Tag Archives: traditions

Custom demised: Goose at Michaelmas

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I dined upon goose yesterday which I hope will secure a good sale of the second edition of my book.”

In 1813 Jane Austen

Stubble Goose and Sour Blackberries – Devil Spits Day | The FishWife's Kitchen - Nottinghamshire Food Blogger, Former Cafe Owner, Food Writer, Speaker, Small Food-Business Mentor, Cook, Fishwife

Michaelmas Day once had an association with eating goose. It is thought that the tradition begun after Queen Elizabeth I dined on it as the news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada arrived. It is said that from this day onward, she promised always to eat goose on that day feeling it had brought her good luck. Thus it is thought the custom spread. Thus was said:

He who eats goose on Michaelmas day;
Shan’t money lack or debts pay

Even at the dawn of the 18th century, the belief was already so old that its origins had become obscure, as demonstrated by a query to the British Apollo on 22nd of October 1708 –

“Pray tell me whence the custom’d proverb did commence, that who eats goose on Michael’s day, shan’t money lack his debts to pay?”

However, it is more than likely that it had long been eaten on that day as geese were often freely available. Its origins may be very ancient even pre-Christian perhaps. Geese were so common and sold in large numbers explaining why many fairs developed to sell them such as Hulls and Nottingham’s Goose Fair and Tavistock’s Goosey Fair. In the former even rents were paid in geese as noted in 1575 by George Gascoine regarding paying rents in the form of geese went:

And when the tenants come to pay their quarter’s rent,
They bring some fowl at Midsummer, a dish of fish in Lent,
At Christmas a capon, at Michaelmas a goose,
And somewhat else at New-year’s tide, for fear their lease fly loose

An old saying would say:

“On Michaelmas night by right divine,

The goose is chosen to be the swine”.

Goose featured heavily in the harvest belief. For example in many places Michaelmas was known as ‘Goose Day’ and the last portion of grain was referred to cutting the gander’s neck in Shropshire. Of course geese had a practical use in the fields at harvest they could clean up and finish the stubble and as such would become fat on the food. Having goose for Michaelmas became a sign of wealth and prosperity:

“if the goose breast at Michaelmas be dour and dull We’ll have a sour winter, from the start to the full.”

It is clear that the goose as did Michaelmas became largely forgotten partly due to the rise of urbanisation and the industrial revolution. Michaelmas may be remembered in some areas such as school and university terms but in the goose has gone!

Custom demised: Letting the Lammas Letts, Chelsea, Middlesex

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Many villages had specific areas which could be grazed on at specific times. In Sports, Pastimes, and Customs of London, 1847 Craddock et al it is recorded that:

“In the parish of St. Luke, Chelsea, were formerly ” The Letts,” Lammas land, for ages appurtenant to the manor of Chelsea, The lord of the manor possessed the right of letting the land on lease for the spring and summer quarters, beginning with March and ending in August, and the inhabitants at large enjoyed the privilege of turning in their cattle from August till February, being the autumn and winter quarters.”

The grazing time was more specific the 2004 Victoria County History of Middlesex chapter 12 V.C.H noting:

“The freeholders and tenants of the manor of Chelsea had the right to graze the open arable fields with any stock except temporary sheep flocks between Lammas day (1 August) and Candlemas (2 February).”

The V.C.H note that:

“Lammas rights became a source of conflict between landowners and parishioners by the late 16th century with the gradual enclosure of parts of the open fields, particularly Westfield.”

Over the years access was curtailed and people were prevented from grazing for example a 50 acre in Westfield belonging to the earl of Lincoln was lost when he inclosed it c. 1607. However, by 1619 Lincoln’s successor, Sir Arthur Gorges, made the land available again. V.C.H recorded that:

“The commoners maintained that the close had formerly had one side left open until the earl had inclosed it; after a suit in 1612 he had left a gate into the close open for the exercise of common rights, but the gate was kept closed after the earl’s death (in 1616).”

A report was made for the Privy Council in 1631 after complaints about inclosure in Chelsea. V.C.H records:

“In Eastfield an inclosure near Stonebridge had been reversed, and c. 20 a. of Sir William Blake’s estate had been inclosed and partially hedged, but was still laid open at Lammas. The meadow in the detached part of Kensington by the Thames which was ditched and banked had also usually been commoned at Lammas over the bank. In Westfield, however, inclosures seem to have become permanent. The five acres on which Richard Stocke’s house and garden had been built by 1619, and 14 a. adjoining it behind the houses at Little Chelsea was inclosed, with another 31 a. in Westfield belonging to Lady Elizabeth Gorges, probably including the grounds of Stanley House, and 3 a. meadow of Lady Elizabeth’s in the open field had also been ditched and common rights prevented.   Prior to that Lady Elizabeth and her daughter Lady Lane had been allowed to inclose 4 acres in return for a payment to the parish poor.”

John Timbs in the 1856 Things Not Generally Known Popular Errors Explained & Illustrated records:

“This state of appropriation continued till the year 1825 or 1826, when the directors of the Kensington Canal Company took possession of them for their own use immediately upon the completion of the canal ; they have detained them ever since, and have let them successively to several persons, and received rent for the same. The Chelsea Lammas lands had hitherto been opened on the 12th of August, being the first of the month according to the old style.”

There appeared to be a custom like approach to the openings as:

“The graziers, butchers, and others with their cattle, used formerly to assemble in the lane leading to ” The Letts,” on the eve of Lammas, and when the clock had struck twelve they entered the meadow.”

The Victoria County History V.C.H of Middlesex notes that:

“Lammas rights presumably became less of an issue as Chelsea’s agriculture changed, but even in 1834 the parish officers and inhabitants repossessed the Lots meadow after the bankruptcy of the Kensington Canal Company on the grounds that it was Lammas lands on which they had a right to put their cattle, with Lord Cadogan having the right to let it for the other six months.”

Lots Road Pub and Dining Room, Chelsea, SW10 | A posh gastro… | Flickr

However, finally the Lammas rights of common grazing were abolished on the “Lots” and thus according to V.C.H:

“the The Lots meadow was still called Lammas land in the Chelsea Improvement Act of 1845, when it was owned by Lord Cadogan, the West London Railway, the Kensington Canal Company, and Chelsea parishioners.”

Now it is remembered by Lots Lane but the chances of grazing in this high end real estate is virtually zero.

 

Custom survived: Swan upping on the river Thames

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Swan-upping: a royal tradition | Vet TimesThe delightful mute swan, gliding majestically down the river, its pure white plumage shining in the summer, has always been thought to be a Royal bird. The monarch owning all birds but in the past ownership was granted to certain groups and since the medieval times to two livery companies – The Vintners and Dyers. These two companies have what is called the royalty of swans. Margaret Brenthall in her 1975 Old Companies and ceremonies of Britain:

“The Thames swans have always been protected birds, and to kill one was a crime which once earned dire punishment. As late as the mid-nineteenth century transportation for seven years was the penalty, and in 1895 it was seven weeks’ hard labour.”

Swanning about

Cleverly because it would be impossible to catch all swans so all those which were marked belonged to the monarch. As T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1875) suggests:

“Formerly the members of the Corporation of London, in gaily-decorated barges, went up the Thames annually in August, for the purpose of nicking or marking, and counting their swans. They used to laud off Barnes Elms, and partake of a collation. This yearly progress was commonly but incorrectly called ” swan-hopping : ” the correct designation is shown by the ancient statutes to be ” swan-upping,” the swans being taken up and nicked, or marked. A ” swan with-two-nicks ” indicated, by his second nick, that he had been taken up twice.”

His account suggests that it might have been a revived custom but as Brenthall notes:

“in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Swan Voyage as a purely practical affair. It was in the eighteenth century that a festive element was introduced. Guest accompanied the Liverymen in the Companies state barges, musicians were engaged to play during the voyage, guns were fired in celebration, and a vast amount of food and drink was disposed of. As the nineteenth century progressed the mood changed, for the state barges disappeared from the scene.”

Thus it appears Thistleton Dwyer is referring to this. However, as Brenthall notes:

“But a festive atmosphere still prevails today as accompaniment to the sheer work of rowing, catching the swans and cygnets, marking and pinioning; and on two days of the Swan Voyage the Court of each of the Livery companies; together with their guests; follow by launch in the wake of the swan uppers.”

Brenthall (1975) notes:

“For this task the three respective Swan Herdsmen and their teams of Swann Uppers set out each July on a week-long Swan Voyage from Temple Stairs to Henley…the Swan Herdsmen at the time of writing are: John Turk, Queen’s Swan Keeper; Michael Turk, the Vintners’ Swan Marker and Bargemaster and Harold Cobb, the Dyers Bargemaster.”

The author states there were strong hereditary links within the ancient river appointments and I believe a Turk was my contact when I decided to find out more.

Swan with two necks

With a start at Temple the barges move down to Henley, regular stopping points are provided by the livery companies involved but I thought to be honest I was more than likely to see them gliding by and that was it – although at one of the locks I had the opportunity to see them do the loyal toast. Unfortunately, I missed the loyal toast and after deciding to picnic by the river could see in the far distance the swan uppers thinking this would be my opportunity to at least photograph this colourful watery procession as they gently skiffed the river in their three barges adorned with the banners of the Queen, Vintners and Dyers in a dazzling array of red and white.

Then their colourful red coats loomed closer in to view and a shout went out – they had seen some swans. Then with their boats they created a block to prevent the swans from escaping and the Vintner’s bargemaster leant over and grabbed the swan. It was then hoisted on to the bank and another presumably swan marker reached to get their marker and the swan was weighed, checked over and marked accordingly. Nowadays much of the process is to check on the health of the swans and since 1998 no nicking is done to the beaks rings being placed on the legs instead – which means that they cannot now be easily identified. It is a simple but colourful affair. I was amazed to be present at such close hand to see the process close up. I haven’t been back since but I was interested that for the first time in centuries Queen Elizabeth II the ‘Seigneur of the Swans’ attended the Swan Upping ceremony for the first time. It’s a simple custom only being partially cancelled due to high river flows in 2012 and 2020 due to Covid-19 social distancing measures – although one could argue being in the middle of the Thames they would be pretty socially distanced!

Custom contrived: The World Lawn mowing Championships Sussex

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One of those sounds of a long hot summer is the drone of a lawn mower strimming somewhere nearby but in July the whole air in specific Sussex villages one can hear even more but no grass is cut!

One man went to mow…

It was 1973 when down the Cricketer’s Arms in Wisborough Green, West Sussex over some drinks a discussion of a new motor sport was arisen. The man starting this conversation was one Jim Gavin, he was involved with rallying and bemoaned the influence of sponsorship. He clearly was not keen on it and wanted to create a sport which was both a motorsport, was not expensive, did not need sponsorship and could be accessible to everyone – but what could it be. It is said that they looked across the village green and saw a groundsman mowing a cricket pitch. They the realised that everyone had a mower in their shed and so they thought let us move them!

The first event was on Murphy’s field and 80 mowers turned up! The British Lawnmower Racing Association record on their website:

“The main objectives were and still are, no sponsorship, no commercialism, no cash prizes and no modifying of engines. The idea being, it would keep costs down and resulted in lawnmower racing being described by Motor Sport News as “the cheapest form of motorsport in the U.K.” The BLMRA still sticks to its origins as a non-profit making organization, any profits are given to charities or good causes.

Ready steady mow

The lawnmowing race rather grasped the zeitgeist locally and beyond as noted:

“Lawn Mower Racing takes place all over the country from Wales to Norfolk and Yorkshire to Sussex, appearing at Country Shows, Fayres and Steam Rallies. We generally start racing in May through to October, incorporating The British Championship. We also have The World Championships, The British Grand Prix, The Endurance Championship and the most famous of all, The 12 Hour Endurance Race.”

Not only that but the competition has not been short at attracting fame and despite the tongue firmly in the check genuine racers and even film stars have been involved:

“Over the years lawn mower racing has attracted motor racing legends and celebrities. Sir Stirling Moss has won both our British Grand Prix and our annual 12-Hour Race. Derek Bell, five times Le Mans winner and twice World Sports Car Champion, has won our 12 Hour twice and one of those was with Stirling. The actor Oliver Reed, who lived locally, regularly entered a team. We also feature in the Guinness Book of Records with the fastest mower over a set distance and the longest distance travelled in 12 hours. Other famous names who have been seen in the paddock are Murray Walker, Alan deCadenet, John Barnard (Ferrari F1 designer), Phil Tuffnell, Jason Gillespie, Chris Evans, Guy Martin and Karl Harris (British Super Bike riders), John Hindhaugh (Radio Le Mans commentator).”

Not letting the grass grow beneath their feet

Lawn mowers vary of course and we are not in the main talking the handheld ones we are talking about the large petrol monsters which parade up and down those large gardens of the country. Having said this the organisation notes:

“Drivers raced around the course in one of three vehicle choices –  a traditional push mower fitted with an added seat, a horse-and-cart-like lawnmower set-up or a more comfortable, sit-down grass cutter.”

As such there is plenty of opportunity to race them. In 2014 The Express newspaper noted that:

“Rattling around the quarter mile-long course, the racers topped speeds of 18miles per hour.”

With racer called Christopher Plummer explaining that:

“If you’ve got spinal problems, then it’s not a good idea, the wheel hits your knees all the time so you wear knee pads and then the banging, it’s just mad!”

The article goes on to speak to organiser John Lowdell about as it called ‘about winning the fierce, grass-based competition’  organiser John Lowdell said:

“I think there is a certain amount of kudos. People do like to say I am the current world champion. It takes more effort to win the British Championship because that takes place over the whole season, whereas the world championship is one meeting – but I think in terms of what people actually want, they want to be able to say they are the World Champion definitely”.

Mown down

Well I was slightly hesitant of attending this event being I have very little affinity for motor racing at the best of time. However, it is was clear that this was an enjoyable event for all the family but taken quite seriously. The air was thick in petrol fumes and it rung with the distinctive buzz of the motor. However, despite all the mower one could state the grass didn’t look very good indeed it looked more of a mud bath!

It is reassuring that over the years the event has remained true to its origins:

Unfortunately the British Lawn Mower Racing Association (BLMRA) does not offer any prize money or medals, so racers have to be satisfied with only the bragging rights of their John Deere driving.”

You could say its remained loyal to its grass roots!

Custom demised: Visiting St Margaret’s Well, Wereham

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In the centre of Wereham in Norfolk © Richard Humphrey :: Geograph Britain and Ireland

Patronal days were found in every Parish in Britain, but the Reformation removed many of them. In most cases they were simple feasts held in the church but in other occasions they might have involved other sites.

Such appeared to have in Wereham Norfolk. Here in the T.K Cromwell’s 1829 Excursions in the county of Norfolk records:

“To the west of Wereham Church, Norfolk, a well, called St. Margaret’s, was much frequented in the times of Popery. Here, on St. Margaret’s Day, the people regaled themselves with ale and cakes, music and dancing. Alms were given, and offerings and vows made, at sainted wells of this kind.”

It appears that Cromwell is the original source of this account and John Chambers wrote his 1830 A general history of the county of Norfolk as he repeats verbatim except oddly the last line:

“…to the west of the church is St. Margaret’s Well, at which, in the times of popery, the people diverted themselves on that saint’s day with cakes and ale, music and dancing; alms and offerings were brought, and vows made: all this was called Well worship”.                                        

When this was and the exact details I have never been able to find out, perhaps Cromwell had local knowledge. The well however was  first noted 1450, and is marked on the 1884-5 O/S in the square as Margaret’s Well and now appears to have been lost buried under the tarmac of Margaret’s Hill which inconveniently is in the middle of road making it an unlikely place for any such frolics unless you left with your ale from a local pub that is.

Of course many wells were associated with such customs but why this one is recorded amongst many others is unclear and unfortunately we may never know.

Water appeared important on St Margaret’s Day, in weather-lore Steve Roud in his 2006 English Year notes:

“St Margaret’s Day was often expected to be wet; if it was, it was termed ‘Margaret’s flood’.

It appears perhaps by visiting her spring they can always get wet come what may! Interesting the church website notes:

“The main fundraising event of the year is the Church Festival, which takes place on the Sunday nearest the feast day of St Margaret of Antioch (20th July).”

It is clear that St Margaret’s Day is not forgotten locally

Custom revived: Chipping Camden’s Cotswold Olympicks, Gloucestershire

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He [Dover] spares no cost; this also doth afford
To those that sit at any board.
None ever hungry from these Games come home,
Or e’er made plaint of viands, or of room

Nicholas Wallington

When one thinks about Olympics one thinks of Greece and the four yearly major events that travel around the world. But like the Japan Olympics the Coronavirus crisis cancelled the Cotswold one as well. Unlike the ‘real’ Olympics – the Cotswold Olympicks has an older pedigree.

The name of the game

The Cotswold’s games is a new name for what was and is called Dover’s Olympicks. Robert Dover who was a local lawyer is said to have started the games in 1612. Why is unclear but it may have been that he felt that physical exercise was important or that he wanted to bring all classes together in a single enterprise and as such the events included a wide range of county pursuits ranging from horse-racing to wrestling, hound coursing to sledgehammer throwing. The games would take place on the Thursday and Friday of Whitsun usually lying in mid June or late May. These games took place in the amphitheatre of a hill fort called now Dover’s hill. One of the features of the custom would be the erection a wooden Dover’s castle where small cannons would be fired to start the event off and fireworks at the end.

The custom soon attracted fame. Prince Rupert is reported to have attended the Games in 1636 and at the same time a collection of poems celebrating it was also produced called Annalia Dubrensia (Annals of Dover). The poetry called it “an occasion of social harmony and communal joy” and was written by noted poets Thomas Randolph, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood and Michael Drayton. The common theme was that the games were celebrating and reviving English social life, stating that it was peaceful and well behaved and contradicted views that it allowed “drunken behaviour and sexual licence”. By this time the Games had acquired their title of “Olimpicks” which was approved by Dover especially as it secularised the events. It is thought that because Dover was brought up in a Catholic family he was reluctant of course to let people know and make people especially Puritans to think he had revived the pre-Reformation church ale.

The games outlived their founder – although there has been some debate that he may not have founded it but re-founded it. This was despite some disapproval of the event from 17th Century Puritans who disliked the event being associated with Whitsun and many local landowners forbade their workers to attend it. As the custom had support from James I, it was perhaps not that surprising and especially when the English Civil war broke out it was stopped.

However, you cannot keep a great custom down, especially one which was centred around fun and frivolities and thus coming of the Restoration it too was restored. Sadly Robert died in 1652 and so did not see its revival. It was his son Captain John Dover took it over, but he died in 1696 and it based onto one of his sons , Dr. Thomas Dover.

Game over!

However, the Games were not secured, perhaps without its guiding hand, they soon become associated with drunk and disorderly behaviour. Despite Thomas’s great interest in his grandfather’s Games, by this time he had moved away and let the organisation be done by others only having an honorary presidential capacity.  After his death in 1742 the Games were held a further 220 times over the intervening years through various promoters gaining the name Dover’s games although the family had no longer an association.  Poet William Somerville described it in 1740 as “just another drunken country festival” where chairs, and forms, and battered bowls are hurled/With fell intent; like bombs the bottles fly” and writer Richard Graves in the Spiritual Quixote of 1773 as a “heathenish assembly’ with: “six young women began to exhibit themselves before the whole assembly, in a dress hardly reconcilable to the rules of decency.”

After Thomas. Dover’s death in 1742 the Games continued under a variety of promoters, right through the 18th as this advert from 1812 states:

“On Thursday in Whit-week, On that Highly-renowned and universally admired spot called Dover’s Hill, Near Chipping Campden. Glos. The sports will commence with a grand match of Backswords for a purse of guineas, To be played by 9 or 7 men on a side. Each side must appear in the ring by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Or 15s. each pair will be given for as many as will play. Wrestling for belts and others prizes. Also Jumping in bags and dancing. And a Jingling Match for 10s. 6d. As well as divers others of celebrated Cotswold and Olympic games, for which this annual meeting, has been famed for centuries.”

By 1845 the reputation of the Games was calling for their demise. The local rector Reverend Geoffrey Drinkwater Bourne, claimed that the 300000 attendees were all drunk and disorderly and that it attracted the lowest scum between Birmingham and Oxford. The event by that point was organised by local publican, William Drury, who would have been very keen to get alcohol sold there in return for his £5 fee for the event. It may have been that there were underlying reasons for local people to have it curtailed as the hill which was common land and oddly enough the consent for enclosure was given to the very same rector in 1850. Lo and behold in 1852 it was stopped this was despite very little record in court papers for any prosecutions associated with the event.

Thus by the time of T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1875) he reports:

“The vicinity of Chipping Campden was the theatre of the Cotswold Games, which, in the reign of James I. and his unfortunate successor, were celebrated in this part of England. They were instituted by a public-spirited attorney of Burton on-the-Heath, in Warwickshire, named Robert Dover, and like the Olympic games of the ancients, consisted of most kinds of manly exercises. The victors were rewarded by prizes, distributed by the institutor, who, arrayed in a discarded habit of James’, superintended the games in person for many years. The meetings were annually held on Whitsun Thursday, and were frequently attended by an immense number of people.”

It was a dead custom the land was portioned by local land owners and enclosed. Dover’s hill might change forever and with it gone his games

Back to the game

The way back to its survival happened when fortunately the land was acquired by the National Trust opening up the possibility of public access to what had become known as Dover’s Hill. Then in 1951 someone thought of reviving the games for the Festival of Britain, amazing just under 100 years since its cancelation. However, its celebration again was sporadic; foot and mouth disease in 1952, the Coronation in 1953 prevented regular observation and it was not until 1966 that it was regularly organised. Its significance in the history of the Modern Olympics was recognised  by the British Olympic Association as the ‘first stirrings of Britain’s Olympic beginnings’ when they made their 2012 bid for London.

The organisers excellent website state the various games played:

King of The Hill One of the traditional events at the Games, this antecedant of modern events like the pentathlon involves individual competitors competing at 4 separate events (in the lower arena). These events are: Static Jump (jumping as far as possible from a standstill), Spurning the Barre (an old English version of the Scottish tossing the caber), Hammer Throw and Putting the Shot. The combined total for all four events decides the winner. Entries for this event open at 6.30pm on the night of the Games. Entry is open to all adults over 16.

 Championship of the Hill A true crowd pleaser! The traditional team challenges of ancient rural Games, updated for the 21st century! Teams of 6 participents (many from local pubs or other groups) compete against each other in a series of ever-more-frantic, and ever-wetter games! These games vary from year to year, but generally include relays involving wheebarrows, dustbins, hay bales, slippery running surfaces and lots of water!  Very limited team entries are available for this event, but you must notify us beforehand. We reserve the right to refuse entry if this event reaches its maximum of 6 teams.

 Running Races After a few years’ absence, the running races will be back this year.  The course will be entirely cross country and entirely on Dover’s Hill.  There will be a 1 lap (c. 1 mile) and a 3 lap (c. 3 miles) race.  

 Tug O’ War One of the traditional rural sports, (and former Olympic sport), and still taken very seriously. Teams of 8 people pit their strength against opposing teams, in a series of ‘pulls’ culminating in a final in front of Dover’s Castle on the Lower Arena. A limited number of team entries may be available. Please let us know your intention to enter before the Games.”

and then finally the most famed:

“Shin Kicking The media’s favourite (for some strange reason!). One of the sports which took place in 1612, and we’re still doing it to this day (although we’ve made it a bit safer since those days – Steel toe caps are banned, and we allow the use of straw to pad shins).”

This later as they suggest has taken on a life of its own and indeed could be seen as a custom within a custom.

Game set and match

I experience the Cotswold Olympicks back in the mid 1990s. Chipping Camden is a delightful village and the modern Cotswold Olympicks as they are now known is a great addition. Like the origin games, Robert Dover dressed in his ceremonial coat, hat, feather and ruff (the original a donation of James I) albeit this is now an actor starts the event. He then rides in to ceremonious applause. A reconstruction of Dover’s castle is set up on the hill’s amphitheatre. The event started with some Morris dancers – Chipping Camden a traditional team – although there was no real evidence the Morris were originally involved but they sort of come with every rural event these days.

There was a real fun atmosphere there and watching the events was both exciting and amusing. For those who miss It’s a knockout its zaniness and bizzareness will be very familiar. Special interest was the shin-kicking event of course and although no days its much safer the contestants – perhaps I should say combatants – there was determination on their faces. After adorning their white coats and stuffing their socks with a shin pad and then with straw and then more staff and even more straw they were off. It was intense and rather comical as so stuffed with straw a number of times they went to take a kick and fell over together. The competition was difficult to work out who was winning to be honest as they held on to each other and started kicking – it was like a weird ballet! Their coats being more and more dirty until one fell and they were the winner!

The event ended with a huge bonfire being lit and we were all given wooden torches and encouraged to light them. A horn sounded and we were encouraged to start our journey down into the town and as it swayed through the streets in the darkness a dragon on light. It was a magical ending to a great revived event.

Custom contrived: Broadstairs’ Dicken’s festival, Kent

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Broadstairs is one of those old fashioned genteel seaside towns, with picturesque views across the beach one can just imagine genteel Victorian ladies and gentlemen promenading along the road overlooking the bay. Well one does not have to imagine it come June time and one can see them!

What the Dickens?

Charles Dickens one great Victorian writer stayed in 1837 when he was 21 after the fame of Pickwick Papers, lodging at 12 High Street. After writing this he purchased a house, now part of the Royal Albion Hotel, where he finished Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens clearly loved the place he stayed at Lawn House where he wrote part of Barnaby Rudge and then finally Fort House. Here he wrote three works ‘David Copperfield’, ’The Haunted Man’ and ‘American notes’. He visited Broadstairs for many holidays finally writing ‘Our English Watering Place’ his homage to the town in August 1852.

Great expectations

With such an affection shown for the town it was not surprising that there was a great proud and love for the writer such that in 1937 a Broadstairs Dicken’s Fellowship was formed. Gladys Waterer, the resident of Dicken’s House then had the idea of celebrating the 100th anniversary of his first arrival in the town. This consisted on putting an production of David Copperfield which was advertised via people dressed in Victorian dress. Such was the Dicken’s festival born. It has continued with the exception of the World Wars and the Coronavirus ever since with some Victorian themes added to it. The fun includes readings, a Dickensian cricket match, a Victorian bathing party, and vaudeville acts.

Christopher Trent in his 1966 Festivals and events in Britain records:

“The centre piece of the week’s celebration is the performance of a play adapted from one of the novelist’s works. In Miss Waterer’s own words: ‘The festival is unique that it is the only Dicken’s festival in Europe. It is a completely local effort. The whole town joins in. In 1936 we put on the first Dickens play. After the war I wrote Christmas Carol and that was really the start’ It was a very good start.”

Of course other Dicken’s festivals have developed over the years such as Rochester, doubtlessly based on Broadstairs’ success

Trent continues:

“For many years a different play was staged each year. In 1964 the wheel turned full circle and a Christmas carol was staged again. In 1965 Our Mutual friend. The players are members of the Broadstairs Dickens Players’ society.”

The plays take up a considerable amount of dedication as he continues:

“the adaptation and rehearsals take on average nearly eight months. The result is the modest Festival Theatre is always satisfying, throwing a new and original light on the novelist, who is still one of the favourite writers of hundreds of thousands of people, young and old.”

What begun as a play developed into fringe entertainments doubtlessly in some cases there to advertise the play, became more and more and more and more imaginative. Trent noted that:

“Gradually the scope of the festival has been extended, though the play remains the most important part. Bleak House and Dickens House are open to the public throughout the week. There is Dickensian garden party in the grounds of Bleak House, with prizes offered for the best costumes. There are concerts of Victorian music, talks on Dickens and his work and a Victorian exhibition. A festival dance s organized in the grand ballroom, and the proof of Miss Waterer’s assertion that the whole town joins in is well illustrated by the number of  shops and the number of people, especially shopkeepers, who wear Dickensian costume in spite the difficulty in modern times of moving about in crinolines! A stage coach on he front is a sign that the festival is in progress. It is a replica of a coach in which many of Dickens’ characters travelled, and in which he must have made many of his journeys to Broadstairs.”

Dolby and son and son and daughter and grand children!

In 2017 it celebrated its 80th anniversary and the press said locally:

“Expect top hats, bonnets and billowing dresses as the community gathers for events including the grand parade, Dickensian picnic and beach party. Other activities includes a traditional Victorian country fair and theatre production of Dombey and Son – the author’s novel follows the fortunes of a shipping firm, whose owner is frustrated at not having a son to follow him in the job, and initially rejects his daughter’s love, eventually becoming reconciled with her before his death.”

Over the 82 years the theatre productions were still a focus on the event. However, back in 1994 I arrived to see two of its more custom like events – the Victorian bathing and the Grand parade.

The former was bizarre as if I had been sent back in time only the camera and the boats on the horizon reminded me I was back in the 20th century as there on the beach ready to dive in a collection of people dressed head to toe in Victorian bathers. Although this was June the water did not look that inviting and warm and a head to toe ensemble might not be too bad an idea. They all rushed to the water to have a paddle and the obligatory photo and some slipped away. Other rushed headlong and dived in.

The parade was a much more spectacular affair and it was clear that a lot of effort had been put in by those involved. Fronted by Oliver Twist and Mr Bumble with his ‘comforting’ arms around him with a pipers band. Behind them every character Dicken’s fertile imagination had concocted appeared to be there for David Copperfield to Pickwick. A great entertainment could be had trying to name the characters and some had really gone to town even affecting their characteristics. There were a few non-dressed entrants like the Brownies as well which rather broke the illusion. Each carried banners and shields. One of the most impressive was the stilt walking ghost from Christmas carol! But of course the most were in Victorian day wear and one could even hear the sound of crinoline!

Custom survived: Helston’s Furry Dance, Cornwall

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“To attempt the Furry Dance without, for instance, passing in and out of the houses would be to lose part of the charm and novelty…. in other towns the so-called Furry Dance is but a travesty, which usually consists of a few straggling couples performing all sorts of grotesque figures…. If other towns and villages attempt the dance as an attraction, visitors should be informed that the traditional dance belongs to Helston, where alone it is correctly danced. ….it is an insult to Helston to compare the travesties of modern dancing performed to the old air with the real “Helston Furry.”

Cornishman, Thursday 26th July 1934

Many people in the 1970s may remember Terry Wogan singing on Top of The Tops – the Floral dance. For some unknown reason this one-hit wonder caught the zeitgeist with its catchy tune straight out of nowhere, but for folklorists and people down in the Cornish town of Helston – it was not so little known. It was based on the annual May time celebration that is the Furry Dance.

Hel of a stone!

Why does Helston dance on this day? The story is that many years again a fiery dragon appeared and dropped a large stone on an area known as Angel Yard. Over a hundred years ago it was broken up and people thought it might result in calamity. It didn’t and they are said to have celebrated their survival by dancing in and out of each other’s houses. In Feasts and

“A legend says this day was set apart to commemorate a fight between the devil and St. Michael, in which the first was defeated. The name Helston has been fancifully derived from a large block of granite which until 1783 was to be seen in the yard of the Angel hotel, the principal inn of the place. This was the stone that sealed Hell’s mouth, and the devil was carrying it when met by St. Michael. Why he should have burdened himself with such a “large pebble” (as Cornish miners call all stones) is quite unknown. The fight and overthrow are figured on the town-seal.”

Utter rubbish of course!

More likely that this was an ancient patronal festival, May the 8th being St Michael of whom the Parish church is named, feast day especially significant that it is started by the bell ringing of that church. A theory expounded by others and suggested by Henry Jenny in the Western Morning News of May 11th 1931:

“It is quite probable that the Helston `Furry` observances are a survival of a pre-Christian Celtic custom transferred, or fixed on, to the patronal feast”.

Of course there is no evidence of any pre-Christian origin either but it clearly is very old. The dance by going in and out of houses resembles many mainland European dances such as the labyrinthian dances of the tarantula and this area may have been brought over by traders and sailors.

Furry about

The custom though has little changed in 200 years, an account from Royal Cornwall Gazette May 1802 gives a typical description and suggests at this point a great age perhaps:

“Our Flora-day seems to have lost none of its attractions. The first hour of the morning was ushered in with drums, fifes and fiddles. Various parties proceeded to the country, where they ravished the gardens and hedges of their sweets, decorated themselves in the spoils, passed a few hours in junketing, and then returned to the town, faddying it thro’ the streets. About ten o’clock, the Volunteers, commanded by Major Johns, proceeded through the Downs, where after going through various evolutions, they returned, and fired three vollies in the Coinage-hall-street. The town now began to fill with visitants in their holiday cloaths; who with the town’s people, faddied at intervals thro’ the streets, and regaled themselves with their friends till evening.”

Faddying is a local term for dancing from country to town by the way! Little had changed it seems a hundred and 50 odd years as Folk Life and Traditions by E. F. Coote Lake in Folklore notes that in 1959 except the clock missed a beat:

“No 7 a.m. Clock Stroke for Furry Dance: But Helston band gave the signal From The Western Morning News, May 9, 1959 Helston’s town clock missed a beat yesterday, and made the Furry Dance late. The band was poised in the street ready to lead off the first dance of the day. The dancers stood in double file in the Corn Exchange, with the Mayor, Mr F. E. Strike, on the steps. All waited for the town clock to strike, for the rule is that the dances must start on the stroke of the clock but it did not strike. The M.C. looked at his watch and looked at the clock, and as time went by it became apparent that the town clock was not going to strike. Instead, a signal was given to the band. The first stroke of the big bass drum called out the time-honoured Furry Dance tune, and once more Helstonians went tripping and twirling along the streets and in and out of the houses, in the first of a series of dances that went on throughout the day, winding a thread of gaiety in ‘the quaint old Cornish.”

However, if ever there was a custom which was ultra-organised it was the Furry dance and I am sure the lack of the bell was a big embarrassment!

In a hurry for the furry!

Arriving early – but not that early as I missed the church peal and the early dances but just in time for the first Hal an Tow – the streets were still relatively quiet and gave me the time to admire the splendour of the doorways dressed in huge boughs and bouquets of spring flowers. The sun shone brightly upon them and they filled the streets with rich aromas. What was incredible was the array on show and the imagination (and competitive streaks) on show. It is noted by Cornish Feasts in 1886’s Folklore:

The week before Flora-day is in Helston devoted to the ‘spring- clean,’  and every house is made ‘as bright as a new pin,’ and the gardens stripped of their flowers to coming into the town.”

Understandably the Furry dance attracts large numbers of curious onlookers so finding a good place can be challenge however I positioned myself beneath the clock tower of the guildhall and awaiting. From here one could see down the street and beyond. Soon the bells run and the music could be heard distantly and then could be seen the promenade dancers in a sea of white at first and then black and pastel colours. First we saw the young children all dressed in white like first communion celebrants, their footsteps weaving in and out, the concentration showing on their face. Then came the adults looking for all the world like we had walked in upon an 18th century debutant’s ball or a garden party at the Palace. These were old hands and this showed in their skill, the dancing was balletic and hypnotic in equal measure.

I ducked away from the busy concourse to see the dancers down a quiet street nearby with no crowds and here I watched how the door opened a local house and the all danced in and the after some time inside begun to dance outside. The band all the time playing their tune.

The sun was shining – well just – and the flowers, top hats and ball dresses looked splendid. Helston Furry dance perhaps the smartest of all may day events and not a Morris in sight!

 

Custom revived: Hal-an-Tow, Helston, Cornwall

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On the 8th of May – the picturesque town of Helston becomes even more picturesque. Doorways are adorned with masses and flowers and everyone is dressed immaculately in readiness for the famed Furry dance. However, for the folklorist and customs enthusiast get there early and one can experience two customs on the same day – the earliest the revived Hal-an-Tow.

In Tow!

The earliest account of the custom appears in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1790 which is quoted in Charles Knightly’s 1986 The customs and ceremonies of Britain:

“In the morning, very early, some troublesome rogues go round the streets with drums or other noisy instruments, disturbing their sober neighbours and singing parts of a song, the whole of which nobody now recollects, and of which I know no more than that there is a mention in it of the grey goose quill and of going to “the green wood to bring home the summer and the May-O”: and, accordingly, hawthorne flowering branches are worn in hats.”

John Bickerdyke’s 1889 The curiosities of Ale and Beer records:

“At Helston, in Cornwall, on the 8th of May, called “Furry Day,” may still be witnessed a survival of the old May Day festivities. Very early in the morning the young men and maidens of the place go off into the country to breakfast. About seven o’clock they return bearing green branches, and decked with flowers, they dance through the streets to the tune of the “Furry Dance.” At eight o’clock the “Hal-an-Tow” (Heel and Toe?) song is sung, and dancing and merriment fill the remainder of the day.”

THE HAL-AN-TOW.

Robin Hood and little John, They both are gone to fair O !And we will go to the merry green wood, To see what they to do there O !And for to chase O !To chase the buck and doe O !With Hal-an-tow, Jolly rumble O !

Chorus:

And we were up as soon as any day O !And for to fetch the summer home, The Summer and the May O !For Summer is a come O ! And Winter is a gone O !

Where are those Spaniards That makes so great a boast O !They shall eat the grey goose feather And we will eat the roast O !In every land O !The land where’er we go, With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c

As for St. George O !St. George he was a knight O !Of all the knights in Christendom, St. George he is the right O !In every land O !The land where’er we go,With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c.

God bless Aunt Mary Moyses, And all her power and might O !And send us peace in merry England,Both day and night O !And send us peace in merry England,Both now and evermore O !With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c.

Hal an Two, or three or four

What appears to be a unique custom may not be what it seems. Research suggests that it was found in other Cornish towns. Nicholas Boson of Newlyn records that it was said the maypole was set up with the men singing “Haile an Taw and Jolly Rumbelow” in 1660.  

Hal – an Tow what it means?

One thought is that the word Hal derives from kalann meaning the first of the month which is changed to an H in some version and ‘tow’ means garland in Cornish. However, this is no believed not to be true as the tow is pronounced like cow and not toe and derives from the Cornish word ‘tew’ meaning fat. It is possibly that it refers to the eve of fattening time – ie the coming of summer!

What the Hal – an Tow is it about?

So what is Hal – an Tow about? To my mind watching it, it comes across as a way devised for the town to remember and teach its history in a lighthearted way. The song is associated with various tableaux of characters – Characters include Friar Tuck, Robin Hood, St. George, St Piran and St. Michael.

Knightly thinks that the custom, and the Furry Dance which takes place on the same day, is:

“a rare survivor of…the Robin Hood May Games once played from Cornwall to Southern Scotland”.

In Peter Kennedy’s 1975 Folk songs of Britain & Ireland

The meaning of the title is disputed.  According to one theory it is “heave on the rope”, an adaptation by Cornish sailors from the Dutch “Haal aan het touw” (“tow” is pronounced to rhyme with “cow” in Helston today).  

 But it seems a pity with such a Cornish-sounding title to despair of finding a link with the old.”

Sabine Baring Gould 1890 Songs of the West suggested that the Hal an Toe formed part of an old English May Games which included the election of a May Queen and King, Morris dance performed by disguised sword-bearing men, the Hobby Horse and Robin Hood and thus was a sort of Mummer’s play. The Morris association is suggested in Kennedy’s 1975 Folk songs of Britain & Ireland

Others think it might refer to the heel and toe dance of The Monk’s March, which is still danced in the English Cotswold Morris tradition.  

The work continues to note that Mordon stated that:

“has every sign of being a processional Morris dance even to the slow part at the beginning of the chorus in which, when its steps were still known and used, the dancers in characteristic Morris style would have spread out sideways for a few steps, waving their handkerchiefs before forming into line as before.” 

The first two verses are fairly typical of a Robin Hood mummer’s play song, with the addition of the invasion of the Spaniards remembering when there were many attacks on the coast such as the burning of Mousehole. The next verse refers to St George and the dragon, albeit referring to a Helston local variety perhaps. Interestingly it is believed that an additional verse by a noted Cornish poet, Robert Morton Nance in the 1930s:

“But to a greater than St George our Helston has a right-O, St Michael with his wings outspread, the Archangel so bright-O, Who fought the fiend-O, of all mankind the foe’

Interestingly, unlike other customs this indicates that the custom is more fluid then many and in 2005 the following was added:

“St Piran showed his care for us
And all our sons and daughters, O
He brought the book of Christendom
Across the western waters, O
And taught the love of Heaven above
For Cornishmen below.”

The last verse has been thought to possibly suggest a vulgarisation of the Virgin Mary, the Cornish word for ‘maid’ or ‘virgin’ being mowse like moses thus Mary Mowse, Mary the virgin, perhaps again it refers to Maid Marian

A similarity has been made to Padstow’s May Day in some of the wording seen in now unused sections of the song. Indeed there is a parallel between the character of Ursula Birdhood in their May song and Helston’s Mary Moses. Its singing at only the first and last place it is performed, echoes in away the Padstow’s Night song.

The revival

The custom was abandoned in the 19th century probably because it encouraged lascivious behaviour encouraging as it did the locals to enter the woods at dawn and collect boughs of plants with possible other diversions. Then in 1930 on the back of the Old Cornish Society wave of Cornish rebirth it was brought back.

Hal and back

I arrive on a Saturday when the sun was shining and the whole town sparkled. Map in hand I searched for the Hal-an-Tow’s first location which appeared to be a car park. Here a big crowd had assembled awaiting the players.  Oe read a proclamation and around them dancers covered head to toe in foliage, knights and a dragon. Following Hal an Tow is great fun and the players clearly are well practiced and take it very seriously as well as having great fun. Carrying banners and blowing whistles and horns they appear to be pushing out the evil spirits perhaps or waking up the locals for the main event! Their customs and tableaux are splendid and the dragon is particularly superb. The whole custom is very hypnotic and I you feel yourself singing along and the tune turning over and over again in your head…until that is your start hearing the Furry dance tune!!

Custom demised: Stilton Cheese-rolling Cambridgeshire

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“Maybe the sign should be removed as we can’t be bothered anymore.”

Mention Stilton and we all know what that means – cheese – despite the fact no cheese has ever been made there it was an important nexus point for cheese distribution. A delightful small town which has grown along the main great North Road – the A1 – feeding off the trade that has passed through it. It was an annual May bank holiday event until recently

Hard cheese

It is said that the custom was developed in 1959 as a response to the great artery of the town, the A1 being bypassed – great for traffic and concerns of pollution – but not great for trade. So local pub landlords thought how could we attract people to the town. It is said that one entrepreneurial landlord started rolling a wooden stilton outside his pub and eventually others joined in. The custom was not a constant calendar event near the beginning of its existence and was rather sporadic.

Soon however some structure developed for the custom. It would be done in teams of four all of whom would have to roll a wooden cheese from the Bell Inn to the crossroads at the bottom of the street. The rules being that all members of the team must touch the cheese at least once during the competition or being disqualified.

The competition developed into a knockout one with male and female teams, children and even wheelchair users having rounds. The prize? Stilton and beer of course! Around this would develop fun fairs, maypole dancing and the traditional fayre fair – a great day out.

A rind trip

I visited the cheese rolling back in 2001. There was a real festive feeling with everyone focused around the closed off area and cheering on the rollers. There were teams in fancy dress and some who clearly took it too seriously shouting at each other to ‘touch the cheese’. This was serious stuff and a sensible team would wear a decent pair of gloves! In the crowd someone kept shouting Limp Biscuits’ then recent hit ‘keep rollin’. To be honest it didn’t look easy and occasionally the large ‘wooden’ cheese veered off into the audience and the hit the railings nearly knocked over a toddler who was holding on . There was some real competition when the finishing line was reached with teams putting on the speed and hoping that the cheese was well behaved. All in all it was great addition to the roster of calendar customs especially in an area not well known for surviving customs.

Cheesed off

Then in 2018 this was announced

“After months of discussion Stilton Community Association has to announce that there will not be a Cheese Rolling on May Day Monday in 2018.”

Why? Well according to Raymond Brown in the online Cambridgeshire News article from 2018 stated:

“There are many reasons. Firstly, in recent years there has been a disappointing lack of enthusiasm for taking part in the cheese rolling. In 2017 there were only two teams registered. Eventually enough teams emerged, but to make a real contest we need 12 to 16 men’s teams and eight to 12 ladies teams. We have not come anywhere near these targets for four years. The young people are marginally more keen to join in, but it is no longer seen as “cool”.”

Cool? When has that ever stopped a custom? The article continued to list some of the regular nemesis of traditional customs:

“The team who ran the Cheese Rolling races retired after 2017’s event. No one has come forward to replace them. The working party who construct the course, organise the street scene and clear up (mostly non-residents of Stilton) are depleted in numbers and 2018 dates are difficult for them.”

This plus:

“The costs of putting on the event escalate every year. In recent years the event has just about broken even. Insurance is ever rising; we also now have to pay for waste disposal etc.”

The policing of the event is:

“There are serious security problems. There will not be a police presence, except if we pay a considerable fee. This means we have to employ professional security, both in the village centre and at the Pavilion.”

Sadly it looked like some of the popularity had attracted the wrong sort of interest:

“Public order is now an issue to be dealt with. In the past, Cheese Rolling had a reputation of a pleasant, family friendly day out. In recent years the atmosphere has changed and the issue of underage drinking has threatened our safety. This also threatens the livelihood of the shop and pubs.

“There is no solution to the parking problem which causes congestion beyond Norman Cross

“The disruption to residents of North Street, High Street and Fen Street has become less acceptable to new residents of these roads. Volunteers who help have been subject to nasty verbal abuse which cannot be tolerated.”

On their own each of these could be overcome perhaps but like anyone looking for a reason to kill something off the combination is a bit too much to stomach and so it was finished. One might ask is it still needed? Are there other reasons to visit Stilton or will it now slip back into bypass obscurity. Who knows – the organisers promised a return in 2019 – it did not – and so I think after the custom cull of 2020 it is very unlikely to roll back to existence.