Tag Archives: Morris

Custom revived: Winster Morris and Winster Wakes

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This is it and that is it and this is Morris dancing

Think Morris, think Cotswolds perhaps, however Derbyshire has a long tradition and Winster is without doubt the oldest traditional team in the county which survives, Tideswell’s team although mentioned in the late 1700 appears to have vanished. Winster also does not fit into the other types not boarder nor clog, molly or Cotswold. Winster of course have many interesting customs, its pancake race and the Guisers, which themselves are made up of Morris team members.

It was 1863 when Morris groups are first mentioned in the town and it is believed that they were well established by then. Renowned English Folk Music enthusiast Cecil Sharp visited the town in 1908 to record the dances in his Morris Book Part 3 1924. The team then wore white shirt and trousers, with cross-belts with rosettes, black shoes and bells. They continue to do so. The team consists of 16 dancers, rather than the traditional six, who split into two files of eight and an unusual four characters. This is a unique feature.

Another unique feature is its nature of its dance which consists of processional and stationary dances: The Processional, The Blue-Eyed Stranger, The Morris Reel, The Morris Gallop and The Morris March.  The most famed the Gallop is now performed by Morris teams across the world.

Dancing in and out of time

However, despite surviving until 1908, its demise was just around the corner and as men went to fight in the First World War the dancing disappeared. However, it was revived in the 1920s and could be seen throughout the county at fetes but again another war happened of course and the Morris died out. It was revived however in 1951 on the back of Festival of Britain by the headmaster of Winster School, George Noton, and as such the Morris team was made up by school boys. The revival lasted 4 years. It was revived again in 1977 on the back of the Silver Jubilee, but apparently lapsed and the modern team dates from 1979.

In 2008 the team decided to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Cecil Sharp’s visit called ‘Look Sharp’. The Derbyshire Times recorded that involved a that was a re-enactment of Sharp’s arrival in Winster by an actor Steve Tomlin. He arrived by steam train at Darley Dale and took a pony and trap to the town. The Times noted:

“On Saturday there will be a “mass morris” when more than 100 dancers from as far away as Oxfordshire and Essex will get together on Winster’s Main Street to dance. Six teams will also tour at least eight Peak District villages on their way to Winster.”

Wake up

The Winster Morris today are one of the main features of the town’s Wake week – a unsurprisingly week-long celebration of the town which originated from the patronal festival connected with the church.

On their day of dance is the best time to see this team and see its unique featured characters. These traditional characters were a King (in a military uniform), Queen (a man dressed in Victorian dress), Jester and a Witch (another man dressed in black). These survive today. The later two go around entertaining the crowd, although I could not see what the King did another than march around looking ceremonial which he did very well.

The event started with a procession in which the Winster team and their invited team, the equally fascinating Ock Street Morris with the freshly appointed Mock Mayor. However the main attraction are the Winster team who on the bright summer’s day are radiant as they jump and skip in and out of each other to the sound of the music. The Morris Gallop is the set piece of course and to watch this classic piece of folk dance in its natural home is a privilege.

“This is it and that is it

And this is Morris dancing

The Piper fell and broke his neck

and said it was a chancer

 

you don’t know and I don’t know

what fun we had at Brampton,

a roasted pig and a cuddle duck,

and a pudding in a lantern.”

 

 

 

Custom revived: May Garland, Lewes, Sussex

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“The first of day is garland day, so please remember the garland; we don’t come here but once a year, so please remember the garland.”

May garlands were made across the country, but Sussex at the time appeared to be a stronghold as noted by Henry Burstow in Horsham in his 1911 Reminiscences of Horsham:

May Day, or Garland Day, was a very jolly time for us youngsters, not only because it was a holiday, but also because we used to pick up what seemed to us quite a lot of money. Early in the morning we would get up our best nosegays and garlands, some mounted on poles, and visit the private residents and tradespeople. We represented a well-recognised institution, and invariably got well received and patronised. People all seemed pleased to see us, and we were all pleased to see one another, especially if the day was fine, as it now seems to me it always was. At Manor House special arrangements were made for our reception, and quite a delightful old-time ceremony took place. Boys and girls gaily decked out for the occasion, a few at a time used to approach the front door, where a temporary railed platform was erected, and there old Mrs. Tredcroft, a nice-looking, good-hearted old lady used to stand and deal out to each and every one of us kind words and a few pence, everyone curtseying upon approach and upon leaving. Old Mrs. Smallwood, who lived in a quaint old cottage in the Bishopric, always used to go round on May Day with an immense garland drawn on a trolley by two or three boys. On the top of her little model cow, indicative of her trade — milk selling. Gaily dressed up herself in bows and ribbons, she used to take her garland round the town, call upon all the principal residents and tradespeople, to whom she was well known, and get well patronised.”

Lewes too had a strong tradition of May Garlands and an account by Lilian Candlin recalled her mother that her mother born in 1870 to Simpson that:

“Went early to the Daisy Bank a grassy slope opposite the old Fox inn at southernmost on the 1st of May to gather wild flowers…the flowers were made into a garland which she took around the neighbours who gave her a penny or a cake for the site of it.”

However, not everyone was happy to entertain children going around houses and what was tantamount to begging. It is said that to prevent the children begging a Mayor of the town J. F. Verrall established a tradition in 1874 instigated a competition with cash prizes. It became a more respectable outlet for the children’s enterprise as well as encouraging a love and knowledge of wild flowers. Jacqueline Simpson (1972) in her Folklore of Sussex thus records that:

“In Lewes around 1875-85 children used to go to Castle bank, where their garlands would be judged by a panel of ladies, and the best rewarded a shilling and the children had a half day holiday for the occasion.”

However, it may have been a short lived competition or else the begging was too attractive for Simpson (1973) records that as late as the 1920s children went door to door in Lewes the old way!

When the custom died out is unclear but it was clearly an extinct custom by the time Simpson writes about it in her book. Around the same time Lewes dance troop, Knots in May were being established and fast forward to 1980 and the group had revived the custom.

May rain?

I experience Lewes May Garland on my attempt to visit as many May customs over the May bank holiday in 2016. That may bank holiday a heavy mist laid in the air, then becoming a humid swell which deposited a fair amount of rain. I arrived there is good time and made my way up to the castle, where a mother and her little girl were awaiting with a small garland. I thought that the rain would quite literally put a dampener on it, but soon one by one, more and more elaborate May Garlands appeared – one even being carried by two masked Green Man (or rather Boys). The organisers are to be congratulated for bringing back the real feeling of May Day and over 30 garlands, one of which was I thought was a Jack in the Green, but might have been a fish instead! Some had figures in them recalling the dolls, said to be the Virgin Mary, put into the traditional garland.

May the best garland win

Once all the children and their garlands had arrived they were lined up in the shadow of the castle where the Mayor surveyed them. Broad smiles and anticipation were evident in the faces of the children including the two rather non-plused boys. There was some whispering from the Mayor and soon a decision was made, a decision as had been done back in those first May Garland awards.

Of course the other spectacle here are the Knots in May dancing troop. Holding up their own hoop garlands they weave in and out of each in a hypnotic fashion. Then came the Long Man Morris who gave a sturdy performance. At this point I checked my watch…I had to be off to Rye for the Hot Penny Scramble, for another post.

A delightful revival and one it would be nice to see encouraged elsewhere attached to Morris dancing out at May Day. A real opportunity of encouraging both community involvement and making children understand the heritage of the day off from school!

When is it on?

http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/lewes-garland-day/

Custom occasional: Abingdon Bun Throwing

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Abingdon has a custom which has been undertaken rather on and off over 200 years. Principally associated with Royal events its irregularity means that it does not fit the categories on this blog so I have made a new category – custom occasional!

How did this curious custom begin? Abingdon claims its unique. In the way it does of course, but there are other bun throws such as that I recorded at Wath upon Dearne. It may not have started as bun throwing and it is suggested that it may have been a dole probably done to recognise the importance of the event it was associated with. During the 1760 for George III coronation, a John Waite records catching a cake thrown from the Market House. The Borough Minutes of 1831 record that 500 penny cakes distributed. In the Abingdon Herald’s it states that:

500 cakes … were thrown from the tops of houses into the dirt to be scrambled for, in accordance with ancient usage”.

From 1761 until 2016 34 bun throws have been done of these 27 have been for Royal occasions – 8 coronations, 6 jubilees, 5 birthdays, 4 marriages, 2 anniversaries of a marriage and one Royal visit. Other events have been celebrated by buns such as VE Day and its 50th anniversary and the end of the Crimean War or Charter days and even an International Day. In the museum can be seen evidence of the last 17 bun throwings, the earliest being from 1887 Golden Jubilee of Victoria. The museum was closed on the day unfortunately. The number of bun throws appear to have increased in the year, possibly as a result of a wise tourist drive – nothing wrong with that of course!

Bun time for all

I turned up a few hours earlier to see the town preparing. Abingdon is a classic town – a real life Trumpton and as such I expected Trumptonesque activities For of course it was not just bun throwing to keep the crowd happy the organisers had put on some other entertainments. Very Trumptonlike with Town Crier, band and Morris.

One of the attendees was morning about the need for signs for the ingredients of the buns and morning ‘EU regulation’. I smiled wryly…although I noted there wasn’t a sign saying ‘don’t eat the ones on the floor’.

As the crowds begun to assemble, the local band cheerfully entertained them from everything from Hope and Glory to Sex Bomb! As we approached nearer to launch time, it was time for the famed Abingdon Morris Men to appear with their Bull mascot, sword and pewter mug. They enthralled those assembled with their dances and this was a good advert for their more famous Mock Mayor custom the week after. The crowd looked very responsive to them and so no doubt that boded well for the following week!

Whilst this was going on Union Jack flags were enthusiastic delivered through the crowd with children leaping on the opportunity to give them a way and occasionally poke an eye out no doubt.

Then a small procession came to the town hall attended by the Mayor, the town dignitaries, local MP and the winners of a furthest bun throwing competition a few weeks earlier!

The band then struck up the National Anthem and the crowd sung. And yes in the crowd, there was that embarrassing moment where no one remembers the words to the second verse! Then there was a cheer as they turn around and ascended the town hall. A few minutes later they appeared on the roof.

Bun fight

In what appeared an aeon, peppered with false starts teasing the crowd, limbering up and chants of ‘we want buns’, the later could be misinterpreted Versailles style!

“please do not use upturned umbrellas’ You don’t see signs like that everyday do you? But it was clear that one of the greatest aspects of bun throwing is the chance to catch as many as possible. However, there was no unruly scramble, this was genteel Oxfordshire after all.

Then the clock struck 7 and we were off. And some off it was literally raining buns. There was no let off. Over 2500 were being launched and it felt like it. The sky was almost darkened over with buns! Catching them was another matter. One bounced off my shoulder and another with some force hit me squarely on the head ‘ouch’. Some people were clearly having greater luck. A girl behind had about eight and we were only four minutes in! Two children had baseball gloves..very ingenious!

Then I began having luck and soon caught a special celebratory bun with 90 piped onto it. I appeared to be the only one I found one I noticed in the same area, so I did not know how many were being released but I would imagine 90. So if so catching 1 out of 90 out of the 2500 was I suppose a bit of a chance happening. The sound of excitement was getting fever pitch and more and more buns fell from the sky and then 15 minutes in the sky cleared. No more buns. The crowd cheers and began to dispersed. Around me there were lots of grinning children clutching their happy hoards…and off everyone went…roll on the 100th?

Custom contrived: The Carshalton Straw Man

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Carshalton can be seen as typical London suburbia. Neat gardens, green spaces, libraries, busy shops and popular pubs. It’s an area usually devoid of anything cultural or traditional. Full of commuters, tired after a long week of work..yet you would be wrong. For come the second week of September a curious and unique event takes over this sleepy slice of commuter land…Carshalton’s Straw Jack

Man of Straw

I attended on a gloriously warm and bright day and I soon found the Jack and its fantastically dressed entourage at the Fox and Hounds – a suitably countryside named pub perhaps. The Jack was certainly impressive, a 10 metre high creature, certainly one of the tallest Jack figures seen on our streets.  It is made in the same way as its Maytime, equivalent being a wooden frame like a May Jack but of course then covered in straw, decorated with flowers.  The entourage was just as beautifully crafted being in the main dressed in a sort of Victorian Gothic Punk…they were certainly much better dressed than the usual Saturday clients at the pub.

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A Straw in the wind

The Carshalton Straw Jack is not a particularly old tradition, only 10 years old, but one which has all the ingredients to make it seem old. A celebration of the harvest, the passing of the seasons, a straw Jack in a nod to the Summer’s Jack in the Green. One can be struck by the names of its attendees the Squire, The Rat Catcher, The Scarecrow, The Reaper Man, The Corn Dollies, The Cider Man all sound suitably harvest related and traditional…as well as comically phrased with a wink in the eye.

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The last straw

I followed the Straw Jack around the streets and through the park as it and its follows writhed in and out, enchanted by the music by the delightfully named drumming band RumpleDrumskin. The assembled onlookers were the usual mix of bemusement and amusement, although I was interested to see an elderly lady reach over to touch the straw covered creature for luck it appeared! Towards the end of the day celebration ends at its final pub, The Hope and here the Jack sees its end. Here a ritual burning of the Jack occurs as its followers scramble to catch pieces of it for good luck…and its over for another year.

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Perhaps it seems highly appropriate that this celebration of the harvest, a harvest long gone for these places, but once so immediately essential, is celebrated here. It is a pub crawl…aren’t they all…but one with a message perhaps to celebrate the harvest. One that may remind even our most urban areas need to celebrate the harvest that has filled their convenience stores and super markets. Long may it continue!

Custom revived: The Winster Guisers

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“December 26th. — This evening we had several sets of children ‘guising,’ dressed up in all sorts of queer ways, and singing one thing or other. The ‘Hobby Horse’ came too. Five men — one as a devil, one as a woman, one as an old woman with a besom, one with the Hobby Horse, and one as something or other else. We had them in the kitchen and gave them money.

December 27th. — Troops of children ‘guising’ again. We gave something to each lot. In the evening the Winster ‘Snap Dragon’ and ‘Hobby Horse’ conjoined came to us — ten men, one as Snap Dragon, two with Hobby Horses, two devils, etc., etc. We had them in the kitchen and gave them money.

Llewellynn Jewitt diary from 1867

Anyone who has been following this blog or occasionally visits will know I do enjoy a Mummer’s Play or Folk Play…I could fill the blog with accounts and some years I might experience 20-30 or so from across the country and over the seasons. Previous posts being testament such as the Soulcakers, Nottinghamshire Plough Monday plays and Ripley Guisers..but there are many more of course. One such tradition, a stable mate geographically with Ripley is that of the Winster Guisers, is worth exploring. Why? This is because the group, although a 1980 revival, is based on a curious photo from around 1870 and are rather bizarrely and frighteningly attired.

Winster Guisers 2014 (102)Winster Guisers 2014 (72)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping mum on the origin

Some authorities have argued that as Winster has a Morris tradition that the photo is of a Morris troup. Let us look at the evidence on both sides. Firstly, the season, the lack of leaves on the vine in the background suggests winter – the season of mainly mumming not Morris. However, two characters have musical instruments suggesting that the group are dancing yet music does appear in such folk plays for example the Poor Old Horse. This is particularly significant drawing reference to this as the tradition was a Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire-Yorkshire one and the photo may capture a rendition. However, the evidence against this are the other characters – particularly those on what appear to be hobby horses, something more apparent in Morris. However, surely these characters are soldiers riding their horses. Some authorities such as ….state that they do not appear to be in combat, but surely it is not difficult to consider they might jousting with their horses being the objects of conflict? The brooms held by the other characters are more difficult. Broom dancing does exist in Morris but it appears restricted to Molly dancing an eastern tradition of East Anglia and Lincolnshire. Alternatively and more likely these are the sweepers off commonly seen in renditions of the Derby Tup, again a locally prevalent folk play. The final evidence in favour are again those costumes – there is no uniformity, a facet commonly seen in Morris and they are disguised.  The wearing of masks of course is unknown in Morris who would use other forms such as blackening to disguise their features. This does not exclude the possibility but surely the wearing of masks would be an encumbrance for a dancer? It appears all pretty conclusive I feel, and perhaps doubts have only crept in as a result of Winster’s rather odd Morris hangers on – a witch, clown and sergeant – but could these have come from the mummers and not evidence of the other arrangement? Whatever the truth this evocative photo was used as the basis for the modern team but of course a photo does not provide a script.  I enquired about this and the team asked older members of the community who suggested the characters and snippets of the play.

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The team have very faithfully resurrected the costumes from the photograph – the two protagonists wearing military jackets with white trousers. Their heads being wrapped in a white cloth with a clown like imaginary painted upon it. The other characters have been resurrected – the besom carrying one and the doctor.  The script coming from a Cheshire souling play the most likely candidate but no one other than an expert of folk plays would notice of course.

Truly Dis-Guised

I turned up late for the first performance at Matlock..their schedule said 8.45, they started at 8.15…early for mummers is virtually unheard of it was probably a typo. At least this gave me time to settle in at their next venue and get a prime location.

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Soon the play started to a very receptive audience, many of whom had turned up to see it (it is good to advertise). In came the Introducer:

I open the door and I enter in

Your favour I shall win

Here I stand, sit or fall

I’ll do my best to please you all.

A room to enter in

Come raise up the fire, for in this room tonight, there’s going to be a dreadful fight,

So much a fight in this house, we’ll make the rafters ring

If you don’t please the words I say..step in St George, clear the way…”

Then in came the main protagonists Saint George followed by the Black Prince of Paradise both riding curious hobby horses. In came a rather rapid St George on his unusual hobby horse:

“I am St George, noble champion bold,

And was with this sword I will fight crimes again

It was I who fought that fiery dragon and brought him slaughter

For my valour I won fair sheila the King of Egypt’s daughter.

I’ve travelled the world, round and round, is not a man to equal me never have I found,

Shall meet the man that dare stand in front of me and I’ll cut him down with sword in hand

Black Prince: I am Black Prince of Paradise, born of high renowned,

And with this sword I soon fix thy loafty courage down,

In Black Morocco I am King and before this night old,

I’ll see thee lie dead upon this floor and make thy blood run cold

St George: What that thy sayeth

What I say I mean

Stand back thy black Morrocan dog or I’ll drive sword thy die

Cut thy body in four parts and make your button’s fly

I cast thy cut my body in four parts and make your button fly,

My head is made of brass, Me body is made of steel

My arms and legs are knuckle bone and challenge the to feel

Black Prince: Pull out thy purse and beg

St George: Pull out thy sword and fight!

The satisfaction I shall have before I thou goes away tonight.”

Horsing about?

What is unusual about the team shown in the photo are the small hobby horses which these protagonists ride between their legs geld by a cord around the rider’s neck. These appear to be like wooden rocking horse having a flat curved neck with small head and snapping jaws are about two feet long with a cylindrical body. The question being are these the snap dragons or the hobby horses described by Llewellynn Jewitt? Folklorist Cecil Sharp noted that a real horses head snap dragon was being used in 1908 however confusingly the Winster Morris in 1966 state they never had a hobby horse but did have a ceremony where a horse skull would be buried each year and dug up. That is a tradition which survives at Antrobus soul caking  – more of about this skull later.

Dying for a pint

King of Egypt enters similarly disguised in cloth with an Arabic hat: “I am the King of Egypt as proud doth I appear, I’ve come to seek the young black prince who is my son and heir.Where the man who doeth sway is and precious blood he spill?Who is the man upon this ground my only son did kill?”

St George: I did him slay was I who did him kill and on this ground his precious blood did spill. He challenged me to fight with him, did he, before I be a coward, I fight until I die

King of Egypt: St George, St George what have you done, you’ve gone and killed me only son.

My only son, my only heir, how can you leave him bleeding there?

This part then leads to the traditional entrance of a female character, usually a man in drag, but unusually and especially for this year…an actual women:

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Looks like there’s been some fighting in ‘ere , looks like we need a doctor

Is there a doctor who can cure this man of his deadly wounds?

King of Egypt: I’ll give you five pounds for a doctor

Doctor: There’s no five pound doctor.

King of Egypt: I’ll give you 10 pounds for a doctor

Doctor: In comes I who’s never late, With my big head and little wit, my big heads so big and my wits so small, I’ll endeavour to please you all, man of noble vein, no more than thee or any other man

I cames the to be a doctor?

Doctor: By my travels

Why how far hast you travelled?

Doctor: I’ve travelled up and down the country in this manner or that, I’ve travelled from the fireside to the bedside, from the bedside to me grandmother’s cupboard side, got many a lump of mouldy cheesey pie crust that has made me such a fine upstanding figure of man as I am.

Is that all?”

 No I’ve been to Italy, Spitaly, France, Germany and Spain and I come back to the insert pub name again,

What have you seen on your travels?

Two dead men fighting, two blind me seen fair play, two men acting arms pick them up and carrying them away and two dumb men shouted horray horray.

What canst you cure?

I can cure The ip, the pip, the stitch, the patsy and the gout, the pains within and pains out

There be nineteen Devils in a man’s skull I cast 21 of them out.

What else canst you cure?

I can cure a horse of the gout

How does you do that then?

Cut it off and kick it about!

Can you cure hotels?

I can cure horse of the piles

How does you do that?

Flick some salt on its arse and ride it for miles

Is that all your can cure?

No in this bag I’ve got all manner of things, crutches for lame ducks, and spectacles for blind bumblebees, splints for grasshoppers with broken legs and many other useful things

Any chance of curing this man then doctor?

I, I got some medicine. three sips from this bottle, go down his thittle-throttle, If not entirely slain, rise up and fight again.”

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What is clear perhaps from these doctor incidences is that in such communities the doctor was always a questionable character or that one of the least worthy men in the troup played him! After resurrecting the Black Prince he decides to fight St George again but is stopped and the starts the long sequence of begging. One of the most amusing being Little Johnny Jack, played by one of the tallest of the group, who delivered his lines with great emphasis and who had a collection of dolls stuck to his  back:

In comes I little Johnny Jack, it’s my wife and my family I got on my back, now my family is large and I’ve had a little fall, so a little please will help us all. Out of twelve children I’ve got but five, all the rest they’re starving alive, some in workhouse and some down mine, I’ll bring them all with me when I come here next year. Now Christmas comes but once a year, but when it comes it brings good cheer. There’s turkey and taters, and mince pies and no one likes this sort of thing more than these guisers and in. So ladies and gentlemen, sit there at your ease, but you’ll have to give a little to these guisers if you please. And if you don’t give enough to these lads and so then I’ll go back to the beginning and do it all over again.”

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The last line getting the best roar of the whole performance. Johnny Jack was joined by Beelzebub a traditional more threatening character and Little Devil Doubt who threatened:

“In comes in Little Devily doubt and If you don’t give me your money I’ll sweep you all out. It’s your money I want, it’s your money I crave and if you don’t give me your money I’ll sweep you to your grave. If you don’t believe the words I say..step in Old Horse and clear the way.”

This horse was the icing on this rather gruesome cake. A real horses skull, painted black with red circle eyes and controlling it unseen beneath a black sheet it’s handler…it moved on all fours with an eerie quick slow fashion like a horse out of control, or rather like a more benevolent Emu of Rod Hull fame!. He’s rider again eliciting sympathy:

In comes our old horse to bring you good cheer, Merry Christmas and Happy New year..he was a fine horse and now he’s dead, all is left is this poor old horses head, Cause he’s old with wrapped a blanket around him to keep him from the cold. Now he’s come to your house to see you, I pray I look around, a fine horse as ever there’s been

He’s got a Head as handsome as any Derby winner, But nose fine and noble, like a piece of Worcester China, Got an Eye like a hawk and a neck like a swan, ears less as keen they can hear the bells in Pomy church even when not ringing, he’s got a row of teeth big and bright, like new tombstones…a champion horse very well bred..travelled far, he’s been to Buxton and once as far as Elton.

King and Queen once rode behind him and bought him a neat coat but no only pulls an old milk float…When he was born his mother fell dead on spoonfuls of honey he was nursed and fed. Once he danced to many a tune, now he only has one leg and with this leg he has to beg..some coppers and some beer…he’ll dance you a gallop if you come next year.”

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The team sung us a Merry Christmas and the very appreciative audience, one of the best for a mummer’s play, dug deep for charity! Reflecting on a very amusing performance, one could understand the popularity of such plays then when there was an element of surprise in both the characterisation and dress perhaps in the days when many did not see regular performance.  The fights which must have been common place in pubs – they still are – easily got the attention. That combined with patriotic tendencies underlining it was a good one to elicit sympathy and support in the days when everyone appeared to be an enemy the other side of the channel! Furthermore, the plays gave the working classes the opportunity to ridicule the figures of authority as well…the language in some cases may seem a little odd and obscure, but the plays still have the power to make audiences laugh and of course dig deep. Winster Guisers, with its bizarre and scary costumes, unique hobby horse and eerie horse is something the town of Winster should be very proud of. Catch it if you can.

Spot the difference!

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Custom survived: The Abbot Bromley Horn Dance 100th Post!

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An obvious choice for the 100th post but there is something mesmerising about this perhaps the oldest dance ritual in Europe. Many have said this was the first custom which made them fascinated in our strange customs, such as Averil of the excellent Calendar Customs website.  My first experience is back in the 1990s and I travelled from Bristol to see it! It is perhaps one of the most instantly recognisable and iconic, with its olde world dress and impressive reindeer antlers- the horns- which are danced with.

A horny subject?

How old is it? This is a moot subject and depends on whether you need hard evidence. The earliest reference is in Plots 1686 Natural History of Staffordshire, but there reference of a hobby horse being used in 1532 with ‘six men carrying rain deer heads’ but that does not necessary mean the dance is that old. More convincing is the evidence of the Carbon dating of the Horns, which dates them to the 11th century, 1056 more accurately, suggesting an Anglo-Saxon origin perhaps. It has been suggested that it may have pagan origins, certainly it is significant that reindeer would have been extinct by the 11th century. Does this suggest the custom had a Norse origin, as reindeer are still extant there? Did the horns come later if so why? Some authorities had related the custom to privileges from the time when hunting was undertaken in the nearby Cannock Chase. Interestingly, the appointment of a forester continued until the 16th century and that they were called the Forester of Bentylee and it is the name of Bentley which continued organising the events until 1914. Coincidental perhaps?

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Keeping on dancing

The horn dance as Plot noted is on Wakes Monday which is after the first Sunday after the fourth of September. It’s a long day…the antlers are removed from the wall location early at 8 am after a blessing at the church, where they lay for 364 days a year and the dancing begins. Already there is a sizeable crowd ready to watch as they weave in and out of themselves on the green as the six dancers face each other and try to avoid the heavy horns, weighing around 25lbs, clashing. Interestingly, red deer antlers are used when the team perform outside of the village making witnessing the custom in situ more special.

The dancers have a quaint dress which might suggest evidence for an early origin but sadly these have a fairly recent origin, 1880s by the vicar’s wife, and before then they would wear normal clothing.

Clashing horns

Then off they went around the Parish, stopping in back lanes and open spaces to hypnotically play their tune and do their dance. One of the notable locations is Blithfield Hall. Here one can get a view of the dancers without the throng of observers and often photographers and get a real feeling of its ancient mesmeric nature.

There are twelve dancers, which consist of six horn carriers, an accordion player and unusually two children one with a bow and arrow and the other a triangle. There is also a Fool, Maid Marian character and Hobby Horse, features of Morris teams across the country

Then at eight in the evening the horns are returned back to the church a service is undertaken and its over for another year.  What is splendid about the dance is its simplicity and authenticity, as the author of a piece in the Times from 7th September 1936 wrote:

“The whole thing is done unassumably and with a quite purposefulness which is the keynote of the whole proceedings. One feels they are not dancing for joy or self-expression, but going quietly about a task which must be accomplished with necessary fuss.”

Custom revived: Middleton Pace eggers and Egg rolling

Standard

“It’s an important Manchester United match on…there won’t be any Pace Egging”

Was one paraphrased reply when enquiring about Pace Egging on Easter Monday from the Mossley team. Fortunately, the Middleton team were not some encumbered by a need to watch the footy..after all they could get snatches of it in the pubs.

Pace Egging Play 2013 (199)

 

What egg-xactly does it mean?

The English can be confusing. Any search for the words Pace Egg will reveal two slightly contradictory uses of the phrase – a play and a decorated egg, the precursor of the chocolate egg, which is rolled down the hills.  This usage is noticeable in Lancashire.

The name Pace derives from Pasche which is derived from the Hebrew Passover which is when traditionally the Crucifixion is associated with. The term probably survived in the Lancashire region, like the burning Judas custom because of the large number of recusant Catholics and Irish catholic immigrants.

How did this confusion arise I think Poulson (1977) in her North Country Traditions gives us the clue:

“Children used to call door to door, sometimes selected houses in the district where they lived and stated that they were pace-egging. The householder would then offer an egg as a gift.”

What probably happened is that the play arose independently and largely became debased in areas where the children took it over as they did not practice and so it continued as a house visiting custom probably based around singing as their entertainment form. As it was Easter time, people would give eggs which they knew would be used as either food, rolled down the hills or both. Hence the name being used for both.

Pace Egging Play 2013 (252)

The Middleton Pace Eggers have avoided this confusion by doing both! For after the play which finishes at the highest point of the town and the group move to a slopping field beside the church. So if you want to get two Easter traditions in following the Middleton Pace Eggers is a must

Egging you on?

There is evidence of Pace Egging in the area in the 18th century. As Joan Poulson (1977) North Country Traditions notes:

“a seventy-six year old Manchester man told me in 1974 that it was regular custom for school children to go Pace-Egging on Good Friday before 1910 and that afterwards it may have persisted for a year or two in some locations. The nineteen-four-teen/eighteen war certainly put an end to it.”

This group is one of the oldest of the revivals, 50 years in 2017. Unusually it is one which owes their existence to well known folk comedian Mike Harding who compiled the script from various plays such as those at Bury. Being a writer, Mike added some artistic license to the play and elaborated on some of the characters and made them more prominent such as the section with the Quack Doctor and St. George. Fortunately it is the doctor who has played the role since the 1967 that keeps the playing going on.

Pace yourself!

Like most other folk plays…one could see this as glorified pump crawl, although how the team can remember their lines after so many pints at the end is always a mystery!!

My first encounter was on the streets of Middleton a small town on the outskirts of Manchester, having just left their first pub – the Dusty Miller. They were a rag bag group of curiously dressed people – recognisable were a King with a crown, a black faced Turkish Knight, St. George the most obvious, as well as a whole pantheon of bizarrely dressed people including a horse on that pub crawl with a difference.

Entering the first pub, a Wetherspoons, I could not resist the temptation cracking that horse at the bar joke. The group knew there script well and certainly put passion and power into it…pity that no one thought of turning off the music blearing over them in the pub! A well…a sort break for some beer and up the hill to a more traditional spit and saw dust establishment. The crowd may have been smaller, but there was no music and they seemed quite appreciative and laughed in all the right bits!  There is something quite addictive in following these plays…the script is the same but you feed off the ab-libs and often as the drink takes over the mistakes.

Eggstrordinary story

The story is a familiar one! A story of conflict, death and resurrection – a more appropriate theme for Easter than at other times. The characters are the King of England and his son St. George, his antagonistic partner the Turkish Champion and Bold Slasher, the doctor, Beelzebub and Derry Doubt. Familiar characters and then the team have two unusual characters a ‘female’ clown called Miss Kitty Fair and impressive black horse called Dobbin. The basic plot concerns St George fighting the Turk. At first defeated (to the accompaniment of boos), St George is brought back to life by the mysterious Doctor and finally defeats his adversary

Curiously, the play starts with all the characters in a circle and they sing a song introducing themselves. Round one – Captain Slasher fights the Turkish Knight. The former wounded! Round two – St George fights the Turkish Knight (after some egging on from the King). The former dies! Everyone is distraught! In comes the Doctor with his unruly horse…and he ‘cures’ St. George. Round three – St George fights the Turkish Knight! Death to the Turkish Knight. Owd Beelzebub and Derry Doubt sweep up for some money (charity not beer!)

Small and almost children take on the Turkish Knight and almost win!

Last stage of the tour is the Ring O’Bells. Here we encountered what I consider one the scourge of events….the professional photographer. Don’t get me wrong,  I like to get a good shot, but sometimes I do think that these people arrogantly think the show is set up for them, just swan in at the end and demand photos. I know we all need publicity but I do think that such people can look down at the event for the sake of copy. Rant over! Having said this the custom is well supported by the press the Middleton Guardian reporting:

“Nowadays most of us are older and the joints are rather stiffer, so the prospect of carrying out a schedule like that doesn’t bear thinking about. Most memorable perhaps is the wonderful feeling as the team walk up through Jubilee Park and approach the final pub, The Ring O’ Bells. Although the crowd can vary, often dependent on the weather, on a good day, we can be welcomed by an appreciative crowd, waiting expectantly outside the pub, and the warmth of the welcome makes the whole thing worthwhile.”

At the Ring O’Bells we were greeted with bright but chilly weather and the team set the play outside. What is delightful is that the group are keep to accept volunteers, mainly children in their play. Here they solicited others for any children to join  in to slay the Turkish Knight…this was feverishly taken up by one boy who despite making a valiant effort was dispatched but kept coming back to life. Another appeared to also not read the brief and was determined to kill the Turkish Knight aiming for some more delicate places on the way. Without doubt the last performance was the best and all the team with the children who helped out got together for a group photo.

Then it was off for some egg rolling. This was clearly very well known in the area for a large congregation of children clutching eggs had appeared at this point. This rolling was a simple but nevertheless effective. The King blew his horn and the eggs were rolled and some went some great distances…sweets being given as prizes…once the rollers had climbed the steep hill up that is.

A King but no soldiers for the eggs!

A King but no soldiers for the eggs!

This I would say is the most important part of the custom and one which other similar customs could take points from…children are actively involved. One would hope that by doing so, especially encouraging participation in the play, the play’s survival is assured..perhaps such teams should invest in Junior  tours although it would have to be a tour of soft play centres…mind you there are plenty of them!

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs … http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/pace-egg-plays/

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