Ringing the changes on district's old-time Christmases

PUBLISHED: 13:08 28 December 2006 | UPDATED: 10:23 24 May 2010

This week I present you with a miscellany of old-time Christmases in this district recalling customs long-since dropped. There was Christmas Day at the workhouse, for instance

This week I present you with a miscellany of old-time Christmases in this district recalling customs long-since dropped.There was Christmas Day at the workhouse, for instance, village festivities, the dinners for old folk and treats for schoolchildren and suppers for bell-ringers. The sporting events included trotting matches, and pigeon and sparrow shoots followed by the presentation of trophies and awards of geese and ducks at dinners at hostelries.According to the Christmas cards the old-fashioned Christmas was always accompanied by snow. It was not so in this district. Oddly enough, March is the danger month for snow in the Mendip country.There were the occasional snowy Christmases that provided pleasure and displeasure. On Boxing Day, 1886, telegraph poles throughout the West Country were brought to the ground, and no pole was left standing between Bristol and Bath. In this district roads to Banwell and Axbridge were blocked by snowdrifts, while in south Somerset a man died of frost-bite at Crewkerne.In the winter of 1880-81 the first heavy snowfall was delayed until January. Huge drifts were caused by gale-force winds and at Shipham snow piled up over the roofs of cottages.But mostly our Mendip country Christmases have been green. Formerly nearly every village had its pigeon and sparrow shoot at this time of year. There was one at Bleadon in mid-Victorian days in which sheep and fat geese were the prizes. There was also Uphill's annual Christmas shoot, with the distribution of trophies following at a convivial evening at The Dolphin.Trotting matches were held in the district, a notable one being that held over 100 years ago between two horses, Lady of the West, owned by William Wilkins, of Brent Knoll, and the Belle of Blackford, belonging to Mr Champeny.The stakes were £25 a side, and the course was two miles between the Fox and Goose at Brent Knoll and Highbridge Inn. Thousands flocked to see the event and lined the course on horseback, in carriages and other conveyances, and hundreds more footed it to the event. The Belle of Blackford won by 200 yards.With the motorway taking traffic off the A38 and the fuel crisis possibly bringing the horse back into its own again, we may see a revival of such events!In most villages the bell-ringers were always invited to supper on New Year's Eve. At Winscombe the churchwardens customarily provided the spread. At Wedmore, when the Rev S H A Hervey was vicar, the ringers were invited to the vicarage for supper. Mr Hervey himself was an enthusiastic ringer and after supper used to go with the ringers to the church to take part in ringing the Old Year out.Christmas has also been an occasion for making a social gesture of appreciation of the work of church choirs. At Weston parish church it has been the custom for successive rectors to invite the choirmen to the rectory. Choirboys have not been overlooked, and their Christmas treat at Weston Parish Church today is a visit to the Bristol Hippodrome pantomime.Other Christmas social events included the local Yeomen's annual ball at the Windsor Castle Hotel, Milton. In the 1880s I note that Windeatt's Quadrille Band provided the music for this event. In those days meets of the Harriers were also held at the Windsor Castle.Seasonal events in this district of old included some strange and touching ones. There was, for instance, a ball given for the blind, the halt and the lame in 1876 at Oldmixon.By contrast, there were the grand social occasions arranged by the gentry at the big houses in town and country. Here is an account of an 1886 ball of very different character from that of the blind and lame: "On Wednesday Mr E H Llewellyn, MP, gave a grand ball at his residence at Langford Court, for which about four hundred invitations were issued."A temporary ballroom was erected adjoining the drawing-room, and was so constructed that both rooms were available for dancing and, by removing the casements from the windows, a bay was formed in which Mr R T Ward's quadrille band was stationed. The ballroom was heated by two fires, which were tended from the outside and protected by brass latticed fronts."The floor was overlaid with dancing cloth, and the walls to a height of 10 feet were draped with pale-blue cloth, festooned with cream-coloured lace, and caught up with bouquets of primroses, the emblematic flower of the Conservative Party."The room was lighted by two glass-cut chandeliers, each bearing about a hundred candles, which were suspended from the roof. Two fine oval mirrors, each ten feet high, several engraved Venetian glasses mounted on velvet, and other wall decorations were conspicuous features in the elegantly appointed room. The ceiling, which was carried to a height of 24 ft in the centre, was draped and festooned with cream-coloured cloth, overlaid with a network for fine cord."From Langford House to Axbridge workhouse and the Christmas of 1886. Here we are told: "huge rounds of beef kept each other in countenance - and very rubicund countenance, too - while vast quantities of vegetables were being prepared for the approaching meal. Cook and Baker, assisted by handy helpers were metaphorically and perhaps literally up to the eyes and elbows in those sweet and succulent substances necessary for the proper preparation of plum pudding."Allow a few hours to elapse and the rubicund beef has become brown, the vegetables through seasonable influences and steaming have become tender-hearted, and the puddings have arrived at the pitch of perfection known as 'stunning'."Later began the hard labour of carving for 150 folks, young and old. Mr J E Waddon, the master, buckled to, and wielded the carving knife with such effect that, aided by the cook and baker, Mr R Leach, the huge joints became beautifully less."The numbers who feasted were 74 men, 46 women, and 30 children, and the manner in which the dishes and platters were filled and emptied and refilled was what our American friends would call 'caution to alligators'."After the dinner there followed a distribution of gifts to the inmates, which included comforters, mittens, slippers, caps, handkerchiefs, tea, sugar, liquorice, and, for the children toys and games. There was also a concert attended by the chairman of the Board of Guardians, Mr E H Llewellyn, MP, his wife, the Rev H Toft, of Axbridge, the Misses Yatman, and many other folk from the district. Preparations for Christmas dinner in thousands of homes formerly included the practice of taking the turkey, chicken, or joint to city, town or village bakers, for cooking in their steam ovens. One of these was Stan Banwell, of the former Weston bakery firm of Banwell and Cook, which operated from 10 Baker Street from 1929-1961. "They had to get the birds along for me to get them in the oven by 9.30am," he said. "They were asked to baste them well. The big birds were put on the bottom of the oven and the small on the top, and during the morning I, of course, kept my eye on progress, and did some basting."When they came to collect, they were asked to bring a jug in which to take home the fat. So that there could be no mix-up, each customer had to have some form of identification on his bird such as metal label, safety pin, or perhaps the name scratched on the baking tin."They used to collect them with all sorts of transport - cars, prams, tricycles, and I remember once seeing a local signwriter going up the road with his turkey steaming away beneath a tablecloth on his truck. The funniest incident was when someone collected their bird in a bath chair, and pushed off down the road with the small front wheel wobbling all over the place!"All over Somerset the bakers used to perform this service. At Crewkerne, Pollard and Sons packed about 100 birds into their oven, while Yeovil baker Mr H M Field once recalled that he worked in the bakehouse from 8am until 4pm on Christmas Day roasting birds for customers."I had my Christmas dinner that day at 4.15 after cooking 55 birds and 82 cakes," he said. Times have changed, and we should think it most unreasonable today to expect a baker to give up the best part of his Christmas Day cooking Christmas dinners for his customers.Finally, a ghost story. At a Blagdon inn one Christmas in the last century customers were startled by the entry of an apparition scantily dressed in what appeared to be some sort of Highland costume. It was the figure of a man whose face, half-bandaged and revealing abrasions, looked ghastly.Someone slipped out of the back door to fetch the Rector to 'lay' the ghost. The Rector hurried to the inn, but exorcism was unnecessary. The apparition was a villager who had damaged his face by falling down steps when carrying a jar of cider. He had been under medical care and forbidden to leave his bed. As a precaution his wife had hidden his clothes. Still dazed, but feeling somewhat better, he could not resist staggering out to join familiar company at the Blagdon inn for a seasonal drink. Unable to find his clothes, he made do with one of his wife's skirts and some of her underwear!This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on December 21, 1974

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