by Julia Ermert
Originally appeared in the ' Abbey Chronicle'.
Updated 11th January, 2015.
This page is part of COLLECTING BOOKS and MAGAZINES, Blue Mountains, Australia

I spent a few days in London, late May of I998, disappointed at missing most of the Bank Holiday folk happenings because Rupert had to go to Germany on family business, However, I found great consolation at Cecil Sharp House. I paid a visit on a rainy cold dreary Wednesday (not Abbey weather at all!) and managed to find the place with the help of a kind barrow-boy straight from EastEnders. Although it's by no means my first visit to CSH, somehow I can never find the right landmarks. When I arrived, the building was officially shut for the holidays and for redecorating, but the painters didn't seem to mind my going in and wandering about. Only the library was staffed, and the kindly young man, Malcolm Taylor, who is head librarian, is obviously imbued with the Abbey spirit. We talked about how hard it is to get reliable information about folk customs -- I wanted to attend Castleton's Garland Day ceremony later that week. It seems these things are so very local, no exact information is broadcast. Then he thought of a video in the tape library and offered to run it for me.

I went up to a little room piled with open boxes of tempting-looking books waiting to be sorted, and settled in front of the TV, The video, originally broadcast by Channel Four, is called 'The Future of Things Past.' It took about 45 minutes and looked at old village folk festivals and customs. All were filmed live, with good close-ups and an excellent commentary; I felt I was there. The commentary covered the philosophy as well as actual content: how re-enacting these customs 'gives the village a heart,' provides continuity and security in an ever-changing world, gives the younger generation a sense of perspective and keeps faith with instincts and deeper feelings. In many places, the festival is more important than Easter or Christmas.

Many fell into categories. There were the dangerous physical pursuits, for example, rolling blazing tar- barrels. In Northumbria, this is done on New Year's Eve, and the young men snatch the barrels from one another, their hands mitted in sacking, to shoulder them down the village street. Once their mitts are burnt through, they're out of the game. They may also scorch off their hair and burn their backs. Then they all go first-footing. In Ottery St Mary, they have to roll the barrels around nine different places before midnight. Cheese-rolling in Gloucestershire is not as hot, but just as dangerous in its way, as a large cheese marked with a black cross is rolled down an extremely steep hill and the young men scramble after it. St John's Ambulance is always in attendance. One young man interviewed was back for another try after being temporarily paralysed with a twisted neck, and his friend had broken his knee in twelve places. "The secret is beer -- more beer!" they proclaimed. The Haxey Hood Game in Yorkshire is another instance: a huge football scrum, like a beast with its own life, as two villages fight for possession of a chunk of wood, the goal being their own village pub, where the 'hood' is put up over the bar. There was once an actual hood, belonging to the squire's wife, Lady Mowbray. The referee wore a flowered top hat. "Licensed anarchy fuelled by beer," he called it. Bottle~kicking in Northamptonshire is similar. This has no referee, but there are unwritten rules, like not killing anyone!

But it's the shared experience that is important, rather than the winning. It's about male pride and self- esteem, physical danger, a kind of initiation, the burning off of surplus energy after a long inactive winter. It seems conventional hooliganism barely exists in communities that participate in these rituals, although they may originally have been boundary-marking exercises. Bounds were 'beaten' to teach illiterate people the boundaries of their parish. In one such ceremony, I saw choirboys in red cassocks and white frills following their gowned and mortar-boarded headmaster through Marks and Spencer's to mark the old boundary. Some festivals featured horses, or at least, men dressed as them. Horses once meant power and magic; men so disguised reaped some of this on behalf of the community. There's the Mari Llwyd or Grey Mare of Wales, a Twelfth Night custom. A man with cloak and horse's mask goes from door to door trading insults in Welsh with the householders, to a chanting tune. When one party or the other runs out of ideas, they go inside for mulled wine. The May Day Minehead and Padstow 'horses' are nothing like, but rather, weird clown faces topped by a conical hat with streamers, and a body of black tarpaulin draped over a boat- or drum-shaped frame. The 'horses' bow to, or chase, the young women, probably a blessing of fertility. Whether that's desirable or not is another matter! The customs bring stability to places changing rapidly from fishing villages to tourist resorts.

After failing to stamp out the old customs as 'pagan,' the Church now presides over many of them. The Easter Hare Pie Scramble is no longer that -- the vicar cuts up and distributes a big rectangular pie. An I8th century reverend tried to ban the custom, the hare being an old goddess-symbol, but found his windows smashed and and the dire warning NO PIE NO PARSON. In Devon on 5th November, the vicar presides while the bell-ringers turn a large boulder supposedly dropped by the devil on his fall to Hell. It's 'to keep old Nick away for another year.' But the stone was there before the church,

Perhaps in a cross between boundary- marking and the concept of the Biblical scapegoat, one man may undertake arduous duties on behalf of the community. The Garland King of Castleton in the Peak District is one, and I've written about him for The Abbey Guardian. At least he is able to ride around on a horse ... the Burry Man of Queensferry has a much harder time of it. He is clad in a balaclava and long underwear stuck all over with huge green burrs, crowned with a wreath of roses and girdled with the Scottish flag. He is so stiff, he walks with spread legs and outstretched arms, these supported by helpers, and can drink only through a straw. Like this, he goes about all day, and says, 'It's not easy, but it's an honour.'

There were more customs than I have room to talk about here. At least five hundred have survived Church disapproval, Puritan bans, Victorian sentimentalising and the dispersals of the Industrial Revolution. For others who would share Jen's excitement at seeing the Yorkshire sword dance, I heartily recommend this video. It would be available to anyone who liked to make the necessary arrangements. I only wished I could have bought a copy -- it almost made up for missing the real thing.

Back to main Abbey page and index of EJO items.

Back to Collecting Books & Magazines.