Spectators watch girls maypole dancing in front of the May Queen
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10 Eccentric English Customs, Traditions and Ceremonies (and the Stories Behind Them)

All over England, customs, traditions and ceremonies brighten our lives throughout the year.

All over England, customs, traditions and ceremonies brighten our lives throughout the year.

The Christian calendar, pre-Christian era practices and the continual cycle of the seasons have influenced many.

But regardless of how archaic some may seem today, they are hugely significant to many people and can inspire us to connect with the places we live, our beliefs or our ancestors.

Here, we look at ten customs and traditions, each sparked by photographs we’ve found in the collections of the Historic England Archive.

1. Maypole dancing on May Day

The Celtic festival of Beltane, ‘bright fire’, marked the starting point of summer and the time of light and growth following the dark days of winter.

Cattle were put out to pasture, and fires were lit. Their flames, smoke and ashes were considered protective powers.

A black and white photograph of spectators watching a group of girls Maypole dancing in front of a May Queen who sits on a throne complete with page boys, with a church in the background.
Maypole dancing in front of the May Queen at Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, in 1897. © Historic England Archive. View image CC57/00384.

May Day is an incarnation of Beltane. Traditionally, greenery and flowers were collected, and celebrations included crowning a May Queen and dancing around the maypole.

Maypoles were a focus for celebrations that brought the local community together. Garlands were hung from them, and dances were performed around them. There was a maypole revival in the 19th century, and the introduction of intertwining ribbons added to the colour and theatricality of the dances.

2. Well dressing in the Peak District

‘Well dressing’ probably dates back to the pagan worship of water deities. Satisfying them would help ensure the local water supply would continue throughout the year.

A black and white photograph of a crowd of people watching the blessing of a well.
A crowd of people watch the blessing of Hands Well, part of the well-dressing ceremony at Tissington, Derbyshire, in 1964. © Historic England Archive. View image ALB93/08/128.

Spectacular displays can be seen at wells in the villages of the Peak District, where clay-covered boards are colourfully decorated with thousands of flower petals.

Traditionally, other natural objects such as pebbles, leaves, moss and wild fruit were also used to create these wonderful tableaux, which often depict biblical scenes.

At Tissington in Derbyshire, a ceremony occurs on Ascension Day, the fortieth day of Easter. The clergy and a choir lead a procession to bless the village’s six wells.

3. Mystery plays

Mystery plays date from the Middle Ages. Re-telling episodes from the Bible could be performed over days, often by members of craft guilds. The term ‘mystery’ comes from the Latin ministerium, meaning ‘occupation’.

They were traditionally performed as part of the Feast of Corpus Christi festivities between late May and the middle of June.

Spectators watch actors in a scene depicting Christ’s Crucifixion
Spectators watch actors in a scene depicting Christ’s Crucifixion during the Mystery Plays performed within the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. © Historic England Archive. ALB93/08/222.

Several collections, or cycles, of plays survive in England. One of the most complete survivals is the York Mystery Plays, a cycle of 48 plays covering the Creation to the Last Judgement. It was revived in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain.

The Coventry Mystery Plays feature the haunting Coventry Carol, a 16th-century Christmas carol or lullaby that references the Massacre of the Innocents. The carol appears in the Nativity play The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors.

They proved inspirational for Jane Commane’s poem ‘In a New Light’, performed at Coventry Cathedral’s Where Light Falls display in 2019.

4. Guy Fawkes Night

Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated every year on 5 November.

The tradition of lighting bonfires celebrates the failure of a conspiracy to blow up King James I and Parliament on 5 November 1605. It also keeps alive the ancient Celtic Samhain fire festival of late October and early November.

A black and white photograph of two girls standing in front a church with a doll.
Two girls collecting a ‘Penny for the Guy’ outside Hill Top Methodist Church, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, in the late 1960s. © Historic England Archive. View image DES01/04/0710.

Following the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, 5 November was declared a national day of thanksgiving. It has been traditionally marked with bonfires, fireworks and parades. Effigies of one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, are burned on the bonfires.

It was common for children to display their homemade ‘Guys’ in the street and ask passers-by for ‘Penny for the Guy’ to collect money to buy fireworks for the big night.

5. The Harvest Festival

The Harvest Festival is the third of four traditional festivals linked to the farming year. The others are lambing in February, bringing the cattle out to pasture in May and preparations for winter in October.

A black and white photograph of the  interior of a church decorated with an agricultural theme, including a tractor.
A Harvest Festival display at the Church of St Etheldreda, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, sometime between 1955 and 1965.
© Historic England Archive. View image AA080285.

Harvesting is the gathering of ripe crops from the fields. This begins at the start of August and ends in late September. The first day of August was designated Lammas Day in the Christian calendar and marked the blessing of the first fruits of the harvest. Harvest Home, or Ingathering, celebrates the last day of harvesting.

At Lammas, a loaf of bread made from the new crop is brought to church to be blessed. At Harvest Home, a corn doll representing the Spirit of the Field, or Harvest Spirit, is made from the last stand of corn, kept over winter and ploughed in the following spring.

6. Horn-blowing in Ripon, North Yorkshire

While most of our examples relate to certain times of the year, our first custom occurs daily in the cathedral city of Ripon in North Yorkshire.

A black and white photograph of a costumed person blowing a horn in front of a house.
A costumed Hornblower sounds the Wakeman’s Horn, or Charter Horn, at the entrance to The Wakeman’s House, Ripon, sometime between 1925 and 1940. © Historic England Archive. View image WSA01/01/07221.

At 9pm each night, the City Hornblower blows the Wakeman’s Horn, or Charter Horn, at each of the four corners of the stone obelisk in Ripon Market Place.

The custom dates to AD 886 when King Alfred granted Ripon its first charter in the shape of a horn. A Wakeman was appointed to patrol the city at night. The sound of the horn reassured the people of Ripon that they could take to their beds, knowing that the Wakeman was on duty.

7. The summer solstice at Stonehenge, Wiltshire

In the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice falls around 21 June. This is when the sun reaches its highest position in the sky, and the day has the longest period of daylight.

A black and white photograph of a Druidical ceremony probably on Summer Solstice within the a stone circle, attended by male and female Druids and watched by members of the public.
A Druidical ceremony within the stones at Stonehenge, Wiltshire, probably during the Summer Solstice celebrations of 1958. Source: Historic England Archive. View image P50246.

Celtic Midsummer celebrations included the lighting of bonfires to honour the sun. Later, the Christian Church dedicated Midsummer Day, the 24 June, to St John the Baptist. A golden flower, emblematic of the sun god, was named St John’s wort.

The summer and winter solstices continue to be celebrated by pagans and Druids. One of the largest celebrations occurs at the ancient Stonehenge monument in Wiltshire. For Druids, it’s one of the eight yearly celebrations that express a love of Nature and the changing seasons, four of which are determined by the relationship between the Earth and Sun, and four that relate to the pastoral calendar.

8. Morris dancers

Events held during the May festivals and holidays, like May Day and Whit Monday, often feature groups of dancers wearing bells and rhythmically waving handkerchiefs or striking chunky sticks.

Known as Morris dancers, they are one of the most recognisable symbols of English folk traditions.

A black and white photograph of a crowd of people dancing with morris dancers.
A crowd of people dancing with Morris dancers in the yard of The Swan Hotel, Thaxted, Essex, in the late 1950s. © Historic England Archive. View image AA089554.

The earliest references to Morris dancing date to the 15th century. The name is thought to refer to ‘Moorish dance’, hence ‘Morris’, and may have come to England via Italy or Spain. The term ‘Moor’ was used by Christian Europeans to describe the Muslim inhabitants of Northwest Africa, Iberia, Sicily and Malta.

The dance style went from the royal courts to the countryside, where it evolved into a traditional English folk spectacle.

There are various styles of Morris dancing today. The Cotswold Morris is usually danced with handkerchiefs or sticks, while dances with swords can be seen in the Morris traditions of Yorkshire, Northumberland and County Durham.

9. Notting Hill Carnival in London

The Notting Hill Carnival takes place every late August Bank Holiday weekend.

The street parades, costumes, and music take inspiration from the carnival tradition of the Caribbean, which itself was an ironic take on the ostentatious Mardi Gras masquerade balls held by white French plantation owners.

A black and white photograph of people in costume dress at a carnival parade.
Crowds of visitors watch as a group of costumed participants pass by during the Notting Hill Carnival, sometime between 1979 and 1983. © Historic England Archive. View image MF001653/06.

By the 1950s, Notting Hill in West London was home to one of the largest populations of people of Caribbean origin in the country. A carnival and street culture emerged in London in the late 1950s and 1960s, organised by community activists wanting to show solidarity and defy local racism. In 1966, the first outdoor festival took place in Notting Hill.

Thanks to the work of tens of thousands of volunteers, the Notting Hill Carnival now attracts over a million visitors each year.

10. The Gorsedh Kernow in Cornwall

The Gorsedh Kernow (Cornish Gorsedh) was established in 1928 to ‘maintain the national Celtic spirit of Cornwall’.

A black and white photograph of people processing to as part of a ceremony.
Bards processing to the Circle at Castle Killibury Camp, Egloshayle, Cornwall, during the 1936 Gorsedh Kernow. The Sword Bearer carries a sword that symbolises the sword of Arthur, King of the Britons. © Historic England Archive. View image ALB93/05/165.

The Bards of Cornwall (storytellers) study Celtic Cornish history and culture and preserve it through poetry, song, dance, music, art and the spoken word.

New Bards are admitted at the Open Gorsedh ceremony, held annually in September. It is the largest event in the Gorsedh Kernow calendar and has several elements, including the Ceremony of the Sword and the singing of the anthem ‘Bro Goth Agan Tasow’ (‘Old Land of Our Fathers’).

The Historic England Archive
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Further reading

3 comments on “10 Eccentric English Customs, Traditions and Ceremonies (and the Stories Behind Them)

  1. artculturetourism

    A lovely feature/blog indeed, thank you!! I will share to our Art Culture Tourism local-international community. 🙂

  2. Thank you for featuring the photograph of Maypole dancing in Campden, Gloucestershire. Campden is famous for its Morris dancers as well. For more information about Campden Customs see the website of Chipping Campden History Society – https://www.chippingcampdenhistory.org.uk/content/category/history/campden_customs

  3. What a fabulous article. I really enjoyed seeing the way the old traditions connect to the seasons, along with the lovely old photos. Something that interests me greatly. Thanks. 🙂

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