May 132017
 

Abbotsbury Garland Day was held on this date for a little under 200 years, and continues to this day although the date of the celebration is now somewhat more flexible. I want to make a point of mentioning this English calendar custom, in part because it is not well known, and in part because its history is reasonably clear and is mercifully devoid of the usual claptrap about “pagan” origins that dogs so many English traditions.

Abbotsbury is a former fishing village in Dorset a little to the west of Weymouth, and Garland Day celebrations have taken place there since about the early 19th century. They were first described in the edition of John Hutchins’ History of Dorset published in 1867. My strong suspicion is that they were begun simply as a way for poor fishing families to make a little money in hard times. Not many folklorists or historians make much of the fact that almost all calendar customs in England involved some form of (legal) begging. I do. In the 19th century Dorset was the poorest county in the south of England by far. In the 19th century Dorset was mostly an agricultural area with farm laborers earning 10 shillings per week, half of which went for bread alone. The common daily diet was bread and cheese and on this an agricultural laborer was expected to work from dawn to dusk, 6 days a week.

Because of these impossible conditions there were several attempts to form unions to protest, the most famous being the Tolpuddle Martyrs. By the time the Martyrs organized their union (1834), wages had sunk to 6 shillings per week. It’s no wonder that local communities such as Abbotsbury organized festivals to try to wrest a little extra money once a year from those who had some to spare. Delve deeper and I guarantee you’ll find that the vast bulk of English calendar customs – lauded as “ancient” festivals – were motivated by financial concerns.

The custom involves the making of garlands by the children of the village. Originally only the children of local fishermen took part. The garlands were blessed in a church service and some were then rowed out to sea to be tossed into the water. The children would then spend the rest of the day playing on the beach. From around the time of the First World War the custom changed somewhat in that children of non-fishermen started to take part. This was probably due to the decline of the local fishing industry. The village school gave the children a day’s holiday and they would construct two garlands, one of wild flowers and the other of garden flowers. These were paraded on poles from house to house in the village where they asked for money. Later in the day older children who had been at school in Weymouth would return to the village and make a more elaborate garland which they would also take around the houses.

Since the First World War two garlands have been placed on the local war memorial at the close of the tour of houses. The Abbotsbury village school closed in 1981 and the children no longer get a day’s holiday. This has led to the celebrations taking place either in the evening of May 13th or on the nearest Saturday. Well . . . today (2017) is a Saturday !!!

From my experience of the region around Weymouth and Portland which I knew quite well a long time ago, as well as tours more recently in the vicinity of Swanage, there’s not a whole lot in the way of regional Dorset specialties. In recent years the old methods of making Dorsetshire Blue Vinney, a crumbly blue cheese made from skimmed milk (after butter had been made from it), have been revived, and it is good with Dorset knobs, hard biscuits (baked 3 times) made with bread dough and butter. Nowadays the most common dairy products are clotted cream and ice cream, locally produced, and if you buy a cone at the seaside they’ll ask if you want the ice cream topped with cream. Slight overkill, if you ask me, but worth it.  Otherwise, fish dishes from the coastal areas are much the same as you will find in Devon and Cornwall.

There is this, however, a report taken from The Portland Arms, taken from The Penny Magazine [1838]:

The ‘Portland Arms’ is not a wayside house, where travellers are coming and going every hour, and where, therefore, you have no right to expect more than prompt but general civility. It is rather one of those retired country inns, where visitors are treated with a homely but warm-hearted attention, which places them almost on the footing of friends. And though the inn cannot boast of being as fine as a London hotel, it has, nevertheless, its reputation. George III, during his visits to Weymouth, had several times made a tour of the Isle of Portland; and on those occasions he made the ‘Portland Arms’ his head-quarters, and used to finish his day by dining at the house. The then landlady had a recipe for making a certain famous Portland pudding, and the King never failed to order this pudding, in honour of the island. She bequeathed the recipe to her daughter, the present landlady; and though the pudding may now be ordered by the humblest visitor, the honour of the king’s visits is still felt in the ‘Portland Arms’ with something of that satisfaction which another royal visit left in the Castle of Tillietudlem.

This is touted as the recipe in question:

PORTLAND PUDDING.

Beat to cream ¾ lb. each of fresh butter and caster sugar, then stir in the yolks of nine well beaten eggs, and mix in gradually ¾ lb sifted flour and 2 oz. finely-shred candied peel beat all well together for about ten minutes, then stir quickly and lightly the stiffly-whipped white of the eggs, pour it into small moulds, and bake. Serve with sweet sauce to taste.

All in all it looks like a sponge cake with candied peel, made into individual cakes rather than one big one. I’d guess that it was served hot, but I don’t know what kind of sweet sauce went with it.