The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

The Ripon Bellman in action. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
The Ripon Bellman in action. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Tradition. It’s something we know about in Ripon. For hundreds of years (more than eleven hundred, if the uncertain history is true) the Hornblower has set the watch for the city and assured the citizens that all should be safe through the night.

These days the we celebrate the tradition, and in summer large crowds gather to hear the Hornblower and learn about the origins of the custom.

'Burying Lawrence' in Bingley.

'Burying Lawrence' in Bingley.

We have other tradition that are kept up, too.

The Bellman, who appears, in his buff coat and tricorn hat, on the Market Square each Thursday at 11am to officially ‘open’ the market for trading (though much of the trading has already been done by then) is another of the city’s reminders of the past.

It’s likely that young Charles Dodgson saw the Bellman while his father the Archdeacon was in residence for the Cathedral.

Charles, later writing as Lewis Carroll, introduced the character of the Bellman into his poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’.

Preparing Whitby's Penny Hedge.

Preparing Whitby's Penny Hedge.

Another tradition, found in Ripon and in other places, was the ringing of the Pancake Bell on Shrove Tuesday.

It was said to be the signal for people to stop work and prepare their pancakes for the day – the object being to use up fats and other foods that weren’t allowed from the following day, Ash Wednesday, for the duration of Lent.

It was also a signal in some places, including Ripon, for Pancake Races.

Ripon’s revived races were national news in 2008 when they were cancelled for ‘health and safety’ reasons; the ban didn’t last long, and they are now a regular part of Ripon’s traditions.

Elsewhere in Yorkshire there are other Shrovetide traditions.

In Scarborough local children congregate on the foreshore to take part in skipping – something that’s gone on for at least a century, and developed from an earlier tradition of local apprentices being allowed an afternoon off for games before the rigours of Lent began.

Many traditions are associated with religious festivals. Further up the east coast, Whitby marks the eve of Ascension Day with the Penny Hedge.

A short hedge is constructed on the beach, made of stakes woven together.

It is meant to able to withstand three tides.

This odd custom is said to date back to 1159, when three hunters murdered a hermit in Eskdale.

They were pursuing a boar which took refuge in the hermit’s hut, and he refused to let them in.

So they killed him, but before he died he imposed the hedge-building on them and their descendants as penance.

More than 900 years on, the ceremony is observed (the stakes are supposed to be cut by a knife valued at a penny, hence the name).

When the hedge is built the people cry ‘Out on ye! Out on ye! Out on ye!’ and a horn is blown.

There is also a horn at Bainbridge in the Dales; like Ripon’s horn, it is blown every night, though at 10pm and only from 27 September to Shrovetide.

It was originally to help travellers lost in the forests of Wensleydale find safety for the night in the dark winter months. The horn is kept in the local pub.

Christmas has its own traditions; in Haworth in late November or early December there is a tradition (though a fairly recent one) of ‘Scroggling the Holly’. ‘Scroggling’ (or ‘scrogging’) is a dialect term for gathering, and ensures a good supply of evergreens to decorate the town; children dress in Victorian costume and process up Haworth’s main street to welcome the spirit of Christmas.

Also seasonal is the Cuckoo Festival at Marsden in the Colne Valley.

The modern festivities (maypole dancing, duck races, a craft fair among them) mark an ancient legend that says that in this steep valley the villagers noticed that the arrival of the cuckoo always brought good weather.

So they built a wall round the cuckoo’s nesting place, reasoning that if they kept the cuckoo, they’d keep the fine weather, too.

But just as they thought the wall was high enough, the bird flew away. ‘It were nobbut one course too low,’ they reckoned.

A more creepy tradition is marked yearly at West Witton – the ‘Burning of Bartle’. It takes place on the Saturday nearest to St Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August.

A large effigy of ‘Bartle’ – a corruption of Bartholomew – is taken around the village and on to the hill above to the recitation of appropriate verse before being set ablaze on Grassgill End.

Quite why the saint to whom the village church is dedicated is remembered like this is lost in the mists of time.

There were similar saintly oddities in other Yorkshire places.

In Bingley an effigy of St Lawrence was placed in a wooden coffin and buried by torchlight; this was supposed to get rid of ill luck and increase employment among the local wool-combers – though just why is obscure. And at Nun Monkton on the Feast Day of St Peter, 29 June, a wooden image of the saint was placed in a coffin and carried in procession before being buried under a large sycamore tree on Maypole Hill.

It was left there for the year, presumably to bring the village good luck, before being dug up again and prepared for reburial on the Saturday that fell before the next St Peter’s Day.

More attractive is the tradition at Wath-upon-Dearne in South Yorkshire where on the Saturday of the first May Day Bank Holiday buns are thrown from the tower of All Saints Church.

The origins of this event are set out by the vicar, who reads out the will of early 19th Century local resident Thomas Tuke, who gave money for the distribution – though it used to happen on St Thomas’ Day, 21 December.

So with horns and bells, pancakes and buns, holly and hedges, cuckoos and coffins, Yorkshire is full of traditions – all worth keeping up to enliven the county.