiting Downpatrick’s wells on Midsummer’s Eve, County Down

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Midsummer is a time often associated with visiting wells. In the July 1817 Hibernian Magazine it is reported:

“At Struel, near Downpatrick, there is a ceremony commencing at twelve o’clock at night on Midsummer Eve. Its sacred mount is consecrated to St. Patrick ; the plain contains three wells, to which the most extraordinary virtues are attributed.”

The account continues:

“Here and there are heaps of stones, around some of which appear great numbers of people, running with
as much speed as possible ; around others crowds of worshippers kneel with bare legs and feet as an indispensable part of the penance. The men, without coats, with handkerchiefs on their heads instead of hats, having gone seven times round each heap, kiss the ground, cross themselves, and proceed to the hill ; here they ascend, on their bare knees, by a path so steep and rugged that it would too difficult to walk up. Many hold their hands clasped at the back of their necks, and several carry largo stones on their heads. Having repeated this ceremony seven times, they go to what is called St. Patrick’s Chair, which are two great flat stones fixed upright in the hill ; here they cross and bless themselves as they step in between these stones, and, while repeating prayers, an old man, seated for the purpose, turns them round on their feet three times, for which he is paid; the devotee then goes to conclude his penance at a pile of stones, named the Altar. “

The report concludes by stating:

“While this busy scene is continued by the multitude, the wells and streams Issuing from them arc thronged by crowds of halt, maimed, and blind, pressing to wash away their infirmities with water consecrated by their patron saint, and so powerful is the impression of its efficacy on their minds, that many of those who go to be healed, and who are not totally blind, or altogether crippled, really believe for a time that they are by means of its miraculous virtues perfectly restored.”

Image result for downpatrick stoole "st patrick's chair"

Francis Dixon Hardy in his 1840 Holy Wells of Ireland provides greater details;

“About one mile and a half to the east of Downpatrick, and within about half a mile of Slieve-na-Grideal, one of the most celebrated of the ancient Pagan high places is a hill of about 150 feet of perpendicular elevation, called Struel Mountain, which remains uncultivated, producing a little mixture of grass and shamrock, with a few hawthorns, and an abundant crop of furze. At the foot of this hill, which is looked upon as holy ground, at about two miles distance, a monastery, built, as it is said, by St. Patrick and St. Bridget, formerly stood; near which is a well, bearing the name of the former saint, and supposed to possess extraordinary virtues, both in healing the diseases of the body, and in cleansing the pollutions of the soul; a sacred stream, supplied by this spring, runs unpolluted by any other stream until it arrives at Struel. It then flows through the consecrated plain, by a channel covered over with flags and large stones, and supplies in its course two of the four wells which it originally fed. Two of these wells, which are in a higher situation, appear to have been formed by hollowing out a little ground near the course of the rivulet; while the water enters the other two by spouts, having a fall of three feet into one, and six into the other. To these there are coverings in the form of sentry-boxes; the covering of the third is of the form and size of a moderate pig-sty; and that of the fourth is a kind of little cottage, consisting of two apartments.”

He continued rather disparagingly:

“To this place about one thousand people resort every midsummer, for the purpose of doing penance. They come from all parts of Ireland, and even from England and Scotland. Besides these, there is always a large crowd of spectators, amounting probably to another thousand. For the comfort and accommodation of both, a number of tents are erected in the plain, where whiskey is sold, and entertainment of every kind is afforded. The ceremonies commence upon the Sunday preceding, and commonly end upon the Sunday succeeding midsummer-day. As it is not necessary, however, that each penitent should continue here during all this period, few remain longer than one half of the week. The latter half seems to be regarded as the more holy; for the place is, during that time, more frequented, particularly on the last day, which is for that reason called “big Sunday.” No one appears to act as a general superintendent, but the multitudes appear to be left to themselves in submitting to the penance, and performing the ceremonies with which it is connected.”

Downpatrick Struell wells By Ardfern – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8104076

He continues:

“This portion of the penance being over, the penitents descend into the plain, where they move round certain cairns of stones, some crawling, and others running, as before. Each individual, however, must here carry a stone, which he adds to the heap. These cairns are in groups of seven and twelve, which respectively denote the days of the week, and the months of the year; or, as some will have it the seven churches and the twelve apostles. Around these they go seven times, or seven times seven, and twelve times, or twelve times twelve – measured as before by their various degrees of criminality. The next part of the ceremony is to proceed to the large well, termed the body-well, or, by some, the well of sins.  Before entering it, however, they approach with profound reverence a flag of freestone, which is placed in the wall, and is possessed of some peculiarly sanctifying powers. This they touch with their fingers, and then cross themselves repeatedly, and thus become prepared for the purifications of the holy wells. If they can afford a few pence of admission money, they may enter the larger well, where they have room to undress if not, they must content themselves with the second or limb-well, into which they are admitted free of expense, being obliged, however, to strip themselves in the adjoining fields. All modesty is here thrown aside. As they approach the well, they throw off even their undergarments, and with more than Lacedemonian indifference, before the assembled multitudes, they go forward in a state of absolute nudity, plunge in, and bathe promiscuously. After such immersion, they go through the ceremony of washing- their eyes, and conclude the whole by drinking from the fourth well, called by some the well of forgetfulness, and by others the water of life.”

Like many customs involving large numbers the side entertainments developed:

“Thus end the ceremonies of the day. Those of the evening follow, and form a remarkable contrast. The employments of the day seem to be considered as the labours of virtue, those of the evening are her rewards, by which they are amply compensated. Their eyes, after having been bathed in the sacred stream, instantly discover the flowery path of pleasure, which conducts them to the tents prepared for their reception, where they are supplied with copious draughts, of which the water of life was but a faint emblem. In these tents, and in the adjoining fields, under the canopy of a pure sky, they spend the whole night, quaffing the soul-inspiring beverage, and indulging in various gratifications to which the time and place are favourable; for it is understood, that while the jubilee continues, and as long as the happy multitudes remain on the sacred ground, they cannot contract new guilt.”

Sadly, no more, the springs remain but few people visit at Midsummer. They continued until the 19th century but a combination of a drop in water levels and prohibition of devotional exercises by the ecclesiastical authorities due to rowdy behaviour meant the custom slowly died out. People still visit the wells but perhaps the springs are now doomed as 2006 Environment and Heritage Service officials stated that the wells were drying up and two no longer contained water.

Custom survived: Reach Fair and Penny Scramble Cambridgeshire

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Regular readers of posts will have noticed fairs have been covered quite a bit this year. This will probably be the last one for a bit but it certainly is an unusual one to end with. It has the attributes of the other fairs covered here – rides, fast food and an opening from the Mayor. But the opening by the Mayor is more dramatic plus bizarrely it is a Mayor from the nearby city not the village it is in.

Within Reach

There is something ancient about Reach and its fair. I decided to travel to the fair via the Devil’s Dyke path following this ancient Anglo-Saxon entrenchment which ended at the village and one part of the fair even lay along it. Reach itself is a small settlement, a picturesque village, nestled around a green called Fair Green. Officially, it received charter in 1201 it is probably much older and likely dates back to the Saxon period. Over the years like many fairs it has changed. Despite being a small village, it was economically important to East Anglia, even nationally possibly internationally important being noted for selling ponies. These would fill the village and the auction would be held at the Hythe where a large stone still stands called the Auction Stone, the bids being struct for the third time. Over time like nearly every fair in the UK it moved from trade to fun.

Reaching out

I arrived a few minutes before the official opening of the fair. Making my way to the centre of the village, to Fair Green, where in this small area were crammed an array of whirling and buzzing rides; a big wheel, dodgems and a Maypole! It was May day after all!

Then at midday, the Cambridge Corporation and the Mayor party arrived. The Mayor being attended by the Aldermen and women in top hats and sergeant at Mace and various dignitaries from the University who processed to the bank and their assembled. They were given flower posies made by the local children, originally to keep the smells away! Below them the whole of the fair assembled waiting for the proclamation and more importantly for the hundreds of children – the penny scramble!

The Sergeant-at-Mace stood forward rang his bell, or rather dropped his clanger as it didnt work, and gave the proclamation:

“The King, by a charter dated at Geddington, the 8th of January, in the 2nd year of his reign, and tested by Roger bishop of St. Andrew’s, Geoffery Fitzpeter earl of Essex, Robert earl of Leicester, William earl of Sarum, and others, granted to the burgesses of Cambridge the following privileges :

  1. That they should have a gild of merchants.
  2. That no burgess should plead without the walls of the borough of any plea, save pleas of exterior tenure (except the King’s moneyers and servants).

III. That no burgess should make duel; and that with regard to pleas of the Crown, the burgesses might defend themselves according to the ancient custom of the borough.

  1. That all burgesses of the merchant’s gild should be free of toll, passage, lastage, pontage, and stallage, in the fair, and without, and throughout the ports of the English sea, and in all the King’s lands on this side of the sea, and beyond the sea, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).
  2. That no burgess should be judged by arbitrary amerciaments, except according to the ancient late of the borough existing in the time of the King’s ancestors.

  3. That the burgesses should have justly all their lands and tenures, wages and debts whatsoever, to them due, and that right should be done to them of their lands and tenures within the borough, according to the custom thereof.

VII. That of all the debts of burgesses which should be contracted at Cambridge and of the appearances there to be made, the pleas should be holden at Cambridge.

VIII. That if anyone in all the King’s dominions, should take toll or custom from the men of Cambridge of the merchant’s gild, and should not make satisfaction, the Sheriff of Cambridgeshire, or the Bailiff of Cambridge, should take therefore a distress at Cambridge, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).

  1. That for the amendment of the borough, the burgesses should have a fair in Rogation week, with all its liberties as they had been accustomed to have.
  2. That all the burgesses of Cambridge might be free of yereshyve and of scotale, if the King’s sheriff or any other bailiff had made scotale.

  3. That the burgesses might have all other liberties and free customs which they had in the time of the King’s ancestors, when they had them better or more freely.

XII. That if any customs should be unlawfully levied in war, they should be broken.

XIII. That whosoever should come to the borough of Cambridge with his merchandise, of whatever place, whether stranger or otherwise, might come, tarry, and return in safety, and without disturbance, rendering the right customs.

XIV. That any one causing injury, loss or trouble, to the burgesses, should forfeit a £10 to the King.

  1. That the burgesses and their heirs, might have and hold the foregoing liberties, of the King and his heirs, peaceably, freely, quietly, entirely, and honourably in all things.”

Much of the proclamation being largely incomprehensible to the crowd of course but of course everyone was waiting for the penny scramble. It is worth noting that the fair was originally on Rogation Monday later being moved to May Day Bank holiday for the convenience of the attendees. Like many fairs it was a time for homecoming. The second worth noting is that the charter allowed the development of a Pie Powder court to deal with trade offences and civil disobedience. This later point was of importance because it was said that it was the time when local people would fight with their neighbours and the nearby Upware men would make it the day the fought with Reach and got their hair cut! Indeed, in 1852 the local newspaper reported that a serious fire was caused by:

“Dissolute characters… attracted by the Annual Horse Fair”

Charles Lucas records in his 1930 Fenman’s world:

“Between ten and eleven o’clock things begin to get a bit lively as Upware and boxing, or rather free fighting, seemed to be the order of the day…the Wicken and Swaffham police were dealt with summarily, one being pitched into the Lode and the other into the Fen drain…at this time a crank Cambridge, a from Jesus graduate, Richard Ramsey Fielden MA, gave out that he was King and champion of Upware and he spent his time there arguing and fighting the bargees…it was though that he was the originator of the proceedings

Reach for the pennies!

Then after the proclamation the members of the corporation called Colts and Fillies apparent reached into their pockets for their bags of coins and then with very little fanfare we were off. Coins flew through the air. At one point coins fell from the sky like bullets. Below the children were prostrate on the ground, searching every blade of grass for the golden pieces, glinting in the light. I looked down and saw some children making large bundles of coins clutched in his hand beaming widely.

The barrage was constant and just when I thought it had stopped more coins appeared. The children were hungry for it and then it stopped. The crowd disappeared and the sound of the fair cranked up and it was open. Morris dancers appeared and danced. Young children did Maypole dancing – and sadly got tangled up and burgers were sold. Reach fair an obscure oddity and a great day to spend the May Day. Certainly much of the surrounding area agreed people were walking the roads for miles from nearby villages.