Whitby: Ancient town tradition continues with annual Planting of the Penny Hedge ceremomy

Whitby has many a tradition connected with its long and varied history and heritage and yesterday saw one of the oldest carried out once again, much to the delight of crowds who gathered to watch.

There are only two occasions when the annual harbourside ceremony, which dates back to the 12th century, has not taken place – and the coronavirus lockdown was one of them.

However, yesterday at 9am, on the eve of Ascension Day, the ceremony of the Horngarth, or the Planting of the Penny Hedge, took place on the east bank of the River Esk and was overseen by the Bailiff of the Manor of Fyling Court Leet, who since 1999 has been Lol Hodgson.

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Legend has it that the act is part of a penance served upon three hunters and on their descendants for all time, for murdering a hermit/monk on the outskirts of the town at Eskdale.

The Penny Hedge is built in Whitby Harbour below Church street by Lol Hodgson, the Bailiff of the Manor of Fyling Court Leet and Tim Osborne, chairman of The Staintondale Hunt.

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Mr Hodgson was joined by Tim Osborne, the chair of nearby Staintondale Hunt, who acts as the hornblower to signal the end of the ceremony. There was a good turn out, with people from as far away as Hastings who had travelled to Whitby especially to watch the ancient custom.

Mr Hodgson said: “It is hugely important that we keep these traditions on the go – it is vital. It was done before me and when I landed the job as the Bailiff of the Manor of Fyling, I landed this as well – it is as simple as that.”

Hazel is used every year for the hedge and cut from land within the Manor, where the hunt is said to have taken place, with nine stakes vertical and nine horizontal, plus four side posts.

Crows lined the harbourside along Church Street to watch the Penny Hedge being built in an age old tradition that dates back to the 12th century. Lol Hodgson has responsibility for carrying out the tradition and is joined by Tim Osborne.

However, it is always useful to bring a spare stake, added Mr Hodgson who also had his say on recent debates that suggest the story isn’t true.

Mr Hodgson added: “We always have a spare, we learned the hard way to always bring a spare. Sometimes you get eight in and hit a stone with the ninth but there was no problem with that today but we snapped one.

“I can understand the talk about the folk ways and I am not saying that is not true but the country is built on legend and how can anybody argue? We have to have some light-hearted moments with life as it is at present.”

Whitby Community Choir rounded off the ceremony by singing The Famous Penny Hedge.

Tim Osborne, the chairman of the Staintondale Hunt, joins the ceremony of the Planting of the Penny Hedge and acts as the hornblower at the end of the traditional and long-standing ceremony.

The story

The origins of the Planting of the Penny Hedge goes back to 1159 and according to Lionel Charlton’s ‘History of Whitby Book II’ (1779) began with a series of events on October 16 that year but Ascension is chosen for the ceremony as a time of year when tides are low.

A group of men met to hunt and chased a wild boar to a hermitage where it died. The monk closed the door on the hunters but they killed him and he died shortly after. As he lay dying he forgave them the act should they carry out a penance which meant they had to take hazel stakes to the River Esk and build a hedge to resist the tide.

The penance was paid in the 1980s with the last family involved but Whitby Town Council asked the Manor of Fyling Court Leet to continue the tradition.

Nine stakes are stuck into the mud on the banks of the Esk and nine weaved across with Hazel intertwined and the hedge is supposed to withstand three tides.