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A Little Night Reading

Curious Survivals of Pancester

A selection of entries from ‘The Antiquarian Customs and Curious Survivals of Pancester’, by The Reverend Clement Dadd, pub. John Murray, 1907.

The Alarum and the Carillon

At nine every evening, the carillon in the church tower sounds the Curfew over the sleepy honey coloured city; and at six every morning the red frock coated Alarumist walks around the (still extant) medieval city walls sounding the Alarum on The Ramstheng, the ancient silver horn which had been left to the Aoldermen and Freemen of Pancester by Viking raiders as a mark of respect for their fighting skills. It commemorates the occasion in 996 when three long ships had sailed into the Athon right up to the (now sadly demolished) Roman walls, looking for Christian gold, and had been repulsed by the doughty inhabitants; had, indeed, been given a bloody nose. The next year the Vikings came to trade, and had left The Ramstheng as a gesture of goodwill and as an a act of homage to Pancester’s ability to resist change.

The Alarumist is rewarded for his efforts on The Ramstheng with a silver bowlful of elvers on Elver Day (see ‘Elver Day’).

Until 1723 it was also the task of the Alarumist to sound The Curfew at nine on The Clangers, a set of crude instruments which we would hardly recognise as bells, and which can now be seen in the City Museum. In that year, however, the then Mayor, Sir Alexander Honeyball, decided to install a new carillon in the church tower to replace the old instruments, which he claimed ‘doth compel in me a nightly hemicranous aching of my pate.’ This innovation, whilst undoubtedly more harmonious on the ear, did not induce a concomitant harmony amongst the folk of the town, and rioting broke out between those parties who supported the Mayor, and those traditionalists who wished to retain the Clangers. Sir Alexander, in a stroke of political brilliance, declared that the issue should be decided by the outcome of Wally Oop (see ‘Wally Oop’), and that if the Oopers (henceforward the Ringlers) won, then the Carillon should stay, but if, however, the Dooners (or Clanghandlers) carried the day, then the Carillon would be removed, and his headaches would continue. Luckily for Sir Alexander, by the time the Clanghandlers next won the Wally, in 1874, the original issue had been long forgotten, and the inhabitants of Pancester have, over time, become charmed by the mellifluous tones of the bells.

Despite his careful diplomacy, Sir Alexander’s effigy is still burned by the children of Pancester in November at the ceremony of Hanging Nick (see ‘Hanging Nick’).

Apple Plummeting.

There are some customs  which even the most scientific of antiquarian scholars cannot help but abjure, and one such is the lamentable and dangerous practise of Apple Plummeting. Apple Plummeting, which generally takes place at high tide on the first Sunday after the Harvest Moon, is far more threatening of life and limb than the better known Cheese Rolling in Gloucestershire, of which it is a distant relative. [1]

Foolish young bloods stand on the parapet of the Pack Bridge, and dive into the waters of the Athon to catch apples which are thrown down either by their sweethearts, or by any young women who are looking for a beau, and who the young idiots may wish to impress. The dive into the Athon is precipitous in the extreme, and it is an unusual year in which one young lover, at least, does not have a broken head. Fine young men have, on occasion, died, and it is to be hoped that the authorities can put a stop to this barbarous custom.

If the plummeteers emerge triumphant, grasping their chosen fruit, their sweethearts take the apples back and bake them in an elaborate and highly decorated pastry case, which deadly confection is known as an apple plummetty. I, for one, would not give a fig for any young woman who wishes to threaten Pancester’s manhood in this fashion. It is, however, another example (see ‘Burning The Midsummer Ring’ and ‘Wally Oop’) of the sometimes reckless courage of Pancestrian youth.

Burning the Midsummer Ring

Held each year on St. John the Baptist’s Day (June the twenty-fourth), Burning the Midsummer Ring is one of the most remarkable survivals of the fire-festivals which were held all across Europe until well into the century which has just passed. (see ‘Hanging Nick’)

A large ring of straw is erected, supported as though it were an archery target, and is ignited into flame. Young men, supple of limb and agile of back, take it in turns to somersault through the ring of fire, (which is kept alight by the liberal application of paraffin oil). When all those who wish to make the attempt have completed their turn, a smaller  burning ring is put into place, and then a smaller, and then a smaller still, and so on, until all but one dare leap no more through the narrowing gap.

The winner is declared ‘King of the Summer’, a title which brings with it but one privilege, which is that he may sit at the High Table with the Mayor and Aoldermen and carve the bird at the Midsummer Feast, held in The Guildhall. Burning the Ring may sound dangerous, which it is for the untrained, but the competitors spend all year in preparation for the event, and injuries are rare. It is not, therefore, to be compared to Apple Plummeting (see ‘Apple Plummeting’)

There are few more spectacular sights in England than to stand in the Castle courtyard (where the feat has been performed since at least 1398), and to watch the daring young Pancestrian men dive through the flaming rings.

The Eastering

For evidence that pagan rites have been transformed into Christian festivals, one need look no further than the Dole Acre on the night of Easter Sunday (see ‘The Pancester Dole’).

On this most holy of nights, any unmarried young women who wish for a sweetheart, or any married woman who wishes to find herself in the blessed state of expectancy take candles to the south-western corner of The Dole Acre, which they guard until extinguished, at which point they lay down to sleep the night in the open. It is my belief that the location chosen has some significance accruing to it from pagan times. Perhaps it was the site of a temple of some kind. I am hopeful that an excavation will shortly be undertaken to test this thesis.

It is said that married women often find themselves with child shortly after The Eastering (as the practise is known), and, furthermore, that maidens will dream of their husband to be as they sleep in the old meadow. It is fair to assume that some of these young creatures go on to bake plummettys for the object of their affection later in the year! (see ‘Apple Plummeting’)

I am sorry to report that this is the only one of Pancester’s ancient ceremonies which I have been unable to witness for myself, as the women refuse male company. From what I have been able to discern, it seems clear that an amount of bawdy talk is indulged in!

This is surely an opportunity for a lady folklorist , who would be able to venture where the present author, alas, is forbidden to go!

Hanging Nick

In common with many largely Catholic towns,[2] Pancester does not keep Guy Fawkes Night with any great enthusiasm, but rather has clung to it’s own fire celebrations, on Old Bonfire Night, November the Fifteenth, and on St. John the Baptist’s Day, (see ‘Burning the Midsummer Ring.’). On Old Bonfire Night, the children of Pancester parade around the town carrying effigies of local villains hanging by nooses from the ends of long poles,  (including a representation of the Devil, hence ‘Hanging Nick’). They use these to knock on the upper windows of the houses, singing the while,

Wake up, thou sluggards,
And give Nick a penny,
And may ye sleep not,
If you give us not any.

Woe to the householder who does not pay the required fine, as the knocking may continue for many hours!

The climax of the evenings festivities is held in the Guildhall square, where a large fire has been lit. The adult population all bring a bone, said to represent an enemy, which they throw onto the fire in return for a years good fortune for them, and ill-fortune for the unfortunate represented by the bone. It is from this ancient practise that we derive the word bonfire, (or ‘bone-fire’). When the fire has reached it’s hottest, the children dip their effigies into the flames and hold them aloft, blazing on the ends of their nooses.

The effigies take various forms. As well as Old Nick, many of the children carry the image of Sir Alexander Honeyball, Mayor at the time of the Carillon Riots (see ‘The Alarum and the Carillon). In recent years, some of the children have made effigies of contemporary villains. I have watched Napoleon, General Smuts and The Mahdi burn merrily in Guildhall Square! During the festivities, the Pancestrians eat Nick Cakes. These are not unlike Welsh Cakes, and are best eaten hot.

The Pancester Dole

This custom has many similarities with the Winchester Dole,[3] except that Winchester gives bread rolls to travellers, whilst in Pancester, the bread is given to the pensioners of one of two almshouses in the city, either St. Gilbert’s Hospice, or the Hospital of St. Homobonus.The Dole originated in a bequest from Sir Kenelm de Courtney in 1503, when he left the grazing rights from a water-meadow adjacent to The Pack Bridge, immediately outside the city walls, now known as ‘Dole Acre’ (see ‘The Eastering’). This grant was to provide money to pay for bread for the pensioners, on condition that they prayed for his soul in perpetuity. The bread is given over Sir Kenelm’s tomb in the Parish church, St. Gilbert’s, after prayers every morning at 10.30, by the Warden of the victorious almshouse. Until 1668, which of the two almshouses would receive the dole of bread was decided by lot, but since that time, it has depended on the outcome of the annual Candlemas street football game, Wally Oop (see ‘Wally Oop’). It is a colourful sight to watch the pensioners processing to church for their morning prayers and dole of bread in their medieval gowns, red with a black cross for St. Gilbert’s, and black with a red cross for St. Homobonus.

The Plough Monday Mummers Play

The text was collected by the present author from Mr. Geo. Pither in 1893, and is to be found in Appendix IV of the present volume. Although superficially a traditional Christmastide or Plough Monday play, scholars have long argued that it is most likely a Shrovetide play which has been transplanted. The evidence they cite is the presence of the rebirth of St. George, which would seem to point to Easter or Shrovetide, when minds are naturally turned to the death of Our Lord upon Calvary Hill and his subsequent Resurrection, but it is my belief that the play has always been performed on Plough Monday, and that it is St. George who is the cuckoo in the nest.[4] It is unusual in several other respects; firstly, in that the script does not cover the banter between the Doctor and Jack Finney, which is improvised with each performance so that jokes and stories from the year just gone could be incorporated into the play. Also, the part of Molly Tinker (which is, of course, played by a man) has taken the place of Father Christmas for the purpose of calling in the Doctor. Finally, the Pancester play is unique in the number of characters who come on after the battle; these may once have constituted a separate play, or a second act.The fact that it has a cast of twelve characters is taken in evidence by those scholars who wish to support the Shrovetide Transplant Theory, in that the cast are said to represent the Twelve Apostles of Our Lord.It is my contention, however, that the characters stand for the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Another unusual practise associated with the play is that it is produced by that portion of the population who are adjudged to have been on the losing side at Wally Oop. (see ‘Wally Oop’)As well as producing the play, they are required to lay on a feast, which commences with the conclusion of the play and the ringing of the Feasting Bell at ten thirty in the morning.

Wally Oop

It is difficult to ascertain the origin of this ancient street football game, though it clearly has similarities with the games in Lerwick and Jedburgh, as well as with The Haxey Hood, the famous Lincolnshire game.[5] Certainly it has been played in Pancester at Candlemas since long before 1598, when a Doctor Raven, then vicar of Pancester, complained in his sermon that “ye boyes and men of Pancester frette more on the fate of ye Wally than they do on ye fate of their souls”.

The Wally itself is a roll of leather secured around with tarred string, which is kicked, punched, carried or otherwise conveyed towards one of two goals, the porch of St. Gilbert’s, and the door of The Holly Bush Inn, just inside the Westgate. Every able bodied man is expected to take part, and the streets of Pancester are not safe for the duration of the game, as thousands of players, (known as ‘Wallymen’), heave and sweat in manly contest, trying to move the Wally towards the goals. Onlookers are not tolerated, and many is the visitor who has found himself swept up by the throng, and forced to participate!

On the completion of the contest, the players enjoy a feast of pig, which is roasted on the Guildhall steps after the game. As it is not unknown for Wally Oop to continue into the small hours, it is quite usual for the roasted pig to be served at dawn to the by now very hungry (and, regrettably, often very inebriated) players!

The contest used to be fought between the Oopers and the Dooners, the Oopers defending the church porch, and the Dooners the door of the inn, but since the controversy in 1723 over the installation of the City Carillon (see ‘The Alarum and The Carillon’), it has been between the descendants of those who supported the installation of the new bells (the Ringlers), and those who opposed the innovation, (the Clanghandlers).

Since 1668, Wally Oop has also been used to decide the recipients of The Pancester Dole (see ‘Pancester Dole’). If the Ringlers are victorious, then it is the pensioners of St. Gilbert’s Hospice who receive the dole for the coming year, but if, however, the Clanghandlers gain the upper hand, then it is the pensioners of The Hospice of St. Homobonus who are fortunate.The losing side, however, stage the Pancester Mummers Play on Plough Monday, which is regarded as a great privilege, and so honours are even.


[1]see ‘Cheese Rolling and Apple Plummeting’, B.F.W. Potter, Folklore, 1901
[2]see ‘Arundel and Clitheroe: bonfires but no guy’, J.K.R.Talbot-Booth, Folklore, 1898.
[3]see ‘English Charitable Doles’ by D.F.N. Hallowby, A&C Black, 1902.
[4]see ‘St George and the Pancester Mummers Play,’, C.N.B. Dadd, Folklore, 1898
[5]see ‘British Street Football Survivals’, K.P.L. Williams, Folklore, 1894