Tag Archives: Pub

Custom survived: Curry Rivel Wassail and Ashen Faggot

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Curry Rivel Somerset

“Wassail O Wassail all over the town,                                                         

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown,                                                   

The cup it is made of the good old ashen tree.                                            

  And so’s the beer from the best barley,

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O here we take this door held fast by the ring,                                        

Hoping Master and Missus will let us all walk in And for to fill our wassail bowl and sail away again.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O Master and Missus have we done you any harm                                          

Pray hold fast this door and let us pass along                                         

And give us hearty thanks for the singing of our song.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail

Wassailing is becoming all the rage in folk circles and beyond. It seems that like Morris dancing in the 20th century, wassailing is the 21st century revival equivalent. However these revived wassails appear to be those associated with trees, the original surviving one of which I discussed here, there does not appear to be a similar revival in house visiting wassailing, which one could claim probably was the original approach. Therefore when given the chance to experience one of the few surviving wassails one jumps at the chance. Such happened last Twelfth Night at the small village of Curry Rivel in Somerset.

Wassail in

Arriving at the King William IV I found a group of men standing around. “Are you the wassailers?” I asked “Yes” they replied “Do you mind if I join you and take some photos?” They were a bit perplexed by my enquiry but the reply was positive‘Yes that’s okay as long as you don’t mind being shoved in the back of the van?!”

Next minute I noticed I was in the back of transit van with six strangers. We were off to pick up the oldest member of the group, a sprightly 93 year old Harry Richards, one of them joking that the thud was the van knocking him over! A joke of course and no disrespect was intended as these men whose ages ranged from 20s to 60s had a great pride in their venerable leader.

Soon as he was in thou, sitting at the front, not crammed in the back, we were off. I had no idea where we were going and indeed at one point we appeared to go off-road, but that’s Somerset roads for you. A large crowd had congregated at the first house and as they assembled with their venerable leader at the front. Then they opened their mouths and the wassail song came out.

Curry Rivel Somerset

I was impressed how forceful it sounded considering this was the first time they’d sung it together – they had small wordsheets to help them but only one member appeared to be struggling to remember and it didn’t really notice.

The door opened with a warm welcome and the wassails entered. Inside across the kitchen table was a fine spread of food and drink. The Wassail evokes a party atmosphere in the village and to be one of the houses chosen is a great honour especially as it is thought that the wassailers would bring good luck as emphasised by the toast given by their leader

“God bless Master and Missus and all the family. Hoping they’ve had a Merry Christmas and wishing them a Happy New Year.”

After satiating themselves at the first house it was off to the next. Back in the van. Hold on as we swerved a tight corner. A makeshift light being provided by a blinking torch or on occasions someone’s lighter. When we arrived at the next house, we leaped out into the gloom of a remote house. Here an even warmer welcome and spread was available. Then off the next and the next. At each more and more food, and more and more alcohol was being taken. This meant that the groups ability to hold on to the string and sides of the transits less easy and some thought it was best just to sit down. .

The food was indeed quite exquisite and it was obvious that the great honour of being a wassailed house asked for more than just supermarket fayre! At one of the houses an actual wassail bowl was provided which the members took a sip readily from. The wassail bowl being of course mentioned in their song but surprisingly absent I thought! Despite the amount of alcohol imbibed the song did not waver in its nature and indeed appeared to get stronger and song with more vigour! The final stop was one of the younger members of wassailer where again like in all the houses I was warmly welcomed and treated.

Ashen faces

Back at the William IV pub faces were squashed against the windows awaiting the wassails. They were late – I was glad I had attended the wassails and not waited at the pub – then a window was opened and their final wassail was song

Despite accounts to the contrary the Ashen Faggot is not carried around by the wassailers but awaited them at the bar. The Faggot is a fine construction, made traditionally by the same family in the valley below the village.

It consisted of ash logs tied together neatly with ash withies, nine in all, a magical number. Walker in her Old Somerset Customs tells us that it was once as long as five feet and four oxen were employed to drag it to the hearth…no wonder it wasn’t carried! Now it’s a more manageable foot or so to fit into the rather small fireplace at the pub.

Curry Rivel Somerset

It is evident that the Ashen Faggot is an older custom, possibly pre-Christian. This is especially evident in Curry Rivel when it is claimed that its burning has happened for at least 200 years but the Wassailers only date back to 1900.

The Ashen Faggot is a Somerset and Devon tradition and Curry Rivel is not the only village to have one. In a way it is the local version of the Yule log but were as this has died out in Britain, the Ashen Faggot survives and indeed in some places has been revived.

Curry Rivel Village

Muriel Walker in Old Somerset Customs tells us that the Ashen Faggot was said to have been first made by the shepherds to warm the baby Jesus, another version tells that Joseph had collected the bundles and Mary had lighted it to wash the baby Jesus.

Ashen faced?

At the allotted time, Mr. Richards was assisted carrying the Ashen Faggot to the fireplace and saying a few words placed it in the fireplace giving it a ceremonial kick into place.

Willey notes:

“after it has been burnt none of the remains are saved for the next year’s faggot. Free food and drink go around once the faggot is on the fire; the food is bread and cheese etc. and usually the brewery to which the inn is tied supplies a free firkin of ale. The landlord makes up a hot punch based on scrumpy (rough cider) and a scrumpy and wine mixture – home-made wheat wine and scrumpy is particularly potent and highly recommended by the locals. Each time a band on the faggot burned through the landlord was expected to drain a pint of beer or cider.”

Curry Rivel Somerset

Apparently the brewery ceased the free beer a few years back. Yet despite this there was a real party atmosphere and as the embers flickered and faded from the old faggot I made my goodbyes and left. As Willey notes:

“In a village where, during the same period, other traditions, for example the annual ploughing match, the Silver Band, have completely disappeared as casualties of suburbanization, the survival of wassailing in any form is perhaps both curious and heartening.”

Indeed it is and it is evident from the warm welcome and full spreads from the houses that there is no fear of wassailing dying out any time soon in Curry Rivel. A tradition grasped by the younger community as well and a great tradition with some great people as well.

Curry Rivel SomersetCurry Rivel Village

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Custom survived: Atherstone’s Shrove Tuesday Football

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Atherstone is a curious town, setting on the ancient Watling street, about give or take 100 miles from London, famed for its hats and now a great place for books…it one of those British towns which has gone through many phases but never aspiring to be a metropolis – happy to be a small county town. A small proud county town it is at that – justly proud of its Ball Game. There are of course a number of such games, and I have covered Hallaton and Sedgefield in my accounts..there’s something a bit to coin a term often used in football ‘ a bit special’ about this one!

A load of balls?

In 1999 the town proudly celebrated the 800th anniversary of the event. However, this is perhaps a bold claim. Locally they will tell you that the town was granted the game in 1199 on the accession of King John. However, details are scant if that. Indeed, the claim seems to rest upon the vague suggestion of a Ralph Thompson who wrote in 1790:

“It was a match of Gold that was played betwixt the Warwickshire lads and the Leicestershire Lads on Shrove Tuesday; the Warwickshire Lads won the Gld. It was in King John’s reign…Atherstone, being the nearest town to the place where they play’d it, it is and has been a custom to turn a Foot Ball up Atherstone on Shrove Tuesday every Year since that time.”

What time? No date is given. Hugh Hornby in his excellent compendium of football games Uppies and Downies states that even if John did grant it on his accession he didn’t become king until the 6th of April! Never mind. It is certain that the Game has a long origin and was certainly continually played from the 1700s and despite the absence of any mention of the custom in the 1700s we can assume it happened.

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Game over?

In the early 20th century many Shrove tide games were quashed. An 1835 Highways Act prevented Football played in the street had attempted to stem them and combined with the potential drinking and civil unrest which could ensue, one by one across the country the red card was shown and the game stopped. When in 1901 the Warwickshire County Council tried to move in on the game, then then Chairman of the Parish Council in a meeting on the issue, a Mr. C Orton asserted:

“the custom had been observed so many years that it had become to be looked upon as a kind of charter by the working classes and not only by them but by others as well.”

And it was observed by a Mr. H. E. Vero that:

“The reason that football kicking has been stopped in other towns was because the tradespeople objected to it, but in Atherstone they did not.”

The meeting apparently concluded to support the custom and continue removing panes of glass from the gas lamps. The game went ahead, despite Warwickshire Country Council’s wishes and so it has been – ironically that same council trumpet it as a tourist event – how times have changed! The game continued unabated until in 1974 an committee was established to organise it and focus the action in Long Street and prevent the rampage around the town and then in 1986 established players were used a stewards. Indeed the focus in one street meant that unlike other more rural shrovetide games it was saved from a ban in 2001 foot and mouth outbreak and continued through both World Wars.

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Kick about

One of the reasons why it has remained I believe because unlike its counterparts it is far more a spectator sport. The ball is much larger and hence more visible in the scrum, it is focused on more place and more importantly everyone gets a chance to kick it. For during the first 90 or so minutes the game seems quite complexing – is this a ‘game’ or not? Why is no one trying to score? During this time all and sundry are given a go. I saw children of all ages getting involved, women – including quite an elderly one I feared might fall over and even a policeman! There’s no competition only for catching it and returning it and often a steward is on hand to make sure anyone who wants a kick has a go. This is clearly a great way to engender both interest and inclusion and whether or not any of the kickers really get involved in the game is irrelevant they had a kick – added to the apparent luck of doing so – its eagerly taken on.

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Jumpers for goal posts

I must admit to having a soft spot for Atherstone’s football and its only one of two I have been to more than once because of its accessibility. The last time I went I had come fresh from a pancake race elsewhere to be confronted with another just about to start down Long Street by the Major and other local dignitaries. A nice addition. Indeed, Atherstone’s Shrove Tuesday is not just about the Football it developed another custom to compliment it – a sweet presumably originally a penny scramble. With the addition of the pancake race it could be seen to be developing a shrove tide triathlon!

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The sun was bright and the white walls of the Angle Inn glistened its warming rays as a crowd of youngsters gathered beneath it. In the windows shadows can be seen. The children below appeared to move closer and stand eyes gazing up and hands ready. Soon a plastic pot appeared and a hand. Then a hand full of sweets and then to cheers below the sweets were cast upon the crowd. The children ducked, dived and tussled below. As more and more sweets descended the crowd went crazier and crazier. The face of the children more determined and fevered. It was quite intense and after a while it was clear that some of the younger children were dragged out of the mix. In the distribution was a giant Golden penny I saw it go out…but didn’t see it after, but presume the lucky child returned it for the £10 prize. The scramble was a clever device, a way both to attract fresh blood to the football, get them trained for the future and possibly satisfy their need to get into the throng.

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Golden balls

Then at 3 pm a new face appeared at the window. The children had dispersed and those that hadn’t were quickly removed. Now a new crowd arrived. Often burly men, clothed in rugby shirts and old jeans and trousers, probably ritually worn each year for the game. The guest of honour appeared holding the ball. A cheer went out and people positioned themselves. Interesting I noticed a few likely characters standing a drift from this throng..biding their time and conserving their energy for the right time to pounce on the ball. For unlike other Shrove football competitions and similar, there are no goals and unlike others there is a time limit. The winner? They who should have the ball when the horn is sounded. It was thus wise to wait. Then after a pep talk from one of the organisers asking for good conduct the ball was held ready to be through, attached to it three ribbons and off it went. The ribbons did not last long as the ball made its first appearance from the throng a few minutes they were gone grabbed by the attendees and again latter exchanged for their £10 prize money.

Then around 4.30 the crowd became to thicken and the ball’s direction changed. The game had really begun as the first attempt was made to take control. A big kick sent it down the street to a waiting pair of hands. The crowd surged towards it. It soon disappeared. The ball surfaced again. The crowd separated into participants and observes. The throng rushes downhill as the ball is kicked out of sight. I rushed down as a wall of people are looked against a wall with the ball somewhere within. The ball breaks free and is kicked again up the street. It does not go far as the throng and ball bow to gravity and roll further downhill. A steward steps in and a break occurs to refocus back to prevent it spilling too far. The ball is seen for a fleeting moment and then its gone. Too and fro. Piles of bodies encase the ball. Then it is out off and with it the crowd. Those watchers appear then to make their move, fresh of energy then enter the fray, ready to put their full weight and effort taking possession. Then the horn sounds, a cheer is let out, but the scrum does not disperse readily the scene is brightened by the reflective coats of the stewards, who now gently peel the bodies from each other to release the ball and the winner. Weary, bruised, shirt torn, sweaty the winner emerges, a smile beams across his face – he’s won – the ball looks a little worse for the encounter, its flat and devoid of any spherical appearance. Everyone is off to celebrate and it is over for another year.

Custom survived: Good Friday Bun Hanging at The Bell Horndon on the Hill

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DSC_0938 DSC_1091 DSC_1094What do you do with your hot cross bun on Good Friday? I presume you’ll say eat it…not unless you work in the Bell Inn Hordon on the Hill, a delightful ancient 15th century inn in a surprisingly remote and unspoilt part of south Essex. Here they hang one!

Visiting on Good Friday…the first thing you notice is the crowd. Is it always like this? Probably not everyone is checking their phones…but not this time for their Facebook feeds but checking how close it was to the hanging time – 1pm! The second thing you notice are the buns…over a hundred…109 in 2015! They are of varying qualities.

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The earlier ones testament of the conditions of the pub…blackened by the century of cigarette and fire smoke. Generations of the future might well be puzzled at the difference between these and the post-smoking ban buns I wonder. Some are broken and wrapped in clingfilm..others are more curious. There are four with blackened poppies inserted within…retrospectively referring to the World Wars no doubt. Those of the War years look a little unnatural and upon closer inspection these wouldn’t make a nice snack…being made of concrete. That raised in 2006 is also a little unusual. For the 100th anniversary a wooden one was made.

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Greatest thing since sliced bread?

It is thought that in 1906 Jack Turnell became the landlord on Good Friday and so celebrate he hung a bun, having one left over…and from this rather singular act a tradition was born. However, a more plausible theory akin to this is that to advertise his new tenure he offered the buns, which was so successful a venture, he thought celebrate it. Of course this is not the only pub which hangs a hot cross bun…there are two others..and it is likely that the instigators were aware of an older tradition regarding bread and loaves backed on Good Friday. It was a widespread custom…for example a correspondent of Maureen Sutton in her Lincolnshire Calendar notes:

“You must always back your hot cross bun on Good Friday, and because that’s a holy day your bun will have magic properties…keep one back in case anyone in the family becomes ill during the following year..”

And as far south as Dorsetshire, John Symonds Udal wrote noted in 1922 Dorsetshire Folklore:-

“Good Friday Bread: It is generally believed that the bread baked on Good Friday never gets mouldy; and in some parts it is used as a charm or talisman in order to make other bread ‘keep’.”

And indeed, the custom of hanging was a much more widespread domestic one if William Hone’s everyday book is to believed

“In the houses of some ignorant people a Good Friday bun is still kept for luck and sometimes there hangs from the ceiling a hard biscuit like cake of open cross work baked on a Good Friday to remain there till displaced on the next Good Friday by one of similar make and of this the editor of the Every Day Book has heard affirmed that it preserves the house from fire no fire ever happened in a house that had one.”

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A brake (bread) with tradition?

The allotted time came and the manager of the pub came out and gave a brief history and talked about the Inn. He noted that traditionally the oldest resident of the village was hoisted up and attached the new bun to the beam. Not this year….this year it was decided that local ‘unsung hero’ Mike Tabbard, would do it. After an introduction justifying why he should do it…Mr Tabbard climbed the step ladder and reaching across attached the bun…and that was it..a brief event but a significant one.

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One a penny, two a penny…of these ones are free!

But that was not all, for after the ceremony, the staff appeared with trays heaving with freshly baked glistening hot cross buns. Three hundred in all! For many years these were baked in the high street bakery, but that has now long gone. Fortunately, the pub is one of the top 25 foodie pubs in the UK and can make a bun. Indeed,  these really were not only hot but delicious…the best buns I have tasted.

When is it on? It’s not on Calendar customs yet..I’ll change it when it is.

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Custom Contrived: The Race of The Boggmen

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The Suffolk-Essex boarders are a remote place full of delightful small villages many stocked with photogenic old black and white houses and old pubs.  Delightful they may be…but Suffolk is a county devoid of many calendar customs. Great Finborough may not be up there with Lavenham, Kersey or Clare but it boasts something none these have…an old tradition. Or is it? Not really..and one may have had some doubts over the authenticity of the story. Really the Race of the Boggmen is the grand-daddy of the ‘devised by blokes down the pub’ so frequently come across these days…

Bogg off!

The story behind this unique custom is based on an old country tradition that the sowing season begun on Good Friday. The Good Friday in 1887, a Joseph John Hatton was dismayed by the drunkenness of the team of six men, who were he hired Good Friday, being was so annoyed to find his labourers brawling, that he fired them there and then. But of course he still needed labour. Soon to hear about it was a team of men from nearby village of Haughley who appeared and so Hatton had a problem. Two teams were available, and ready to work, which one was best? There’s only one way to find out….race! The man that came up with this idea was a James Boggis of Oulton who happened to be staying at Boyton Hall. He suggested that if they threw the employment contract into the air, the first team to get the contract over the threshold of the pub in Great Finborough was the winner and got it! Fortunately, the Great Finborough team won..

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A bit racy!

The method work and typical when local villages loved rivalry so it was continued as a custom but it appeared to have been forgotten around the First World War, when many agricultural workers went to Flanders and never came back. So it would until a Trevor Waspe doing building repairs found a copy of the contract from 1897.  Now one might be a bit suspicious if it wasn’t for the survival of photos of the teams from 1903 in the pub! The contract reading, parts of which were difficult to read:

“The document made on the Holy Easter Monday in the year of Our Lord Eighteen hundred and ninety six in the reign of Our Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria shall thence for and for the ensuing year…some six strong and goodly men…the contract being for the setting of peas, beans, potatoes and others…”

Beneath this are a list of all the winners starting with that James Boggis finishing with a John Roper 1914/5 a sad poignant name for the list perhaps.

Off to a running start

I arrived around half an hour before the big event. The day was filled beforehand with some great little events such as egg and spoon racing and egg throwing…rolling hasn’t got here yet.

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The contestants were dressed according to old agricultural tradition and a flagon was being handed around…these contestants were a little ‘tired and emotional’ already. Then around three the landlady of the pub appeared and called the traditionally dressed lads to the green opposite where the organiser explained the rules

“Only the leader can score. Keep to the path”

That was it. The leader was identified by a white cross drawn upon his face. The group were certainly ‘tanked up’ as they cavorted around throwing each other to the ground and practising their tactics. Soon the truck arrived which would carry them to Boyton Farm. I hitched a ride in the pick-up which was had perhaps the strangest load- the racers – rather drunk and noisy.

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They arrived noisy at Boyton Farm and the runners poured out of the back of the truck before it had even stopped. In previous years I told that they used to travel in a horse box – imagine your surprise seeing them falling out of that. Once out the organisers, flowers in hand, to placate the elderly lady who owns the farm…after a bit of a debacle last year perhaps…however like all drunk people I wasn’t sure what one of them was doing with the farm’s duckpond would have been appreciated. However, the lady of the farm placated the grouped moved to the start of the path in-line with Great Finborough church. Here the group stood in a semi circle waiting. Haughley on one side, Finborough on the other, for the throw in..although getting a group of inebriated lads in order was difficult, especially as some might not have been from Haughley but it was managed! Hands were shook. The lady of the farm then raised her hand and the contract went into the air, the men reached for it and one grabbed in…then it disappeared into a scrum.

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There was much too and fro and throwing at the start with a number of the contestants ending up unceremoniously in the manurey silage…then in a flash one grasped it and they were off. I jumped back in the truck and was quickly back to the pub…not that quickly it appears for as soon as I jumped out and thanked them, the first runner appeared…then another..then another followed by cheers and claps from the crowd. Despite the pub being just around the corner they arrived at the green opposite where an almighty scrum occurred…the contract appearing and disappearing a number of times..

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Then quick as a flash, catching me unaware, the leader of the Great Finborough team broke free with the contract and barging past crossed the threshold. It was over..bar for some drunken swaying…a great event despite it’s remarkable shortness – from start to finish the race was only  3.08 to 3.23!….no London Marathon but then people aren’t usually drunk on that and I don’t usually laugh that much on that too..

When is it on?…http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/great-finborough-race-of-the-bogmen/

Custom contrived: Fenny Bentley World Toe Wrestling Championship

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The custom started in 1974 when a then landlord read about the medieval custom of toe wrestling and has become one of the greatest contrived ‘chat down the pub’ events.

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Best foot forward

I arrived at the pub to see a throng of people ready for the great event. The sun was shining and the feet were bare! For first off is the inspection of the feet..a trained medic inspected the feet looking for anything, a cut, wart or source infection…some were discarded. They looked downright defeeted! Those which made it through made their way to the Toedium a raised area under a tent where the arena would be fought.

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Toed in the hole

The aim was to hit the opponents toe against the side by twisting their foot. Matches were the best of three, with both left and right feet being utilised.. Sounds easy!

“It’s a very demanding job as a referee. It looks like nothing, but it isn’t. You have to watch out for everything. You get some people, if they find they’re losing, they flick their toe out of the other’s grip. So you end up with a flick-off. People will do anything to win. So it might sound like a daft thing to say, but you’ve got to watch your flick-offs, as it were.”

Tournament referee Dave Mallor Ben Thrush InaPub website

However, the wrestlers have fully tight restrictions to be accepted. All hands must be flat on the floor, one foot in the air and any change in position is restricted, so no shuffling one’s bottom. Not easy hence the number of flick offs! These were when the foot slipped off! Quite often actually apparently adding to the tension.

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Well healed!

Thus unsurprisingly, judging the contest was tricky and it was clear that there was a difficulty in actually keeping your toes interlocked came to the fore with a number of false starts and miscalls or flick offs as they were called. A mother and daughter pairing in particularly was quick fraught giving a whole new dimension to mother-daughter relationship. There was also some controversy in the Women’s final, with  Lisa ‘Twinkle Toes’ Shenton  fighting a Rebecca ‘Camille Toe’ Beech being quite aggrieved by what she thought was a mis-call…would it end in some real wrestling I wondered. Finally Camille Toe rather proudly picked up the trophy and her mates had a few drinks to celebrate.

A pep talk between champions!

A pep talk between champions!

Sock it to him

The champion once again!

The champion once again!

A fair crowd had assembled I asked around the competition had contestants as far away as Buxton and Burton on Trent…well this was a world championship. Where were the other nations I thought? The event has attracted a wide range of colourful characters and terrible puns – Twinkle toes, Camel Toe, The Toeminator etc etc….One of the most notable of these was Nasty Nash. Tattoo on his arm. Shaved head. He looked rather intimidating. He takes it very seriously… he wore the traditional wrestling garb, the black leotard…on his body not of his feet. He was the reigning Men’s World Champion, making the heats…it was down to the final.  After eliminating all opposition it came down to (toe) nail biting final and despite some flick offs…he won. After this he had to battle an Australian…I say Australian, I asked him later where he came from and he said Watford! World championship? Certainly the coverage is global with companies from Japan and South Africa covering it. I guess it takes much more to get them over! Of course as the landlord noted on the InaPub website:

“They’ll stay on afterwards and have a few drinks and a bit of banter, so we do good business on the day,”

And after all that’s the point!

Find out when it is on….

Calendar customs http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/world-toe-wrestling-championship/

Custom survived: The Beeston Carollers

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Beeston Carols (6)A door step challenge

I was only relating how it had been many years since I have heard a group of carol singers at the doorstep. Whilst it is true that carol singing is still a common custom, often done across the advent period, in churches; schools, market squares it is rarely down in the streets and doorsteps, Beeston still upholds the custom. Also whilst many carol services sing the nationwide familiar carols, in some parts of the country the carols are local variants, South Yorkshire being a stronghold.

Yorkshire tradition

Oddly, Beeston a small town now part of the Nottingham conurbation has its own tradition of unique carols said to have been passed down from generation to generation from Yorkshire weavers who settled here in the 1800s. The Beeston Chilwell road Methodist carol choir have continued the tradition since 1870, at first as a male only choir and then after First World War including women.  Despite being part of the so-called Yorkshire carol tradition, recent research has revealed the carols to originate from Leicestershire, Derbyshire as well as Yorkshire. Indeed, one of these carols, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, is the most local being written by William Matthews a Nottingham composer in c.1820. Originally there were probably a number of groups by the 1900s there were apparently two that of the Beeston Methodist and a private group ran by Bill Spray. Furthermore, they would probably only sing on Christmas Eve, done through the night as a Bill Spray recalls in the 1900s from an article on the custom:

They didn’t start to 8 o’clock and they went on to 2 in the morning. I used to go with my father and my brother and sister who were both older. Mother stayed at home and finished off the Christmas baking. Some of the singing was done in the streets, but in the main it was at the big houses, of which there were very many in Beeston at the time. We usually sang at least two carols at every place we visited. After midnight we would probably do no more knocking on doors, but one of our members would go out the next morning to the houses which we hadn’t collected. One feature was that immediately after midnight we always sang Christian’s Awake. We always finished in Beeston square and always sang an anthem. The words were from the Book of Isaah Behold the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son…there were about 20 or 30 of us.”                                                                                                                      

It is interesting that in later years the proclamation of the Gospel was more important than collecting money, today perhaps there has been a reversal, where money is collected for charity. In the days of Bill Spray the money collected was for themselves noting:

“My father and grandfather belonged to a carol choir in Beeston called the Combined Choir and they used to go out mainly to the large houses and they collected for themselves…In those days wages were very, very low. There was no paid holiday. So when Christmas was coming they knew they would lose. They would have a short week for Christmas week. And so they used to go out and collect their poor wages and compensate for the lack of any wage over the Christmas period.”

Interestingly, despite the black out, the carollers continued during World War II although they did make note of the locations of all the air raid shelters. Again as in the World War I, the male section was reduced but older men were utilized to ‘balance the harmonies’.

Beeston Carols (12)

Hark..mine’s a pint!

One of the main fixtures of the carol season is their singing in a local pub, currently the Crown. This may seem an unusual place for a carol service, but despite a few bemused looks and it was only a very few, the idea appeared to be a popular one. I arrived there with one minute to go to the starting time and with a whisper around about the choice of carol, the pub erupted in song. An incredible melodic sound filled the pub as the majority of people there joined in. Fundamental to this performance was the choir master who sat central to the group and like a conductor of a grand orchestra was fully enraptured by the experience and his arms flailed about with great gusto. At the start of each carol, he produced a rough piece of paper with the running order and a harmonica to set the pitch and sending the message around often like a strange code with special words being used for the arrangements. In some cases the names were very cryptic, but the carols would be well known if he tunes not, as I explain below. The group were a mix of different ages and voices. One main said he was a new comer and then related he had been in the group since the 1990s such perhaps is the strength of the choir’s continuity. With some announcements came comments such as Palmer’s Street anthem for popular carols relating the fact that every household would want this to be song down the street. Indeed as mentioned earlier the choir’s main focus is still to travel the streets. I was informed that the singing in pubs was a fairly recent invention, starting only a few years since in another pub, the Hop-pole, as a warmer alternative to the street walks.

Beeston Carols (2)

A local remix

“Although many of the carols of today were sung in the past for example Hark the Herald Angels sing and While Shepherds watched different tunes were used.                            

Nothing is new. Modern popular music often steals older baselines or instrumental tracks, fuse new songs onto them, and make new tracks, others re-arrange popular songs in a remix fashion. This in a way describes many of the well known carols song by the choir. On paper we all know ‘Whilst Shepherds watch’ or ‘Hark the Herald angels’ but in the dulcet voices of the choir local variants were song. Like some obscure Northern soul track, such carols are not called by their well known name but terms such as Liverpool or in this case Cranbrook, named after the Canterbury author of the tune. In the case of ‘While shepherds..”, it is sung more enjoyably, to the tune of the well known ‘Ilkley Moor bar tat’, although it was this popular folk tune which stole the carol’s tune not vice versa. There are at least six versions of this carol by this carol, prompting one listening to comment that’s not the proper tune and miss the unique nature of the custom. Interestingly, of these carols, as the Chilwell Road Methodist website notes, were only transcribed as late as between 1976 and 1980 by a Bert and Andrew Taylor stating, before hand they were learnt by heart from generation to generation:

“In order to preserve for posterity the traditional tunes and harmonies sung by the Choir …, we have now set down rationalised versions.”

What makes such local variants an enjoyable experience is the use of the Gallery style of singing, named after where the songs were song in the church and often thought to be a bit too earthy and rough around the edges for church. In these carols different parts of the choir, particularly the men and women took different sections of the carol to an anthemic result. Immersed in the centre of this wall of sound this made the performances unforgettable.

Keeping them on the streets

The website also notes that by the late 1980s, a regular pattern had been established. The Carol Choir visited local Care and Nursing Homes on Sunday afternoons during December, sang one Saturday lunchtime in Beeston Square or High Road, and then spent three evenings (including Christmas Eve) singing around the streets, covering an area between Wollaton Road, Beeston, and Grove Avenue, Chilwell. I had planned to join the choir again for one of their street walks but sadly the weather and previous engagements prevented me…assuming the choir went out during the horrendous weather! Hopefully another year I’ll manage it. copyright Pixyled publications

Custom revived: The Warburton Soul Cakers

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There's a fight in the pub

Folk plays are a fascinating pieces of traditional custom and one which is surviving well in the 21st century. One particular strand of this tradition is the Cheshire Souling or Soulcakers. Presently, there are a number of groups which enact this strange ritual usually from 1st November (All Souls Eve) until the 4th November in pubs, inns, houses and sometimes churches in the Cheshire and Lancashire region. Although the Antrobus Soulers may disagree, all of the groups are revivals (this means there has been a break in the last 100 years). The second oldest revival group is that which tour with the Warburton Play.

I decided to track them down in the picturesque town of Knutsford, I had read of their website, a very informative site where I found some of the information for the blog, which gave the name of the first pub in the town. I turned up and enquired behind the bar “Are the Soulcakers arriving tonight”. The “What?” said the manager; she appeared to be blissfully unaware. They planned to do a quiz at 8 when the group arrived. However, her younger colleague did seem to know what I was on about, so 50% was good enough for me! I sat down with my drink and some free sandwiches. Later a couple arrived and the manager pointed over to me, at least this was some support for the fact I had arrived at the correct destination.

What is a Souling Play?

Souling in the strictest form is a custom associated with the souls of the dead’s journey through Purgatory. This would involve the collection of money or the giving of cakes, soul cakes, hence the name soulcakers. To eat such soulcakes would then involve the eating of the sins of those unable to get to heaven. Of course you may ask “but that means the consumer gets the sins!” Yes, but by continuing the tradition ad infinitum there would always be someone eating sins for those just departed. Of course as the custom faded to be replaced largely by Hallowe’en’s trick or treaters, those who were the last to buy the soulcakers must have never left purgatory so heavy the burden of the sins they inherited!! You may of course look scornfully at the custom but this is the origin of the funeral wake.

What’s this got to do with a play?

Good point. It appears at some point to warrant the giving of money or cakes, some bright spark either the receiver or giver thought they wanted something a bit more substantial and so the play was probably born. This may account for the similarity to the Christmas Mummer’s Play, because it’s easier to convert something to write from scratch. Indeed, to the uninitiated there does not appear to be much difference between the Soulers and the Plough Monday play. Indeed, both share a similar plot, both being about death and revival, and share in some cases the same characters: the quack doctor, Beelzebub, and the familiar drag-act, so to speak. However, there are differences, the Sergeant is replaced by King George, the Tom Fool replaced by the Turk and there’s a decent bit of sword play in it…and there’s the Horse.

A horse, a horse….

The horse is a unique feature of the Soulers and one which has created the most interest amongst folklorists. In the present guise, the horse is an old hunt horse befitting its trainer in hunting pink and treated with upmost almost quasi-religious respect, it being hidden from view when not in the play almost as if this might detract from its powers.

Close up of the HorseTaming the Wild Horse!

Perhaps the horse survives in Cheshire plays because of the proximity of the Welsh boarders with their Mari Lwyd horse tradition existed (or vice versa), although of course there are the Poor Old Oss traditions and to some extent Derby Tup traditions surrounding it to the east. Many folklorists have commented that the Horse was an important figure in Celtic paganism, which is significant being that All Souls Day replaced the ancient Samhain. Certainly the horse is no Hobby Horse, but a dark rather sinister creature, a skull on a stick with a black cape beneath hiding is manipulator. In response to key phrases, its mouth opens and closes with a menacing clap! It is interesting to note that there is record in the 1930s that the Warburton horse was buried in the grounds of the pub at the end of the performance. This is referenced once it appears and perhaps this was a ceremonial aspect, rather than an end point, emphasizing the death and resurrection aspect again.

In comes I…

The only one drinking!

Around 8, these plays never seen to be on time, we heard the rowdy chorus of the soulers and soon after in bursts Big Head, much to the amazed and giggled bewilderment of the table nearest the door. The plot was as follows…in comes the Turk who does a bit of boasting, to be challenged by King George, there a fight, Turk dies, in comes his mum (that old standard a bit of drag), calls for the doctor who revives in, in comes Beelzebub who steals a drink from those bewildered beer drinkers and the Horse with its rider.

The revival

There may have been many different local variants of the play perhaps every village had one, but as the 19th century came to close the numbers began to dwindle, the final nail in the coffin being the First and Second World Wars. Indeed the Warburton play was last performed in 1936. However, after only a gap of 42 years, it was revived, thanks to being written down before its demise. The revived play centres around the Saracens Head in Warburton where the play is performed for the first time that year and then after 4 days ends there.

A group called the Bollin Morris revived the play in 1978 and continued to be the preserve of this group until the 1990s, when the group became a mixture of Morris and non-Morris, and then finally in the 2000s the group began unconnected with Bollin Morris. The establishment of set characters for each member of the group appears to have introduced a degree of professionalism and the play was delivered word perfect and with great vigour and enthusiasm despite in some cases the paucity of punters. I was impressed by the fact they took notes and appeared to be organised to get the best performance each time like a real play and this was not some amateur effort.

So if you find yourself next year around Cheshire, I suggest following the Warburton play, it will be enjoyable evening.

Come here oftenThe Doctor deals with the dead TurkThe Doctor deals with the dead Turk (2)

copyright Pixyled publications