May 232016


Today is the anniversary of the annual village festival in Kirtlington in Oxfordshire called the Lamb Ale. By 1679 it was an established tradition that started the day after Trinity Sunday and lasted for two days. That year Thomas Blount and Josiah Beckwith wrote:

At Kidlington in Oxford-shire the Custom is, That on Monday after Whitson week, there is a fat live Lamb provided, and the Maids of the Town, having their Thumbs ty’d behind them run after it, and she that with her mouth takes and holds the Lamb, is declared Lady of the Lamb, which being dress’d with the skin hanging on, is carried on a long Pole before the Lady and her Companions to the Green, attended with Musick and a Morisco Dance of Men, and another of Women, where the rest of the day is spent in dancing, mirth and merry glee. The next day the Lamb is part bak’d, boyld and rost, for the Ladies feast, where she sits majestically at the upper end of the Table and her Companions with her, with musick and other attendants, which ends the solemnity.

Later the festival extended to a whole week and in 1849 three special constables were sworn in “for the better preservation of peace and order at the ensuing Lamb Ale Feast”. The original custom died out in the 1860s as part of the general decline of rural calendar customs in the Midlands following the Industrial Revolution.


How much of Blount’s description is accurate is hard to say. He mistakes the name of the town for example, which suggests that, like most contemporary antiquarians, he was relying on written accounts as opposed to being an eye witness.  But there is no question that it was a lively celebration for at least 200 years.

Wikipedia says, “In 1979 Kirtlington Morris was formed and revived the tradition in a modified form.” This is a mistake. True, the morris dance side was reconstituted, after a fashion, in 1979, and they did initiate a dance event on the weekend of Trinity Sunday. But a simplified Lamb Ale had existed in the village for a long time prior to that in the post-war years. The vicar of Kirtlington held a lamb luncheon on Trinity Monday in the village hall to which the Oxford University Morris Men (OUMM) were invited, along with the Merton Mayflies (also from the university), who played the village cricket team after lunch on the green.

The luncheon was a relatively simple affair consisting of plates of cold lamb and vegetables, and copious amounts of beer. OUMM met at the Dashwood Arms pub before lunch, got dressed up, and then went on to the luncheon (which we had to pay for!). It was a mild affair, mostly attended by older residents, the vicar and his wife, because Trinity Monday is a normal work day. Getting enough dancers was a challenge for the same reason: the university was in session. But there were always enough of us, more interested in dancing than working, to constitute a team. I always attended as an undergraduate.


In those days OUMM kept alive a number of village traditions that had died out locally, but in the late 1970s new revival teams sprung up and we gave way (without much acknowledgement of our services). No matter.  We had rudimentary notations for a few Kirtlington morris dances that had been recorded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from original dancers, and reconstructed a few dances, which we rehearsed the Thursday before the Ale. Music notation was extant as well. I led OUMM as squire in the village dances in 1973.  I could revise the Wikipedia article because I am a registered editor, but I’m not going to. There are 100s of Wikipedia entries on village festivals and morris dancing that are wrong, and I don’t have time to correct them all. Chances are that if I did some idiot would put back all the errors. Don’t trust the internet.

To round out the Ale, we would stick around the village for the cricket match after we had danced for the Ale attendees, and then tour neighboring villages in the evening.  Fond memories. I’m sorry those days are long past. All things end. The modern “revival” bears no relation to the original Lamb Ale, as is true of most attempts in the 20th century of recreating “ancient” customs.

Roast lamb is perfect as a celebratory dish, but I’ve already covered the subject fully here: . So . . . onward and upward. Here’s my dish, lamb ale stew. It’s nothing more than a classic lamb stew with the addition of ale (or beer) in place of some of the stock. You can find recipes online for lamb stewed in beer, but they are mostly recipes modified from those for beef and beer. This one is wholly original. Use a light, flavorful beer, such as IPA, rather than dark varieties. You don’t want to mute the flavor of the lamb. Quantities, as always, are approximate.


©Lamb Ale Stew


2lbs stewing lamb, cubed
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 lb carrots
1 lb potatoes
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 tbsp fresh rosemary
1 10 fl oz bottle IPA
light stock (lamb or veal)
olive oil
salt and pepper
flour or cornstarch (optional)


Heat a small amount of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat, and sauté the lamb and onions until thoroughly browned. Add the beer and enough stock to cover the meat and onions. Add the rosemary, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, partly covered, for one hour.

Add the carrots and potatoes according to your taste. I use whole baby carrots, washed but not peeled, and potatoes, washed and coarsely chopped. Simmer uncovered for an additional 40 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked to your preference.

The cooking liquid reduces during the cooking process and I serve the stew, as is, with crusty bread. If you like you can thicken the sauce with a slurry of flour or cornstarch in cold broth towards the end (10 minutes). Always check the seasonings at this time too. I usually add a little extra rosemary and garlic to brighten the flavors.

Serves 6-8