Here In the UK it is the start of the festival season. Not the music festivals, which take place later in the summer when (hopefully) the weather will be warmer for those camping outdoors, but the historic parades, contests and just-plain-mad customs that constitute the eccentric English local folklore traditions. This year the cheese-rolling contest in Gloucestershire has been cancelled because of health and safety concerns (you can see why in the picture above!) but there are still plenty of other bizarre goings on. Here are a few of them:
Bottle Kicking and Hare Pie Scrambling
This takes place in Leicestershire and dates back to the 18th century. The event begins with a parade through the villages of Hallaton and Medbourne where a hearty hare pie (nowadays made of beef) is hurled into the crowd. Once the "hare pie scramble" is won the real battle commences; two teams wrestle the "bottle", which is a small beer barrel, over ditches, hedges, fields and streams. The game is reputedly as ugly as it is competitive.
Jack in the Green Parade
Another festival dating back to the 18th century, this one has some of the most outrageous costumes in the country. Originally the garlands worn at May Day were a matter of great competition between the town guilds in Hastings, Sussex. The chimney sweeping guild created enormous costumes that completely hid the person underneath. These developed into the character of Jack-in-the-Green, a 9 foot tall frame covered in twigs and leaves with a leather mask. Jack-in-the-Green leads a parade of 1000 dancers through the town to the castle where he is slain to free the spirit of spring. Fortunately Jack is only slain symbolically these days – I'm not sure what happened in the 18th century!
Hunting the Earl of Rone
This one is my personal favourite, a four day pageant in Combe Martin in Devon, during which villagers re-enact the legend of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who was forced to flee from Ireland in 1607 for supporting the politics of Irish rule. The legend states that O'Neill was shipwrecked in Reparee Cove, hid in the woods and tried to survive on ships biscuits but was finally caught by Grenadiers sent from Barnstaple. In reality, O'Neill escaped to Spain and there is no evidence to suggest that he was ever in Devon, so why he became a focus of this particular custom is a mystery. On the fourth day of the pageant the "Earl" is found, mounted back to front on a donkey and paraded to the sea, frequently falling off when "shot" by the Grenadiers. At the final shooting on the beach he is thrown into the sea. Again, this is symbolic these days. By the time the final shooting occurs the actor playing the Earl has been replaced by a dummy. The Hunting of the Earl of Rone was banned in 1837 for encouraging drunkenness and licentious behaviour, and certainly the hunters do seem to drop into the pub regularly for sustenance. That's the "Earl" in the picture, sitting backwards on his donkey, poor chap.
Celebrations Banned By Cromwell
There are many others: The 'Obby 'Oss Festival in Cornwall, the carnival processions of Somerset and the famous Guy Fawkes' tradition in Ottery St Mary, Devon, where burning barrels of tar are rolled down the street. During Cromwell’s Commonwealth in England, from 1649 – 1660, entertainments such as these were suppressed, reflecting the Puritanical outlook of that period. There was much grumbling as local festivals provided an outlet for drinking and violence as well as a holiday for the hard-working "common" folk! The restoration of monarchy in 1660 saw the reintroduction of many local traditions and customs. And whilst these are lots of fun simply for the spectacle and the entertainment, they are also a source of rich inspiration and local colour for an author.
Background and setting
Background and setting can be a very powerful tool in creating the atmosphere of a story. A really good historical romance will subtly convey all the flavour of the period. It can become so real that you can almost taste it. One of my favourite authors when it comes to establishing background and setting is Daphne Du Maurier, whose descriptions in books like Frenchman's Creek and Jamaica Inn are powerfully atmospheric and totally compelling. Another is Jane Aiken Hodge and I think it was her use of the Lewes Bonfire tradition in her Georgian-set book The Lost Garden that first made me aware of the way that local customs and traditions can be woven into a story to help establish atmosphere. The Lost Garden portrays the masked, torchlit procession through the streets of Oldchurch (the name she gave to Lewes in the book) with such sinister menace that I was practically cowering under the bedcovers as I read it. And not only did the bonfire tradition add some local colour to the story, Jane Aiken Hodge also used it move the plot along, with the hero rescuing the heroine from the murderous intentions of the mob on Bonfire Night.
I used local traditions in my very first book, True Colours, to create atmosphere and to show character as well. In the story the heroine, Alicia, attends the cider wassail in her local village in Somerset. The cider wassail is a custom that takes place early in the year, after dark, in the apple orchards. In the past, the villagers would fill earthenware cups with cider and toss these into the branches of the trees, then sing the wassailing song and drink a toast (or several) to encourage a prolific harvest. The aim was to make as much noise as possible with shotguns fired into the branches, trays banged and cow horns blown to wake up the sleeping trees. This was then followed by more drinking, dancing and celebrating. In True Colours, Alicia wants to dance but her suitor Christopher Westwood isn't keen to lower himself to join in rustic entertainments. Step forward the dashing hero, James Mullineaux, who carries Alicia off into the dance!
So I believe that the local colour lent to a book through customs and traditions can be a very useful tool for an author and I love bringing a dash of folklore into my books. I have a wonderful research book called England in Particular by Sue Clifford and Angela King which is full of information on eccentric traditions. When I use these stories though I have to remember the rule about not letting the event itself take over so it feels like an information dump of all the research I've done – I may be completely enraptured by the custom of Hunting the Earl of Rone but I can't let that dominate so that the book reads like a cross between a travel guide and an encyclopaedia of English folklore. My books are historical romance so the book is all about the developing relationship of the hero and heroine against a setting that I want to be vivid and engaging but which cannot take centre stage itself. I do find, though, that the eccentric customs of the British Isles can be a wonderful way of developing the plot and throwing my characters together.
Do you have a favourite local tradition or custom? Or have you read a book, historical or contemporary, where the author uses local customs to great effect to develop the story?