The Penny Hedge
The building of the Penny Hedge, or Horngarth, takes place near Boyes' Staith in Whitby Harbour every year on the Eve of Ascension. Legend says that the tradition came about after the murder of a local monk.
The legend says that a boar, caught by three local men during a hunt, escaped into Eskdale Chapel where the monk lived. After giving sanctuary to the animal, the three angry hunters attacked and fatally wounded the monk. Before he died, the monk asked the Abbot of Whitby to spare the lives of the three hunters if they did penance.
Every Ascension Eve the men were to visit Stray Head Wood, where the Abbot's bailiff would cut sticks for the men with a penny knife. The hunters should then carry the sticks back to Whitby before the following morning and plant them in a row in the harbour, well enough for the hedge to withstand three tides. During the building, the bailiff would blow a horn and the hunters had to beg for God's forgiveness. If the hunters failed this task their land would be taken ownership of by Whitby Abbey.
To this day the planting of the hedge is still carried out, 800 years after it first took place.
The Penny Hedge (Whitby, North Yorkshire, July 2003) S.Friend, 2003
Blessing of the Boats/Sea/River/Nets
In his book "Fishermen and Fishing Ways", (1932), Peter Anson says: "The fisherman, no matter to what Church or sect he belongs, is generally more inclined to interest himself in religion than the average landsman. This strain of piety manifests itself in various ways, one of the most usual in Catholic countries being the organization and assisting at pilgrimages to certain shrines; in Protestant countries it is evidenced by sudden and periodical 'revival movements' with their accompaniments of crowded prayer meetings and hymn-singing."
He goes on to offer examples from Britain and Europe. For example: "the Catholic fishermen of Barra, in the Hebrides, always carry holy water with them on their boats and sprinkle the nets with it before fishing."
The custom of Blessing of the Sea/Boats/Nets, is a modern one in Britain, although celebrated widely in Europe. Anson comments: "Blessings of the sea and the local fishing-fleet take place in many other Breton and Norman ports,one of the most picturesque that I know being that at Port-en-Bessin, on the coast of Calvados, near Bayeaux, where you will still find a number of smacks, in build not unlike those at Brixham, on the opposite side of the Channel. Then there are the famous blessings on June 24 of the channel between the mainland of Brittany and the Ile de Groix before the annual sardine fisheries start, the Pardon des Islandais at Paimpol, the Féte des Marins at Notre-Dame de Grâce, Honfleur, and many another I have not the space to mention. Out in the Hebrides or on the west coast of Ireland you will still come across the priests blessing the fishing-boats and nets at the beginning of every season, and far away in the Pacific and Indian Oceans you will discover native fishermen propitiating the gods of the sea with strange sacrifices."
No doubt similar festivals were held around the coasts of Britain by local guilds and confraternities before the English Reformation. But these were largely abandoned. Then in the 19th century similar festivals were started up again, and are nowadays usually celebrated on Ascension Day. The following are some examples of present-day festivals in Britain.
Hastings (Suffolk): Blessing of the Sea (Greek Orthodox ceremony). A large cross is decorated with flowers and dipped into the sea three times to ensure good catches during the forthcoming fishing season.
North Shields (Northumbria): 14 February. Blessing of the Salmon Fishery. Blessed before midnight just before the start of the netting season. The first catch of salmon is given to the vicar.
Of this ceremony one author has commented: "Between Coldstream and the sea there are thirty-eight fisheries each employing an average of five persons, so that these men have good reason to be thankful for good fortune with the nets. Thankful they are, and at Norham one of the most moving of all customs takes place each year before the opening of the salmon season.
The fishermen gather at the Pool of Pedwell, where the Glebe Land of the vicar of Norham runs down to the river, and there at midnight, when zero-hour for the salmon is striking, the nets are blessed and God's help is asked by the Vicar for the men whose livelihood is the Tweed. At the conclusion of the beautiful little ceremony, the net splashes into the dark waters and the first catch belongs to the Church as it has done for centuries."
(Details from: Francis Drake-Carnell, 1939, "It's and Old Scottish Custom", Peter Davis, London)
Looe (Cornwall): March? Festival of the Sea.
Broadstairs (Kent): 4th week of April. Blessing of the Sea.
Folkstone (Kent): Nearest Sunday to St Peter’s Day (June). Blessing of the Sea and Fisheries. The service is led by the vicar of St Peter’s Church (the Seafarers’ Church).
Abbotsbury, Chesil Bank (Dorset): Blessing of the Fishing Boats. There are no longer any fishing boats at Abbotsbury. Local children make three garlands on wooden frames and these are paraded through the village to be laid on the War Memorial.
Folkstone (Kent): Blessing of the Sea.
Arbroath (Angus): The Arbroath "Sea Fest" began in 2002
Billingsgate (London): Harvest of the Sea Thanksgiving. St Mary at Hill, Lovat Lane, is decorated with fish, nets and other items for a service of thanksgiving.
Dates not known
Kingswear and Dartmouth (Devon): Blessing of the River Dart.
Other Festivals Associated with the Sea
Isle of Man (11 Jan, Old New Year’s Eve. & 12 Jan): Isle of Man, Some herring fishermen held their Boat Suppers today.
Barra and other islands on the Outer Hebrides (Scotland): 1st February. Local fishermen cast lots for fishing banks today.
Brixham: Brixham Heritage Festival Week
Leith: Leith Festival of the Sea
Eyemouth: Seafood festival (begun 1994).
St Monan (Scotland, Fife): First Saturday in July. St Monan’s Sea Queen Festival.
Grimsby: Fish Dock carnival held on Grimsby Docks.
The "Fishermen's Walk" was very popular in the early twentieth century, with the event taking place in a number of Scottish towns (Musselburgh, Cockenzie, Fisherrow, and so on). The walk was usually held in the early autumn at the end of the fishing season, and was a festival of thanksgiving in which members of the local commmunity participted. The town was decorated with flags and bunting, and at midday the local bands played in the presence of the fishing fleet. At about 1.00pm the men, women and children processed through the town, with the fishermen dressed in their ganseys and the women in their traditional clothes (ritual dresses and paisley shawls). flags and banners of the local Fishermen's Societies were carried, along with models of fishing boats and dolls dressed in fishing costume. The procession walked to the place where sports and games were held through the afternoon.
Details from Francis Drake-Carnell, 1939, "It's and Old Scottish Custom", Peter Davis, London
Musselburgh (Lothian, Scotland): The town was decorated with nets and other items associated with fishing. The Fishermen’s Walk began in c1850 and normally took place on the first Friday in September to mark the end of the fishing season. The fishermen wore dark blue ganseys and the fishwives wore traditional dress. The procession, led by the fishwives in traditional dress, paraded through the town. The Walk was abandoned a few years ago although local people are trying to revive it.