Tag Archives: traditions blog

Custom survived: The South Queensferry Burryman

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At the time I was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe – but that’s another story – and as a break from the incessant publicity I decided to take myself to find the Burry man. These were the days before the Internet and asking at the Tourist Information in Edinburgh they thought it was some sort of Fringe event..but I thought it is only a few miles out I would try and find it.

The Burryman is perhaps the most bizarre of our customs. A man covered head to toe with burrs with a flowery hat of roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. No skin is visible. Just a slit for the mouth. So much that his humanity appears to stripped for him, from a far he is most alien only a cummerbund adorned with a red lion suggesting he is human. He walks with two smartly dressed attendees, who help him hold onto to two hydrangea filled poles.

I located the Burryman easy enough propped outside of a pub like a rag doll. He appeared to acknowledge me but did not say. A few moments later a man appeared with a glass of something – whisky –  what else? Of course drinking the Whisky was a challenge; he only had a slit for a mouth. A straw was provided and it was steadily consumed..one of many it would appear.

As I followed him around some local children cheered his arrival, others watched from behind their parents more suspiciously. The lack of sound perhaps making it more curious for unlike every other similar custom, there is no associated music, no accordions, no violins, no bagpipers and no Morris!

Burry little clear on the origins

History is silent on its origin. Being linked to the local fair, which although medieval in origin only established a charter in 1687 suggests that it dates from then. Very unlikely I would feel and the two has become coincidentally associated. Some state it has a 900 year origin but it only has a recorded history since 120 odd years ago. Interestingly, the date 1687 was when the town became a burgh – burgh – burr – was this a local joke go on and on?

The Burryman is clearly a very odd folk figure. If there was a list of scary English folk figures he would be up there with the Straw bear and Bartle. Indeed, some believe that was part of its function, a mechanism to ward off evil spirits. One belief is that he is a sacrificial scape goat, much akin to the theory of Burning Bartle and the custom’s date being close to the ancient Lammas it is not difficult to reason with its association with harvest fertility, rebirth and regeneration. Certainly, the lack of speech and painfulness of the whole process suggests sacrifice as Brian Shuel notes in his 1984 Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain:

“It has to be said that by the late afternoon the Burry Man’s attendants were proping him up. Exhausted and full of whisky he was extremely relieved to get back to the Town hall where they stripped him in moments and left him comatose in his underpants for ten minutes before his wife, Julia, managed to prod him back to life. Suddenly he revived and in no time was himself again.”

But why here and why no-where else? Well it was found associated with Scottish fishing communities on the Moray Firth and was used to protect against poor fishing seasons. In Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire in the 1860s and their Burryman was on horseback and travelled through the town with a piper. In Buckie it appears to have been only done in response to a failure of the fishing fleet but curiously it was a Cooper who was wheelbarrowed around the town.  Queensferry is near the Sea so it is understandable it would survive there. But why the burrs? The provision of whisky is said to give the provider good luck; a clever way to ensure a free supply.

See the source image

Burrly able to move

There are many foliage people – Jacks, Straw men etc – but the Burryman has got to be the most strikingly unusual and uncomfortable. He is covered head to toe with sticky flower heads of the burdock. These being collected on the Friday morning before the parade These burrs, of which 11,000 is the average number which cover him, would be almost impossible to bear on a person’s normal clothing so he is covered head to toe in thick longjohns, vest, heavy sweeter and a balaclava which in August must be just as bad as being covered it spikey foliage! The burrs also cause the wearer to walk awkwardly with an open leg gait and arms outstretched which adds to the curious appearance! As if being covered with burrs and wearing a balaclava is not bad enough the Burryman has to walk a seven-mile route which usually takes nine hours!

The whole event begins in the Staghead Hotel at around 7am. The Friday previous the Burryman collects burrs and places them on newspaper make A3 size burr squares their natural Velcro like ability enables them to form ready-made fabrics. Overall 25 are made. The would then be placed on the volunteer and slowly but surely he becomes the Burryman. His first stumbling steps make it to the Town Hall where traditionally he receives his first dram of whisky.

Only locals can be the Burryman and despite the discomfort they are repeat performances one man Alan Reid having the pleasure for 25 years. He was only a few years from retirement when I ‘met’ him in the 1990s. Since 2012 an Andrew Taylor has the honour.

Burrly there!

I spent a couple of hours in the middle of the day which the Burryman, watching as he was greeted with great enthusiasm from pubs, shops, passerbys and a local factory. At lunchtime his attendees arrived at a local pub, where after having some difficulty getting him through the doorway, left him in the hall way again propped against the way – he could not sit down. Half an hour passed and he was still there but appeared like a forgotten rag doll! After a number of drams he looked decidedly jaded, although his foliage had jet to droop! In the bar I managed to speak to renowned custom hunter Doc Rowe and it is great to know Doc has returned regularly ever since. He was particularly amazed when in less than a month later he recognised me at Abbott Bromley at the Horn Dance and the mad search for customs has not stopped since!

With the modernity’s shadow of the Forth Bridge looming over the town, the curious juxtaposition survival of ancient and modern are very clear here. As the bizarre Burry man parades pointlessly around the town – the fair it was associated with long gone – it is evident that the locals need him like they would the whiskey he imbibes or the cars they drive. He is part of the fabric of the community. A mysterious almost mesmerizing old custom, one which would drag people back to see it again. It has been over 20 years since I experience the Burryman and I feel a revisit is long overdue!

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Custom survived: Llansteffan’s Mock Mayor, Carmarthenshire

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I get the feeling that Llansteffan is a bit of a little known treasure – a quintissential slice of Welsh, a village dominated by a mighty castle, boasts a secretive ancient holy well with itself having its own ritual, a lovely slice of sand and perhaps the less known a mock mayor.

Now followers of this blog will know that I have an especial interest in this curious form of custom which is more prevalent that is first known, often because, it is essentially a local custom for local people – Llansteffan was no exception

With this in mind I felt rather daunted attending this custom. It certainly was a popular one held in a large marquee on the cricket field – more of later – everyone in the village appeared to be there! My first thought was would I understand it. Now in this case this did not just mean would I get the references but was it in Welsh!?

Said to start at 7 – it didn’t – the organiser spoke – in English. First hurdle passed. Now would I understand the references?

Mock-up

Llansteffan’s Mock Mayor is held on the Friday before the village’s big Fiesta Week. Like many mock mayors finding concrete details are difficult. The custom is unrecorded in any folk custom book I am aware of. Locally it is said to have at least dated back to the 19th Century being first recorded by William Waters his History of Llanstephan. He notes that the Mayor was:

“carried on chiefly by Glamorganshire visitors … on or about August 8 … The so-called mayor is drawn by his friends in a carriage for some distance, the procession generally terminating in the wood near the beach, when his representative announces to the audience that the “newly elected mayor”

Yet others have claimed it goes back to King John in the 13th Century. This is not unlikely because Llansteffan’s status as a borough was confirmed by King John in 1200 meaning two fairs a year could be held, Ffair Fawr and Ffair Fach. However, that may have resulted in the position of the Mayor, it does not explain the mock part!

It is recorded that the village tenants would meet regularly to give taxes to the local landowners and that this evolved into a social occasion relieving the effort of paying tax, those congregating would elect one of their member as a Mock Mayor and would then parade him around on a cart perhaps to make a mockery of their landowners!

This would be slightly different from other origins which are often in response of a nearby village becoming a town and adopting a Mayoral system despite the nearby town being older or bigger see Woodstock

To begin with the crowd warmly welcomed the current Mock Mayor Roger Penycoed , he was accompanied by a mini Mock Mayor, his grandson. Both wore bright red and white fur lined and gold ribbon robes with tricorn hats resembling old medieval mayoral garments. Then the County counselor was called on stage who then went to ceremonially disrobe him so that the election could begin.

A Mayor go round!

Then the hustings begun. Of course recent international politics meant there was a rich harvest to parody. It was evident that this was an event which allowed local characters and show people to entertain the group, the first up had apparently stood four times before (and lost) and styled himself Lord Cutglass. Amongst his many election pledges he suggested bringing back the Court Leet from the 13th century. where only men over 30 with an acre of land could vote, boos could be heard – no women county councilors- a dig at their current councilor. However his main thrust was the ‘corruption’ of the current Mock Mayor and his balcony to cries of ‘drain the swamp’ stolen from the Trump presidential campaign. The Ferry was a particular sore point, claiming that it allowed those from St Ishmaels and Landyfaelog to ravage our women, steal our cockles and talk with a Landyfaelog accent! It a direct parody of the ongoing EU Brexit situation. A suggestion of a wall between Llansteffan and nearby Llanbryn again neatly parodying recent political events. But he said the village need not worry as he had made trade agreements with the King of Lundy for pickled It was all in jest but one could see that the ferry was a bit of a sore point!

Then came the second candidate which in fact was two Watcyn and Hugh and with a routine based on a vox pox of local people roars and cries of laughter came when people were recognised. The audience were in tears from the performance. I did not know any of the background but there were common themes…a local man who is obsessed with exercise portrayed with his swimming cap on and glasses, another who kept repeating ‘100 %’ (and who doesn’t know someone whose response is always the same), a traditional welsh lady and another…well I all I can say it appeared Northampton was a popular source of derision….all done in that confused quick changing that would not have been out of place in a Tommy Cooper sketch! Despite these being local jokes the characterisations meant it was easy to work out who they were parodying from the audience and it was remarkable how similar characters are. Even in 1875 the tongue was already firmly in the cheek!:

“will soon effect great improvements in the ancient “maritime borough” at his own expense; such as erecting an iron bridge from the Castle Hill to St Ishmael’s, purchasing a large number of bathing machines, and establishing coffee taverns on the sands!’”

At this point a swingometer was brought on and demonstrated. Was this the way it was decided?

The final contestant again two entered to the jangling sounds of Turning Japanese in came the next candidates, The Japanese unified globe party; or JUGS, (!Insert joke there!) two locals dressed as Sumo Wrestlers, excusing their Welsh accents for being educated in a local college. They aimed to bring Macron, May and Merkle over for an economic summit in the village but despite their combined economic powers they could not book the village hall. They mentioned Hollywood coming Dame Judy Dench and Eddie Izard, but the big surprise they were allowed to park outside someone’s house. They claimed that two big Hollywood stars file for bankruptcy after buying around in a local pub! Which received cheers and claps from the audience as a clear response of some gentrification of their local for the tourist no doubt!

Mayored up

It is stated that the influx of tourists gave the Mock Mayor tradition a new lease of life being a popular event for the holiday makers coinciding with Miners Fortnight a holiday for Rhondda miners. This resulted in anyone being able to stand as the Mock Mayor and as such many holidays were crowned! Canvassing became important and candidates even had agents. The election followed national trends when in 1916 women were allowed to vote and women could become mock mayors. One of the most notable being in 1954 a Madam Lloyd George, no relation! In those days it was held close to y Gegin Fach were there are remains of a stage used for elections. During the early part of the 20th century the summer season encouraged by a local Carmarthen to Llansteffan bus meant that the custom remained as popular as ever. A notable Mock Mayor, top hatted wearing W.H. ‘Bonny’ Lewis, his election promise included a daily air service from Llanstephan to Llansaint and another for `a huge Observatory to be erected on the Castle Grounds to publish weather conditions for farmers and shoemakers. As such he was voted Mock Mayor in 1932 and 1953. Another `Paddy’  Trench suggested that mermaids could be employed in the bay to attract bachelors and gold plate all cockles raising their value. Such characters created great pre-election crowds to hear them speak.

De-Mocked

Despite the considerable popularity of the Mock Mayor ceremony times were changing. Tastes were changing. Holiday tastes were changing. The 60s and 70s saw the custom nearly completely disappear but it did not completely die out and was revived thanks to the Llansteffan Football Club who continue to organise it. The tourist numbers had perhaps fallen, attracted to the exotic beaches of the Med not doubt but this did mean that the Mock Mayors would return to local people. A custom like this lives or dies with both the enthusiasm of those involved and the ‘characters’ involved. The 80s saw these characters return and even the TV when to coincide with the 1987 General Election local character Des Cridland was to be unseated by the so called Morality candidate Peter Jones, only to have him disgraced by the appearance of a pregnant women who claimed Jones was the father. The TV cameras distilled all these dirty tricks and outrageous electoral pledges which may have been not far off from what was really going on at Westminster! The TV attracted more interest and clearly pride in their unique custom and since then the custom has been in very rude health. From the laughter cheers and effort made by the unsuccessful candidates it does not appear in any danger of disappearing!

Mayor have a word?

After the new candidates spoke it was time for the present incumbent to speak accompanied by his robed grandson with a placard vote Roger. With much lose he gave an impressive if slightly Bacchus sponsored one drawing on some more serious points peppered by the grandson chanting vote Roger. It was clear that there was warmth for him from the congregation and it soon became evident that this was more pantomime than politics.

Then after the outgoing Mock Mayor spoke it was over to the results and despite no phone numbers being released or time given to vote, a tally was given as the candidates waited feverishly on the stage. The vote gave Lord Cutglass the lead but then in rushed a postal vote from Patagonia (Patagonia? There is a large ex-Pat Welsh community there)…the postal vote sent it over the edge and the old Mock Mayor was voted in Roger Penycoed cheered and went to the front of the stage. The county councilor came back up on stage and put back his insignia, robe and tricorn hat he thanks everyone assembled and said ‘Please please last time never again!’

Llansteffan Mock Mayor’s ceremony is something I believe many communities need a lighthearted irreverent knock about where local people can identify what really annoys them in a typically British way. It is evident the lack of Cricket, empty houses in the town and the cost of drinks in a local pub are matters that do matter and so in typically British way comedy is used to identify them.

Custom survived: Thomas Jones Day, Wilden All Saints, Worcestershire

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“to be applied by the said Managers for the benefit of the said school…….and that it is my desire that some reasonable portion thereof may be applied towards the expense of providing the children attending the said school with a treat on St. Swithin’s Day in every year…….”

Thomas Jones’s Will

For many people on the 15th July will mean dread – they look at the forecast, up to the sky, await upon the rheumatism to kick in – all to tell us that rain is on its way. Yes for the 15th July is St Swithun’s Day and as I am sure you aware if it rains then it does so for 40 days and night! Well in the tiny village of Wilden All Saints – the 15th does not mean awaiting the gloom of a soggy summer. No it means something altogether more spiritually uplifting – Thomas Jones’ Day. Who you may ask…well let me elaborate

Firstly, I’d like to explain that this custom is a rather private one. It involves primary children, over 100 of them, and as such they are rather concerned about unwanted visitors taking photos. So as you will see there are no children in this photos and you’ll have to imagine behind the photographer a great throng of singing infants and juniors.

A day to remember

In this village school the name Thomas Jones is a prevalent one. Awards are given out in his name and a mural is displayed in the school about him. Unlike other schools he is not the founder but a benefactor with a curious story. After making some enquiries I was invited to witness this curious unique custom. I arrived at the school just as the children were being delivered by parents and grandparents. I overheard one saying ‘I nearly forget it was his day today so we stopped by the roadside and picked some flowers in the hedgerow’

After being introduced to the current and old head I sat in the hall to hear about what Thomas Jones Day was about. As the hall filled with children each clutching their flowers. I could not help thing about which ones looked suspiciously like it had been plucked along the way…there were a few I thought! However, far in the majority, the parents had done the school proud, there were some rather splendid blooms help proudly by the children

Hearts and Flowers

Thomas Jones asked for the school children to sing songs over his grave and lay flowers and dutifully it was done. This was not due to his fear of St Swithun but the date was his birthday. This was a clear idea for unlike the graves of the schools founder Baldwin, which lay forgotten and unremembered by the children, every child through the school will recall celebrating this poor cowherder! As such Thomas Jones Day must be unique – many schools have a Founders Day but this one celebrates one who provided money for trips and ice-cream not the foundation stones of the school! As Mr Nick Liverly recalls when the name is mentioned to old alumni they all hold their hands out to represent holding flowers!

After hearing the story, the processed out of the school and into the graveyard making a circuit of the church and back to the grave. It was quite an odd site; the children clutching their flowers earnestly and proudly. Their goal, Thomas Jones’ Grave, was a typical Victorian pitched stone tomb looking like any other such grave – but that was about to change.

The teachers with their head stood around the grave, with one teacher guitar in hand, ready to play the music for their hymns, them the flowers were handed to the teachers to place on the grave. Soon they began to grow in number, 1, 2, 3 soon it was in the 10s and then after around 30 minutes the grave was hidden by bouquets, posies and large clumps of flowers – flowers of all types laid there making the final product a remarkable multi-coloured patchwork shining in the bright July day. As the flowers were laid the children sung a song which had a line giving thanks to their benefactor.

Keeping up with the Joneses!

Who was this curious benefactor. Born on the 15th July 1820, Thomas Jones earned as a Cowman 12/- or 60p today. He was a simple man, who lived very frugally and was thought to be poor. So much that when in June 1899, a Mr. Millward was called by a local doctor to write a dying man’s Will. When Mr Millward arrived and saw who it was, he was understandably doubtful as he knew Thomas was a mere farm worker and earned a modest wage. However, Thomas revealed a number of bank books which revealed several hundred ponds. This was collated from the rents taken from a field on Wilden Top as well as other pieces of land around. In all £385 was left to local people. The 4/5 acre field raised £303 18s 6d and his estate was worth £1211 18s 0d, a very large sum in 1899. The money was used to set up a trust at the school used to provide an annual treat. In the early 20th century they were treated to an outing with a picnic with journeys to London and Weston Super Mare being recorded.

Part of his Will stipulated that the children of the school must remember his day with singing around his grave and flowers and despite the money running out this has been fervently upheld.

Thomas Jones Life and Soul of the Party

“A sum of money having been left by an old gentlemen (Mr. Jones) for providing a tea annually for the Day School Children. The first was given on Wednesday when the whole holiday was granted for the occasion and the children showed their appreciation and respect for the old gentlemen by placing a number of wreaths upon his grave.”

20th September 1900

It would appear that the tradition begun with a tea party and then laying of flowers but first held in September in 1902 to 1911, this was probably because the school would have been closed for the Harvest by the 15th! It is recorded that in 1902 after the tea party the children received a new pinny from Lady Poyner, who was Louisa Baldwin’s sister and thus related to the founder. Then in 1911, it moved to the 3rd July and this year Louisa Baldwin donated some pictures. How the money was used varied over the years. In 1918 it was suspended and the money apparently going to sports and school work prizes. Yet in 1919 the money was instead used to start a school library with £5 awarded for books and 180 Peace day cups were bought for a shilling each from Selfridges and given to the students who had attended in the last three years. The giving of gifts appeared to continue, books in 1921 and the Vicar and Headmistress distributing in 1924. In 1945 his Legacy had accumulated £100 and it was then spent on strip lighting to benefit the students By 1925, the Tea party had been resumed after the headmistress addressing the children and presumably reminding them of Thomas Jones. I am sure the children were equally happy to hear that the school would close midday for a tea as well. Then in 1926 the school was closed for an excursion and in 1930 this went as far as Weston Super Mare – a two hour car journey today I could not imagine how long by coach it would have been and then in 1933 to London, again a three hour journey – presumably by train it may have been easier! From that point on the treats involved coach trips to Dudley Zoo, Droitwich, Bromsgrove, Kinver, Habberley Valley, Drayton Manor, Warwick, Worcester, Birmingham, Telford, Cardingmill Valley.

Party’s over

By the mid 1970s the legacy had diminished considerably and all that was left was £13 just enough for an ice-cream for each child. However, it was believed that the school should continue to honour him and make sure funds available to honour the expression that sometime should ‘benefit the children’. So distance achievement badges and later certificates were awarded annually in his name

The centenary was celebrated in 1999 with the children dressed in Victorian clothes and a wall mural was erected in the school. The church was also used as a display area with posies and drawings, two concerts were held and a wedding with the whole school in attendance.

Flower of youth

Interesting although the end of the legacy, although meant no money, didn’t mean no custom Now unlike Little Edith’s Treat. But of course we could consider the customs in two parts and of course the second was not dependent on any endowment! After the final flowers were laid the children a rousing rendition ‘Our Lord is a great big god’ with all the hand actions and then it was back to class, back to the three Rs. A delightful custom and one that the weather did not spoil that day. However, as Mr Nick Lilvery recalled in the great drought of the summer of 1976 – it rained so much on the 15th that they could not do the ceremony….St Swithun no doubt stamping his authority on the day!

 

Custom contrived: Congham Snail Racing World Championships, Norfolk

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“Congham is to snail racing what Newmarket is to horse racing.”

The British like to create contradictory oxymorons: snail racing must be one of the best. Snails not renowned for their speed so a snail race has a perverse feel to it. For those who wish to race their snails the place to be in a little known village, Congham. For once, the world addition is valid, there are other lesser snail racing competitions. Why Congham? The organiser, Hilary Scase explains this is due to the fact:

“Snails like damp conditions and as Congham is surrounded by ponds and is very low lying it is just right for snails.”

Not the best place for growing veg and hostas then?! The Snail Racing started 27 years ago as a unique way to attract visitors to their village fete. And indeed, that has worked and Congham is firmly on the wacky calendar customs list.

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Snail’s pace

The event has become a popular one amongst all ages and childrens and adults can be found clutching a plastic tub or jam jar full of leaves and snails, some with their shells painted, some cases with some degree of artistry. They were warming up as they gracefully slide around the sides…although some appear to be sulking and deep within their shells; well it was a hot July day – not the best for snails to be honest.

Those competing – although why else would they be there -are taken to the arena and small circular stickers with their racing numbers are affixed; afterall they all do look very alike. The arena consists of a white sheet with two red circles on it one smaller one where the snails are placed and another larger one which is the goal for the snails, with a 13 inch radius.

A group of around 20 to 30 and a forest of tripods surround the arena. Their cameras posed with telephoto lens of the arena and the snails.

Ready Steady Slow

So shouts the Snail Trainer wearing a white shirt with his role clearly proclaimed. A round of cheers erupts from the audience….but not much from the snails who sit stubbornly on the middle red circle! Then suddenly one breaks free; head pokes out and antenna snake out and its off…slowly! Then another appears to be making a break and soon catches up with the other. Water is poured on the snails to keep them going although they duck back into their shells in shock…this would not be allowed in other sports dousing in water – they I am sure in hot weather they would like it! Being snails some decide to climb over another – highly irregular and still some go backwards! Strangely enough despite their reputation for being a bit slow the snails do pick up speed and by three minutes we get a winner as first its antenna and then its head eases over the red line and is lighted off and announced the winner. Apparently, the world record stands at 2 minutes over the 13 inches, achieved in 1995 by a snail called Archie. It wasn’t beaten.

Coming out of your shell

The event was attended by some very excited. As the press release said:

Children take snail racing very seriously. When 9-year-old Thomas Vincent won the championships with his snail Schumacher, he said: “I have achieved my lifetime’s ambition.”

Indeed, the children, some dressed up in fancy dress, were clearly very into the event chanting the names of snails. Even the adults looked anxious at the results,.

After a number of heats, the snails slugging it out to be the ultimate winner! The heat’s winners were selected for a final. It was tense thing. The winner, at 2 minutes 47 seconds, was quite a smaller snail by comparison, had gone from chewing the veg patch to winning avoiding the slug pellets on the way. It had beaten 200 other snail attendees.

Its all very tongue in cheek of course but local farmer, Neil Riseborough, who is the competition Snail Trainer to the World Championships is there according to the press release to keep:

“order, tests for drugs, watches out for cheating and starts the races.”

Fortunately there were not any random drug tests nor steward’s inquiries whilst I was there. It was a thoroughly enjoyable event and one dare I say which has created some good PR for snails. The winner received lettuce leaves and its trainer a silver tankard which had the leaves in it! Very pleased with themselves they posed with their snail and prize for the press and another snail racing had ended for the year.

Farmer,.

Custom demised: Relic Sunday

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“Worshipfull frendis, on Sunday next commyng shall be the holy fest of all relykis (called Relike Sonday), which that be left here in erth to the grete magnificence, honour and worship of god and profite to man bothe bodily and gostily, for in as much as we be in sufficient to worship and reuerence singulerly all reuerent Relikis of all seyntis left here in erth, for it passith mannis power. Wherefore holy Chirch in especiall the Chirch of Yngelonde hathe ordeynd this holy Fest to be worshipped the next Sonday aftir the translacion of seint Thomas of Cauntirbery yerely to be hallowed and had in reuerence.”

So is written in a late 15th century sermon called In festo Reliquarum. Relic Sunday was a Catholic feast which was celebrated in either on the 1st Sunday in July or the third Sunday after Midsummer. The feast was designed to celebrate the relics of Christian saints and was perhaps cynically set up to focus pilgrimage to shrines in which either the saint’s feast day was unknown or else to encourage further devotion, certainly it was recognised by more offerings being given. By undertaking pilgrimage on Relic Sunday an indulgence could be gained. One did not have to go far, for example even when John Baylis’s wife went to her parish church in Rolvenden (Kent) on Relic Sunday in 1511 she stated that she was going on

‘pilgrimage at the relics’.

Image result for St Thomas becket shrine Victorian drawingSimilarly avoiding Relic Sunday would result in penalty. At the quarter sessions in Wigan (Lancashire) in 1592 it was noted that:

“Richard and William Buckley, of Charnock Richard, Laboureres and Richard Sharrock of Heath Charnock butcher on the day called Relic Sunday 1592 in time of divine service at Chorley played at bowls”

Of course the Reformation would have its final say and as the 1846 The Church of England as by law established being very doctrine and express words of homilies against popery noted:

“Concerning Popish Relics But in this they pass the folly and wickedness of the that they honour and worship the relics and of our saints which prove that they be mortal and dead and therefore no gods to be worshipped the Gentiles would never confess of their Gods very shame But the relics we must kiss and offer specially on relic Sunday And while we offer that we should not be weary or repent us of our the music and minstrelsy goeth merrily all the time with praising and calling upon those whose relics be then in presence Yea and water also wherein those relics have been must with great reverence be reserved as ve and effectual Is this agreeable to St Chrysostom writeth thus of relics Do not regard the ashes”

Relic Sunday then disappeared as the shrines became dismantled and the church moved away from Catholicism. It survived longest in Northamptonshire where Thistleton Dyer’s Popular Customs

“In some parts of this county the Sunday after St. Thomas a Becket’s Day goes by the name of Relic Sunday.”

But even here it was forgotten probably only remembered because of fairs associated with the day. The relics are forgotten and as far as I am aware it was never revived!

Custom contrived: Blessing the Midsummer Bower, Woolmer Forest

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“How sweetly I, at close of Summer’s Day,

While thy dear presence blessed these happy Bowers,

Could lost in rapture with my Daphne stray,

Or in soft converse pass the fleeting Hours.”

Midsummer madness?

In the Deadwatervalley Trust maintained Woolmer Forest a curious custom has developed. Curious firstly because it is based on the observations of a local famed Naturalist – Gilbert White and secondly because it is organised by a woodland conservation ground. Thanks to Bill Wain who provided the materials on the custom; one which appeaThe custom is based on an observation made by the author that at Walldown on St. Barnabus’ Day a bower would be constructed. He recorded in his A Natural History of Selborne within the letters to Thomas Pennant, a fellow naturalist:

“On two of the most conspicuous eminences of this forest stand two arbours or bowers, made of the boughs of oaks; the one called Waldon-lodge , the other Brimstone-lodge; these the keepers renew annually on the feast of St Barnabas, talking the old materials for a perquisite. The farm called Blackmoor, in this parish, is obliged to find the posts and brushwood for the former; while the farms at Greatham, in rotation, furnish for the latter; and are all enjoined to cut and deliver the materials at the spot. This custom I mention, because I look upon it to be of very remote antiquity.”

And that is it really! Gilbert White wrote no more about the custom and neither did any other author. However, some have attempted to link it to May bowers. D. H. Moutray Read in their 1911 article for Folklore on Hampshire folklore records:

“Miss Burne, in her Presidential Address last year, spoke of the “bowery” erected for sports at Woodstock, and readers of Miss Mitford’s Our Village will recall how in “Bramley Maying” she describes the ” May-houses to dance,” built of green boughs by the lads and lasses of the neighbouring parishes.”

However this could be a tenuous link – these are not midsummer bowers. Yet the lack of any reference to midsummer bowers is not a reason not to establish a custom on them. This is clearly a new custom based upon an account of something older.

Midsummer nights dream

It is of course worth noting that this is a different midsummer to the one we currently recognise. Before the calendar change, St Barnabas Day fell on Midsummer’s Day as remembered:

Barnaby Bright, Barnaby Bright

The longest day and the shortest night

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Therefore when in 2010, the Deadwater Valley Trust and the Woolmer Forest Heritage Society decided to start the custom the closest day to old St Barnabus, i.e 13th June was chosen, although local events such as the Queen’s Birthday in 2016 did get in the way of organising it.
The earthworks noted by White were also selected to make the custom a copy of that recorded by White. However, because the site is a scheduled ancient monument the bower can only be there for a day. As such early in the day local children arrange branches to create an arch and then use green boughs and branches to drape over the structure creating a small green hut.
Bowery boys and girls
Then around midday a collection of curious onlookers and those involved with the trusts and group stand around the Bower as first a man dressed in typical Georgian squire attire with a white wig as Gilbert White reads out his note to Pennant about the custom and then the vicar gives his thanks giving and the bower is blessed; a slightly contrived aspect as the White gave no reference to the structure being blessed. Nor did he mention processing around it! However, this all goes to make a most unusual of customs. Of course making a bower on a hot day also affords a good shelter and the children were quick to realise this ducking under the branches and finding a cool respite under the leaves to excited glee ‘let’s make one of these at home’ one said to another.
Of course why midsummer and why at these earthworks is a question that remains unanswered. But is clear that even given the slimest of provenances a great little custom can arise and give colour and interest. Long may the bower be built.

Custom revived: Bawming the Appleton Thorn, Cheshire

Standard

“The Maypole in spring merry maidens adorn,
Our midsummer May-Day means Bawming the Thorn.
On her garlanded throne sits the May Queen alone,
Here each Appleton lad has a Queen of his own

Chorus

Up with fresh garlands this Midsummer morn,
Up with red ribbons on Appleton Thorn.
Come lasses and lads to the Thorn Tree today
To Bawm it and shout as ye Bawm it, Hooray!

The oak in its strength is the pride of the wood,
The birch bears a twig that made naughty boys good,
But there grows not a tree which in splendour can vie
With our thorn tree when Bawmed in the month of July.

Chorus

Kissing under the rose is when nobody sees,
You may under the mistletoe kiss when you please;
But no kiss can be sweet as that stolen one be
Which is snatched from a sweetheart when Bawming the Tree.

Chorus

Ye Appleton Lads I can promise you this;
When her lips you have pressed with a true lover’s kiss,
Woo’ed her and won her and made her your bride
Thenceforth shall she ne’er be a thorn in your side.

Chorus

So long as this Thorn Tree o’ershadows the ground
May sweethearts to Bawm it in plenty be found.
And a thousand years hence when tis gone and is dead
May there stand here a Thorn to be Bawmed in its stead.

If there was a custom which could claim to have been revived the most it could be Appleton’s Bawming the Thorn in Cheshire.. The current version was invariably described as being revived in 1967 or 1973, by headmaster, Bob Jones, itself based on a 1930 revival which again was a probable Victorian revival of the 1860s when a Bawming song was written. The present version appears to be in good health and is now a pivotal event in the village and indeed in the wider Warrington area. Why did it die out? Christine Hole in her 1937 Traditions and customs of Cheshire noted that

“it was allowed to lapse because so many strangers came to see it that it became rowdy, and property was damaged.”

Thorn in the side?

A few miles from the metropolitan Manchester and Warrington is Appleton Thorn, a village which happily celebrates in its name with a unique custom; called Bawming the Thorn. It is not difficult to find the thorn it sits surrounded by a protective metal fence on an island near the church. Early in the day the tree is adorned with red ribbons and children place some plant boxes/pots/bouquets or wreaths, small gardens set out with colourful collections of flowers living and dead. These are similar to those laid at the John Clare memorial, called Midsummer Cushions and indeed maybe exactly the same. However, it is the tree we are here to see, here to celebrate. An ordinary looking thorn covered in leaves and between the leaves red ribbons and small flags.

Soon one can hear a brass band further along the road and soon a large procession comes into view. The children, usually the year 6s of the local primary school, appear dressed in a red and white. They snake their way towards the tree ready to dance around the titular tree.

A thorny subject

What does bawm mean? Well the Oxford English Dictionary does not include it but Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary does and Roger Wilbraham’s 1817 An attempt at a glossary of some words used in Cheshire suggests

“At Appleton it was custom at the time of the Wake to clip and adorn an old hawthorn which till very lately stood in the middle of the town. The ceremony is called Bawming the Appleton Thorn.!”

As Steve Roud notes in his 2006 The English Year the inclusion of the term Wake is significant and that as such it was part of the decoration of the village like many others. As such it was not a custom on its own but a vestige of the festivities of the wake. However, why would someone remember the tree and establish a new custom of dancing around it? Would not a maypole be easier? What is also worth noting is the word clip however, which Roud does not discuss that, clipping or clypping being the custom in which on patronal days a church is encircled but its parishioners. As such one could argue that the clypping had a pre-Christian origin originally being associated with stone circles, was it done around sacred trees? It is pure conjecture of course. Hole notes that in the Warrington Journal it was recorded as:

“The tree and its protective railings were decorated with garlands, flags and red ribbons and sang a song written by the late Mr. Egerton-Warburton. Country dancing, sports and a procession round the village are part of the modern ceremony.”

All a bit bawmy?

A local legend has it that the original thorn was brought from Glastonbury by Adam de Dutton, an Appleton landowner who has also returned from the Crusades. How genuine this story is, is difficult to say, but of course as reported before Glastonbury thorns were distributed across the country. The only curious question is why this particular offcut is not associated with flowering on Old Christmas Day? Dare I say the story may have been concocted to explain the phenomena which could be construed as pagan?

Local author William Beament included the story of the thorn’s arrival in his 1877 An Account of the Cheshire Township of Appleton Thorn, but even he states in 1844 that he was unaware of it custom’s origin

The custom starts when a boy dressed as Sir Adam and his squire enter the area around the Thorn. He is the first to start the proceedings off. Clutching a sword and a leafy branch he declares:

“I Adam de Dutton, raise plant this thorn, on this morn in Appleton Thorn”

It is clear that the village are keen to recognise this benefactor however genuine he is. After his speak, the other children then add their bouquets to the fence.

Then the dancing begins. A choir in black and red sing the Bawming the Thorn hymn This is Maypole dancing albeit without a Maypole the children dance around in pairs swirling, skipping, joining hands. The clipping is in evident when the children hold hands in a big circle they move in and out enclosing the tree in a grand hokecokey! Then it is over and off everyone goes for the supplementary events and a well earned ice-cream no doubt!