From toe wrestling to well dressing - exploring Derbyshire’s traditions and folklores

PUBLISHED: 10:30 21 September 2020

Well Dressing in the form of Princess Diana

Well Dressing in the form of Princess Diana

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Derbyshire stands tall when it comes to tradition, folklore and quirky customs

Cuckoostone at Matlock Golf CourseCuckoostone at Matlock Golf Course

Whatever your interests, Derbyshire has pretty much everything to cater to both locals and visitors alike: superb opportunities for rock climbing or hiking through the fabulous countryside; several of the UK’s most prestigious stately homes; an abundance of wonderful restaurants and pubs, many serving local produce; specialist shops and (in normal times) a packed programme of cultural events from our wonderful theatres, museums, galleries and music venues.

Since 2014, I’ve been travelling the length and breadth of the county practicing an alternative form of tourism and uncovering a different side of Derbyshire life, by attending and documenting the region’s many and varied (and often deeply odd) calendar customs and events, as well as immersing myself in researching the rich folklore of the area. I’ve travelled to the point where the three counties of Derbyshire, Cheshire and Staffordshire meet and watched the police cordon off traffic to enable villagers to parade onto the A53 Buxton to Leek carrying a giant papier-mâché teapot; observed grown men throw themselves into a river in Ashbourne in pursuit of a ball, their faces set in a mask of grim determination; fired party poppers into the branches of apple trees in a Chesterfield park; assembled on the moors just outside Sheffield at dusk to witness the general public compete to imitate the mating call of a red deer stag; and accidentally ended up on Channel 5 News defending the ancient Derbyshire craft of well dressing in the wake of Chesterfield’s infamously wonky tribute portrait of the late Princess Diana, constructed of eggshells and flower petals back in 2017.

My interest in folklore (defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘the traditional stories, beliefs, and customs of a group of people’) stems largely from coming across a library copy of a 1977 book produced by photojournalist Homer Sykes, Once A Year (I now own an original copy, but they have become very hard to get hold of, the original publisher having rather unceremoniously pulped a load of unsold copies in the 1980s; the book was reprinted in expanded form in 2016 by Dewi Lewis Publishing). During the early and mid-1970s, Sykes travelled the UK photographing an array of calendar customs occurring on a certain day each year, including Gloucester’s Cheese Rolling, the Haxey Hood Game and Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. I particularly enjoyed the often surreal juxtaposition in Sykes’ photos of the arcane rituals infused with 1970s period detail: swords, mummer’s masks and reindeer antlers all jumbled together with corduroy flares, sideburns, and BriNylon.

Inspired, I was sorely tempted to visit several of these picturesque customs and photograph them myself, but as a non-driver faced a significant stumbling block: many of these events are located in out-of-the-way rural areas where public transport is either non-existent or prohibitively expensive.

The Castleton Garland ceremonyThe Castleton Garland ceremony

In any case, several photographers since the 1970s have conducted very similar projects, such as Sara Hannant in her 2011 book Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey through the English Ritual Year (Sykes had himself been inspired to embark on his photographic quest after discovering the pioneering Victorian photographic work of Sir Benjamin Stone, Conservative MP for Birmingham East from 1895–1909, who was also a keen documentary photographer on the side and travelled the country capturing many of its unique rural customs and heritage).

I decided a more accomplishable plan would be to concentrate on an area closer to my own Sheffield doorstep where I could more feasibly get to and from events – my native county of Derbyshire. From my childhood growing up in the countryside near Matlock I was dimly aware that odd occurrences often happened round these parts, things as a child you would pretty much take for granted, like the well dressings we would stop and admire when motoring out to country villages with my parents in the summer months, or the Winster Guisers, a troupe of masked and strangely costumed performers who burst into a Christmas carol service held at Winster’s St John the Baptist Church, which us pupils from the neighbouring South Darley primary school had been bussed up to attend.

With my narrowed area of focus, I made a conscious decision that in addition to the county’s well-known set-piece events – well dressings, Ashbourne Shrovetide Football, the Castleton Garland ceremony – I would try to seek out the area’s lesser-known customs, and consequently scoured the internet, local papers and magazines, and village notice boards for inspiration. The more I scratched the surface, the more strange events I began to unearth, and I would now stake the claim for Derbyshire as the calendar custom capital of the UK, having the highest density of extant customs of all counties (its closest rival on this front being Cornwall, who also get up to a lot of strange things throughout the year). Some of the obscurer customs I have attended include the installation of a boy bishop in a North Derbyshire primary school, one village’s annual Gingerbread Festival and another which celebrated the yearly damson crop in autumn. Once A Year is, it transpires, a supremely apt title for a project of this nature – photographing this kind of thing forces you to have an in-built sense of discipline, as if you aren’t able to get to an event you will usually then have to wait a whole year for it to roll around once again.

It was amusing to cast myself in the role of anthropologist, but instead of documenting a remote undiscovered tribe, turning up to these rural events and training my lens on the peculiar rituals and rites of the indigenous people of Derbyshire.

Some of the older customs still practiced locally provide a living link to our unknown ancestors, like the mysterious Castleton Garland where a bell-shaped hoop covered in flowers is lowered onto a man (the Garland King), who rides the boundaries of the village on horseback accompanied by his female consort (nowadays a bona fide lady, but until 1956 played by a man in a dress and veil). Since the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s and the subsequent exodus of workers from rural areas to the cities to follow the work, the UK has accelerated from an agrarian nation to an industrialised one.

For most of us, sourcing food now involves a car journey to the local supermarket or a few clicks on an online shopping site. We can better appreciate what the annual return of summer would have meant to our ancient forebears if we try to place ourselves in their (goatskin) shoes. To the inhabitants of a stone cottage lacking the amenities of electricity, central heating and Wi-Fi and a nearby minimart to nip to for a pint of milk, having endured the long, dark, cold winter months, the success of the yearly crop yield was literally a matter of life or death. Considered from this perspective, we can better appreciate how the annual return of the sun with its light, warmth and crop-growing properties would be worth marking with some sort of joyous ritual, even if some of the meaning has become obscure to us down the line.

In addition to food, another of life’s essentials is a reliable water supply, which brings us back to Derbyshire’s most well-known calendar custom, the internationally famous well dressings produced across the county between May and September in thanks for the gift of water. From a core of around 25 locations practising well dressing in the 1970s, chiefly concentrated around the limestone villages of the White Peak, well dressing has exploded to around a hundred sites today (not all of which have an actual well or spout to dress).

Winter Guisers before they break out into songWinter Guisers before they break out into song

The practice of dressing wells with flowers and greenery is generally assumed to have an ancient Pagan origin and subsequently (in common with many elements of the modern church calendar like Easter and Christmas) become adopted and adapted by the Christian church. You will nowadays find most well dressings happily blessed by the local clergy as part of their civic duties – although there was some controversy in 2006 in Eyam when their recently installed vicar refused to bless one particular dressing that year which had a Green Man design, claiming it was Pagan iconography (suggesting that he hadn’t fully done his homework before taking on the role). I very much doubt that the majority of people who contribute to well dressing in the 21st century would identify themselves as practising Pagans – and yet their involvement potentially makes them links in a chain stretching far back across the generations.

Some other Derbyshire customs I have documented are of clearly less ancient origin. There is a sub-species of British calendar customs comprising bizarre annual alternative ‘sporting’ contests, which often seem to have been dreamed up over a pint or five in the local pub (which often then ends up as the designated arena for these kind of events) – the World Toe Wrestling Championships (which began in Wetton, Staffordshire, in 1974, before moving a few miles, crossing the county boundary in the process to the Bentley Brook Inn at Fenny Bentley – 2020’s contest was slated to have taken place at Ashbourne Heights before a certain global pandemic intervened), Mappleton Bridge Jump, the Great Kinder Beer Barrell Challenge, Wirksworth Wheelbarrow Race and Bonsall Hen Racing would all fall into this category.

As well as these numerous events happening at certain points of the calendar year, connecting us to the turning of the seasons, the Derbyshire landscape is scattered with features imbued with rich folklore of their own, like the prehistoric monuments of Arbor Low (dubbed the ‘Stonehenge of the North’) and the Nine Ladies Stone Circle on Stanton Moor. It is an open secret that these sites attract people from far and wide who still practice elements of the old religions, and they can often be found adorned with various ‘offerings’.

Several mysterious standing stones across the Derbyshire landscape have specific legends attached to them, like the Wishing Stone at Lumsdale above Matlock which, as its name implies, is said to have the power to grant the wishes of those who visit it and perform a small ritual; or the nearby Cuckoostone that nowadays finds itself marooned on the 11th Fairway of Matlock Golf Course, which is supposed to turn around whenever it hears a cockerel crowing.

I managed to photograph a couple of events back in January and February that had been on my to do list for a while, but it goes without saying that, given all public events are cancelled for the foreseeable future, 2020 has been a pretty lean year for me, folklore-wise.

But it’s not all doom and gloom: I’m delighted to have the opportunity to share with you through the pages of Derbyshire Life the fruits of my research and fieldwork in a new monthly feature covering local customs, folklore and legends, beginning in earnest in October’s issue. You may consequently begin to see Derbyshire and its people in a new light: underneath the surface, it can be a much more mysterious and eccentric place than is immediately apparent…

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