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The heART of Ritual


The weird and wonderful world of English Folk Customs

Hooden Horse, Beckenham, Kent, 1950 (Photographer: Unknown)

From its abundance of traditional songs, tunes and dances, to its strange but locally revered calendar customs, English communities have been coming together for centuries to make music, share traditions, and celebrate the turning of the year.

Often referred to as “intangible heritage” (this kind of heritage is not made up of bricks and mortar), early antiquarians feared that it was on the verge of dying out ever since they started paying it attention back in the mid-19th century. But it hasn’t died out. Customs and traditions evolve to stay relevant for today and to continue serving the communities from where they came – but some have stayed remarkably similar in form to those recorded by collectors many years ago.

The English Folk Dance & Song Society was formed by some of these said antiquarians to collect, notate, and record some of this intangible heritage. Collections of books, manuscript notes, songs, tunes, and dances are held in its library and archive, the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House.

One of its most valued collections is its photograph collection which features the work of both amateur and professional photographers, providing inspiration to many artists and researchers. The photograph collection manages to capture a snapshot of traditional culture in action and contains images of dance performances, portraits of singers, and scenes of customs from across the country. To outsiders these traditions may not look very English at all, so let us introduce you to an unfamiliar but wonderful side of English culture…

North Waltham Mummers, Hampshire, c. 1949

North Waltham Mummers, Hampshire, c. 1949 (Photographer: Douglas Dickins)

Mummers’ Plays are a form of traditional drama, usually performed in the streets with a small but varied cast including St. George, the Turk, a doctor, and sometimes Santa Claus (depending on the time of year of the performance). Most mummers’ plays feature a combat scene in which a combatant is wounded or killed and then miraculously revived by the doctor. Our earliest written evidence for these plays comes from printed scripts found in chapbooks of the 18th century, and it’s remarkable how little the dialogue changed over the centuries. The costume varies from region to region, but those in Hampshire are known for their “tattered” jackets.

Cheese-Rolling Competition, Coopers-Hill, Gloucestershire, 1967

Cheese-Rolling Competition, Coopers-Hill, Gloucestershire, 1967 (Photographer: Brian Shuel)

A particularly odd (and dangerous) sport to be found in the English calendar is that of cheese-rolling, which takes place on Spring Bank Holiday and attracts hundreds of competitors every year. The aim is to chase a large round Gloucester cheese which is rolled down Cooper’s Hill. This often results in the competitors themselves rolling down the hill, in a mud-slide and acquiring innumerable sprains and bruises. Although the cheese is rarely caught, the first to reach the bottom wins this highly coveted prize.

Hooden Horse, Beckenham, Kent, 1950

Hooden Horse, Beckenham, Kent, 1950 (Photographer: Unknown)

Horses are a regular feature in the traditional English calendar. Many make their appearances around May Day, such as the Padstow Hobby Horse or the Minehead Hobby Horse (their resemblance to horses being debatable), but in East Kent the Hooden Horse was to be found as part of a Christmas Eve house-visiting custom to entertain the inhabitants and collect money, food, and drink. This wonderful photo was taken in 1950 when the tradition was waning, but in recent years the custom has been revived and is now a thriving tradition in the region.

Garland Day, Castleton, Derbyshire, c. 1949

Garland Day, Castleton, Derbyshire, c. 1949 (Photographer: Unknown)

Another May custom. Whilst this one contains the common themes – horses, garlands, and morris dancers, Castleton’s Garland Day still manages to be curiously unique. The Castleton garland is by far the largest, resulting in the wearer being entirely covered down to his waist. He is described as the King, and is processed through the town on horseback along with his Queen and a group of girl morris dancers. The destination is the local parish church where the garland is finally hoisted to the top of the bell tower and remains until the flowers have died.

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, Staffordshire, c. 1938

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, Staffordshire, c. 1938 (Photographer: Unknown)

Mounted on the wall of St. Nicholas’s Parish Church in Abbots Bromley are a set of reindeer antlers carbon dated to ca. 1065. How these antlers arrived in this small town’s parish church is unclear, but every year in September they feature in a day-long procession of dancing around the town, and have done so since at least the 1620s. The six dancers are accompanied by a fool, a Maid Marian, a hobby horse, and an archer. Due to the sheer weight of the horns the dance is quite sedate but a fascinating spectacle non-the-less.

Helston Flora Day, Cornwall, c. 1963

Helston Flora Day, Cornwall, c. 1963. Photographer: Brian Shuel

Originally called “Furry Day” from the Cornish for “fair”, Helston’s Flora Day is one of the biggest traditional dance displays to be found in Britain. A large number of Helston’s community are able to take part in the dance processions since there are four of them – one for young people which starts the day off at 7am, a procession for children, the Principal Dance (originally for gentry dressed in their finery), and finally the evening dance. These wind their way through the town, and even through people’s homes, to the jaunty music of a silver band using a tune later used in a pop hit sung by Terry Wogan! As well as the dances, the town is bedecked in bunting, blossoms, and other flowers, which may explain the newer alternative name of “Flora Day”.

Haxey Hood, Lincolnshire, 1981

Haxey Hood, Lincolnshire, 1981 (Photographer: Brian Shuel)

On the evening of Twelfth Day (6th Jan), locals from the Lincolnshire villages of Haxey and Westwoodside are likely to find themselves in the middle of a scrum. Rather than a rugby match, they take part the uniquely wonderful game of Haxey Hood.

The object of the centuries old game is to move the hood, a long leather tube of eighteen inches, towards the villages’ respective pubs where drinks ensue and the hood resides until the following year. With numbers of participants reaching into the hundreds, the movement of the hood can become impeded in the sway, and games can last the entire evening before the hood reaches its final destination. The day commences with a traditional speech made by a Fool who is usually “smoked out” before the leather hood is thrown into the crowd. The game is presided over by the Lord Hood and Chief Boggin dressed in floral hats, whilst ten other Boggins and the Fool are central in supervising the raucous activity.

Royal Earsdon Sword Dancers, Northumberland, 1912

Royal Earsdon Sword Dancers, Northumberland, 1912 (Photographer: Unknown)

Ask anyone about English folk dancing, and they are likely to mention handkerchief-waving morris dancers. Whilst morris dance is one of our longest surviving dance traditions, England is also home to other forms of folk display dance – one being rapper sword dance. Originating in the regions of Durham and Northumberland, the dancers were often coal-miners and associated with a local pit. They used rapper swords – long pieces of bendy metal with handles on both ends – to make intricate locks and patterns, all the while shuffling to the tune of a speedy jig. They were usually accompanied by characters Tommy and Betty (a man dressed as an old woman) who provided commentary and light humour. Its origins are somewhat hazy, and probably developed from the English long-sword dance. It is now an incredibly popular dance form, with male, female, and mixed teams all competing at an annual national competition called DERT.

The Giant and Hob Nob, Salisbury, Wiltshire, 1911

The Giant and Hob Nob, Salisbury, Wiltshire, 1911 (Photographer: Unknown)

Standing at 14ft high and dating back to at least the 16th century, this Salisbury giant and hobby horse (Hob Nob) were key characters in the Midsummer pageant for the Salisbury Guild of Tailors. Giants were often used in pageants and parades, but during the 16th century reformation many were destroyed, making the Salisbury Giant of especial importance. Over the last couple of centuries the Giant has only made appearances for special occasions, e.g. celebrating the defeat of the Jacobite rebellion in 1746, and celebrating the end of WW1. Since 1869 they have resided in Salisbury Museum. Giants have made somewhat of a revival, and can be seen joining parades up and down the country for calendar customs such as the Jack-in-the-Green festival in Hastings.

Well-dressing, Tissington, Derbyshire, 1966

Well-dressing, Tissington, Derbyshire, 1966 (Photographer: Brian Shuel)

Well-dressing is a tradition long associated with Derbyshire. It does not have a fixed date; rather it takes place according to the preference of the community. For Tissington, the community with the oldest documented and unbroken tradition, this occurs on Ascension Day. The decoration of the well, once perhaps a simple affair, is now a highly skilled creative activity involving the use of large boards covered in clay and inlaid with flowers, petals, and leaves to create an intricate and beautiful scene.

With special thanks to Brian Shuel for permission to use his photographs. For more of Brian’s photos, go to

The author of this article is Laura Smyth, Director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library


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