The weird and wonderful folk festivals of Britain are largely unknown outside of the rural locations where they are practiced. They are performed by the local population, for the local population, with great affection, mirth and dedication.
I once stumbled on the morning aftermath of an apple festival in Tolpuddle (Yes, that is a real town), Dorset. The night before, on a cold November night at midnight, the whole community had paraded from the village pub down to the bottom of the village where the oldest apple tree grew. They then held an ancient ceremony to thank the tree for her bounty and encouraged her to help her younger siblings in producing more apples in the future. (Apples make cider, I should add, which was the main purpose of the “thanks”). The ceremony involved dancing round the tree (it used to be naked virgins, I was told, but they can’t find any these days), before everyone, led by the village policeman hurried back to the pub for the rest of the night (Pub closing regulations be damned, of course – they locked the doors and the only policeman was inside).
Once a year, on the island of South Ronaldsay, off the north coast of Scotland, the community prepares for two traditional events: The Festival of the Horse and the Boys’ Ploughing Match. Families reach into cupboards and bring down the richly decorated costumes that the town’s girls will wear in a parade through the streets. Passed down through generations, the dresses mimic the trappings of the majestic Clydesdale working horse, with embellished yokes and harnesses, and little woolen fetlocks. Meanwhile, the boys gather on the broad scope of Sands o’ Wright beach where, using exquisitely-made miniature ploughs, they carefully draw “furrows” in the sand. The lad with the most finely tilled sand furrow wins. The Festival of the Horse dates back to the 1800s.
The Festival of the Horse is fairly sedate but other customs are often rambunctious, even bizarre. Take the tradition of the Tar Barrels in Ottery St Mary, every 5th of November, during which flaming, tar-soaked barrels, each sponsored by one of the town’s pubs, are carried, briskly, along the town’s streets. As the day progresses, the barrels get larger; by midnight, they weigh at least 30kg.
Camaraderie and a rowdy competitiveness exist side by side, as generations of the same family tout the barrels. “You do get the feeling that a lot of old scores get settled on the periphery,” reflects one of the locals). While the Tar Barrels festival is believed by some to have been born after the gunpowder plot of Guy Fawkes in 1605, other theories abound: that the burning barrels belong to a pagan ritual that cleansed the streets of evil spirits; that they helped, more prosaically, to fumigate cottages; and that they served as a warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada. Who knows…but who cares either? They all make a good story.
The rowdiness at Ottery St Mary, however, may sound like a tea party compared to the mayhem that is Haxey Hood, in North Lincolnshire. In this night-long event, opposing villages attempt to get hard cylinders of leather – the “Hoods” – into one of the four pubs in either Haxey or the nearby village of Westwoodside. The selected teams from each village lock down into a rugby scrum called the Sway – and the Sway can go on all night. The event takes place in January. “I remember looking across the village and seeing 300 men locked into each other, in this snow-covered field, with the steam rising off them,” recalls a local. “It’s very visceral and archaic. You’re witnessing something primeval.” And totally nuts, I should add.
Haxey Hood’s professed origins lie in the 14th Century, when Lady de Mowbray, the wife of a local landowner, was out riding. As she went over a hill, her silk riding hood was blown away by the wind. Thirteen farm workers chased the hood all over the field, before it was finally caught by one. Too shy to hand it back himself, he gave it to one of the others to hand back to the Lady. Amused, she named the worker who had returned the hood the “Lord”, and the one who had caught the hood, the “Fool”, which
“This historical event lead to the creation of the two key characters in the tradition, alongside 11 mercurial “Boggins”, who were “Custodians of the Tradition”, says the University of Sheffield’s Professor Fay Hield, director of the Contemporary Folklore Research Centre. “These “Boggins” are there to keep the event safe – but also make it happen.”
Lady de Mowbray is said to have donated land to the workers, on condition that the chase for the hood would be re-enacted each year.
While Ottery St. Mary Tar Barrellers wear heavy gloves and practical clothing, costume is key in Haxey Hood. The “Lord”, and the chief “Boggin”, are dressed in red hunting coats and top hats covered in flowers and badges; the “Lord” also carries a staff of office, made from twelve willow wands, with one more upside-down in the centre, representing the twelve apostles and Judas. His face smeared with soot, the “Fool” is covered in multi-coloured scraps of materials. He leads the procession, beating nearby parishioners away with a bran-stuffed sock, and claiming the right to kiss any woman along the way.
His welcome speech ends with a traditional rhyme: “Hoose agen hoose, toon agen toon, if a man meets a man knock ‘im doon, but doan’t ‘ot ‘im” translated as: “house against house, town against town, if a man meets a man, knock him down but don’t hurt him.”
The Hooden and the ‘Oss, key figures in Padstow’s May Day festival, are reminders that some of folk’s central characters can, at least to outsiders, appear unsettling and otherworldly. However, when you’re in the community, you don’t see them as otherworldly. In 2019, folklorist and historian Ronald M James described the ‘Oss as “a menacing image,” consisting of a large round platform supporting a black apron. “The man who carries the beast puts his head through a hole at the centre of the structure. He wears a mask with a tall, pointed cap. At one end of the platform is a tail and at the other, a stylised head with snapping jaws,” he continued. Oss’s similarity to a dragon has not gone unnoticed over the years.
Nothing highlights the resilience of the British folk custom better than last year’s speech from the “Fool” at Haxey Hood: “This game is 664 years old today. And like all good traditions, it’s been modern enough to last for the time, but old-fashioned enough to last forever. And it will last forever!” he roared, to cheers, laughter and the trill of mobile phones. “There are lots of things that will remain, like Chris Leighton’s home brew, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, God Bless Her. Long live the King! Tonight, we have roast pork, but we also have a nut and mushroom roast for vegetarians and vegans. What a diverse set of people we are!”