Hedge stands up to the tides

Defying the tide: the Penny Hedge
Defying the tide: the Penny Hedge

Written by Heather Elvidge

April was very dry with rainfall well below normal levels. This has been a feature of the past few years – dry springs followed by drenching summers.

Meteorologists see nothing in the historical record to prove a connection, but they are wondering if a new pattern is emerging. The experts are keen to see what happens this summer.

Folklore prescribes a wet, cold spring, if summer is to be any good.

As for May, it has always been a capricious month of sunny days and sudden chills, and this is reflected in old lore.

The period of May 11 to 14 includes the feast days of the so-called Ice Saints – Mamertus, Pancras, Servatius and Boniface. Farmers dreaded the frosts they brought to shrivel crops and fruit blossom.

Victorian meteorologist Alexander Buchan also identified a “cold period” from May 9 to 14. “Ne’er cast a clout till May is out,” remains good advice.

When it comes to predicting the summer, folklore names May 25 as the one to watch. St Urban’s Day, it says, shows us what summer will bring.

Penny Hedge

Around this time communities used to walk the parish perimeter, re-affirming their claim to the land. This happened during 
Rogationtide, five weeks after Easter.

Beating the Bounds carried on until everyone began to rely on legal documents. Men and boys joined local officials; all would act as witnesses in the event of a boundary dispute. Boundary markers, a large stone or an old tree, were whipped with willow wands. Sometimes the boys were struck too, to make sure they remembered where the marker lay.

A very different Rogation week ceremony takes place in Whitby. Every year, on Ascension Eve, a section of fence, constructed with hazel stakes and willow wands, is erected in the mud of the upper harbour. The Penny (penance) Hedge must be strong enough to withstand three tides.

That’s more or less it. This unique ceremony is carried out in a matter-of-fact way, often the sign of a genuine old custom.

Historians say that the Penny Hedge is a survival of a feudal obligation, horngarth. A tenant had to maintain fences and hedges on his land and if he failed, the landowner – in this case, the Abbot of Whitby – could throw him out.

Horngarth dates back to the 12th century, but despite mentions in the 
Abbey records the reason for the Penny Hedge remains a mystery.

There is a legend, though. Three hunters murdered a hermit from the Abbey because he was sheltering their quarry, a wild boar. To keep their land the guilty men, and their descendents, had to build the Penny Hedge. It’s a universal tale, used to explain a family curse or penance.

By the time you read this, the Hedge will be in place, but as it stands for at least three tides there’s still time to see it.

If you missed May Day, there’s a chance for a re-run on the 12th, Old May Day. This is one of those time-slip festivals caused by the calendar change of 1752, when we lost 11 days. Will the hawthorn be in bloom? It doesn’t seem likely, unless we have a lot of rain.