A brief introduction to Historic photography

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.

Many have been influenced by the Christian calendar, pre-Christian era practices and the continual cycle of the seasons.

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

1. Daily horn-blowing in Ripon

A costumed Hornblower
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 WSA01/01/07221

While most of our examples relate to certain times in the year, our first custom takes place every day in the cathedral city of Ripon in North Yorkshire.

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.

2. Dancing round a pole in May

Spectators watch girls maypole dancing in front of the May Queen
Maypole dancing in front of the May Queen at Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire in 1897 © Historic England Archive CC57/00384

The Celtic festival of Beltane – ‘bright fire’ – marked the starting point of summer and the time of light and growth to come following the dark days of winter. Cattle were put out to pasture and fires were lit – their flames, smoke and ashes were considered to have protective powers.

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

Maypoles were a focus for celebrations that brought the local community together. Garlands were hung from them and dances 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.

3. Dancing the Morris way

A group of people dance with Morris dancers in the late 1950s in Essex
A crowd of people dancing with Morris dancers in the yard of The Swan Hotel, Thaxted, Essex, in the late 1950s © Historic England Archive. AA089554

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.

The earliest references to Morris dancing date to the 15th century. It is thought that the name refers 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 style of dance made its way from the royal courts to the countryside, where it evolved into a traditionally English folk spectacle.

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

4. Dressing wells in Derbyshire and Staffordshire

Crowd of people watch the blessing of Hands 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 ALB93/08/128

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.

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 takes place on Ascension Day, the fortieth day of Easter. Here, the clergy and a choir lead a procession to bless each of the village’s six wells.

5. Mysterious goings-on

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

Mystery plays date from the Middle Ages. Re-telling episodes from the Bible, they could be performed over a period of 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 middle of June.

Several collections, or cycles, of plays survive in England. One of the most complete survivals is the York Mystery Plays, a cycle of forty-eight 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, which was performed at Coventry Cathedral’s Where Light Falls display in 2019.

6. Honouring the summer sun

Druidical ceremony taking place within the stones at Stonehenge
A Druidical ceremony taking place within the stones at Stonehenge, Wiltshire, probably during the Summer Solstice celebrations of 1958. Source: Historic England Archive. P50246

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.

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 takes place at the ancient Stonehenge monument in Wiltshire. In Druidism, it is 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.

7. A weekend of festivities in Notting Hill

Notting Hill carnival. People mill about in costumes.
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 MF001653/06

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.

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 to 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.

8. Bards processing in September

Bards processing to the Circle at Castle Killibury Camp
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. ALB93/05/165

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

The Bards of Cornwall – storytellers – do this by studying Celtic Cornish history and culture and preserving 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’).

9. Gathering the crops

Harvest Festival display at the Church of St Etheldreda, Hatfield
A Harvest Festival display at the Church of St Etheldreda, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, sometime between 1955 and 1965.
© Historic England Archive. AA080285

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.

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 marks the blessing of the first fruits of 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.

10. Collecting pennies in November

Two girls and their 'Guy' leaning against a wall
Two girls collecting a ‘Penny for the Guy’ outside Hill Top Methodist Church, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, in the late 1960s © Historic England Archive. DES01/04/0710

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.

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 home-made ‘Guys’ in the street and asking passers-by for ‘Penny for the Guy’ to collect money to buy fireworks for the big night.

You can explore over 600 photographs in the Historic England Archive that relate to customs, traditions and ceremonies. Enjoy this visual feast at Find Photos.

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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