The Shrieking Pits

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Tucked away in the north Norfolk coastal hinterland, close to the villages of Overstrand and Northrepps, is a group of small ponds known as the Shrieking Pits. More of the same can also be found a few miles further west near Aylmerton close to Felbrigg Hall. Thought to be early medieval excavations for iron ore, the resultant pits have long been filled with water and softened by vegetation to allow them to blend in with the scenery as if they were natural features in this gentle post-glacial landscape.

Seeking them out, we made our way on foot from Overstrand, following the Paston Way inland through dark woodland and prairie-sized fields of barley and oilseed rape. The pits lie amidst arable land just beyond a farm at Hungry Hill, a name that points towards agricultural impoverishment at some time in the past. The pits stand beside a green lane, a byway of some antiquity that may have been here as long as the excavations themselves.

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The first one we come across is small, surrounded by willows of a uniform height. In the ring of tree shade that encloses the shallow pond, a wooden palette left over from some undefined farming business lies next to the water liked an abandoned raft. The main ‘pit’ is nearby, an altogether larger and more impressive pond edged in by semi-recumbent oaks. The water is glassy and ink-black, suggesting great depth and perhaps a little menace. On the far bank the surface is coated with pond weed the colour of puréed peas. A small wooden notice board has been placed next to one of the oaks is but it is bare, its writing long gone to leave it devoid of information other than that which can be told by wood grain alone. Despite this unwitting redaction, a tangible sense of genius loci suggests that there is something to be told of this place other than a chance meeting of trees and water.

Naturally with a name like Shrieking Pit there is a strong likelihood of dark legend. The mundane answer is that the name alludes to the sound emitted by the exposed gravels. But does gravel really shriek? It scrapes and it crunches but does it make a noise quite so dreadful? Shriek is a loaded word, a term that evokes emotion – fear, dismay, even terror. It is these qualities that inform the folklore associated with the place.

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The story goes that a grieving young woman haunts the locality. It tells of a heartbroken 17 year-old called Esmeralda who was seduced and then abandoned by a duplicitous local farmer. Inconsolable, the desperate young woman is said to have thrown herself into the water of the pit one dark night before immediately regretting her decision and crying for help that did not come. Her unheard cries are said to be heard at the spot each February 24th, the anniversary of her death.

Another story tells of a horse and cart vanishing without trace in the pool’s murky depths. Looking at the black unreflecting water it seems perfectly possible. Places such as this, although mere dust specks on the map, are the bread and butter of rural folklore. Such places inevitably become repositories of legend – features where the landscape can be painted with tales of intrigue, romance and horror. As the notice board is currently blank perhaps we should feel free to write our own story.

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References:

http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?MNF6787-Shrieking-Pits

https://www.hiddenea.com/norfolkn.htm#northrepps

Shirley Collins and the fall of Eden

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In 1969 an album was released entitled Anthems in Eden. Its creators were sisters Shirley and Dolly Collins, folk musicians who hailed from Sussex in southern England. Released on the newly created Harvest label, and much lauded by the likes of John Peel and other progressive music luminaries, Anthems in Eden was a world away from what normally passed for underground music in those days.

I most probably first became aware of Shirley and Dolly Collins through John Peel. Most likely I was listening to my transistor radio beneath the sheets to Peel’s late night BBC programme Night Ride, where all manner of quirky underground music got an airing – folk, classical, film soundtracks, as well as poetry and world music before it was ever even called that. I should have been asleep, of course, so as to be sharp and bright for school the next day but even then I was captivated by strange and beautiful music whatever genre it might belong to. I was never what might be called a folkie but there was something about Collins’ voice, along with the gorgeous melodies and sometimes dark narrative of the songs, that awakened something deep within me. Somehow it aroused an atavistic connection with a long-vanished England of the past. It seemed to connect with the very folds of the landscape itself, with distant land-tilling ancestors who had preceded those forefathers who had uprooted themselves from the countryside to work in the soot-stained industry of the West Midlands. The music of my ancestors – that seemed about right.

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The record’s first side was a 28-minute song-story that incorporated songs often heard at singarounds at folk clubs, which having enjoyed a boom in the 50s and early 60s were experiencing a slump in fortune by the time the record was released. Instead of the usual finger-picking and finger-in-the-ear approach, the songs, centred upon Shirley’s pure, undemonstrative voice and the plaintive piping of Dolly’s portative organ, were set in a soundscape of medieval instruments – rasping crumhorn, sawing bass viol, scale-sliding sackbut – played by the Early Music Consortium of London. The eccentric, slightly out-of-tune musical setting provided a surprisingly sympathetic backdrop for the traditional songs that were featured, which included Searching for Lambs, The Blacksmith and Pleasant and Delightful among others.

The intent of the song-story was to evoke an England that had vanished since the outbreak of the First World War when rural life was torn apart by the savagery and deprivations that ensued. The Great War brought about change as catastrophic as an epoch-ending meteorite strike, brutally fracturing cultural stability like sudden tectonic slippage. Vast numbers of agricultural workers were lost to the Flanders mud; country estates floundered through lack of a workforce; folk traditions that hitherto had been second nature were lost or only dimly remembered. A great disconnection took place. Naturally, there were some benefits to emerge eventually from the debris of war – women’s suffrage, the seeds sown of social change to improve the lot of a downtrodden working class — but  the old songs were largely forgotten and England’s utopian Eden, if ever it existed, was lost forever. In the villages of broken post-war England war memorials replaced maypoles.

The notion of Eden draws on a long tradition of locus amoenus – an idealised ‘pleasant place’. Such idylls of place, time and circumstance were frequently employed as the backdrop for traditional English song, although the same places might also serve as the realm of dark deed-doing. Traditional English murder ballads tend to inhabit an English pastoral setting as much as Midsomer Murders favours a fictitious village idyll complete with cricket green, parish church and George Orwell’s ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’. Such a dreamlike ‘pleasant place’ was seen as the apogee of rural life. The narrative action habitually took place on labour-free Sundays and holidays. The weather was always good, the birds always singing. The season was invariably summer. All this, of course, is a literary trope, a celebration of how things might be, or might once have been, had the world been a kinder place.

The uplifting sing-along of Pleasant and Delightful, a fragment of the Anthems in Eden song-story, is a case in point. It begins by setting the scene of a pastoral locus amoenus before introducing an element of uncertainty – a love-struck sailor who is due to travel overseas. It concludes with the sailor-narrator taking leave of his true love Nancy to go off on the next tide, promising that ‘if I ever return again’ they would marry.

‘Twas pleasant and delightful one midsummer’s morn

To view the green fields all covered with corn

And the blackbird and thrush sang on every green spray

And the larks they sang melodious at the dawning of the day.

The suite of songs that make up Anthems in Eden is presented as a vignette of a rural romance before the First World War, before the fall. Its component songs flowing one into the next to describe a meeting, courtship, leave-taking and subsequent forsaking that leads the way to a new beginning. The effect is both a celebration and an elegy to that which had vanished and was now lost. The voice behind the project, Shirley Collins, would go on to experience many losses in her own life: a father who walked out on the young family, two broken marriages, the death of her dear sister Dolly and, most cruelly, the loss of her remarkable singing voice in 1978.

The recently released film Ballad of Shirley Collins directed by Tim Plester and Rob Curry documents Shirley’s past life as the ‘High Queene of English Song’.  Interspersed with scenes of cosy domesticity at home in Lewes, Sussex is shaky faux-retro 16mm footage of her song-collecting road trip with then-lover Alan Lomax to the United States in 1959, with lookalike actors playing the young Shirley and her much older American beau. The soundtrack features archive recordings of Collins performing, fragments of the material she and Lomax collected in the rural Deep South and original music by Ossian Brown and Michael J. York. The American field recordings are remarkable in their own right. Cleaned-up sonically, yet retaining all their untutored rawness, they include English murder ballads sung by nasal Appalachians, cotton picking blues shouters, maniacal banjoists and, most extraordinary, a hollering polyphonic choir of such unrefined intensity that it sounds capable of raising the dead. The rawness of the collected American material reflects the state of the nation at that time. In interview Collins speaks matter-of-factly about the commonplace violence – domestic, racial and otherwise – she encountered, the shameful segregationism, the unabashed racism that tainted the American South in the 50s. Plus ça change some might say.

The crux of the film hinges on the singer’s return to recording after a 38-year absence — the tentative home sessions that will eventually produce her acclaimed 2016 return album Lodestar. Intercut with this are finely observed details of the world that Collins’ and her ageless songs inhabit. The camera flits around, gleaning detail from Collins’ home, the local haunts she visits, the Sussex countryside. It alights on green man masks, on sheep’s heads, on tea mugs and curious pottery figurines; on the Garden of Eden ceramic that was featured on the cover of Anthems in Eden and which hangs on the wall of her musician friend David Tibet’s house. The Sussex landscape looks ravishing throughout, all sloping hills and golden fields of grain that swoop down to white cliffs and the English Channel. A gentle warm breeze seems to be ever-present, rippling the grass and wild flowers in the foreground of the screen. A particularly effecting moment is a lingering long-focus shot of sheep contentedly grazing their way across the hillside chalk feature of the Long Man of Wilmington, the giant’s arms raised to support what look like Norwegian walking poles in each hand.

This is Sussex seen as an English Garden of Eden, folk tradition seeped into the ancient chalk of its rolling downs. A landscape gifted as a living repository of the old songs and stories that holds Shirley Collins, lover of tradition yet challenger of what she calls ‘the toxic side of Englishness’, rightfully in place as keeper of the keys.

And the larks they sang melodious at the dawning of the day.

Under the Greenwood Tree – Forest Bathing in the Deep, Deep Woods of Coed Felinrhyd

IMG_6699The Japanese have an expression – shirin-yoku (‘forest bathing’) — which refers to time spent in a wood or forest for purposes of health and relaxation. Scientific field studies have demonstrated that spending even a short time among trees promotes a lower concentration of cortisones, lower pulse, lower blood pressure, decreased levels of stress and improved concentration. In Japan activities such as shirin-yoku are part of the culture and hold an important place in the national psyche.  Modern Japanese culture is still rooted in ancient nature-worshipping Shinto beliefs that are expressed in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most striking of these for westerners is the annual celebration of the sakura (cherry blossom) season that seems, almost atavistically, to drive an entire nation into parks clutching picnics, beer coolers and selfie sticks each spring. In the West, things are different, and such worship of nature tends to be more a private practice than a social or cultural one on the whole. Certainly, while most would admit to enjoying an autumnal woodland walk, a family ramble though crackling leaf litter on crisp, white-breath days, for much of the year forests are spurned by most of the population, perhaps even slightly feared by some.IMG_6680The forest, the greenwood, comes with cultural baggage. It is sensed to be a place of ‘the Other’, a place of wild things, of decay, of hidden danger; of runaway fugitives, mythical outlaws — Robin Hood being prime example — deserted children (Babes in the Wood), ghosts and malevolent spirits.  There is no denying that some tracts of woodland are downright spooky, places where dark forces can be felt to be at large. Traditional children’s literature does not help much in mitigating this irrational if primal fear. In fact, it nourishes it — one of the very first books I remember reading as a small child was Winkie Lost in the Deep, Deep Woods, the very title of which suggests some sort of unspoken dark menace. As an archetype, a forest is perceived as an eldritch zone where wicked witches live alone in eerie hovels, where red-cloaked little girls are preyed upon by egregious wolves, and large gatherings of ursine cuddly toys attend sinister secret picnics. Go into the woods (today) and you might well be ‘sure of a big surprise’. In adult life the same fear is perpetuated as a trope of the horror genre — the psychological terror of The Blair Witch Project springs to mind. The forest is a place where bad things happen — a place to bury the bodies. Be afraid. Even Japan with its devotion to sakura and forest bathing traditions has its fair share of indigenous forest demons. The country even has its own haunted forest, Aokigahara, at the foot of Mount Fuji, which has the unenviable reputation of beings the world’s second most popular choice as a place for suicide. IMG_6714But let us embrace a positive outlook and view woodland as a place of wonder and nurture rather than fear and loathing, a place to breathe in the beneficial volatile oils emitted by trees and enjoy their beauty. Where better to delve into the greenwood in Britain than a tract of temperate rainforest that has hardly changed since the last glacial period? Coed Felinrhyd in North Wales has stood largely untouched since from this period and, although tracts of this woodland have been partially managed over the centuries, other parts have remained undisturbed for around 10,000 years. Coed Felinrhyd, owned by the Woodland Trust, is just a fraction of the remnant temperate rainforest found in this damp corner of Wales: a 90-hectare tract of woodland on the southern side of the narrow Ceunant Llennyrch gorge through which the mercurial Afon Pryser, a tributary of the Afon Dwyryd, flows. Coed Felinrhyd’s particularities of relief and climate, tucked away in a sheltered, virtually frost-free gorge close to the Welsh coast in a region where it rains on average 200 days a year, ensure that the ecosystem here is in many ways unique. Scarce plants and ferns thrive in the understory, rare lichens and mosses cloak the trees. But this is more than simply remarkable ecosysytem, this is also a place where geography and legend intertwine – the forest receives a mention in the ancient Mabinogion myths written down in the 12th century and is said to be the location where two warriors once fought to the death. IMG_6660The entrance is a little hard to find, hidden away just beyond the entrance to the Maentwrog power station on the Blenau Ffestiniog to Harlech road. A Woodland Trust notice board by the gate gives background information on Coed Felinrhyd and a signpost points out the direction of a well-defined trail that circuits the forest. The trail climbs steeply at first, then more gently before levelling off. The first thing to be noticed, other than the towering oaks that stretch in every direction, is moss. Although ferns are almost as prolific, sprouting like green shuttlecocks wherever they can secure a foothold, it is moss that is everywhere cloaking every surface — on the bark of trees, on the rocks that line the pathway, on the dry stone walls that partition the woodland; on any surface where moisture can collect. Even most of the tree stumps are upholstered with velvety jade cushions of moss, their cut surface having been rapidly colonised by the feathery fronds of bryophytes. Each of these is a pedestal-raised forest in miniature, a Lilliputian lost world — this small tract of woodland contains a million tiny moss forests within it. Some of the tree stumps have been cut mischievously into the shape of a chair or a four-legged stool, the work of a rogue woodsman with a sense of humour and an artistic streak. A few of are fresh enough to not yet sport the forest’s inevitable green uniform, although no doubt soon they will. IMG_6664Having reached a plateau in the woods we come across a ruined slate barn beside the trail, its roof long gone and ferns sprouting like bunting on top of the walls where the eaves should be. Long abandoned, the building is probably at least two hundred years old and a remnant of the old farming practice of ‘hafod a hendre’ in which shepherds would remain on higher pasture with their flocks during summer. The track continues past clumps of trees that seem to emerge directly from the moss-carpeted boulders at their base. The blanket of moss and lichens that covers both gives the impression that both tree and rock are born of the same material, something primal and green that is neither strictly vegetable or mineral but something in between.IMG_6683Descending back down into the valley we arrive at a dry stone wall that has a gate which leads into Llennyrch, a neighbouring tract of forest of similar pedigree to Coed Felinrhyd. We follow the wall to the left and the sound of rushing water becomes gradually louder as the gorge reveals itself. A small viewing platform gives a glimpse of the waterfall of Rhaeadr Ddu that plummets down onto the rocks below although the view is partly obscured by the dense foliage. The river is still some way beneath us but we draw closer to it as the path gradually descends. Finally we come to Ivy Bridge, which, true to name, is enveloped by long trails of ivy that hang over the edge almost touching the water and rocks beneath. Beyond the bridge, on the other side of the river, the unsightly machinery of an electricity substation can be discerned beyond a fence; beyond this, unseen from this position, lies the Maentwrog power station.IMG_6713After two hours of slow walking, looking, taking photographs and what can only be described as mobile ‘forest bathing’ we are back where we started. It suddenly occurs that we have met absolutely no one on our walk even though it is a relatively bright day with little threat of rain. No hikers or dog walkers, no botanists or tree-huggers, no Celtic warrior ghosts. And, to the best of our knowledge, no malevolent woodland sprites either.IMG_6677IMG_6695IMG_6708

 

 

 

Hethel Old Thorn

img_4397If trees could only speak. If they had some semblance of sentience and memory, and a means of communication, what would they tell us? Ancient trees – or at least those we suspect to be very old – are usually described in terms of human history. Perhaps as humans it is hubris that requires us to define them in this way but the fact is that by and large they tend to outlive us: many lofty oaks that stand today were already reaching for the sky when the Industrial Revolution changed the face of the land over two centuries ago. This linkage of history and old trees has resulted in some colourful local history. The story of the future King Charles II hiding from parliamentarian troops up a pollarded oak tree in Boscobel, Shropshire carried sufficient potency for the original tree to have been eventually killed by souvenir hunters excessively lopping of its branches as keepsakes. Undoubtedly the stuff of legend, Royal Oak ended up becoming the third commonest pub name in England. A long-established folk belief also tells of the Glastonbury Thorn, the tree which is said to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arithmathea whom legend has it once visited Glastonbury with the Holy Grail. What was considered to be the original tree perished during the English Civil War, chopped down and burned by Cromwell’s troops who clearly held a grudge against any tree that came with spiritual associations or historical attitude.img_4398There is an ancient thorn in Norfolk that is sometimes connected with the same Joseph of Arithmathea myth. Hethel Old Thorn can be found along narrow lanes amidst unremarkable farming country 10 miles south of Norwich. Close to the better known Kett’s Oak that can be seen propped up alongside the old London Road near Wymondham; closer still to the Lotus car factory and Hethel’s All Saints Church, which dates back at least to the 14th century and may even have a Saxon core.

The old thorn stands enclosed behind a fence, a measure designed to deter the red poll cattle that graze here, and perhaps also would-be tree-huggers if the rampant bed of nettles around its base were not enough. Occupying just 0.025 hectares, the site is Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s smallest nature reserve; indeed it is probably the smallest nature reserve in the country. The tree itself is impressive although now much diminished from what it once was – in the mid 18th-century its trunk was recorded as having a circumference of over 12 feet and a spread of 31 yards.img_4402At an estimated 700 years old this is thought to be the oldest specimen of Crataegus monogyna in the UK. Like the nearby Kett’s Oak, the thorn was thought to be a meeting place for the rebels during Kett’s Rebellion in 1549. Long before that it may have been used as a meeting point for protesters during the time of King John. According to the information on the sign board local children would once have danced the village maypole and then scrambled to the thorn to count the number of props holding up the boughs. Seventy or so years ago it would have witnessed a flow of American Liberator B-42 bombers taking off for operations over Germany from the nearby airfield that now serves as the Lotus works. Despite age, decay and fragmentation the thorn still appears to be in good fettle. On my visit in late November a fine crop of haws were hanging on its boughs, a rich invitation for blackbirds and wintering redwings. Clearly the Hethel Old Thorn is still very much alive and thriving. Who knows how many more centuries the tree will live and what future events it will observe as silent witness?

Lunar Sun (Ra)

IMG_2069This post comes not from Elveden or points east but from Arden, as in Tanworth-in-Arden; from the lush green countryside between Redditch and Solihull in northwest Warwickshire, that rolling bucolic Eden that lies just south of the diesel-rank treadmill that is the M42.  Umberslade Farm near Tanworth-in-Arden is the inspired location for the Lunar Festival, which has just enjoyed its third annual convocation.

“Hello Lunar. I’ve been living in North Wiltshire in a mystical state” was how Julian Cope introduced himself to the audience before launching into a troubling but catchy song about ‘sleeping in the room that they found Sadam in’. Cope, enthusiastic psychedelic practitioner, occult archaeologist, Krautrock chronicler and self-parodying rock survivor, seemed a natural choice for the Sunday afternoon slot at Warwickshire’s Lunar Festival. Dressed like a fallen Hell’s Angel and accompanied by only a sparkly 12-string guitar he entertained the crowd with darkly melodic songs that he interspersed with rambling tales of how no-one would work with him these days because of his errant Byronic ways.

IMG_2114Sadly I missed The Fall and Mark E Smith’s malevolent mumblings on the Friday night, along with Tuareg camel-rockers Tinariwen, but had enjoyed Wilko Johnson and a resurgent, partly septuagenarian Pretty Things on the previous day. I had also witnessed Mike Heron and Glaswegian nu-folk-rockers Trembling Bells covering some early Incredible String Band back catalogue in the Bimble Inn bar – a slightly shambolic but warm-hearted performance with Heron grinning broadly at the crowd, clearly enjoying himself as they performed the likes of “This Moment” and “A Very Cellular Song”. And it was – very cellular.

IMG_2075The Lunar Festival is intimate and small-scale with a local feel. The lingua franca spoken here is mostly Middle Brummie, a tonal language spoken throughout the West Midlands, north Worcestershire and Warwickshire: a tongue in which I have working proficiency having grown up nearby, although decades in East Anglia have stymied full fluency. The Lunar vibe is early Glastonbury: gently pagan, psychedelic and counter-cultural. Imagine a Midlands Wicker Man without the unpleasant sacrificial burning at the end. Crow symbols abound, there are quite a few animal-headed folk strolling about, and the wood-smoked air is pleasantly redolent of 1967, as are some of the attendees – patchouli and other popular herbal fragrances may possibly be discerned. An oak tree trunk next to the arena’ s central camp fire is carved with the legend: ‘A day once dawned and it was beautiful’ – a line from a song by Nick Drake, a large portrait of whom hangs from a tree branch next to the Crow Bar beer tent at the top of the field. The reference is deliberate: leafy Tanworth-in-Arden was the childhood home of troubadour Nick Drake, whose tragically short life created a musical canon of great longevity.

IMG_2161The Bootleg Beatles concluded the festival on Sunday, and were glorious with their note-perfect trawl through the very best of the Fab Four’s 1966—70 material, but for me the real star of the festival was the penultimate act, the Sun Ra Arkestra directed by 91-year-old Marshall Allen. Allen joined the band way back in 1957 and took over the musical directorship in 1993 when their controversial leader Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony’r Ra  1914—93) ‘left the planet’ to return to his native Saturn.

IMG_2179I had seen the Arkestra perform last year at London’s Barbican Centre when they celebrated their erstwhile leader’s centenary. They were good but somehow it seemed that they did not quite gel musically on that occasion. At Lunar though, they dazzled, segueing from one tune to another, Marshall Allen directing his cohorts with hand gestures, ear-whispers and alto sax squeaks. Despite a playful sense of humour and the faintly ridiculous galactic-warrior outfits sported by the Arkestra players, the music they generated was deadly serious: spontaneous, risky, and on occasion quite unsettlingly beautiful. At times the music seemed to teeter on the edge of anarchy but it was usually only a brief time before the band swiftly gathered itself together to swing into another languid yet skin-tight ensemble passage.  It has sometimes been dubbed ‘space-jazz’ or ‘afrofuturist’ but to accurately describe the scope of the Arkestra’s music is a futile endeavour – never has the dictum ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ seemed more apposite. There were a couple of tunes I recognised: “Saturn”, I think, and “Angels and Demons”, and near the end of the set we were treated to a superb straight-ahead blues in which everyone took a solo and the Arkestra seemed momentarily to almost be a normal sort of jazz band, albeit one where the adjectives ‘left-field’, ‘spacey’ and ‘psychedelic’ still seem to be wholly appropriate.

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The set concluded with the Arkestra leaving the stage to lead a procession around the site: a motley pageant of aged jazzmen in sparkling capes followed by an assortment of folk in badger and crow outfits, black-faced Molly dancers and a few adventurous children. The denouement came with the ritual combustion of the wooden crow-man totem that had stood in the centre of the site for the duration of the festival. The crow-man burned hard and bright, sparks crackling to the strains of “Space is the Place” played by the Arkestra’s gamely marching horn-men.

Perhaps space is the place? But then so is Tanworth-in-Arden in early June. Magic is undoubtedly in the air around this time. Wicca comes to Warwickshire; Sun Ra smiles down from Saturn. Lunar, I’ll be back.

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Easter Eggs

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Easter, as well as its obvious Christian association, has strong connections with the giving and receiving of eggs in one form or another. In Britain, and in no doubt much of Western Europe and North America, we give chocolate eggs to children as a treat. With a bit a luck we might even receive one ourselves – a proprietary brand confection from a supermarket with packaging that often dwarfs the contents within resulting in disappointment.

In Eastern Europe, though, are Easter customs that reflect a far more personal approach. Egg-painting – that is the application of delicate geometric designs on real eggs – is a widespread tradition throughout the region. The tradition reaches its apogee of expression in the Hutsul region of western Ukraine where the creation of pysanky (painted eggs) is considered to be akin to religious art. The Hutsul practice is thought to be a pre-Christian, rites of spring tradition in origin, in which it was formerly believed that the continued creation of pysanky was necessary for the world to continue peacefully.

Nowhere has this tradition been more painstakingly documented than in the pysanky museum in Kolomiya, which has a collection of around 10,000 painted eggs. Such is the enthusiasm for the craft that part of the museum itself – the central ‘yolk’ that contains the reception, gift shop and two circular pysanky galleries – actually takes the form of a painted egg.

Happy Easter

nb: A longer feature on this quirky ovoid edifice appeared in hidden europe magazine back in 2008.

 

Whittlesea Straw Bear

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If you venture to Whittlesea, at the edge of the Fens near Peterborough, during the second weekend in January you cannot help but notice that strange straw animals and oddly attired people have taken over the streets of this small market town.  The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival was re-established in the town in 1980 after having been outlawed for over 70 years. Hitherto, the last sighting of a straw bear in these parts was in 1909 when the annual winter festival was stopped by local police because it was seen as a form of unwanted cadging from the public.
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No-one seems to know how far back the tradition goes but it was once the custom on the Tuesday following Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) to dress a ploughboy in a straw suit and parade him through the town. The ‘straw bear’, attended by a keeper, would dance for gifts of beer, money and tobacco that would be later enjoyed by the local ploughing fraternity who were always short of cash at this slack time of year.
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Similar winter traditions once existed elsewhere – in other parts of England and also in central Europe and Germany. There are clear connections, too, with ancient pre-Christian wild man traditions, and even similarities with some forms of West African tribal practices in which men are adorned in fetishistic animal or demon costumes. There’s also a plain link with agricultural fertility, and the desire for a bountiful harvest, as only the best quality straw from the previous year’s harvest is used to dress the bear, which is paraded around the town’s squares and taverns on the Saturday before the straw suit is taken from its occupier and ritually burned on the Sunday.

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Whilst clearly revivalist, the modern festival has a vigour and joie de vivre that is at odds with the sombre post-Christmas, mid-winter gloom that tends to characterise this time of year. Perhaps its joyous atmosphere has a lot to do with  the unselfconscious high spirits of the English whenever they get a chance to dress up in silly clothes and clown around. Such behaviour is aided and abetted by widespread music and dancing by brightly costumed dancing sides that go under exotic monikers like Gog Magog, Pig Dyke, Old Glory and Ox Blood Molloy, Kemps Men Morris, Red Leicester, Pretty Grim and Black Pig Border Morris. The fact that all of the town’s pubs are open all day really does not hurt either.

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Some may find it contrived but, revivalist or not, there is something atavistic and primally English at work here. The good cheer and high spirits are infectious and it seems the easiest thing to instantly become part of this transient happy community. Whatever the precise truth of its historical tradition, the Whittlesea Straw Bear festival is a weekend of conviviality and broad smiles accompanied by daft dancing and the plentiful consumption of real ale. A time of gentle eccentricity, it is an occasion when, for once, it actually feels quite good to be English.

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