English Traditions and Ceremonies

Would you like to carry a barrel of burning tar on your back? Or perhaps you want to dress up as a straw bear each year? If so, then Anna Hallet is the person to go to for advice. Her talk to the Society this month delved into the nooks and crannies of our somewhat quirky English traditions and ceremonies, appropriately on Shrove Tuesday, when our City has its own English tradition to uphold.

Anna's talk, after our AGM, was a breathless sprint through a myriad of traditions and ceremonies, some undoubtedly of pre-Christian origin, some clouded in the mists of time. Why, for instance does the Honiton Charter Fair start with a leather glove on a tall pole, bedecked with flowers being paraded round the town to shouts of "the glove is off!"? It's then displayed for the duration of the fair. Not only that, but hot pennies are thrown into the assembled crowd. Likewise, Rye has a similar event involving hot pennies. Why? We can only assume that they were a substantial gift in the medieval period and well worth scrambling for. High Wycombe weighs its new mayor each year; and reweighs them at the end of their period of office. Just checking that they haven't been eating too well at the Council's expense, perhaps? Beating the bounds is perhaps a more well known activity. Although it can be regarded as a bit of "fun" these days, it had a deadly serious intent in the distant past. Woe betide anyone, particularly a child, if they wandered away from their settlement into a neighbouring parish where all sorts of dangers may lie. You had to be taught where your village boundaries were drawn. Beating meant that there could be a physical impression on the vegetation to help identify a boundary.

Many traditions involve much consumption of ale. Perhaps, understandably, as many were a "day out" away from the drudgery of work. However, there was a genuine reason to consume ale on occasions. Ale tasting, to ensure quality, seems to have been carried on in many locations. In Ashburton, Devon, the annual tasting is combined with bread weighing, to ensure the baker is not selling short weight. Mock mayor making events also seem particularly popular. Both Abingdon and Old Woodstock hold these each year. One of the most well known traditions is that of awarding the "Dunmow Flitch", a side of ham competed for every four years by five Dunmow couples who have to prove in a mock court of law that they have been happily married for a year and a day. John Neil of St Ives built himself a small conical mausoleum and wrote a complex will including amongst other things a requirement that 10 girls under 10 years of age dressed in white should dance around his tomb every three years on the anniversary of his death. Annual rents amounting to 49 pence each are collected for the Duke of Buccleuth from his tenants at Wryton-under-Dunsmore at sunrise on 11th November, the money being thrown into the hollow base of a former preaching cross. Then all present retire for a meal to, where else but, the local pub.

Many traditions are associated with the seasons, of seeking to bestow good luck on the harvest at a time when famine meant certain death. It was important to placate the pre-Christian gods. Many of these ceremonies were subtly converted to a Christian message, doubtless on the principle that "if you can't beat them ...". Plough blessings take place nationwide. At Ramsey, Cambridgeshire the blessings are accompanied by a straw bear. Hinckley ploughboys parade through the town's streets. A straw bear pops up again at the events at Whittlesea in Cambridge. In Herefordshire, the apple trees are blessed to encourage a good harvest with a "wassail".

Then we come to even more abstruse events, like the Haxy Hood day, puportedly based on Lady Mowbray's lost hood whilst out riding. A whole complex event has evolved over the centuries including "smoking the boggins" and the inevitable battle for the hood between groups from four pubs. Similar encounters take place at Ashbourne with its ball game and also at Atherstone. No plain balls these, but specially decorated items. We have bottle kicking at Hallaton, the bottles being small barrels, but not before the hare pie is baked! Padstow has its famous hobby hosses, which were regarded as fertility symbols. If a maid got under the skirts of the hoss, she would be pregnant within the year! A variation on the theme comes at Minehead with the sailors' hoss, which theoretically ends up in the sea. No one is drowned these days, though. On went Anna, through well dressing, to rush bearing (and its variation, rush carts), to tar barrel burning at Ottery St Mary and finally to mumming plays. Space precludes a description of everything Anna told us, such is the wealth of traditional activities which appear to be flourishing in England. Doubtless, her task of collecting these fascinating events will continue to occupy her time; there will be more to rediscover yet.

Roger Hockney
February 2015