The Gate to Southwell

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

7 thoughts on “The Gate to Southwell”

  1. Oh, I would love to visit Britain and other European countries. Coming from such a ‘young’ country I would find the history fascinating and to touch old Churches built in medieval times would be such a treat!

    Thanks for sharing the pics..Oneday maybe I will see these beautiful places for can always hope…lol

    Peace to you:)


  2. Then you must one day, Marie!

    A relative in Canada visited us last summer, an older lady who had never set foot on these shores but resides in New Brunswick. She was staggered by some of the old churches we visited and talked constantly of the ‘devotion’ that it must have taken to build them. I think that’s the point for me too. Our ancestors took so much time and effort in building them it shows how truly devoted to God they were. The wonderful buildings are testament to that.

    A couple of the churches in my locality date back to the 12th century, some of the oldest in England. Here’s one with a different take (another that I took the Canadian lady to). It’s a beautiful yet diminutive church in a local village and is tied in tightly with the legend of Robin Hood no less!

    One Walk and Two Churches (1)

    Here’s another where none other than romantic poet Lord Byron is laid to rest:

    One Walk and Two Churches (2)

    These days, with some church congregations diminishing (not mine I’m happy to say) some churches are closing and other uses are being found for them. There are very much mixed feelings about this as per this article:

    Churches as Pubs

    God bless.


  3. Waving hankies while hopping and banging sticks is a very serious business Stuart-How could you think otherwise? Those bells on the ankles chaff you know… LOL!!

  4. They call it a ‘fertility rite’ too.

    I think it would have the opposite effect on most of the women I know! 🙂

    I’ve got a feeling that alcohol might be a root cause in this activity…

  5. Thanks Stu 🙂

    I hope that England continues to treasure it’s heritage..Unfortunately here in Australia we had a tendency to smash down beautiful old buildings in favour of modernistic monstrosity’s which are to be frank quite ugly!

    Peace to you Stu :)God bless


  6. guzzisue

    I think you were at the right end of the day’s proceedings. I’m still waiting to hear whether Southwell’s beer stocks lasted the night. 🙂


    I’m sure there are many more compensations where you live though. 🙂 Let it not be said that we’ve done our destructive best here at times with some of the old building. This city in particular has a poor record on that score.

    God bless, Stu

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