Sian El­lis of the Cotswolds Con­ser­va­tion Board on our fes­tive tra­di­tions

Get out and en­joy sea­sonal cel­e­bra­tions with a Cotswold twist, says Siân El­lis

Cotswold Life - - CONTENTS -

There is some­thing about the Cotswolds, its high wolds, dra­matic scarp, hid­den val­leys and farm­ing ways that holds peo­ple close to the land­scape; some­thing about the ru­ral Cotswolds that has al­ways en­cour­aged sea­sonal ri­tu­als to take root, flour­ish, sur­vive or re­vive, though they may fade from more ur­ban ar­eas. Mark­ers of the an­nual round, some tra­di­tions are idio­syn­cratic to the area; oth­ers of­fer a Cotswoldian twist on more gen­eral cus­toms.

Folk car­ols and hymns

You can join fes­tive ser­vices aplenty in our fa­mous wool churches and the Cotswolds has made its own spe­cial con­tri­bu­tion to the long, in­tri­cate his­tory of car­olling. In 1909 the avid folk­song col­lec­tor Ce­cil Sharp vis­ited Mrs Mary Clay­ton, then in her 60s, in Chip­ping Cam­p­den and tran­scribed her singing of The Holly and the Ivy. Pub­lished in English Folk-car­ols (1911), it be­came the stan­dard ver­sion of the fes­tive favourite that we know to­day.

Mean­while, Gus­tav Holst com­posed his Cran­ham tune for In the Bleak Mid­win­ter (pub­lished in The English Hym­nal 1906): the per­fect ex­cuse for a mid­win­ter walk along the 35-mile (56km) Gus­tav Holst Way from Cran­ham (past houses as­so­ci­ated with Holst) to Wyck Riss­ing­ton where he had his first job as a church or­gan­ist. The Chel­tenham-born com­poser loved walk­ing, even prac­tis­ing the trom­bone as he went; to­day’s route in his hon­our takes in the scarp and Crick­ley Hill, the open com­mon of Cleeve Hill, woods and vil­lages.

Glouces­ter­shire was­sail

No-one knows ex­actly when the Twelfth Night was­sail tra­di­tion be­gan: peo­ple go­ing door-to-door with their was­sail bowl to sing and wish house­hold­ers good luck, good health and pros­per­ity, in re­turn re­ceiv­ing a drink, cake or coins (‘was­sail’ comes from the An­glosaxon ‘waes hael’, mean­ing ‘be whole’ or ‘be hale’).

“In 19th-cen­tury Glouces­ter­shire it was com­mon prac­tice to was­sail the farmer, then go out to his barns and was­sail the oxen,” says folk­lore re­searcher Steve Row­ley, adding that it be­came “a se­ri­ous cadg­ing tra­di­tion amongst labour­ers, who used it to in­crease their in­come.”

The cus­tom largely waned but con­tin­ued into the 20th cen­tury in a few ar­eas in­clud­ing Glouces­ter­shire: over 30 lo­cal was­sail songs have been col­lected, the most fa­mous be­ing the Glouces­ter­shire Was­sail with toasts “to Broad May and to her broad horn!” Uniquely in south­ern Glouces­ter­shire groups took a Broad (a kind of hobby horse in the form of an ox or bull) with them wassailing.

The re­cent Stroud Was­sail re­vival (with Steve the driv­ing force and

co-or­di­na­tor) prom­ises an­other lively sea­son with mum­mers tour­ing around pubs in the Five Val­leys (De­cem­ber/ early Jan­uary) and town-wide cel­e­bra­tions in Stroud on Jan­uary 12 in­clud­ing street mu­si­cians, a re-en­act­ment of a house was­sail and evening rev­els.

“We are faith­ful to the spirit of wassailing but we have taken ele­ments from other tra­di­tions and cre­ated some­thing new that has value and rel­e­vance to­day,” says Robin Bur­ton, Was­sail Chair. www.stroud­was­

Mum­ming and Mor­ris

Else­where, you can en­joy The Old Time Pa­per Boys (their cos­tumes dec­o­rated with strips of coloured pa­per) per­form­ing their mum­ming play in Marsh­field on Box­ing Day at 11am. The cus­tom, re­vived in 1930, is a typ­i­cal hero-com­bat play in which Lit­tle Man John is slain but re­vived by the dodgy Doc­tor Phoenix. An oral tra­di­tion passed down the gen­er­a­tions, it of­fers a lo­cal take on gen­eral mum­ming cus­toms with a unique con­clud­ing song. (www.marsh­field­mum­

The Ilm­ing­ton Mum­mers (formed from The Tra­di­tional Ilm­ing­ton Mor­ris Men) also plan a per­for­mance of their vil­lage play on Box­ing Day.


Or catch some Mor­ris danc­ing. Each side has its own lo­cal dance tra­di­tions, such as Field­town for Charl­bury & Fin­stock Mor­ris, who are ap­pear­ing with Wy­ch­wayz Bor­der Mor­ris on Box­ing Day (1pm be­hind the Bell Ho­tel, Charl­bury). Field­town is the col­lec­tive name for a group of lo­cal vil­lages and fea­tures six-man dances with sticks or han­kies. Why not have a go – Charl­bury & Fin­stock Bag­man, Peter Smith, says Mor­ris is fun and so­cia­ble, and they are cur­rently re­cruit­ing new mem­bers for next year’s dance sea­son.

River rev­els

While Mor­ris danc­ing might trace its roots in Eng­land to the 15th cen­tury, ev­ery tra­di­tion has to start some­where. Bour­ton-on-the-wa­ter’s il­lu­mi­nated Christ­mas tree in the river through De­cem­ber has been among win­ter’s cap­ti­vat­ing sights for the last 35-plus years. (www.bour­ton­

An­other mod­ern cal­en­dar clas­sic, the Great Brook Run at Chadling­ton, is on sab­bat­i­cal this De­cem­ber but Bibury Cricket Club An­nual Box­ing Day Duck Race, dat­ing from 1985, is set to pro­vide a “won­der­ful morn­ing out for all the fam­ily”, says club sec­re­tary Mark Arm­strong. Ar­rive in good time to grab a spot along the River Coln be­fore 11am, when 3,000 (plas­tic and de­coy) ducks are re­leased down the river in two races: in­clud­ing the chance for the spon­sor of the win­ning duck in the char­ity race to nom­i­nate the char­ity to re­ceive the prize pot. Thou­sands of pounds have been raised over the years. www.biburycrick­et­

Shake a leg

Fi­nally, how about the fresh-air tra­di­tion of a Christ­mas, Box­ing Day or New Year ram­ble, off-set­ting fes­tive ex­cesses. If you fancy com­pany and dif­fer­ent places to ex­plore, check out guided walks avail­able across the Cotswolds, many led by Cotswold Vol­un­tary War­dens.

New Year’s Day sees a Tues­day Tramp in Col­erne and Walks around South Stoke, while Bliss to Start the Year (from Chip­ping Nor­ton and tak­ing in the iconic Bliss Mill) on Jan­uary 3 sounds like a gen­tle way to ease your­self onto the right foot for 2019.


N‘Some tra­di­tions are idio­syn­cratic to the area; oth­ers of­fer a Cotswoldian twist on more gen­eral cus­toms’

Ilm­ing­ton Mum­mers Photo: Ju­lia Lin­dop

Bamp­ton Mor­ris Dancers at Ship­ston Fair, June 22, 1929

The Broad at Stroud Was­sail

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