The Ballad of British Folklore

Candy floss, toffee apples, dodgems and waltzers; when I was a wee boy, this is what the Lammas Market meant to me. My gran loved the merry-go-round horses, and I looked at the rides for the big boys, like the rockets, with fear and excitement. Soon, I thought, I will get to climb aboard and be spun and flung into the air high above the rooftops. With two of the main streets in town, South Street and Market Street closed and filled with the stalls, rides and sideshows of the market, the second week in August was a time every child looked forward to. I remember winning a goldfish for hoop-la, he didn’t live long but another year I won a whopper who seemed to live forever! Well, forever in a six year old’s mind.

These thoughts came flooding back to me when I visited the The Ballad of British Folklore at Christies for the second time. I was talking to a lovely lady who worked there, though I never found out what she actually did. Unlike the friendly but very well spoken ‘posh’ ladies who had greeted me behind the desk, she spoke with a broad accent and came from Hastings in East Sussex. She amiably approached me to chat about the rockets and catherine wheels I was looking at. We reminisced about having fireworks in the back garden, the fun of lighting them and then rushing back to watch them from a supposedly ‘safe’ distance. Do it yourself firework displays on Guy Fawkes (or bonfire) night were a childhood memory we shared. She thought it was something that kids today don’t really experience, with health and safety, ‘flat living’ and large organised events having all but extinguished these little garden firework shows. In a glass cabinet was one of her favourites she remembered from childhood. As we chatted, we stood beside the horned ‘Jack in the Green’ costume. ‘I recognised him immediately’, she told me, ‘every year he walks round our town!’

It’s amazing how the folklore of our country is experienced, without us even knowing or realising it. In researching this piece, I looked into the the history of the Lammas Fair that I took for granted throughout my childhood, and found that it is thought to be Scotland’s oldest surviving medieval market. I’d always guessed that it was probably something to do with the harvest festival we celebrated in school and church, but actually it dates back far further than that. I’m still not sure of it’s actual origins and various accounts relate it to the killing of John Barleycorn, the first scarecrow, as a sacrifice to appease the taking of the crop. The word Lammas is thought to derive from ‘Loaf Mass’ and the the first of August was originally known as the ‘Gule of August’. Sadly, by the start of the 21st century, there were only two Lammas Fairs left in Scotland, one in Inverkeithing and the one I remember so fondly from my childhood. I know it’s still alive and well in St Andrews, as my Mum took my nephews and niece uptown to the market on Monday.

Apparently, according to Margaret Bennett, the most ancient Lammas ritual in Scotland is the Burryman ritual, held in South Queensferry. In one of those weird co-incidences that life throws at us, I discovered that the ritual was happening in Scotland just as I was writing this piece sitting in Islington, with some wonderful images of previous years posted on Facebook. The Burryman walks the marches (or boundaries) of the town, crowned with roses and covered top to toe in sticky burrs, with a staff in each hand and usually a flag around his middle. He is accompanied by two officials, led by a bell-ringer and chanting children who collect money for luck.

So folklore is what we do, the customs passed down to us from our ancestors, relatives and our community, specific to the area we live in, that become part of the calendar of our lives. In St Andrews, Golf and the University are intrinsic to the life of the town and something like the Kate Kennedy Procession, which started in 1926 has become a yearly tradition. If you do click on the link, you’ll see my Dad heading the procession in the photo! The customs and traditions we grow up with and experience as children become part of who we are and shape who we become.

‘Folklore is a vibrant element of ‘Britishness’ and a living cultural heritage; these beliefs, customs and expressions link the past to the present and help us understand our specific communities and cultures, as well as our shared humanity. Far from being static or an ageing genre, it remains relevant by adapting to new circumstances, with the ‘Folk’ (people), and the ‘lore’ (stories) continually informing and influencing each other.’

Simon Costin (Director, Museum of British Folklore)

I have known Simon for nearly 20 years, though we had lost touch for a long time. As a set designer and art director, he has worked with designers and photographers such as Gareth Pugh and Tim Walker, but he his possibly best known for the stunning collaborations with Alexander McQueen that resulted in some of the most memorable fashion shows in recent memory. When we met again recently we spent a wonderful afternoon in his kitchen catching up, and I asked him about the genesis of the idea behind The Museum of British Folklore,

‘When I was 11 my parents bought a copy of a new Readers Digest book, ‘Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain’. I absolutely loved it and pawed over the pages of tales of ghosts, giants, witches, strange rituals and seasonal customs. Whenever we went on holiday, I would look up the area in the book to check if there were any stories associated with the place and then pester my parents to take me to the local museum, haunted pub, stone circle or whatever there might be. All my school drawing books are filled with the same sorts of things so in a way, I’ve never grown up.’

I wondered why our traditions and folklore had been so neglected up until now. Simon suspected that there were a whole range of reasons, perhaps stemming from the authorities dislike of rowdy gatherings, the museum world disdaining vernacular culture in the past and some academics dismissing folk culture as unworthy of study. In our conversation, it also came up that Simon was now the director of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. I wondered how that had come about, and whether there would be some overlap in the collections,

‘I have been visiting the museum since 2005 and helped to organise a donation of cabinets to the museum after the awful floods which happened there in 2004. After that I began to visit regularly and became friends with Graham King, the owner at the time. When he decided to retire, he asked if I would like to take the museum on and in 2013 he donated the entire archive and collection to the Museum of British Folklore and I became the new director. As more and more donations come in, due to the size of the museum building in Boscastle I’m planning that the the over-spill will be able to be shown at the Museum of British Folklore.’

Looking at the living traditions that happen seasonally all around us up and down the country, as well as ancient, folk customs that have snuck into the modern world unrecognised, the museum is currently like the National Theatre of Scotland – an organisation with out a home. In 2009, Simon painted a caravan, and set off around the country (driven by his brother and photographer friends) to promote his vision, to document traditions and to witness and take part in seasonal customs such as the May Day Celebrations, Morris Dancing and the Ottery Barrel Burning.

The current exhibition is almost a greatest hits of the exhibitions that the peripatetic museum has curated with a variety of different galleries. Collaborators and venues have included the Pick Me Up Graphic Arts Festival at Somerset House, the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, the London College of Communication and the Whitechapel Gallery amongst others. Entering Christies we are greeted by a row of dolls, grouped on plinths down the centre of the first display space, which were part of the ‘Figures of Folk’ show, first shown in 2014 at the LCC, Documenting the costumes of morris dancing ‘sides’ across the country, in 2009 Simon sent out blank dolls to Morris teams, hoping that they would dress them in miniature versions of their troops costumes. Interestingly, it became as much about their stories as purely a documentation of costume. One of the dolls has a mini leg-brace on, because one of the dancers had broken his leg skiing! So far, over three hundred dolls have been sent out, so clearly we just have a taster of the collection in this show. On the left is the display of old fireworks, their packaging and promotional materials, that prompted the great conversation described earlier. Further into the room are the wonderful works, inspired by the Museum’s collection, produced by a host of artists and illustrators for the Pick Me Up festival, with a lovely traditional looking textile banner referencing Kate Bush and her song ‘Oh England, My Lionheart’, by Rosy Nichols catching my eye. Further round the room is King Hokum’s Voodoo Punch and Judy by Johnny Hannah and a wonderful poster pastiche of A Clockwork Orange by David Owen

‘Part of the remit of the museum, will be to engage with contemporary artists who take inspiration from folk culture. Johnny has been a big supporter of the museum from the very start and designed our logo. I love the rawness and vibrancy of his work. David Owen is an artist who plays with folk idioms and cleverly subverts them, weaving in images from popular culture.’

Simon Costin

On the opposite wall are a wonderful pair of glasses staring down on us from the Black Eyes and Lemonade exhibition shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2013. And of course as benefits a museum of the twenty-first century, there in an online initiative looking at evolving traditions and folklore for the new millennium. The blog takes in new and re-established customs that have taken root in Britain such as the Saddleworth Rush Cart and eerie images of scarecrows.

In the second display space, wonderful photographs dating from the sixties onwards adorn the walls documenting folklore and traditions from across the country, by the likes of Sara Hannant, Doc Rowe, Brian Shuel (who set up the Collections Picture Library) and of course Henry Bourne amongst others. My first visit to the show was an evening event, one of the ‘Lates at Christies’ on the first Tuesday of each month. We got to listen to a fascinating chat between Simon and Henry about his wonderful book of portraits Arcadia Britannica, documenting the costumes worn at British folklore events and rituals around the United Kingdom. These stunningly beautiful images were rather haphazardly shot, in a makeshift studio, with no-one knowing who had decided to queue up to have their portraits taken. It was a great evening, with Dr. Jane Wildgoose dressed as she as she appears every year at Jack in the Green in Hastings, resplendent in flowers and her costume of green. Ram headed musicians moved through the crowd and Boss Morris demonstrated their take on Morris Dancing. And as befits the London setting, the event was graced by the presence of Pearly Kings and Queens.

In the far corner are the plans for the museum itself. Designed by the architect Adam Richards in consultation with Simon Costin and his team, the environmentally friendly design consists of a group of connected buildings that surround a circular copse of trees, allowing visitors to navigate the seasons of the year around the central circular courtyard, which will provide a setting for the spring festivals at the beginning of the year through to the fire festivals celebrating the Winter Solstice. The idea is to collaborate with communities involved in folklore from across the country, and encourage their involvement in the museum’s development. There have been various suggestions for a home for this wonderful building, and I asked Simon if they had decided on anywhere yet?

‘After months and months of evaluation work, we have settled on West Sussex as a possible home for the museum, due to good road and rail links, existing attractions in the area, it’s proximity to London for those wishing to make a day trip to us and due to the amount of healthy footfall and funding that comes that way. At this stage in our development, we have shown that there is an audience for what we are doing, we have done a lot of the ground work and now it’s a case of needing funding. We need £150,000 to move things on in the short term but the overall project is likely to be in the region of 20 million. If someone were to come out of the woodwork with a sum of money to help us on our way, things could move quickly. We spoke to the person behind the Turner Contemporary in Margate, which took a little over ten years to open. If that is the case with us, we are only half way there! People can help by spreading the word, donating objects and costumes or archive collections and ultimately become a friend of the museum and donate some money.’

So the fundraising for the museum continues and you can become a friend of the museum here. Have a look at this film, just in case you are in any doubt of the validity of the concept, and why we so desperately need this museum. As Simon says

‘If there’s anyone out there with twenty million, let me know!’

This exhibition runs till the 1st of September, and I would encourage you to head down to Christie’s in South Kensington to have a look at this fascinating recap of the shows that Simon and his team at The Museum of British Folklore have curated so far. As always, you can see my full set of images here.

All text and photos © Jonathan Dredge, except Book Cover photo © Simon Costin, and the ‘Clockwork Morris’ cover image ©David Owen

5 Comments Add yours

  1. David Owen says:

    A wonderful and well written review.
    I’d just like to point out that the main image A Clockwork Morris is actually copyright David Owen

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d add the copywrite of your image David, apologies for the confusion. I’d loved your poster, it’s why I photographed it and used it as the cover photo – I am a fan!


  2. Flextiles says:

    Very interesting – I wish them every success. I think there is more interest and less snobbery about folk art now, especially after the excellent exhibition at the Tate a couple of years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved reading this, and thanks for the reminder of the Burryman festival. Even though we live just the other side of the Forth I always forget to go. Next year I will be organised and get it marked on the calendar well in advance.
    Also, in relation to this piece, you might be interested in the Melrose ‘Mason’s Walk’ and the traditional ‘marriage ball’ where a bride on her wedding day kicks a rugby ball into the waiting crowd. The person who catches the ball then has to hide it for three days before it’s then declared theirs. The ball then becomes very valuable as usually the bride and groom want to buy it back as a momento of their wedding day, leaving the catcher in a great position to name his price!


    1. What a great story Jo! I didn’t know that at all


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