by Heather Elvidge
Early in the morning on the eve of Ascension Day, two men in wellies plod through the mud of Whitby’s upper harbour. They carry hazel stakes and willow wands, because they’re going to plant the Penny Hedge.
The woven hurdle is constructed in the traditional manner, because the Penny (penance) Hedge must be strong enough to withstand three tides. Finally the manor bailiff gives three blasts on a bugle and shouts, “Out on ye,” meaning shame on you. That’s more or less it. This unique ceremony is carried out in a matter-of-fact way, which is often the sign of a genuine old custom.
Although it’s unglamorous, the Penny Hedge can be traced back to 1148. Historians say it’s a relic of a feudal service, horngarth, which obliged tenants to maintain fences and hedges on their rented land. If they failed to do this, the landowner – in this case, the Abbot of Whitby – could throw them off the land. Or he could give them a public penance, such as building a fence in the harbour.
The many references in the Abbey registers never describe what was being constructed, or why, presumably because everyone knew. And when origins are unknown, there’s always a legend. This one is a universal tale used to explain a family curse or penance.
It’s said that three hunters were chasing a wild boar through Eskdale Forest. The animal took refuge in a hut, where a monk from the abbey was in solitary contemplation. The monk refused to give up the boar, so the hunters ran him through with their spears. As punishment the Abbot confiscated the hunters’ lands, but agreed to lease them back as long as they and their descendants performed a yearly penance at sunrise on Ascension Eve.
The date was chosen to guarantee a low tide – if the water should ever be too high to complete the fence by 9am, then the penance would be discharged. In 1981, the unthinkable finally happened: a “full sea” prevented the construction of the Hedge. That should have been it, but Whitby wasn’t going to turn its back on hundreds of years of unbroken tradition.
So there it is. If you’d like to watch the Penny Hedge being built, you’ll have to be down near the swing bridge well before 9am on Rogation Wednesday, May 13.
As we know, nithering winds are not uncommon in May, and nor are frosts. Victorian meteorologist, Alexander Buchan, identified May 9 to 14 as a cold period, although folklore warns it can last for most of the month.
In days gone by May 9-14 was dreaded for the annual cold snap that could ruin young crops and fruit tree blossom. This was the time of the so-called Ice Saints: Mamertus, Pancras, Servatius and Boniface. In Yorkshire it was said, “He who shears his sheep before St Servatius loves his wool more than his sheep”.
Meteorological records confirm that mid-May has often been cold, especially – here’s the encouraging bit – before a “normal” summer.
Regarding the summer months, folklore names May 25 as the date to watch. St Urban’s Day, it says, shows us what summer will bring.