The rushbearing ceremony is not exclusive to Cumbria, but it is still practiced in the county. Although there is a belief among some historians that the ceremony dates from Roman or earlier times, it probably originated when dirt floors were the norm in churches. Rushes and hay would be scattered on the floor to keep it dry, inhibit any mud, and help keep dampness and cold at bay. Dedication of the church on a yearly basis would have been another reason for the ceremony. Some churches had burials in the church itself under the dirt floors. Farmers often donated hay from specific meadows for the rushes.
A ceremony could include a band along with a procession of girls wearing crowns of flowers and boys carrying crosses of rushes. Crosses would be laid on the altar and remain there for a week after the ceremony.
In the 1880s rushbearing was discontinued as stone floors were installed in churches. However, the tradition continues at five churches in Cumbria. The ceremony is honoured at St Marys in Ambleside with a 26-foot long mural containing 62 figures. In the Grasmere village hall is a 1905 painting of Grasmeres ceremony.
Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley in Life and Nature at the English Lakes wrote about Amblesides 1830s ceremony: At six oclock in the evening of the last Saturday in July, we all met - a hundred or more - and then an old man played on his fiddle or his pipe, and off we went round the village, up street and down street, to the same old tune.
We only knew one tune in those days - The Hunt is Up - and so up the hill to the old chapel. There we put our burdens into the corners of the big square pews, and left them till Sunday afternoon, and came back to the Cross for our gingerbread... Folk came for miles to see the procession, and Wordsworth never missed; he and the Rydal party would sit in our little room to see the procession start; and as for Hartley Coleridge, Owen Lloyd and Faber, nothing would do but they must go along with it; for Hartley loved children, and was, as you may almost say, a child amongst them.
The burdens, which by then had taken the place of the bundles of rushes, were devices of every imaginable shape made by the carpenter for the great ladies, and by the skilful-handed at home during the winter months, all covered with coloured paper and coloured flowers. Everyone who chose came, young and old and all who carried burdens received a good big cake of gingerbread made by the village baker. The custom of Rushbearing is still continued at the new Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It is done as an act of thanksgiving for the heritage of the past, of witness and rededication and a symbol of renewal for the future, a symbolic clearing out of the old rushes (latin: junctus) or rubbish in our lives.
Places and times of Cumbria rushbearing ceremonies:
1. St Oswolds Church, Grasmere: 3rd Saturday in July or Saturday after last day of school term. After the service gingerbread is served, and a barbecue takes place.
2. St Marys Church, Ambleside; 1st Saturday in July
3. St Theobold's Church, Great Musgrave; first Saturday in July
4. St Mary and St Michael Church, Urswick; Sunday nearest St Michaels Day (29thSep)
5. St Columbas Church, Warcop; St Peters Day, 29th June or 28th if a Sunday.
Grasmere, the northernmost village in the southern Lake District, is located on the A591
3 miles (5km) NW of Ambleside
Photos courtesy Julian Thurgood
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