Beating The Bounds a 2000-Year-Old Custom

Today, if you want to know the boundaries of the parish where you live, it’s simply of matter of unfolding an OS map or checking it online.

That wasn’t always the case though. In the past, parish boundaries were of much greater significance than they are today, and it was within these confines that the practise of Beating the Bounds was established.

It’s a tradition that’s existed in Britain for over two thousand years that derives its roots from various cultures, and it still takes place today in some parts of England and Wales.

Beating The Bounds


OS map
Today we just have to look at a map to find the parish boundaries

Before the Romans and the arrival of Christianity, Celtic rituals recognised the passing of the seasons. For rural communities spring was an important time, particularly with regards to the planting of crops.

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Coinciding with May Day, the festival of Beltane celebrated the second half of the Celtic year and had elements which were closely associated with the marking of boundaries.

Birch trees were particularly symbolic as they’re one of the first to come into leaf. It’s even thought that the fertility ceremony of dancing around the maypole may have originated as a dance around a birch tree in celebration of spring.

The Romans later had their own deities connected to fertility. Terminus, their god of boundaries, was celebrated in a ceremony called Robigalia, during which a procession would be led around the fields.

roman road in Dorset

The Medieval Period

In the early medieval period, the Anglo-Saxons gave some order to what had become an unruly barbarous society. Land ownership brought new laws which needed to be enforced and the borders between neighbouring communities had to be clearly defined to avoid disputes.

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And so Beating the Bounds, also known as Gangdays or ‘Perambulating The Bounds’ and in Scotland ‘Riding The Marshes’, became an important process in the reinforcement of the charters of the day.

At the time most of the country was divided into parishes, with the clergy and church wardens responsible for their running and upkeep.

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Beating the bounds
Beating the bounds of the parish of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford.

Church parish borders were not marked on maps as they were rare, but members of the community, and of course the ecclesiastics, knew their location and this knowledge needed to be passed down through the generations.

It was only by knowing where the boundaries of the parish were, that there could be certainty about who lived within them.

This determined who had a right to be buried in the churchyard and who would be asked to put their hand into their pocket for a contribution when the church building needed repairs.

Where a parish began and ended also determined issues such as where parishioners could graze animals and the limits between various jurisdictions.


Beating the Bounds evolved into a Christian ceremony and the festival of Rogantide was incorporated into the calendar, to coincide with the time of year when God’s blessing was sought for seeds being sown.

Rogation days
Blessing the Fields on Rotation Sunday at Hever, Kent in 1967

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Also coinciding with Ascension Day, five weeks after Easter it became a major event.

A party of local people, usually comprised of clergymen, one of whom would head the procession, church wardens, local dignitaries, villagers and a group of boys, would walk the borders and learn the whereabouts of the boundaries by their relationship to local landmarks, such as stones, gate posts, walls and trees.

Having the boys in the party was a way to insure that the knowledge would be then passed down through subsequent generations.

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They were also given the job of carrying planks which would be laid down over streams, so that the more important members of the group could cross without getting their feet wet.

Middle Ages

Beating the bounds wasn’t unique to rural areas though and in the towns and cities, these planks offered safe passage over open drains and sewers. In coastal parishes which extended into the sea, boats were taken out to sail along the limits.

boundary marker
You may often come across a pillar or a stone when walking in the countryside

In the later Middle Ages, the Christian jurisdiction became connected with that of manorial estates, as landowners often gave some of that land to the church.

Read More: A Graveyard of our Ancestors – 6000 Years Old

It was also only the clergy and some of the better educated estate owners who were able to read and write. Now the processions were joined by landowners as a means of flexing their feudal muscles and reminding tenants who held the power, by defining their rights of access, or lack of them.

Beating the Bounds also gave an opportunity to check that neighbouring landowners hadn’t encroached onto their estate.


That’s the ‘bounds’ part explained, but what about the beating? Green birch or willow branches were used to hit the boundaries and imprint them into the memory, but it wasn’t just these parish perimeters that received a good walloping.

At certain points along the route, the boys in the group could find themselves on the wrong end of the willow whip. This was done to enforce the memory of certain spots or landmarks.

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An ancient oak tree, they were often used as boundary markers

No doubt it worked – you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry the oak tree beneath the limbs of which you were given a thrashing.

It wasn’t just a drubbing with a stick that the boys had to endure during their Beating the Bounds experience. Pain and suffering were liberally used as memory aids.

When crossing streams or passing ponds, the journey would be momentarily paused so that they could have their heads held under the water.

Wasn’t All Fun

After being told to run along walls and narrow banks, lads would be encouraged to increase their speed until they inevitably lost their balance and fell, often into nettles or brambles.

And if the stinging prickly vegetation was an isolated patch, members of the party would be thrown into it anyway. The boys would also have their heads banged against marker stones along the route, to help remember the exact location.

Traditionally the boys of the parish were turned upside down, and their heads knocked against the boundary markers, to help them remember.

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At the end of the ceremony they would be given tuppence each ‘for their pains’, although they were probably never consulted on whether they thought this was fair renumeration.

Over the years, the use of these violent practises died  out, until they were abandoned completely, to be replaced by less painful rituals such as being given the bumps.

Along the way, the clergyman would pray for the protection of the boundary, and blessings on the residents and their activities in the coming year.

Often psalms 103 and 104 were recited and hymns would also be sung, some specific to the occasion. At the Parish Church of St Thomas a Beckett in Pagham near Bognor Regis, they sing a recently penned Beating The Bounds hymn and some of it’s words nicely encapsulate the spirit of the whole occasion.

Let us raise our joyful sounds

As we meet to beat the bounds.

As we walk the Bay Estate

Bless all those within its gates.

Thank you for our fertile lands

And each worker’s active hands.

Let us give you grateful praise

For our local shops and trades.

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell banned the practise of Beating the Bounds during The Protectorate, but the restoration of the monarchy and the re-establishment of church festivals led to a revival of Rogantide as an important feast day and the processions began to walk the parish boundaries once again.

The tradition carried until the end of the nineteenth century, when it pretty much died out due to the enclosure acts and the transfer of church parish jurisdiction to local government.

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Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, a C of E parish church situated on one corner of London’s Trafalgar Square, held a Beating the Bounds ceremony until the late 1800s. The procession included children from St Martins schools and they would stop outside Buckingham Palace to sing the national anthem for Queen Victoria.

Beating the Bounds Today

Every three years, Beefeaters, local school children and scouts, still carry out the ceremony following the edges of the Tower of London Liberties, which are the boundaries of the land outside the Tower that lay under it’s control.

Iron markers of the border still exist and they are whipped as the procession passes by.

Parish boundary stone
Fantastic history

London’s oldest church, All Hallows which is next to the Tower, also holds it’s own Beating the Bounds.

Students from St Dunstan’s College, Catford, return to their roots in the parish of St Dunstan-in-the-East to take part in the proceedings, together with the clergy and the Masters of Livery Companies associated with All Hallows Church.


As the southern boundary of the parish is in the middle of the River Thames, the group have to be taken out by boat to beat it. Then back on dry land, the procession moves around the parish, stopping where necessary for the beaters to mark the boundaries with canes.

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Every third year, when the groups from both The Tower  and All Hallows Church are both out marking their territories, they have a ‘battle’ at a shared boundary marker.

Boundary stone
Boundary stone on Deanhead Moor The inscription says “Deanhead Side 1759”

In medieval times this boundary was always in dispute and the meeting commemorates a day in 1698 when a disagreement between the inhabitants of the Tower and the people of the parish developed into a riot.

In Bodmin Cornwall, Beating the Bounds still takes place every five years in springtime, usually April or May, although the 2020 event was cancelled due to problems with the organisation of the route.

An eighteen mile walk around the parish boundaries is followed by a silver ball being thrown into a pool with a cash prize for the person who recovers it.

There is then a traditional Cornish hurling  match, where a group of players pursue the silver ball to goals positioned at well-known local spots.

There are a number of other parishes throughout the UK where a version of the Beating the Bounds ceremony still takes place. Each is a real link to times gone by, a genuine little piece of living history and well worth the effort if you can get to see one.

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