Customs and exercise
How well do you know your West Country customs? Do straw bears, Shrovetide, Flitch Trials, Hocktide, tree dressing and beating the bounds mean much? Well, they're all a routine part of our region's rich heritage.
And if, like me, you've never heard of half of these quaint, but interesting customs, then you'll be interested in social historian Henry Buckton's new publication, Yesterday's Country Customs.
The counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire enjoy many mentions. Somerset can offer us carnivals, the burning of the Ashen Faggot, wassailing and hobby horses, and Gloucestershire cheese rolling, well dressing and mumming.
"What we do know is that May Day has been celebrated as a festival in Minehead since at least 1465," says Henry. "The first recorded mention of the hobby horse comes from a ledger at Dunster Castle dated 1792, when it was invited to dance before the Lord and Lady of the manor."
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In fact, Minehead has not one, but three hobby horses, each of which has its own musicians and traditional tunes which have been handed down through the generations.
Cheese rolling – a hard Double Gloucester cheese is the choice – has taken place on the 1-in-20 gradient Cooper's Hill, near Stroud, for at least 200 years. A rough and tumble race downhill to bag the cheese, with injuries commonplace, it now looks as if this bit of fun, which attracts hundreds of spectators, may cease altogether due to health and safety concerns.
"During the Second World War, and indeed right up until the end of rationing in 1954, a wooden substitute was used with the actual cheese considered too precious," says Henry.
At Randwick, also in the Cotswolds, the cheese rolling is a much more gentle affair, in which three cheeses are blessed at a church service before being rolled around the church and then competed for by gangs of children.
"It's claimed that the act of rolling the cheeses wards off evil spirits, and therefore protects both the church and village from harm," says Henry. "Afterwards one of the truckles is cut up and distributed among the crowd. This might seem more Pagan than Christian, but it is thought that eating the blessed cheese will ensure the fertility of the congregation, and therefore secure the future of the community."
Cheese rolling also takes place in Chester – with a Cheshire cheese – and, of course, in Stilton itself, a small village in Cambridgeshire.
"Apple tree wassailing was first recorded in Kent in 1585, when it seems that groups of young men went between orchards performing for rewards – but of course it would have been much older than that," says Henry.
By the 1670s John Aubrey, the English writer and antiquary, described how, in the West Country on Twelfth Night, men "go with their wassel- bowl into the orchard and go about the trees to bless them, and put a piece of toast upon the roots".
"There are still many places where wassailing – the mid-winter blessing of the apple trees – is still observed," says Henry.
"The longest running event in Somerset has been held annually on January 17 (the old Twelfth Night) for the last 150 years at the Butcher's Arms in Carhampton. The land behind the pub was once a thriving orchard which was sold off in the 1970s for housing development. A few apple trees remain on the pub's property and the locals continue to honour them just as their ancestors have done for many decades."
The traditional burning of the Ashen Faggot, or sacred Yule Log, can still be found in some Somerset villages around Christmas time.
"The Curry Rivel wassailers keep the ceremony alive in the King William pub, and have done so for 150 years," explains Henry.
"In former times the faggot would be lit on old Christmas Eve (January 5th) and kept alight during the 12 days of Christmas. As it died down the wassailers would go to the orchards to toast the apple trees.
"Today the pub is the final stop on the annual wassail and the group returns here after several house calls have been made, during which residents are treated to the wassail song."
The Somerset carnivals, which started with a procession of floats in November 1881 in the town of Bridgwater, are still going strong today.
"By the 1880s elaborate outfits were already a major feature of the festivities – even spectators are known to have worn masks, which, in a way, enabled a certain amount of mischief-making," says Henry.
But the celebrations themselves, of course, date back 400 years, to the time when Roman Catholic agitator Guy Fawkes was caught trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament and King James himself.
Why was Bridgwater so profoundly affected by the gunpowder plot?
"It was probably due to the fact that most of the townsfolk were staunchly Protestant at the time," says Henry.
And what about Bristol, big brother of all the towns, villages and hamlets in the region? For a city that's over 1,000 years old, Bristol doesn't appear to have retained many folk customs, though it does, of course, have many unique traditions of its own. Perhaps it was always too commercial, too busy worrying about trade, to sit back, enjoy some time off, and let its hair down with a bit of singing, dancing and harmless revelry.
Perhaps, as had been said many times, it was the sobering Quaker influence.
It's true that Bristol has a May Day "Jack in The Green" but in truth both he, and his dancers, are of recent appearance.
Yesterday's Country Customs by Henry Buckton is published by The History Press at £12.99.