Boxing Day walk: A midwinter mooch around Marshfield
PUBLISHED: 12:44 18 December 2018
Celebrate the other side of Yuletide in the South Gloucestershire village of Marshfield, where on Boxing Day a curious procession from another age can be seen making its way along the High Street...
Picture the scene. It’s a frosty Boxing Day morning – you feel the bite in the air, this high up, for you’re on the Cotswolds in the village of Marshfield. Just along the road is Cold Ashton, said to be one of the coldest places in England. You stand on the High Street – hemmed in by stern looking dwellings, grey monoliths in the mist. Other die-hard visitors look on, wrapped up and huddled together for warmth – bleary-eyed and bulging from the Christmas Day indulgence. Locals look out from their bedroom windows or doorways. This is their day and they have the best seats in the house. The conversation is subdued, frosted breath escapes with the odd laugh. The wise save their hot air. There’s anticipation in the air. Something is about to happen – possibly – yet its slight uncertainty creates a mild frisson of tension. Small miracles cannot, after all, be time-tabled.
Then a bell can be heard, clanging in the distance, drawing closer, and suddenly, out of the mist they appear. Seven men draped in rags of paper, led by a figure clad like a pall-bearer, black from top hat to toe, ringing his bell in single chimes. He could easily be chanting ‘bring out the dead’. The strange figures, ‘mum’ beneath their festooned hats, process in silence to the far end of the High Street where they gather in a circle and begin their play. It’s difficult to catch as the men, Marshfield boys everyone of them, is no professional and can rarely project. A bit of wind, or facing the wrong way and you miss a part of their speech – you have to watch each of the five performances held along the High Street to patch together the whole script. Even then, the play seems to be hotch-potch, stitched together from fragments of memory. Most of it sounds like nonsense, or the result of Chinese whispers, yet there is something hypnotic about it – the incantatory effect of their introductory refrain, ‘In comes I...’ in the lilting Marshfield accent, the stiff ritual movements, as each character steps forward and speaks his part, engages in a bit of business, the hushed reverence of the crowd.
Something magical has broken through into the mundane, and briefly we are held in its spell. A story is taking place. A very old story. In the dead of winter a brightly clad hero appears. He wears the cross of St George and we are meant to cheer. Then a darker knight steps into the circle, Bold Slasher or the Turkish Knight he is called. He plays the pantomime villain and we are meant to boo – and there is an illicit pleasure in this as we realise we are temporarily outside the PC control zone of modern Britain. This is older than political correctness and more authentic – because beyond these labels, a simplistic moral dualism which seem ludicrous now. The dodgy stereotypes of the Mummers offer a comic reminder of how little we have progressed since the jingoistic Crusades. Yet beyond these cultural masks are older symbols – archetypes – of the light and dark halves of the year. In the combat-and-resurrection, as the solar hero is slain and then brought back to life by the Doctor, we perhaps witness the death-and-rebirth of the sun itself as witnessed over the last few days, from the winter solstice to Christmas morn. And other curious figures step into the ring – Grandfather Christmas, wishing us good cheer; a devil-figure, red-horned Beelzebub, with a large phallic club; Saucy Jack, ‘with his family on his back’; and Ten-penny Nit, the fool – and we could be forgiven for mistaking what we are seeing as a fertility rite, one as old as the hills. It wouldn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to picture this slapstick Mystery Play taking place in a forest clearing, the players covered in leaves, the watchers in the shadows, our ancestors witnessing a re-enactment of the inexplicable mystery of the sun’s rebirth at its lowest ebb. Perhaps those gathered around this primal woodland clearing feel that if this rite is not performed the sun will not come back. Their existence hangs on a thread – connected to the great Web of Life. They will do all they can to ensure their survival. If a little bit of hocus pocus helps, all well and good. No point in tempting fate.
The problem is there is no firm evidence of these ‘Mummers’ Plays’ – seasonal, ritual folk dramas – before the early 1700s and many have been ‘contaminated’ by those who collected them, as is the case of the Marshfield mummers’ play, which was resurrected by Violet Alford, the sister of the vicar of Marshfield, in 1930. Alford was a keen folklorist and had firm ideas of how the play should be enacted – adding rituals elements that were not there, such as the standing in a circle. If there were authentic elements in the play, these have been lost in the Alford reinvention which can be witnessed in Marshfield every Boxing Day. Pausing for the Second World War, the play has been performed ever since.
Regardless of its actual origins and ‘authenticity’ the fact is the Marshfield Mummers is a strange, magical thing to behold and adds a richer dimension to Boxing Day (so-named because servants and tradesfolk were given gift-boxes on this day by the larger houses). Afterwards, many cram into one of the pubs for a glass of something warming. Merry Yuletide One and All!
Up and down the High Street, basically, but if you and your loved ones want a really good Christmas walk then I highly recommend the nearby (approx. 3 miles) Rocks East Woodland, a very special woodland garden and campsite on the borders of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire. They offer various trails of different grades, which take in a sculpture trail and the Millennium Grove. It is not open on a daily basis, but you can arrange a visit in advance. Ring: 01225 852518 or 07921 649183 or e-mail: email@example.com.
Distance: 0.5 ml around the village (or up to 4 miles, if walking around Rocks East Woodland).
Duration: 30 mins to 2 hrs (Mummers Play starts 11am; walks around Rocks East Woodland can be any length, but allow at least an hour including visitor centre).
Level: Easy (village); Moderate (woodland).
Parking: Along road leading into Marshsfield, follow local signs and respect residents.
Toilets: On High Street. In pubs, for patrons. Rocks East Woodland, for visitors.
Refreshments: The village has a couple of fine pubs serving food (The Catherine Wheel; The Lord Nelson). Booking ahead recommended.
Transport Links: 13 miles from Bath, just off the A46, follow the A420. There is a limited village bus service, but not on a bank holiday.
Map: OS Explorer map 155 Bristol and Bath.