Tag Archives: London

Custom survived: The Lion Sermon, St Katherine Cree, London

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“We pray and give thanks for the life and example of Sir John Gayer; for his deliverance from the lion and his endowment of this annual sermon in his memory.”

London is like many great cities a fascinating mix of old and new; ancient buildings exist cheek by jowl, and so do customs and ceremonies exist in the modern culture. St Katherine Cree is a church which typifies this juxtaposition between old and new. It lays in shadow of glass giants of the city such as the famed Gherkin. A church for the city. Such that it remembers one of the city’s own and his remarkable escape each year around the 16th October in a church which itself escaped the Great Fire unscathed.

Lion’s mouth

You might wonder what the prayer is talking about. In the 1894 Manners, Customs, and Observances: Their Origin and Significance Leopold Wagner informs us that:

“This is in commemoration of the miraculous deliverance of Sir John Gayer, an opulent City merchant, and erstwhile Lord Mayor, from the jaws of a lion in an Arabian desert, two centuries and a half ago. By some means this good knight missed his caravan, and while in search of it, a huge lion stalked up to him. Perfectly defenceless, he gave himself up for lost, and on bended knee offered up his soul in prayer to God. To his intense astonishment, the huge animal ‘eyed him, and gently walked away’”

Leopold Wagner continues:

“Shortly afterwards Sir John rejoined his caravan none the worse for his extraordinary adventure; yet so fully impressed was he with the peril he had passed through, and the Divine interposition on his behalf, that he resolved to make an adequate provision for an annual thanksgiving sermon at the church of his ‘beloved Aldgate,’ in which his mortal remains now rest.”

He was true to his word and then 368 years later we are still remembering this lucky escape. Each year this main sermon being given not by a member of the clergy, although I would imagine up until recent history that was the case, but by some London notable. In previous years it was Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti who I’d imagine would have a lot to say about dealing with adversity!

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However, unlike many customs which their historical founder, this is no founder forgotten in the midst of time, each year the descendants of the Mayor attend the service and give readings. This year two members of the family gave appropriate readings, of course Daniel 6 10-23 ‘Daniel in the Lion’s den’ and less well-known lion containing Peter 5 5-11:

“Be sober be vigilant because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about; seeking whom he may devour.”

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Lion’s share

Indeed, that could have been the subtext of ex Transport for London and Network Rail Chair Sir Peter Hendy CBE’s talk. In a time when the news is constantly discussing Brexit machinations and bearing in mind the church’s proximity to the city centre, I was expected to switch on my Brexitometer. However, he cleverly sailed past this and focused on his own career and how he avoided adversity, work together and how his adversary, a certain blonde haired mayor perhaps was a good analogy for a lion….he was not popular in the city. Indeed, I heard him described as the traitor of London…but Sir Peter eschewed any strong politics talk only to say how to work better! Discussion was made of TFL success of the Olympics and dealing with terror attacks all what he put down to team work  – a refreshing approach from a person in charge who has read those signs about bosses and leaders it seemed and did something!

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The service was peppered by suitable hymns including Who would true valour be, which has a sneaky ‘no lion can call him fright’ some sung by the Lloyd’s Choir in spine tingling joyfulness. At the end of the service we were all invited for a hot lunch and some drinks possibly part of the endowment to provide food for the poor…many appeared to have developed the appetite of a lion!

 

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Custom contrived: Blessing the Horses at Horndon-on-the Hill, Essex

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“On January the seventh is celebrated at Rome feast of St Anthony the abbot On the morning of this feast the pope cardinals princes prelates and indeed all those who have horses send to be blessed by the monks of St Anthony saddles and bridles are also blessed upon the of a small sum being paid for each the beasts with their furniture The Roman Catholics in England were in some measure kept in dark concerning this ceremony of blessing the till 1732 when Dr Middleton wrote his from Rome in which he tells us that he paid eighteen pence for having his horse and that his servant blessed Dr Challoner the titular bishop of London attacked Dr Middleton this subject telling him that although he Dr had lived many years on the continent he never saw or heard of it”

William Hurd in his 1790 Universal of Religious rites:

As a custom it disappeared in Britain at the reformation but in the 20th century a couple of contrived customs have arisen perhaps in knowledge or not of the older custom. One such place is on the green of the picturesque Havering-atte-Bower. Here for over 10 years, the church and Havering-atte-Bower Village Conservation Society have organised Horseman’s Sunday, itself said to be a revival from 1954, but I have been unable to find out why this itself was started although that custom died out in the 70s.

Horsing about

It certainly a big thing for this picturesque village with its green. Usually a quiet village green but soon the horses and their riders and all important helpers – mainly their mums it appeared arrived – it might be called Horseman’s Sunday but Horseperson would have been better name I thought. Havering-atte-Bower is well-known for its horses and there are a large number of stables around the village, and indeed it appeared that everyone who was associated with them had turn up. Fifty horses from large riding mares to small ponies parade before settling behind the rope on the green to avoid accidents, they were keen to keen telling us that! I wonder if they intended using the stocks nearby for those crossing it? I was impressed how patient and calm they were. It certainly has become a day for one’s best as an article in the Romford recorder noted of its organiser Michael Heap:

“It was a beautiful day…There were lots of riders dressed in all their finest and it was all we could ask for.”

The service was led by the church, this time being given by Reverend Dave Marshall from St John’s Church and like previous year the local MP, Romford MP Andrew Rosindell and councillors attend. This is true red, white and blue, British bulldog don’t’ mention the EU territory, and the custom brings together all what you expect from this sort of quaint Britishness, even more acute for those towns and villages clinging to the apron strings of the great metropolis whilst still fiercely attached to their independence. Their local MP in fact is the very bastion of Britishness having with him his Staffordshire terrier wrapped up from the cold in its union flag (not Jack please) body warmer.

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Horse whisperers

A selection of rousing hymns were sung, which despite problems with the amplification and the openness of the site managed to fill the green. Mr Rosindell, who read a poem called Ode to the Horse, said:

“Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride, friendship without envy or beauty without vanity? Here, where grace is laced with muscle, and strength by gentleness confined. He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity. There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent, there is nothing so quick, nothing more patient. England’s past has been borne on his back. All our history is his industry; we are his heirs, he our inheritance. The Horse!”

Indeed the event appears to have had a positive effect on the MP who even passed an early day motion on it in Parliament:

That this House congratulates the Havering-atte-Bower Conservation Society for re-establishing the traditional English ceremony of Horseman’s Sunday held at St John The Evangelist Church, Havering Village Green, Romford, on Sunday 12th October; notes with pride that this was the first such event since the early 1970s; commends the organisers for this momentous achievement in re-creating a special day for horses and their riders to attend an open air service of thanksgiving, to be presented with commemorative rosettes and receive a blessing; and believes that Horseman’s Sunday is a joyous event, bringing the entire community together, fostering tradition and encouraging respect for the great British horse, a creature that has been an inspiration and help to man throughout the ages.”

So despite being as little known as other events, the custom even got as far as a mention in parliament https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2011-12-13a.661.0 (where you can read the rest and learn of some little known days, he had certainly done some research) of which he said:

“In my constituency, I attend the annual horseman’s Sunday in the historic village of  Havering ate Bower, where local horses and their owners attend an open air service on the village green and the local MP presents a rosette to every horse.

It is also important that communities have a chance to organise their own local festivals, so why should not each county, town or village designate a particular day of the year as their day to celebrate in whatever way they see fit, bringing everyone together in celebration of their local identity? Fine examples are St Piran’s day in Cornwall and Yorkshire day.

My Bill would also require the Government to prepare and publish a list of festivals and commemorations up to 10 years in advance, to give local communities the chance to plan and prepare fully for all our historic occasions, allowing everyone the opportunity to celebrate those events that are important to them, and to ensure that all anniversaries and traditions are recognised and kept alive rather than relegated to the pages of history books.

My Bill would also address the nature of our bank and public holidays. Under our current system, those that fall on a weekend are transferred to a day following the weekend. For example, this year, Monday 3 January was made a public holiday in lieu of new year’s day, which fell on Saturday 1 January. When that happens, rather than having a meaningless day off next to a weekend, we should use it for a day of greater significance. If we followed that rule for all existing bank holidays, I believe it would be possible to make St George’s day, St Andrew’s day and St David’s day annual public holidays without creating more days off overall, thus not harming businesses or the economy.”

Nice idea, but it didn’t pass but then what do we expect after repeated Governments have failed to sign up the UNESCO Intangible Heritage agreement. Political rant over! Next time I see him I’ll ask him to support this perhaps!

At the end of the service all the horses were blessed and given rosettes which were handed out by Mr Rosindell. Being a faithful crowd Sapphire rosettes given to celebrate the Queen’s sapphire jubilee. Then the whole event was tied up by the British of British things, a BBQ, but unBritishlike the sunshine spoilt the traditional aspects i.e it did not rain!

All in all a great slice of British life in a picturesque place.

 

Custom transcribed: Stamford Hill Purim, London

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“Why isnt this better known? After all Chinese New Year is a big event and we are the only photographers here.”

So said a fellow photographer as we watched a man in tradition black and white Hasidic or Haredi dress (typified by long black coat and large fur hat) escort three bears on scooters, who were trying to dodge another dressed as a blue wolf! This was Purim, or rather its most public tradition associated with the Jewish festival.

Really considering there has been a Hebrew community possibly continually from the 1780s when Italian Jew Moses Vita Montefiore famously settled there. This notwithstanding the wholesale influx of the Hasidic community was not established until the 1940s. From then on the curious custom has become more and more evident and now over 30,000 Jews reside in around 19 streets which for 24 hours or so become a focus of so much attention.

I was first made aware of the custom in Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1994 Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem and had always been keen to track it down. The authors state:

“Purim takes place mainly behind closed doors. But because part of the ritual involves dressing in outlandish attire, celebrants can be seen doing the shopping or nipping to the Post Office dressed as clowns, Godzilla or Bambi”

It has took me over 20 years to track it down, probably put off by the ‘behind closed doors’ ( the authors state attending could be tricky) making me think it would be unlikely to see the curious ritual…however I was wrong. Within arriving at Stamford Hill darting across the road in front of me were two clowns and panda!

It’s in the book…

Book of Esther that is. That tells us that a man called Haman in Persia can convinced the King Ahasuerus to murder the Empire’s Jewish community. Fortunately, the King who was married to a Jewish woman by the name of Esther foiled the plot and Haman was hung. The name itself being derived from the word for lots, relating to the lots drawn in preparation of the planned massacre.

There are a number of different customs and traditions associated the day, the exploration of which would warrant another blog post, after all I’ve never done one just on ‘Christmas’ or ‘Easter’ Purim is one of those multifaceted traditions. No it’s the fancy dress I am interested in here.

But why the fancy dress? Purim also falls in the Jewish month of Adar, usually March but sometimes February, who is traditionally it is said “when Adar begins, joy should be increased’. How this fits into fancy dress I still don’t understand unless the persecuted Jews hid from their oppressor by disguise.

One cannot help draw comparisons to other Christian and possibly pre-Christian traditions of disguising especially at the turning of the year. Did Purim originate as a spring festival, a recognised turning of the world when spirit were abroad and disguise helped prevent them dragging you back?

Purim down!

Even the weather could not discourage the attendees. As the rain beat down this Purim, umbrellas were out but colourful costumes were not. In the spate of an hour wandering around I saw

The costumes could be divided into a number of categories:

Traditional – there were girls dressed as Esther, boys as Arabs some on Camels, some even smoking fake Camel cigarettes.

Work related – a number of girls dressed as air hostesses, some with trolleys which helped in the delivery of manot xxx. Soldiers, Doctors.

Comical – Clowns were the most common, but bears and animals common, one was dressed as a drink carton (!) and one in a retro Tony Blair mask!

Parody – What was interesting is the way in which these younger members are allowed to mock their elders. Amongst the costumes were girls dressed a cliché Jewish grandmas, army members, miniature versions of their fathers in full Hasidic dress and rabbis.  The latter were particularly common and they were proud to introduce themselves as such and encourage deference for them. Their costumes particularly looked well made and I would say professional.  Cooper and Sullivan (1994) state that mock-Rabbis were elected over Purim in a move parallel to mock-mayors in secular culture.

Comparing to Hallowe’en is an easy comparison but this is something more artful and clearly more wholesome. There’s no blood and guts.

Purim it about

This is really a community letting its communal hair down. At one point a bombing and pulsing could be heard, a beat a sound of music. Then around the corner, came a large red open top bus. On top it was throng with young Hasidic Jews wearing fezs and looking very jolly. They stopped tumbled out of the bus, looking a little worse for wear, some streamed into houses, others decided to let loose to the music and started twirling around in the road. At one point one grabbed me and putting his hat upon me, we spent a surreal moment dancing around each other, arm in arm, a Purim dance off. Then they were off!

Turn the corner and there are two students dressed head to toe in a white traditional dress, smiling singing and shaking hands. Their infectious enthusiasm and addictive beat even reaches an elderly member of the community who mounting the steps of a nearby house,  twists and turns, hands raised up singing along, perhaps remembering younger days.

The intoxicating joy and celebration is difficult to miss…but this is a busy day, cars rush by driven by super heroes who toss their charity contributions in awaiting collectors, one dressed as a golf course!

Purim and out

Indeed as an observer, the whole event appears to be a frenetic flash of colour, as parents escort their fancy dressed charges in and out of houses to deliver their Mishloach manot gifts. Many of these are an art form in themselves, luxury chocolates tiered into pyramids, other expensive bottles of alcohol – for this is the one time of the year the community can drink!

Doors are opened. Every door is open. Children stand and sit of steps in fancy dress! Children their faces full of anticipation sit there waiting…and waiting…sometimes with wistful places… is it me next. Closed doors have Mishloach manot awaiting – one had five bottles of wine awaiting for its owner!

After a while it all becomes a bit too dazzling and you are looking for the next more bizarre costume. At one point I was swamped by a large group of children dressed as soldiers, knights, rabbis, arabs and what in intents and purposes looked like a character off the side of Robinson’s marmalade smoking a cigarette – some costumes were perhaps a little over the right side of PC! They were keen to have their photos taken…all upon doing so they asked for a donation! Upon seeing a girl dressed as a giant fish I think I might have reached the apex!

Purim, its public face, is a crazy festival, but a great one of giving, charity itself is important on the day, but above all celebration. It is said when the Messiah does come all Jewish festivals will cease bar Purim…let the party continue

Custom transcribed: American Thanksgiving

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“Thanksgiving would never work in Britain, because it is the day that self-deprecation forgot. Is it a holiday commemorating the Anglo-Saxon invasion of a country that already belonged to someone else? Yes. And what must have been an incredibly awkward dinner party between invader and invadee? Right again.”

Speaks a correspondent to Telegraph

Thanksgiving is a quintessential stateside custom, that it may surprise you to read that it is celebrated in the UK. It is not that surprising considering there are near 200,000 ex-pat statesiders in the country not to add those tourists who may be here for a holiday.

Thankful for what?

The folklore tells that in 1620 the harvest failed at the Plymouth Foundation and half of the Pilgrim fathers died. Understandably when in 1621 there was a better harvest and so understandably they wanted to celebrate a particularly good harvest with their local first nation groups the Wampanoag. Indeed, it had not been for them they would not have survived, for they taught them how to grow corn, beans and squash – future staples of Thanksgiving. You’ll notice no turkey reports suggest the three-day feast included lobster, cod, deer and goose!

Fast forward to the first President George Washington, who in 1789 proclaimed the inaugural national Thanksgiving Day. Yet despite it becoming an annual holiday in 1863 when it was set as the last Thursday in November, it too Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 to finalise the holiday setting it as the fourth Thursday in the month.

Thankful in the UK

It is unclear when Thanksgiving was first being celebrated in the UK, but I would imagine those World War II servicemen would have been privately having a toast in the dark days of the war. Indeed an account Similarly, from a young boy who happened to be visiting a base in the 1940s remarked:

 “I was invited into the dining room, and was amazed at the food that was there. It was Thanksgiving, and I thought Christmas had come early. I’d never seen so much food, as we were all living on rations. I was even lucky enough to taste some.”

And there is a comical photograph in Norfolk  which account how after being given permission by the farmer servicemen attempted to capture a turkey for their dinner – it was not clear whether they granted any of them a pardon! Similarly, the American students studying in the UK and their societies would have promoted the event and indeed it is one of the first places to look for it today.

However, ever eyeful on the commercial opportunity the main place you can find Thanksgiving in the many restaurants, often USA themed, dotted across the country and particularly in London which court American tourists. There can be found imaginative takes on the turkey, corn, pumpkin pie and other staples. Some are more than happy to spread it out to three days meaning they get lucrative weekend trade.

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Unsurprisingly one place where something more substantial is done is Plymouth. With its connection with the first pioneers, those Pilgrim fathers, Plymouth has commemorated their Mayflower and Transatlantic heritage for a number of years and in recent years it has been celebrated with some enthusiasm. The custom consists of the reading of speeches by the Lord Mayor and other figures on the Mayflower steps where those Pilgrim fathers sailed from followed by a poetry, choir. An illuminated carrying lanterns group representing the Wampanoag process from there to the Guildhall to tell the tale of Moshup the giant, a supernatural figure of the tribe. It’s the closest the UK has got yet to New York’s Macey’s parade.

The other significant event is understandably a thanksgiving to God and this is where the US Ambassador speaks at a special service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where America the Beautiful is also sung. The audience being again made up of ex-pats. However, the main stay of the celebration is the feast and now from Aberdeen to Wales, restaurants and University clubs will be serving up their feasts and providing kinship a necessary thing for those so far away.

Thankful this year?

Will it ever establish itself here in the mainstream? It seems unlikely, we already have our Harvest festivals, although the semi-secular nature and not to say the facts it’s a holiday may be an attraction. Thanksgiving is far too personal and unique to the UK and like Guy Fawkes Night, which has largely died out as the British diaspora lost their Britishness, it would be rather soulless. Sadly, perhaps many reading this would rather have this opportunity for a brief respite before the Christmas rush, a moment for family, friends, good food and company. Instead, the commercial side of the custom, Black Friday, has since 2012 been slowly establishing itself here, albeit devoid of its actual reason and purely a money-making venture. I personally think I’d rather have Thanksgiving given a choice than this buying bun fight! So to those who sit down to their turkey, pork and cornbread or sup on three sisters soup, finishing off with their Pecan pie this year – have a good one, you may be more thankful you are overseas than ever for this Thanksgiving!?

Custom demised: Queene’s or Queen Elizabeth’s Day

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“Vouchsafe, dread sovereign”

Robert Deveraux 17th November

 

It is common place now for villages, towns and cities to celebrate the succession of the monarch but until Queen Elizabeth accession it was not celebrated. Early in her reign the 17th of November became a time to celebrate the country’s powerful monarch.

However, it was not until the 10th anniversary in 1568, that the event was commemorate by the ringing of bells and slowly this became a more established event, hyped up no doubt by those who wanted it to be seen as a day of Protestant victory of the threat of Catholicism.

Long live the Queen…she’s dead

The death of the queen, unlike other accession celebrations since, did not cause the end of the custom. Fed by anti-Catholic fervour, the observations became more established. They changed from a ‘form of prayer and thanksgiving’ to out and out orgy of triumphalism. Soon the event consisted of triumphal parades, processions, sermons and burning of the Pope – sound familiar? However, they were not terribly popular by all, especially understandably the subsequent monarchs. In particular Catholic leaning Charles I was reportedly upset why his or his wife’s birthday and accession days were not recognised. His son’s reign obviously saw the Great Fire of London and it is reported that afterwards:

“these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

Chambers in his Book of Days records:

“Violent political and religious excitement characterised the close of the reign of King Charles II. The unconstitutional acts of that sovereign, and the avowed tendency of his brother toward the Church of Rome, made thoughtful men uneasy for the future peace of the country, and excited the populace to the utmost degree. It had been usual to observe the anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth with rejoicings; and hence the 17th of November was popularly known as ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Day;’ but after the great fire, these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

By the 1680s the events became more and more elaborate founded by protestant political groups keen to keep her memory fresh under the threat of Catholic insurgence under the reign of James II and calculated to whip up popular excitement and inflame the minds of peaceable citizens as Chambers puts it. The Earl of Shaftesbury as part of a group called the Green Ribbon Group, from a ribbon in their head, were the organisers and were very well connected. A pamphlet called London’s Defiance to Rome recorded how:

“the magnificent procession and solemn burning of the pope at Temple Bar, November 17, 1679.”

It was described as:

“the bells generally about the town began to ring about three o’clock in the morning;’ but the great procession was deferred till night, when ‘ the whole was attended with one hundred and fifty flambeaus and lights, by order; but so many more came in volunteers, as made up some thousands At the approach of evening (all things being in readiness), the solemn procession began, setting forth from Moorgate, and so passing first to Aldgate, and thence through Leadenhall Street, by the Royal Exchange through Cheapside, and so to Temple Bar. Never were the balconies, windows, and houses more numerously lined, or the streets closer thronged, with multitudes of people, all expressing their abhorrence of popery with continued shouts and exclamations, so that ’tis modestly computed that, in the whole progress, there could not be fewer than two hundred thousand spectators.”

In the Letters to and from the Earl of Derby, he recounts his visit to this pope-burning, in company with a French gentleman who had a curiosity to see it. The earl says:

“I carried him within Temple Bar to a friend’s house of mine, where he saw the show and the great concourse of people, which was very great at that time, to his great amazement. At my return, he seemed frighted that somebody that had been in the room had known him, for then he might have been in some danger, for had the mob had the least intimation of him, they had torn him to pieces. He wondered when I told him no manner of mischief was done, not so much as a head broke; but in three or four hours were all quiet as at other times.”

Although largely pro-establishment, it was feared that serious riots could result and in 1682 there was a call for the Lord Mayor to stop it but the civic magnates declined to interfere. In 1683, pageantry was reported to have grander than ever but the Mayor finally suppressed the display and their patrols through the streets to ensure order.  Under the reign of Queen Anne concerns over the Pretender were rife and so pageants were organised. A describe of it read:

“It was intended to open the procession with twenty watchmen, and as many more link-boys; to be followed by bag-pipers playing Lilliburlero, drummers with the pope’s arms in mourning, ‘a figure representing Cardinal Gualteri, lately made by the Pretender Protector of the English nation, looking down on the ground in a sorrowful posture.’ Then came burlesque representatives of the Romish officials; standard-bearers ‘with the pictures of the seven bishops who were sent to the Tower; twelve monks representing the Fellows who were put into Magdalen College, Oxford, on the expulsion of the Protestants by James II’ These were succeeded by a number of friars, Jesuits, and cardinals; lastly came ‘the pope under a magnificent canopy, with a silver fringe, accompanied by the Chevalier St. George on the left, and his counsellor the Devil on the right. The whole procession clos’d by twenty men bearing streamers, on each of which was wrought these words: “God bless Queen Anne, the nation’s great defender! Keep out the French, the Pope, and the Pretender.” After the proper ditties were sung, the Pretender was to have been committed to the flames, being first absolved by the Cardinal Gualteri. After that, the said cardinal was to have been absolved by the Pope, and burned. And then the devil was to jump into the flames with his holiness in his arms.”                          

However, this time the secretary of state interfered and seized the stuffed figures, and prevented the display. The very proper suppression of all this absurd profanity was construed into a ministerial plot against the Hanoverian succession.  With the stability which came with the Hanovians, the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Day began to subside and slowly disappear.

Looking back at the custom it is clear how it disappeared. In the wake of the attempt on James and his parliament, the government would be keen to re-focus this anti-Catholic feeling into a new custom – Guy Fawkes. Yet you cannot keep an old custom down, surprisingly in 2005, the Devon village of Berry Pomeroy resurrected it. This consisted of a service in the parish church finished with the burning of Satan on a giant bonfire! However I have been unable to confirm whether this still continues otherwise it will be a revived custom!

Custom transcribed: Notting Hill Carnival

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What a custom! Vibrant, splendid, colourful, joyful, loud, proud and every superlative you can think of. A custom which is British terms is 50 years young (or so). A custom which draws at least a million visitors, something that many other customs would love to achieve. A custom which despite its firm fixture in London’s event calendar is one which has had a turbulent history and continues to attract problems, although considering nearly a million people attend statistically this is likely.

Notting like it

Arriving just before the 10 o’clock starting point the first observation is that it does not look like it will start on time! Indeed, the large numbers of police I was expecting them to form a procession – a police procession now there’s a thought- soon though one can hear the pounding sounds and a swirl of colour – mainly the bright green of the stewards – a mix a wash of gold.

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Soon the Carnival begins with this first procession, dancers wrapped in gold and holding aloft huge hands with 50. Celebrating 50 years (young) of the carnival, although this was also celebrated in 2014 and 2015. Then there was a big gap – which seemed like 30 mins – the next float. This is the first of 60 floats and countless colourful costumes, it will be a long day if you wait for it all to pass by. Many of course eschew the parade and stick to the 38 static sound systems dotted around this small enclave of west London.

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These floats are not like your usual float crammed full of themed participants, there would not be room, much of it is full of booming bass and tweaking speakers. Surrounding each float are some of the most wonderful costumes to be seen outside of the Rio Carnival. Massive tableaux of faces, feathers, bright vibrant colours. Samba dancers brightly adorned in their feathers and revealing costumes weave in and out dancing to whip up the crowds. Sounds of calypso, soca and reggae boom from the floats and bounce around the street.

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Notting allowed!

Sadly for what should be a great outburst of sounds and sights, its origins have been fraught. Born as a response of racial tension and the need for a unifying social identity. Although its official ‘birth date’ is 1964 this event was a descendent of a rather less impacting event, in was January and indoors, a Caribbean Carnival on the 30th January 1959 in Pancras Town Hall. This fused with a more hippie inspired street party organised in the mid-1960s to encourage cultural unity. This street party consisted of a procession of neighbourhood kids and a steel band. Roll forward to 1970 and it was described as:

the Notting Hill Carnival consisted of 2 music bands, the Russell Henderson Combo and Selwyn Baptiste’s Notting Hill Adventure Playground Steelband and 500 dancing spectators”

By the early 70s greater sponsorship thanks to an enterprising local teacher by the name of Leslie Palmer, resulted in an increase in steel bands, reggae groups and sound systems. The event begun to develop into two strands, a masquerade procession with floats and the establishment of stationary islands with their own sound systems.

From what clearly appears to be a very valid celebration of Caribbean culture was not popular with the authorities to begin with. The riots did not help in 1976 when disaffected youths battled with police and as a result for a long period of time this became the unfortunate media representation of the colourful event. However, such action could have been a result of heavy handed approaches of the police and the constant attempt to ban the event. It would not be until 1987 that the Carnival was officially allowed to take place. This has not prevented trouble (five deaths in the years since) or the need for high levels of police, but it has certainly reduced and fallen away to the fringes. Troubles and occasional serious crimes still arise from time to time – with around a million people swarming the narrow streets it’s not difficult to understand why something could boil over – but the media is much more favourable and is seen by the authorities as a celebration of London’s multicultural society.

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In a way, the Notting Hill Carnival typifies how customs become hybridised. Carnival is of course a Roman Catholic tradition brought over from France and Spanish colonisation. Through in the displaced masses of the African slave and brought back to Europe to be enjoyed by all races. All human life is here, of all ages, sexes and races. Despite the problems which create a sometimes poor reputation I would recommend the sounds and sights (and smells…of diesel and other intoxicants) to anyone. If you want to miss the crowds get there for the start and near the start and you’ll find it a pleasant experience. Go on experience it..

Custom contrived: Tower Hill Druid Ceremony of Spring Equinox

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One of the most wonderful things about our great capital is its juxtapositions and on the spring equinox, either the 20th or 21st of March, a curious and ancient assemblage can be seen undertaking a timeless ritual on London’s Tower Hill.

London’s Tower hill has changed over the years, where the area was once one big open space, it is now carved up into areas for ticket booths, cafes and souvenir shops it has much changed since the times when this hill was sacred to the Celts and their Druid order and even since 1956!

Spring into action

Despite train delays and no Circle or Hammersmith and City Line I managed to arrive at 11.30. The sun was beginning to shine suggesting that yes spring was finally arriving. A small crowd had assembled on the Tower Hill platform. I was informed that they were waiting in the café. I thought I would investigate…I was rather intrepid in my investigation. Let me explain. I had always been fascinated by ‘modern’ Druids. Who were they? Why were they Druids? What did they do? In the days before the Internet, information was hard to come by and although I had read about the Druid’s equinox ceremony, finding any information back in the 1980s when I had first become aware of it, was difficult. Did they not want tourists to know? I was also slightly intrepid, as I thought I’d find the Druids sitting around having a latte and a piece of carrot cake. It would spoil the mystical illusion. Fortunately they were not hob-nobbing with an Earl Grey but were standing silent in their pristine white cloaks, in a small space beside the church. A symbol perhaps of their older association with the established church as many revival druids were also vicars!

Druid awakenings

Revival!? Of course these Druids are a revived group. That is not to say its members feel affinity and maybe even DNA with those ancient Celtic priests, the custom, a contrived one, in the nicest possible way. The revival of this ancient order came in the time of great enlightenment combined with a great love of the Classical and Celtic worlds and a desire to learn about the great stone circles such as Stonehenge fostered by the works of antiquarians such as William Stukeley, John Aubrey and John Toland, author of History of the Druids. It was their fascination with Avebury and Stonehenge which must have fostered a desire to restore the Druid to Britain. Stukeley is perhaps the most well-known of these ‘druids’ who despite being a vicar, sermonised Druid ideals in his church and even built a Druid Grove in his vicarage garden. He appeared to be the Arch Druid but perhaps the three men’s interests never spread further than that!

However, it another group of men, who met in taverns in London to form the Ancient Order of Druids in 1781. In the 19th century, an Edward Williams became publishing books on Druidism, said he claimed to have been based on ancient Welsh manuscripts he had discovered. Taking the name Iolo Morganwg he composed the Iolo Manuscripts in 1848 and Barddas in 1862. He held gatherings, which he called the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isles of Britain. Long after his death it was discovered his so called ancient manuscripts were fakes but nevertheless his teachings remained of importance to the growing movement. Since then the Druids appear to have quietly thrived, although divisions and tension, like any faith have and do exist. For example a break away Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids were established in 1963 leaving the Druid Order celebrate at Tower Hill.

Why the Tower of London? For the Druids it was believed that the ancient the head of the Celtic God king Bran was buried beneath the hill (his birds being the ravens which still guard over the Tower). It was also thought that the site was aligned with the midsummer sunrise. It was identified as one of the city’s sacred sites being called Bryn Gwyn. Thus in 1956, the Ceremony of the Spring Equinox was established at there and has continued ever since and say its 60th anniversary in 2016.

Towering above

The Druids process in silence behind their sword bearer out the side of the church, along Byard Street, passing iconic red telephone boxes and the dreaded Tower green across the road and even KFC and onto their ceremonial arena. Here the order form a large circle and the ritual begins. Despite the roar of the cars on the road nearby and the strange smells from KFC down below us it was still possible to be drawn into the spell of the Druids and feel as if we were experiencing this ancient ritual divorced from the hubbub of the metropolis.

The Druids like any group have specific roles. The sword bearer, the triad, the Chief, Pendragon and scribe representing the rays of Awen, the herald, who organises and announces, the Lady, brightly coloured with flowers in her crown represents the Earth Mother, Ceridwen.

 

The circle is in silence awaiting the church chiming 12 one of the congregation raises a trumpet and a blast signals the start the ritual. This ritual is done with a smooth almost mesmeric pattern, each activity set to pronounce and energise.

Indeed the ceremony’s purpose was clearly to reconnect with our natural world on this day when the day slightly becomes longer than the night. To retune and realign. The Earth Mother must be thanked, so seeds were ceremonially spread across the ground by the Presider and water libated upon the earth to simulate the rise in fertility. Indeed it was this idea of spring fed fertility that was the focus of the Chief’s ‘sermon’ who spoke of the role of the adrenal gland in our awareness of nature’s demands.

Spring into action

Despite train delays and no Circle or Hammersmith and City Line I managed to arrive at 11.30. The sun was beginning to shine suggesting that yes spring was finally arriving. A small crowd had assembled on the Tower Hill platform. I was informed that they were waiting in the café. I thought I would investigate…I was rather intrepid in my investigation. Let me explain. I had always been fascinated by ‘modern’ Druids. Who were they? Why were they Druids? What did they do? In the days before the Internet, information was hard to come by and although I had read about the Druid’s equinox ceremony, finding any information back in the 1980s when I had first become aware of it, was difficult. Did they not want tourists to know? I was also slightly intrepid, as I thought I’d find the Druids sitting around having a latte and a piece of carrot cake. It would spoil the mystical illusion. Fortunately they were not hob-nobbing with an Earl Grey but were standing silent in their pristine white cloaks, in a small space beside the church. A symbol perhaps of their older association with the established church as many revival druids were also vicars!

 

Indeed the ceremony’s purpose was clearly to reconnect with our natural world on this day when the day slightly becomes longer than the night. To retune and realign. The Earth Mother must be thanked, so seeds were ceremonially spread across the ground by the Presider and water libated upon the earth to simulate the rise in fertility. Indeed it was this idea of spring fed fertility that was the focus of the Chief’s ‘sermon’ who spoke of the role of the adrenal gland in our awareness of nature’s demands.

A pause came when the congregation held hands and for a moment, just for a small moment, their silence appeared to permeate across the hustle and bustle of Tower Hill’s tourist traps. A well needed silence in our busiest time. Then at the end, four Element –bearers representing the four elements stand in the centre facing North, South, West and East to pass on the energy to re-align and re-tune.

Whatever you feel about Druids and what they represent, who they are and why they do it, it is clear that they consider two things I feel we miss in our urban life – a time to reflect and a time for nature and I for one cannot disagree to with this. The ceremony was a very uplifting and poignant one.