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Festive traditions in the Cotswolds you need to see to believe

PUBLISHED: 12:23 10 December 2018

Ilmington Mummers (c) Julia Lindop

Ilmington Mummers (c) Julia Lindop

Julia LINDOP

Get out and enjoy seasonal celebrations with a Cotswold twist

There is something about the Cotswolds, its high wolds, dramatic scarp, hidden valleys and farming ways that holds people close to the landscape; something about the rural Cotswolds that has always encouraged seasonal rituals to take root, flourish, survive or revive, though they may fade from more urban areas. Markers of the annual round, some traditions are idiosyncratic to the area; others offer a Cotswoldian twist on more general customs.

Folk carols and hymns

You can join festive services aplenty in our famous wool churches and the Cotswolds has made its own special contribution to the long, intricate history of carolling. In 1909 the avid folksong collector Cecil Sharp visited Mrs Mary Clayton, then in her 60s, in Chipping Campden and transcribed her singing of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. Published in English Folk-Carols (1911), it became the standard version of the festive favourite that we know today.

Meanwhile, Gustav Holst composed his ‘Cranham’ tune for ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ (published in The English Hymnal 1906): the perfect excuse for a midwinter walk along the 35-mile (56km) Gustav Holst Way from Cranham (past houses associated with Holst) to Wyck Rissington where he had his first job as a church organist. The Cheltenham-born composer loved walking, even practising the trombone as he went; today’s route in his honour takes in the scarp and Crickley Hill, the open common of Cleeve Hill, woods and villages. (ldwa.org.uk)

Gloucestershire wassail

No-one knows exactly when the Twelfth Night wassail tradition began: people going door-to-door with their wassail bowl to sing and wish householders good luck, good health and prosperity, in return receiving a drink, cake or coins (‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘be whole’ or ‘be hale’).

“In 19th-century Gloucestershire it was common practice to wassail the farmer, then go out to his barns and wassail the oxen,” says folklore researcher Steve Rowley, adding that it became “a serious cadging tradition amongst labourers, who used it to increase their income.”

The custom largely waned but continued into the 20th century in a few areas including Gloucestershire: over 30 local wassail songs have been collected, the most famous being the ‘Gloucestershire Wassail’ with toasts “to Broad May and to her broad horn!” Uniquely in southern Gloucestershire groups took a Broad (a kind of hobby horse in the form of an ox or bull) with them wassailing.

The recent Stroud Wassail revival (with Steve the driving force and co-ordinator) promises another lively season with mummers touring around pubs in the Five Valleys (December / early January) and town-wide celebrations in Stroud on 12th January including street musicians, a re-enactment of a house wassail and evening revels.

“We are faithful to the spirit of wassailing but we have taken elements from other traditions and created something new that has value and relevance today,” says Robin Burton, Wassail Chair.

Stroud Wassailers with Dominic Cotter of BBC Radio Gloucestershire (c) Stroud WassailStroud Wassailers with Dominic Cotter of BBC Radio Gloucestershire (c) Stroud Wassail

Mumming and Morris

Elsewhere, you can enjoy The Old Time Paper Boys (their costumes decorated with strips of coloured paper) performing their mumming play in Marshfield on Boxing Day at 11am. The custom, revived in 1930, is a typical hero-combat play in which Little Man John is slain but revived by the dodgy Doctor Phoenix. An oral tradition passed down the generations, it offers a local take on general mumming customs with a unique concluding song. (marshfieldmummers.co.uk)

The Ilmington Mummers (formed from The Traditional Ilmington Morris Men) also plan a performance of their village play on Boxing Day.

Or catch some Morris dancing. Each side has its own local dance traditions, such as Fieldtown for Charlbury & Finstock Morris, who are appearing with Wychwayz Border Morris on Boxing Day (1pm behind the Bell Hotel, Charlbury). Fieldtown is the collective name for a group of local villages and features six-man dances with sticks or hankies. Why not have a go – Charlbury & Finstock Bagman, Peter Smith, says Morris is fun and sociable, and they are currently recruiting new members for next year’s dance season.

Bampton Morris Dancers at Shipston Fair, June 22, 1929 (c) Charlbury & Finstock MorrisBampton Morris Dancers at Shipston Fair, June 22, 1929 (c) Charlbury & Finstock Morris

River revels

While Morris dancing might trace its roots in England to the 15th century, every tradition has to start somewhere. Bourton-on-the-Water’s illuminated Christmas tree in the river through December has been among winter’s captivating sights for the last 35-plus years.

Another modern calendar classic, the Great Brook Run at Chadlington, is on sabbatical this December but Bibury Cricket Club Annual Boxing Day Duck Race, dating from 1985, is set to provide a “wonderful morning out for all the family”, says club secretary Mark Armstrong. Arrive in good time to grab a spot along the River Coln before 11am, when 3,000 (plastic and decoy) ducks are released down the river in two races: including the chance for the sponsor of the winning duck in the charity race to nominate the charity to receive the prize pot. Thousands of pounds have been raised over the years.

Shake a leg

Finally, how about the fresh-air tradition of a Christmas, Boxing Day or New Year ramble, off-setting festive excesses. If you fancy company and different places to explore, check out guided walks available across the Cotswolds, many led by Cotswold Voluntary Wardens.

New Year’s Day sees a ‘Tuesday Tramp’ in Colerne and ‘Walks around South Stoke’, while ‘Bliss to Start the Year’ (from Chipping Norton and taking in the iconic Bliss Mill) on January 3 sounds like a gentle way to ease yourself onto the right foot for 2019. (cotswoldsaonb.org.uk).

Want to find out more of the region’s quirkiest traditions? Take a look here.

For further information on the Cotswolds AONB and the Cotswold Conservation Board, visit cotswoldsaonb.org.uk.

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