Rural traditions to enjoy on a Farm Stay holiday
Many of our guests enjoy their holidays in the countryside because it enables to them to get a feel for rural life – and, depending on when they visit, local customs too.
In the season of wassailing and Plough Monday, we thought we’d explore some of the UK’s annual rural traditions and events to give you a flavour of what you can look forward to this year on a Farm Stay break. Some date back to mediaeval times, some have pagan or religious connections, while others are specific to the area.
Wassailing is an ancient custom focussed on blessing fruit trees in the hope the orchard will provide a bountiful harvest. The New Year celebration varies from region to region, but generally involves putting tiny pieces of toast onto a specific tree to attract birds, the ‘good spirits’ of the trees. Wassail, traditionally a hot mulled cider drink, is poured onto the roots of the tree. In times gone by, a large bowl of wassail would have been shared around the gathered crowd. After singing the wassail song and chanting ‘three cheers for the old apple tree…’ everyone makes as much noise as they can with saucepans and spoons to ward off ‘evil spirits’.
Where: across England, particularly in the cider-producing areas of Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire, Kent and Sussex.
When: traditionally Twelfth Night, January 5
Plough Monday was originally held to mark the resumption of agricultural work after the Christmas period. Farm labourers would tour the villages with their plough collecting monies, singing, performing mummers plays, dancing or even parading a Straw Bear. The participants would disguise themselves with costumes and by blacking their faces with soot. Modern revivals are usually staged on a weekend in early to mid-January. Church ceremonies blessing the plough would take place either on Plough Monday or the Sunday immediately before. These services often continue today.
Where: East Midlands and East Anglia and countrywide.
When: Monday after January 9, 2023
Well dressing is a popular custom in the Derbyshire Peak District in which village springs and wells are adorned with decorative floral panels, often with a religious scene. It’s thought to date back to the 18th century and today many villages have well dressing ceremonies with the displays remaining in place for a week or so, allowing plenty opportunities to see them if you are staying in the area in the summer months.
When: From May until August. (The Buxton Well Dressing Festival takes place in July.)
Where: Numerous towns and villages in the area.
Agricultural and County Shows
A great many of these traditional shows take place in the UK in the summer months and can be the highlight of a stay in the countryside. Usually run on a single day or across a weekend, depending on the size of the show, you can expect to see a variety of top-class farm animals and horses in competition, plus all sorts of rural-orientated entertainments. Expect to see local food and drink showcased, along with arts and crafts – and to rub shoulders with all sorts of local characters.
If you’re planning to stay in Yorkshire this summer, you really shouldn’t miss the opportunity to go to the Great Yorkshire Show which has been extended to become a four-day event for 2022. Starting on Tuesday July 12, attendance will be limited each day to ensure everyone has a relaxed an enjoyable experience. The organisers promise a packed event from main ring events including competitive equine events, horticulture and flowers, displays, demonstrations, competitions and cookery demonstrations. Cattle and sheep, dogs, rabbits and pigeons will all be shown in competition. Countryside pursuits, forestry and woodworking, and of course, shopping and lots of food purchasing and eating opportunities.
When: June July and August
Where: County showgrounds
The use of the scarecrow as a protector of crops growing in the fields is an ancient custom. These days they are a common sight in rural villages throughout the country in scarecrow festivals when resident families create often elaborate human figures of all shapes and sizes, usually to a given theme, and display them outside their houses. Prizes are awarded to the best and funds raised go to local charities. One of the best-known scarecrow festivals is at Kettlewell near Skipton, North Yorkshire. On the second Sunday in August, residents’ homemade scarecrows are positioned around the village for everyone to admire on a trail, with refreshments served in the village hall.
Where: throughout the country, including villages in the Peak District.
Lammas is a Christian celebration of the corn harvest – the name means “loaf-mass”. Some churches still feature loaves in their services. If you’re interested, ask your Farm Stay host for details about a service at the local church during your stay.
When: August 1
The farming community gives thanks for a successful harvest along with the local community in Harvest Festival church services on Sundays in the early autumn. Local people contribute a collection of produce, including seasonal fruit and vegetables, to display in the church. After the service it is usually charitably distributed to those in need within the community.
When: September to October
Apple Day is a festival celebrating orchards and the apple in particular. It was established in 1990 by the organisation Common Ground to showcase the value of orchards and to promote British apples to consumers. Now fruit farms, community orchards, historic properties and farm shops organise activities including apple and cider tastings. The Big Apple in Herefordshire is a county-wide celebration of the apple harvest at numerous locations close to the village of Much Marcle, with opportunities to visit orchards and local cider and perry makers.
Where: countrywide, particularly in Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire, Kent and Sussex.
Ploughing matches have been held throughout the country since at least the mid 19th century. These matches were traditionally a way of demonstrating ploughing expertise with speed, precision and neatness being the aims.
They are still held today in some parts of the country, are firm favourite’s in the county’s agricultural calendar and are hotly contended, with awards to be won. It’s well worth going along to watch if you find one local to where you are staying. Expect to see the experts using horse power as well as modern and vintage tractors.
The 71st British National Ploughing Championships & Country Festival takes place at Chatsworth Estate, Derbyshire on October 8/9, 2022.
When: mainly September, October and November, and also in spring
Farmers gather to buy and sell their sheep at Sheep Fairs in the early autumn. It’s a great time for them to get together with likeminded people from the area and beyond. In recent years the sales have become enhanced events to which visitors are welcome to join in the fun and soak up the atmosphere.
The market town of Masham in the Yorkshire Dales is famous for its sheep sales where, in the past, as many as 70,000 sheep were sold each year. The popular annual Masham Sheep Fair fills the little town with sheep-themed entertainment (including sheep racing!) and raises funds for charity. This year (2022) it takes place on September 24/25.
Where: Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Sussex, Wales
When: September and October
Mummers plays are a form of folk entertainment traditionally performed in return for food or money. Mummering dates back to the medieval period and is thought to have its roots in pagan tradition. Plays featuring St George are common, but dancing, joke-telling, singing and recitations can also be part of the performance.
Where: Cotswolds and West Sussex, and various locations throughout the UK.
When: any time of year at special occasions, particularly at Christmas
Unique and regional events
Common Riding/Riding the bounds, Scottish Borders
Common Ridings date back to the 13th and 14th centuries when 11 Scottish border towns rode in groups along the boundaries to protect the area from English invaders. The tradition has been preserved as an integral part of local culture with horse riders gathering to ride from each of nine towns. Visitors can join with the local crowd to cheer on the hundreds of riders at the start of the ride early in the morning and see them return in the afternoon with a ceremonial flourish.
Howick is the first of the Common Riding Festivals and takes place on June 10, 2022.
When: June, July and early August
Where: Kelso, Duns, Coldstream, Lauder, Hawick, Selkirk, Melrose, Jedburgh and Galashiels.
World Hen Racing, Derbyshire
Hen racing has been staged at Bonsall in Derbyshire for about a hundred years, although the event at the village’s Barley Mow pub is a comparatively recent revival. Hens must race over a 30ft course in heats which culminate in an exciting grand final watched by cheering owners, locals and visitors. The competing birds are taken to the start by their owners who have helpers encouraging the hens at the opposite end of the course.
When: Saturday August 6, 2022
Eyam Plague Sunday
Following an outbreak of the plague in 1665, residents of the tiny village of Eyam, led by Reverend Mompesson and his wife, bravely took the decision to isolate themselves. Food and essential supplies were left at specific points on the boundaries, paid for with coins in vinegar to avoid passing on infection. Sadly, over 250 inhabitants died in just over a year. A service to commemorate the villagers’ sacrifice takes place annually on the last Sunday in August. A wreath is laid at Catherine Mompesson’s tomb in the churchyard, before a procession makes its way to Cucklet Delph, a valley where parishioners worshiped outdoors during their confinement. Hymns are sung and villagers in costume act out tableaux from the time of the Plague.
Where: Eyam, Derbyshire.
When: August 28, 2022 (The last Sunday in August)
Tom Bawcock’s Eve, Cornwall
Tom was a local fisherman who braved the midwinter weather to land a huge catch the day before Christmas Eve, after a series of storms prevented the men of the small harbour town of Mousehole from sailing and the villagers faced famine. His bravery is commemorated annually, and the story is re-enacted in the harbour when the streets are illuminated with the festive lights. There is a lantern parade and carol singing on the beach. Don’t miss the chance to sample stargazy pie, a commemorative fish pie with fish heads poking through the pastry!
Where: Mousehole, Cornwall
When: December 23
Strawbear Festival, Cambridgeshire
The Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival is thought to have originated as an ancient Plough Monday custom. The custom was revived in the 1980s and it has gone on to become a popular festival. A local man inside a heavy costume made of long lengths of straw parades through the town, along with Morris men and folk singers and dancers, stopping off at numerous pubs on the Saturday of the festival, before the bear costume is ceremonially burnt at the end of the following day.
When: January 13, 14, 15, 2023
Where: Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire