A unique May custom...Cowslip Sunday, Lambley

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Photo: Illustrative image for the 'A unique May custom...Cowslip Sunday, Lambley' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'A unique May custom...Cowslip Sunday, Lambley' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'A unique May custom...Cowslip Sunday, Lambley' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'A unique May custom...Cowslip Sunday, Lambley' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'A unique May custom...Cowslip Sunday, Lambley' page

A May custom

By R B Parish

Outside Nottinghamshire and perhaps outside the Nottingham area, Lambley’s Cowslip Sunday or simply Lambley Sunday, the first Sunday in May, is not very well known. This was an interesting custom which was an unusual may day custom fixed on Sunday, usually a day frowned upon for such frivolities, which appeared to be a mass flower pick with associated side attractions. For on this date local people and visitors from neighbouring Nottingham and nearby villages (several thousand in the early 20th century) would visit the Dumbles where Dover Beck flowed and picked cowslips. This rather innocent if ultimately destructive custom soon became associated with festivities and commerce. Stalls would be established in the main street selling refreshments and local pubs would sell beer causing unfortunately associated drunkenness and violence. In 1866 local newspapers complained about the day desecrating the Sabbath and moves were afoot to move the day. A brief undated cutting in Nottingham Central Library reads:

“Cowslip Sunday. About dinner time and during the early afternoon yesterday a large number of cyclists and pedestrians could have been seen returning into Nottingham carrying either bunches of cowslips or small branches of blossom taken from the hedgerows. Many of the pedestrians were boys, and it seemed in one sense, a pity that better use was not made of what must have cost them many a mile of trudging. Some of the youths left their little burdens of cowslips and wild violets scattered on the road.”

In a booklet ‘Lambley Sunday’ a picturesque May Day festival, local historian Stapleton provides the best account of the custom and I have quoted it at length. He notes that in his youth:

“commencing not later than 4 a.m., the lashing of straining brake-horses, pulling densely-packed loads of holiday humanity, the braying of a never ending series of bugle horns, the beat of many iron hooves rattling over the granite roads and the heavy chaff and laughter of habitually thirsty throats made up a Sabbath bedlam that surely would be tolerated in the streets of no other great English city”

Stapleton was confused why especially after a heavy night drinking on the Saturday were people not recovering on the Sunday but rather walking or travelling to this small village the day after…he was never able to get a reply other than its Lambley or Cowslip Sunday and as such this was reason enough as we have seen with many of these customs the reason having long gone before the ceasing of the tradition. Stapleton gives a colourful account of his own pilgrimage:

“Eight o’clock and a wet morning! It was the uncompromising sort of weather when the lazy town-dwelle, having glanced out of the window, debates whether it be not the wiser plan to spend a few more hours in bed…”

Giving himself that lie-in he promised himself, he begun at 11 am:

“Bereft by the discouraging climatic conditions of expected companionship, and tire dof awaiting a change in that never came, I set out alone …..via Mapperley Park for Nottinghamites May Sunday Mecca duly equipped with overcoat and umbrella. The wind and rain drove consistently and horizontally from the right or eastern side…”

Clearly the weather had put many off and he states that :

“Cowslip Sunday was a comparative failure that year, but ardent youths were not to be denied. In nearly every green field they were to be found, trampling the saturated grass in search of floral treasures…..they boasted neither umbrellas nor overcoats, but did not seem to mind the wet very much. En route they were buoyed up by anticipations of floral wealth, and on returning there was all the swelling pride of conquest and spoils.”

Even by the 1800s when Stapleton was describing his experiences, the custom was in decline

“There is little to distinguish this from another Sunday. Yet the people of Mapperley tell of a time, not so many years ago either, when the conveyances stopping at the local licensing houses stretched fifty yards or more the excursionists…sat on the opposite side of the road eating bread and cheese and no children were allowed out of doors.”

Stapleton notes that he

“met the first three returning ‘Cowslippers’…they were somewhat more than fully-grown men, but they were not proof against the all-powerful fascination of the occasion. One of them had five bunches of cowslips in his hand, and the second was whimsically adorned with a like number dangling in a string from his top button hole..”

Cowslip wine

Was available again at the event although made in Oxfordshire, in the early form of the tradition this was one of the main reasons for collecting cowslips, especially it appears by children! Stapleton talks of how cowslip wine was made:

“Pluck off all the little yellow heads place in a vessel in the oven, add water, and stew until you have a good, strong infusion. Then decant into old medicine bottles and add as much sugar and milk as your mother will give you or as much as you can steal, among the lot and it is ready for use at once, whether it be hot or cold.”

Is the custom unique? What is its origin?

There appears to have been an industrial background behind the tradition and it Sileby in Leicestershire, where in May children of the area were ‘employed’ to collect cowslips in an annual harvest where children were given time off school. The custom appears to have died out in the 1920s. Several ideas have been put forward for the custom occurring on Sunday. One being that this was a Wake Sunday or Patronal day but the wake week was in Whitsun. Another that it is a vestige of commoners rights to unenclosed areas of Thorneywood chase which covered Lambley and Gedling. Clearly it is more probably associated with May Day.

The decline

By the 1920s the tradition had all but died out. This was due to a number of factors: the ploughing up of some of the dumbles, probably the weather and the police discouraging the tradition due to its rowdy nature. Of this a report in the Nottinghamshire Guardian notes:

“if we judge, from the manners and customs of a great part of them and their acts and language, we should conclude that the class has not improved since their last annual visit. The police had much trouble in keeping decent order in the village. …The great cry is why cannot another day in the week be devoted to this much-desired ramble, if all are so anxious that it should be continued, so that all might enjoy the pleasure more freely without desecrating the Sabbath.”

Certainly the very action of picking the flowers could not have been favourable to their survival as the urban population enlarged. Certainly the weather and inconsistency of growth could have contributed to the downfall as a correspondent in Nottinghamshire Guardian of May 11th noted:

“This much-talked of day, annually held on the first Sunday in May, was duly celebrated. The weather for some time previous had been cold and wet with frosty nights; consequently vegetation had not made so much progress as usual at this season of the year so that the cowslips and other spring flowers were not quite so properly matured..”

The revival

Certainly with this reputation this quiet village may not have been in favour of a true revival and as such Cowslip Sunday is perhaps radically different from that 100 years ago and all the better for it. Gone are the hoards of pickers and the dawn pilgrimage, the rowdy drinking and indeed perhaps the cowslips! Although some have made it into the garlands carried.

It was 2010 when Lambley Parish council who in 2010 resurrected the tradition, albeit a little more organised and lending itself more to May day, which probably the original focus was. A report in 2010 for the BBC reports:

“The residents of a Nottinghamshire village are reviving a forgotten rural folk tradition. ….. On Sunday, 2 May 2010, the celebrations return with folk tales, live performance and a ceilidh. Playwright and Lambley resident David Longford has researched Cowslip Sunday, traditionally held on the first Sunday in May, for a play being performed on the day.”

David Longford notes in the article:

“Now Lambley’s recently established Cowslip Sunday now consists of a procession though the village, attended by a giant called Cowslip Jack. Afterwards there is a free open air rustic play telling the history of Lambley and end in a ceilidh. Cowslip wine will be available again.

Lambley Jack and his procession

Cowslip Jack was retired in 2012.The procession is lead by a Lambley Jack, a top hat wearing broom carrying urchin, who figures in the play. The name is a local one for someone who is cheeky or impudent, legendarily associated with the burning down of Nottingham castle. However, no such Jack or John is named in the assizes which followed.

This procession with a neatly sown Cowslip banner and accompanied with a hotch-potch of characters: an accordionist, antlered ‘fawns’, an elf, fairies carrying garlands with spring flowers around them, some peasant girls and a dandy. They process around the village with an amusing short cut through the church, perhaps to remind the church of the sacrilegious nature of such a Sunday celebration! As they went along they cried Cowslip Sunday and called out the letters of Cowslip! Once they returned the most interesting part of the custom begins

The play-Lambley Jack and the Golden Stocking Frame

The play is a one off each year, described on the programme as:

“rustic rough-hewn style and knockabout hour it can easily be described as ‘a Panto for springtime’. Therefore in keeping with the style of this kind of performance your cheers vocal appreciation and friendly banter are well throughout. In other words join in.”

This year, as noted, the giant, whose head sat by the village hall, was sadly absent as the story centred around the tradition of William Lee and the stocking frame, a local invention for neighbouring Calverton cleverly interwoven with the classic Rumplestiltskin (or as they said in the a Play-the English version Tom Tit). The story was framed by the Cowslip Fairs and fawns, referencing the activities which went on in days of old, collecting cowslips and making cowslip balls (thrown of course). There was a great Pantomime dame with some great banter with the crowd, some very professional turns from some of the younger members of the parish. There were of course some very obvious in-jokes based nationally, a Dragon’s Den inspired chat between Lee, Elizabeth I and the King of France and their sponsorship of the said stocking frame, or some locally based of inter-village rivalry. All in all it was an excellent play taking some of the best features of traditional approaches such as Panto and Mummers and throwing in some modern comedy….going to show that Nottinghamshire can provide some of the best of amateur theatricals.

The organisers of Cowslip Sunday appear determined to keep the custom alive, and it is interesting to note they have avoiding the obvious fall back May event staple-The Morris dancer. Hopefully they can in the cash strapped days ahead but with large numbers of people coming to the village , who otherwise would pass straight through, with spending cash, it should survive; after all where were they in 2009? I heartily recommend a visit especially as they are few customs on this day.

Taken from traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com

The author is researching calendar customs any correspondence is welcome ross parish@hotmail.com

This page was added by R B Parish on 02/05/2013.

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