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