The Minehead Sailors’ Horse

There are only two towns left in Britain which still celebrate the beginning of summer with the appearance of hobby horses – Padstow, in Cornwall, and Minehead, in Somerset.

Both towns claim they came up with the idea first, and the other copied it – but I’m going to concentrate on the Minehead tradition here, as I grew up in the area (and we did get there first…).

Three days from now, the three hobby horses of Minehead – the Original Sailors’ Horse, the Traditional Sailors’ Horse, and the Town Horse – will come out on May Day Eve, or Warning Night, and spend the next three days welcoming in the May by dancing through the streets of the town and surrounding villages.

The three horses are broadly similar in appearance – a boat-shaped frame, covered in horsecloth, is decorated with ribbons and painted circles, and has a long, rope tail, and the dancer inside wears a tall hat and mask. He was once accompanied by two masked figures known as Gullivers, who used whips and tongs to persuade people to give money – needless to say that these days folk are encouraged to give to the various local good causes associated with the hobby horses of their own volition, and the Gullivers have long since disappeared (they are alleged to have possibly killed a man back in the 1800’s…).

The music that accompanies the horses’ dancing consists of traditional tunes such as Soldier’s Joy and Joe, the Boat is Tipping Over, played on the accordion, with thunderous tenor drums keeping the rhythm.

The origins of the hobby horse in Minehead date back to at least 1792 (the earliest written record), and, according to legend, much earlier than that – to the Viking invasions of the Eighth and Ninth Centuries, when it was used to scare away some (clearly pretty gullible) Danish marauders. Another possibility is that Minehead sailors brought the idea back from Africa – the horse’s mask bears a striking resemblance to some traditional African masks.

So if you happen to find yourself in the Minehead area around the beginning of May, keep an eye out for the horse – in one of its incarnations – but remember not to get in its way, or you might get a booting (bound up with the horse’s tail, and struck – lightly! – ten times with a boot)…

Broomfield

I love tales of buried treasure.

I think they appeal to the love of mystery – and possibly also greed – in all of us.

One such concerns the village of Broomfield in Somerset (pictured above – see also Why Witches? Part Three), where an underground castle is said to contain riches, and the door to it can only be located by the light of the full moon.

All attempts to dig it up have been thwarted, however, by the spirits who guard it, scaring off treasure hunters with their ghostly cries.

A local doctor once apparently located the door, but when he tried to open it, its guardians nearly carried off his servant, and he had to place a copy of the Bible on the man’s head before pulling him to safety.

The door closed, and disappeared, thereafter moving its position so it could not be found again…

Why witches? Part Three

I remember visiting Wookey Hole Caves, near Wells in Somerset, when I was a kid (more years ago now than I care to remember).

The so-called Witch of Wookey, pictured above, is a limestone stalagmite reputed to be the petrified remains of a local witch, turned to stone by a monk after she put a curse on a budding relationship when he was a young man.

It’s a nice story, and the witch in this instance becomes essentially a figure of fun, someone that jumps out of the dark and says, “Boo!”, and is denuded of any more serious portent.

But of course the witch is a serious figure, in folklore and in history, and certainly during the period of the witch hunts in Europe and North America the question of how dangerous an alleged witch might be, and how they should be dealt with by the authorities, was very much a matter of life and death for all concerned – not least for those accused.

The late Elizabethan and Jacobean era in England was a time of particularly frenzied witch-hunting, and in 1597 James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England six years later) published Daemonologie, a book about witchcraft and how to combat it. This was a period of political and religious upheaval, with paranoia running high in the veins of the body politic. Shakespeare’s play Macbeth was written in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and cases such as those of North Berwick, in Scotland, and Warboys and Pendle, in England, saw many innocent people accused, tortured, tried, and often convicted and executed for witchcraft, as they were caught up in the national and domestic battles of the day.

Interestingly, though, despite this backdrop, not all were taken in – Samuel Harsnett, later Archbishop of York, referred to the pamphlet on the Witches of Warboys, only six years after its publication (in 1593), as “a very ridiculous book”, and even James I grew increasingly sceptical about the evidence for witchcraft, perhaps because he himself had insisted that it be subjected to (for the time) such rigorous analysis.

Nevertheless, the persecutions continued, especially under Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, who took advantage of the chaos of the English Civil War to pursue a campaign that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of women between 1644 and 1647.

Hopkins’ book The Discovery of Witches was also to have a malign legacy, with the Salem witch trials in New England still employing his methods forty-five years after his death.

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The Witchcraft Acts were finally repealed in 1736, but belief in witches has continued to persist right up to the present day, and fear of them also. As recently as 1957 a local man recounted how a witch from Broomfield, on the Quantock Hills in Somerset, would “send the toads after” anyone who crossed her. But in my next post on this subject I want to look at the more positive representations of witches in folklore and literature, and I’ll be looking in particular at Baba Yaga, and at Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, Lolly Willowes.