"The English Year" is a lavishly illustrated month-by-month, day-by-day guide to all the customs and festivals of England, from the national celebrations to herald the new year down to small local traditions such as the Minehead Hobby Horse or Duck Racing in Oxfordshire. If you want to know where you can get free bread and beer on any day of the year; if you want to know where Mayday comes from or why you should protect yourself on Mischief Night; or why the English go in for all kinds of arcane celebrations but can't be bothered with St George's Day - this the book for you.
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Steve Roud has been researching British folklore for over thirty years. He is the joint author of the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore and the author of The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, winner of the 2004 Katharine Briggs Folklore. He lives in Sussex.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Some fruits of English-ness, taken from Steve Roud's The English Year
Barnet Horse Fair
4, 5 and 6 September
There is something romantic and slightly dangerous about a horse fair, which other livestock marts cannot hope to equal. Perhaps it is simply that Gypsies do not gather to exchange handfuls of money over sheep, or gentlemen wager their families’ fortunes on a cow race. This fair was chartered in 1588, and for centuries was one of the busiest livestock marts in the region – although Barnet’s real fame was for horse-racing, which drew large unruly crowds from north London until it ceased in 1870. The associated horse fair was similarly patronized by dealers and buyers from the capital, and was so well attended by street traders in mid Victorian times that it was known in some circles as the ‘costermongers’ carnival’. According to James Greenwood’s Unsentimental Journeys (1867), it enjoyed an extremely raffish reputation:
My first impression was my last, and still remains – viz, that Barnet Fair is a disgrace to civilisation. I have witnessed a Warwickshire ‘mop’ fair; I have some recollection of ‘Bartlemy’; I was at Greenwich when, on account of its increasing abominations, the fair that so long afflicted that Kentish borough was held for the last time; but take all these, and skim them for their scum and precipitate them for their dregs, and even then, unless you throw in a very strong flavouring of the essence of Old Smithfield on a Friday, and a good armful of Colney Hatch and Earlswood sprigs, you will fail to make a brew equal to that at Barnet. It is appalling.
Given this kind of write-up, it is remarkable that Barnet Horse Fair survived at all, but while the races and the general livestock have long been forgotten, the horse fair persists to this day, albeit somewhat shakily. By the mid twentieth century, the glory days were well over, but it was still a significant date on the horse-lover’s calendar, as William Addison indicates in his English Fairs and Markets (1953):
Barnet Fair is still the most racy event of its kind near London. Even in 1952, 620 horses were sold, including 74 sturdy Welsh cobs from Glamorgan, most of which changed hands within a couple of hours.
However, the real threat to the fair came not from human opposition but the inexorable march of bricks and mortar, as the area rapidly developed from Hertfordshire countryside into a north London borough. The site of the fair changed many times in the interwar years, and it was increasingly seen as a historical relic. On 6 September 1954, The Times commented:
In a 20-acre field which once afforded wider vistas, Barnet horse fair opened today, bringing its annual touch of medieval muddle to what tidy modern planners know as the South Hertfordshire conurbation. New facets of the fair’s surroundings add point to the remarkable fact of its survival each year; since last September council flats have risen on waste ground close by and beyond the fairground stands the vitreous contemporary cube of a new school.
A mere shadow of its former self, Barnet Horse Fair is now held at Greengates Stables, on 4, 5, and 6 September, unless one of those dates is a Sunday, in which case it continues on the following day.
Third Thursday in September
Chalk-Back Day was a little-known annual custom recorded in Diss, Norfolk, but with possible connections elsewhere. The earliest record of it goes back only to 1851, in Notes & Queries:
It is customary for the juvenile populace, on the Thursday before the third Friday in September... to mark and disfigure each other’s dress with white chalk, pleading a prescriptive right to be mischievous on ‘chalk-back day’.
This account is confirmed by later writers, who show that it was not simply a short-lived craze but survived until about 1900. The local hiring fair was held on the same day, and this may be a clue to its meaning, as an account from Yorkshire in 1890 makes clear:
At Bridlington, on the Sunday night preceding the fair, which is held on the Monday before Whit Sunday, the boys used to assemble on the Church Green, where the fair was held, each armed with a lump of chalk, and each intent on chalking the backs of as many of the other boys as possible. This often led to quarrels, as the boys then had on their Sunday clothes.
There is also a strange echo of this behaviour in reports of Greenwich Fair in mid Victorian times, where a local craze involved running wooden ‘rattlers’ down people’s backs. Another possible link comes from further afield: ‘Chalk Sunday’ (usually the first Sunday in Lent) was widely held in Ireland in the nineteenth century and up to about 1930. As at Diss, Irish children chalked people’s backs on the day, but there it was specifically those who were unmarried, which could be a gentle joke or an unpleasant comment on the popularity, or otherwise, of the victim, depending on the circumstances. Further examples from England are needed before we can hope to speculate on its meaning or origin.
Egremont Crab-Apple Fair
Third Saturday in September
Egremont Fair, in Cumbria, consciously preserves many of the traditional games and pastimes of old-time country fairs, such as gurning (and Egremont is said to hold the World Championship competition), climbing the greasy pole, wrestling, tug-of-war, and children’s races; but it has also introduced a number of others that are probably unique, including a pipe-smoking contest, ferret show, and the singing of hunting songs. The fine art of pole greasing was described by Egremont locals in John Bull magazine in 1955:
We haven’t been able to grease the pole properly since before the war... Nowadays, wagon grease is used... but really it should be soft soap covered by lard... A sheep’s head or a leg of mutton trailing coloured ribbons is tied to the top of the pole and anyone who can bring down a ribbon wins the prize... The greasy pole is the bane of wives and mothers, and the delight of the outfitters.
The fair gets its name from the custom of throwing apples from a slow-moving lorry, to the waiting crowds, at midday. They used to be crab apples, but nowadays ordinary eating apples are thrown. Organizers claim that Egremont’s fair has been held every year since its charter was granted in 1267 (except during the two world wars), and this could well be true.
An extremely widespread superstition, found all over the British Isles, maintained that blackberries were bad, or even poisonous, after a certain date. This date varied from place to place, ranging from Michaelmas to 10 or 11 October, and as the latter equates to 29 September before the change of calendar in 1752, it is clear that Michaelmas is the key day. The reason for the blackberries’ sudden decline was that the Devil interfered on that day. In 1882, the Western Antiquary reported:
The belief that it is unlucky to eat blackberries after Michaelmas Day, because ‘His Royal Highness’ then tampers with them, still lingers in Exeter and neighbourhood. Some time ago, whilst walking in the country round here, a young friend who was with me warned me against plucking any blackberries: ‘Because,’ said he, grimly, ‘it’s past Michaelmas Day and the Devil’s been at ’em.’
In the polite versions of this superstition, the Devil puts his foot on the berries, or wipes his club or tail over them, but in more graphic versions he defiles them in more earthy ways. The belief certainly dates back to the early eighteenth century, but was particularly well known in the nineteenth, and can still be heard in some areas.
A peculiar custom, which prevailed at Kingston-upon-Thames church in Surrey until the early nineteenth century, involved the cracking of nuts during the service on the Sunday before St Michael’s Day. This was not confined to children but was indulged in by all ages, and according to Edward Brayley’s Topographical History of Surrey (1850), ‘the cracking noise was often so powerful, that the minister was obliged to suspend his reading, or discourse, until greater quietness was obtained.’ It was thought to be a remnant of a civic custom, having something to do with the choosing of the bailiffs and other members of the town corporation on Michaelmas Day, although it is difficult to understand quite how the two were connected, unless it had something to do with the idea of a ‘lawless hour’. The connection between nuts and Michaelmas, however, is shown by other references, such as Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield (1766):
They kept up the Christmas carol, sent true-love knots on Valentine morning, ate pan-cakes at Shrove-tide, shewed their wit on the first of April, and religiously cracked nuts on Michaelmas Eve.
Election of the Lord Mayor of London
The Lord Mayor of London is head of the Corporation of London, the local authority that governs the City of London – a position not to be confused with the Mayor of London, created in 2000, who is head of the Greater London Authority. The Lord Mayor’s position is somewhat older, dating from about the year 1192.
The Lord Mayor is elected on 29 September, then presents himself to the Lord Chancellor at the House of Lords in October for royal approval, and finally takes office on the second Friday in November (see Second Friday in November: Silent Change). To be eligible, a candidate must be a serving alderman, and have served previously as a sheriff, of which there are always two at a time, elected annually from their own ranks by the aldermen. The Liverymen of the City put forward eligible names for Lord Mayor to the Court of Aldermen, who make the final decision at a meeting at the Guildhall.
The Lord Mayor of London is still an extremely important personage in the nation, and in many situations is second only in precedence to the sovereign. In addition to the numerous ceremonial tasks, the frequent entertaining of dignitaries, and the foreign trips to represent the City, the Lord Mayor chairs the Court of Aldermen and the Court of Common Council, and serves as Admiral of the Port of London, Chief Magistrate of the City, and Chancellor of City University.
As the Lord Mayor is drawn from the business and social elite of the capital, it is to be expected that the candidate has not always been at the cutting edge of societal change, but there have been numerous occasions when the City has quietly moved with the times. A minor ripple was caused in 1972 when the first Labour Lord Mayor, Lord Mais, was appointed, which occasioned The Times to comment, ‘a Labour Lord Mayor of the City of London seems as rare as a vegetarian King of the Cannibals.’ The first woman to hold the position was Lady Donaldson, in 1983.
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