HISTORY OF TILSTON WAKES

 

There is a merry happy time

To grace withal this simple rhyme

There is jovial joyous hour

Of mirth and jollity in store

The Wakes! The Wakes!

The jocund Wakes!

My wandering memory now forsakes

The recent busy scene of things,

For olden times, with garlands crowned

And rushcarts green on many a mound

(Elijah Ridings 1801-1872)

The Wakes tradition has disappeared in most parts of Britain, but not in Tilston! Some
areas banned traditional rushcart processions because of debauchery, but Tilston was one
of the few places where these old traditions were not swept away by Victorian middle
class moralists.
Tilston Wakes Country Fair has always been part of the Church Rushbearing Festival and
has been going for centuries. Rushbearing began as a religious ceremony when rushes
were strewn on the earth floors of churches to provide warmth and insulation, and
villagers remembered those loved ones who had died during the previous year. It
developed over the centuries into a popular holiday or Wake with all the associated
merrymaking.
Originally girls used to collect the rushes from marshes and woods and carry them to the
church, but by the 1800s rushcarts supplanted the women's role, and men built, decorated
and pulled these rushcarts. The complete takeover by men of the decoration of the carts
put an end to the traditional frolics in the woods.
Local gentry contributed money for the revellers, so the rushcart teams were able to enjoy
plenty of good ale. About 40 young men leaping and dancing would pull the cart which
was decorated in a pyramid shape with rushes. The tallest men and the best fighters were
at the front. The best fighters were there to sort out any opposition from rival carts and
teams. Silver tankards, mirrors, and an assortment of shiny objects were fixed on the front
of the cart to deflect evil spirits.
The villagers would follow the rushcart to the church and then to a field where the
festivities would begin. There was always Morris dancing and music. Gurning in a
horse's collar was popular, also bull-baiting, tug o' war, eating scalding hot pudding and
racing naked along the lanes. Some people would be disguised as different characters.
The Fool was a hideous figure with a repulsive mask and a pigtail made from a cow's tail.
Today we have the Lord Mayor and Miss Wakes, whereas years ago they were probably
King and Queen for the day.
There is evidence that the ox-roast dates back to pre-Christian times. Here is a quotation
from Pope Gregory written in 601AD to St Augustine who was converting the pagan
English to Christianity.
“and because they are wont to sacrifice many oxen in honour of their old gods, let them celebrate a
religious and solemn festival, not slaughtering the beast as a sacrifice but to be consumed by
themselves to the praise of God”
It is pretty amazing that in all probability an ox has been roasted in Tilston every year for
the last 2000 years and maybe longer!

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