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Gail Middleton column

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 03, 2014

  • Lady Wulfruna, Saxon Princess and Wolverhampton's founder - related to Alfred the Great. Beating the Bounds helped the Saxons keep tabs on who owned what

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AROUND this time of year our forebears celebrated a relatively little known festival called Rogationtide.

Traditionally this was the run-up to Ascension Day, when Christ made his last appearance to his disciples before ascending to heaven.

The day is the 40th after Easter Sunday, and this year it falls on May 29.

Our ancestors held a range of festivals, including well dressing, church parades and ales, and marking out parish boundaries, or "beating the bounds".

The latter is an ancient ceremony that has probably existed in Britain for more than two millennia.

Until very recently boundary markers and milestones were the only landmarks on our roads.

It was the Romans who brought milestones to Britain, primarily to show the legions how far they had to march before they reached the next garrison or settlement.

When the Romans eventually abandoned Britain their roads continued to be the main communication routes across Britain and milestones the main way for ordinary travellers to calculate the distance of a journey.

Inevitably, over time, the roads fell into decay, and long-distance travel became increasingly difficult. By Tudor times the roads were so bad that legislation was passed forcing parishes to look after them. But, it was not enough, and once you left the parish behind, the open roads were treacherous.

As the old milestones decayed, and parishes tried to avoid the expense of maintaining them, it was very easy to get lost, especially in more out of the way parts of the country.

So, milestones and boundary markers were essential if you were going on a pilgrimage, taking produce or livestock to market or simply going from A to B.

The boundary markers were also vital in settling disputes over land and who owned it. Many of these arose over who should be responsible for the upkeep of hedgerows, fences, milestones and local roads. Just like today, neighbours fell out over land boundaries – such as who should mend or replace fences or trim overgrown shrubs and trees.

Sounds pretty familiar to us. But, in earlier times, when far fewer people could write, let alone read property deeds, the boundary stones were a godsend. In those days, parish churches played a much larger role in people's lives and were the administrative centres of their community. The exact location of parish boundaries were of major importance, since where you lived determined many of your entitlements, rights and responsibilities.

Apart from tending to parishioners' souls, the parish was responsible for maintaining roads, rudimentary street lighting, erecting workhouses and collecting tithes and taxes.

It was also responsible for distributing poor relief and other doles to the needy. Parishioners could also have certain rights, such as the right to graze animals on common land and to collect firewood.

Long before the Ordnance Survey began its mammoth task of mapping Britain, boundary markers were the only way to clearly delineate boundaries. Initially, people used natural landmarks like rocky outcrops, banks, rivers, streams and ancient trees. In Anglo Saxon times, wild pear trees were popular boundary markers. Majestic, mature oaks were also used. These were often used as meeting places where people heard visiting preachers. Hence, they were called Gospel Oaks..

Massive boulders left behind when the ice sheets retreated were especially revered as boundary stones. One can still be seen in Wolverhampton's West Park. Place names, such as Warstones, like the one in Penn, Wolverhampton, also bear witness to the old custom. The name may derive from Hoarstone meaning a boundary stone.

The word "Rogation" comes from "rogare", the Latin verb meaning "to ask". Originally, the days leading up to Ascension Day were spent fasting and asking for God's blessing. There were also processions around the parish involving young and old, clergy and lay persons. The custom of beating the bounds is mentioned in Saxon times, in laws passed by Alfred the Great and by his grandson, Athelstan, the first King of England. As only the clergy, some royals and nobles were literate, it was essential that communities had a way of memorising their local boundary markers. Hence, the Rogationtide perambulations involved priest, churchwardens and other officials leading parishioners carrying long boughs of wood.

Stopping at each boundary marker, they would literally beat the landmarks, using a set rhythm that helped them to remember. In this way, the boundaries were firmly etched into local folk memory, handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. In Saxon times, Wolverhampton's boundaries were written down and preserved for the landowner. Nevertheless, the ceremonial beating of its bounds would still take place each Rogationtide.

Different parishes might have their own variations, but the ritual was carried out across the whole country in one form or another.

A common practice was to include young boys, often choristers, in the ceremony. As each of the markers was beaten, the priest would ask for God's blessing and protection. Then, the boys were often beaten or given the bumps, to help them remember each marker on the route. Sometimes their memories were reinforced by being thrown into clumps of stinging nettles! That way, they'd be bound to pass the route on to the next generation.

These days the custom has largely died out, except for some areas where churches have revived the tradition. But, it was once commonplace across the Black Country. In 1834, a piece in White's History, Gazetteer and Directory of Staffordshire records how Wulfrunians marked Rogationtide in the 18th century: Among the curious local customs which prevailed here till about 1765, was that called Processioning, on the Monday and Tuesday in Rogation week, when ... the Sacrist, resident Prebendaries and members of the choir assembled at morning prayers, with the charity children bearing long poles, decked with all kinds of flowers then in season, and which were afterwards carried through the streets in great solemnity ..."

A few years ago, Holy Trinity Church in Amblecote and members of the local History Society decided to revive the ancient Beating of the Bounds ceremony for Amblecote parish.

Crowds turned out to witness the ramble around the boundaries, which happily, involved no children suffering beatings. Apart from making history by resurrecting the ancient custom, the walkers raised money for charity.

The ritual survives today in London – where a school boy is held upside down by his feet, from a boat over the river Thames!

When Ascension Day arrives, there are several superstitions to look out for. Apparently, it's said that eggs laid on the day never go bad and if you want extra good luck you should place them in your roof. Better still, sunny weather on the day means a long, hot summer. But – and there's always a catch – if it rains, then crops will do badly and cattle suffer disease. Finally, perhaps our friends in Wales had the right idea – as they believed it was unlucky to do any work on Ascension Day!

Does your area or village have a Beating the Bounds ceremony or did you watch such events when you were younger? If so email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk

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