Three Rush-Bearings (1906)

We heard about it first in Ambleside. We were in lodgings half-way up the hill that leads to the serene, forsaken Church of St. Anne. It was there that Faber, fresh from Oxford, had been curate, silently thinking the thoughts that were to send him into the Roman communion, and his young ghost, with the bowed head and the troubled eyes, was one of the friends we had made in the few rainy days of our sojourn. Another was Jock, a magnificent old collie, who accepted homage as his royal due, and would press his great head against the knee of the alien with confident expectation of a caress, lifting in recognition a long, comprehending look of amber eyes. Another friend—though our relations were sometimes strained—was Toby, a piebald pony of piquant disposition. He allowed us to sit in his pony-cart at picturesque spots and read the Lake Poets to him, and to tug him up the hills by his bridle, which he had expert ways of rubbing off, to the joy of passing coach-loads, when our attention was diverted to the landscape. Another was our kindly landlady. She came in with hot tea that Saturday afternoon to cheer up the adventurous member of the party, who had just returned half drowned from a long drive on coachtop for the sake of scenery absolutely blotted out by the downpour. There the “trippers” had sat for hours, huddled under trickling umbrellas, while the conscientious coachman put them off every now and then to clamber down wet banks and gaze at waterfalls, or halted for the due five minutes at a point where nothing was perceptible but the grey slant of the rain to assure them—and the spattered red guidebook confirmed his statement—that this was “the finest view in Westmoreland.” So when our landlady began to tell us of the ancient ceremony which the village was to observe that afternoon, the bedrenched one, hugging the bright dot of a fire, grimly implied that the customs and traditions of this sieve-skied island—in five weeks we had had only two rainless days—were nothing to her; but the tea, that moral beverage which enables the English to bear with their climate, wrought its usual reformation.

At half-past five we were standing under our overworked umbrellas on a muddy street corner, waiting for the procession to come by. And presently it came, looking very much as if it had been through a pond to gather the rushes. In front went a brass band, splashing along the puddles to merry music, and then a long train of draggled children, with a few young men and maidens to help on the toddlers, two or three of whom had to be taken up and carried, flowers and all. But soberly and sturdily, in the main, that line of three hundred bonny bairns trotted along through the heavy clay, under the soft rain—little lads in rubber coats and gaiters, some holding their tall bunches of rushes, or elaborate floral designs, upright before them like bayonets, some shouldering them like guns; tired little lassies clasping their “bearings” in their arms like dolls, or dragging them along like kittens. All down the line the small coats and cloaks were not only damp, but greened and mossed and petal-strewn from the resting and rubbing of one another’s burdens. These were of divers sorts. Most effective were the slender bundles of rushes,—long, straight rushes gathered that morning from the meres by men who went out in boats for the purpose. These rush-fagots towered up from a distance like green candles, making the line resemble a procession of Catholic fairies. The village, however, took chief pride in the moss-covered standards of various device entwined with rushes and flowers. There were harps of reeds and waterlilies, crosses of ferns and harebells, shepherds’ crooks wound with heather, sceptres, shields, anchors, crowns, swords, stars, triangles, hearts, with all manner of nosegays and garlands. Ling and bracken from the hillsides, marigolds from the marsh, spikes of oat and spears of wheat from the harvest-fields, and countless bright-hued blossoms from meadow and dooryard and garden were woven together, with no little taste and skill, in a pretty diversity of patterns.

The bells rang out blithe welcome as the procession neared the steepled Church of St. Mary, where a committee of ladies and gentlemen received the offerings and disposed them, according to their merit, in chancel or aisles. The little bearers were all seated in the front pews, the pews of honour, before we thronging adults, stacking our dripping umbrellas in the porch, might enter. The air was rich with mingled fragrances. Along the chancel rail, in the window-seats, on the pillars, everywhere, were rushes and flowers, the choicest garden-roses whispering with foxglove and daisy and the feathered timothy grass. But sweeter than the blossoms were the faces of the children, glad in their rustic act of worship, well content with their own weariness, no prouder than the smiling angels would have had them be. Only here and there a rosy visage was clouded with disappointment, or twisted ruefully awry in the effort to hold back the tears, for it must needs be that a few devices, on which the childish artists had spent such joyful labour, were assigned by the expert committee to inconspicuous corners. The mere weans behaved surprisingly well, though evensong, a brief and sympathetic service, was punctuated by little sobs, gleeful baby murmurs, and crows of excitement. The vicar told the children, in a few simple words, how, in earlier times, when the church was unpaved, the earth-floor was strewn with sweet-smelling rushes, renewed every summer, and that the rushes and flowers of to-day were brought in memory of the past, and in gratitude for the beauty of their home among the hills and lakes. Then the fresh child voices rang out singing praises to Him who made it all:

“The purple-headed mountain,
The river running by,
The sunset, and the morning
That brightens up the sky.”

They sang, too, their special hymn written for the Ambleside rush-bearers seventy years ago, by the well-beloved vicar of Brathay, the Rev. Owen Lloyd:

“Our fathers to the house of God,
As yet a building rude,
Bore offerings from the flowery sod,
And fragrant rushes strew’d.
 “These, of the great Redeemer’s grace
Bright emblems, here are seen;
He makes to smile the desert place
With flowers and rushes green.”

One highly important ceremony, to the minds of the children, was yet to come,—the presentation of the gingerbread. As they filed out of the church, twopenny slabs of a peculiarly black and solid substance were given into their eager little hands. The rain had ceased, and we grown-ups all waited in the churchyard, looking down on the issuing file of red tam-o’-shanters, ribboned straw hats, worn grey caps, and, wavering along very low in the line, soft, fair-tinted baby hoods, often cuddled up against some guardian knee. Under the varied headgear ecstatic feasting had begun even in the church porch, though some of the children were too entranced with excitement to find their mouths. One chubby urchin waved his piece of gingerbread in the air, and another laid his on a gravestone and inadvertently sat down on it. A bewildered wee damsel in robin’s-egg blue had lost hers in the basket of wild flowers that was slung about her neck. One spud of a boy, roaring as he came, was wiping his eyes with his. In general, however, the rush-bearers were munching with such relish that they did not trouble themselves to remove the tissue paper adhering to the bottom of each cake, but swallowed that as contentedly as the rest. Meanwhile their respective adults were swooping down upon them, dabbing the smear of gingerbread off cheeks and chins, buttoning up little sacques and jackets, and whisking off the most obtrusive patches of half-dried mud. Among these parental regulators was a beaming old woman with a big market-basket on her arm, who brushed and tidied as impartially as if she were grandmother to the whole parish.

Then, again, rang out those gleeful harmonies of which our Puritan bells know nothing. The circle of mountains, faintly flushed with an atoning sunset, looked benignly down on a spectacle familiar to them for hundreds of Christian summer-tides; and if they remembered it still longer ago, as a pagan rite in honour of nature gods, they discreetly kept their knowledge to themselves.

The rushes and flowers brightened the church through the Sunday services, which were well attended by both dalesfolk and visitors. On Monday twelve prizes were awarded, and the bearings were taken away by their respective owners. Then followed “the treat,” an afternoon of frolic, with rain only now and then, on a meadow behind St.[60] Mary’s. The ice-cream cart, the climbing-pole, swings and games, seemed to hold the full attention of the children, to each of whom was tied a cup; but when the simple supper was brought on to higher ground close by the church, who sat like a gentle mother in the very midst of the merry-make, a jubilant, universal shout, “It’s coom! It’s coom!” sent all the small feet scampering toward the goodies. To crown it all, the weather obligingly gave opportunity, on the edge of the evening, for fireworks, which even the poor little Wesleyans outside the railing could enjoy.

The Ambleside rush-bearing takes place on the Saturday before the last Sunday in July.

The Rush-Bearing at Grasmere

The Rush-Bearing at Grasmere



The more famous Grasmere rush-bearing comes on the Saturday next after St. Oswald’s Day, August fifth. This year (1906) these two festivals fell just one week apart. The London papers were announcing that it was “brilliant weather in the Lakes,” which, in a sense, it was, for the gleams of sunshine between the showers were like opening doors of Paradise; yet we arrived at Grasmere so wet that we paid our sixpences to enter Dove Cottage, a shrine to which we had already made due pilgrimage, and had a cosey half-hour with Mrs. Dixon, well known to the tourist world, before the fireplace whose quiet glow often gladdened the poets and dreamers of its great days gone by.

Our canny old hostess, in the bonnet and shawl which seem to be her official wear, was not disposed this afternoon to talk of the Wordsworths, whom she had served in her girlhood. Her mind was on the rush-bearing for which she had baked the gingerbread forty-three years. There were five hundred squares this time, since, in addition to what would be given to the children, provision must be made for the Sunday afternoon teas throughout Grasmere. The rolling out of the dough had not grown easier with the passing of nearly half a century, and she showed us the swollen muscles of her wrist. Her little granddaughters, their flower erections borne proudly in their arms, were dressed all spick and span for the procession, and stood with her, for their pictures, at the entrance to Dove Cottage.

It was still early, and we strolled over to the tranquil church beside the Rotha. Under the benediction of that grey, embattled tower, in the green churchyard with

“Ridge rising gently by the side of ridge,
A heaving surface,”

sleep Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and their kindred, while the names of Hartley Coleridge and Arthur Hugh Clough may be read on stones close by. We brought the poets white heather and heart’s ease for our humble share in the rush-bearing.

Grasmere church, with its strange row of rounded arches down the middle of the nave and its curiously raftered roof, still wears the features portrayed in The Excursion:

“Not raised in nice proportions was the pile,
But large and massy; for duration built;
With pillars crowded, and the roof upheld
By naked rafters intricately crossed,
Like leafless underboughs, in some thick wood,
All withered by the depths of shade above.
Admonitory texts inscribed the walls,
Each in its ornamental scroll enclosed,
Each also crowned with wingèd heads—a pair
Of rudely painted Cherubim.
The floor Of nave and aisle, in unpretending guise,
Was occupied by oaken benches ranged
In seemly rows; the chancel only showed
Some vain distinctions, marks of earthly state,
By immemorial privilege allowed.”

There were a number of people in the church, but the reverent hush was almost unbroken. Strangers in the green churchyard were moving softly about, reading the inscriptions on stones and brasses, or waiting in the pews, some in the attitude of devotion. In the south aisle leaned against the wall the banner of St. Oswald, a crimson-bordered standard, with the figure of the saint in white and crimson, worked on a golden ground. A short, stout personage, with grey chin-whiskers and a pompous air, presumably the sexton, came in a little after three with a great armful of fresh rushes, and commenced to strew the floor. Soon afterwards the children, with their bearings, had taken their positions, ranged in a long row on the broad churchyard wall, fronting the street, which by this time was crowded with spectators, for the Grasmere rush-bearing is the most noted among the few survivals of what was once, in the northern counties of England, a very general observance. There is an excellent account of it, by an eyewitness, as early as 1789. James Clarke, in his Survey of the Lakes, wrote:

“I happened once to be at Grasmere, at what they call a Rushbearing…. About the latter end of September a number of young women and girls (generally the whole parish) go together to the tops of the hills to gather rushes. These they carry to the church, headed by one of the smartest girls in the company. She who leads the procession is styled the Queen, and carries in her hand a huge garland, and the rest usually have nosegays. The Queen then goes and places her garland upon the pulpit, where it remains till after the next Sunday. The rest then strew their rushes upon the bottom of the pews, and at the church door they are met by a fiddler, who plays before them to the public house, where the evening is spent in all kinds of rustic merriment.”

Still more interesting is the record, in Hone’s Year Book, by “A Pedestrian.” On July 21, 1827, the walking tour of this witness brought him to Grasmere.

“The church door was open, and I discovered that the villagers were strewing the floors with fresh rushes…. During the whole of this day I observed the children busily employed in preparing garlands of such wild flowers as the beautiful valley produces, for the evening procession, which commenced at nine, in the following order: The children, chiefly girls, holding their garlands, paraded through the village, preceded by the Union band. They then entered the church, when the three largest garlands were placed on the altar, and the remaining ones in various parts of the[65] place. In the procession I observed the ‘Opium Eater,’ Mr. Barber, an opulent gentleman residing in the neighbourhood, Mr. and Mrs. Wordsworth, Miss Wordsworth and Miss Dora Wordsworth. Wordsworth is the chief supporter of these rustic ceremonies. The procession over, the party adjourned to the ballroom, a hayloft at my worthy friend Mr. Bell’s (now the Red Lion), where the country lads and lasses tripped it merrily and heavily. They called the amusement dancing. I called it thumping; for he who made the most noise seemed to be esteemed the best dancer; and on the present occasion I think Mr. Pooley, the schoolmaster, bore away the palm. Billy Dawson, the fiddler, boasted to me of having been the officiating minstrel at this ceremony for the last six and forty years…. The dance was kept up to a quarter of twelve, when a livery servant entered and delivered the following verbal message to Billy: ‘Master’s respects, and will thank you to lend him the fiddle-stick.’ Billy took the hint, the Sabbath was at hand, and the pastor of the parish (Sir Richard le Fleming) had adopted this gentle mode of apprising the assembled revellers that they ought to cease their revelry. The servant departed with the fiddle-stick, the chandelier was removed, and when the village clock struck twelve not an individual was to be seen out of doors in the village.”

Since then many notices of the Grasmere rush-bearings have been printed, the most illuminating being that of the Rev. Canon[66] Rawnsley, 1890, now included in one of his several collections of Lake Country sketches. He calls attention to the presence, among the bearings, of designs that suggest a Miracle Play connection, as Moses in the bulrushes, the serpent on a pole, and the harps of David and Miriam,—emblems which were all in glowing evidence this past summer. A merry and sympathetic account is given in a ballad of 1864, ascribed to Mr. Edward Button, formerly the Grasmere schoolmaster:

“In Grasmere’s hill-girt valley,
‘Tis pleasant to recall
The children of the dalesmen hold
A pretty festival.
“The children of the valley
To this day faithful keep
The custom of their hardy sires
Who in the churchyard sleep.
“For when hot summer’s waning,
They to the lake repair
To pull the reeds and lilies white
That grow in plenty there.
“With these, and ferns and mosses,
And flowers of varied dye,
They hasten home, and all day long
Their busy fingers ply.
“Then in the quiet evening,
Ere dew begins to fall,
They range their floral trophies on
The churchyard’s low-topped wall.
“There crosses without number,
Of every shape and size,
And wreaths, triangles, crowns, and shields
Appear in flowery guise.
“And verses, too, and mottoes,
Words ta’en from Holy Writ,
And some designs which mock the pen,
We’ll call them nondescript.
“But all are glad and happy
Who in the pageant share,
And the urchins with the nondescripts
Are proud as any there.
“And proudly struts each youngster,
When, devices gay in hand,
They round about the village march
To the music of the band.
“Like to a string of rainbows
Appears that cortege bright,
Winding ‘mong the crooked lanes
In the golden evening light!
“And coming to the church again
They bear their garlands in,
They fix them round the time-stained fane
While the bells make merry din.
“But hark! before departing
From that house of prayer,
The incense of a grateful hymn
Floats on the quiet air.”

The older hymn of St. Oswald—

“They won us peace,
Thy saints, O Lord,
Even though, like royal David, they
Smiting and smitten with the sword
Toiled through their mortal day”—

is now followed by a hymn from the pen of Canon Rawnsley, whose genial notice, as he passed this August along the churchyard wall of bearings, brought a happy flush to one child-face after another:

“The Rotha streams, the roses blow,
Though generations pass away,
And still our old traditions flow
From pagan past and Roman day.
“Beside the church our poets sleep,
Their spirits mingle with our throng;
They smile to see the children keep
Our ancient feast with prayer and song.

“We too have foes in war to face, Not yet our land from sin is free. Lord, give us of St. Oswald’s grace To make us kings and saints to Thee.”

The Grasmere rush-bearing, so far as we saw it, was lacking in none of the traditional features, not even the rain. Yet the gently falling showers seemed all unheeded by the line of bright-eyed children, steadfastly propping up on the wall their various tributes. Banners and crosses and crowns were there, and all the customary emblems. Among the several harps was one daintily wrought of marguerites; two little images of Moses reposed in arks woven of flags and grasses; on a moss-covered lattice was traced in lilies: “Consider the lilies of the field.” The serpent was made of tough green stems, knotted and twisted together in a long coil about a pole. Geranium, maiden-hair fern, Sweet William, pansies, daisies, dahlias, asters, fuchsias mingled their hues in delicate and intricate devices. Among the decorated perambulators was one all wreathed in heather, with a screen of rushes rising high behind. Its flower-faced baby was all but hidden under a strewing of roses more beautiful than any silken robe, and a wand twined with lilies of the valley swayed unsteadily from his pink fist. Six little maidens in white and green, holding tall stalks of rushes, upheld the rush-bearing sheet—linen spun at Grasmere and woven at Keswick—crossed by blossoming sprays.

The rush-cart, bearing the ribbon-tied bunches of rushes, crowned with leafy oak-boughs and hung with garlands, belonged especially to Lancashire, where it has not yet entirely disappeared; indeed a rush-cart has been seen in recent years taking its way through one of the most squalid quarters of grimy Manchester; but the rush-sheet, on which the precious articles of the parish, silver tankards, teapots, cups, spoons, snuff-boxes, all lent to grace this festival, were arranged, had really gone out until, in this simplified form, it was revived a few years ago at Grasmere by lovers of the past. That the sheet now holds only flowers is due to that same inexorable logic of events which has brought it about that no longer the whole parish with cart-loads of rushes, no longer, even, the strong lads and lasses swinging aloft bunches of rushes and glistening holly boughs, but only little children ranged in cherubic row along the churchyard wall, and crowing babies in their go-carts, bring to St. Oswald the tribute of the summer.

It was from coach-top we caught our farewell glimpse of the charming scene. The village band, playing the Grasmere rush-bearing march—an original tune believed to be at least one hundred and fifty years old—led the way, followed by the gold and crimson banner of the warrior saint. The rush-sheet, borne by the little queen and her maids of honour, came after, and then the throng of one hundred or more children, transforming the street into a garden with the beauty and sweetness of their bearings. As the procession neared the church, the bells pealed out “with all their voices,” and we drove off under a sudden pelt of rain, remembering Wordsworth’s reference to

“This day, when forth by rustic music led,
The village children, while the sky is red
With evening lights, advance in long array
Through the still churchyard, each with garland gay,
That, carried sceptre-like, o’ertops the head Of the proud bearer.”

Our third rush-bearing we found in Cheshire, on Sunday, August 12. A morning train from Manchester brought us to Macclesfield—keeping the Sabbath with its silk-mills closed, and its steep streets nearly empty—in time for luncheon and a leisurely drive, through occasional gusts of rain, four miles to the east, up and up, into the old Macclesfield Forest. This once wild woodland, infested by savage boars, a lurking-place for outlaws, is now open pasture, grazed over by cows whose milk has helped to make the fame of Cheshire cheese. But Forest Chapel still maintains a rite which flourished when the long since perished trees were sprouts and saplings.

It is a tiny brown church, nested in a hollow of the hills, twelve hundred feet above the sea. In the moss-crowned porch, whose arch was wreathed with flowers and grasses, stood the vicar, as we came up, welcoming the guests of the rush-bearing. For people were panting up the hill in a continuous stream, mill hands from Macclesfield and farmer-folk from all the hamlets round. Perhaps seven or eight hundred were gathered there, hardly one-fourth of whom could find room within the church.

We passed up the walk, thickly strewn with rushes, under that brightly garlanded porch, into a little sanctuary that was a very arbour of greenery and blossom. As we were led up the aisle, our feet sank in a velvety depth of rushes. The air was delicious with fresh, woodsy scents. A cross of lilies rose from the rush-tapestried font. The window-seats were filled with bracken, fern, and goldenrod. The pulpit and reading-desk were curtained with long sprays of bloom held in green bands of woven rushes. The chancel walls were hidden by wind-swayed greens from which shone out, here and there, clustering harebells, cottage roses, and the golden glint of the sunflower. The hanging lamps were gay with asters, larkspur, and gorse. The whole effect was indescribably joyous and rural, frankly suggestive of festivity.

It was early evensong, a three o’clock service. There was to be another at five. After the ritual came the full-voiced singing of a familiar hymn:

“Before the hills in order stood, Or earth received her frame, From everlasting Thou art God, To endless years the same.

“Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.”

So singing, the little congregation filed out into the churchyard, where the greater congregation, unable to gain access, was singing too. It was one of the rare hours of sunshine, all the more blissful for their rarity. The preacher of the day took his stand on a flat tombstone. Little girls were lifted up to seats upon the churchyard wall, and coats were folded and laid across low monuments for the comfort of the old people. A few little boys, on their first emergence into the sunshine, could not resist the temptation to turn an unobtrusive somersault or so over the more distant mounds, but they were promptly beckoned back by their elders and squatted submissively on the turf. The most of the audience stood in decorous quiet. Two generations back, gingerbread stalls and all manner of booths would have been erected about the church, and the rustics, clumping up the steep path in the new boots which every farmer was expected to give his men for the rush-bearing, would have diversified the services by drinking and wrestling.

But altogether still and sacred was the scene on which we looked back as the compulsion of the railway time-table drew us away; the low church tower keeping watch and ward over that green enclosure of God’s acre, with the grey memorial crosses and the throng of living worshippers,—a throng that seemed so shadowy, so evanescent, against the long memories of Forest Chapel and the longer memories of those sunlit hills that rejoiced on every side. A yellow rick rose just behind the wall, the straws blowing in the wind as if they wanted to pull away and go to church with the rushes. On the further side of the little temple there towered a giant chestnut, a dome of shining green that seemed to overspread and shelter its Christian neighbour, as if in recognition of some ancient kinship, some divine primeval bond, attested, perhaps, by this very rite of rush-bearing. The enfolding blue of the sky, tender with soft sunshine, hallowed them both.

From Gretna Green to Land’s End
Katharine Lee Bates (1907)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.