Ancient feasts and festivals still living on

It’s amazing how many remnants of ancient festivals and feasts still remain as part of the UK’s cultural life and mores – somewhat altered over the years perhaps, sometimes almost unrecognisably so, but there nonetheless.

 

As many of these events, particularly those of an agricultural bent, have their origins in the cycles of nature though, I guess it’s not entirely surprising that they’ve clung on, often by their fingertips. While most of us, sadly, have lost touch with the land, we’re hopefully not too far removed from her just yet to recognise her ancient ways and understand their significance, albeit superficially.

 

And as if to prove the point, the church at Thaxted, a picturesque little town not far from my home base of Saffron Walden in north Essex, held a traditional service dating back to medieval times a couple of Sundays ago to celebrate the start of the agricultural year. Called ‘Plough Sunday’, it’s always held on the Sunday after the Epiphany, otherwise known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, on 6 January.

 

Plough Sunday
Plough Sunday

In medieval times, the festivities consisted of the whole village bringing its sole ploughshare into church for a clerical blessing. But by Victorian times, when the tradition was revived, many farmers owned their own ploughs and so a representative one was chosen to stand in for the rest. Modern day tractors, meanwhile, are generally seen to outside – for obvious reasons.

 

But although the implements may have changed, the ceremony itself is still about praying for a good growing season and successful harvest, and is often accompanied by other rural customs such as Morris dancing. After the blessing, the plough was traditionally hauled through the village by a procession of people led by a Fool and a ‘Betsy’ – a young boy dressed up as a woman – who collected money from anyone they met and stopped at as many pubs as possible along the route in order to commandeer a drink.

 

And ‘Betsy’, it seems, is linked to a cross-dressing tradition relating to Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night marked the end of a medieval winter festival that started on All Hallows Day (now Halloween) and finished at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, who made his first recorded appearance at the end of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and who symbolised the world turning upside down.

 

Anyway, the following day was Plough Monday, the first day back at work for farming folk after the Christmas break. But Plough Sunday wasn’t the only agricultural church feast on the annual celebratory calendar.

 

Rogation days

 

Next on the list were Rogation days – the major one being held on 25 April and the minor ones on the Monday to Wednesday preceding Ascension Thursday. Rogation apparently comes from the Latin verb ‘rogare’, which means to ask – in this case farmers asking God to protect their crops.

 

Interestingly though, it is thought that the origins of the major rogation day go back as far as Roman times. It was then that the feast of Robigalia was held and a dog sacrificed to propitiate Robigus, a god whose job it was to protect the corn from nasty diseases.

 

The minor days, on the other hand, were introduced in AD 470 by Mamertus, bishop of Vienne in south-eastern France, before being officially adopted by the Catholic Church. First arriving on British shores in the 12th or 13th century, they were originally supposed to be days of quiet fasting and abstinence to prepare for the Ascension – although they later appeared to descend into raucous days of drunken revelry, much to the Church’s displeasure.

 

Mamertus
Mamertus

Farmers also took the opportunity to have their crops blessed once again, while another popular ceremony involved “beating the bounds”. Here parishioners indulged themselves in yet another procession, but this time around the boundaries of the parish.

 

Led by the priest, his church warden and the choirboys, they prayed for the parish to be protected over the coming year – a habit derived from the Roman festival apparently, which saw revellers walking to an out-of-town grove of trees to perform sacred rites.

 

Anyway, the next big feast of the agricultural church year is Lammas, the first traditional harvest festival of the year. Although of equally pagan bent, Lammas has much more of a Celtic flavour and took place on 1 August.

 

The word ‘Lammas’ itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘half-mas’ or ‘loaf-mass’ to represent the loaf of bread made from the new crop of wheat, which began to be harvested at that time. But the festival was originally known as Lughnasadh in Ireland at least after Lugh, the Sun King and god of Light. In England, he was also known as John Barleycorn, the harvest god and living spirit of the grain.

 

The idea was that as the corn was cut down, so was John Barleycorn. By sacrificing himself, the community would devour him in the form of bread and live on. But because his essence was in the seeds, he was reborn the following year as a new crop, the first and last sheaf of which were considered vital.

 

Harvest festivals

 

As a result, the first sheaf was always ceremonially cut at dawn and baked into the Harvest Bread, which was shared by the community in thanks. The last sheaf, which was treated with equal respect, was made into corn dollies and carried to the village.

 

Here they were given ribbons and clothes and transformed into corn maidens following a good harvest or old crones after a bad one. They would be kept above the hearth in people’s home to ensure a good crop the next year, when they were ploughed into the first furrow of the new spring season.

 

Apparently started by the Anglo-Saxons, the custom was based on the belief that the last sheaf held the spirit of the corn. So it was sacrificed, along with a hare (considered a creature of Eostre, the goddess of Spring and rebirth after whom Easter is named. Her symbol was a hare and she apparently turned into one at each full moon) that had been hiding in the crop somewhere. As time went on, the sacrificing stopped though and little hares were made out of straw instead, before morphing over time into the aforementioned corn dollies.

 

Eostre's hare
Eostre’s hare

Anyway, last but not least is the second Harvest festival of the year (the third being Samhain on 31 October), which is held on the Sunday closest to the Harvest Moon – the full one that occurs around the time of the autumn equinox on 22 or 23 September. Also known as Michaelmas due to the cult of St Michael the Archangel (the one who fought against Lucifer and his evil band of angels), which took hold during the 5th century, it is associated with the start of autumn.

 

But because Michaelmas is the time that darker nights and cold days begin, its celebration was about invoking the Archangel’s protection over the months to come, darkness being associated with the growing strength of negative forces.

 

Sometimes also called “Goose Day”, it was traditional to eat a well-fattened bird fed on the stubble from the newly-harvested fields in order to protect against penury over the year ahead. Goose fairs were common too and, in fact, Nottingham still holds one each year in early October.

 

But in Protestant households at least, the custom of Michaelmas mostly came to an end when King Henry VIII split with the Catholic Church, and the feast duly morphed into Harvest Festival. Here people went to church to sing hymns and give thanks, taking baskets of fruit and veg from their farms and gardens, which were then given to the poor.

 

And so, as truly amazing as it may seem, many of these ancient customs have remained with us throughout the centuries, somewhat altered over the years maybe, but carried with us nonetheless.

 

 

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Poppies: Lest we forget

It’s amazing just how much symbolism can be attached to plants without most us even being particularly aware of it.

 

Take the poppy, for instance. The first thing that springs to mind for many of us, particularly around Remembrance Day on 11 November, is the little paper flower sold by The Royal British Legion on street corners. The charity’s aim in selling it is to raise money to look after serving and ex-servicemen and women plus dependents in need of financial and other support – an activity that it’s been involved in since 1921.

 

But while the poppy may be a motif that we all know, it wasn’t actually the UK that first appropriated it as an emblem of remembrance/the fallen, hope/rebirth, war/death (delete as applicable). It was in fact one Moina Michael, a US-based professor at the University of Georgia who began making and selling a silk version of the flowers after war had ended in 1918 to raise money for wounded armed forces’ veterans.

 

She had read and been moved by the now famous First World War poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ written by Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, after it was printed anonymously in the UK’s Punch magazine and reprinted around the world. Although up for debate, it is most commonly held that McCrae wrote the work on losing a friend in Ypres in Belgium while tending to the sick, after seeing a carpet of beautiful corn poppies growing in the churned mud of combat-scarred fields.

Poppy field
Poppy field

As apt coincidence would have it, blood red poppies were one of the few plants resilient enough to grow in the otherwise barren battlefields, representing in the process nature’s endless cycle of birth, life, death and renewal. And so these simple but poignant flowers came to represent the ultimate sacrifice made by those who perished in what US President Woodrow Wilson had idealistically named the “war to end all wars” – as well as the seemingly endless conflicts that have, unfortunately, followed since.

 

Funnily enough though, despite being such a poignant emblem for many Brits, the now iconic red poppy that was assigned its meaning by a Canadian and marketed by an American, was actually first brought to our shores via a Frenchwoman, Anna Guerin. She had worked with Moina Michael in the US and persuaded Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, founder and president of the British Legion, to adopt the flower as the organisation’s symbol – which on recognising its fundraising potential, he duly did.

 

But that is not to say the poppy hasn’t been without its critics. While for some the flower is all about family memories and the sacrifice of venerated ancestors, for others it is a symbol of death and support for war, of British nationalism, of oppression, abuse and atonement still to be made.

 

So it isn’t to everyone’s taste – despite the pressure to conform and wear one, particularly among those in the public eye. This scenario has led to widespread claims of “poppy fascism”, something you’d have thought was the last thing our late warriors would have wanted.

 

Political symbol?

 

So given the mixed feelings about the emblem, which like everything else these days seems to split the country, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the poppy, which has been classed as a political symbol by international football association FIFA, has been banned for use on the pitch.

 

The matter so incensed the English and Scottish football associations though that they chose to defy the ruling. Sending their teams out wearing black armbands embellished with the forbidden image on Armistice (Remembrance or Poppy) Day anyway, they vowed to contest the likely fine.

 

But it’s a testament to just how important these everyday symbols unconsciously are to all of us that, even in today’s prosaic age, wearing an apparently harmless flower can still cause so much angst. Interestingly though, the symbolic meaning of poppies has changed little throughout the ages. Often associated with ephemeral pleasures, sleep and oblivion, they have also been emblematic of new life and bloodshed since Ancient Egypt.

 

One of the most popular garden plants of the time along with cornflowers and mandrakes, in a culture that held to the Hermetic tenet “As above, so below” (because everything is interconnected, what you do as an individual will affect the heavenly spheres too and vice versa), they were also used in funereal tributes to the dead who, after a suitable rest, would be resurrected in the next life.

Demeter
Demeter

But the poppy was no less symbolic in Ancient Greece. At that time, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and harvest, had her beautiful daughter Persephone stolen by Hades, the god of the dead and the underworld, while out gathering flowers. Demeter, who was grief-stricken, searched for her daughter in vain, but as her unhappiness mounted, the crops began to suffer.

 

So to ease her pain and help lull her to sleep, poppies started growing at her feet. In fact, the Greek name for the flower to this day is still ‘nepenthes’, which means ‘potent destroyer of grief’.

 

While Demeter slept, Zeus, god of the sky and king of the gods living on Mount Olympus, visited Hades and persuaded him to allow Persephone to return to earth from the underworld for two thirds of the year. During that time, she would live with her mother, who would make the fields fertile again. But on going back to the underworld at the end of summer, the earth would grow cold and barren again reflecting Demeter’s winter grief.

 

So in this way, poppies came to be associated with regeneration, activity after sleep and the renewal of life, while their abundant seed heads represented fertility and the gift of life. Which is all very apt really – whether you celebrate Poppy Day or not.

 

 

Halloween trick-or-treating: Who’s fault is it anyway?

It’s always struck me as a pretty shrewd move on the part of Nature to try and compensate for bringing an end to bright, summer warmth and inflicting chilly autumn darkness on us all by putting on an amazing display of colour.

 

It’s certainly one way to limit the moaning from people such as myself anyway as we brace ourselves for the latest round of hibernal horrors. But after a particularly warm September and October, the trees have been late to turn this year, although some pretty yellows and the odd splash of red are finally starting to make their presence felt.

 

Autumn trees
Autumn trees

So a blog carried in the latest newsletter from the Woodland Trust, a conservation charity of which I’m a member, explaining not only why the leaves of deciduous trees change colour, but also why some autumns provide better spectacles than others, struck me as rather timely.

 

In a nutshell, leaves have three pigments consisting of chlorophyll, which is green; carotenes, which are yellow and orange, and anthocyanins, which are red, pink and purple. As the days become shorter, chlorophyll production slows down and eventually stops, which allows the yellows and oranges to become visible for the first time.

 

A layer of corky cells then form across the base of the leaf stalk in preparation for shedding, which restricts the movement of sugars back to the main part of the tree. After becoming concentrated in the leaf, these sugars eventually convert into anthocyanins, giving it a more red-y hue.

 

As to what influences the variety and intensity of these autumn colours, on the other hand, that’s apparently determined by the weather conditions. Cloudy and rainy autumn days tend to lead to a more muted palette. But a combination of sunny days, cold, rather than freezing, nights, and dry weather, especially if we’ve been lucky enough to have a dry summer too, are the secret to a breath-taking show.

 

As a final, little aside though, the reason that trees shed their leaves anyway is to enable them to preserve moisture in their trunk and branches, which stops them from drying out and dying. Being without leaves also moves them into a state of dormancy, which means they need less energy to remain alive during the cold and dark winter months – a state of being that I can completely relate to as it’s not hugely different from my own during the dread winter season.

 

Anyway, at least we’ve got spooky spiders, gurning, glowing Jack O’Lanterns and sticky, frosted spider webs everywhere to cheer us up in anticipation of Halloween at the end of October. I can’t ever remember people making a particularly big deal of it when we were kids though – Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes Night always seemed to take precedence really with its firework displays and “penny-for-the-guy” money-making schemes.

 

But lately, possibly due to the ongoing influence of US culture on all of our lives, you can’t seem to budge nowadays for small ghouls and vampires trick or treating on your doorstep. As to why they do it, it’s actually quite interesting, being derived from a much older tradition than you might think.

 

Trick-or-treating

 

The habit appears to have started with the Celts and their communal celebration of the Feast of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’ as in cow) on 1 November, which was also the first day of their New Year. The word ‘Samhain’ itself is derived from the Gaelic word ‘Samhraidhreadh’, which means ‘summer’s end’. But it was also the name of the Celtic god of the dead who, on his feast day, would call together all the souls of the wicked that had died during the year.

 

The Feast itself, meanwhile, was a harvest festival to mark the gathering in of the summer crops, but also symbolised the start of winter and the season of coldness, darkness and death. The Celts always celebrated their events the evening before, which meant that 31 October was the big night – and a time when the veil between the world of the living and the supernatural Otherworld was believed to be thin.

Trick or treating
Trick or treating

As a result, malevolent spirits and the dead were able to roam the earth, where they took pleasure in playing tricks on people. So in order to protect themselves, the Celts lit massive bonfires of sacred oak branches (oak being the sacred tree of their priestly class, the Druids) on hilltops in order to frighten the spirits away.

 

As an act of appeasement, the Druids also left them good things to eat, but disguised themselves as spirits at the same time so that the real ones would mistake them for being their own kind. Hence the tradition of dressing up as scary creatures and going around asking for sweet treats – a custom that morphed in the Middle Ages into children, and sometimes poor adults, dressing up in costume and going from door-to-door at Hallowmas, as it was known then, begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers.

 

This activity, known as “souling”, was often rewarded with a Soul Cake. A small, round, sweet confection flavoured with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and raisins and often with a cross marked out on top, it represented a soul being freed from Purgatory after the cake was eaten.

 

By the late 18th and early 19th century, souling had again transformed itself into ‘guising‘. Again children dressed up and begged for things like cakes, apples or money, but rather than offer prayers in return, they would tell jokes, sing songs, play an instrument or recite a poem.

 

And it was this practice that is believed to have been brought to the US by Scottish and Irish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, before changing its shape again during the 1920s and 1930s to become the “trick-or-treating” phenomenon we all know so well today. I can’t say that I’d particularly noticed that the custom had wended its way back home again until at least the 1990s or so, but it certainly seems to have taken root now.

 

So next time you feel inclined to have a whinge about American cultural imperialism or turn your lights off and refuse to answer the door to yet more “bloody kids”, just remember that we don’t have a leg to stand on really as it’s all our fault anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Essex mysteries: The secret Battle of Assandun

Who would have thought that one of the major turning points in English history – albeit one that no one knows much about – allegedly took place just up the road from where I live in Essex?

 

So just what is this momentous event, I hear you cry? Well, it turns out to be a lost, and almost forgotten, fight apparently almost on a par with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 in terms of significance. But this one’s known as the Battle of Assandun and took place almost 50 years earlier to the day in October 1016 – a vast 1,000 years ago.

 

As to why it’s so important, it just happens to have been the last in a series of battles between Edmund Ironside, King of England and son of AEthelred the Unready, and Canute, King of Denmark and of holding-back-the-waves fame, which resulted in the little-talked-about Danish conquest of England.

 

In reality though, the conquest had seemingly been going on for a number of years. While Canute’s dad Svein first invaded England in 1013 and took over great chunks of the place, Viking raids had been going on for 20 years or so before that, and the Danes had been raiding and settling for a good two centuries previously.

 

But ‘A Clerk of Oxford’ explains in his/her blog just why losing the Battle of Assandun mattered quite so much: “This invasion changed the history of England. If Svein [King Canute or Cnut’s father] and Cnut hadn’t wreaked such chaos in AEthelred’s family early in the eleventh century, the kingdom would not have been up for grabs in 1066, when William of Normandy decided to put his oar in – and no Norman conquest means an entirely different England.”

 

On winning the Battle of Assandun, Canute signed a peace treaty with Edmund, which resulted in him becoming King of all England, apart from Wessex (Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset) that is. Wessex remained Edmund’s – until he died only six weeks later, possibly of his wounds, although foul play was suspected, obviously.

 

But the Clerk also offers some interesting reasons as to why the Battle has slipped our collective mind so completely. Firstly, although the Danes told stories about their conquest, unlike the Normans, they generally told them to each other in the comfort of their own long houses rather than write them down for posterity. There’s also no Danish equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry, which is possibly the most iconic work of medieval art and was “almost solely responsible for popularising the most famous ‘fact’ about the Norman conquest, that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye”.

 

Bayeux Tapestry
Bayeux Tapestry

What The Clerk believes to be the most important point of all, however, is that “the Danes were a different kind of conquerors [to the Normans] – and arguably better. The conquest itself was violent (on both sides) but after a few years of bloodshed, Cnut became a king both English and Danes could accept.”

 

1000th anniversary

 

In fact, The Clerk continues: “There’s no evidence of English rebellion against the Danish conquerors, nor much sign of ethnic tension of the kind we associate with the aftermath of the Norman conquest….the real achievement of Cnut’s conquest was to make the aftermath of conquest seem fairly painless – and thus less memorable. As a result of these factors (and others), the Danish conquest has never attracted as much scholarly or popular interest as the Norman conquest. Its effects seem less traumatic, less long-lasting, and less well-recorded.”

 

But it probably also didn’t help much that no one’s entirely sure just where the real-life Battle of Assandun actually took place. My favourite contender though has to be the village of Ashdon in North West Essex, about four miles from my current abode of Saffron Walden. But there’s also another, generally more popular, candidate in the shape of Ashingdon near Chelmsford in the south east reaches of the county (boo).

 

Apparently historians have argued inconclusively over the pros and cons of each site for years, but the case for Ashingdon is as follows: After Edmund’s death, Canute apparently built a church to commemorate all of the soldiers who died in battle. This is believed to be Ashingdon Minster, which still stands to this day.

 

There are documents to show that Canute attended the Minster’s dedication with his bishops, and also that he appointed his personal priest Stigand to work there. Although the church is now dedicated to St Andrew (the Apostle), it was believed to formerly be dedicated to St Michael, an archangel who is associated with the military as he is said to have led the fight against Satan and is known as the defender of Heaven.

 

As for Ashdon, a couple of Anglo-Saxon wills clearly show that it was the original site of the Battle, and the church that was rebuilt in stone there in the early 11th century to replace an earlier wooden structure would fit perfectly with the time of Canute’s conquest. So who knows.

 

Ashdon church
Ashdon church

Just how I came to find this little lot out, meanwhile, is due to a series of events that have been widely advertised locally throughout the spring and summer to celebrate the Battle’s 1000th anniversary. We’ve had lectures, a couple of re-enactments and even a village picnic and hog roast in the village of Hadstock, which has nothing whatsoever to do with any of it as far as I’m aware, but obviously just wanted to join in the fun.

 

But it all comes to a close on 16 October, the day of the Battle itself, with a commemorative service held by former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams at the church in good, old Hadstock again. And then that’ll be it for another 1,000 or so years, I guess.

Newmarket: The home of English horse racing

There’s nothing quite like a day at the races – particularly if you happen to go to Newmarket, otherwise known as the home of English horse racing and birthplace of the ‘Sport of Kings’.

 

So to continue the ‘great British tradition’ theme that seems to have permeated my 50th birthday celebrations so far  (although that will change somewhat when we go off on our road trip to the American Southwest and the stunning state of Arizona), my Beloved and I took ourselves off by train to the pleasant rural county of Suffolk.

 

Once at Newmarket itself, we recklessly upgraded the free tickets he’d managed to blag and sashayed elegantly from the Grandstand and Paddock to the Premier Enclosure  – with more than a pang of regret on my part for failing to dress up a bit more, it must be said.

 

Drinks at the Premier Enclosure
Drinks at the Premier Enclosure

But as the action started and our luck kicked in, the smart-casual state of my attire was the last thing on my mind. Three straight wins off the bat, followed by second or third placements in the final four races – and most of them outsiders. Incredible. Certainly a good bit of birthday fortune there. Literally.

 

In fact, we made a tidy £70 profit for our trouble – not bad for a minimum bet each way of £2, which I’d misunderstood in the first place anyway, thinking it would cost me £2 rather than the £4 it actually did. Duh.

 

And the secret to our success? Instinct – or certainly more luck than judgement anyway. So unlike many of the serious race-goers there, it was all about going for the names we liked, or at least had some connection with. None of this studying-the-form-and-being-guided-by-the-odds nonsense. But it obviously worked, which is quite something if you’re as rubbish at racing as we are.

 

Before one of races, for example, after exclaiming about the greyness of the horses and how pretty they were, we found it was actually the ‘Pantile Stud Grey Horse Handicap’. At another, we were so busy looking for my Beloved’s horse which we felt had to be at the back of the pack that we completely missed the fact it had won – until it was announced, that is, and we nearly collapsed.

 

First horse racing meetings

 

We didn’t even choose our bookie based on the odds, but more on the fact she was a woman – a relatively rare entity in such a male-dominated world even today – whose queue looked smaller than the others but who seemed nice. So we thought we’d give her a go – and again it paid off. Despite having to fork out each time we returned, she was gracious in defeat, limiting herself to a wry smile and an “Oh, it’s you two again, is it?” through gritted teeth.

 

As for Newmarket racecourse itself, it was much more expansive than we’d expected, with not just one but two racetracks: the Adnams July course that we were at, and the Rowley Mile. But the importance of the sport to the town shouldn’t be too surprising perhaps as it turns out to be the place where the UK’s first horse racing meetings ever were held – as we’d know them today anyway.

 

Newmarket's July race course
Newmarket’s July race course

While it was the Romans who first brought the idea of horse racing to our hallowed shores, for hundreds of years it was a mainly informal pursuit that tended to occur on public holidays at big, local fairs and festivals.

 

The first recorded race gatherings didn’t actually take place until the reign of King Henry II when in the latter half of the 1100s, knights, earls, barons and other assorted nobility would apparently gather at Smithfield in London for a bit of bartering at the annual St Bartholomew’s horse fair to the sound of young men galloping around the open spaces of the square and park.

 

Although racing remained a favourite royal sport for another 400 years or so, it was James I who really started it on the path to what it is today, after interest had waned during the reign of his predecessor, Elizabeth I. In 1605, he happened to be out hawking when he came across the then small village of Newmarket and decided it was the perfect spot for a bit of racing fun.

 

In fact, James spent so much time at his new amusement that Parliament petitioned him on more than one occasion to get himself back down to London to do a bit of ruling rather than playing about with his horses  – the reason perhaps that the town is still known as the sport’s true home. In fact, the Rowley Mile, which as previously mentioned is one of its racecourses, still bears his name to this day. James was, it seems, given the nickname ‘Old Rowley” after his favourite nag.

 

But where royalty goes, everyone else inevitably follows and so regular race meetings started taking place up and down the country, and silver bells began to be offered as prizes. The fact that it was de rigueur for nobility and a royal must-do also led to the moniker, the “sport of kings” being adopted, which is still used to this day.

 

A great British tradition

 

The first racing thoroughbreds didn’t appear for another 100 years or so though. Interestingly, they are all descended from three Arabian stallions imported to the UK in the early 1700s called Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and most famous of all Godolphin Barb, which happens to be buried quite close to my home town of Saffron Walden in the tranquil setting of Wandlebury Country Park in Cambridgeshire.

Wandlebury Country Park
Wandlebury Country Park

Anyway, these stallions, which were known for their long necks, large frames and high tails, were mated with British mares to create a perfect combination of speed and endurance, henceforth making them the racing standard all over the world.

 

And by the middle of the 1700s century, horse racing had upped its game to such an extent that it had become a professional sport. Which led to various assorted aristocrats getting together in 1750 in the now-deceased Star & Garter pub on London’s Pall Mall to set up The Jockey Club in order to regulate it.

 

Their meetings moved to Newmarket a couple of years later, however, and it was from there that the Club set and administered the rules of British horse racing until 2006 when its responsibilities were passed on to the British Horseracing Authority. It still owns a good number of iconic British courses to this day though, including Newmarket, Aintree, Epsom and Cheltenham, all of which are important fixtures on the domestic and international sporting calendar.

 

Due to Britain’s former empire, which stretched its tentacles into so many corners of the world, meanwhile, horse racing proliferated around the globe. But while it transmuted into many forms based on different distances and track types, most of the breeds and regulations that control the sport are still based on our originals to this day.

 

And it’s still a hugely popular pastime here too. Worth around £3.4 billion per annum both directly and indirectly to the British economy, it is in fact the country’s second most popular spectator sport after our collective national obsession in the shape of football.

 

In fact, some would even go so far as to say that horse racing is an intrinsic part of our national identity – which truly would make it a great British tradition indeed.

 

 

Taking afternoon tea: A great British tradition

It’s difficult to think of anything more English than afternoon tea – or “low” tea as it’s also uncommonly known.

 

With its dainty sandwiches, melt-in-the-mouth scones and multitude of pretty confections, it really is one of our most noble British institutions. So I feel it’s my duty to give heartfelt thanks to TV programmes such as The Great British Bake Off for rehabilitating the tradition and restoring it to national glory after so many years spent languishing quietly in the parlours of maiden aunts.

 

And in honour of this ritual, which has such a special place in our collective hearts these days, I decided to dedicate one of several 50th birthday celebrations to partaking of its delights. So following a recommendation from my Beloved, we plumped for a family afternoon out with both sets of parents at Luton Hoo. The former manor house in Bedfordshire was formerly owned by the Anglo-Norman de Hoo family, which a couple of generations after the name itself died out, spawned Anne Boleyn of King Henry VIII fame.

Luton Hoo gardens
Luton Hoo gardens

Anyway, not to be confused with Sutton Hoo, a renowned burial site of Anglo-Saxon royalty near Woodbridge in East Anglia, the mansion with its stunning vista, originally landscaped by none other than Lancelot Capability Brown himself, is now an 18-hole golf course and spa hotel. And the rather odd name ‘Hoo’ is less of a badly spelled question, it seems, and more of a Saxon word meaning “spur of a hill”.

 

As for afternoon tea itself, although very nice, the wealth of tiny, rich cakes made it somewhat sugar-rush-inducing, which lost it marks. As a result, it failed to make it into the global top three carefully devised by my parents and myself over several years. After jointly indulging during various trips both at home and abroad, the number one slot simply has to go to the exquisite repast provided by the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, which was only enhanced by its discrete and solicitous service.

 

Next by mutual agreement came the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, followed by Tea at the Ritz in London, which despite the cliché managed only a (very worthy) third.

 

High and low tea

 

But it all set me to wondering just where this glorious convention came from in the first place. Interestingly, while the name itself obviously refers to the beverage that sits at its heart, its application appears to be of rather more mixed heritage.

 

At the lower end of the social scale during the Industrial Revolution, when working class families came home after a wearying day at their looms and factories, they apparently sat down to a table set with all manner of cold cuts, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and, of course, the drink of the day, tea. Because the meal was partaken of at a high dining table rather than a low tea table near a sofa or chair in the drawing room like the aristocracy, however, it was known as “high tea” – a name with which afternoon tea, or low tea, is all too often distressingly confused. And as might be expected, “tea” is still the working class name assigned to one’s big evening meal to this day.

 

As to the original creator of afternoon tea as we think of it now, meanwhile, that is believed to be one Anna Maria Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford and one of the young Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. Because the upper class lunchtime meal was petite and the evening meal distinctly large and late, the Duchess proclaimed that she suffered from a “sinking feeling” at around four o’clock in the afternoon.

Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg
Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg

At first, she had her servants sneak her up a pot of tea and a few dainty morsels of bread to tide her over. But as time went on, she adopted the habit of inviting friends to her rooms in Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, during the summer months to indulge in a cup of tea and a bite to eat at five o’clock.

 

Her menu consisted of bread and butter sandwiches, small cakes and assorted sweets – and the practice proved so popular that she transported it to London when she returned for the Season. There she sent cards to friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking in the fields” and her quaint idiosyncrasy was quickly picked up and emulated by other society ladies, making it quite the thing to do.

 

At this point though, I feel I must inject and clarify the difference between afternoon tea and a cream tea, which is something different again and is actually thought to be a much older tradition. According to local historians, the dish was actually created by monks at the Benedictine Abbey in Tavistock, West Devon, around 1,000 or so AD.

 

Cream tea

 

They had suffered their home being plundered and wrecked by a band of marauding Vikings, but Ordulf, Earl of Devon, sent some workers to try and sort out the mess. They were lucky enough to be fed on plates of bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves for their trouble – and so the Devon cream tea was born, although the bread eventually morphed into scones, of course.

 

Anyway, so popular did the cream teas prove that the monks continued serving them to passing travellers, which saw their fame only grow and spread – although such idle talk is, of course, hotly disputed by arch-rival Cornwall, which also claims the cream tea as its own.

 

But there is, of course, a significant difference between the two varieties: After breaking (rather than cutting) their scone in two as is correct practice, the good people of Devon cover each half with thick clotted, (rather than whipped cream, God forbid) before putting strawberry jam on top. In Cornwall, however, it is de rigueur to butter your scone first, layer on your strawberry jam and then complete the whole pretty picture with the aforementioned cream dollop.

Cream tea
Cream tea

On a final note though, there is, unsurprisingly given its origins, a whole raft of etiquette associated with the afternoon tea tradition, which I learned by strange coincidence only the week before my Luton Hoo jaunt from a speaker at a Women’s Institute meeting. Although my pearls of wisdom were to fall on deaf ears on the day itself, I nonetheless did attempt to appraise my recalcitrant audience of the finer points. These include:

 

  • placing your napkin on your knee as soon as you sit down, ensuring it’s folded down the middle into a rectangle shape, with the fold facing your stomach. If you have to leave the table at any point (not recommended), be careful to fold the napkin up and place it on your chair rather than just dumping it down on the table, covering your fellow guests with crumbs in the process
  • putting sugar in your cup first, followed by tea. Last of all comes the milk – a sign in the old days that you were wealthy enough to afford porcelain rather than regular china, which would shatter with the heat if milk wasn’t poured in first to cool it
  • stirring your tea by placing your spoon at six o’clock and folding it towards the 12 o’clock position, being careful not to chink against the sides and set everyone’s teeth on edge.

 

So as you can see, although such great English habits may appear to have been invented quite arbitrarily to confuse the lower classes, there is some rhyme and reason to them, no matter how obscure.

 

 

 

Durham Miners’ Gala: End of an era?

June and July are peak festival season in the UK. Whether we’re talking traditional county shows, extravagant food fairs or music fests such as Glastonbury, we Brits certainly seem to enjoy a bit of commingling once the sun pokes its head out from behind the clouds – or even if it doesn’t actually.

 

Maybe it’s something to do with those long summer days with their 15 to 16 hours of unfettered sunlight that compels us all to go out and about so much – before it all fades to a memory again over the winter months and we’re lucky to see eight hours.

 

Whatever the cause though, some of my fondest memories of these seasonal festivities relate to the “Big Meeting” in my home town of Durham, which is known officially as Miners’ Gala (pronounced Gayler) and is now hitting the ripe old age of 145.

Durham
Durham

Whether it was meeting up with friends at the Racecourse and making myself sick on the funfair rides or seeing my first punk on Silver Street with my brother and Irish grandma, I always loved it. It was heartfelt fun and frolics and everyone went, whether they were of mining stock or not.

 

By the way, just for the record, my first punk was a perfect specimen of the kind you’d see years later on those tourist-y postcards – green Mohican, red tartan bondage trousers held together with safety pins and nose chain-to-ear piercings. And the 10 year-old me looked on transfixed as he pushed his way against the vast flow of human traffic. Which was all very symbolic, thinking about it. “Don’t look,” my grandma said as if she thought it might encourage him in his “boldness”. But I did anyway.

 

As for Big Meeting itself, it was traditionally always held on the second Saturday of July. First staged in 1871 by the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA), which still puts it on to this day, it quickly developed into the largest unofficial trade union gathering in the UK – hence the name, “Big Meeting”.

 

At its peak, the occasion attracted over 300,000 people, nearly five times more than the population of Durham City itself. And even though the last pit in the county closed in 1994, it still manages to pull in a very respectable 100,000 or so, presumably as some kind of nostalgia or heritage event – although I must admit that I haven’t quite been able to bring myself to partake of its faded glory.

 

David Hopper

 

And who knows if I’ll get the chance again now. David Hopper, a hard leftie and good marra (a local term for friend) of divisive Labour Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn who he shared a platform with at the last Big Meeting, died of a heart attack only a week after the event.

 

But it was he who, as DMA secretary in charge of sorting out compensation for former pitmen, had organised the do for years. And it was he who more or less singlehandedly kept it going even after the pits went, creating “The Friends of the Durham Miners’ Gala” fund in a bid to secure its future.

 

But it was also Hopper who, controversially, uninvited a tranche of north-eastern Labour MPs to the official reception this year, branding those who had backed the Parliamentary vote of no confidence in Corbyn a few weeks earlier as “traitors”. They were also banned from sharing the traditional balcony at the County Hotel in Old Elvet, a place of honour from which union leaders, local dignitaries and Labour bigwigs had always waved to the miners as they marched past with their banners on the way to the Racecourse.

Miners' Gala
Miners’ Gala

Each pit village had a banner stitched lovingly by the women and, in the old days, it was paraded through the streets the night before the big day with the colliery brass band in accompaniment. Next morning, bright and early, the miners and their families – which was most of the village – would march behind said banner on their way into Durham, some of them half-cut and dancing despite the hour.

 

All the shops boarded up their windows, not only because of the crowds but also because of the drunks. The pubs were open from early morning till late at night and no traffic was allowed through the City.

 

It was a big day out and when it started, it was one of the few holidays that people got. The women would bake for days to have a picnic ready for the family, and they’d all spend their time at the Racecourse, which is actually one of the University’s sports grounds.

 

By the afternoon, the men would be down by the riverside milling around the podiums listening to the political speeches, while the women stayed with the children on the bank above enjoying the funfair, candy floss and good bit crack (good conversation, for the uninitiated). It was noisy, organised and eventful chaos, but all your mates would be there and you wouldn’t miss it for the world.

 

After the speeches, four or five specially chosen bands and banners would then march up to the Cathedral, our very own UNESCO World Heritage Site, for the Miners’ Service at 3pm. But the day went on well into the night too.

 

So we’ll see what happens now that David Hopper’s gone. Because without him, it could well be the end of a quite remarkable era.