Following the Bear

Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival, 18th and 19th January 2020.

by Sophie Parkes-Nield

The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival has been on my ‘must-see’ list of calendar customs for years. A towering straw creature paraded through the freezing Fens in early January – what’s not to like? But for my uncle and aunt, who live in a neighbouring village, just outside Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, its presence for the last forty-odd years has barely registered. A friend-of-a-friend was involved they thought; was there some kind of parade? I enticed my uncle to join me on the morning of Saturday 18 January and we set out to find and follow the Bear.

The bright sunshine hadn’t staved off the cold and the fenlands were deserted. But, as soon as we crossed the train line and into the village of Whittlesey (or Whittlesea, in some quarters), there was the familiar tinkle of off-duty morris dancers, their kits concealed by layers, parking cars and weaving through the village centre. By ten o’clock, the marketplace was already full: of parents tired of excitable children, of course, but also by all kinds of other people: young women swaddled in faux fur and posing for selfies, a group of young men in flamingo hats already pouring pints down their necks. I started to tune into the crowds as they awaited the first appearance of the Straw Bear. Another group of twenty-something men – originally local, moved away for university and returned for the festival – were discussing the traits of Whittlesey people on the basis of the tradition before them. ‘As a biologist, I can only say that there must be something genetically different about Whittlesey people.’

The Straw Bear and his driver lead the procession through the narrow streets of Whittlesea, Cambridgeshire. Photo by Andrew Robinson.

The main event exceeded my expectations. The Straw Bear itself was fleeter of foot, dancing for its keeper in a much nimbler fashion than I thought possible for a human covered in and constricted by straw. Perhaps it wasn’t a human under straw at all; there really was no way of telling. As I lined up to have my photo taken with it, I couldn’t deduce which was the front or back and could barely contain my laughter. A little girl obviously felt the same as me. Waving her Straw Bear flag as excitedly as she inevitably had for Father Christmas only the previous month, she squeaked ‘It’s alive!’ when the Bear lurched towards her.

The procession following the bear was enormous. Folk dance groups made up the bulk of the performers – molly, morris, sword, clog dancers that would later give their own performances at landmark spots around the village – but also schools and other community groups proffered their own songs and tunes, choreography, banners and puppets in honour of the Straw Bear.

The bear enjoys the freedom to dance offered by the fields surrounding St Mary’s Church, Whittlesea. Photo by Andrew Robinson.

Though I recognised a handful of familiar faces from other events, this appeared to be a genuinely local affair, with performers and spectators from the area gathered together for a variety of reasons: to drink all day in the street with friends, to raise funds for a good cause, to entertain the kids for a few hours, or simply because that’s what’s done in Whittlesey on the Saturday after Plough Monday.

Behind me, a man asked his companion ‘Is this a traditional dance?’ We were watching molly dancers, throwing themselves around a square demarcated by traffic cones and tape. I couldn’t get a good look at them, but I imagined watery, red-rimmed eyes and tweed caps, waxed jackets. ‘I presume so,’ the other man replied in a strained voice. ‘I don’t know the first thing about it.’ And this epitomises my fascination for calendar customs. We turn out to our streets and marketplaces, our fingers turning blue in the cold, often to watch something about which we know relatively little: why it’s performed, for how long the tradition has endured. But we know how it makes us feel here and now. We like to see our neighbours, we like to feel part of something, we like the frivolity of a spectacle that suspends mundanity for a few hours. We like the silliness, the joyousness, the reverence.  And when the bunting is taken down and the straw burnt, we like that it will happen again next year.

Sword-Dancing traditions in Sheffield

The Grenoside Primary Team with their wooden swords, Boxing Day, 2019.

by Dr David Clarke and Andrew Robinson

The tradition of long-sword dancing continues in two suburban villages on the outskirts of the City of Sheffield, where the Centre for Contemporary Legend is based. Both are performed annually on Boxing Day, 26 December, at Handsworth and Grenoside and both teams have a busy touring schedule during the year.

The Handsworth team, recorded as early as 1870, were originally based in nearby Woodhouse but moved to Handsworth in 1890 as by that point most of the players, including four brothers from the same family, the Siddles, lived there. Cecil Sharp, founder of the English Folk Dance Society, visited Handsworth twice in 1913 to record the dance, taking notes and photos, which were included in volume 3 of ‘Sword Dances of Northern England’. The dance was traditionally performed throughout the midwinter months however in 1963 boxing day was fixed as a day of dance.

The eight Handsworth Sword dancers wear dragoon-type uniforms and carry steel longswords about a metre in length and perform at two locations each Boxing Day, first in the market square in Woodhouse at approximately 11:15am and then at around midday in front of St. Mary’s Church in Handsworth. Alongside their dance they also perform the ‘Derby Tup’ a mummers play associated with Christmas house visiting customs around Sheffield and South Yorkshire. The ‘Tup’ itself is similar to the Wild Horse of the Antrobus Soul Cakers another winter mummers play (see earlier post) and comprises of a head on a pole with snapping jaws and rams horns with a cloth to cover the performer. The play is accompanied by the singing of the folk song “The Derby Ram” and, also in common with Antrobus, other characters include a driver, Beelzebub, Little Devil Doubt and St George with the addition of a dragon (see below).

St George and the Dragon, St Mary’s Church, Handsworth, Boxing Day, 1997.

The Grenoside team consists of six dancers and captain who wear military-style uniforms of black caps, black and gold flowered jackets with red stripes, white trousers with red stripes and iron-shod shoes and are accompanied by a fiddler and accordionist. The captain carries a ceremonial edged sword and wears a fur hat which is removed in the ritual ‘beheading’ that takes place during the perfomance. The rhythmically complicated dance in which the circles of swords, held tip to base, remains intact requires a high standard of concentration and skill acquired through frequent practice. Although clogs are not usually part of longsword traditions, at Grenoside they add a rhythmic tramp that adds a certain magic to the performance.

The Captain watches on as the dancers weave in and out of one another without breaking the circle of swords. Grenoside, Boxing Day, 2019.

The Boxing Day performance takes place at 11am outside The Old Harrow Inn on Main Street, Grenoside. Before the First World War the team danced annually on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day and undertook extensive walking tours during the winter period to perform at cottages and larger houses in the surrounding district. An important aspect of the tour was the moeny collected which helped see members over the difficulties of the winter “Short Time” in the local steel and cutlery industries. On one occasion the troupe raised an astonishing £25 from the guests at Earl Fitzwilliam’s Christmas party at Wentworth. The walking tour has recently been revived as an annual ‘traipse’ around Grenoside village, on the first Saturday after the first Sunday in January.

This year the main team was accompanied by the Grenoside Primary team and visiting teams ‘Maltby Phoenix’ and ‘Six Jolly Miners’ along with a clog dance performed by Stephanie Besford. The dances were followed by carol singing in the ‘Top Red’ – the Red Lion public house.

Folklorist Cecil Sharp, who visited Grenoside in 1911 described how “at the climax of the figure they simultaneously and vigorously draw their swords across his neck, there is a grinding clash of steel, and the Lock is disentangled. So realistic is the scene in the actual performance, that when I saw saw it I should not have been surprised if the captain’s head had toppled from his shoulders and rolled to the floor!”

Grenoside Primary Team about to ‘behead’ one of their group, Boxing Day, 2019.

After the dance we were entrusted to guard the swords while the team revived themselves in the Old Harrow before all moved on to the Red Lion for Carols.

CCL’s Dr David Clarke with the Grenoside Swords, Boxing Day, 2019.

Photographs © Andrew Robinson 2020

Photographs and Fairies

CCL co-founder Dr David Clarke presented a paper on the legend of the Cottingley Fairies at the Royal Photographic Society Research Day held at Sheffield Hallam University on the 16th November 2019.

‘Francies and The Faries’ from ‘The Coming of the Fairies’ by Arthur Conan Doyle pub: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. (1922)

The story of the Cottingley Fairies is one of the greatest photographic mysteries of all time. In the summer of 1917 three images were taken by two young girls using a borrowed camera of tiny fairy creatures playing in and around a small stream in the West Yorkshire village where they lived. When these photographs were added to by two others obtained in 1919, they became the centre of a mystery that lasted more than 60 years, ensnaring many high profile figures who wanted to believe including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes who circulated reproduction of the photographs and in 1922 published a book about the mystery entitled ‘The Coming of The Faries’.

The legend of the Cottingley fairies continues to capture the popular imagination today.  There have been dozens of books about it, two Hollywood movies and numerous TV programmes and documentaries. Many original documents and photographs are preserved in the Cottingley Fairies Collection at the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds and the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford while other copies occassionally appear at auction and even occassionally on ebay.

Currently (June 2020) there is a damaged copy titled ‘Alice and the Gnome’ available for £600 on the auction site – shown below and available HERE

“This is one of the original Cottingley Fairies photographs. Less than 6 are known to have survived and they rarely appear at auction. Taken in 1917. The photographs were championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and sold at theosophical society events. Provenance: This copy was given by Conan Doyle to his close personal friend the Reverend George Owen and passed through the family. The photograph has damage as shown in the images, hence the low price. Undamaged examples sell for £5,000 to £6,000 at auction. Please ask any questions.” Item Description from eBay.

The Firing of the Fenny Poppers

Smoke and shredded newspaper drift across the Leon recreation ground in Fenny Stratford as six loud explosions are heard.

by Andrew Robinson

Every St Martins day (11th November) the windows of buildings across Fenny Stratford near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, rattle and shake while animals scurry for cover as six loud explosions ring out across the town marking the annual firing of the Fenny Poppers.

The Poppers are six miniature cannons in the shape of a tankard, possibly repurposed chambers for breach loading cannons, that are fired in succession at 12 o’clock, 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock in memory of the benefactor of the local church, Browne Willis. The event is organised and maintained by a small informal group of people most of whom are associated with the church and has been led for the last 30 years or more by Peter White. This small English custom, which currently attracts only a handful of people, has a continuous history dating back at least 279 years and follows a well-established procedure.

The poppers are first removed from storage in the church where they are permanently on display. Helpers and interested visitors gather in the nearby cemetery close to the entrance to the recreation ground where the custodian Peter White lays out a selection of materials on the path including newspapers, wood and coal for the brazier, hammers, wooden sticks and gunpowder. The poppers are then brought to the footpath and arranged in order by the numbers on their base. Small wooden pegs are then waxed and inserted in the firing holes before gunpowder is poured into the barrels from six small canisters containing the correct measure for each popper.

Compressing newspaper wadding to seal the poppers on the churchyard path.

Peter then hammers numerous sheets of newspaper into the barrels as wadding until each Popper is filled to half an inch from the top. Friends, spectators and passers by, pause to talk and often to help with the packing of the Poppers. Past participants are remembered and regular attendees catch up on recent news and renew acquaintances. Community news is shared as the Poppers are prepared.

During the preparation Peter likes to explain the history of the tradition in conversation with those present, despite most being familiar with the event. Often visitors are invited to fire a Popper and all who do receive a certificate. Occasionally a Popper is dedicated to an individual, usually someone who has recently passed away.

This process takes upwards of 30 minutes as each cannon is packed with newspaper.

The poppers are then carried the short distance to the recreation ground where small depressions in the earth are created for the cannons to rest in approximately 6 feet apart. A small rest, similar to a fishing rest, is placed behind each Popper before the wooden peg is removed from each in turn and a little powder is added to the firing hole.

Peter adds a small amount of pyrodex after removing the wooden pegs in the poppers prior to firing.

At the allotted time, a long, red hot poker is removed from a nearby brazier and carefully carried in turn to each of the chosen firers by a helper. The firer places the poker on the rest and lowers it until the end touches the firing powder. The charge is ignited, there is a bright flash followed by a very loud bang as the cannon is discharged and a shower of shredded paper and smoke drift across the recreation ground. After all six Poppers have been fired the poker is returned to the brazier. The newspaper which has been blown from the cannons is collected and thrown on the fire and the Poppers are carried back to the car in the graveyard. The firing is over within a couple of minutes and the spectators and organisers disperse to return in just over an hour later to repeat the procedure.

The hot poker is slowly lowered onto the popper leading to a sudden flash followed by a loud explosion and clouds of smoke.

The sequence of events takes approximately 45 minutes in total and was inherited by the current master of ceremonies when he took over some 30 years ago and modified over the years for reasons of safety and practicality. Whilst currently attended by only a small audience of approximately 20 people, the six explosions are heard across the community and the event is often covered by the local press and sometimes the national media.

This year I was lucky enough to be invited to fire one of the poppers and received a certificate to prove it. The experience didn’t last long but my ears are still ringing now!

A special thanks to Peter White for his hospitality and help.

Photographs © Andrew Robinson 2019.

On Photographing a Most Unruly Horse

by Andrew Robinson

I first photographed the Antrobus Soul Cakers some 22 years ago in the November of 1997. On this occassion I was disappointed with my results and was only really happy with one image from the evening, shown below.

The Wild Horse and Driver, Antrobus Soul Cakers, 1997 © Andrew Robinson.

The Soul Cakers enact their variation of a traditional mumming play at a number of pubs and other locations in the vicinity of Antrobus and Cumberbach, Cheshire over six nights during late October and early November as they have done for well over 170 years. Characters include: the Letter-in, Black Prince, King George, Martha, the Quack Doctor, Little Dickie Dairy Doubt, Beelezebub, the Wild Horse and his Driver who all travel from venue to venue in a mini bus.

The play is usually performed at four pubs per night between 8:30 and 11:30pm with each performance becoming increasingly raucous as the evening wears on and more drinks are consumed. The venues are crowded, with poor patchy lighting, where the performers constantly pace up and down, moving from bar to bar whilst reciting their lines. This makes photographing the event, especially with a manual focus, film camera, a challenge. Other photographers have solved this challenge by asking the performers to pose as a group before or after their performance. Of the photographs from the play itself, most, like mine, show the horse and driver.

The Wild Horse and Driver, The Antrobus Arms, 10/11/19.

On revisiting the event this year I had more success, thanks in part to the advantages of digital technology, and I’d like to think greater experience, however again my most successful images, like the majority of photographs of the play, were of the horse and driver. I realise now however that this is largely because, whilst the other characters quickly move on and off stage, constantly pacing up and down and around the pub, the horse and driver remain before the audience for an extended period, over 10 of the roughly 25 mins of performance, and during this time remain relatively still while extended speeches are made. This provides far greater opportunity to capture successful images than the earlier more fluid scenes of the play, aside that is, from the sudden crazed lunges of the wild horse, his escape from the bar and at times the pub and the attempts of the driver to chase him down and bring him to heel with whip in hand.

The Quack Doctor and Martha mourn the passing of the Black Prince, The Antrobus Arms, 10/11/19.

Another challenge for photographers, sound recordists and other observers in attendance is their non-invisibility and the performer’s lack of respect for the fourth wall. Such readily identifiable outsiders often attract the attention of the performers who intentionally pause and pose for their photograph, shout into their microphones or tease or taunt them. This I experienced myself on my most recent visit when performers would stop, pat me on the head, crouch down and pose in an exaggerated manner for my camera until I’d taken their photograph, much to the amusement of the audience.

The Wild Horse and Driver, The Antrobus Arms, 10/11/19.

Also present at these performances was a PhD student, who had been interviewing the Soul Cakers as part of research into disguise and performance. During the final performance of the evening at the Antrobus Arms the horse character pulled the reluctant folklorist from the audience and danced her around the room much to the entertainment of rest of the onlookers.

Photographs © Andrew Robinson 2019

Call for Papers – Deadline: 23rd April 2020

PLEASE NOTE – This Event has been Postponed due to Covid-19 – more info will be posted shortly.

This one-day symposium, hosted by Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Contemporary Legend, seeks to explore the influence and impact of England’s calendar customs on contemporary communities, and what their continued performance means for us today. We actively encourage dialogue between disciplines and areas of study, and welcome speakers from the academy as well as practitioners, collectors, participants and governors of English calendar customs.

Proposals should be 200-300 words for 20-minute papers, and please also include a personal biography of no more than 200 words. We also welcome suggestions for themed or grouped panels. Proposals and any enquiries should be sent to:

Full details on our EVENTS page or download a pdf HERE

Image of Castleton Garland Ceremony, May 29th 2019, © Andrew Robinson 2020.

Happy Halloween by Diane A. Rodgers

Folk horror is a sub-genre that has come to be associated with onscreen use of haunting landscapes and sinister isolated communities. However, it is often the use of folklore itself, with writers and directors drawing on myth and contemporary legend that helps to create an eerie atmosphere in the films and television programmes we love to spook ourselves with. In no particular order, here is a selection of some films using folklore that are personal favourites and ones to watch out for this Halloween. 

1. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), directed by Piers Haggard. 

An obvious choice to those familiar with folk horror, but for those new to the genre, an absolute must-see. Frequently cited as one of the ‘unholy trinity’ of folk horror films (along with Witchfinder General, 1968 and The Wicker Man, 1973), Blood on Satan’s Claw is my favourite of the trio. A cult favourite of the League of Gentlemen gang also (some of whom recorded an audio version this year), set in early 18th-centry England, the film tells the tale of demonic possession taking over a village. From the start when a deformed skull with bits of fur and an uncanny eye still intact are unearthed, strange events start to occur, including the village children forming a Satanic cult overseen by a cruel teenage girl named Angel. Superb Satanic ritual, murder and mayhem ensue! 

2. Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), directed by Vernon Sewell. 

Starring horror stalwarts Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele, this lesser-known cult movie features black magic against the backdrop of swinging 1960s hedonism. An evil sorcerer invites a young couple to his spooky mansion, with the lure of a hip party masking the black magician’s plans to sacrifice the young man to atone for the evil misdeeds of his ancestors.  Loosely based on a story by H. P. Lovecraft, the film features bizarre and erotic Black Mass ceremonies, spooky ritual masks, groovy 1960s outfits and possibly the best folk horror headdress worn by an evil black magic priestess ever! 

3. Dr Terrors House of Horrors (1965), directed by Freddie Francis 

One of my all-time favourite films, this portmanteau classic has everything: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Donald Sutherland, 60s DJ Alan Freeman and even national treasures Roy Castle and Kenny Lynch. Folkloric stories of werewolves, killer plants, vengeful disembodied hands, vampires and fateful tarot cards abound. My own favourite, however, is where we get to witness Roy Castle performing swinging 60s beatnik jazz numbers on his trumpet, embroiled in a tale of stolen Voodoo music! What more could you possibly need? 

4. Borderlands (2013), directed by Elliot Goldner 

This is one of the final two films in my list that the less you know about in advance, the better. Presented as found footage, it stars the wonderful Gordon Kennedy as a craggy religious brother sent by the Vatican to investigate supernatural goings-on in a remote West Country church. Pagan sacrifice and violent exorcism become entangled in the unfolding tale where events steadily escalate. The atmosphere is palpably thick and creepy throughout, haunting and with a huge twist in the tale – avoid spoilers before watching! 

5. Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made (2019), directed by David Amito and Michael Laicini  

Recently screened at Sheffield’s Celluloid Screams horror film festival, Antrum is a film presented in the spirit of mischievous movie genius William Castle, complete with warnings that, by watching this film, the audience accepts responsibility for any event occurring to them during or after the screening including “illness, injury, mortal danger or death”. The mini-documentary preceding the film explains that screenings of Antrum have their very own folklore and legend, being surrounded by bizarre incidents including the last cinema that showed the film subsequently burning to the ground. The cursed feature, in which a young girl and her brother attempt to dig a hole to hell, shot in 1979, reputedly vanished without a trace, and Else films have located the only known copy in existence. This is that film. I absolutely HAD to see this film. And I haven’t died… yet.  

Happy Halloween! 

Faux Horror Archive – 3

A rare example of the AIRFIX ‘Ghost and Ghouls’ series of HO-OO figures, three sets were released in 1972 with a further three planned for 1973 however they were withdrawn without explanation to be replaced by Robin Hood.

From the Archive of Faux Horror

Weird Derbyshire and Peakland – Richard Bradley

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.”

St George’s Day Parade, Deby (23rd April) – © Richard Bradley 2019.

“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…”

Invesiture of the Mayor of Rainow (July) – © Richard Bradley 2019.

“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.

Andrew Robinson, October 2019.