July 5th: Rushbearing Ceremonies in the Lake District

‘Scented herbage of my breast,

Leaves from you I yield, I write, to be perused best afterwards,

Tomb-leaves, body-leaves, growing up above me, above death,

Perennial roots, tall leaves – O the winter shall not freeze you, delicate leaves,

Every year shall you bloom again…’

From ‘Calamus’ in ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Acorus Calamus, the sweet rush, was used for centuries as a covering for the beaten earth floors of domestic buildings and churches. It was a ‘strewing herb’ (like rosemary and meadowsweet) and was intended to disinfect the room and sweeten the air. Goodness knows it was probably needed. However our ancestors knew more than we think, because apart from its sweet smell, calamus has antiseptic and insecticidal properties and its oil is still used as a perfume ingredient.  The whole plant is sweetly scented and there was a huge trade in rushes from East Anglia which were carried by water to London. During the reign of Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey was censured because of his extravagant use of fresh rushes on the stone floors of Hampton Court.

From 'Flora Batava' by Jan Kops published in 1800

Erasmus wrote a description of British houses in about 1510 during his time at Cambridge:   ‘The floors are, in general, laid with white clay, and are covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned. ….I am confident the island would be much more salubrious if the use of rushes were abandoned…'  

That sounds a bit like my old student flat too...

Rushes were harvested in late June, and in the Middle Ages processions developed as a sort of mini-harvest home. The rushbearing tradition was particularly strong in the northwestern part of England and it still survives in the Lake District.  One of the villages it can still be seen is Great Musgrave near Appleby in Westmoreland, which is very near where my Mother’s father’s family originated. How fascinating to think they might have been involved in rush carrying. The ceremonial ‘bearing’ of the rushes was usually done by the young unmarried women of the parish, but these days it is mostly the children who carry the garlands to the Church, although anyone can carry a bundle of rushes and join in. There are some lovely pictures of the ceremonies here:

The ceremonial and the green dresses have changed very little over the years: 

The rush festivals were banned during the Reformation but revived in the seventeenth century only to be prohibited again by the Puritans.  In 1590 two spinsters of Goosnargh in Lancashire were prosecuted for carrying garlanded rushes and a hundred years later a clergyman reported that after the rush ceremony in Halifax, the people would ‘eat, drink and rant in a barbarous and heathenish manner’. That sounds like a very jolly party!

The children of Ambleside, who will process tomorrow, are given a piece of Grasmere gingerbread as a reward.  Grasmere gingerbread is more like shortbread than the gorgeous shiny and sticky cake my Grandma used to make. If you go to Grasmere and walk through St Oswald's churchyard to see the Wordsworth graves, you can smell the delicious aroma that wafts out of the gingerbread shop next to the church. The recipe they use there is secret - this approximation is taken from an old Womens' Institute book.

Grasmere Gingerbread
8oz plain flour
1 heaped tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
4oz butter
4oz soft brown sugar

Sift all the dry ingredients together and rub in the butter, as if you were making pastry. Add the sugar, now bring the mixture together in a ball with your hand. Press into a lined baking tray. Bake for about 30 minutes at 150c and sprinkle with a little more sugar immediately after you take it from the oven. Cut into squares whilst still warm, but leave in the tin until cold, it made 16 pieces in my tin. They had a very slight squidgyness in the centre whilst being crisp on the outside....and they were very, very good.
 (Don't worry I counted the calories!)

You can vary this recipe by adding other spices such as cinnamon or a little orange zest. It wouldn't be authentic but it would still be delicious and lovely with rhubarb compote...

‘I'll sing you two-oh
Green grow the rushes-oh
What is your two, oh?
Two, two, the lily-white boys,
Clothèd all in green, Oh! Oh!
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.’

From ‘Green Grow the Rushes Oh!’   Traditional Folk Song


Helen said...

That sounds positively scrumptious! And I especially like this entry because 'Green Grow the Rushes Oh' was one of the songs my mother used to sing to me when I was a child. So thanks for reminding me of that! :)

Gerry Snape said...

great post...a haunt of the family, we regularly went to Grasmere to walk the churchyard and end up buying the shortbread...thankyou!