Rachel and Becky Unthank explore England's winter customs and dance traditions, from Bonfire Night in Lewes to the North East's longsword dancers and East Anglian molly dancers.
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We're Rachel and Becky Unthank
and we're about to go on a journey through the English winter.
It's a journey that will challenge the way
we see some of our most well-loved winter festivities.
SHOUTING AND CHEERING
It will take us up and down the country, into dark corners,
across remote fields and into the underworld
of English winter customs...
..where monsters, demons and ghosts haunt us still.
It's the story of survival against the bitter cold,
of death, and resurrection.
Of a battle between good and evil
passed down from generation to generation...
..and a defiance which challenges the very structure of our society.
EXPLOSION AND CHEERING
This is the people's account of the traditions that keep us alive,
through the bitter English winter.
# When will we meet again
# My faithful Johnny... #
It's autumn, and it's our favourite time of year
in the Northeast of England.
# When the corn is gathered... #
But it's a bittersweet time when the nights are starting to come in
and the food is scarce.
And this is reflected in some of the songs we sing as folk singers.
# ..my sweet and bonnie... #
Song has been part of our whole life,
and it's through singing that we think about time and season.
# Oh, the rising of the sun
# And the running of the deer... #
We were brought up with singing all around us
and we have fond memories of coming together
with our family and neighbours for a sing in the local pub.
This is how we mark the passing of the year.
# And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
# All wrapp-ed up in silk... #
There's been a long tradition of song and dance
throughout the winter in the Northeast of England.
It was a bitter time of year for the coal miners
and shipbuilders of the area.
This was a way to keep up their spirits
and bring a community together, when the light was fading.
# Then winter winds will blow
# My faithful Johnny... #
It's at the coldest season of the year
that some of England's most interesting customs come out.
We're setting off around the country
to find out what people have been getting up to
in the harshest months of the year.
What dark secrets lie beneath the soil?
And what does it say about the kind of people we really are?
It's Halloween... otherwise known as All Souls' Eve,
the night that people remember the dead.
Many believed that, on this night,
ghosts and evil spirits mingled with the living.
Over in Cheshire, a much older spectacle takes place
in a remote farming community,
one which evokes a fear that goes back further than a few pumpkins.
# We are one, two, three
# Jolly good-hearted lads
# And we're all in one mind... #
We've come to the village of Antrobus,
where each year on this night
local people reveal a closely guarded tradition
that for generations has driven evil from their door.
# We've come a-souling For your money and beer
# And it's all that We are souling for
# Is your ale and strong beer... #
Well, here we are.
First night of soul-caking.
# ..this you will see
# With a bunch of blue linen
# Right down to his knees... #
The Antrobus soul-caking play has been performed for centuries.
# And I hope you will remember
# That it's soul-caking time... #
The villages used to perform this ritual
after the harvest as a means of ensuring
good luck for the following year.
# ..so nigh, till this time next year... #
# For this night we come a-souling
# Good nature to find
# For this night we come a-souling... #
'The first character to come into the play is the letter-in,
'and that's his job, 'to let us in
'and to inform the public in the pub that the soul-cakers are here.'
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
Rains of fire! Strike a light,
for in this house tonight
there's going to be a dreadful fight,
between King George and the Black Prince.
And if you don't believe these words I say,
step in here, King George, and clear the way.
In comes I,
It was I that fought the fiery dragon and brought him to the slaughter...
By these deeds won the king of Egypt's daughter.
What we're watching is a type of mummers play,
an English folk play that goes back hundreds of years,
and the one at Antrobus is one of the few original traditions left.
Step in here, Black Prince, and clear the way.
It centres on the fortunes of a good character based on St George
and an evil opponent.
And if you don't believe these words I say, step in, Black Prince,
and clear the way.
In comes I, Black Prince of Paradise
Hie thee now!
This night, I come to bring King George's life and courage down.
-What's your character?
-I'm the bad one, I am. I'm the evil spirit. They have to drive me away.
-Mind what thou sayest.
-What I say I mean.
'I'd be about eight years old.
'The soul-cakers used to come around farms then.'
And they came into the farmhouse and when that Black Prince came through the door,
I was hiding behind me mum, I was frightened to death.
The villages in those rural communities would believe
that on All Souls' Eve the spirits of the people who died
in the previous 12 months would come back to the village.
Hence in the play you've got King George, who is the good spirit,
who fights the bad one, the Black Prince.
KING George! King George, what hast thou done?
Thou hast gone and slain my only son.
'So we've got the Black Prince, who has been killed by King George.
'And after the old woman has mourned over him,
'I come in and declare him dead.
'And I give him various medicines until he comes back to life.'
Take three sips of this bottle. Down thy throat.
Will you rise, and fight thy battle?
-Come on, son.
-'Lay down your sword and rest.'
Peace and quiet, this is the best. He fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.
It's curious that the costumes they still wear today hark back
to a particular point in history. And to the people of that era
they would have been very clear images of good and evil.
Oh, in comes I, Beelzebub!
Now, with a rin-tin-tin and a bottle of gin...
I'll sup a pint pot down with any old man.
-He's hiding his ale!
-And if you don't believe me, try me.
-Pass it here!
The whole play is about resurrection and securing good luck for the following year.
And Beelzebub, he might be an evil spirit,
so he has to be appeased. So he steals their beer, nobody objects.
And if you don't believe these words I say, step in, wild horse,
and show them the way!
Get in! Stand still, will you?
Our horse, the Antrobus horse, we feel very special about.
It's a real horse's head that's been buried in the ground
so that the flesh can be eaten off by the worms and eventually it will just be the bare skull.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. In comes Diccon on his mare. We have come to see you once again.
We have a horse's head buried in the ground at this moment in time
for when we need to have a new horse's head.
# Now our play is ended and we can no longer stay
# But with your kind permission we will come another day
# But before we go... #
There's definitely an anarchic element to the Antrobus Soul-cakers
which really fits the mischief of Halloween.
But there is also something unsettling about this play,
with its strange set of characters representing the battle between good and evil.
It seems to tap into a primal fear of warding off evil spirits
that existed long before the play ever came about.
A fear that still resonates.
The month of November was sometimes known to rural areas like Antrobus as blood month,
the time when animals were slaughtered for winter food.
But on November 5th we remember another act of violence.
Around the country, children and adults gather round bonfires
and wave their sparklers to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night.
This November 5th, we're travelling down to the town of Lewes in the Sussex Downs
for the most important date in their calendar.
It may look like a sleepy town by day,
but on Bonfire Night they don't just set off a few fireworks.
I've been involved in it in various stints throughout my life, which is 47 years.
My father, grandfather, great-grandfather,
great-great-grandfather, were involved.
Bonfire has been part of our lives for always.
There are seven bonfire societies in Lewes alone,
each getting ready in secret locations.
You've got the tension, the excitement,
and adrenalin starts pumping through as it gets nearer and nearer.
This is bonfire!
It's not what you would expect.
You get 80,000 people descending on the small town. It's nuts, basically.
This is the guy. We have packed it inside, as you can see.
There's lots of them, different sex, different sizes, different colours.
And then, right at the end, we've got the big bomb in the middle,
just to make it go bang!
Public outings on November 5th first began in 1606,
a year after the plot to destroy Parliament was foiled.
For the Government, it was the perfect chance to rally people
against what they saw as the threat of Catholicism.
In Lewes it tapped into deep-rooted religious sentiments that were there long before Guy Fawkes.
Out here in front of the crown court is the location where the 17 Protestant martyrs were brought up
from the town hall and executed for their beliefs.
50 years before the Guy Fawkes plot,
these 17 local men and women were burned to death as Protestants under Bloody Mary.
Their challenge to the Catholic monarch dominates Lewes and is also remembered on the 5th.
There's an old Sussex saying, "We won't be druv,"
which means we won't be told what to do.
We've done this for hundreds of years,
and I don't think it should ever stop.
Nothing could prepare us for the sheer spectacle of the procession.
The town has been completely taken over by the people.
It's obvious from the start that this is their night.
You really feel like you're watching the spirit of the original Fifth.
This procession has been going on for hundreds of years,
ever since the first bonfire boys ran riot through the streets.
There's obviously different societies who have different costumes...
And they look a bit like bumble bees.
There's all manner of costumes going on here.
But they seem to be organised according to which bonfire society they belong to.
-Lewes has always been very strong with maintaining traditions and fighting for people's rights.
Lewes was one of the few places where the Riot Act was read in the 1850s.
-And that's why societies formed, because it was all kind of underground and a bit illegal.
So Cliffe was the first one to form, in 1853, alongside Borough. And they've gone marching ever since.
We've managed to cross the line and catch up with Borough
and they let us join their procession.
So, how long have you been coming to this event, then?
Oh, since I was five days old.
I was born on 31st October.
You seem to not flinch every time there is a big bang, like us.
-You just got used to the noise, then?
It's one of the most disorientating experiences of my life.
Suddenly we find ourselves walking behind some Zulus.
-Tell us about your costumes.
-This one's about 25 years old.
-Did you start when you were one?
-You start with nothing and add on every year.
You chaps are responsible for chucking the barrel in the river, is that right?
I just carried it down, yeah. Just carried it down for my 20th year.
-My father used to carry it.
-My uncle carried it, my grandfather carried it,
my back hurts so I'm going to stand down and let me boy take over.
Why are you wearing stripy smuggler outfits?
Every society has a smuggler outfit.
We go back to Guy Fawkes because they were smugglers, they smuggled stuff in, didn't they?
Every society has its own colour.
We are blue and white, Cliffe are black and white, Waterloo red and white.
It goes on like that. And then we have got our first and second pioneer costumes.
-So each society has their own pioneer?
Cliffe have got Vikings, Mongolians are Waterloo, et cetera, et cetera.
-Our first pioneers are Zulus.
I can't answer that question, really. It started a long time ago,
and it's a very colourful and spectacular costume.
Why not have it, and put it right at the front?
By now the societies are starting to process to their individual fire sites on the edge of town.
There's so much to see, Becky and I decide to split up.
You can see fireworks going up all over Lewes cos we're right on top of the hill.
Wow, look at those! You can see everybody's fireworks display!
And then something rather unexpected starts happening.
I'm sure you're not supposed to do that with fireworks.
What happens is, we have the clergy stand,
the Bishop delivers an address to the general public.
I'm here to celebrate...406 years...
Then we all throw rookies and what have you at them to try and burn the Pope.
Ladies and gentlemen, what shall we do with them?
There is no way in the world I would ever do that job.
Elsewhere, I'm still wandering the streets, as around me
each bonfire society parades huge tableaux
through the town on the way to their fire sites.
The idea for the tableau is a big secret in the society. It's normally something quite topical.
And at the Cliffe fire site
it's Gaddafi who gets the Lewes treatment.
It's a strange thing, one I will remember for ever, definitely.
I think they've just blown up the Pope.
But it is quite a strange sight, not that all the societies do it, now.
But Cliffe still do it.
It's not really anti-Catholic.
I know there's a lot of no-popery, but that's a particular Pope, not just the Pope in general.
So what's that all about? That's not about the Pope now?
It's about a particular Pope who was a raping, murdering, nasty man.
-That's why we burn a particular Pope.
-It's still to maintain freedom of speech. Those kinds of rights.
That's what we do it for. It's not controlled by the Government.
-We are in control of our destiny.
At the end of the evening, we all head back to town.
And Lewes Borough end the night at the site of the burning of the martyrs for their Bonfire Prayers.
It's the loudest, most anarchic evening I've ever encountered.
I've never seen such a mix of costumes and characters take part
in one event and together hold some kind of unified meaning for a town.
It's like they took the Guy Fawkes public celebration and used it to express
their feelings towards anything they felt strongly about at the time.
We'll dress how we want, say what we want
and burn whoever we want at the fire site!
It's a very powerful show of commemoration and independence.
We love the bonfire works! Yeah!
The nights are starting to draw in and, as November becomes December,
midwinter is almost upon us and, with it, the advent to Christmas.
For a few weeks a year, the shop doors swing open and welcome in
their Christmas shoppers, and the carol singers are out in force.
But not all carols are so pious.
A handful of villages in Yorkshire sing a very different type of carol -
one that has been at the centre of a battle with the Church for generations.
I'm heading off to the tiny village of Dungworth, near Sheffield,
where the ordinary workers of the area decided to write their own carols.
But they didn't end up in the church.
# While shepherds watched their flocks by night
# All seated on the ground... #
We start with a carol that I know, at least I thought I did.
They are local carols, so you may recognise the words -
"while shepherds watched their flocks by night" - but you will not recognise the tune.
# And glory shone around... #
Every pub in the area will have their own variation, as well.
I edge myself next to a local in the hope that I can pick something up.
Everyone around me seems to know the songs quite intimately.
What's their secret?
So, Dave, how long have you been coming to the Sheffield carols?
I first started coming here, to this particular pub, way back in 1973.
I learned the songs orally, as you do in the tradition.
I learned the songs by ear and I just thought it was the most remarkable thing that I have ever, ever heard.
# Glory to God, let all be heard
# Join in the heavenly song... #
So if you're seeing these carols in the pub,
how does it feel different to singing them in the church?
In church, it's regimental.
When you come in here to sing, you sing as you want, and enjoy it.
Some will say, oh, I can't sing.
What's the matter, as long as you join in and enjoy it?
We're very pleased because we get quite a lot of young people in here.
And that is good.
Because, like yourself, I've been singing in your ear a bit, today.
Yeah, you've been great. You've been helping me learn all the songs.
I don't know what I would have done without you, Janet.
# In every land and town! #
How do you think it started?
The carols themselves are a long-standing remnant
of an explosion in music that took place between 1650 and 1750.
Many of them written by ordinary people like blacksmiths, joiners, people like that.
But then, around 1850, they were thrown out of the church.
Why were they thrown out of the church?
Because it was a bit raucous. As you've probably noticed!
# In every land, in every land, in every land... #
I suppose the pub's the obvious place to go if you've just been kicked out of church!
# In every land
# And town! #
Looking around, I can see how this pub has been crucial
in preserving these songs despite centuries of social change.
Around this area, after the Industrial Revolution, they moved away.
-They'd gone into towns for money, work.
And then what were left were like us, poor shepherds and poor farmers.
We would enjoy the singing.
# Over the ice and the drifts of snow
# For he must call on one and all
# For this is Santa Claus's land
# With his Christmas tree! #
# Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho ho, ho, ho, ho
# Jingle, jingle, jingle, jingle, jingle... #
Me Uncle John, me Aunt Bet, me mum, me dad
and all the neighbours used to come and join in t'Christmas singing.
Me Uncle John played the piano. And he had a good bass voice.
And he'd sing all the time. So I were brought up to it.
I just love to keep Christmas singing going.
You can go without Christmas, but you can't go without Christmas singing.
# ..Christmas tree! #
# I sing of a place that is dear to my heart
# A place where I always fit well
# And if you will kindly lend me your ear
# A few of its beauties I'll tell
# In a beautiful vale Home of the Swale
# How well do I love thee How well do I love thee? #
There's a sense of joy in these songs which is really infectious.
These are the Christmas songs of the people.
Celebrating the story of their lives and their village in a place they love.
As the shortest day of the year passes on the solstice,
all expectation and excitement is focused on Christmas Day.
But for some people it marks the harshest time of the year.
Each Boxing Day since we were born, we have come to Greatham, near Hartlepool,
where they've revived a village tradition
that for centuries belonged to the poorest of the poor.
# We are six dancers bold As bold as you can see
# We've come to dance this dance to please the company... #
It's called long sword dancing
and it also turns out to be the oldest dance tradition we have.
Bryant, would you tell us a little bit about the tradition of long sword?
Well, long sword is a dance form which is found in Yorkshire.
Two main areas, they are the ironstone mining area
and the other area is Sheffield.
In this country, there is a long history of sword dancing.
For generations, dancers around Yorkshire have been heading out on the day after Christmas.
Farm labourers, fishermen and steelworkers would visit
the wealthy homes of the area and perform their version of the dance
for a small reward, using whatever materials they had as swords.
The Greatham long sword tradition also features a mummers play.
-I've come see thee dance.
-To dance, thou hast come to see a King dance?
Lord have mercy, crack a bottle!
-So what are your characters called again?
-My name is Hector.
-And I'm True Blue.
-True Blue! First clown.
Give me time to say my prayers.
Ladies and gentlemen all, I bid you farewell.
-Do you know what your character is about?
-I'm the Old Year.
And me having my head cut off and then being resurrected is...
the dying of the Old Year and the resurrection of the New Year.
MAN: That worked!
-So you black up your faces every year, don't you?
-What's that all about?
-It's about disguise.
It was so that the people you were going to dance for
didn't know who they were, which meant that they could collect money
and nobody would say, "I gave you some money from dancing the other day."
And also begging was a criminal offence
from the Elizabethan period onwards for quite a long time.
So a lot of the traditions black up for that reason.
Going back to the old days, the people that did the sword dancing were farm labourers
or lowly paid people, so this is a supplement to their income.
If you could dance and collect money, that would help your family.
Especially in winter, when the jobs were few and far between.
It was the point where, with the tradition,
that poverty actually struck in the winter.
So obviously you have been doing this a number of years.
What makes you come back and do it again?
Because I believe it's important to keep these traditions alive.
People hear a lot about Scottish traditions, Irish traditions,
but the English traditions seem to get passed over.
No-one seems to worry about them so much.
Yeah, I mean, it means such a lot to us.
We've come every single year of our lives.
A big part of our Christmas, really. You're not allowed to stop doing it!
Yeah, you're not allowed, because we want to come.
The people who dance the Greatham long sword are no longer
the impoverished workers trying to survive at a time when work was scarce.
But there is a suddenness in the way they still dance today that
makes me think the memory of these men is still very present for them.
As the bleak midwinter passes, we all start to think about the year ahead.
The old year is not going out quietly.
Thousands of revellers around the country gather on 31st December
to drink, be merry and welcome in a new year.
But we're going back to Northumberland,
where they're getting ready for a different New Year's party altogether.
In the former mining town of Allendale,
a New Year's tradition takes place that has literally been handed down from father to son for generations.
The origins of the tar barrel procession are disputed,
but are thought to go back at least until the 19th century,
when the country was going through its industrial revolution.
I'll be carrying a barrel tonight and I've done it for about 26, 27 year now, and never missed one.
-But Kenneth will have done it 45.
-I'll show you how the barrels are prepared.
-Shavings go in there like that.
-So you're layering it up?
Then there is a sprinkling of paraffin goes on.
Just a wee measure, Kenneth! A wee measure.
-Sprinkled on, right round. Up she goes!
-Are they really heavy?
-Go on then, Becks, go on.
-I'll give it a try.
Do you want a hat to put on your head?
-Go on, Becky!
After all the preparation that has gone into it,
we like to see it go well and I do enjoy it.
Can you remember how you felt
when you first held a tar barrel on your head and processed?
Tremendous sense of pride.
Just like some of these new lads you see today.
-Is this your first time?
-This is my first time, yeah.
-Are you excited?
I'm a bit apprehensive and nervous, a little bit, like.
I'm getting nearly 40, so I thought I'd better give it a go. Yeah.
That's nice for me first one, isn't it?
It turns out that these strange-looking barrel carriers are known locally as guisers.
So, you use the term "guiser", what does that mean?
Well, I suppose it means disguising,
so that people can behave as they wish without too much...regret.
There's often a few men dressed as women.
-They don't need any excuse, do they?
-Cross-dressers are rife!
As the crowds start to gather,
we need the oldest barrel carriers in Allendale.
MARCHING BAND PLAYS
-How many years have you been doing this? A long time?
-A long time.
-I'm over 90.
I went to the first bonfire with me mother
when I was four years old to see me father carry a barrel.
I've taken part in it for all these years, 100 years, nearly.
The council, they used to come to tar the roads in the old days
and they used over a dozen barrels.
We used to go in and steal them after the workmen left.
That's how it were tar barrels, you see? We went and stole them.
-Are you looking forward to the evening?
-Are you coming with us?
-Oh, yes, if you'll let us?
This looks amazing!
It goes back, they reckon, until the days when the evil spirits used to come into houses
and they used to go in with a lighted torch or a lighted barrel
into the house on New Year's Eve to chase the evil spirits out.
I can feel a few warm spots on my head every now and again.
I'll have a few bald patches in the morning.
It's a real privilege to be following these guisers of all ages
as they snake around the town on a route that has been trodden for so many years.
It really is quite a powerful and moving sight.
And quite hard to keep up with!
Oh, my God, it's so exciting!
Oh, my God! We've never been so close to the fire before
and it gets big so quick.
And this year, for some reason... it's extra-specially sparky.
# ..For auld lang syne
# We'll take a cup of kindness yet
# For the sake of auld lang syne! #
Happy New Year!
So we're doing the tradition of first footing now, is that right?
-Yes, yes. We going to Hilton's.
-Going up to Hilton's?
-We're going to let his New Year in?
We're going to let his New Year in? Brilliant.
Ideally, you find a tall, dark, handsome man and you get him
to be the first into the house in the new year and of course,
his reward was then a little glass of something.
Obviously, if you turn up and you're prepared to sing a song,
you're very welcome.
Happy New Year!
Bet they could.
# Tar barrel in Dale
# Fire in snow
# Toast the New Year
# Bid farewell to the old
# Tar barrel in Dale
# Fire in snow
# Toast the New Year
# Bid farewell to the old
# At midnight's approach
# The band you can hear
# The fiery procession
# Of guisers draws near
# With friends and good company
# With voices so clear
# Singing in harmony
# Bringing in the New Year. #
In Allendale more than anywhere, I get the feeling of a whole town
growing older and marking the passing of the years together.
New Year is a time of fun and also reflection.
A new year in, an old year out.
And the handing of the barrel from father to son reminds me of this.
The old year may be gone but winter is far from over.
As New Year dawn breaks, we're travelling to the village of Haxey
in a remote part of North Lincolnshire known as the Isle Of Axholme.
These farming villages were once surrounded by water
but now provide the perfect ground for an unusual tradition
that's been blowing away the January blues for centuries.
# Is there anyone here
# That can tell me where I can find employ?
# Oh, to plant and to sow and to reap and to mow
# And to be a farmer's boy
# And to be a farmer's boy
# My father's dead My mother's left... #
Each year, the men from two neighbouring villages
meet to contest in a game that has, they say,
been played on the same ploughed field for more than 700 years.
It all centres around a curious oblong stick
known to all from Haxey as the Hood.
The Hood begins its tour of the four competing pubs
accompanied by a curious group of men known as Boggins,
led by the Lord of the Hood and the Fool.
A local song in a packed pub accompanies the tradition of
the blacking of the Fool and marks the start of Hood Day.
What's your face about?
The blacking is to represent the bruising in the first game.
-It was always for that.
-Did the Fool get...
Yes, that's the one! That's the word.
In the first game, when the Lady De Mowbray rode across these fields,
her hood went and was lost.
13 farm workers fought for it and one big buxom man,
he got the hood and was going to present it but was a bit scared.
He handed it off to another man. He handed it back.
The Lady said, "You are the Lord. But you, my man, are a fool."
So I'm the Fool.
The smoking of the Fool
is one of the highlights of the Haxey Hunt day.
My lords and ladies and gentlemen,
we are gathered here today to play the ancient game of Haxey Hunt.
Now, this game is 700 years old so let's respect the game
and look after each other.
This picture's from the 1800s where my great-great-grandfather
is stood in front of the Fool down there.
That's the thing. He is as close as that.
It is bred in us and we all know from being very small,
this is what the Hood is about.
As you can see, things are starting to warm up.
So it's time for the game to begin.
And it is time for you all to join in. And it's...
-Hoose agen hoose,
toon agen toon,
if a man meets a man, knock 'im doon
but doan't 'ot im.
It's "hoose agen hoose" which means house against house.
"Toon agen toon" which is town against town.
And if you meet a man you knock him down but you don't hurt him.
But, the thing is, you look after that man as you drop him down.
It's the Haxey way.
We walk up to the plough field, where everyone waits impatiently
for the Lord of the Hood to start the game.
You look after everybody. If a man is down, pick him up.
-Hoose agen hoose, toon agen toon,
if a man meets a man, knock 'im doon,
but doan't 'ot im.
-Oh, my God!
-My heart is racing.
-What are the rules?
-The main rule is you can't run with it.
You've got to walk at all times. It's like a big rugby scrum.
If it falls down, we pick everybody up.
But there will always be about four or five people in the middle of it, holding onto it.
The main aim of it is to get that Sway to the local pub of your choice.
There are four pubs and we'll try and get it to our favourite pub.
Once the landlord has touched it, it's his for the year
and then we all have a few more drinks and the rest is part of history.
-Any idea where it might be going to this year?
-Not at the moment.
It can all change.
It's heading towards Haxey at the moment but it's not over.
What's the shortest and what's the longest it's ever taken to arrive at a pub?
It varies between probably an hour-and-a-half and four hours.
-Have you just been in there?
-Yeah, it's harsh. It's not easy.
-It looks pretty rough in there.
-Are you feeling injured at all?
-Not yet but I'm going to go back in there now.
-Go for it!
Come on, Westwood!
Even though the Sway moves at an incredible pace,
it's two hours before it pushes towards the edge of the plough field.
Go on, Haxey!
It's just massive pride that the Isle of Axholme have got, and long may it live.
It's the end of Christmas. Know what I mean?
It's better than New Year. A better day than New Year.
You get hammered, you get a few broken bones here and there.
It's a good day out.
Finally, it makes its move towards Haxey.
I suppose now it's which pub out of the three?
Let me out, boys. Let me out!
There's something really primitive about it really.
-These men getting together and showing their manhood.
It's quite near!
We're stood outside the Duke William now.
That's the first pub on this stretch
so are they going to go into the Duke?
Brilliant! So it made it into the Duke William.
-Come on, Duke!
-Yes, come on, Duke!
The Haxey Hood is surrounded by ritual and costume
but it feels like, at the heart of it, is the sheer force of the Sway itself.
There is a real urge from the Haxey men to banish
the restlessness that comes from Christmas
and New Year passing with this territorial battle
and brace themselves finally for the last leg of winter.
As January starts to get under way,
for many people it is a reluctant return to work.
But for the agricultural workers of the East Anglian Fens
this was the beginning of the ploughing season
and the first step towards a release from winter's frosty grip.
Plough Monday was the day when farm workers were meant to go back to work.
So this was the beginning of the ploughing season.
The vast majority of people who lived in such communities
were called plough boys. They were plough workers.
It was a difficult time of year. There wasn't a lot of work around.
It seems there was a variety of ways in which
they scrounged money from local people.
One of the ways was by doing Molly dancing.
Another of the ways was by taking the plough through the streets
and if people didn't give them reward in the form of food
or drink or preferably money, they would plough up their front gardens.
-Very nice, yeah(!)
And what about the black faces?
Well, we think that's related to the fact that they used to plough up
people's front gardens. So it was a form of disguise.
When the plough boys went out on a Monday in Ramsey,
some of them would dress as a straw bear.
It would normally be very special straw that had been
kept from the harvest from the year before.
They would take the straw bear into people's houses
where he would caper about and crawl on the floor
and beg from the people to get some more money.
-Hello, Mr Bear, are you all right in there?
-I'm fine, thank you.
Is it a bit hot?
It is a bit hot but it is a bear's job never to complain.
That's very noble of you.
Godspeed the plough, the plough and the ploughmen
the farm and the farmer, machine and beast and man.
Godspeed the plough.
-Godspeed the plough.
Was blessing the plough to wish it good luck for the next season?
Yeah, to bring good luck to the plough boys, because a lot
of these people, if they didn't have good harvests, they starved.
The plough boys' antics were copied by the children of Ramsay,
who would call it plough witching.
We lived right out in the Fens.
There was no lights or anything down there
so the children used to dress up in rags and black their face
and then, as soon as it got dark, we would go to people's houses,
knock on the door and sing your little song.
If they didn't open the door,
you would probably put stones through the letterbox.
Sometimes they had brick driveways so you'd take the bricks off and put them on the garden.
Anything to be naughty really.
That's really my first memories of it -
practising this funny little song.
-I've got a hole in my sock and a hole in my shoe,
please will you give us a penny or two.
If you ain't got a penny, a ha'penny will do
and if you ain't got a ha'penny, God bless you.
It was "ain't", not "haven't".
That's Fen talk.
-Were the winters quite hard on the Fenlands?
-They were very hard.
We used to have my father's army coat on the bed to keep us warm.
It was so cold in the winters.
We're about to discover for ourselves one of the ways
in which East Anglian farmers used to keep warm against this bitter cold.
Molly dancing is the East Anglian version of English traditional dance.
It was done in the middle of winter.
They could be out there in freezing cold winds.
We think it is about getting down into the earth
and turning the earth over. So it is a strong downward movement.
When we teach the children,
we tell them that the people who did it were strong.
Going around from house to house
and almost intimidating some of the people that you worked for
was a pretty audacious thing to do for these plough boys,
whose lives really depended on this kind of work at this time of year.
There's something very strong in spirit about this tradition
and the people from this area,
that they won't be bowed down even when times are hard.
The land begins to emerge from winter
and we travel to the Home Counties for the end of our journey,
ready to race into spring.
Traditionally, Shrove Tuesday was the day that everyone used up
their fatty foods left over from winter.
Rachel and I usually use it as an excuse to sample a few pancakes.
But for the people of Olney pancakes mean so much more.
This is a day they serve up one of the oldest traditions in the land.
And there's not a sweaty man in sight.
Each year, Olney welcomes the first signs of spring
with a traditional race that is handed down from mother to daughter.
The pancake race supposedly started in about 1445.
The only people that can run in the race are girls
that live in the town.
So what are the rules for entering the pancake race?
They have to wear an apron and they have to have a headscarf on.
They have to have a pancake and toss it at the start.
The girl that wins has to have, albeit perhaps a little bit of pancake,
but she has to be able to toss it at the end.
-Are you from Olney, then?
-Yes, I was born here. In 1932.
I've noticed that your pancake is quite a thick pancake.
Yes, that's the secret of it. See, if it's thick, you can toss it.
There is a lot of people say they put Blu-tack on it but I don't.
-Do you think you might win this year?
Unless they all drop dead.
And they're off. Give them a cheer!
This lady was busy making pancakes
and suddenly she heard the church bell toll
and she suddenly thought, "I've got to be at the church."
So she ran down the street and she still had her apron
and her headscarf and her frying pan in her hand
and the verger was so pleased to see her at the church
he give her a kiss and she went to the service.
Shrove Tuesday may have been started by the Church but this is very much
an event led by the women of the town to mark the change in season.
It's the women in charge here and they are taking everyone forward
out of the dark days of winter and finally into spring.
We've seen some very different traditions
and original ways that people mark the journey
through England's harsh winter into spring.
The English are known for their stoicism and yet,
at the toughest time of the year, the most colourful events,
dances and songs spring up around the country out of the darkness.
It shows a real need for people to come together in the dark and cold
to celebrate time passing and liven each other's spirits.
To stand up for themselves against the odds.
And to banish a kind of primal fear of evil
and the unknown that seems to run much deeper and further back
even than the traditions themselves.
The origins of these customs may be lost in the mists of time
but somehow they find new meaning and potency as we witness them today.
-Are you ready?
-On your marks.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Rachel and Becky Unthank continue their journey around England's hidden customs and dance traditions and into the dark heart of its winter pastimes. The follow-up to Still Folk Dancing After All These Years, which explored English folk dances from spring to harvest, this film explores English folk customs around the country though the other six months of the year.
Two hundred years of political intrigue and clashes with police authorities in Lewes on Guy Fawkes Night have created an awe-inspiring procession of burning popes and other effigies of the enemies of the bonfire, not to mention a heavy police presence to this day. Throwing the Yorkshire carols of Sheffield out of the church repertoire has only served to enhance the heart-stopping show of unrestrained joy found in the powerful singing at the Royal Hotel pub in Dungworth.
The longsword dancers of the North East and molly dancers of East Anglia, who have gone collecting funds each year, are a reminder that no higher power puts food on the plate. Just as these customs rely on the communities themselves to mark each point with song, remembrance and a gathering together, the very need to survive lies in the hands of your neighbour.
The Unthanks discover these stories through singing, dancing, meeting people who have grown up with these traditions and trying not to get set on fire.