Celebrating feast of Bartholomew

Regency fun at Smithfield's Bartholomew Fair.
Regency fun at Smithfield's Bartholomew Fair.

Written by Heather Elvidge

We’re approaching the end of the month and here comes another Bank Holiday. Let’s hope the weather will be kind for summer’s last big weekend.

August’s holiday was moved in 1971, the hope being that the weather at the end of the month would be better than the beginning. If only.

Despite our tradition of grumbling about the weather we must be descended from optimists, because August was always a month for outdoor fun at wakes, feast days and fairs.

This Sunday is the feast day of St Bartholomew, a martyred apostle who’s the patron saint of butchers and leatherworkers. His cult became popular in England after King Cnut’s wife presented a sensational relic – a whole arm – to Canterbury in the 11th century.

Bartlemas became one of the chief days for fairs. London’s fair at Smithfield, a medieval charter fair, carried on until 1855. It was England’s biggest and notorious for every kind of rogue; its characters were immortalised in Ben Jonson’s 1614 comedy, Bartholomew Fair.

At Westhoughton, near Wigan, the big event was the Keaw-yed Wakes. Besides the fair there was mass football, played with a cow’s head. Spectators tucked into cow’s head pies, and some rather odd pasties containing tiny clay figures.

How the cow’s head came to be involved is a matter of debate. Several explanations exist, none of which is entirely convincing. But Keaw-yed city, as it’s known locally, still celebrates the Wakes on the Sunday nearest the 24th. Happily, the only cow’s heads today are images, for this is the town’s emblem. The clocktower of St Bartholomew’s parish church has one on each side.

There are more odd goings-on at West Witton, near Leyburn. On the Saturday closest to August 24 a fierce-looking straw man with glowing eyes is paraded around pubs and houses, ending up outside the village. This is Owd Bartle, and some say it’s good luck if he peers in at your window. It’s not good luck for Bartle though, because at the end he is burnt without ceremony.

The procession follows a traditional route, enshrined in verses that are chanted along the way. Some say that Bartle was a pig-thief who was chased and killed, others that villagers were trying to save an image of their church’s saint, Bartholomew, from religious iconoclasts. Like the Keaw-yed Wakes, nobody really knows the origin of Owd Bartle.

August 24 used to be a holiday for the printing trade, including bookbinders (St Bart, again). Employers acknowledged the shortening days by giving the print workers a one-off payment for candles, which they spent on a goose dinner. By the late 19th century the dinner had become a trip to the seaside, but printers still called it the wayzgoose.

Weather watch

St Bartholomew’s Day is notable for enthusiasts of weather folklore. When old Swithin has done his worst, Bartholomew will dry things up; happily, this wasn’t necessary this year. But we do want Sunday to be fine because this promises “a prosperous autumn”. Campers should note that Bart brings cold dew; beekeepers also claim him as their patron saint and his feast day marks the start of the main honey harvest.