Made up of the old counties of Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire North of the Sands (Furness), there are some long-standing and unusual Cumbrian traditions
Words by Jean Scott-Smith
In the rural county of Cumbria in northwest England, some traditions have survived into the modern age – some more quirky than others. Here, Jean Scott-Smith of the Lakeland Dialect Society shares some of her favourite Cumbrian traditions.
7 unusual Cumbrian traditions
Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling
A popular competition at local Cumbrian country sports gatherings, wrestling is believed to have been brought to the north of England and Scottish Borders by Scandinavian settlers. The traditional costume consists of a white vest and long johns with velvet trunks worn over them, which are often richly embroidered.
A real test of stamina that sees contestants race to the top of a Cumbrian fell and then back down at break-neck speed. The famous Joss Naylor MBE of Wasdale, a sheep farmer and record-setting runner, was very well known for this sport.
This ecclesiastical tradition dates to the time when churches had earthen floors, and rushes (types of flowering plants with evergreen leaves) were strewn across them each summer as a sort of renewable flooring. Cumbrian villages that still uphold this tradition include Ambleside, Grasmere, Warcop, Great Musgrave, and Great Urswick.
Processions are still held in Cumbria that see children and adults carry ‘bearings’ – rush crosses, flower crowns, banners, and at Grasmere rush sheets, but today they are more just an excuse for general merriment, such as the one at Sowerby Bridge.
These events, which stray sheep are taken to, so they may be reclaimed by their owners, are held towards the end of the year. The sheep have markings on their horns and ears as well as body to identify them, but as the Herdwick sheep roam freely they sometimes stray. These events often include a gathering and supper at a local inn.
Dry stone walling
The traditional way of enclosing farmland, walls built entirely without mortar using locally sourced stone, many running right over the tops of the fells, is a valued skill, dating back many centuries, that is still practised today.
This is a mass no-rules ball game – a hand version of ‘ba’ – a medieval football played – which is played on Good Friday and over the following Easter week in the streets of Workington, that sees players from either side attempt to throw the ball up at the opposing side’s goal three times, by whatever means possible.
Egremont Crab Fair
Held in mid-September this Cumbrian festivals’ origins go back to medieval times when the Lord of the Manor would distribute apples to the townspeople. Inevitably, some people would undoubtedly be crab apples (hence the name) and a popular feature of the event is Gurning through a Braffin – a competition for pulling faces through a horse collar.
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