Monday, 27 May 2013

A Grand Day Out Castleton and the Garland Ceremony



An important element with regard Derbyshire folk customs, perhaps the key to really understanding them, is to recognise that they are primarily flower festivals. That there is a strong celebratory spirit connected to the seasons of spring and summer, celebrating the fecundity of the light half of the annual cycle.

The Castleton Garland ceremony is quite likely the most important and single most well known folk custom to take place in Derbyshire, outside of the context of our famous well-dressings. Yet even here, the focus is a bower or beehive of spring flowers topped with a bouquet.

The official date of the parade is May 29th and if the date falls on a Sunday, the event should then be held on the Saturday before (which is obviously the 28th). However, due to a double booking the 2011 Castleton Garland Ceremony in a break from tradition, actually took place on Monday 30th of May.

May the 29th is the commemoration of the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and although King Charles II was officially restored to the throne some weeks before, May the 29th was his birthday. The Castleton Garland Ceremony is one example of several celebrations linked to the restoration of the monarchy and held on Oak Apple Day. The day itself is named in honour of the Battle of Worcester when in September 1651 the then Prince Charles, hid in an oak tree to escape from Republican troops following the defeat of the Royalist army.


On the day itself, it is traditional to wear an oak leaf or two to show ones’ allegiance to the Royalist cause. Anyone found not bearing an oak leaf buttonhole is liable to being quite literally, nettled. On the day of the ceremony, the locals sell oak twigs to visitors and there is often a “nettler” nearby to offer encouragement to donate your money to some worthy charity.

The actual celebration in Castleton pre-dates the Civil War as it contains elements of several folk-customs that have somehow become intermingled over the centuries. It is itself a restored festival, previously banned by the Puritan Government. Is it perhaps possible, that after eleven years of Republican rule the local population in reinstating their local customs, inadvertently mixed more than one together?


Castleton itself is a truly picturesque village nestling in a bowl shaped valley, surrounded by hills and some of the best walking country one could possibly wish for anywhere in England. The Castleton skyline is dominated by Mamtor, which translates from the Celtic as “Mother Mountain” and the Norman built Peveril Castle.

Mamtor, which is technically a large hill and not a mountain, is also known as the shivering mountain as it consists of shale. The exposed face both shimmers during rains and is prone to landslides. The remains of a link road, now permanently closed lie at the base of the hill and although walkers are advised to stay away, the power of nature over human technology is quite striking if one does choose to walk the route.

There are the remains of a Celtic settlement on the summit of Mamtor, which consists of an enclosure of 16 acres at an altitude of 1700ft. There is much discussion as to the importance of Mamtor itself but the existence of mounds (much eroded due to the landslides) and the name Mother Mountain, may suggest a pre-Christian religious significance.

Castleton Museum itself is well worth a visit for the viewing of a Celtic stone head. This local artefact and we should be grateful that it has remained local and not been shipped off to Sheffield, is of great significance and quite special to see. Found during the twentieth century near the castle, it provides a tangible link with the areas Celtic past, the “Painted People” that gave the Peak District its name.


The head believed to represent the Goddess Brigantia, the tutelary Goddess of the Brigantes, the tribe that once controlled northern England and gave Britain its name, is displayed prominently in a glass case. The existence of this remarkable religious icon, together with the closeness of Mother Hill and the settlement on the summit, adds weight to the suggestion that Castleton had a religious significance long before the coming of the Romans. A photograph of the Goddess can be seen in Pat Crowther’s book “Lid off the cauldron” originally published in 1981.


Work on Peveril Castle began soon after the coming of the Normans and in 1086 it was gifted to William de Peveril, believed to be an illegitimate child of William the Conqueror himself. In 1176 a keep was added but the castle never saw battle even during the civil wars and was left unoccupied after 1480.

Although a ruin, the castle is cared for by English Heritage and remains open to the public during the summer months. Access is via a steep climb beginning in the village. On a bright sunny day the views from the castle across the valley, taking in Mamtor, Winhill and Losehill are spectacular. The ridge visible from the castle is itself a fine walk, as it Cave dale which lies almost hidden behind castle hill and leads to Tideswell.


Looking up from the village the castle still hangs over the valley as a manmade guardian. However, when it rains or during a gale, with mist coming in from the surrounding hills. Looking up from the village the castle takes on a very different atmosphere and it would not be out of keeping in a silent horror such as Nosferatu (1922).


Castleton has four remarkable underground show caves and each is worth a visit in its own right. These are Blue John Cavern, Speedwell Cavern, Treak Cliff Cavern and the Devil’s Arse or Peak Cavern.


Blue John Cavern and Treak Cliff contain the much treasured and very pretty blue and yellow fluorspar called Blue John. This stone was mined even before the Romans came and examples of Derbyshire fluorspar have been found across Europe and the former Roman Empire. Blue John is thought to be a corruption of a French description of the fluorspar “bleu et jaune,” meaning “blue and yellow.” Blue John fluorspar only occurs in this area of Britain and although small pieces of the mineral are still plentiful, larger pieces are now rare and increasingly expensive.

The Devil’s Arse or Peak Cavern is the source of the village river, Peakshole Water. It is the only Cavern that has to be closed during the winter, due to the seasonal flooding. Indeed, to be caught in the cave system during the flood would be very dangerous. In the mouth of the cave, which is the largest in Britain, rope makers use to live and work. Although their cottages have been demolished, “rope walks” and the ruins of some of the cottages remain visible. The show cave itself is only a part of a much larger cave system which attracts cavers from all over the world.

This cave has two names because the Victorians, offended by the local name “Devil’s Arse” changed it to Peak Cavern. During the winter flooding it is said that the Devil is passing urine. The cavern floods against gravity due to water pressure, rather like a sump therefore, strange noises might be heard originating in the bowels of the cave and this is said to be the Devil passing wind.

Speedwell Cavern is a truly remarkable feat of engineering as the main workings and its’ famous “bottomless pit” can only be reached by boat along an underground canal, the only one in the United Kingdom.

From an inner entrance and the visitor must descend one hundred and five steps (there are no lifts) to reach the canal dock. Here the visitor takes a boat for a mile long trip to see the “Bottomless Pit” of Speedwell. Originally, this was a “legged” journey like any narrow boat passing through a tunnel but today, much to the relief of the tour guides, modern boats are driven by electric motor

The pit itself is a deep vertical shaft that has been choked to within 20 metres (66 ft) of the surface, by the rock spoil dumped by miners. The original depth of the shaft has been estimated to be 150 metres (490 ft). In 1999 cavers discovered a connection between the Speedwell Cavern system and Titan, which at 142.5 metres (464 ft), is the largest natural shaft in the UK.

The parish church of St Edmund is of Norman origin and may have been the garrison church to the castle. Although restored in 1837, it features some fine Norman work and 17th century box pews. On display inside the church is a fine “Vinegar Bible” dating from 1717.


History records many printing errors in editions of the Bible but the Vinegar Bible is perhaps one of the less harmful. In this edition, the chapter heading for Luke chapter 20 reads, “The Parable of the Vinegar” instead of “The Parable of the Vineyard.”


There is so much to see in and around Castleton outside of the Garland Ceremony itself, that Castleton is more suited to a weeklong holiday rather than one “Grand Day Out.” Accommodation in Castleton can be expensive, as one would expect. There are however, many B&B’s and holiday cottages in nearby villages, while Castleton itself is home to a Youth Hostel.

I myself have stayed at Dunscar Farm, a B&B and working farm owned by the National Trust. This farm is reputed to be haunted as it was once home to a locally found skull. The “Screamin Skull” has now disappeared but it was believed to be pre-Roman in age and was placed on a window shelf at the back of the building.

According to legend, whenever the skull was moved, either to another spot or put in storage, the household would be disturbed my screaming throughout the night. I have however, slept in the room next to the window that was once home to the Screaming Skull and I had a pleasant and very restful night.

The general accepted academic opinion states that the Castleton Garland Ceremony originated in an ancient and probably medieval variant of Rush Bearing. Later, onto this custom possibly before the Civil War but as suggested above equally likely after, was grafted a flower festival featuring elements of “Bringing in the May” and “Jack in the Green.” This later development has all but obscured the original model (or models) and to this already remarkable mixture, an element of Victorian prettification (to quote Hutton) has undoubtedly taken place.


Today the ceremony begins with fresh flowers being gathered, on the evening prior to the ceremony and taken to a barn where, on the morning of the ceremony itself, they are used to make the Garland and the Queen Posey. The internal structure of the Garland is itself an old fashioned beehive shape, large enough to cover the head and trunk of a man, with leather shoulder straps fitted inside.


Castleton has several pubs and each takes a turn in playing host to the event, a different one each year. Prior to riding to the host pub the King and his consort round the bounds of the village. Then on meeting the assembling crowds at the host pub, a brass band plays and local children, dressed in white and carrying miniature maypoles dance a series of ring dances. All the children must be of school age and either live within Castleton or go to school in the village. Up until the middle of the 20th century however, the local womenfolk performed the dances.




The Garland is paraded from the barn complete with the Queen Posey fitted to the top and placed over the shoulders of the King. The King, Consort, brass band and dancers then process from pub to pub, stopping naturally for refreshment, more dancing and music.



The Castleton Garland tune, which is played near continuously throughout the day, appears to be a variant of the famous floral dance as used in Helston in Cornwall, during their own famous May Day festivities, featuring the Obby Oss. It is speculated that the tune was brought to Derbyshire centuries ago by Cornish miners and hints at yet another influence on this highly complex ceremony. The completely nonsensical verse of the Garland tune runs:

“I dunna know - an tha does-na know,
What there is in Bradder.
An old cow’s ‘ead - an’ a piece of bread,
An’ a puddin’ baked in a lantern.
If I’d been wed - as long as thee,
Puddin’s nere been wanted.”

There are differing versions of this verse and Bradder is the local name for Bradwell, the next village lying only a mile or two from Castleton.



Up until 1956 the Queen Consort was known as “the woman” and as with many other traditions, the part was played by a man. Furthermore, I myself have seen photographs dating from the 1950’s, showing women on foot leading the procession dressed as witches. Completely covered in black and wearing conical hats, these witches carry besoms and sweep the route in front of the band and the riders as they progress from pub to pub.

When the witches first took part in the procession, why, for how long and why they eventually disappeared, remains a mystery. Yet their actions are quite discernable, as they appear to be sweeping the way clear in some form of sympathetic banishing rite. These two changes and there have been others, illustrate the organic nature of the Garland Ceremony as it adapts to change; the Castleton Garland Ceremony is no ossified museum piece, it remains a living tradition.


After visiting the last pub, the King rides to the entrance of the churchyard and the Queen Posey is their removed from the Garland. The King then rides into the churchyard and on up to the tower. It is here that amongst much cheering, ropes are lowered from the tower and the Garland is then hauled up the tower by the strong men of Castleton. All bar one of the tower pinnacles being decorated with oak branches, the Garland is placed over the single bare pinnacle. The Garland will remain there for several weeks.





The crowds then move onto the market place, where they are entertained by six delightful and quite complex maypole dances, performed by the same village children that have performed the ring dances. The maypole dancing is another innovation, as although it is a well-known English seasonal custom, it was not commonly performed in Castleton until the middle of the 20th century.








Finally, the group move to the nearby war memorial, where to the sound of the “Last Post” the Queen Posey is laid in memory of the war dead of Castleton. This part of the ceremony was introduced in 1919, as prior to the Great War the Posey was given to the most recently newly married bride or some local notable.

The key elements of the ceremony however, may shed light upon a search for meaning behind the symbolism we encounter in the event itself. The riding of a circuit of the village may suggest for example, some form of warding or boundary marking. Perhaps in this way ill luck is banished from the village or it may simply be a method of delineating an area separate from the everyday world, the marking of Castleton as a sacred place for the duration of the ceremony.

The oak, a symbol of the Jack-in-the-Green, who the King dressed in the Garland represents, is a well-known seasonal decoration. One would perhaps expect to see an element of “bringing in the May” but the hawthorn or whitethorne is conspicuous by its absence.

However, it is the decorating of the church pinnacle, that remains the high point of the ceremony and it is perhaps the most important feature. Here we appear to have some form of sacrificial offering, placed in celebration and thanksgiving at the site of communal worship. The question is, before the coming of the church did this offering of spring flowers perhaps take place elsewhere?


Today the Castleton Garland is a celebration of the coming summer in the form of a rather late celebration of “the May” and although the whitethorne with its associated symbolism has been replaced by the oak, this seasonal element is obvious to any astute observer of the Garland Ceremony. The ceremony is an organic festivity, adapting to changing times and absorbing pre-existing traditions that are not always of local origin. It is as if some older and perhaps little known local Mayday festivity has moved from one end of the merry month to the other and upon meeting a summer Rush Bearing procession coming in the opposite direction, have fused in some unexplained but unique Derbyshire compromise, absorbing some peculiar outside influences in the process.

Is it possible that in times long ago, after first processing about the village boundary, people would offer some bower or wreath of spring flowers and may blossom, at a now vanished and long forgotten oak? Is there by chance some grain of truth in this proposition or is this speculation so wild, that we enter the realms of fantasy? In this, I shall let the reader decide.

The approximate itinerary of events runs as follows

Spring flowers are gathered on the evening before the event, from gardens in and around Castleton, on the day of the ceremony from approximately 11am, the Garland and the Queen Posy are made in public view at Mill Bridge Barn. Between 4pm and 4.30pm, the Maypole is erected in the Market Place and from approximately 5.30pm, the King and his Consort ride the village bounds on horseback.

At 6.20pm or soon after the Castleton Silver Band, dancers, volunteers, the King and his Consort meet at the designated host pub. Here the completed Garland with Posey now in place, is itself placed upon the shoulders of the King still mounted upon a sturdy carthorse. Then from the host pub at 6.30pm or thereabouts, the procession begins and visits each of the remaining five pubs in turn and at each stop, there is music and dancing.

Between 8pm and 8.30pm, the King enters the churchyard where the Queen Posy is safely removed. The Garland itself is then hoisted up the outside of the tower to be placed on the undecorated pinnacle, the others being previously decorated with the traditional and ubiquitous oak greenery. The crowd then move onto the Market Place to watch the village girls perform some highly complex and entertaining Maypole dancing.

From 8.30pm, the crowd moves to the nearby War Memorial where there is a ceremony of remembrance and the Last Post is played as the King places the Posey at its base. By 9pm or soon after the days’ festivities are over as the band lead the dancers, the King and Consort out of the Market Place. It should be remembered by the visitor that in practise, the event never really runs to time.







































































For details of the next Castleton Garland Ceremony, the reader is advised to visit this website:


Further reading

Eisenberg E. (1989) The Derbyshire year. J.H. Hall and Sons Ltd. Derby.
Hole C. (1976) A dictionary of British folk customs. Hutchinson.
Howard M. (1995) The sacred ring. Capall Bann.
Hutton R. (1996) The stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford University Press.

Film footage made originally in 16mm format of the Castleton Garland Ceremony, the Winster Morris, the Tideswell Wakes and dating from the late 1970’s is available on DVD. “This is Morris Dancing” is available from Garland Films: http://www.garlandfilms.co.uk/index.html

Archive audio excerpts of many folk-customs featuring the Castleton Garland Ceremony, the Abbots Bromley Horndance, the Padstow and Helston events, including interviews with those taking part and dating from the 1950’s is available from SAYDISC. “English Customs and Traditions” CD-SDL425 is available from: http://www.saydisc.com/

The author further recommends the Morris Ring as many a useful folklore related item can be found via their website:

Other useful websites are those with a focus on tourism such as;
http://www.derbyshireuk.net/castleton.html

This article was first published in The Hedgewytch Magazine as Chattering Magpie (Griffith D.B.) (2011) A Grand Day Out: Castleton and the Garland Ceremony. The Hedge Wytch. May/Beltane 2011 pp54-30.

To subscribe to The Hedgewytch Magazine please visit the website here: http://sothisstar.co.uk/

3 comments:

  1. We at Greenmantle have come to love Castleton since moving to the area almost a year ago. Mam Tor is most special to us. We have yet to experience the Garland Ceremony, but it will be on our list of things to do this year alongside the well-dressings we missed last year.

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  2. if you are "progressive" as you say,then why don't you drop your primitive customs? progress means leaving the old behind.

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  3. Another post on this BLOG may help explain how inspiration of the past is still relevant whilst avoiding stagnation.

    http://chatteringmagpie-summonerofthehearth.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/danger-of-living-in-past.html

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