Monday, January 13, 2014
From dancing with ploughs through hat-eating dragons to herrings in church, ROWAN MANTELL takes a month-by-month look at some Norfolk traditions, age-old and modern.
Poised at the beginning of a New Year the months ahead are marked out with a cycle of national and personal seasons, festivals, appointments and events. But Norfolk has another calendar too. Woven into the county’s life are the dates when ploughs are dragged through village streets and bishops float to church by boat.
Many of the folk traditions of Norfolk date back centuries and survive still, others were revived to mark our heritage, or began more recently to meet a modern need to congregate and celebrate.
A Norfolk year runs, not just from January to December, but also from Plough Monday to the Queen’s Christmas at Sandringham.
Plough Monday 2014 is this coming January 13. It always falls on the first Monday after Epiphany (traditionally the day the three kings arrived in Bethlehem bringing gifts for the baby Jesus.) Across East Anglia farm workers would pull a plough from house to house, offering to dance for money. The procession of plough and dancers would end up at the village church, where the plough would be blessed ready for ploughing to begin at the start of the agricultural year, the following day.
The dancers would often hide their identities by painting their faces black, or dressing as women, or both, to avoid repercussions if householders refused demands for cash and found a furrow ploughed across their gardens. These dancers with blackened faces and outlandish clothes were known as Molly Dancers. Plough Pudding, made of suet, meat and onions, was the traditional dish of the day.
Today Plough Monday is still celebrated in villages including Great Hockham and Northwold, near Thetford, and in Norwich where the Norwich Kitwitches will be dancing at the Plough Inn on St Benedict’s on Plough Monday evening.
Everyone knows that Cupid is busy on February 14, but it is only Norfolk that Jack Valentine visits too.
Jack (or Father) Valentine is the elusive, mischievous gift-giver at the heart of a Norfolk St Valentine’s Day. He leaves presents for children on doorsteps, often attached to a piece of string. These will be twitched away as the answers the door and tries to grasp the gift.
Another Norfolk Valentine tradition went global. The world’s earliest-known Valentine card was sent in 1477, by Margaret Brews of Topcroft, near Bungay, to her “right well-beloved” John Paston. By Victorian times Norwich shops were opening specially on St Valentine’s Eve for lovers to buy each other lavish gifts – although the collection of cards at Strangers Hall Museum in Norwich includes “black Valentines” packed with insults alongside loved-up paper and lace confections
Thousands of people and horses once converged on fields between the villages of Boughton and Wereham, near Downham Market, for St Winnold’s Fair. At its peak it was one of the biggest horse sales in Europe with more than 10,000 horses changing hands in a single day. Held on March 3, or St Winnold’s Day, it moved to Downham itself in the early 1800s and is still commemorated in the town every spring with a procession through the town, led by a shire horse.
Norwich’s fabulous modern festival of dragons takes place in February, but the fire-breathing fandango was originally linked to St George’s Day on April 23. Here in Norfolk our celebrations were more about the dragon than the saint.
In Norwich the city’s own dragon, called Snap, was paraded through the streets. Over the centuries the medieval model dragon developed moving jaws and wings and sometimes even belched smoke over the crowds lining the streets to watch it lead a procession of swordsman, singers, dancers, costumed officials and even priests. By Victorian times the unruly dragons would snap off people’s hats and demand a ransom for their return. This St George’s Day there are still plenty of Norfolk dragons lurking, including a display of some of the original Snap Dragons in Norwich Castle.
At 5.20am dancers will be poised in Norwich and King’s Lynn to welcome the first rays of the dawn sun. May Day has been a day of dancing and celebrations for centuries with festivities including morris and maypole dancing and dances with flower garlands. All the foot-tapping festivities are about celebrating the fertility of crops, flocks and people too.
In Norwich morris men gather on Mousehold Heath to dance in the dawn and then dance in front of the cathedral. In King’s Lynn the King’s Morris Men do their thing with sticks and bells at the highest point in the borough on the Knight’s Hill roundabout. Festivities continue in Lynn with morris men carrying a May Garland through the town, accompanied by the blowing of ox horn trumpets.
It’s not an age-old country tradition – but it is an integral part of Norfolk’s agricultural heritage and future. The Royal Norfolk Show is both the biggest annual event in Norfolk and the largest two-day agricultural show in the country.
This year’s show is on Wednesday and Thursday, June 25 and 26. The celebration of Norfolk’s agricultural industries includes everything from livestock competitions to a huge food hall and from the latest agricultural machinery to show jumping.
East Anglia has its own form of dance known as stepdancing. It is a bit like tap, usually danced on a wooden board, and can still be seen in some rural pubs and folk clubs. It was particularly popular with the crew of the Cromer Lifeboat, and Norfolk stepdancer Fiona Davies learned the art from her late father Richard, who was coxswain of the lifeboat for more than 20 years. Every July the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust holds a stepdance day at Worlingworth, near Diss. There are competitions open to all comers and even a chance for beginners to learn the basics. For information on the July 2014 event visit www.eatmt.org.uk
For most of the year the ruined abbey rises in picturesque isolation over the river and reedbeds.
But, on Sunday, August 3, the Abbot of St Benets, better known as the Bishop of Norwich, will arrive by wherry, in flowing embroidered robes and golden mitre, to lead a congregation of hundreds.
Once a year at least 12 centuries of Christian worship is continued, in the open air, in what is left of the only monastery in the land not to be dissolved by Henry VIII,
A wooden cross marks the site of the medieval high altar of St Benet’s Abbey, near Ludham. A ruined 18th century wind pump fills the even more ruined gatehouse to what was once one of the richest churches in the kingdom.
It is said to have been built by an Anglo-Saxon hermit and benefitted from the largesse of both King Cnut (Canute) and wealthy Norfolk knight Sir John Falstof (the model for Shakespeare’s Falstaff) who is buried here.
It was a favourite subject of painters John Sell Cotman and John Crome and the isolated ruins have attracted ghost stories too, including the legend of the traitor monk who opened the door to Norman invaders in return for being made the next Abbot. He opened the door, duly became Abbot – and was promptly hanged.
For 364 days a year the abbey ruins are haunted by birds and the occasional boat-borne visitor until its modern-day Abbot returns with a crowd of worshippers on the first Sunday of each August.
Hundreds of wherries once sailed the Broads, taking cargo to and from the sea ports and inland settlements. Today only a few survive, used as pleasure craft just as, more than a century ago, skippers would scrub out the holds and take holidaymakers for trips to make extra money. The Wherry Albion is one of two surviving trading barges built especially for the Broads. Free public open days run from May until September and one of the last chance to see the Wherry Albion this year is as part of the Heritage Open Day programme at Ludham on Thursday, September 11.
Fishing nets are draped across the pulpit and hang from walls at Great Yarmouth Minster for the annual Blessing of the Nets ceremony. And after the nets have been prayed and sung over and infused with incense, the congregation enjoys excerpts from the traditional drama Up Jumped the Herring! followed by a herring supper including fried, rollmop and marinated herring.
The Blessing of the Nets ceremony dates back to medieval times when fishermen would ask for holy protection and good fortune, and their hand-made nets and boats would be blessed by priests on the seashore. After the Reformation the tradition fell out of fashion, but was revived, first by Victorian fishermen and then by St Nicholas’ Minster itself.
Yarmouth’s herring industry once brought great prosperity to the town with thousands of the “silver darlings” landed every day throughout the season.
Christmas comes early in Norfolk. Tickets for the phenomenon that is the Thursford Christmas Spectacular go on sale in January. By early November tens of thousands of festive lights are twinkling, a cast of 130 singers, dancers and musicians are recreating, by turns, the purity of the Nativity, the magic of Victorian festivities and the razzmatazz of a huge professional stage show.
More than 130,000 travel from all over the country to a village with a permanent population of around 100 people, to see the show. It began as a carol concert in a farmyard barn, almost 40 years ago and is now the biggest Christmas show in Europe.
The 2014 Thursford Christmas Spectacular will be another three-hour fast-moving celebration of Christmas, with a £3m budget, opening on Saturday, November 8.
Norfolk is the ideal county for Christmas – even the Royal family agree. They spend Christmas at Sandringham every year. And every year up to 2,000 of their loyal subjects turn up on Christmas morning to see them walk to and from church on the estate.
Another Royal festive tradition shared by even more people, all around the world, is the Christmas Speech, which began at Sandringham in 1932. The current Queen’s grandfather, King George V, spoke to 20 million people live from Sandringham by radio. That first speech was written by poet Rudyard Kipling and began: “I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all.”
His words were transmitted to Australia, Canada, India, Kenya and South Africa as well as across Britain.