Tag Archives: Local history

Custom revived: Chestnut Sunday Bushy Park

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One of the great joys of Maytime is the blossom that abounds. Hedgerow, fields and parks. The simple desire to appreciate and experience such natural beauty was behind the most curious of London customs; Chestnut Sunday

In a sort of homage to the tradition concept behind the northern Spa Sunday perhaps, London developed the custom soon after Queen Victoria opened the Royal Park to the public. Soon people recognised the grandeur of the chestnut trees that lined the drive in.

Bushy plants

It was during the reign of William and Mary that the mile long avenue lined by horse chestnut trees was planted by Sir Christopher Wren (not personally of course). These trees reached their zenith in the Victorian period and people, including members of the Royal family, would descend on the park on the Sunday nearest to the 11th of May when the blossom was said to be at its greatest. Thousands attended, records show that one Chestnut Sunday in 1894 over 3500 tickets were collected at Hampton Court railway station alone. Over the time it was so popular that even bus companies would organise special excursions. Although it World War I suspended any formal organisation to see the chestnuts, advertising went overboard once peace had returned. The Transport for London museum has a number of evocative posters made during the hey day of the custom – the 1930s showing people picnicking, promenading and playing amongst the trees.

Load of old chestnuts

The coming of World War II and the use of the park as a military headquarters curtailed Chestnut Sunday and it slowly disappeared. However it was not completely forgotten for a revival was coming. In 1977. Colin and Mu Pain, Hampton Wick residents came across details of the custom doing research about the suburb. The year was a good one for a revival being the Silver Jubilee of the Queen and so together with the Hampton Wick Association a one off celebration again on the Sunday closest to the 11th of May was planned. From this it grew and grew.

From tiny chestnut…

That initial revival has developed and developed that it has become a festival. I visited in 2008 to be greeted by thousands of people lining the avenue to see a parade which went from Teddington Gate to the Diana Fountain. The procession was the usual mix of vintage cars, marching bands and cavaliers…but no Morris…except from Morris Minor that is. A nice distraction although the smell of the vehicles did rather overpower the natural beauty of the avenue. Indeed Roy Vickery in his excellent Plant Lore blog notes:

Today, and one assumes throughout most of the event’s recent history, very little, if any attention is paid to the trees, a small number of local charities have stalls, there are a small number of food stalls, and a small funfair, the main attraction being a parade which starts at 12.30 p.m.  But the event is very popular with families, many of whom bring picnics.  In 2019 the parade consisted mainly of veteran vehicles – military vehicles, cars, bicycles, scooters and motorbikes.”

With a fun fair, local stalls and re-enactments, there is plenty to entertain the Londoners who attend…although one wonders how many spend time to admire its principle asset!

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Custom survived: Lichfield’s Shrovetide Fair

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I’ve decided to do sometime a bit different for this month’s post which is to divide two customs into its traditional part and its contrived form.

Lichfield as I said before is justly proud of its customs and I have had the pleasure of attending all of them (and it is only the Bower and Court of Array I have yet to record in this blog). The last Lichfield custom I had yet to attend was the Pancake Toss and Shrovetide Fair

This blog post as the page records is about the Shrovetide Fair and its traditional opening.

A fair market

The shrovetide Fair is often the earliest traditional fair in Britain if the date of Shrove Tuesday is early. It was established by the 14th century survived the Reformation and Parliament to be given a Royal Charter of James 1 which then set the date that it was proclaimed on Shrove Tuesday, usually started on Ash Wednesday and finished on Friday. By the late 17th century it was known as the Old Fair.

As the fair was held on the eve of Lent it capitalised on the needs for people who would observe fasting over this period. And thus it was once famous for the sale of cured fish. Tolls, which were recorded as 4d, record that salt fish, salmon, herrings, eels, stock fish were common. Detailed records show that in 6000 red herring and two barrels of herring prepared in stock were purchased in 1367 by Halesowen abbey. A fair record of the mid 1520s show that the stock was diversifying for Sir Henry Willoughby of Wollaton Hall not only included fish and seafood: eels, herring, salmon, mussels, but also honey, oil, and currants. By the mid 1820s the Ash Wednesday fair was dealing in sheep, cattle, horses, cheese, and bacon.

The official day of the fair changed a number of times from Shrove Tuesday to Ash Wednesday until the 1870s when St Mary’s church complained the fair which did sit beneath it was disturbing the solemnity of the Ash Wednesday service; although this was not permanent until 1890. Over time though it was clear that the mercantile opportunities of the fair had been reduced and by the late 1980s only a pleasure fair was held which then continuing for the rest of the week. This has continued to the present day.

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Fair appraisal

As the Civic procession made their way to the market square for noon to open the fair. Now as noted above this fair has changed over the years but I could imagine it was a bit more exciting years back for now it only consisted of a few small rides. In previous year the Mayoral party decamped on a exciting pulsating ride like the Waltzers as above. The year I attended the group then met up beside heady delights of spinning teacups (!) with the fair organiser as the Towncryer proclaimed the fair open he discussed the Pie Powdre which was for

“the redressing of all grievances or complaints that shall happen to arise during the time of the fair”

This was established in 1464 Now despite I am sure some complaints being raised at the fair over the grabbers or the size of the candy floss, the court no longer sits. At the point that the proclamation was made the bells of St. Mary’s church which beamed over the small fair rang out. The Mayor then invited the children for their free ride – there wasn’t exactly a rush the cold and inclement weather had rather discouraged a crowd of onlookers. A small somewhat reluctant toddler was removed from their pushchair into a cup close by the Mayor – it looked very bemused – and the Mayor wisely jumped out to be replaced by the girl’s mother. As regular readers of my blog will know I do enjoy a Mayoral fair opening but this one really did have the feel of Trumpton about it as the party slowly glided around in those heady teacups!

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One ride was enough and the party then processed back to the Guildhall where those who attended were given free victuals –this in itself was one of the oldest surviving traditions recorded at the Ash Wednesday fair of 1747 as ‘simnels and wine’ – I enjoyed a rather nice cup of tea and a peace of that delicious traditional Simnel Cake.

I have always noted not only does Lichfield have some great colourful customs but they also are very welcoming and inclusive of strangers with great food and drink! It’s so great that Lichfield has so many customs as well!

Custom survived: New Year’s Day First footing

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As what you do on the first day of the year determines the rest of the year, or so it is said, I was invited to speak on local radio about New Year Day customs – prominent in these is First Footing and I was interested to hear both the newsreader and the presenter recounted their own First footing.

First footing is an interesting piece of British folklore and one that is clearly spreading and as it has taking away local variants no doubt. Early accounts record that it was restricted to the north of England and Scotland but clearly has spread in the first place as the 1st of January was accepted in England as the first day of the year and as media has recorded it.

Indeed the earlier accounts record it as a Scottish custom as noted by Chamber’s 1856 Book of Days :

“There was in Scotland a first footing independent of the hot pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot. Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among the family, if through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.”

A dark night?

Who should be the first footer was always important but there appears to have been virtually countrywide agreement. For example the standard description for the first footer is described in Lancashire:

“a light-haired man is as unlucky as a woman, and it became a custom for dark-haired males to hire themselves out to “take the New Year in.””

Paying someone to do it was not unusual and Maureen Sutton in her 1996 Lincolnshire calendar records an account from the city of Lincoln which recalls:

“We believed the first dark haired man to set foot over your threshold would bring with him good luck. He had also to bring in the silver, the coal, and the wood that you had put out the night before. My mother used to pay one of our neighbours to first foot she wanted to make sure that everything was done as it should be. Some women thought that first dark haired you saw on New Year’s day you would marry. A fair haired man would bring bad luck, a ginger one was even worse and a women was out of the question. I think she paid the neighbour a shilling.”

Christine Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire in 1936 records that:

“To avoid the risk of such disastrous visits. The master of the house, if he is dark, usually goes out just before midnight. As the clock strikes, he is admitted as First foot.”

In Northumbria according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria it was also desirable that they be unmarried, possibly recalling another tradition of marrying the first man on the new day.  However in Yorkshire although it was important that the First footer:

“always be a male who enters the house first, but his fairness is no objection.”

Tony Dean and Tony Shaw in their Folklore of Cornwall 2009 stressed how the presence of a man was important:

“A female must never be the first over the threshold on New Year’s Day and sometimes boys were main nominal sums to pass over the step before a lady.”

And in the 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, she notes that:

“a women would not enter a house without first enquiring if a man had been there that day”

And a story is even told of a young Mansfield girl barred from the home on New Year’s day and subsequently picked up by the police in late 1800s because no man had visited the house yet. However equality was rightfully affecting this tradition. In Birmingham a Ted Baldwin recording back in the 1920s in Roy Palmer’s 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire that:

If the person had black hair he or she would be welcome to come in the front door and leave by the back, it was a sign of good luck for the coming year and anyone performing this generous act was awarded sixpence according to custom.

And in Worcestershire it is recorded that in Notes and Queries that:

A belief exists in this county, that if the carol singer who first comes to the door on New Year’s morning be admitted at the front door, conducted through the house, and let out at the back the inmates will have good luck during the year.”

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Bring in the coal

What was brought in and how is equally important and now it appears that in most cases the items have become standardised if sometimes difficult to obtain. Ted Baldwin’s:

Another tradition was to present neighbours with a piece of coal as a symbol to warn off want.”

According to Kingsley Palmer in the 1976 Folklore of Somerset:

“It was the man who first set foot inside the house on New Year’s Day who shaped the pattern of life for the coming months. He should be dark and carry a lump of coal….although the observance is generally practiced in the northern counties it is also a Somerset tradition and can still be found today. Needless to say, a dark man with a few small pieces of coal can visit his friends at this time of year and be rewarded for his efforts.”

In Durham a homeowner would check their larder was full and their coal and firewood stocks were high according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria. In Cornwall money would be left on the window sill. A correspondent from Boston in Sutton recorded stated:

“Silver meant meant you’d have money for the year; coal would give you light and heat; and if you take in wood, you wont take a coffin out in the year, y’er wont take wood out of the house”

Hence the expression recorded in Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire:

“Take in and then take out, Bad luck will begin, Take in and then take out, Good luck comes about”

She continues to record that:

“A curious adaptation of this idea was shown in a Manchester murder trial. During the New Yeae holiday there, one of the habitues of a public house asked for whiskey on credit. The publican refused on the grounds that it was unlucky to give it then. The infuriated customer drew a knife and stabbed the host who died.”

Hole also notes that:

“It was unlucky to give fire, or a light, out of the house on the 1st January. To do so might cause a death in the family within the year or bring some misfortune.”

In Sussex according to W. D. Parish a Dictionary of Sussex Dialect of 1875 that it was unlucky to bring mud into the house and it was called January butter and in Cornwall it is recorded that even dust was swept inwards. In Essex recorded at Colchester by Sylvia Kent’s 2005 Folklore of Essex was the following rhyme for the first footer:

“I wish you a happy new year, a pocketful of money, a cellar full of beer, a good fat pig to last all year. So please give a gift for New Year.”

Warwickshire the following must be said by boys or men:

“A good fat pig to serve you all year Open the door and let the New Year in, Open the door and let me in.”

A Birmingham correspondent recorded in 1966 when she was 40 states that it was:

“and a big fat goose to last you all year.

At this point that poke the fire, runs three times around the table and shouts ‘New air in with the door open and then runs out.”

In Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria children would beg as they first footing:

“Get up aad wife and shake your feathers, dinna think we are beggars, we are just bairns come out to play, get up and giv our hogemany.”

Wrong footed

Is this custom now dying out? Its one of the few private customs which is still undertaken despite no obvious benefits, indeed there is even has a wikihow webiste: https://www.wikihow.com/Celebrate-a-First-Footing. Having said that there has been concern over its survival. In Dundee it was reported in the Evening Telegraph in 2016 that:

“Dundonians are being urged to revive an age-old New Year’s tradition by giving a lump of coal as a first-footing gift. The Scottish custom of visiting neighbours after midnight on Hogmanay has become less common in recent years. Traditionally, visitors would have come with gifts, including coal, shortbread, whisky or salt. In a bid to restore the custom, supermarket Lidl will give out lumps of coal to customers in Dundee – the idea being it would have been placed on the host’s fire to keep it going. Paul McQuade, Head of Buying for Lidl in Scotland, hoped the giveaway would keep the encourage folk to keep the tradition going. He said: “Hogmanay and New Year’s Day is a time for eating and drinking with friends, neighbours and family. “It’s a special time around the world, but especially in Scotland.“This year, we want to give our customers something extra – a lump of coal to present to their neighbours and hopefully this will help revive the tradition of first-footing in the community.” The coal will be available at checkouts in all Lidl stores from today, while stocks last.”

Well I can record that it is still done as noted in my radio interview. So next year my bread, coal, silver will be sitting on the doorstep ready for the doors to open!

Custom occasional: Hunting the Mallard at All Soul’s College Oxford

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Such elaborate junketing may sound a little odd to anyone unconnected with All Souls . . . But presumably, if Homer may be excused an occasional nod, a Fellow of All Souls may be allowed, once in a hundred years, to play the fool.”

Account from Cosmo Lang’s Biography

Back in 2001 I was invited to see a strange spectacle which by its rarity and unusual description I honestly didn’t believe actually existed, All Soul’s College Hunting the Mallard. Sadly in the end I could not go and missing out in a way cemented by desire some may say obsession to catalogue our curious and colourful customs. Why? Well because the Hunting of the Mallard is the rarest of beasts, as rare as the said Mallard, as it is only done every 100 years.

Interestingly Thistleton-Dyer in his excellent Popular customs past and present 1876 appears unaware of the 100 year cycle recording:

“This day was formerly celebrated in All Souls College, Oxford, in commemoration of the discovery of a very large mallard or drake in a drain, when digging for the foundation of the college ; and though this observance no longer exists, yet on one of the college ” gaudies ” there is sung in memory of the occurrence a very old song called ‘ The swapping, swapping mallard.”

Ducking and diving

As noted above the Mallard has a strong association with this venerable Oxford college; it is their mascot and can be seen on various objects around the college. But how did it all start? 1437 is the date given when during the digging of the college’s foundations the college’s founder Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Clichele, was indecisive of where he should build his college. But during a dream he was told that:

“…a schwoppinge mallarde imprisoned in the sinke or sewere, wele fattened and almost bosten. Sure token of the thrivaunce of his future college”

The location in the dream was next to the church and upon digging where he was directed and could hear in a hole: “horrid strugglinges and flutteringes” reaching in he pulled a duck describe as the size of “a bustarde or an ostridge.” This was a the sign and as the bird flew away the academics who were to become the Fellows of All Souls chased it, caught and then of course ate it! And so immortalised the bird in the college’s history.

When the custom started is unclear but an account by Archbishop Abbott in 1632 is the earliest recording:

“civil men should never so far forget themselves under pretence of a foolish mallard as to do things barbarously unbecoming.”

It may have been thoughts like this which resulted it in being a 100 year cycle!

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Yes Mall’ord

On the night of January 14, 2001, some of Oxford’s most learned fellows could be seen marching around All Souls College behind a wooden duck held aloft on a pole. They were engaged in the bizarre ritual of hunting the mallard that occurs once every 100 years at the College. I was up at Oxford at the time, and one of my tutors was present and so I got the eye-witness account of the matter.

After a commemorative feast the fellows paraded around the College with flaming torches, singing the Mallard Song and led by “Lord Mallard” carried in a sedan chair. They were in search of a legendary mallard that supposedly flew out of the foundations of the college when it was being built.

And so, during the hunt the Lord Mallard is preceded by a man bearing a pole to which a mallard is tied. Originally it was a live bird, by 1901 it had become a dead bird, and by 2001 it was a bird carved from wood. The last mallard ceremony was in 2001 and the next will be held in 2101.

How many hunting the mallards there officially have been is unclear – one presumes six – as little is recorded. The only one to have been documented before the 2001 one was the 1901 custom. The Mallard Lord being Cosmo Gordon Lang, who recalled via J G Lockhart, his biographer:

“I was carried in a chair by four stalwart Fellows – Wilbrahim [First Church Estates Commissioner], Gwyer [later Chief Justice of India], Steel-Maitland [later Minister of Labour] and Fossie Cunliffe – for nearly two hours after midnight round the quadrangles and roofs of the College, with a dead mallard borne in front on a long pole (which I still possess) singing the Mallard Song all the time, preceded by the seniors and followed by the juniors, all of them carrying staves and torches, a scene unimaginable in any place in the world except Oxford, or there in any society except All Souls.”

The account related that in 1901 that:

“The whole strange ceremony had been kept secret; only late workers in the night can have heard the unusual sound, though it is said that Provost McGrath of Queen’s muttered in his sleep, ‘I must send the Torpid down for this noise.”

At the end of the event Lang notes that the dead mallard was thrown on a bonfire to which Lang noted:

“some of the junior fellows could not be restrained from eating portions of its charred flesh”.

Its all quackers!

As the procession hunted the duck the procession would sing the Mallard Song:

The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon

Lett other hungry Mortalls gape on

And on theire bones with Stomacks fall hard,

But lett All Souls’ Men have ye Mallard.

CHORUS:

Hough the bloud of King Edward,

By ye bloud of King Edward,

It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

Some storys strange are told I trow

By Baker Holinshead and Stow 

Of Cocks & Bulls, & other queire things

That happen’d in ye Reignes of theire Kings.

CHORUS

The Romans once admir’d a gander

More than they did theire best Commander,

Because hee saved, if some don’t foolle us,

The place named from ye Scull of Tolus

CHORUS

The Poets fain’d Jove turn’d a Swan,

But lett them prove it if they can.

To mak’t appeare it’s not att all hard:

Hee was a swapping, swapping mallard.

CHORUS

Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,

Hee was swapping all from wing to thigh;

His swapping tool of generation

Oute swapped all ye wingged Nation.

CHORUS

Then lett us drink and dance a Galliard

in ye Remembrance of ye Mallard,

And as ye Mallard doth in Poole,

Let’s dabble, dive & duck in Boule.

CHORUS”

The song is not restricted to the Mallard and is song at events such as the Gaudy held annually.

Duck soup

In 1801 it was said that a live mallard was chased around, by 1901 it was a dead one on a pole and by 2001:

There will be a wooden mallard duck carried at the head of the procession on a pole.”

The History Girls blogsite accounted that in 2001 Dr Martin Litchfield West was the Mallard Lord it reported:

“Behind Dr West, fortified by the Mallard Feast and dressed in black tie and gowns, marched the other fellows of the college. Among those expected to participate were William Waldegrave and John Redwood, members of the last Conservative Cabinet, and Lord Neill of Bladen, former chairman of the committee for standards in public life and once warden of All Souls. All fellows taking part in the procession are expected to give full voice to the Mallard Song. …There will be 118 people, all fellows or past fellows, carrying torches. We shall go around the college and up the front tower and back again. We will then join the college servants for a lot of drinking and there will be a fireworks display.”

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An account of the custom first hand related to the blogger of the excellent History Girls blogsite notes:

“My tutor gave us the insider’s view of the Great Mallard Chase of 2001. She and the other Fellows partook of a 14 course dinner in the medieval Codrington Library, accompanied by superb wines (All Souls has the best cellar in the country – better than Buckingham Palace). I have reprinted the menu from 1901 below. Dr Martin Litchfield West as the Lord Mallard, and the Fellows sang, much as they have done for hundreds of years, the Mallard Song. The Victorians disapproved of the reference in the song to the Mallard’s “swapping tool of Generation”, mightier than any other in “ye winged Nation” (of birds) and dropped this verse from the song. It was restored in the 2001 ceremony, when the Fellows sat down to the Mallard Centennial Dinner, which did include a duck. When everyone was in an excess of good spirits, four of the younger fellows hoisted the Lord Mallard up in his special sedan chair (the same one used in 1901 – but we’re not sure if it was also used in 1801) and they chased a wooden mallard duck around the quad. In the days before Animal Rights (a very serious consideration in Oxford, given letter bombs to scientists and sabotage of laboratories), they chased a real duck. But this century, for the first time, a fake duck had to do. So, with the Lord Mallard hoisted high in his sedan chair the whole congregation of fellows chased this wood duck around the quadrangle bellowing out the Mallard Song. Now, given that he was not expending any energy and was the centre of attention, the Lord Mallard was anxious to repeat the experience. “Again, again” he cried, and he was carried around the quadrangle again, and then for a third time at his excited urging. But, when he said “Again”, wanting a fourth perambulation, the poor sedan carriers rebelled and dumped him on the ground. Then there were wonderful fireworks, including fireworks in the shape of a mallard. “

Sad to have missed it and not a single photo…ah well here’s to 2101!!

Custom demised: Handsel Monday in Scotland

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“In their impatience to have the holiday commence, young people usually waken the villages by kicking old tin pans at unearthly hours of the morning through the quiet streets,”

Such was the popularity of this lost custom. William Walsh in his 1897 Curiosities of Popular Customs records that:

“Handsel Monday. The first Monday in the year. This is a great holiday among the peasantry and the children generally in Scotland, being especially devoted to the giving and receiving of presents, or, in the Scotch vocabulary, handsels. The young visit their seniors in expectation of some remembrance, and postmen, scavengers, and newspaper carriers look for the equivalent of what in England are known as Christmas boxes.”

Chambers Book of Days notes that:

“The first Monday of the year is a great holiday among the peasantry of Scotland, and children generally, as being the day peculiarly devoted in that country to the giving and receiving of presents. It is on this account called Handsel Monday, Handsel being in Scotland the equivalent of a Christmas box, but more specially inferring a gift at the commencement of a season or the induing of some new garment. The young people visit their seniors in expectation of tips (the word, but not the action, unknown in the north). Postmen, scavengers, and deliverers of newspapers look for their little annual guerdons.”

This lost custom a sort of Scottish Boxing Day survived the longest in Fife and Perthshire when despite Dundee and Glasgow moving to New Year’s Day as a holiday of choice rural areas still remembered it. in Auchterarder .It was marked with:

“much noise and boisterous mirths….Boys, carrying flambeans, began to perambulate the town shortly after 12 o’clock and from that hour till morning the streets resounded with their hideous noise…. “well fortified withing…A few fist blows were exchanged later in the evening, but this appeared to be the head and front of the offending,”

Its popularity deriving from it being a holiday for farm workers as report in the Dunfermline Press in 1890 states that:

“On farms, Auld Hansel-Monday, where it is kept, is the great winter holiday of the year. Outdoor and indoor servants have a complete escape from bondage for the day, and many a farmer will own that the hardest day’s work for him and his wife throughout the year occurs on Handsel Monday.”

To Handsel was then to give a gift and it is recorded that:

“Not only has he himself to fill their place, but he is expected to handsel them, from foreman to herd-boy; and part of the handsel almost invariably includes a gift of a little money.”

On January 6, 1870, the Perthshire Advertiser called the day the “holiday-in-chief” of the year

The death of the custom

What killed the custom off was the adoption of New Year’s Day as a holiday as reported from a public meeting held in Dunfermline to make this decision. Many argued in the November 1886 meeting that it was a much loved tradition. The former Provost Robert Robertson, who could not be parted from it ‘without a pang’ from his “old friend” stating that:

“In his younger days, Handsel Monday was the day of all days – the principal day of the year, and a day of much pleasure. Then it was that family circles met together. Grandfather and grandmother, father, mother and family, all met together, There were no strangers admitted to the family circle then. Children came many miles…and if there was one member of the family absent, there was a sad blank.There was no teetotalism then, but in decent families there was no hard drinking. It was a great day, and because of that it was long looked forward to.”

Despite the pleas Dumferline chose January 1st and Handsel was consigned to history.

Handy breakfast

The breakfast was one of the most popular parts of the custom. The farmers would treat their servants on that morning to:

“ a liberal breakfast of roast and boiled, with ale, whiskey, and cake, to their utmost contentment; after which the guests went about seeing their friends for the remainder of the day. It was also the day on which any disposed for change gave up their places, and when new servants were engaged.”

An interesting account of the healing powers of the custom and its associated victuals noted by Chambers from Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland, xv. 201:

“It is worth mentioning that one William Hunter, a collier (residing in the parish of Tillicoultry, in Clackmannanshire), was cured in the year 1738 of an inveterate rheumatism or gout, by drinking freely of new ale, full of harm or yeast. The poor man had been confined to his bed. for a year and a half, having almost entirely lost the use of his limbs. On the evening of Handsel Monday, as it is called, some of his neighbours came to make merry with him. Though he could not rise, yet he always took his share of the ale, as it passed round the company, and in the end he became much intoxicated. The consequence was that he had the use of his limbs next morning, and was able to walk about. He lived more than twenty years after this, and never had the smallest return of his old complaint.”

Now there is a reason to revive a custom!

 

Custom contrived: Lord Conyer’s Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

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It is a fairly nondescript lane, and dare I say it in a non-descript part of Yorkshire, and driving by one might wonder why so many cars were parked on the verge…but the eye alights on a group of people awaiting at the edge of a small woodland just beside the road. Cars and woods? Is this a mass dog walking exercise or ramble? No the crowd await something quite magical – Lord Conyer’s Morris Men’s rendition of the fabled Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance.

Horny subject

An account on line entitled A STRANGE ENCOUNTER IN TODWICK (As witnessed by one Tobias Jugg around 16:40)

“Passing through the South Yorkshire village of Todwick during the late afternoon of the last Saturday before Christmas, a strange sight befell us. My companion and I, weary and tired of the road as we headed south towards Newstead, stumbled across a small crowd of like travellers, numbering about twenty-five in all, and gathered by the wayside. Each did gaze silently into the nearby wood, close to the site where Robin Hood’s Trysting Tree does stand.”

What is Robin Hood’s Trysting tree you may ask? Well firstly it no longer stands and its replacement also went in 1973. Lord Conyer’s Morris men website relates:

“At the beginning of the twentieth century at Todwick in South Yorkshire, an ancient oak known as the Trysting Tree blew down in a gale. This tree was connected to the legend of Robin Hood and is mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel ‘Ivanhoe’. The Duke of Leeds decided to replace the stricken tree, both to mark the turn of the century and to celebrate the birth of his son and heir, the Marquis of Carmarthen, and on the 3rd October 1901 he planted a sapling grown from an acorn which had fallen from the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. The day was declared a holiday and all the people from the Duke’s estate were invited to the ceremony. A sit-down meal was provided for the guests in a large marquee and in return the villagers then presented the Duke with a silver rose bowl to mark the birth of his son.
And there it stood, at the edge of Bluebell Wood at Kiveton Hall Farm, until 1973 when the council, in their infinite wisdom, decided to cut down the tree whilst widening the road nearby. Then, a Mr Bishop, who was at that time tenant of Kiveton Hall Farm, planted a third oak complete with iron fence to protect the young sapling; the Trysting Tree was back again.
Then the Kiveton Park Folk Club erected a stone post furbished with a brass plaque nearby, the occasion being commemorated by G.F. Young, the Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire, and the legend was back also. On the 18th May 1974 the folk club held a trysting fair with music, dance and song; stalls, working craftsmen, and, of course, the marquee with food and drink….”

As they note:

“The legend of the trysting tree is now in the safe hands of Lord Conyers Morris Men who have danced at the site every May Eve at dusk and every May Day at dawn without fail since 1974.”

The removal was clearly a controversial subject but one which was the catalyst of a custom. For it has been since 1978 on the last Saturday before Christmas Day the twilight crescendo of a day of carols, sword dancing and Derby Tup – a sort of pick and mix of Christmas calendar customs of the North one could say.

Taking it by the horns

The Lord Conyer’s Abbot Bromley Horn dance is one of two imitations and there is no doubt to my mind this is the most evocative; more so perhaps than the real one! I had read of the custom but in a way had thought as I had been to the real one why see the imitations but I feel I was wrong so last year I decided to organise myself and go along and see.
There was a curious and eerie feel standing at the edge of the wood. The sun was setting spreading a red light across the landscape as a mist developed all around and the air became chilly. The account beautifully summed it up:

“It was dusk. It was cold, and it was damp and misty. We dismounted to see what the crowd were looking at but could see nothing; only the dark outline of trees against the grey mist. Just then, strains of music emanating from deep within the wood began to reach our ears; a strange mediaeval-sounding tune being played on a solo fiddle. Some minutes later a group of figures began to emerge from out of the dank mist as the music became louder. The crowd we had joined, their eyes transfixed on the scene before them, stayed silent as if in awe and there was an unearthly atmosphere about the place to which the music only added.”

The performers maintain the mystery by preparing and dressing out of sight. The first we experience is that weird sound which moves like the mist slowly enveloping the crowd. There’s an unworldly menace to the dancers who weave in and out holding their antlers aloft from a far. They appear to be stuck in the distance the full moon picking off their antlers and firms. As they came closer one could start to see the group’s form. The team comprise of six men carrying large red deer antlers with others bearing smaller fallow deer antlers. Together with these is a fool, a hobby horse, Maid Marian and a bowman – presumably Robin Hood. The last to be seen as they move down a path between the dense undergrowth despite them first to be heard. All in all they appear to be completely different to the Morris men I had seen earlier doing their sword dancing.

The Morris Men portray the dance well. It is simple one enacting the fighting of deer with the dancers facing each other in a line. The antlers raised up and down facing each other silently and smoothly. The chime of a bell as they go to fight. The repetitive nature of tune making the whole experience hypnotic! The account again describes it well:

“The dance itself appeared to reach a chilling climax as it approached the Trysting Tree, at which point the procession turned and headed slowly back from whence it came. One by one the dancers melted away into the mist, leaving us spellbound until the last haunting notes of the fiddle died away into the distance.”

All in all a great re-enactment and one which deserves notice in folklore calendars. A copy it may be, but one which has developed its own mythos, for atmosphere it cannot be beaten!

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Sheriff’s Ride

Standard

In a 1553 Charter of Mary Tudor’s reign she bestowed upon them their own Sheriff and separated it from Staffordshire being its own County. Amongst the duties of this newly appointed post was to oversee the boundaries of the fairly newly instated city and such the Sheriff’s Ride was established:

“perambulate the new County and City annually on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.

This was confirmed by Charles II which read:

“the balliffs and common councilmen shall annually on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin perambulate the boundaries of the city and county of Lichfield and the precincts thereof”

….and it has continued ever since. The Sheriff’s ride rather than taking place on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary…the 8th of September it is the nearest Saturday. And despite Lichfield becoming party of Staffordshire back in 1888 the ride still goes on! An early reference is from 1638 in St Michael’s church registers which reads:

Paid for an horse for Mr Hobbocke the curate at ye Perambulation xii d”

Ride on time

I arrived in Lichfield just as the party was leaving the Guildhall. They were moving at quite a pace and the sight and sound of 50 riders on the hard road surface was something to witness. Of they were to go around the 20 miles of the border. In the morning the group followed the northern and eastern boundaries and stopped for lunch at Freeford Manor. After their break they returned to their horses and surveyed the western and southern areas and again stopped for tea at Pipe Hall.

Horsing around and around

F. W. Hackwood (1924) in their Staffordshire Customs, superstitions and folklore records that in 1921 it:

“was large as ever. The assembly (which included the Mayor, the corporation nd the city officials) met at the Guildhall where the Sheriff Councillor F. Garratt entertained his friends with light refreshments before starting. A number were mounted on horseback, but every other known means of road transport was also brought into use, a curious admixture of the ancient and the modern”

This must have been an odd if slightly dangerous site and although people follow with cars it is now at a respectful distance and the perambulation is only done by horses who pay £30 to join. Recently a so-called ‘Alternative Sheriff’s Ride’ with push bikers has been established and one day perhaps it might take over! I was also amused to see the Sheriff wearing a day-glo jacket as if 50 odd horses isn’t as noticeable on their own cantering down the road! Hackwood (1924) continues:

“The route lay up Beacon street to cross-in-hand lane, and on to the Stafford Road at Lyncroft Hill. From thence to Lea Grange the way lay across fields till the lane leading to Elmhustr and Stychebrook was reached, and hence in the direction of Curborough to Brownsfields. After traversing more fields the way lead to Gosling land and then on to the Trent Valley Road; the railway was crossed and thence by way of Darnford Mill the party came to Horse and Jockey Inn at Freeford where they were entertained at luncheon by the sheriff with all he customary festivities.”

It is interesting to note that the party has a more upmarket luncheon location!

“Resuming the Ride the way led across fields to Knowle, then to the Birmingham Road, through fields again to Aldershawe, Sandyway, Pipe Grange, Maple Hayes, and Pipe Green and so out to Abnalls Lane back to Cross-in-hand Lane. Here a touch of the picturesque was lent by the presence of the Macebearer and other uniformed attendants, aided by the glorious weather of a fine autumnal day.”

Very little has changed. Except I imagine the smarter dress of the participants who must wear hunting or dressage and indeed there is a prize for the best dressed. At around 6 the perambulators arrive back at the city where the ceremonial sword and the Macebearer still met them now with the Dean of the Cathedral and then ceremonially leads the retinue down back to the Guildhall where a crowd was waiting to welcome the tired party and their even more tired horses!

It is worth noting that the length of this boundary appears to change according to who reports it. Hackwood states its is upwards of 16 miles, Jon Raven in his 1978 The Folklore of Staffordshire states it is 24 miles and latterly 20 miles is quoted – they appear to be doing more that perambulating if the length is increasing.

What is unusual is that this ceremony takes place in September which is a less convenient and less calendrically significant time. It seems likely that the ride was a possibly originally done at Rogation and by church authorities before the charter but no evidence can be found. And it was probably not a ride – but a walk – a rather long one…which would have been difficult to do in one day no doubt!