Marching on towards spring

Pancake tossing
Pancake tossing
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by Heather Elvidge

Oh, February, what a dismal month you’ve been. Weeks of gloom, gales and relentless rain have earned you a place in the record book. Now the month is 
almost over, dare we hope for spring?

March is the first month when winter shows signs of packing its bags. And although it can be an unpredictable month, the sun is on our side. It climbs higher at noon with every passing day and the higher it goes, the stronger its effect.

In gardens there are tiny blossoms on those winter-flowering shrubs, viburnum and daphne. Exotic-looking hellebores have flowers of deep ruby, pink, white or green. Crocuses appear as if from nowhere in drifts of purple or white and the sparrows’ favourite, yellow. Buds are showing among the leaves of early daffodils, ready to open when they feel the sun.

St Non, the mother of St David, was rather fond of daffodils. There’ll be plenty pinned to Welsh lapels on March 1, St David’s Day.

If you have pets, beware: the first day of March is when fleas begin to stir, or as the old saying puts it, “the devil shakes a bag of fleas at everyone’s door.”

It used to be said that if you killed one flea now, you killed one hundred. So on March 1 houses were thoroughly swept out, while rugs were thrown over washing lines and given a good beating.

Shrovetide

It’s a fair bet that you’ve already enjoyed a hot cross bun or a chocolate egg. After all, they’ve been around since Christmas. It’s a pity really, because a treat is no longer a treat when it becomes commonplace.

When customs and feasts marked the year’s progress, each event had its celebratory food. On Saturday, Shrovetide begins — its specialities date from the time of strict fasting during Lent. At Shrovetide everyone ate up their meat, butter, eggs and cheese, foods that would be forbidden.

Saturday was Egg Day or Brusting Day. Its traditional dish was brusting pudding, a thick, crumbly, pancake like a rolled-up omelette. People scoffed gofers — a type of hot buttered waffle — and gave pickled eggs as gifts.

Sunday was the Sabbath so the celebrations resumed on Collop Monday.

A collop was a thick slice of bacon. In the north it was served with an egg on top, fried or poached. Another delicacy of the day was a kind of doughnut, fried in lard. No collops in Cornwall — there they ate pease pottage, a thick pea soup flavoured with herbs.

Then it was Shrove Tuesday, when there was every kind of sport and pastime from mass football and tug-o’-war, to quoits and marbles. Oh, and that centuries-old favourite, tossing pancakes.

Pancakes have hardly changed since 1586, when they were known as pan-puffs. The signal to start frying them was the ringing of church bells and these pancake bells are still heard in a few places.

Scarborough’s current pancake bell is hung at the junction of Newborough and North Street, not far from the site of the original bell. Today it’s rung at noon before the pancake racing, and afterwards the crowd heads down to the Foreshore for an afternoon’s skipping.