Old Ways

Strange English Rural Traditions

It is a defining feature of a country’s traditions, customs, and rituals, that they serve a “spiritual” and psychological need. It is in customs and traditions that a culture preserves, and re-establishes, the common bond that exists between the inhabitants of the land.

Customs of culture can immediately transform the would-be stranger into a fellow; they are a shared experience of behaving. Traditions often grow out of customs that have been resilient and passed on from one generation to the next.


This sense of time that imbues a tradition tends to transform it into an event, a performative action that becomes strikingly resonant with what it means to live in that country.

Rituals and traditions are similar in their performative aspects but usually differ formally. Rituals depend on the precision of action, of repeating a performance in an exact manner.

Haxey Hood display (North Lincolnshire Museum). Credit: Lajmmoore 

This strictness of ritual separates it from the playfulness of tradition and so it is no surprise that the connotation of ritual relates to myth and religion.

It should not be forgotten that both the performances of tradition and ritual are a re-enactment and it is this re-enactment which serves to refresh the cultural memory.

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Rituals often bring the participants back to a “mythic time” where the great mythologies took place. Tradition reminds the participant of a cultural bond, a shared experience, and does not necessarily have to pertain to such a grand system of cultural values, such as a ritual pertains to.


How customs, traditions, and rituals interact with one another and grow out of each other, is not for this essay; that is for the subtle work of an anthropologist. From this point onwards, I will be referring to the traditions of England alone, instead of rituals, to avoid any confusion.

The Tar Barrels of Ottery St. Mary, England. Flaming barrels of tar race through these village streets on Bonfire Night, a tradition that dates back centuries. Credit:Lewis Clarke

England is a land rich in cultural traditions and it is of note that many traditions we find across the English land have their roots in Europe, Great Britain, and cross-culture dialogues with other, older civilisations.

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It is true that English traditions give visual and performative experience to the larger cultural attitude of England but it is also a way for other cultures to understand the English temperament. I will begin by discussing a tradition that has no longer the cultural weight it once had but nevertheless played an important role in English society.

Beating the Bounds

Indeed, the custom is still observed around England today, from London to Yorkshire. The tradition is called “beating the bounds”. An intriguing custom that serves to remind the local inhabitants of their area.

beating the bounds
Beating the Bounds

Members from a given community would set off on a walk and “beat” local landmarks with branches and thus mark the borders of their parish. The practice evolved from a time when maps were a rarity, let alone detailed enough for a particular parish community.

Even so, today the custom still remains in some places as a requirement for civic leaders. Knowledge of the parish boundaries was of formal importance to the community; it ordered who could be buried in the churchyard, where to sit in church, and whether someone was liable to donate to the church.

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When this custom took place, a group of younger boys came along, ostensibly so the tradition could be passed on; there are reports of boys being whipped at the landmarks to better instil the memory.

Gospels, too, were sung on these spots as a way of further demarcation (this is where place names like Gospel Oak originate from).

There is much to take away from this tradition. The psychology alone of knowing the limits of where you live is an important feature of habitation.

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

This was especially true when encroachments from new farming systems began to take hold over England; it can explain why, on the appointed day, there could arise the kicking down of fences that obstructed a traditional boundary.

It is also from “beating the bounds” that an insulated community can be put at ease.

This goes part of the way to explain the “Parish Ale” that began to take place after the ramble was through: a festival where ale was primarily drunk. “Beating the Bounds” has its roots in Anglo-Saxon culture and may have been adapted from a Roman celebration of Terminus, the god of landmarks.

Maypole Dance

Now that the limits of the parish have been spoken of, let us turn to other traditions that take place within these boundaries. One that can also claim its heritage from Roman Britain is the “Maypole Dance”.

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This will be familiar to anyone who has grown up and been educated in England. This pageantry is thought to have originated from the decoration of trees in celebration of the Roman goddess Flora.

A maypole at Llanfyllin, Wales on 1 May 1941

The Maypole dance occurs on the first day of May and celebrates the returning colours of spring. The traditional dance features pairs of boys and girls who hold ribbons attached to the “Maypole”.

As they begin to dance around it, a multicoloured pattern appears to descend the pole. When the patterns reach the bottom, the order is reversed and the pattern appears to unwind until it reaches the top. The incorporation of this decidedly pagan custom into English culture is not singular.

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In fact, the need to incorporate pagan (a very far-reaching term) signifies the need to appreciate life through music, song, and dance, as pagan traditions usually revolve around the coming of seasons and how this affects our lives.

Bonfire Night

Another great example of the incorporation of pagan tradition is Bonfire Night. Bonfire Night, for the English, is associated with the mocking of Guy Fawkes, the man who tried to blow up parliament and assassinate King James I in 1605.

Guy Fawkes night
Children preparing for Guy Fawkes night celebrations (1954)

Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes’ Night, lands on the 5th of November and goes back to an act of parliament that encouraged Londoners to show their enthusiasm for James I’s survival and Guy Fawkes’ failure by lighting small fires. Of course, it is now much more than small fires; it is huge bonfires and an eclectic show of fireworks.

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The custom may not have been as successful as it has been if it were not for the already strong tradition of lighting fires, associated with All-Hallows Eve (October 31st), around the United Kingdom.

To return to the dance, we find another famous English tradition whose origins are murky. This is the Morris dance.

Morris Dancers

The Morris dance consists of choreographed figures rhythmically performed by the players, usually wearing bell-pads on their shins. Other objects, such as sticks, swords, or handkerchiefs, may be introduced into the mix.

Morris dancer
A Morris dancer with coloured disguise which was often used by dancers from the borders of Wales and England. Credit: FooldudeUK

As might be expected, the Morris dance varies from region to region across England, whether it be in how the dance is choreographed or with what apparel the dancers wear.

There are many kinds of Morris dance depending on the occasion. There are dances that take the performers from one place to another (Nos Galan), or one that takes place around a haystack (The Crown), or one depending on the tune (The Druid).

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This list is not exhaustive; it merely indicates the variations in the dance. The origins of the Morris dance remain obscure and it is only through the records of the late medieval/early modern court that historians find mention of the Morris dancers being hired for entertainment.

Morris dancers
Morris dancers with handkerchiefs in York. Credit: Tim Green

It has been conjectured that the name derives from the Moors of Spain, considering their “exotic” dress. The Morris dance is still very well alive today with several companies working under the title of the Joint Morris Organisation to preserve the heritage of this medieval spectacle.

After touching on some important and general traditions of England, I will go on to discuss some that are place dependent.

The Cheese Roll

A famous example of a place-dependent tradition is the cheese race in Gloucester (the actual name is Cooper’s Hill Cheese-rolling and Wake) which takes place on the spring bank holiday (29th May).

A roll of Gloucester cheese is rolled down the eponymous 200-metre hill and the contestants follow in its wake, hoping to be the first to reach the bottom and claim the roll of cheese.

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Cooper's Hill cheese roll
A view down Cooper’s Hill, from the start point of the race to the finish (where the dog-walkers are). It is hard to see how insanely steep this hill is. Credit: Pete Verdon

This event was traditionally kept to the inhabitants of the neighbouring town of Brockworth, but now anyone is able to participate. Although the first written evidence of this event taking place is in the early nineteenth century, it is thought that the tradition is over 600 years old.

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The conjectures over the origin of this tradition are torn between a more prosaic one and one of pagan mystery. The former conjecture relates to the grazing rights of the commons and the latter as a fertility rite; it is best understood today as a combination of the two.

cheese rolling Gloucestershire
Broken bones happen every time

As the hill is very steep and the roll of cheese capable of injuring by-standers, there has been some controversy over the health and safety of this event. Nevertheless, the tradition stands today, and the locals are proud to call it a part of their heritage. 

Haxey Wood

The last tradition I would like to touch on is Haxey Hood which is in keeping with our discussion about a tradition in a particular place.

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Haxey Hood takes place annually on January 5th in the town of Haxey in North Lincolnshire and consists of a large rugby scrum, or “sway”, which directs a hood (a leather tube) to one of the four pubs that will hold the hood until the next year.

The opponents, all locked in the sway, are of no definite team. The game of Haxey Hood can take a couple hours, or go long into the night. There can be over 200 people engaged in the sway and, indeed, it can take down anything in its path: hedges, fences, and walls.

The Haxey Hood – The Fool’s speech. Credit: Richard Croft

When the hood arrives at one of the pubs, the landlord hangs it up and gives everyone a free drink. What makes Haxey Hood exceptional is not only that it virtually takes over the whole parish, but that it is one of the oldest standing English traditions and its origins are well known.

A one Lady de Mowbray, wife of landowner John de Mowbray, was out riding in the area when a gust of wind blew off her hood.

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Thirteen farm workers, seeing the event, all stopped what they were doing and began to chase the hood as it was blown about the farm. The farmer who caught it was too shy to return it to the lady and instead gave it to another farmer to return it.

The farmer who returned it was called the “lord” and the shy farmer was called the “fool”. The lady was so bemused over this event that she donated the land so the event could be re-enacted every year.

Traditions of England, both general and particular, show a remarkable quality of cross-cultural dialogue and a manifest experience of how the English relate to their land; how they make sense of their own culture, and how they retain that memory through these performative acts.

In each tradition, however humble the origin, a quality of “English-ness” seems to be distilled.

Lead image by Will De Freitas