Tag Archives: pagan

Custom survived: Burning Owd Bartle!

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When my sister-in-law and her family came over from Australia two years ago I planned to show them some quaint customs as foreigner would say, and although August is not a great time of year for such things, their stay did coincide with the Burning of Bartle in the delightful Wensleydale village of West Witton.

West Witton is a village shrouded in mystery with its crags and woody valleys hiding mysteries such as ancient springs, Templar properties and supposedly a giant hill figure. We arrived early evening in the village and noticed the village was deserted. Had I made a mistake with the date? Entering one of the local inns for need a something to eat, it was clear by the number of reserved tables and slowness of service that this was the correct night and the in inn to the occasion. When we were served, I showed the bar lady the book I had with me which contained some pictures from the 1980s; she was very surprised to see her relatives in it and herself as a young girl.

Bartle about

At the allotted time of 9 o’clock darkness had cloaked the village and assembling at one end of the village we waited. Soon an eerie pipe begun to play and appearing from the darkness was a green man playing his pipe…soon a cottage door opened in a cul-de-sac and the figure of Bartle appeared carried like a sort drunken demon, his body made of a jumper and tracksuit bottoms but his face a hideous hallowe’en mask covered by a grey wig. It was a strange and bewitching site, made even more bizarre by every now and again his eyes flashed on and off!

His carries made their strange procession around town, followed by an odd assortment of camera laden tourists and enthusiastic locals. But this is more than a simple procession for at regular points, Bartle was greeted by hotel owners and often some of the community’s older residents who probably could not process around, who upon offering ‘Bartle’ a drink (eagerly taken by its escorts), probably looked upon themselves as being given some sort of blessing of good luck. At these points, one of the following verses are evocatively chanted, in an accent which could easily sounded Viking in its origin. Each place being significant to the story…

On Penhill Crags he tore his rags

Hunters Thorn he blew his horn

Cappelbank Stee happened a misfortune and brake his knee

Grassgill Beck he brake his neck

Wadhams End he couldn’t fend

Grassgill End we’ll make his end

Shout, lads, shout!”

The Bartle-bum The origins of the custom

Several claims are made for the origins of the custom suggesting its great age. The most popular is that Bartle was a local sheep thief that the local people chased out of town and dispatched according to the chant. This appears to be a rather unlikely (and unpleasant) reason and may have been a Victorian attempt to tidy up the custom’s origin. Furthermore it misses the obvious, that the church is dedicated to St Bartholomew and the event is down around what would have been its patronal day. This suggests that the custom arose from the traditional carrying of an effigy around the village as is seen in many Catholic countries and now with Our Lady in places such as Walsingham. If the starting point is tradition it is interesting that there is an old well at the start point suggesting that perhaps some libation was done of over the effigy from its waters. Yet why would they be destroying it? Perhaps it was an accident or a fight to preserve it at the Reformation when pious locals were trying to hide it at Grassgill. The alternative theory was that a local Abbot, Jervaulx’s Adam Sedburgh  was that he was avoiding the Pilgrimage of Grace and was chased for his lack of commitment. The book I had, the excellent Penhill Giant linked it to a giant…This again looks very unlikely….

My personal view is that originally it may have been a pagan effigy which was ritually sacrificed hence some of the terms, which was of course Christianised and the custom of carrying the effigy was continued long into the Catholic period until the Reformation when the Bartholomew effigy was lost.

Burn Bartle Burn

When they finally reached Grassgill Lane, the effigy was placed against the wall. The full moon pour open the scene giving an otherworldly nature as for the final time, the truncheon was push into Bartle’s chest and the chant repeated with considerable enthusiasm. The figure was doused in petrol and set light to the scene being surrounded by a reverential hush. I wondered the age of the location as it was clearly much used as a stone had been set into the ground to prevent the fire spreading. As the flames engulfed the body, kids lined up on the wall nearby oblivious it seemed to the potential danger of the flames and the crowd circled around it’s warmth to hear as it burned brighter and brighter that chant. People lined up to have photos with the burning body…as if perhaps it was again a good luck motif. Then the flames began to subside, and more smoke than flame was emanating from Bartle. At this point the organised seeing their work done, left the smouldering ‘corpse’ for another year.

What makes the ceremony one of the best of England’s customs is that it remains a local event. There is no police presence, no hoards of TV cameras and only a few visitors (like us!). Indeed during the burning the only safety precaution I saw was a solitary cone beside the flaming Bartle!

And where sheep stealer or pagan deity, whatever the origins, it is without doubt one of the most evocative of all English customs.

copyright Pixyled publications

Customs demised: Watching the sun dance on Easter Sunday

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Across the country it was traditional to get on Easter day or Sunday and see the sun dance in celebration of Christ’s resurrection from Polperro to Derbyshire, where at Castleton, locals would climb to a prominent hill to see it. Addy (1895) in his Traditional household tales notes:

“On Easter Sunday people at Castleton, in Derbyshire, used  to climb the hill on which the castle is built, at six o’clock in the morning, to see the sun rise. On this day the sun is said to dance for joy at his rising.”

In Dartmoor and Exmoor, in Devon and Somerset, there was said to be the Lamb and flag in the disc. Girls used to take smoked glass to see the sun. In Somerset Dunkery Beacon and Will’s neck were climbed and often an idea of the that it could be used to forecast the weather for the coming year Indeed Maureen Sutton (1995) in her Lincolnshire Calendar who notes that belief in the tradition was still current in the 1920s and 30s in the county and. She notes of Swineshead in the 1920s:

“Old Bert used to get up real early on Easter Day morning before the sun got up. He’ put a huge earthenware jar out and fill it up to the brim with water…when the sun rose, the reflection was shown on the jar and it made the sun dance on the water. If the water rippled it meant there was going to be enough water to last through the summer. If tyhe sun moved slowly across the water, it meant a dry summer”

In Worksop, Nottinghamshire, a correspondent in a local newspaper, a man called Thomas Ratcliffe, notes that a stream was a location:

“When I was a child this talk used to impress me very much and I persuaded my mother to take me to a spot about half a mile away, where a small stream widening out in a ford used by farmers and others. The spot was often visited on Easter Morning for the purpose of seeing the sun dance which it was sire to do if it were sunny and a soft wind rippled the surface. The sun did dance on the particular day”

Or perhaps, as the Reverend Parish notes of the tradition in Sussex:

“nobody is ever seen it because the devil is so cunning that he always puts a hill in the way to hide it”

This is echoed in The Lincolnshire magazine 1932-4 vol 1 which stated that:

“I have often heard of the sun dancing on Easter Day, but never met with anyone who had really seen it”

Although, the article goes on to report someone who had, describing it as:

“It kep on th’ dance for nigh on half an hour, dancing and turnin round all the time..There were cogwheels all round it an; it kep dartin’ out-dartin out light it did. It was most like that thing in the menagic lanten as keeps turnin round.”

It was probably due to eye strain following gazing at the sun’s disc. This activity is suggested by Addy (1895) in Derbyshire who says:

“On the Wednesday before Easter Sunday a Derbyshire man said, ” I think the sun will hardly be able to contain himself till Sunday.” In  Derbyshire they  say that the sun spins round when he sets on Easter Sunday, and people go out to see this spinning.”

Thomas Ratcliffe notes again and hints at the growing rational explanations of the event:

“I still remember the kindly lesson given me on that occasion, low I was told that the wind and water together by causing ripples made the sun to seemingly dance upon the surface of the ford.”

Perhaps this combined with the rarity of seeing it, possible ocular damage and a growing rationality lead to its demise. When the custom was no longer observed is unclear….Perhaps some people still make their quiet pilgrimage to their nearest hill or pool to see the sun’s joyous celebration of the resurrection.