The market town of Southwell north-east of Nottingham is a most appealing place. It has many distinguishing features, not least the huge Minster dating back to Norman times that dominates the locality and the town being a home of romantic poet, Lord Byron for a period. In truth, Southwell deserves an article of it’s own and certainly will have one when the time presents itself. Today however I wanted to talk about the resurrection of an ancient custom known as the ‘Gate to Southwell’.
With origins going back to almost 900 years ago, at the time when the Southwell Minster was first being built, the Archbishop of York wrote to every parish in Nottinghamshire requesting monetary contributions for the ‘Mother Church’ as he called it. From that time at each Whitsuntide the Mayor of Nottingham and a representative from each parish would take their contributions to the Minster in a procession. There would be much attendant revelry on the journey which would begin in Nottingham’s Old Market Square and contain lay folk, the clergy and at the head of the company the Mayor in his traditional robes.
What met the representative of over 200 parishes was Southwell ‘Feast Week’ and the annual fair with donkey and horse racing, sports competitions and a generally merry time on the annual calendar at the onset of summer.
The financial contributions to the Minster known as the ‘Southwell Pence’ were given up to the Chapter Clerk at the Minster’s North Porch before the celebrations began. The custom enduring well into the 16th century before gradually fading into obscurity.
Local Morris men were very much involved in the custom in its latter decades and were actually financed by the Borough for their costumes and beer that they drank in no doubt copious amounts over the festival! In 1981 local Morris men resumed their interest in the festival by reviving the ancient Nottinghamshire custom annually.
The procession these days consists of a group of dancers who travel largely by coach, first meeting in the Old Market Square as the tradition dictates before travelling between village pubs performing (and drinking!) at each one as they go. It’s very much a family atmosphere however with whole families in attendance and barrow loads of camaraderie and fun along the way.
A couple of summers ago, my partner and I were out cycling around some of the pretty villages by the River Trent and stopped off at The Reindeer pub, one of our favourites, in Hoveringham. The Gate to Southwell crowd were gathered in the pub car park dancing and whilst I hasten to add, Morris dancing has never figured on my radar as one of life’s favourite things the fun they were having was infectious.
We rode the quiet lanes up the river to Thurgarton before settling at Bleasby – the Wagon and Horses at Bleasby to be precise, for another drink. As we sat in the pleasant front yard of the old pub the group duly arrived and swarmed on the bar before their several performances outside in the deserted lane. We shared a table with three thirty-something women and had a friendly chat in which they informed us they were a ‘Rapper Sword’ dance group. The girls had all learned the traditional dance whilst studying at Newcastle University, the North-East of England apparently being the birth place of the tradition.
A couple of drinks later and it was time for us to leave. The girls and the rest of the contingent were heading off to the next pub along the route to Southwell, finally to end the day out with a BBQ at the town. From just last year, Southwell now has a new fold music festival called the ‘Gate to Southwell’. There is also a beer festival on the same site quite close to the Southwell Workhouse, a National Trust property. I hope the dancers and their friends and family have enough stamina and a little space left for an extra beer or two when they get there this year on this coming Saturday 7th June.
The Saracen’s Head, Southwell
On a personal note I never really believed I’d write an article containing Morris dancing! Being of a Caledonian persuasion, English country traditional dancing kind of leaves me a little non-plussed really! I have to say though that the infectious enjoyment and good humour of these folks, who don’t in the slightest appear to take themselves too seriously, was seriously nice to encounter. Factor that with the beautiful villages and their pubs and gardens along the way, stately Southwell at the end of the journey and hopefully a nice sunny June afternoon and it’s to be recommended.
Catch up with these guys at any of the following pubs along the way:
Cross Key – Burton Joyce, 10.30am
Lowdham (various pubs), 12.00 – 1.00pm
The Black Horse – Caythorpe, 1.20pm
The Reindeer – Hoveringham, 1.50pm
Coach and Horses – Thurgarton, 1.50pm
Wagon and Horses – Bleasby, 2.50pm
The Bromley Arms – Fiskerton, 4.20pm
The group arrive in Southwell around 5.00pm