Cheese Rolling

Falling down a cliff

HISTORY

In post-enlightenment society, with its strong emphasis on
recorded proof (to the degree that anything without a reliable paper trail is
considered a fiction), oral tradition counts for very little.  Yet, in researching the ancient sports and rituals of the British Isles, that is often all there is to go by.
One of the enduring mysteries of such rural traditions is that the most natural first
question of all – “Why do they do that?” – simply cannot be answered.

From the top
The village of Brockworth near Gloucester
lies at the foot of a sheer grass-covered scarp slope – Cooper’s Hill –
which is part of a larger geological feature sometimes called the Cotswold
Edge (the result of the uplifting of the underlying limestone layer, exposing
its broken edge as a cliff face).  For as
far back in history as anyone can tell – the ritual is claimed by some to be
pre-Roman – people have thrown themselves down this precipice, racing in
nominal pursuit of a wheel of cheese.

The cheese

Many see no need to question the origin or purpose of
cheese-rolling, safe in the knowledge that the sport is so aesthetically unique and eye-catchingly perilous as to require no logical
justification.  But it should be noted that rituals involving the
throwing of objects down hills (or over cliffs) are known to have dotted the
history of the more pagan-influenced communities in Britain throughout recorded
history, usually as part of a healing or exorcism ritual (similar to the releasing of a ‘scape goat’ in ancient Judaism).  For example, some contemporary wassails in Herefordshire still conclude with fires (lit in the tree branches to eradicate demons) being rolled
down the hill into the River Wye.

So, Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling may be the remnant of an annual cleansing ritual.  However, since the races were accompanied until recent times by the
scattering of fruit cake across the ground by the Master of Ceremonies – a
ritual known to have links to ancient fertility rites – social historians are still scratching their heads.

Scattering Fruit Cake

In any case, the roots of the event – formally known as The
Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake
– are shrouded in mystery.  Originally partaken in solely by local
villagers, it was first reported more widely in the early 1800s, and though it
has shed a few peripheral activities since then (eg. ‘dancing for ribbons’, ‘grinning (through a horse’s collar) for a cake’, and ‘bobbing for penny loaves smeared in treacle’), the main event has remained little changed.

Sign
EVENT DETAILS

The Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake is held annually
on the Spring Bank Holiday.  The festival
was originally held at Midsummer but was moved at some time to Whitsuntide,
taking place on Whit Monday.  In 1967,
the British Government loosed the Bank Holiday from its Church calendar moorings so that
it would always fall on the last Monday in May.
The ‘Cheese Rolling and Wake’ was moved accordingly.

In the lead up to the event, members of the CHCR Committee
and volunteers spend two weeks clearing the slope, erecting fences at the top
and sides, and building a wall of straw bales at the foot.  The cheeses (7-8lb Double Gloucesters) are
hand-made by Diana Smart of Churcham, using milk from her herd of Brown
Swiss, Holstein and Gloucester
cows.  Mrs Smart is the only person in
Gloucestershire still making Double Gloucester cheeses by hand, using
traditional methods, and she has provided the cheeses for rolling since 1988.

Diana Smart and her cheeses

The races start promptly at 12 noon, over a course of
approximately 200 yards.  It is a
testament to its steepness that the fastest finishers regularly break 15
seconds for the distance, faster than world record speed on the flat.  There is a maximum of 15 people per downhill
race and a minimum age of 18 years (at the discretion of the Master of
Ceremonies).

Master of ceremonies Rob Seex
The role of the Master of
Ceremonies – presently Rob Seex, a local dairy farmer – is that of ceremonial
host and race starter.  Raising his staff
and with a cry of, “ONE to be ready,TWO to be steady, THREE to
prepare” (at which time the cheese is launched), “and FOUR to be
off!” the competitors give chase.

Gradient

Prizes are awarded for each race:

     1st prize – the cheese
2nd – £10
3rd – £5

Giving chase
There are now 5 Men’s Races and one Ladies’ Race, plus Boys,
Girls, Men’s and Women’s uphill races.
Delays often occur when awaiting the return of the ambulances from
transporting injured competitors to the hospital.  No deaths have ever been reported.

OTHER FEATURES

In recent years, increased publicity (including widespread international exposure) has seen greatly increased numbers attending the Wake.  The cancellation of the 2010 event was a direct result of there being over 15,000 spectators in attendance the previous year.

Spectators
Local rugby players volunteer to be ‘catchers’, posted at
the finishing line to protect competitors from (further) collisions and
injuries.  They seem to particularly enjoy the Ladies
Race.

Only one Cooper’s Hill Master of Ceremonies is known to have
retired – all others have died in office.

From time to time, great cheese-rolling champions have
arisen.  The two greatest of these,
Stephen Gyde of Brockworth and Stephen Brain of Gloucester, won 38 cheeses between 1978 and
2000.  Both are now retired.  The newest pretender to their crown, Chris
Anderson of Brockworth, has now amassed 6 cheeses in 6 years, and featured in
the video for the Maccabees, ‘Can You Give It’ – see below.

Chris anderson cheese
War rationing, introduced in 1941, meant that a wooden
‘cheese’ was used until 1954. Within its paper wrappings, a small compartment
was left for a tiny piece of cheese, in order that tradition might properly be
maintained.  Cheeses have also been
rolled every year (including 2010) in which the Wake has been cancelled.

A total of 93 Penalty Charge Notices were issued on the 25th
May 2009 in the vicinity of the cheese rolling event by Tewkesbury Borough
council for parking offences.

OFFICIAL SITE

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Whuppity Scoorie

By the kirk1

HISTORY

Spring festivals and rituals are relatively few in Europe,
and mostly revolve around the Christian calendar and the Easter/Passover
season.  However, in many ancient
cultures (including Roman and Hebrew), the new life of spring marked the New
Year, and was marked accordingly.  Even
in Great Britain, the numbered year began on March 25 until 1752
and the adoption of the Gregorian calendar.

Vernal_Equinox

The annual observation of Whuppity Scoorie, in the historic
town of Lanark in the Scottish Lowlands, seems to hark back to an ancient
system like that of the Romans, wherein the month of March was the first of the
year, and March 1 New Year’s Day.
On that date, several weeks before the vernal equinox, Whuppity Scoorie
observes the increasing light of the new year chase away the receding darkness
of winter, whilst adding in a little chasing of its own.

Running

The origins of the event are unknown, as is its precise
purpose, but Whuppity Scoorie contains enough diverse symbolism to suggest that
it is more than a mere New Year festival or pagan ritual; it is very probably
several such things combined.  Suggestions
include such things as a penitential act of repentance and ‘scooring’ (ie.
cleansing), a winter exorcism rite of the sort common elsewhere in Britain, a celebration of
lengthening days and the lifting of the children’s winter curfew.  This final possibility is given added credence
by the Victorian-era practice of the town’s boys concluding proceedings by
marching two miles to meet their counterparts from New Lanark in battle (all
apparently with both communities’ full approval, including that of the police).

Boys fight

 

EVENT DETAILS

Every year, on the first day of March, the local children
gather at Lanark Cross by St Nicholas Kirk in anticipation for the 6pm
bell.  But when the hour strikes, it is
not the church’s main bells that are rung, but the town’s ‘Wee Bell’, which has
remained silent for the 6 months of darkening days and winter.

Start line

At the sound, the children start to race around the Kirk,
swinging paper balls above their heads and making as much noise as they can.  After three laps, members of the Community
Council throw handfuls of coins into the air for the children to scrabble
after.

Coin throwing

The ritual itself is short and rather haphazard, but
provides the focal point for a wider community event, both on the evening of March 1 and in the week-long
storytelling and arts festival.

OTHER FEATURES

Until recently, prizes were awarded for the first boy and girl to
complete the three circuits, but this has now ceased in an attempt to making
the running safer for the smaller children by removing the competitive aspect.  Younger children are also dissuaded from joining in the coin scrabble.

Picking up coin

The earliest
known record of the tradition is from a local newspaper article, written in
the mid-19th century.  Whuppity Scoorie was still
called ‘the wee bell ceremony’ at the time, confirming the antiquity of that
aspect of the ritual.  The custom’s
popular name was first attested in 1893, by which time the ceremony was known
to be over 120 years old.

Lanark used to have a racecourse and the ‘Lanark Silver
Bell’ is thought to be one of the oldest racing trophies in Europe, although its link to the ‘Wee Bell’ is unknown.

Tolling the Devil’s Knell

Tenor bell
HISTORY

“The Devil`s Knell will be tolled on Christmas Eve, to finish on the stroke of midnight.”  – Dewsbury Minster Church Bulletin

In the Western world, the history of bell-ringing is inextricably linked to the development and spread of Christianity.  There are no records at all of bells in the pre-Christian era, and the earliest references to them come from the second century, being used in a Christian context.  Bell-ringing can take many forms, but the solemn ringing of the Passing Bell traditionally denoted the death of some significant person, and for all society to take note.  In 1624, John Donne warned against sending ‘to know for whom the bell tolls’, since every human death brings the diminishment of humanity as a whole.  But there is one funereal peel to which Donne would not have applied this rule, since on Christmas Eve in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, the bells record the demise not of any human, but of Satan himself.

In 1434, a local knight, Thomas de Soothill, flew into a rage upon hearing that a servant boy had failed to attend church that week.  He grabbed the boy and, lifting him up, threw him into a mill pond, where the boy drowned.  Overwhelmed by remorse at the murder, and as an act of penance, de Soothill paid for a new 1300-weight tenor bell for the parish church (now Dewsbury Minster), asking for it to be tolled at his funeral as people prayed for his soul.  Sir Thomas also instituted the practice that the bell (named Black Tom after its benefactor) should be to be rung on Christmas Eve, with one toll for each year of the Christian Era, to proclaim the defeat of evil and the forgiveness of all sins, not just his own.  At the time of writing, we are in anno domini (‘year of our Lord’) two thousand and nine, this being, in Christian understanding, the two thousand and ninth Year of Grace since the birth of Jesus.

All saints church

EVENT DETAILS

Dewsbury Minster, like many congregations in the Church of England, celebrates Midnight Mass as the clock ticks from Christmas Eve to the Christ-Mass itself.  “The first eucharist of Christmas declares the defeat of evil,” as the church rector says.  With this understanding, Tolling the Devil’s Knell  should not be seen as a separate ritual but as an extended drum-roll, leading up to the taking of the sacrament.  The final toll is timed to take place on the stroke of midnight.

Since Black Tom now has to be rung well over two thousand times before twelve o’clock, the Tolling of the Devil’s Knell has to begin at 10:15pm, with the bell being struck (on average) every three seconds.  The Midnight Mass service begins at 11:15pm, but the Knell continues.  A scorer keeps tally of the rising number tolled, as seen below in a picture from the 1950s.

Recording the tolling
OTHER FEATURES

The tenor bell, Black Tom, was featured on a 31p stamp in the 1980s, as part of a Royal Mail set called Traditions of England.

Although Christian views on Satan vary, few would suggest that the Devil was actually killed when God was incarnated as a human (in the Nativity – ‘birth’), but that by this event his future defeat was sealed.  In this sense, the Tolling of the Devil’s Knell at Dewsbury can be seen as a kind of exercise in goading; reminding Lucifer of his defeat and ultimate doom.

Alternatively, since the ringing of bells (and other assorted noise-making) was often used in Mediaeval times to cleanse a locality of evil spirits, the Dewsbury ritual may well have included such a function, although the alternate name for the ritual – Old Lad’s Passing – seems to indicate the former understanding.

The Knell is not participatory – the bells are rung by the Minster’s own regular team – and is far from a crowd-pleasing spectacle, since there are no accompanying rituals until the service starts.

The inscription on the bell is:

I shall be here if treated just
When they are mouldering in the dust

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OFFICIAL SITE

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Wassailing

 

Apple tree

HISTORY

Often mentioned, rarely understood, wassailing is a midwinter ritual, primarily performed in England.  Apple tree wassailing, such as is practiced at the Whimple Wassail, is a ceremony which involves drinking to and singing the health of the apple trees.

In pre-Norman days, the phrase Wæs (þu) hal! – meaning ‘be (thou) hale’ – was an everyday greeting, and it eventually wore down into the single word wassail.  The Saxon and Norse English both shared this phrase, along with the accompanying practice of welcoming a visitor with a cup of ale or mead, which allowed wassail! to develop as an all-purpose toast to good health.  Since ‘hal’ is the ancestor of our modern ‘whole’, ‘heal’, and ‘holy’, this toast can be seen as more holistic than wishing simple soundness of body.  It is not known whether the wassailing of trees is as ancient as the phrase itself, or whether one practice grew out of the other, but it is in this midwinter ritual that the term has principally endured and remains in use today.

Illustration

Wassailing is widespread throughout England, and especially in cider-producing regions such as the Westcountry, Kent, and Herefordshire.  Its traditional date is Twelfth Night, January 6th, although many prefer ‘Old Twelvey Night’, January 17th, which would have been Twelfth Night but for the loss of eleven days after England’s adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.  This is the practice at Whimple in Devon, where the village’s historic festivities (which had ceased during the Second World War) were restarted in 1993.  Fortunately for Whimple, the fifty year cessation of wassailing in the village had not dimmed the memories of its oldest residents, and the present practices and songs are a continuation of the age-old.
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Fountain inn

 

EVENT DETAILS

On the evening of Old Twelfth Night, participants gather at the Fountain Inn in Whimple to meet, practice the songs, and show off their costumes.  The Mayor (appointed for the occasion, since Whimple no longer has one) leads proceedings, ably assisted by the Princess and the Wassailing Queen, who lead the wassailers out of the pub to the first orchard.

The Princess carries lightly-toasted bread in a flasket, which the Queen dips in Wassail (spiced cider made from the self-same orchard) and is hoisted aloft so that she can hang it in the branches of the oldest tree, while reciting the traditional verse:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full,caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Having done so, the participants (who bring a variety of homespun percussion instruments and noisemakers) sing the Whimple Wassail Song and dance around the tree, before toasting it with Cider from the communal Wassail Cup.  The ceremony concludes with shots being fired through the branches and the villagers making as much noise as possible; shouting and screaming and banging their instruments.  The soaked toast is seen as reminding the tree of last year’s goodness, while the noisemaking is used to ‘re-wake’ the trees for the new year, as well as being a variation on old cleansing rituals whereby evil spirits were chased from the vicinity.

Three separate orchards require three ceremonies, interspersed with processional music and a pause of remembrance to John Shepherd (who led the reestablishment of the ritual and taught the villagers all the old songs), before concluding with more cider and merrymaking at the village cricket club.

Mug cider 

OTHER FEATURES

Wassailing rituals vary from place to place, with a variety of blessings, toasts and songs dependent on the locality.  In Herefordshire and Wales, wassailing is often combined with midwinter rituals of spiritual-cleansing by fire, with flaming torches placed in tree branches and bonfires lit.

The fact that pieces of toast are used as part of a ‘toast’ may not be a coincidence.  In former years, toasted breads and cakes were often used as a flavouring in mulled wine and cider, hence ‘drinking a toast’.  The pieces of toast first used in wassailing probably were these flavourings.

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Tar Barrel Running

Barrel flames

HISTORY

Burning tar barrels are known to have been run through the streets of Ottery St Mary since 1688, and the tradition almost certainly dates to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – the event is held on Guy Fawkes Night – whilst possibly being a remnant of other more ancient midwinter fire festivals.
While the West Country has a history of torchlight processions and burning barrels, it is only in Ottery that such a tradition has endured.  Carrying fire through streets or around properties has been used as a method of driving out evils spirits since the pre-Christian era of the region, and it is therefore likely that at least some of the event’s heritage is pagan or neo-pagan.

EVENT DESCRIPTION

Earlier in the year, oak barrels are selected and their inside surfaces coated with coal tar.  On the night of November 5th, straw and paper are inserted to get the tar lit, and once it is burning, it will not stop.

Barrel mits

Carrying a barrel is considered a tremendous privilege, and only those born in Ottery, or long-term residents there, may do so.  On a schedule between 4pm and midnight, each barrel is lit outside one of the village’s pubs (or their former sites in several cases) and carried on the shoulders with only sacking mits for protection.  Children’s and women’s barrels precede the men’s, which are the largest and longest burning.  The barrellers are completely surrounded by heaving crowds, and run at speed straight through the throng before handing on the barrel, with multiple family members often involved.  Finally, the barrels’ remains are thrown on the town bonfire.

OTHER FEATURES

Although (of course) not native to Ottery, the accompanying bonfire is a key aspect of Tar Barrels, providing a focal point, backdrop and sense of anticipation to the event.

Tarbarrels_bonfire

Material for the bonfire begins to be collected three weeks before Guy Fawkes Night, and brought to its regular site on St Saviour’s Meadow, on the flood plain of the River Otter.  Many villagers contribute to the stack, which eventually reaches a height of 35 feet, with a girth of over 50.  A Guy is set atop the bonfire, provided at present (and since 1958) by the Young family.  The bonfire burns throughout the evening.