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.

 

 

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.

Essex mysteries: Mazes and labyrinths

A Maze Festival isn’t necessarily something you come across every day. But Saffron Walden, the market town in North Essex where I live, has had three of them so far, the latest one of which took place only last weekend.

 

But there is some foundation for choosing such an apparently obscure theme to titillate tourists and locals alike – Saffron Walden, it seems, is alone in the UK in having two historic mazes within the town’s reaches.

 

The first is a turf labyrinth – even though it’s known locally as “The Maze” – located on the east side of its extensive Common, only a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of town. Built in 1699, it was apparently based on an even older version formerly sited nearby and, at an impressive 132 feet (40 metres) across, is said to be the largest structure of its kind in England.

 

The path, which is inlaid with bricks, is made up of a huge 17 circuits that visit each of the four small mounds at the labyrinth’s corners before winding itself into a higher central mound that used to be home to an ash tree – or World Tree according to the cosmic world view of the ancient Celts and Vikings.

 

The second maze, meanwhile, is a Victorian yew-hedge-based creation on the north side of town that was laid out in Italian Renaissance style during the 1840s in the lovely Bridge End Gardens – which, incidentally, were never actually attached to or designed around a house as is usually the case. So it’s a bit strange really.

Saffron Walden hedge maze
Saffron Walden hedge maze

But Saffron Walden now also boasts a third maze, newly located at the entrance to Swan Meadow car park and a stone’s throw from the local duck pond. Spelling out “Saffron Walden Amazes’ in box hedging, it includes eight finger labyrinths and mazes positioned carefully on plinths. And this new attraction was opened to great fanfare last Saturday by no less an individual than international maze guru, Jeff Saward himself, who designs, builds, researches and writes about labyrinths with his equally expert wife, Kimberley.

 

As to what the difference between a labyrinth and a maze actually is, this was revealed by the Festival’s keynote speaker, Dr Jan Sellers. Although now retired, she used to lecture in education and guidance at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where she helped create the nearby medieval-style Canterbury Labyrinth in 2008.

 

Anyway, to get to the point, it turns out that mazes have high walls and many paths to their centre, which means that their walkers often get lost. Labyrinths, on the other hand, have no walls at all and offer only one path that weaves, albeit by the most circuitous of routes, to the heart and then back again.

 

The idea, among other things, is that the twists and turns symbolise life’s journey but also require concentration to stay on the path. As a result, they help the walker to stay focused and in the present, quieting the mind and generating a kind of meditative state within, which nurtures the spirit in the process.

 

Dr Donna Zucker, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, is in fact currently researching whether labyrinth-walking can help to reduce stress levels among offenders, and whether indoor or outdoor labyrinth-walking actually proves more beneficial.

 

Labyrinth-walking

But I must say that, whatever the truth of it, labyrinth-walking certainly did something for me. I’d never tried it before, but I thought I’d give it a go when a canvas image of one was placed on the floor in the middle of the Town Hall’s Assembly Room for anyone showing an interest.

 

After taking a few deep breaths to let go of tension and forget feeling a bit foolish, I took my initial steps at the entrance point, putting one foot slowly in front of the other, heel to toe. And it was strange – as I travelled inwards towards the middle, it felt like I was leaving the everyday behind and moving inside myself.

 

In fact, by the time I reached the centre, I could feel wells of deep emotion that I’d previously not suspected. It was quite a revelation. But the journey back was no less symbolic as it represented (to me at least) the path back to the mundane, with my (rather turbulent) emotions easing as I went. An interesting experience, definitely, and one that I’d certainly like to try again.

 

Because I wonder if the labyrinth isn’t actually a Jungian-style archetype or universal mythic character found in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. The thing is that they’re symbols seen in faiths, cultures, countries and communities across the globe ranging from Europe to India and from Indonesia to the American Southwest.

 

The earliest one discovered was actually chipped into a rock face 4,000 years ago as a petroglyph in Mogor, Spain. But the Romans also used the design in their mosaic flooring, and it likewise popped up in many a European Gothic cathedral, including perhaps the most famous of all at Chartres in France, for pilgrims to wander prayerfully around.

Saffron Walden turf labyrinth
Saffron Walden turf labyrinth

By the late medieval period (1300 to 1500), however, the trusty labyrinth found itself morphing into the puzzle maze so familiar to us all today. In more recent times though, its use has expanded still further. Because labyrinths are often found to be calming, they’re increasingly being used for health and wellbeing purposes.

 

For example, labyrinth facilitator Kay Barrett and a team of helpers made a temporary structure of sand and LED tea lights for patients and staff to walk around during Mental Health Resilience Week at Addenbrookes, Cambridge, in both 2013 and 2014Pilgrim’s Hospices in Canterbury, Kent, also became the first such institution in the country to build a wheelchair-accessible, therapeutic labyrinth garden in order to benefit staff, carers and the terminally ill.

 

But for those without access to such facilities and who can’t walk one themselves, there are always finger labyrinths so you can trace the pathways using your digits as a means of meditation, prayer or just to relax.

 

In fact, Cambridge-based charity and arts centre Rowan specialises in manufacturing them to fund its activities. Its students, who all have learning difficulties, work under the direction of various artists and craftspeople to create these portable labyrinths out of wood, building up their artistic skills, confidence and self-esteem in the process.

 

And if that isn’t a great way to nurture the human spirit, then I don’t really know what is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Essex mysteries: The Dunmow Flitch Trials

Say what you like about Essex, but it is a county that knows how to celebrate its own, sometimes unusual history.

 

Take the Dunmow Flitch Trials, for example. Although they only take place once every four years in Great Dunmow, a small market town in north Essex, they apparently date back to the twelfth century, which makes them an astounding 900 or so years old.

 

And while I doubt the pantomime and light-hearted revelry of it all would have been particularly appreciated by peasants of yore, it certainly went down well with the present day audience last weekend, seated on plastic chairs in a marquee in Talberds Ley park.

 

The Trials are intended to establish the devotion of couples no matter where in the world they come from, who have been married for at least a year and a day. If, in the word of the Flitch Oath, they can persuade a judge and jury of six local maidens and six bachelors that they have “ne’er made nuptiall transgression”, indulged in “household brawls or contentious strife” and, most importantly of all “not wisht themselves unmarried agen,” they are awarded a flitch, or side, of bacon (basically, half a pig cut lengthways).

 

Dunmow Flitch
Dunmow Flitch

The Trials themselves, meanwhile, take the form of a court presided over by a Judge, in our case Dave Monk, who has been a radio presenter with BBC Essex for the last 30 years and played a slightly befuddled old soak. There were also four lawyers in full regalia, three of whom were actual real-life barristers and the other writer and witty stand-up comedian, Steve Bugeja.

 

Two of them were there to represent the couples or claimants, while the opposing counsel was employed on behalf of the Flitch, which stood demurely suspended from its wooden frame throughout the whole proceedings. The opposing counsel’s role was to test the claims of each couple and convince the jury not to grant them the bacon.

 

And so the entertainment began. It all kicked off with a lively procession of local majorettes, clog dancers, a town crier, the jury, barristers, a couple of big solid oak chairs and, of course, the Flitch, carried by burly local men or ‘simple folk’ in peasants’ smocks and straw hats from the Saracens Head Hotel in the middle of town to Talberds Ley.

 

Once in the marquee, my Beloved and I settled down to watch the two afternoon Trials (there are morning and evening ones too), one of which consisted of a couple who lived locally and had been together for 30 years, and another that hadn’t yet made their second year anniversary but who lived in Cambridge.

 

The older couple’s Trial was my favourite though. Soon after they’d first met, an event that he described as love at first sight although she wasn’t initially quite so keen, he’d been really eager to see her. So he tracked her down to one of several potential hospital sites (she’s a nurse) and left a pot plant for her outside the nursing station – his rationale being that cut flowers invariably got nicked.

 

But the defence for the Flitch construed that the real truth of the matter was that he’d stalked his poor Missus relentlessly until she eventually gave in and then got her hooked on drugs (pot plant – get it?). Needless to say, the couple lost and the Flitch won, but it was very amusing all the same.

 

Ancient tradition

 

On the way back to the Market Place though, it was their fate to make a walk of shame behind one of the two wooden Flitch Chairs – although they did seem remarkably cheery about it all. Luckily according to ancient custom, they were still entitled to a gammon (hind leg) of bacon, which actually seemed to morph into a bottle of champagne instead. But that was alright.

 

The second couple, however, who won their Trial in a well-matched contest of wits, were carried shoulder high through the streets on a Flitch Chair by the burly, local smock wearers. Once at the Market Place, they kneeled to take the Flitch Oath, resting somewhat uncomfortably on some stones, before the smock wearers all threw their hats in the air. And following the presentation of a certificate and bottle of champers to the winners, that was that – for another four years anyway.

 

Flitch winners
Flitch winners

Interestingly though, while Dunmow may not be the only place in Europe where the ancient tradition of rewarding marital harmony with a side of bacon exists, it is completely unique in still performing it – which it’s been doing on and off since 1104, it seems.

 

As to how the whole thing came about in the first place, however, the most popular story goes that Lord of the Manor in nearby Little Dunmow village, Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife decided to dress themselves up as humble peasants and beg for the blessing of the head of the local Augustinian Priory a year and a day after marrying. Impressed by their fervour, the Prior decided to reward them with a Flitch of Bacon.

 

On revealing his true identity though, Fitzwalter promised to bestow his land on the Priory on condition that a Flitch be awarded to any couple who could prove they lived a life of similar marital devotion and harmony. And by Geoffrey Chaucer’s day, the Trials had achieved such fame that he included mention of them in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in his ‘The Canterbury Tales’, a collection of 24 stories that is deemed among the most important in English literature.

 

The tradition lapsed for a number of years during the 1830s, however, as it was considered “an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood”. But by 1855, it was happily revived by Victorian novelist and master of historical potboilers Harrison Ainsworth, following the publication of his popular novel ‘The Custom of Dunmow’. This recounts the efforts of a local publican to win the Flitch by marrying a succession of wives in a bid to find the perfect one for him. Which is certainly one way of going about it.

 

But as similar traditions are found across northern Europe, I’d be rather more inclined to side with British historian, Helene Adeline Guerber as to origins. Her theory goes that it can be traced back to an ancient Norse custom linked to the pagan Yule feast, which is celebrated today as Christmas.

 

Although Yule is mainly linked to Thor, the god of thunder, lightning, the protection of mankind and, interestingly, fertility, it is also important to the god Freyr. He was likewise a fertility god and often invoked by married couples for his ability to “bestow peace and pleasure on mortals”. Incidentally, he also rode about on a wild boar called Gullinbursti.

 

As a result of all this, a boar was eaten in Freyr’s honour at each Yule feast and could only be carved by a man of unstained reputation. This, in turn, led to the custom of rewarding married couples who managed to live in harmony with a piece of boar meat. So it’s not a huge jump to switch boar for bacon.

 

And with that particular little thought, I rest my case.

 

 

 

 

Is Britain really a Christian country these days?

Although the UK still describes itself as a Christian country, it appears that a majority of its citizens these days simply aren’t.

 

According to a recent analysis of data collected over three decades via the British Social Attitudes survey, a huge 48.5% of people in England and Wales said they did not ascribe to any religion – nearly double the 25% who chose not to acknowledge any religious affiliation in the 2011 census.

 

On the other hand, people who identified themselves as Christian, which includes members of the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches, made up only 43.8% of the nation, the study entitled “Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales” found.

 

Wayside cross
Wayside cross

Stephen Bullivant, senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham, who analysed the data, attributed the shift to people who had been brought up in a religion no longer choosing to classify themselves in that way.

 

“What we’re seeing is an acceleration in the numbers of people not only not practising their faith on a regular basis, but not even ticking the box,” he told the Guardian newspaper. “The reason for that is the big question in the sociology of religion.”

 

As a lapsed Catholic who wouldn’t quite know how to describe herself if asked, I could certainly proffer an opinion on that, although I wouldn’t claim to be representing the Great British Public’s views in any general sense, of course.

 

Firstly, there’s the question of relevance in an increasingly secular society. At one time, priests and vicars automatically sat at the heart of the community as respected figures. But it seems to me that, as society has changed and drastically so since the 1950s – when incidentally established religion first started to go into decline – many of them failed to move with the times and think through what useful role they might play, simply expecting to retain their former status as a right.

 

Personally, I’m a big fan of liberation theology,  which is much bigger in South America than it is here, but is all about enabling social justice, human rights and helping to alleviate poverty. In my humble opinion, getting out there and helping the vulnerable and needy has to be more of a worthwhile goal than surrounding yourself with often elderly acolytes and pontificating from a church pulpit once a week.

 

Losing faith

 

But the goals don’t even have to be that lofty really – just focusing on pastoral care  and corporal and spiritual works of mercy for people across all faiths would be enough. At the very least, it would help, in many instances, to make spiritual leaders more visible to the (wider) communities they supposed to serve.

 

A second point relates to the fact that, as a society, we seem to have lost faith in the great institutions that ruled us in the past, preferring to go our own way and make up our own minds. As we’re all well aware, very few people trust politicians to do anything these days but create their own power bases and feather their own nests.

 

Trade union membership has also plummeted to just over six million from a peak of more than 13 million in 1979. And with lots of people you talk to, unless they happen to work in the public sector, it wouldn’t even occur to them to sign up. They just can’t see the point – or remember the seemingly endless industrial disputes of the 1970s with more than a little distaste.

 

Recent junior doctors' strike
Recent junior doctors’ strike

So it’s of little surprise, particularly when so many disillusion-engendering child abuse cases in both the Catholic and Anglican churches have come to light, that people are turning their backs on yet another traditional institution of behavioural control. The question is that, if these idols with feet of clay prove themselves less than worthy and close ranks to protect their own when public exposure threatens, why would anyone buy into their moral authority?

 

But there’s also a third consideration, which is linked to the last one. And that is, perhaps the time for gurus is over. While lots of people may be losing interest in established religion per se, that’s not to say they don’t have spiritual yearnings that they fulfil in multifarious different ways. And I’m not just talking about pursuing increasingly popular alternative paths such as paganism.

 

Instead I’m referring to everything from doing voluntary work in order to help others through to throwing yourself passionately into a worthwhile cause or tapping into your own creativity and painting a beautiful picture, for example. Spirituality means different things to different people and there are myriad ways to express it.

 

But ultimately, it’s about moving beyond the mundane and working with something bigger than yourself in order to help give your life meaning. And you don’t necessarily need a church to mediate that for you.

 

Special relics

 

Anyway, going back to Bullivant’s report for a minute to prove the point, it revealed that four out of 10 people raised as Anglican, the established or state church of England, have now abandoned their faith, with almost as many Catholics doing likewise. As a result, the segment of the population describing itself as Anglican has plummeted from 44.5% in 1983 to a mere 19% in 2014, with Catholics accounting for only 8.3%.

 

Although the study did not cover either Scotland or Northern Ireland, findings from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey published in April revealed similar trends, with 52% of the population failing to align themselves with any religious grouping. The figure compares with 40% when the study began in 1999.

 

So with all of this in mind, I must say it did strike me as a bit odd that the re-emergence in the UK of a bit of St Thomas Becket’s elbow from its former resting place in Hungary  would get so much national press coverage.

 

OK, it was the first time that the relic had been home for 845 years after the man it was formerly attached to was murdered by four burly knights in Canterbury Cathedral, where he was archbishop. He’d fallen out with his former good mate King Henry II and ended up being hacked to death in front of the high altar as they’d thought that’s what the sovereign wanted. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” etc.

 

Place where Becket was murdered
Place where Becket was murdered

In the process though, they created a martyr whose shrine became a magnet for pilgrims from all over Europe – a situation that in turn became the inspiration for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of our first works of literature written in vernacular English rather than Norman French, at that time the language of the elites. So far, so good.

 

When Becket was reburied in 1220, however, bits from his remains in the shape of bone fragments, scraps of clothes and the like were nicked and disappeared across Europe, with his elbow shard somehow making its way to Esztergom in Hungary. And there the relic has remained ever since, reportedly becoming a symbol of Catholic resistance under communism.

 

But at the end of May, it came back home for a week and toured Westminster Cathedral and Abbey, Rochester Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral and other churches associated with the 12th century archbishop to great apparent excitement – despite the fact that venerating bits of saints bodies has never been a particularly British thing, as far as I’m aware, even among Catholics. Instead it seems a much more popular, if rather macabre, activity of Southern European countries such as Spain.

 

Still, each to their own – not least because even scientists, despite their secular logic, insist on keeping relics of their own gods too. A lock of Sir Isaac Newton’s hair on display in the entrance hall of the Royal Society in London. Albert Einstein’s blackboard, with his E=MC2 formula chalked on it, at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. It all just depends on how you look at things really.