Tag Archives: traditions blog

Custom survived: Biddenden’s Chalkhurst Dole

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“There is a vulgar tradition in these parts, that the figures on the cakes represent the donors of this gift, being two women, twins, who were joined together in their bodies, and lived together so till they were between twenty and thirty years of age. But this seems without foundation. The truth seems to be, that it was the gift of two maidens, of the name of Preston ; and that the print of the women on the cakes has taken place only within these fifty years, and was made to represent two poor widows, as the general objects of a charitable benefaction.”

So records Edward Hasted in his History of Kent in 1812, about what is perhaps the most famed of annually distributed doles that of the picturesque Wealden village of Biddenden; which happens every year on Easter Monday. It is a custom which features in virtually every book on calendar customs but why?

Two rectangular cakes, one showing two women apparently conjoined at the shoulder and the other one damaged in such a way that it is not clearly apparent whether the women are conjoined. Each cake has the word "Biddenden" written above the women.

The earliest surviving depiction of Biddenden cakes, 1775. The figures are shown as conjoined, but the names, ages and 1100 date are not shown source Wikipedia Public Domain

Two’s company

T. F. Thistleton-Dyer (1911) in his British popular customs past and present tells us:

“The cakes distributed on this occasion were impressed with the figures of two females side by side, and close together.”! Amongst the country people it was believed that these figures represented two maidens named Preston, who had left the endowments; and they further alleged that the ladies were twins, who were bond in bodily union, that is, joined side to side, as represented on the cakes ; who lived nearly thirty years in this connection, when at length one of them died, necessarily causing the death of the other in a few hours. It is thought by the Biddenden people that the figures on the cakes are meant as a memorial of this natural prodigy, as well as of the charitable disposition of the two ladies.”

Local tradition records that the benefactors of the charity were Eliza and Mary Chalkhurst, the name Preston has never been traced locally, who gave their lands those twenty acres to the poor on their death in 1134. Now there is nothing unusual in sisters joining giving monies this example however is possibly unique – the sisters were conjoined twins – as shown by the biscuit or cake given out. They lived jointly to the age of 34 with one dying and the other giving up her life at the same time.

The custom has changed a little over the years as Hasted again notes that:

“Twenty Acres Of Land, called the Bread and Cheese Lands, lying in five pieces, were given by persons unknown, the yearly rents to be distributed among the poor of this parish. This is yearly done on Easter Sunday in the afternoon, in 600 cakes, each of which have the figures of two women impressed on them, and are given to all such as attend the church; and 270 loaves, weighing three pounds and an half a-piece; to which latter is added one pound and an half of cheese, are given to the parishioners only, at the same time.”

The following account was written 1808 to be provided as a broadside which featured a woodcut of the twins and a brief history of their alleged story was sold outside the church at Easter:

“A Short but Concise account of Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst
who were born joined together by the Hips and Shoulders
In the year of our Lord 1100 at Biddenden in the County of Kent, commonly called
The Biddenden Maids
The reader will observe by the plate of them, that they lived together in the above state Thirty-four years, at the expiration of which time one of them was taken ill and in a short time died; the surviving one was advised to be separated from the body of her deceased Sister by dissection, but she absolutely refused the separation by saying these words—”As we came together we will also go together,”—and in the space of about Six Hours after her Sister’s decease she was taken ill and died also.
By their will they bequeath to the Churchwardens of the Parish of Biddenden and their successors Churchwardens for ever, certain Pieces or Parcels of Land in the Parish of Biddenden, containing Twenty Acres more or less, which now let at 40 Guineas per annum. There are usually made, in commemoration of these wonderful Phenomena of Nature, about 1000 Rolls with their Impression printed on them, and given away to all strangers on Easter Sunday after Divine Service in the Afternoon; also about 500 Quartern Loaves and Cheese in proportion, to all the poor Inhabitants of the said Parish.”

Copies of this account are still distributed. What is interesting as this is the first to make mention of the names of the twins. Did it invent them?

Two’s a crowd

The dole has had many threats put upon it partly as a consequence of its size and fame. In 1656 the Rector, a John Horner, then the rector of the parish, claimed the Bread and Cheese lands as being given to augment his glebe, but the Court of Exchequer did not agree.

Many villages had doles, indeed the majority provided for their poor, so it surprising to record that the dole became increasingly more and more popular. In the late 1700s for those attending the service were given six hundred cakes whilst ironically only two hundred and seventy loaves of three and a half pounds weight each, with a pound and a half of cheese, were given in addition to the parishioners. It was clearly more popular outside of the village. For example the following from Hone’s Everyday Book account of 1830 states that the custom:

“attracted from the adjacent towns and villages by the usage, and the wonderful account of its origin, and the day is spent in rude festivity

By 1872, 538 loaves were being distributed. Indeed as an article in 1992 by Jan Boderson called  The Biddenden Maids: a curious chapter in the history of conjoined twins in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine stated that these large crowds became problematic and at one occasion an unruly mob had developed that was kept in order by the church wardens using their staffs to keep them back. All this did not impress the church and By 1882 the village’s rector again, this time Rev Giles Hinton had petitioned to abandon the dole stating that:

“even to this time is with much disorder and indecency observed and needs a regulation by His Grace’s authority.”

His Grace, Sancroft Archbishop of Canterbury allowed it to continue minus the free beer! It was also at this time that it moved from the church to outside. Very wise! Even so it is worth observing that even in 1902 as a picture by noted photographer Sir Benjamin Stone showed three severe looking policemen watching the assembled queue. By this time the date had changed and the workhouse its location.

When in 1907, the Chulkhurst Charity was joined with other local charities with similar purposes, to form the Biddenden Consolidated Charity the distribution survived where in other villages such moves removed the ceremony. Even when the charity’s Bread and Cheese Lands were sold for housing the custom survived indeed the profitability of the land provided the opportunity for better provision. As a result not only is bread, cheese and tea provided but cash payments are made at Christmas. Again, the custom survived the 1940s and 1950s food rationing where cocoa replaced the cheese until it resumed in 1951.Finally the closure of the village’s bakery in the 1990s which for generations had provided the bread closed…the dole soldiered on.

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Custom contrived: Gawthorpe Coal Carrying Championship

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Image may contain: one or more people, people standing and outdoorAs I am writing this blog post on Easter Monday bemoaning the deluge of rain pouring off the house making this one of the worse, weatherwise, Easter Monday I can remember. But then a message pops up that there’s heavy snow in Wakefield….last year I was making my way to the Gawthorpe Coal Carrying Championship; this year the heavy snow was putting it at risk. However, they are made of tough stuff up north and as they claim nothing has cancelled it in its 55 year history…and indeed it wasn’t!

But where is Gawthorpe? The Sat Nav did not appear to know. But the mass media did find it on this day which draws this small hamlet out of obscurity and into international attention

This was proud coal mining land and carrying coal would have been a common enough occurrence for someone to think it could be turned into a competition. The competition website tells the following story of its creation:

“At the century-old Beehive Inn situated in Gawthorpe the following incident took place one day in 1963. Reggie Sedgewick and one Amos Clapham, a local coal merchant and current president of the Maypole Committee were enjoying some well-earned liquid refreshment whilst stood at the bar lost in their own thoughts. When in bursts one Lewis Hartley in a somewhat exuberant mood. On seeing the other two he said to Reggie, ” Ba gum lad tha’ looks buggered!” slapping Reggie heartily on the back. Whether because of the force of the blow or because of the words that accompanied it, Reggie was just a little put out.‘’ Ah’m as fit as thee’’ he told Lewis, ‘’an’ if tha’ dun’t believe me gerra a bagga coil on thi back an ‘ah’ll get one on mine an ‘ah’ll race thee to t’ top o’ t’ wood !’’ ( Coil, let me explain is Yorkshire speak for coal ). While Lewis digested the implications of this challenge a Mr. Fred Hirst, Secretary of the Gawthorpe Maypole Committee ( and not a man to let a good idea go to waste) raised a cautioning hand. ” ‘Owd on a minute,’’ said Fred and there was something in his voice that made them all listen. ‘Aven’t we been looking fer some’at to do on Easter Monday? If we’re gonna ‘ave a race let’s ‘ave it then. Let’s ‘ave a coil race from Barracks t’ Maypole.’’( The Barracks being the more common name given by the locals to The Royal Oak Public House )”

So it could be claimed to be the grandfather of the increasingly common ‘customs made up in a pub’ and indeed the pub is pivotal to the custom starting as it does at the Royal Oak strictly speaking in Ossett and ends uphill at the village green where the Maypole resides a not so easy 1012 metres. It is curious that Easter Monday was chosen as it was the traditional time for heaving…not sure if heaving a person or a coal bag would be harder work or not!

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At the coal face

It is indeed hard work. At the start the contestants full of enthusiasm and energy. The contestants laugh and occasionally rib each other as they psych themselves up. This might seem a rather bizarre and comical event but it has become a serious measure of ability and stamina. Firmly, becoming on the list of endurance things to do. Some people even had coaches running along with them shouting words of encouragement! Serious stuff. It certainly was as the gentle slope near the start became steep and steeper. At first the event is attended by a few curious onlookers but as the centre of the village is approach the crowds become greater, each side of the road kept at bay by metal railings, waiting here to see the contestants try to attempt the most crueling part. I waited here and watched as the contestants now covered in black soot, in some cases only the whites of their eyes escaping, huffed and puffed up the hill.

Carry coals to Newcastle

When the custom started this was a proud mining community. Its still now proud and so it should be having two notable traditions for such a small and rather indistinct. However, this is far from a coal community, coal comes from elsewhere, the mine closed and miners long gone into retirement or other jobs. The custom might seem a bit outdated; a bit superfluous! But no it is now a great source of income for local pubs as now the custom attracts people from all across the country and across the world in fact. As Julia Smith in her Fairs, Feasts and Frolics customs and traditions of Yorkshire, 25 years in it had already taken on the air of professionalism:

“The event has changed considerably in its twenty-five years. As news spread, more people became interested and wanted to take part. The competitors are now drawn from a wide area and it has become sport orientated. The local pit has closed and the miners have been replaced by serious athletes who wear regulation running gear and train thoroughly sometimes all year round.”

Now adult racers either carry 50kg men, or 20kg, women (no one’s crying out for equal masses here I notice), and smaller masses for children and veterans. Again Smith was informed that:

“it was not necessary to be big and hefty to take part as not was often fell runners wo did well, wiry types with good strong legs.”

Of course the professionals have not taken over the event, it is clear that some have entered to prove they could do it – they are not going to win, never have a chance of winning….there is some achievement carrying fifty kilos of coal and all the back breaking, dust covering, a hot sweatiness is worth it to say you entered and did it. For some its for charity, some as a personal goal and others on a spur of a moment…how many regret half way through as there’s no dropping a few coals on the way: the bags are sown up! As I watched the runners it was indeed clear they were achieving sometime and the atmosphere from the crowd as they cheered they on was electric. Over two thousand people cheering is nearly enough to get over the fact they are carrying coal on your back!

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Hot coals on snow

As the Huddersfield Daily Enquirer’s Nick Laviguer in a piece called Snow fails to stop famous Gawthorpe Coal Race reported:

There was doubt the spectacle would take place this morning after several inches of snow fell on the course in Ossett, causing the cancellation of the children’s event. But at 11am with the thaw beginning to set in, organisers decided to go ahead and allow the more than 100 competitors to complete the challenge –. Women’s champion, was local teacher Danielle Sidebottom, who has entered numerous times but never won before. In the end, victory was taken by reigning men’s champion Andrew Corrigan of Driffield, who actually improved his time from 2017 by two seconds.”

Who would of thought that an idle discussion in the pub would last over 50 years and become a national icon, that snow will not even stop and as it appears above improve it…well at least they had the hot coals ready to melt it.

Custom contrived: Maundy Thursday Shoe Polishing

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“ It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…..he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”  Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”  For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean. When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

John 13:1-17

Shine on!

Whilst the Queen (and every modern monarch since George v) will distribute maundy money on the day, those in the hierarchy of the church try to do something in keeping with the words of John…after trying washing feet, called Pedivallium (which is surely a bit too invasive or Catholic) and whilst the Archbishops of Canterbury and York appear to keep to the tradition, other high level Anglicans have settled upon polishing shoes as a good compromise. It can be encountered across the country from Birmingham to Leicester, Northampton to Nottinghamshire, Coventry to Cardiff.

Where this compromise came from is difficult to find but it is likely to be a transatlantic import. The earliest British example is that of Manchester which appears to have been done since 2008. An account reading:

The Cathedral Clergy shined the shoes of shoppers in Manchester Arndale on Maundy Thursday. The shoe shine idea has a serious message aiming to emulate Jesus washing the feet of his followers 2000 years ago and the subsequent tradition of the clergy washing parishioners feet on the Thursday before Easter for centuries.”

In some places it appears to be a one man team but according to the Peterborough Today:

“THE Bishop of Peterborough rolled up his sleeves to give shoppers a free, symbolic, shoe shine. The Rt Rev Ian Cundy and more than 10 other clergymen and women from across the city gave shoppers’ shoes a bit of spit and polish in Cathedral Square.”

Shopping centres appear to be the popular location but:

“Commuters from Abergavenny were give a free shoe polish at the train station to mark Maundy Thursday today. Modern-day monks living in the community offered the service to people travelling to work in a re-enactment of Christ’s act of washing the feet of his disciples.”

Now there’s a group of people surely in need of a shine although perhaps the business men and women probably had had a shine beforehand, although an extra re-buff doesn’t harm.

Shoe off!

My first encounter with this curious custom was a Maundy Thursday back in 2011, where the Bishop of Southwell called out to me – fancy a shoe shine? How could I refuse and I enjoyed the chance to say back at work that my shoes had been polished by a Bishop.

However, some people were quite wary. Others lacked shoes which could be shined. Some wondered what it was about the Right Reverend Chris Edmonson, Bishop of Bolton, explained to the Lancashire Telegraph:

“This is a modern twist on the tradition of foot washing, which in Jesus’ day was done by the lowest servant of all. Jesus challenged his disciples then, and all of us today, to treat each other with such love and respect. We hope to have lots of opportunities to explain this and the message of Easter, while we offer a practical service to people in the town. Shoe shining in the public space is a brilliant opportunity for Bishop Paul and myself to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ visible.”

Certainly it was a good opportunity for the church to connect in a comical and non-preachy way with the community. Indeed, one man, clearly not a card carrying Christian had quite a deep conversation I observed. Was he convinced by the faith perhaps no, but he left more sympathetic. Indeed as Bishop Paul said:

“It’s all done with a light touch and plenty of banter, but it is very effective.”

The Rev Roger Morris, from Coventry went one further and set up for the three days of Easter he said in the local BBC web page:

“We want to bless the people of Coventry by offering them something for nothing. We’re not after money. We are not on a recruitment drive. We simply want people to associate the Church with the idea of good things, freely given – after all, that is at the heart of the Easter message.”

As Bishop Urquhart polishing shoes outside Birmingham cathedral noted in the Birmingham Mail:

“The shoeshine is just a small demonstration that people who follow Jesus are prepared to roll up their sleeves and serve their communities.”

In a world where those in power seem report a bit of humbleness is more than acceptable….picking up from the Bishops I did it myself this Maundy Thursday!

 

Custom demised: Fleas return on the 1st March

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Image result for Victorian flea

It appears to have been common belief across the country that on the 1st of March the fleas arrived back in the house. Accounts according to Steve Stroud (2005) are first made in print in late Victorian times. This belief even added geographical reference in Somerset, for a Yeovil it is said that they came marching down Hendford Hill, and at Crewkerne similarly down Cemetery Hill! Similarly, an c1890 account in Devon:

“A house-maid advised Mrs Hewett not to open her bedroom window on 1st March and aid that she had heard that the black army always came down Exeter Hill, in Swarms.”

This black army not only described the flea’s appearance but made them synonymous with the Devil for it was also said that:

“The Devil shakes a bag of fleas at everybody’s door on 1st March.”

Therefore it as advised that housewives should be careful early in the morning their front door steps to drive away any invasion or else not open one’s windows.

According to Jacqueline Simpson’s Folklore of Sussex:

“If the fleas you would be free, let all your doors and windows open be”

She also recalls that a West Sussex tradition would be to get up before dawn to fling their doors and windows open and cry welcome March and sometimes the children would be given brushes and told to sweep away all dirt from  thresholds and windowsills. In the eastern areas of the country they recommended:

“If from fleas you would be free, on the first of March let your windows closed be”

Bizarrely converse of course! An informant from Littleton told Simpson

“The reason why the windows were always kept shut in March because it was believed that the winds blew the fleas out of the thatch.”

People of Arundel on that date would shake themselves on Arundel bridge in the belief this would keep them free from fleas. Interestingly, Violets will bring fleas into the house in March according to an article in 1993 in Folklore called Plants used for pest control; some 20th century examples by Roy Vickery suggesting that being collected in 1985 there might have been some recent belief in the custom at least at Langtoft in Lincolnshire where it as collected.

In truth it was probably the change in climate that allowed cocoons laid in dust and fabrics to hatch and fleas to appear in great number. A similar event happens in houses which have been unoccupied for a period of time, in this case vibrations awake fleas from their torpor. Of course, no one remembers the 1st for its association with fleas – the human flea the scourge described in this folklore accounts in virtually if not entirely extinct in the British Isles a victim of the vacuum and temperatures of our homes are warm enough to allow cat and dog fleas to be active all year…I’d still watch up for some fleas coming down your street on the 1st of March.

Custom survived: Ashbourne Shrovetide Football

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Keep the ball out of churchyards, the cemetery and the Memorial Gardens Do not trespass on other people’s property You must not intentionally cause harm to others The ball must not be hidden in bags or rucksacks The ball must not be transported in, or on, motorised vehicles.”

So are the rules of the ancient game of Shrovetide in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Standing at the throwing in stand which for 363 days sits rather pointlessly in the town’s car park the organiser reminded the throng below him these rules….but within 10 minutes it had ended up in the cemetery

Up’ard and down’ard

There is a festival feeling in Ashbourne with town proclaiming the day with bunting. An odd festival feeling with all the shops and houses on the main streets boarded up that is. That said, this is not a war zone but everyone is excited and in the nearby hall a big meal is being held. The crowds await outside. Then after some rapturous applause. Like most mob games football is a bit of misnomer. It was hugged, punched and rolled but rarely kicked. Once I stood there motionless, like a rabbit stuck in headlights, as the ball rolled towards me and between my legs. A few seconds later a mass of men came my way shouting ‘get out the way’ or something like that! I soon jumped to the side and the ball disappeared under a mass of writhing men.

It all starts rather incongruously in a car park at the back of the shops…in truth the only large space in the town. Here is a large platform, redundant for 363 days, but today no card but people. Tourists look over from the edge, in the centre excited and waiting. After the aforementioned announcements as above, the ball was thrown in, or turned up in the local language….and of it went over the heads of the crowd and then disappeared into. The scrum held for a while, someone broke through and then went into the cemetery!

As soon as the ball was retrieved from the cemetery it found its way into the pool beside the park. At first eager members tried to use the branches to precariously perch themselves and lean over the water to get it…I winced…had they not seen the public information films from the 70s…and then plop in the water. It must have been cold..one then two, then three risked the cold depths. Soon there was a struggle for the ball in the water and then a cheer as it was hit skyward. Not enough.

Again the town divides teams into two geographical locations: Up’ards (north of the River Henmore) and the Down’ards (south). This was clearly a necessity to get a team together back in the day but nowadays anyone joins in and it’s a bit irrelevant..

On the head mate

Although called football, the Ashbourne game like many similar games is not often kicked but scrummed. Indeed it appears to have been called hugball, at some time and is believed to date from mediaeval times, although finding exact date is unknown, exacerbated by the fact that in the 1890s the archive was destroyed

One interesting theory states that the ball was originally a severed head thrown into the crowd after an execution – it seems unlikely to be honest!

The current ball is a large and beautiful item, sadly quickly smeared and obscured by the grasp of many hands. Often it is painted, a common image is that of the Cockayne coat of Arms: three cocks. This itself is interesting and was traced in 2012 to a game called La Soule played on the first Sunday of Lent and Easter Monday in the Picardy town of Tricot. Why? Because Tricot’s emblem is three cockerels . Coincidence possibly not and that

What is also unusual is that this is a two day game each day starting at 2 and going on until 10.00pm; but if the ball is goaled before half five it starts all over again! They do like their game! This goal consists of hitting the milestone this goal three times…when done, always under the cover of darkness, cheers erupt and the winner is carried on the crowd’s shoulders back to the pubs in the town.

I’ve never made it too the end mind. The cold keeps putting me off! They are made of tough stuff in Ashbourne.

Custom contrived: Waitangi Day Pub Crawl, London

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Its horrible February weather. Cold, made colder by a sharp wind and every now and again they is a flurry of snow…down in New Zealand its Summer of course ; perfect al fresco drinking weather…but that doesn’t stop the New Zealander’s enthusiasm for the day. I’m wrapped up in a coat, scarf and hat and there a group of men in shorts!

What is Waitangi Day?

This is the national day of New Zealand commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – the founding document of New Zealand on the 6th February 1840. New Zealand citizens across the two islands celebrate and naturally where so ever the diaspora end up….in Britain it appears to around Paddington

I turned up at the Pride of Paddington Pub at 10. Yes the aim of the day is a fancy dress pub crawl basically using the Circle line as the template. It is understandable that having the largest expatriate community London would have a big event. The ‘official’ events are a church service at St Lawrence Jewry and a posh event is the Waitangi Day Ball with cultural entertainment from Maori groups and fine food and wine..

However since 1986 on the nearest Saturday to 6th February a mighty pub crawl has evolved from a small gathering to a mighty fancy dress parade – of sorts! The event is almost at risk of being closed down by the want of its own publicity. After all fancy dress, drinking alcohol and large numbers do not make for a hassle free event necessarily. Indeed, it would be evident from the organisers plea on his the website that often this undesirable elements are overblown because it is easier to comment on what goes on over seas than at home:

“We’re trying to avoid having overexcited NZ TV crews beam us back home as looking disrespectful.  Considering we have had no arrests in years and only 1 complaint in 2014, our pub crawl is nothing compared to something like to what it was like at the Wellington 7’s and a night out in any big Kiwi city.”

Tiki Tour

The most impressive were the Kiwi fancy dressed individuals who when bent over looked quick convincing; well as convincing as a person dressed as a one foot bird can be! Outside one train station a group of men dressed in Cricketing whites proved or perhaps not how the country was famed for its sport. Nearby Gandolf – Lord of the Rings was filmed there – chatted with a giant beer can! At a later stop there was a large group of bare chested men…this was early February remember!!

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Hangi over

There were some sore heads on the next day and it was clear that by the end some of the bravado seen at the beginning was waning. Having said this enough enthusiasm was recovered from the traditional ending – the Hakka in Trafalgar Square.

It is interesting to note that Waitangi day means different things to different people. In an online article when the attendees were asked the views were different.

“I think it’s really great that we celebrate how the English invaders made a great peaceful treaty with the indigenous people of New Zealand,” said one.

“It’s not like a ‘yeah New Zealand’ kind of day, but it is a reflective kind of day,” said another.

Others said it simply meant a day off.”

Like many ex-pats, views differ at home and abroad: clearly it’s better to celebrate being a New Zealander when not in New Zealand, as a study suggested on 38% where proud of their country! As one attendee notes:

“Maybe back home it’s different, but definitely when you go overseas you realise how special New Zealand and being a Kiwi is.”

Hence the enthusiasm for this grand Kiwi pub crawl. But, of course such a custom can survive only when those involved are there. Numbers have dropped from in 2005 over 12,000 visas were granted dropping to 6,940 visas in 2016. Political motivations have a reputation for ruining customs and it would shame that changes to the visa rules kill of this joyous national celebration.

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