CCL on Tour – The Burning of the Bartle, 2019.

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.

During the burning for a moment the flames and smoke parted to allow a glimpse of the burning straw of Owd Bartle’s head looking for all the world like a glowing skull peering out at us all. Photograph © Andrew Robinson, 2019.

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.

Andrew Robinson, Sept 2019.

Andrew, David and Richard about to hit the road after witnessing the burning.

Sophie Parkes-Nield – An Introduction

With Eliza Carthy at the Goathland Plough Stots in January 2011.

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.

Playing fiddle in the procession behind the rushcart at Littleborough rushbearing

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 Methodist banner.

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 fiction.

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!

Sophie Parkes-Nield

Sophie Parkes-Nield – 15/08/19

Diane (left) and David (right) with Sophie Parkes-Niel, the newest member of our team and the successful recipient of a C3RI funded PHD studentship in “Folklore, Contemporary Legend and Media” here at Sheffield Hallam University.

Sophie will begin work on her PHD “Writing the ‘Imagined Village’: a practice-led enquiry into folklore and fiction” in October.

“This practice-led creative writing PhD project seeks to place a folkloric practice, a calendar custom, at the centre of a novel to discover its effectiveness as a narrative device and interrogate the themes it brings into play.”

South Yorkshire Folk Tales – Simon Heywood

Our friend Simon Heywood has a book of South Yorkshire Folk Tales published by History Press.

“With origins lost in the mists of time, these lively folk tales reflect the wisdom (and eccentricities) of South Yorkshire’s county and people. Amongst the heroes and villains, giants and fairies, knights and highwaymen, are well-known figures, such as Robin Hood and the Dragon of Wantley, as well as lesser-known tales of mysterious goings-on at Firbeck Hall and Roche Abbey. These enchanting tales, many never before recorded in print, will bewitch readers and storytellers, young and old alike.”


Folklore on Screen – Limited Tickets Remaining!

The ‘Folklore on Screen’ conference will bring together scholars for two days of discussion about folklore in its many forms: its history, present and complex future in relation to cinema, television, photography, digital and online media studies. The conference aims to explores the meaning, import and relevance of folklore in the media and its representation, communication and perpetuation. The multidisciplinary nature of the conference is aimed at a broad spectrum of scholars with either a particular specialism in folklore or an interest in folklore studies as pertaining to their own subject. Featured confirmed speakers include folklorist and film scholar Mikel J. Koven (author of Film, Folklore and Urban Legends), television scholar Helen Wheatley (author of Gothic Television) and journalist Bob Fischer (writer of ‘The Haunted Generation’ in Fortean Times). Talks will present topics including: UFOs, hauntology, urban, digital and online contemporary legends and ‘creepypastas’, folklore in film, art and photograph, folk horror landscapes, folklore in British television and many more.

This conference has now passed.