Today is known as Easter Saturday in England and parts of the former Commonwealth, although the name is a trifle confusing to some. Going strictly logically, Easter Saturday should be the Saturday in Easter week, that is, the week after Easter, not the day before, which by the same logic should be Holy Saturday (the Saturday in Holy Week). You can call it Holy Saturday if you like, I’ve always called it Easter Saturday.
Easter Saturday is a rather quirky day in my experience, although what happens on that day has varied a lot in the different countries where I have lived over the years. In England in the late 1960s and early 1970s it felt a bit strange squeezed between the solemnity of Good Friday and the celebrations of Easter Sunday. People just went about their ordinary business as if it were any old Saturday. I had trouble making sense of it. Often, if it fell early enough, it was Boat Race day and I got into the spirit of that. More importantly it has always been the day when the Bacup Britannia Coconut dancers do a tour of the town from boundary to boundary. I went for several years when I lived in the Midlands. It’s something else.
England is loaded with seemingly bizarre calendar customs that defy the imagination. The Padstow Old ‘Oss and Abbots Bromley Horn Dance spring to mind immediately. Haxey Hood and the Whittlesea Straw Bear are not far behind. Bacup has always struck me as the oddest of them all and, of course, is surrounded by stupid speculations about “origins” which used to drive me to distraction. The dancers themselves buy into this nonsense. According to the semi-official history on their website the dance was either brought to Bacup by Barbary pirates or by Moors who had migrated to Cornwall to work in the tin mines, and then relocated to the Lancashire quarries. Does anyone in their right mind actually believe such absurd crap? Other unverifiable information – repeated endlessly on the internet with ZERO evidence – is that there are “similar” dances performed in Provence called “Danse des Coco.” I roll my eyes. A little digging will reveal to you that five troupes performed related dances in the Rossendale Valley in the late 1850s and Bacup’s original troupe, the Tunstead Mill Nutters, was one of them. So much for Barbary pirates.
The enduring mystery is who came up with the idea in the first place. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s black our faces, put on frilly skirts and clogs, and dance in the streets clacking wooden discs on our hands and knees.” “Aye, lad, graidly !!” According to the Burnley Gazette, a man named Abraham Spencer (1842–1918) was one of the founders of the Tunstead Nutters back in 1857, at age 15 !! The Tunstead dancers passed on their tradition to workers at the Britannia Mill in Bacup in the 1920s, by which time the other groups had faded into oblivion.
There are some old photos of the other groups knocking around and the Rochdale Coconut Dance tune is extant. A great many English calendar customs fell out of fashion at the turn of the 20th century for a variety of reasons. That Bacup held on is remarkable. Here’s a couple of samples from recent years:
It’s amazing to me that this should be such an extraordinary event, yet is not drowned in a sea of folkies every year. True, the town center is mobbed in the middle of the day, but if you attend early in the morning or later in the afternoon when the dancers are nearer the boundaries, spectators are thin on the ground – just the die hards (like me).
The route and order of events do not change much. After a bit of a warm up dance (and drinks) at the start, the Stacksteads Silver Band sets off, in single file, down the middle of the road, and the dancers split into 2 groups of 4, directed by a whipper-in, and dance on either side of the road – alternating stopping to perform and jogging along the road. Progress is slow and steady. In the town center around midday, the teams split up and perform in various pubs. Otherwise, along the way they pause to perform 8-man garland dances. It’s a grueling day for the dancers, but they are always in good spirits until the end. If you follow the dancers all day you won’t get the tune out of your head for a looooong time.
Lancashire Butter Pie is a suitable dish for the day because it is local to the south Pennine region and because it is suitable for the last day of Lent, being meatless (if you ignore the butter, and the dripping in the pastry). I don’t know why it is called butter pie since the filling is more potatoes and onions than butter. It’s certainly a humble dish, eaten by mill workers, and I find it pleasant accompanied by some pickles and Lancashire cheese.
Lancashire Butter Pie
200 gm flour
50 gm butter, cut in chunks
50 gm dripping (or vegetable shortening)
2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 onion, peeled and sliced.
salt and pepper
Make pastry by combining the flour and dripping with a pastry cutter or in a food processor until it resembles coarse sand. Add enough cold water a little at a time until the pastry just comes together in a ball. Wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, parboil the potatoes and onions for around 20 minutes. The potatoes should be cooked, but not soft.
Pre-heat the oven to 350°F/180°C.
Roll the pastry to make 2 crusts. Line your pastry dish with one crust, then layer in the potatoes and onions mixed with the butter, and salt and pepper to taste.
Top with the second crust and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden.