Tag Archives: Peterborough

Custom contrived: Yaxley Jack in the Green

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Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (128)May the best event win!

This May I experienced two ‘revived’ or rather ‘contrived’ May Day events. Events which attempted to instil the traditions of the time of year with a modern twist. One was fairly dreadful, a travesty, no better than a glorified car boot sale with a May theme tacked on…that wasn’t Yaxley! I won’t say where the other was but Yaxley’s event really showed how such an event, albeit based on an older Fair tradition can be both credible and relevant to a whole range of people. The fair itself dates back from the 13th century when Royal decree, Henry III granted a fair to be held on Ascension Day in Yaxley to Thornton Abbey. I am unaware of the survival of this Fair into modern times, but the modern event is clearly not tied to Ascension Day.

I’m alright Jack

Furthermore, no Jack in Green is not recorded in Yaxley either, but he does have a history in the Cambridgeshire area. The Women’s Institute recorded of Melbourn: “A procession of dancers, headed by Jack in the Green, the local sweep, who walked in a framework of boughs, made their way through the village to the Maypole” Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (203) I arrived at the Three Horses Pub, a delightful thatched establishment on the main street to see all the procession assembled and some organiser towering above them on a wall giving directors.  Here the shell of the Jack was being prepared, with ribbons attached and a man stood green faced waiting with his attendants, a Sap-Engro and Copperface wearing the original Ancient Order of the Foresters sash, which was worn in the village’s parades in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Then at the allotted time, the shell was raised and the man enclosed. Then we waited for the other star, a larger one, a star of stage and screen, Warwick Davis. A local celebrity to the village who has gladly became a patron of the festival. He soon arrived and climbing into a car with the other patron, the local MP, the procession continued. Although the procession had all the clichés of a parade: marionettes, Saxon and Civil War re-enactors and of course Morris, or in this case Molly, dancers, it does not feel predictable…perhaps as a result of the inclusion of the Jack and his sweep attendees, something only seen in 16 other places and not always in a procession. Thus it makes the procession feel unique and certainly ancient. Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (455)

Down to earth

At the recreation ground the procession greeted an impressive spread of fun fair and fete. At the arena awaiting Jack and the patrons was a square sod of earth. Here Warwick Davis was asked to cut a Y into a piece of pre-cut turf. The cutting of a Y was obvious but despite Mr. Davis’s enquiring no-one could immediately tell him. Perhaps summing up many an English tradition,, but if you going to do something pointless…you’ve got to have a reason for it I say. The reason was that during the fair, any house which cut a piece of turf and displayed it, could sell alcohol and function as a pub even without a certificate. I am sure that had this been explained one of the crowd would have rushed forward to affix to their house and make a quick buck!

Jack of all trades

Warwick was the genial host freely entering into the spirit of the event. He enjoyed a fair bit of kick about humour from the parliamentarians who accused Warwick Davis of sorcery saying that he was digging a big hole for himself…and you can make up the rest of the joke. Afterwards, the day continued with the local primary undertaking some Maypole dancing and the Pig Dyke Molly dancers regaling the crowds in their black and white garb and curious dancing. Outside the arena was an expansive funfair, the usual collection of novelty stalls and even a Guess your age stall who got my age wrong by 10 years! Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (502)Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (529)           The organisers of Yaxley’s festival are to be congratulated they have pulled off a credible event which mixes a bit of folklore tradition with a modern concert and all the fun of the fair. If you find yourself in the area do come; it’s a village fete par excellence! Find out when its on Calendar Customs …its not on there yet. Yaxley festival website is Copyright Pixyledpublications

Custom revived: The Whittlesea straw bear

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Whittesey Straw Bear (2)

Turning up on the second Saturday in January to the little known town of Whittlesea one will be greeted by a fantastic site – the Straw bear festival.
My one and only attendance was with my family and mother-in-law. Understandably it was freezing, a factor not appreciated by my Australian mother in law. I tended to agree, the wind blows hard and sharp across those fens…there’s nothing in the way until the Friesland (appropriately) on the European mainland. This wild and desolate landscape is befitting of such a weird and wonderful tradition.
Despite the weather we braved it and upon entering the town square we could see the assembled mass of the procession in the far distance. Soon they were upon us and the Straw bear could be seen, a strange otherworldly creature and quite frightening..well it was to be eldest, then two who upon seeing it come towards me screamed the loudest I have ever heard him. It’s obviously had an effect on him because in idle conversation he brought it up…more than the monsters of Doctor Who which haunted my nightmares but appear to have little effect on him. Reference to Doctor Who is certainly appropriate for this creature has much in common with the creations of that show. Its stomping gate a locomotion many a monster would be glad of, its lack of features a step perhaps too scary for the show’s producers to attempt.

The bear essentials – the history

Plough Monday as you know if you’ve been following this blog was an unofficial day off when farm workers travelled the parish begging. In the east midlands, mainly Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire these were plays, East Anglia celebrated with molly dancers and in some places the celebration was spread out to the next day Plough Tuesday. In the fens it would appear this was the day for the most curious and impressive of beasts, the Straw Bear.
No one appears to know the age of the tradition, a newspaper report in 1882 states:

“he was then taken around the town to entertain by his frantic and clumsy gestures the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef.”

It is clear that its antics and the combination of alcohol saw its demise in 1909 said to be the result of an over-zealous police inspector who banned them because they were begging.
The official website on the bear relates that it was made of:

“great lengths of tightly twisted bands prepared and wound up the arms, legs and body of the man or boy who was unfortunate enough to have been chosen. Two sticks fastened to his shoulders met a point over his head and the straw would around them to form a cone above the bear’s head. The face was quite covered and he could hardly see.”

This later fact would explain why he would be guided by a rope fastened around him by one of the farmers. He was made to dance outside houses and gifts of money, food and beer were given.

Bear bones of a theory

Bear traditions have been recorded in Ramsey Cambridgeshire (revived 2009) and associated with a plough Monday play in Holton-le-Clay, Lincolnshire (yet to revived!) Furthermore there are traditions in places as far apart as Andorra and Germany. Indeed, since 1999 a bear from Walldurn Frankfurt, slightly slimmer and associated with Shrove Tuesday joins in the Whittlesea fun (and unlike those well known pandas have yet to breed!)
The behaviour of the straw bear clearly indicates some relationship with the performing bears which were common in Europe from the 13th century onwards and indeed I remember seeing in the 1980s in Spain (incidentally it is now illegal in the EC but cases have been reported as late as 2007!). However, several aspects suggest trace memory of an older tradition: the selecting of the best straw, the date of course and the ritual burning.

An ex-straw-ordinary Morris meeting

If you had only one day in England and you wanted to get a flavour of English tradition and especially folk dance you could do no better that Whittlesea Straw Bear. Why? Because in this small rather non-descript town are gathered every type of folk dancer; from molly dancer to handkerchief bothering Morris, from cluttering clog dancers to stylish long sword dancers, and in such a small area one can experience it all!. Between 250-600 dancers can be seen on the main day and
What is amazing is this tradition was only revived in 1980 and yet it has all the vim and vigour of something which has continued forever, such is the tribute to its organisers

Whittesey Straw Bear (3)