A hot day in August. I am thinking.
I am sitting high upon the Hill with my dog, Dan.
Dragonflies and swifts dart over bracken. The gorse is snapping and cracking in the heat.
I’m thinking about the fragility, and strength, of ‘tradition’ and the ritual year: how we practice it, how many are aware of it and what importance does it have in todays society? Should we differentiate between ‘quiet’ local customs carried out by families and grand ‘statement’ events, some charging entrance fees ? And how relevant to folk traditions are structures in the landscape, natural or otherwise, other than tourist attractions?
Too many questions so I focus, ‘keep it local’.
The Hill where I live has its share of relics: hill forts, tumbled merestones and ruined cottages where daffodils still grow in the spring, dry stone walls tumble across the slopes with foxgloves enhancing their appeal to walkers and bumble bees. Larks and stonechats fly on the upper commons where there is a solitary fire grate.
The Clee Hills, can be seen for miles from Wales, Worcestershire and the Cotswolds. Titterstone Clee is the only named hill on the 13th century Mappa Mundi demonstrating its historic significance in the landscape. Today each of the three hills remain important to its inhabitants.
Around ‘our’ Hill, Brown Clee, people sometimes gather together to sing and weave stories.
There is folklore here too, tangled and vague, most resembling threads of other tall tales from around these islands.
Thankfully there’s always room for more and recent lockdowns birthed new ones but about the old ways? How are they doing?
Is it a fair assumption that many our surviving traditions are resigned to the ‘weird and wonderful Britain’ category, the odd, quirky hobbies of an eccentric minority?
Maybe, but I don’t think it’s that straight forward.
Many traditions are under threat through lack of relevance or public support and in some cases that’s as it should be (take hunting and other blood sports, for example). I have witnessed several occasions this year demonstrating this: on a sunny St George’s Day a morris side danced outside a pub but the landlady, glancing at the small crowd of onlookers, said she ‘couldn’t see the point’. At another event, well attended for over two hundred years, the village anthem was omitted for the first time much to the sadness of one elderly local who sang it anyway. Conversely other traditions have seen recent revivals and continue to develop, even thrive.
Take the Mari Lwyd, a type of wassailing tradition. This strange, old Welsh tradition was almost obsolete a couple of decades ago, confined to Wales during the mid-winter. Originally it involved a small party going from door to door with a horse’s skull carried by a man under a white sheet. At each house a song (pwncco) was sung requesting admittance, . Finally the party was allowed to enter and given refreshments.
Times change and nowadays Mari’s may be found across the border, sometimes in high summer, taking many forms. If you are lucky enough to encounter one they are often resplendent with flashing eyes and wearing bright ribbons, streamers, bells and baubles! Some people are uncomfortable with the direction the custom is going saying too many liberties are being taken with its traditional Welsh roots. Others see the Mari Lwyd as an evolving tradition and its development is essential for its survival.
It’s the same with morris dancing: many sides uphold a tradition style while others weave older dance components with modern twists or combine them with other traditions.
It’s notable that interest in such traditions is concurrent with the revived concern about our disappearing landscape and the impact of politics and climate change on nature and wildlife. Tradition and folklore has always been closely bound to our environment, a means of binding ourselves to our surroundings.
Folktales were often used to warn us against potential dangers: wild kelpies disembowelling young people, Jenny Green-teeth dragging her victims down into the miry depths of the mere were apt warnings about ‘stranger danger’ and the perils of deep damp places. Conversely, maypoles and corn dollies prevail today as celebrations of life and natures bounty.
The growing popularity of movements such as Right to Roam and Saving our Rivers are visibly supported and accompanied by those who perpetuate, and reinvent, the folk culture of these islands. Morris dancers, singers, Red Rebels, ‘animal heads’, storytellers, protesters, artists, doctors, poets, activists may often be found supporting projects concerned about the environment and future. History demonstrates that many who think creatively have often been the forerunners of the desire for social change and natural justice (and I especially mean those whose social circumstances, due to poverty, social displacement or injustice, demand they must think outside the box for their own survival).
Recently someone told me that she didn’t know Britain had any folklore despite having lived here for a number of years. She explained that in her home country of Romania folk traditions have a high profile. They are an essential feature of important events, religious and secular with young people learning from the older family members. Is it fair to assume that aside from a few lucky horseshoes at weddings tradition has little relevance to most of us?
I’m not so sure. I think we all connect more than we realise.
This summer there were important excavations at Arthurs Stone, a Neolithic burial chamber in the Herefordshire Marches. Its position in the landscape is significant, high above the village of Dorstone with sweeping views to the Black Mountains of Wales. Standing high above the Golden Valley our eye is drawn to the ‘Holy Mountain’ in the distance, the Skirrid, rising in solitary grace before our gaze is swept across the majesty of the mountains towards Hay Bluff. It’s an awesome place and remains importance in the people who live nearby.
This dig was part of an ongoing research project, ‘Beneath Hay Bluff’, examining a series of Neolithic features in the landscape. Previous excavations in the area have suggested there is a network of important features relating to ancient burial rites and perhaps, the passing year.
I was privileged to work as a guide for English Heritage during the duration of the dig and had the opportunity to meet many visitors. Over a thousand joined the tours as well as casual visitors. Those I encountered, almost without exception, spoke affectionately of this powerful landscape unfolding beneath and beyond towards the west. Some had been inspired creatively by the stones. They were in good company: Alfred Watkins, who conceived the idea of ‘Ley Lines’ was a frequent visitor along with the diarist and poet Rev. Francis Kilvert and the writer C. S. Lewis (Lewis conceived his idea of Aslan’s table for the chronicles of Narnia from Arthurs Stone).
Arthur’s Stone is an important part of many family traditions. It was a venue for chapel picnics and harvest wakes; one woman recalled the parson standing on the dolmen to deliver his sermon. Some had their pictures taken there as babies and have bought their own children up for photographs. (I witnessed this ongoing tradition during the dig). Such was the care and concern for the place felt by the local community English Heritage appointed a liaison officer to address any concerns and to hold regular briefings in the villages.
On the last day of the dig Professors Keith Ray and Jeremy Thompson gave a final briefing to a packed village hall in the valley. It was standing room only, too many people crammed in for these Covid times, but we came, stood and listened while the swifts called their goodbyes outside.
Later I noticed someone had left a wreath of corn by one of the ancient stones.
There are still places that speak to us, connecting us to a landscape, an ideal, a community. We respond by creating rituals, traditions which can bind us to a time and place. Some are natural and others, like Arthurs’s Stone, were once an integral part of a vanished society. Maybe ancient belief systems and an intuitive relationship with the land resulted in the creation of these extraordinary structures. They are profound, awesome spectacles of wonder and enchantment in the natural landscape. Many are lost but many endure today.
We can only imagine their impact in earlier times.
People will continue to come to Arthurs Stone, place their babies on the dolmen for a photo. They will dance a morris on May Day, perhaps come for a picnic. Although some folk traditions are not for everyone, memories endure and family customs continue, important rituals themselves perpetuating our sense of place and connection with the landscape.
So whether we are dancing with a Mari , sharing food, staring out over the sea, across a wood or the liminal border land of the Welsh Marches from Arthur’s Stone, we can all perhaps, hold our own traditions in our own way.
NB This article was written before the death of HRH Elizabeth II which has seen many ancient & modern ritualistic and historic traditions performed accordingly throughout the country from proclamations to bell ringing to silent vigils.