An exhibition of photographs and ephemera at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery by our colleague Richard Bradley exploring “the fascinating folklore and curious customs that can be found throughout Derbyshire and Peaklands.”
“Derbyshire – and the Peak District, which spills over into the neighbouring counties of Cheshire, Greater Manchester and South and West Yorkshire – has one of the highest concentrations of calendar customs in the UK.”
“These encompass everything from rituals of very ancient (possibly Pagan) origin like the well dressings and the Castleton Garland Ceremony; to more modern alternative annual sporting contests dreamed up over a pint or three down the local pub…”
“Since 2015 Richard Bradley (born Sheffield 1980; raised South Darley and Two Dales near Matlock) has been traveling the area documenting these strange rituals. Living in a post-agrarian age, we have become woefully out of touch with the turning of the seasons. Whilst many of our fellow creatures hunker down and hibernate during the long, cold and dark winter months, we humans keep the electric lights blazing and carry on, some suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) ion the process. Could embracing the large array of annual customs, festivals and ceremonies reconnect us to the landscape and the natural rhythms of the passing year?” (exhibition text)
The exhibition continues until November 9th 2019.
If visiting the recently refurbished Museum the new ground floor display celebrating the ‘House of Wonders’ created by Randolph Osborne Douglas in nearby Castleton is worth a visit. Randolf and his wife Hetty ran the ‘Douglas Museum’ in their cottage, which was open to the public from 1926 until 1978, charging a sixpence for entry.
The display includes examples of Douglas’s silversmithing, miniature models and complete display cases from the Museum along with items from his time as ‘The Great Randini’ an escapologist, magician and friend of Harry (‘handcuff’) Houdini including drawings and descriptions of tricks he devised. In fact it was Randolph who showed Harry an upside down straitjacket escape, which became one of Houdini’s iconic tricks.
On the Saturday of August Bank Holiday weekend, along with CCL colleagues David Clarke and Richard Bradley, I travelled north to attend the Burning of the Bartle at West Witton, near Leyburn in North Yorkshire. This short, quiet, yet slightly macabre calendar custom takes place each year on the Saturday closest to St Bartholomew’s Day (24th August). The custom is reported to date back over 400 years (although the church records to prove this were lost in a fire) however first hand testimony exists dating back to the mid 19th century.
At around 8.45pm a small number of townspeople, holiday makers, visiting photographers and folklorists, gather in the half light of dusk at the point where Chantry Lane meets Mesnes Lane (A684) at the west end of the village to await the arrival of ‘Owd Bartle’. The Bartle is a straw effigy of a man carried by two villagers accompanied by a caller carrying a staff. The figure is made and kept in secret during the preceding week, dressed in trousers or jeans and a jumper and often wears a hat and a sheep’s wool beard. He has a Halloween mask over his face behind which two glowing bulbs are positioned to shine through the eyes. Some years the trio are accompanied by a visiting piper, masked and in disguise apparently to avoid any issues with PRS.
The custom has been maintained by at least three generations of the Harker family. This year the Bartle was carried by David Harker and Gareth Robson and the caller was John Harker. A Harker has carried for as long as anyone can remember, John’s father Alan began his Bartle making in the early 1950s while his grandfather Jack was a singer before him. David has been involved for over 20 years while John has been caller for 33 years taking over from John Spencer in 1986. Gareth is a ‘new recruit’ having started in the late 1990s.
At around 9.00pm the main road through the village is closed by members of the organising committee, who have been trained to do so in order to avoid the cost of hiring the police and to prevent irate motorists forcing their way through the crowds as happened a few years back. Shortly after a procession begins during which the Bartle is carried between his escorts through the village stopping at local ale houses (The Wensleydale Heifer, The Fox and Hounds and the Old Star) and with a number of villager’s houses. At each stop the execution party is met by the residents before the caller recites a short story in verse listing a series of nearby locations:
On Penhill Crags he tore his rags, Hunter’s Thorn he blew his horn, Capplebank Stee happened a misfortune and brak’ his knee, Grisgill Beck he brak’ his neck, Wadham’s End he couldn’t fend, Grisgill End we’ll mak’ his end, Shout, lads, shout!
The gathered crowd then responds with a hearty ‘Hurrah!’
The verse is said to refer to the chase and
capture of a notorious
sheep stealer, (or perhaps a pig or cattle thief) by local
farmers and his subsequent execution after a trail at the local village court held
on St Bartholomew’s Day. Others believe the custom to be an acting out of a
dragon myth linked to the area.
After the recitations drinks (usually a shot of whiskey or glass of wine) are provided to the escorts, brief conversations are held and the procession moves on. As the Bartle and his party approach the east end of the village they turn to the right up Grassgill (Grisgill) Lane and after a couple of hundred yards stop and the effigy is propped up next to a dry-stone wall overlooking fields. Health and safety have seen the introduction of barriers to keep the crowd at a safe distance and once all are gathered the Bartle has his mask and glowing eyes removed before being set alight. The crowd watches as the figure slowly burns while the verse is recited a further two or three times and traditional songs are sung.
This year there was a reasonable crowd,
perhaps as many as 50 people, a mix of villagers and holidaymakers staying in
the village along with those who’d stayed behind after a fell race held earlier
in the afternoon and a small number of people who’d attended specifically to
meet the Bartle.
This was my second visit, in 1995 there was no musician, no official road closure and no health and safety barrier at the burning site. In the intervening years one of the carriers, Alan Harker, has retired and fewer songs are sung for which less people know the words however little else has changed. Performed by just three people accompanied by a musician and lasting not more than an hour the custom is relatively small and quiet however the reciting of the doggerel and the sight of the burning effigy can tend to linger in the memory.
My fondest memory of my teenage years was the afternoon we were chased by hobby horses. It was a Saturday afternoon and me and my four friends were hanging around in our local town centre, as teenagers are wont to do, and the hobby horses – I remember one with a horn, more like a hobby cow than a horse, that moaned as you neared it, and another head to toe in tatters – saw us as fair game. ‘If one of those things comes near me…’ one of us said, and that was it. The hobby horses took flight and we barrelled into a nearby toyshop to hide. We cowered behind a stack of boxed Sylvanian Families. They were still waiting for us when we crept out, leading to another chase and this time, a chippy for safety. The staff were not amused and told us to leave.
As I grew older, I realised that this memory was perhaps not the most common of memories. And Banbury, my Oxfordshire hometown, not the most normal of places. When I reached university in Manchester, no one else in my halls had spent their formative years in a folk club listening to unaccompanied singers murdering ‘First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ or wet April days drinking on the green as the village’s Morris men leapt about the tarmac. I understood that I had been given a glimpse of the England, the Britain, that not everyone has the opportunity to experience.
I became fascinated by calendar customs and living traditions, and the music and lore at their heart. As I was researching my first book, Wayward Daughter, the official biography of folk music legend, Eliza Carthy, I was lucky enough to experience the Goathland Plough Stots’ day in North Yorkshire, and my experience of the Saddleworth Rushcart was one of the reasons why I fell in love with the area and moved there with my husband in 2015. Meeting collector, documentarian and archivist, Doc Rowe, also had a big impact. I was fortunate to visit his collection in Whitby as I worked on the marketing and communications for Lore and the Living Archive an exhibition of original artworks produced in response to Doc’s enormous collection of material relating to all kinds of customs. There, I found evidence and ephemera of the customs I hadn’t yet visited – and seeing garlanded figures on horseback and men wearing ancient antlers, touching the burrs that dig in to the skin of the Burry Man, hearing recordings of the tunes that accompany the customs year in, year out only deepened my fascination.
I wondered how I could
incorporate calendar customs into my fiction. In my first novel, my ‘practice’
YA novel (read: seen by no-one but my computer hard drive) I had my New Age
traveller characters hold a summer solstice ritual. In my second practice
novel, a time-travelling historical MG novel (and you wonder why it wasn’t
picked up?), my protagonist is processed through the streets as May Queen –
treacherous in the harsh light of the puritanical regime. And in my current
novel, currently being red-penned by my agent (thank the lord!), my
protagonists bravely participate in the Whit Walks beneath their dissenting
Customs, I found, were not only
fascinating to write; they helped me as a writer. Calendar customs enabled me
to bring a fictional environment alive (what is this place that does this
thing?); explored a character’s personality (why does this person participate,
and how?); signal to the reader what time of year it is, what type of society
this is… and, of course, it adds a little wyrd to proceedings, making
possible the impossible, the world turned upside down. A boon to the writer of
And, at the Centre for
Contemporary Legend, I have been granted a PhD studentship to develop this
further. I will be working on a practice-led project to write a novel with a
custom at its heart. No, more than that: with a custom as its spine, its
backbone. I will be visiting British calendar customs to see how they can be
(successfully) rendered in fiction, interviewing the real-life custodians of
these customs and other members of the community that might be, let’s say, a
little less enthusiastic about the strange occurrence that happens each year on
their doorstep, and critiquing the customs that appear in other writers’ fiction.
This is a dream opportunity for
me: the chance to devote myself fully to a writing project which have been
previously side-lined to evenings and weekends, but also to join a fantastic
academic community with mouthwatering ambitions of which I cannot wait to play
a small part. I have so much to learn, and I can’t wait to get stuck in.
And if you come across a calendar custom in a novel, a short story or a poem, please let me know! Tweet me @sophparkes. I look forward to hearing from you!