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BEATING THE BOUNDS

 

A LITTLE BIT OF "OLD ENGLAND"

 

THE tradition of Beating the Bounds still continues in many parishes around Britain although sadly is not as prevalent as it once was. British Pathe has some delightful archive film of the tradition which can be found on their website. The clip above is of a revival in Hereford in 1933.

ONE of High Wycombe's most ancient - and most curious traditions - involves parading around the parish boundary and bumping boys on their heads at special marker points along the route.

boxThis tradition has almost died out (thank goodness the boys might say!) but was revived in 1985 as part of the town's 700th mayoral anniversary. The original 1920s' box (pictured) used to 'bump' the boys' heads on was found in an archive and re-used. The custom of Beating the Bounds, was once found in almost every English parish and besides its more usual name was also known as 'riding the marches', 'riding the fringes' or ' common riding'.

Similar ceremonies, accompanied by feasting, drinking and merrymaking, were also found in places outside Britain. In Jersey there was the tradition of the 'Visite Royal' in which the various parish boundaries were inspected by the magistrates of the island's Royal Court. In Cork, in the last century, the mayor, in full regalia of office, annually threw a dart into the harbour, its landing-place marking the limit of municipal authority. Examples are even to be found in Russia and Norway.

In Britain the custom involved walking around the parish boundary and beating it with a stick, or stripped willow branch known as a wand.

Curiously, certain stones, trees or other marker points around the boundary would also be beaten by literally bumping a boy (often a choirboy) against the mark. The boy would be suspended upside down and his head gently tapped against the stone or he would be taken by the feet and hands and swung against a tree! Nobody knows why or how the tradition originated. One explanation advanced is that it was intended to teach the young their parish's limits and that the bumping of choir boys - at one time all the local children would have been involved - was 'to help them remember'.

 However, this is likely to be a late attempt to explain what was almost certainly pagan in origin. We know similar ceremonies were found in Greece and Rome. In the latter representations of Janus, the god of entrances whose two-heads enable him to watch in all directions, were sometimes set up as boundary markers. The evidence that it was once also practised in China suggests it may actually derive from an extremely archaic spring fertility rite and that the bumping ceremonies may even be the relics of child sacrifice.

The use of willow wands may also be significant as the willow was a sacred tree of the Druids. The connection between boundaries and child sacrifice, in some ways, parallels the antique custom of burying the body of a sacrificed child in the foundations of a new building. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the British king, Vortigern, was advised to do this when he proposed to build a new citadel and it was the search for a suitable victim which brought the infant Merlin to his court.

Whatever its origins it is certainly another pagan tradition taken over by the Christian church. In 470 AD there was a serious earthquake in plague-ridden Vienna, and the bishop ordered litanies to be said in solemn procession through the fields on Ascension Day. In 511 AD this custom was extended to the whole of Gaul and was officially adopted in England in the early eighth century.

Traditionally beating the bounds ceremonies took place on Ascension Day or else during Rogationtide , the fifth week after Easter of which Ascension Day is a part. It was the original intention to hold the 1985 revival in High Wycombe on Ascension Day but it could not be organised in time for this and the invitation for it to be held after the new mayor's first civic service on June 9th seemed the most appropriate time to settle for.

The event's organisers, High Wycombe's Strange Folklore Society, had some difficulty deciding which bounds to beat. The official parish boundary for High Wycombe now stretches more than 20 miles around Cressex, West Wycombe, Downley, Micklefield and almost up to Loudwater. Many felt this was too far to walk even if it was divided over a couple of days. So Strange member Clive Harper suggested they beat the bounds of the old municipal borough of Chepping Wycombe. There was a detailed account of this boundary being beaten on August 13th, 1846 (note, not during Rogationtide) published by Henry Kingston in his book The History of Wycombe with Reflections of my Native Town

Clive Harper worked out that at least half of the route described by Kingston could still be followed. On June 9th about 30 people including the new mayor, Reggie Goves, and several councillors met at High Wycombe's Parish Church. A group of High Wycombe cub scouts had been recruited as 'victims' to be beaten. After a short introduction and an ample bumping of one of the boys on a 'bumping box' they started the beating proper. It began at Birdcage Walk near the railway station with the first bumping. They then walked along to the Irish Club and crossed Saffron Platt into Easton Terrace and then Stuart Road. On the corner of Stuart Road there is what appears to be an old markstone, perhaps one mentioned in the 1846 account. They though this a good spot to bump one of the boys.

Markstones are small boulders usually used simply to mark a boundary or a route, but which are often thought by the town folk to be of much more importance. They will sometimes have a ghost or devil legend attached to them. From this markstone they walked down to the London Road, A40, and to the River Wye on the northern side of the Rye. To beat the bounds properly they would have to walk through the river - or at least send one of the boys through it. Three or four brave fellows did just that although the river was deeper than it looked resulting in quite a soaking! The others walked westwards to the bridge by Pann Mill and then back along the Rye. They followed the river bank (south side) to Rye Mill Garage and then crossed the Rye to the Dyke. On their left was Holywell Mead and on their right the Rye. As they got near to the open air swimming pool, Clive Harper pointed out that this was a likely spot for High Wycombe's holy well, filled in during the 1950s.

They continued across the Rye to the Dyke - the ornamental water way formed in 1923 by the Marquis of Lincoln. Then they headed westwards (on the northern side of the Dyke) to the teashop. They carried on round to Wycombe Abbey School entrance where the ruins of the elm tree could be seen in the driveway. This is probably the same elm tree referred to in the 1846 account when Kingston writes "...to a large elm tree on the north front of the Abbey, nearly opposite the entrance hall, where the company were regaled with bread, cheese and beer, the gift of the said Lord Carrington". This is where attempts to follow the 19th century route had to end and they carried on through the town to Frogmore and back to Birdcage Walk. They crossed Marlow Hill and Queen Alexandra Road, around the college and into Lily's Walk.

They went under the subway past the Anchor pub, the back of the Falcon pub and to the Angel pub, almost on the same site as the old Angel pub mentioned in the 19th century account of the Beating of the Bounds. From the Angel they walked up St Pauls Row and stopped to look at the standing stone in front of the Guildhall. This was another marker point and the last place a boy was bumped. They walked along Frogmore past the Old Red Cow pub (now demolished) then into Temple End past the Red Cross Knight pub and turning into Priory Avenue. After going along Priory Avenue they went into Amersham Hill and back down to Birdcage Walk.

The ceremony used to be very important and one of the highlights of the town's year. It served several purposes: to bless the field and crops, to emphasise exactly where the parish boundary was, to enable the poor to have a celebration and good time, and simply to bring the people of the town together. The actual boundary line and marker stones were considered almost sacred and woe betide anyone who had removed one of the stones or built their house on the boundary line. There are reports of the whole procession in one parish marching, termite-like, through the front door of a house built on the boundary and out of one of its windows. One elderly gentleman told Strange Folklore Society that when the bounds were beaten near his village of Piddington, close to West Wycombe, young boys were made to climb up or down chimneys where the house was on the boundary. During the Beating of the Bounds in London on one occasion a driver refused to move his stage coach off the boundary line. Those taking part then promptly climbed in one side of the stage coach and out the other.

 It has been almost impossible to find anyone who remembers the Beating of the Bounds in High Wycombe but thanks to help of Olive Howes of Wycombe Age Concern, one gentleman recalled it last being carried out in 1928 and having gone through Sands, Terriers, and Wycombe Marsh.

BOX A most interesting development in Strange's research into the tradition came with the re-discovery of a box that used to be taken around Wycombe when the bounds were beaten. Former town librarian Ivan Sparkes recalled there was such a box somewhere and in April 1985 found it. The badly battered and crudely made hollow box is 11 inches square by five inches deep. It is painted black with gold lettering. It was however an exciting discovery as it showed that the bounds were beaten on October 31st, 1911. A search of the Bucks Free Press files revealed in the November 3rd issue for that year a detailed account of the beating which was carried out to commemorate the coronation of George V. It is a very colourful account. It is obvious that it was treated in a very light-hearted manner and that the councillors and aldermen were bumped rather than choirboys. The procession followed the municipal borough boundary which took them from Marlow Hill, through Castlefield, down to Hughenden, up to Four Ashes and across Totteridge, down into High Wycombe at the Nags Head on the London Road. Across the Rye (this was before the Dyke was constructed) up into Keep Hill woods and back to the starting place where they ended up by singing the national anthem. They seemed to be aware of the need to follow the line exactly (the mayor walking through someone's private house at one point) but unaware of any particular mark points or markstones. Nor do they seem to have cared, the emphasis being on having a good time with a good lunch and a sizeable banquet afterwards at the White Hart Hotel.

 It is likely that Beating the Bounds was carried out in High Wycombe for centuries until it died out early this century. The revival of 1985 was repeated for a couple of years but has lapsed again. How wonderful if this piece of history could be revived. 

BEATING THE BOUNDS IN HAMPSHIRE

A tradition that has long since died out in Winchester is that of beating the bounds. It involved young boys being "bumped" at various points along the city boundary. The purpose, lost in antiquity, was probably a memory of some primitive ritual to bless the land. 

Usually held around Rogationtide, it was an effective way of passing from one generation to another the exact limits of a parish, for boundaries once meant far more than they do today. The tradition still carries on in some parishes. Indeed, in a few parts of the country, it is an excuse for a celebration. Some ceremonies draw thousands of visitors. Others are carried on more discreetly by just a few parishioners. And it was and is usual for the exact boundary route to be followed. There are many parishes where the entourage will literally walk through the door of a house and out through a side window if that is where they feel the boundary line goes! There is at least one record where the procession met a horse and carriage. They climbed in one side of the carriage and out the other--a "right to roam", if ever there was one. 

Probably the last occasion it was carried out in Winchester was in November, 1900, when the recently-enlarged city boundary was marked out. Stones bearing the inscription "City of Winchester 1900" were set at strategic points on the boundary. The one pictured still exists in Dean Lane.

In that year, the mayor and many city dignitaries sallied forth from Bar End, led by the "City Champion", who was followed by the apprentice boys of the Natives and Aliens Societies, all carrying staves. The mayor addressed the assembly and the dean gave a short service, ending with the Lord's Prayer. Then came the first bumping. The stone had been put in position and two lads "from the Bar End district"--named Thorpe and Gilmour--were "thrice bumped on the new boundary". Mr H.W. Salmon was on hand to take a photograph and there followed three cheers for the Queen and more for the mayor and one for the citizens. The boundary line was judged to head off in a south-westerly direction through a hedge. So the mayor, in full fig, scrambled through the obstacle, followed by the other bigwigs. The next barrier was the barge river at the end of Bull Drove, but, fortunately, there was a plank bridge on hand to enable people to cross. They then reached the river, but help was again on hand in the form of a flat-bottomed boat. On one of the crossings, however, drama struck. The boat was overloaded and one of the men, fearing it would capsize, jumped off and had to swim for it. 

The Hampshire Chronicle's report of the event adds: "Another young fellow named Yates was involuntarily a victim and was pulled out of the water drenched. The boat, thus lightened, righted itself and was got safely across." 

The procession headed across fields and over fences and more stones were laid and boys bumped. Town clerk, Walter Bailey, laid the third stone in a field off Stanmore Lane and gave a short speech wishing the newly-enlarged city great prosperity. He told the crowd that he hoped the space between the stone and the city "...would ultimately be filled up". This was greeted by shouts of "Hear, hear!" The report continued: "It might come in the distant future beyond their ken, that their children's children, walking where they at that moment stood, would declare that the time had again come for the removal of the stones to the north, to the south, to the east and to the west, and would include a still larger area within the city," adding in brackets [applause]. 

The MP, Mr W.H. Myers, laid the fourth stone at Pitt Corner with two Romsey-road lads, John Coomber and William Shipp, chosen to be bumped. The party then headed off in the direction of Teg Down Farm. The report of 1900 adds: "En route, an unfortunate wild rabbit was scared and caught, its captor declaring he would have it stuffed as a souvenir of the day." Alderman Jacob (of Jacob and Johnson fame) laid the fifth stone on the old Roman road which went from Winchester to Old Sarum. 

He expressed the hope that "Winchester might extend itself up to those downs"--he did not think it would ever do anything of the kind [laughter]--at least, not in their time. And so the procession and ceremony continued until they arrived back at Bar End, where the Volunteer Band was waiting. Three cheers for the new boundary were given and the mayor was hoisted shoulder high. To round off the event, there was a dinner at the Guildhall. It seems the beating of the bounds had last been carried out in 1836.