7 of Somerset's quirkiest customs

Aerial view of Congresbury where tattooed apples decided the strips of land you got

Aerial view of Congresbury where tattooed apples decided the strips of land you got - Credit: Adam Cli

We go on a journey through time and discover some of Somerset's most unusual customs

1. February/March (Shrove Tuesday)

For the uninitiated, Shrove Tuesday is the day preceding Ash Wednesday (first day of Lent), so is a moveable feast a la Easter. One commodity banned during Lent was eggs, so unsurprisingly the humble ovoid became the centrepiece of a cracking Shrovetide custom, ‘Egg Shackling’. This involved schoolchildren electing a committee and judge to adjudicate on the biggest, tiniest, brownest, and whitest egg before the aforementioned eggs were put through their paces in a sieve. There’s a whole lot of shaking going on. The egg that survived the longest without cracking won top prize. Schools in Stoke St Gregory and Shepton Beauchamp maintain the tradition. 

2. Another Shrove Tuesday custom is that of ‘Church Clipping’ which takes place every two years at St Lawrence’s Church, Rode. ‘Clip’ means embrace as folk form a circle around the church, a onetime Pagan ritual, which became Christianised as a renewal of faith and commitment to God. A picture of 1848 shows the locals dancing round the church on Shrove Tuesday night.

 ‘Clipping the church' at Rode in 1848, which looks very pagan but was by then a Christian ceremony 

‘Clipping the church' at Rode in 1848, which looks very pagan but was by then a Christian ceremony - Credit: W.W. Wheatley

3. Rough music

I like this. If you had a troublesome miscreant in your village, the locals meted out their own rough justice by keeping them awake all night with a cacophony of noise outside their house. That’s how to deal with neighbours from hell. Somerset had its version, the ‘Stag Hunt’, which involved a bit of dressing up, discordant hunting horns and hound impersonations.

4. The Saturday after April 6

‘Taking the wick’ you might say. The custom of the candle auction continues at Tatworth where use of a piece of common land (six-acre Stowell Mead) is auctioned annually while a short wick burns down, a process that lasts around 20 minutes. Once the flame’s out, the highest bid made to that juncture has the spoils. I like the fact the auction takes place in a local pub and there’s a traditional bread, cheese and watercress supper laid on. Another candle auction takes place at Chedzoy, where Church Field, which belongs to the parish church, St Mary’s, is leased out every 21 years. The auction is held at the Manor House Inn and if you’re interested in bidding, I believe the next auction ‘by inch of candle’ will be in 2030.

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5. Old Midsummer’s Day (July 5)

Back in the days of the ‘Open Field System’ it was necessary to ensure that everyone was treated fairly with an equal chance of acquiring decent strips and naff strips of land. We know that a bizarre method of parcelling out the strips persisted in Congresbury and Puxton on the Saturday preceding Old Midsummer’s until 1811 which involved tattooed apples (e.g. one bearing a ‘dung fork’) being extracted from a hat or bag (a bit like the FA Cup draw) and said apples determining the strips you got. I particularly like that the serious business of the day was followed by ‘hearty mirth’. Oh yes.

6. Late October

‘It’s Punky Night tonight. It’s Punky Night tonight. Give us a candle, give us a light. It’s Punky Night tonight’. This is one variant of the verse sung by children as they parade the streets of Hinton St George with their ‘punkies’ (a mangold-worzel or large turnip treated much like a Halloween pumpkin). Hinton St George and Lopen both claim to have been the originators of this particular custom whose age and precise origin are debated with one plausible version being that improvised lanterns were made to guide Hinton and Lopen men home after a boozy outing to the local fair.

7. Christmas

‘And did those feet in ancient time…’ The words of ‘Jerusalem’ by William Blake tell of a legend that Joseph of Arimathea came to England, accompanied by the child Jesus, and that on a later visit, after the crucifixion, Joseph is said to have planted his staff in the ground at Glastonbury, which then grew into a thorn tree that reliably flowered each Christmas. It’s little wonder that Glastonbury has that other-worldly aura. That Christmas blossoming was first recorded in 1535 apparently during the reign of Henry VIII.

Hinton St George where the punkies come out every last Thursday in October 

Hinton St George where the punkies come out every last Thursday in October - Credit: Nick Chipchase

Other (current) Somerset customs and festivals

January 17 – Wassailing takes place on/around Old Twelfth Night with much cider drinking.

February – Shepton festival to celebrate ‘snowdrop king’ James Allen with snowdrop planting.

April – The Mells Daffodil Festival features around 150 street stalls, live music etc.

May 11 – Somerset Day, a date marking Alfred the Great’s victory at Eddington (878).

June – The five-day Glastonbury music festival that was founded in 1970.

August – The Wells Moat Boat Races take place on the moat of the Bishop’s Palace.

November – The Somerset County Guy Fawkes Carnival Association Circuit sees a procession of colourful carnival floats.

Kilmersdon – You can climb the Jack and Jill Hill any day of the year.

Other Somerset customs (Historic)

January 5/6 – The ashen faggot was burned on old Christmas Eve (Twelfth Night).

March – Frumenty (wheat boiled in milk) was sold by women at Weston-super-Mare market

Nearest Sunday to September 1 – ‘Crabbing the parson’ at Hawkridge (lobbing crab apples).

Christmas – William Holland, parson of Overstowey (1799-1819) entertained his parishioners.

The Julian Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 with a ‘loss’ of 11 days. Old Midsummer’s Day, for example, was on July 5, whereas today it falls on June 24.

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