Country & Coast: Rural scramble and candlelit bids help see in the new year

Lord of the Hood paints Fool Dale Smith's face ahead of the Haxey Hood, a tradition which is thought to be the oldest surviving in England.
Lord of the Hood paints Fool Dale Smith's face ahead of the Haxey Hood, a tradition which is thought to be the oldest surviving in England.
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For those of us who observe them, the New Year first-footing and wassailing customs are now just a memory. Still to come though are a couple of fascinating local traditions which always take place in early January, and the first of them begins on the stroke of noon this very Friday at the small village of Haxey which lies to the east of Doncaster.

Likened by some to a free-for-all rugby match, it involves an almighty fight over a leather tube which is known locally as the Haxey Hood. The tradition is reported to date back to the 14th century when the wife of the local squire was riding between Haxey and the neighbouring village of Westwoodside.

After the lady’s hood blew off in a strong wind, a group of farm workers chased it all around a field until one of them eventually caught the hood. As a reward the lady’s husband granted land to local commoners, provided the chase was re-enacted every year.

Thought to be oldest surviving tradition in England, it always takes place on the afternoon of the Twelfth Day of Christmas and has evolved into a chaotic struggle between customers from public houses in Haxey and Westwoodside to bring the hood back to their favourite bar, where it will hang in triumph for the rest of the year.

Several ancillary customs have been acquired by the Haxey Hood, like the bright hunting pink and top hats worn by the main participants and the so-called Fool in a feathered hat decorated with flowers and rags. It is a spectacle that is well worth going to watch, but be warned, maintain a safe distance. During the melee, two parked cars once got pushed into each other.

The other tradition takes place in the hamlet of Hubberholme at the foot of remote Langstrothdale in the Yorkshire Dales, where next Monday night at the George Inn there will be a sitting of what has become known as the Hubberholme Parliament. Its role is to decide who will let a nearby 16-acre pasture on Kirk Gill Moor for the next 12 months.

Nothing has changed since I attended this enduring tradition some 20-odd years ago. It starts with a service in St. Michael’s Church, on the other side of the infant River Wharfe, and afterwards everyone strolls over the bridge to the George where, for the purposes of the land letting, the dining room becomes the House of Lords and the bar is the House of Commons.

The vicar conducts the proceedings, and when he rings the bell in the bar he asks those present to make bids for the pasture. A small candle is lit and placed in the window, and as long as there is a flame bids can be accepted.

The vicar retires to the House of Lords with some of his parishioners for a time while a few small bids are made, though none considered serious at this stage.

The real action begins when the candle starts to gutter and suddenly the bids shoot up. When all the bidding seems to have drawn to an end, the vicar returns to the House of Commons and declares the auction over. If the candle is still burning, he dutifully snuffs out the flame.