The first week in June sees the famous Horse Fair take place in Appleby in Cumbria, the greatest gathering of the year for travellers and Gypsies in the UK. In the old days horses would be driven through the crowded streets of the town but this has been banned for safety reasons. Nowadays the horses are ridden into the local river for a wash and swim and thousands of spectators gather on the banks to watch. There is also a market and lots of entertainment.
Summer is beginning and pagans everywhere look forward to the Summer Solstice, which this year takes place at 23.09 on Wednesday, 20 June. In recent times Druids have gathered at Stonehenge to worship the rising sun, though there is little historical evidence that they actually ever did so in the past. However, it is a fact that from the earliest records Midsummer in England was always celebrated with processions and bonfires and houses and churches were decorated with greenery. The bonfires had a dual purpose - on the one hand, they helped the local community come together in celebration, on the other, it was believed that the smoke from the fire purified the air and was therefore medicinal in nature. For this reason religious reformers in the 1500s branded the practice as superstitious and the custom gradually died out. One of the last places to keep the old tradition alive was the West Country.
Probably the whole period between St. John the Baptist’s Eve (23 June) and St. Peter’s/St. Paul’s Day (29 June) was regarded as one long Midsummer festival, when the famous ‘mock mayor’ ceremonies would take place, still practised today in the town of Abingdon with the election of the Mayor of Ock Street. In towns up and down the country civic pomp and the pretensions of local dignitaries would be made fun of in these mock mayor ceremonies, when there would be ludicrous ‘electoral’ speeches full of ridiculous promises and outrageous clothing and regalia, such as a cabbage stalk instead of a civic mace. The mock mayor would then be paraded through the streets, handing out outlandish favours and punishments and the whole affair would often degenerate into a loud drunken brawl. The mock elections would often take place at the same time as the real one at a time when most of the population was denied the vote and in the end local authorities took steps to suppress the custom.
In late June in the Cheshire village of Appleton a custom called ‘Bawming the Thorn’ is performed each year. The original hawthorn tree in question stood in the centre of the village and was rumoured to be an offshoot of the famous Holy Thorn at Glastonbury, which in turn is purported to have grown from a single thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns, planted by Joseph of Arimathea. The present tree in Appleton, however, only dates from 1967, when its predecessor blew down. ‘Bawming’ means decorating and each year local children decorate the tree with ribbons and garlands.
In June each year the Ceremony of Knolly’s Red Rose takes place in London when a red rose is presented to the Lord Mayor. The story behind this is that in 1381 Lady Constance, wife of Sir Robert Knollys, built a footbridge between her two properties in Seething Lane without first gaining the Lord Mayor’s permission, for which she was fined one red rose each year. The ceremony is organised by the Company of Thames Watermen and Lightermen and this year takes place on 14 June at 10.45 am at the Parish Church of All Hallows by the Tower.
FInally, remember the old line ‘If St. Paul’s Day be fair and clear, then it betides a happy year’. Fingers crossed everyone!