Jun 182016


Today is Mayor Making in Abingdon in Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire) when the residents and businesses of Ock Street (in the town center), and immediate environs, vote for the Mayor of Ock Street, a mock mayor who is thereafter the head of the Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers for the coming year. The ceremony nowadays takes place on the Saturday nearest 19th June each year, although in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was conducted near the annual Abingdon Midsummer Horse and Cattle Fair. The lineage of the dancers and the Mayor Making tradition is impossible to ascertain at this point due to the virtual non-existence of records prior to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is a single entry in the parish records of 1560 for “two dossin of morris bells” and that’s about it until the 19th century. Not much to hang a history on.

I’ll try not to wear you out with my wonted diatribe about calendar customs in Britain, although in this case it is strongly tempting because I wrote the definitive history of morris dancing in England and was a member of Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers as musician and dancer in the 1970s. So I know a little bit about the tradition.


The tradition of electing a mock mayor is sporadically recorded throughout English history but not much is known about the custom. It seems to be allied in a loose way with the widespread custom of electing a foolish version of officialdom in holiday seasons, but there’s no thread that unites these diverse customs. The Abingdon Mayor Making ceremony is recorded in the 19th century and seemingly has always been associated with the local morris dancers. A newspaper article from a Reading paper of 1864 notes that the “customary election of the mayor of Ock street” took place on Saturday 25th June with the horse and cattle fair following on the Monday. The general description is in the image above (click to enlarge) or go here: www.abingdonmorris.org.uk/mab144.htm  The general details are not very clear, however, and I doubt that 19th century reporters were any more accurate than modern ones are.


Morris dancing in Abingdon suffered the same fate as morris dancing did in general in the late 19th century, that is, by 1900 there were a few groups clinging on in isolated spots, but most were defunct. A few antiquarians took an interest and noted down the dances and their music. Cecil Sharp was one of the more notable of these, but there were others before and after him. Sharp recorded the Abingdon dances from older performers, but was not particularly impressed because their dances did not fit what he saw as a canonical model, that is, each village had its own individual patterns of stepping, arm movements, and figures (which Sharp called “evolutions”), which were the same from dance to dance. What distinguished one dance from another were the tunes and the chorus movements that alternated with the figures. When Sharp interviewed the remaining Abingdon dancers, he discovered that their dances did not fit what he had by that time decided was the normal pattern and so dismissed them as defective.

By and large Abingdon dances are much simpler than the morris dances of other villages recorded in the region. They generally consist of an introduction followed by one figure and a chorus alternated until the leader calls for an ending movement. What has always marked the Abingdon tradition off from the others is its paraphernalia, and the Mayor Making ceremony. The dancers always perform with a set of horns which are reputed to date back to 1700. In that year William III granted a charter to the town, and in honor of the event they held a public ox roast. A fight broke out between the residents of Ock street and other townspeople over who should claim the horns, and Ock street won. Ever after, the winners and their descendants paraded the horns along Ock street during midsummer festivities.   The horns are mounted on a wooden replica of an ox head inscribed with the date, 1700. The mayor of Ock street carries a wooden cup and a sword as his badges of office during the Mayor Making procession. In 1864 these symbols had been hocked and had to be redeemed by the actual mayor of Abingdon before the election of the mock mayor could take place – which is presumably why the ceremony warranted a few lines in a Reading newspaper.


The tradition of morris dancing and Mayor Making managed to survive through the 20th century with frequent breaks. In the 1930s the tradition was reasonably robust, but languished in the war years. In the 1950s and 60s it held on with some outside support and encouragement. Three of the oldsters from the 1930s — Charlie Brett, Jack Hyde, and Johnny Grimsdale (all born around 1900) — were recruited to revive the dances and act as continuity with the past. Charlie Brett was mayor from 1964 to his death in 1979, Johnny Grimsdale carried the horns, and Jack Hyde was an occasional musician (usually for practices).


On the day before the election of the mayor, ballot cards are distributed to eligible voters along Ock street and its mews, and on the day itself a ballot box is set up in a designated spot from 10 am to 4 pm. A little after 4 pm the ballots are counted and the winner is proclaimed. Then around 6 pm a procession begins from one end of Ock street to the other. The basic idea is to parade from one pub to the next, so the itinerary has changed over the years. In the 1970s when I was a dancer it went from the Air Balloon to the Railway Inn (which was where we “practiced” – that is, drank all night and occasionally did a dance, and where we held meetings). Both are closed now, but there are still plenty of pubs to visit.

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The highlight of the parade is chairing the mayor. The dancers have a seat with long poles attached that the mayor sits in, and then he is hoisted to shoulder height and carried along Ock street.  It’s supposed to be an honor to be one of the bearers, but the times I did it, I thought it was just bloody hard work.

There are no special foods associated with either Abingdon or Mayor Making. It’s not a great foodie region of England. Jerome K. Jerome’s description of Abingdon in Three Men in a Boat  about sums the place up for me:

At Abingdon, the river passes by the streets.  Abingdon is a typical country town of the smaller order—quiet, eminently respectable, clean, and desperately dull. 

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They do have a bun throwing in Abingdon once in a while to mark special occasions. They had one recently to mark the queen’s 90th birthday. The town council in full ceremonial regalia get on to the roof of the town hall and toss about 4,000 currant buns out to the crowds in the market square below. I went to one in 1974 that mourned the move of Abingdon from Berkshire to Oxfordshire when the county boundaries were redrawn. It’s some sight to see currant buns raining down on expectant thousands. It’s also quite a job catching one. As it happens 1974 was a banner year for Abingdon morris because Ali saw us that year.


Anyway . . . pub food would work as a celebration. The dancers always had high tea during the ballot counting when I was a dancer. Just to bring home a point I made some time ago. “High” tea does NOT mean “afternoon tea” with scones, cream, jam and whatnot, as it is mistakenly called in the US. “High” does not mean “fancy.” What it means is that high tea is a regular meal as opposed to something you have to tide you over until dinner. Noon is the regular lunch time and dinner is served around 7 pm conventionally, so something in between is definitely handy. But in some families, tea is the evening meal, and consists of solid dishes. It is called high tea. High tea for us at Mayor Making consisted of cold meat, pickles, cheese, and bread – something easy to put together without cooking. These days the dancers have a pub lunch, and then a formal dinner after the ceremonies in the evening. There are no special dishes, however. You could have anything suitably English – steak and ale pie, steak and kidney pudding, ploughman’s lunch . . . stuff I’ve regaled you with many times before. Here’s a dish that I concocted that’s not especially traditional but is easy and tasty. The cider should be English country cider, that is, rich and alcoholic, not what passes for cider in the US.


Chicken and Cider


1 chicken cut in 8 pieces
flour for dredging
salt and pepper
cooking oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 lb mushrooms, sliced
chicken stock
fresh parsley, chopped
heavy cream (optional)


Place the chicken pieces in a heavy brown paper bag with some flour seasoned to taste with salt and pepper. Fold down the top of the bag tightly, making sure there is plenty of air inside, and shake it vigorously. Open the bag and remove the chicken pieces, shaking off excess flour. This method ensures an even coating.

Heat the cooking oil over medium heat in a deep, heavy skillet. Gently sauté the onions and mushrooms until they are soft but not browned. Remove them with a slotted spoon and reserve them. Turn the heat to high and brown the chicken pieces on all sides. Return the mushrooms and onions, barely cover the chicken with a 50-50 mix of cider and stock, add parsley to taste, bring to a slow simmer and cook gently, partly covered for about 20 minutes.

Remove the cover and continue cooking for another 20 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. DO NOT OVERCOOK. The sauce should have reduced and thickened. Towards the end you can add a little heavy cream if you wish.

Serve the chicken with the sauce over the top garnished with parsley and accompanied with boiled new potatoes and a green vegetable such as green beans or asparagus.

Serves 4


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: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/henry-lawson/ . 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

May 012015


Ahhh, 1 May. So many different things to different people. Here in China it is Labor Day (see last year’s post https://www.bookofdaystales.com/international-workers-day/); in Celtic regions of Europe it is Beltane; and in England and Germanic countries of Europe it is May Day marking the start of summer with Maypoles, fresh flowers, and whatnot. England will be my focus this year. People who know me personally, and some who know me through my posts, will know that I foam at the mouth and seethe when I hear the nonsense spouted about the supposed “pagan” origins of English folk customs. Words such as “ancient” and “traditional” are bandied about with no definition and precious little understanding of the history of customs. How about this from Wikipedia?

The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, held April 27 during the Roman Republic.

Unless I’m sadly mistaken, 27 April is not 1 May. In the same vicinity, yes, but hardly the same day. This is just a crude attempt to push the history of the festivities back to “ancient” times.

The idea that May Day was originally a pagan (pre-Christian) holiday stems from 19th century mistaken interpretations of Puritan documents of the 16th century by heavy-duty Romantic British and German folklorists and social anthropologists. Prior to the Reformation in England many folk customs were sponsored by the (Catholic) church as money makers selling beer at these events (which they brewed themselves). Puritans railed against these events – mostly because of the beer – labeling them “pagan.” But by “pagan” they did not mean druidical or such, they meant “Roman,” that is, emanating from the center of Catholicism – Rome being at one time the capital of the “pagan” world, and from which Puritans thought all Catholic “superstitions” originated. In this mindset “pagan” equals “Catholic.” But the 19th century Romantics took the “pagan” bit at what they thought of as face value.

19th century social scientists saw the Industrial Revolution as a great curse (so do I). They imagined a pre-Industrial “Merry England” in which rural people frolicked in ways they had done for centuries, if not millennia, keeping alive traditions that were being quickly eroded by the growth of Industrial towns and the concomitant rural depopulation. There is not one shred of historical evidence for this speculation. If you want a definititive analysis of the actual history of an English folk custom read my book (written under my English nom de plume) The History of Morris Dancing. [Author’s Warning: it is long and detailed. It also happens to be correct !!]. One of my great joys is that modern Romantics hate it. Sorry, sometimes the truth hurts.


Nonetheless, I am very happy to see people having fun on May Day, as long as they don’t try to regale me with historical nonsense. When I was at Oxford I danced with Oxford University Morris Men every dawn in the streets, following the annual singing by the choristers of Magdalen College at the top of the college tower. The singing is genuinely old (15th or 16th century), but the morris dancing is not. Here’s Holman Hunt’s (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/william-holman-hunt/ ) suitably Romantic image of the choir from 1888.


The morris dancing was initiated by OUMM before WW II (taking advantage of a pre-existing celebration), abandoned in the war years, and then taken up again with a bit more fervor in the early 1950s,  and continues to this day. Despite its modern origins the dancing is frequently cited as a “traditional” or “ancient” custom by people with no clue. Historically morris dancing has virtually no connexion with May Day. Its prime season was Whitsun (Pentecost), and was primarily associated with this time because the farm laborers who performed the dances had some time off from their work.


Sometimes the so-called Betley Window (top image), a 16th century painted window of debatable provenance, is cited as evidence that morris dancers were active at that time in May celebrations. Unfortunately this thesis is blown when you learn that the figures in the window are copied from a late 15th century Flemish engraving titled ‘Querfüllung mit dem Tanz der Verliebten’ [‘Panel with the Dance of the Lovers’].


Oh well. Me 1 Romantics 0.

The Maypole has a similarly chequered history. Here’s a famous passage from the Puritan Phillip Stubbes published 1583:

Against May, Whitsonday or other time, all the yung men and maides, olde men and wives run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hils & mountains, where they spend all the night in plesant pastimes, & in the morning they return bringing w[ith] them birch & branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall, and no mervaile, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sportes, namely, Sathan prince of hel: But the cheifest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twentie or fortie yoke of Oxen, every Oxe having a sweet nose-gay of floures placed on the tip of his hornes, and these Oxen drawe home this May-pole (this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with floures, and hearbs bound round about with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometime painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up, with two handkercheefs and flags hovering on the top, they straw the ground round about, binde green boughes about it, set up sommer haules, bowers and arbors hard by it. And then fall they to daunce about like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, where of this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself. I have heard it credibly reported (and that, viva voce) by men of great gravitie and reputation, that of fortie, threescore, or a hundred maides going to the wood over night, there have scaresly the third part of them returned home againe undefiled.

These be the frutes which these cursed pastimes bring forth. Neither the Jewes, the Turcks, Sarasins, nor pagans, nor any other nations how wicked, or barbarous soever, have ever used such devilish exercises as these, nay they would have been ashamed once to have named them, much lesse, have used them. Yet wee that would be Christians, think them not amisse. The Lord forgive us, and remoove them from us.

You have to love it. I suspect that Stubbes had no idea about actual customs of the day, or, at best, presents us with a few glimpses of the truth. You will note, however, that he expressly says that pagans did NOT do this.

There are a few early modern images of Maypoles in English towns, some of them permanently erected, and many more written descriptions, largely from the Interregnum and Restoration, respectively condemning them and praising them. They were banned by the Puritan parliament in 1644 but made a joyous return under Charles II. Images sometimes show people dancing around them, but they are NOT morris dancing. It is also notable that there are no ribbons. Maypole ribbons were an invention of the 19th century Romantic revival, probably by John Ruskin. From that point on for about 100 years, maypole dancing had been relegated to children. Here’s me at my son’s school when he was in kindergarten (he’s in the crossed ribbons) and my late wife (patchwork dress), doing my best to muddy the waters. It was just fun.


This is a family “tradition” of sorts. In the 1920s my mother’s school had May Day festivities and she was the town crier ringing a bell and shouting “three cheers for the Queen of the May,” except she used to shout “three chairs” and was baffled as to why the queen wanted three chairs. She also used to lament that she was never pretty enough to be the queen – “my sister [my aunt Ruth] was always queen.”


Some European cultures have special May Day foods (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/walpurgas-nightmay-eve/), but England is not one of them. So I’ll have to fall back on my habit of giving you a “typically English” recipe. May Day is supposedly the start of summer in England – which means it is often grey, cold, and drizzly. It’s a tradition !! There are some great summer recipes though, such as summer pudding and trifle. Eton mess is a great classic for which you need no more than a photo and a hint. Mix into a bowl of whipped cream (with some vanilla extract and sugar) sliced strawberries, and chunks of meringue. I either buy the meringue or make it from all the leftover egg whites I have from recipes using only yolks. You can make Eton mess with any soft fruit such as raspberries (my fav), blackberries, mangoes, bananas, or a combination.