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Traditions & Festivals

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.

Penny Hedge
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.

Margate (Kent): January at Epiphany. The Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Thyateria and Great Britain throws a crucifix decorated with flowers into the sea. It is then recovered and brought ashore by a swimmer.


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.

Norham (Northumberland): Just before midnight on 14 February on Pedwell Beach. Blessing of the Nets. The vicar blesses the nets at the start of the Salmon season. Everyone present repeats the ancient Pedwell prayer, following which the first net is cast and drawn. The first catch of salmon is presented to the officiating priest.

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.

Mudeford, near Christchurch (Hampshire): Rogationtide (starts 5 weeks after Easter): Blessing of the Waters. Following a service at All Saints Church, a Procession, led by the choir and band, walks to the quay for a brief service. The vicar is rowed out to sea by a fisherman where the water is blessed and a small cross is left floating on 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.

Hastings (Sussex): On the Wednesday before Ascension Day. Blessing of the Sea from the lifeboat house or on the foreshore. The procession leaves the church at 7pm and the service is conducted by the Rectors of All Saints and St Clement’s churches.

Southampton (Hampshire): Blessing the Waters. The 800 year old ceremony was revived in 1950. Clergy and civic dignitaries process to the Ocean Dock for a service. The Blessing of the Waters is conducted by the vicar from a small craft moored by the dock.

Blessing Of The Boats

Folkstone (Kent): Blessing of the Sea.

Whitstable (Kent): Blessing of the Waters. Held during the Whitstable Oyster Festival (late July). This festival and ceremony dates from the early 19th century.

Whitby (North Yorkshire): Blessing of the Boats. (Picture Right)

The service took place at Endeavour Wharf, on Sunday 13 July, at 4.00pm.

The Rt Revd Robert Ladds, Bishop of Whitby, prounced the blessing, which included the words: "Protect from the dangers of wind and rain and all the perils of the deep the sailors and fishermen of these waters...."


Arbroath (Angus): The Arbroath "Sea Fest" began in 2002

Horning (Norfolk): First Sunday in August. Blessing of the Norfolk Broads. The service is conducted from the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey near Horning. The Bishop sails on a Norfolk Wherry to St Benet’s where a short service is held.

Whitstable (Kent): Blessing of the Sea. The clergy and choir walk in procession from the parish church to Reeves Beach, where the service takes place at the water’s edge.


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.

Brixham (Devon): Blessing of the Fishing Fleet

Colchester (Essex): The Oyster Feast. Attendance at the feast is by invitation only and marks the end of the oyster season. The sole rights to the fisheries on the River Colne were granted to the population of Colchester by King Richard I.

Flamborough Head (Yorkshire): Blessing of the Fish Harvest. St Oswald’s Church, Flamborough Head.

Gt Yarmouth (Norfolk): Blessing of the Nets. Church of St Nicholas.

Dates not known

Kingswear and Dartmouth (Devon): Blessing of the River Dart.

Mudeford (Hampshire): The vicar of All Saints Church blesses the waters from a boat.

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.

Lerwick (Shetland): Up-Helly-A’ is celebrated on the last Tuesday in January. (Other Up-Helly-A' celebrations take place in Shetland at Scalloway, Bressay, Nesting, Brae, Mossbank, Hillswick/Northmavine, Ollaberry, Cullivoe, Uyeasound, Baltasound and Norwick.)

Shetland was Danish until 1469, hence the strong Scandinavian influence in this ceremony. The name means the End of the Days, and refers to the end of Yule. The height of the ceremony is the burning of a Viking longship. The origin and history of Up-Helly-A' remain obscure, although the festival was generally linked to the 24th day of Yuletide celebrations during the Norse occupation of Shetland. The modern festival originated in the 19th century, when bonfires were lit and lighted tar-barrels were towed on sledges through the "Street" of Lerwick. The use of tar-barrels was banned in 1874 because of unruly behaviour, and replaced with a torchlit procession in 1886.

An excellent book is available on the history and meaning of the festival: Callum G Brown, Up-Helly-AA: Custom, culture and community in Shetland, Published by Mandolin (Manchester Univ Press), Manchester, 1998


Barra and other islands on the Outer Hebrides (Scotland): 1st February. Local fishermen cast lots for fishing banks today.

Nesting (North of Lerwick, Shetland): Up Helly A’.

Girlsta (North of Lerwick, Shetland): Up Helly A’.


Brixham: Brixham Heritage Festival Week

Leith: Leith Festival of the Sea


Eyemouth: Seafood festival (begun 1994).

Lowesfoft (Suffolk): Lowestoft Fish Fayre. This is an annual fayre held on the Fish Docks and includes a "pulling race" in the dock. (The Fish Fayre is a modern festival, although smack races were regular events in the 19th centuty.)

Mousehole, Cornwall: "Sea, Salts and Sail" - a biennuial maritime fetival, held since 1996. The festival is open to all traditional boats, and has a "Sail in company" along the shores of Mount's Bay on Saturday and Sunday. On shore, events include heritage walks, photographic displays, maritime skills, cooking, music and a range of other events and displays.

Cornwall: 28th June (St Peter’s Eve). St Peter is the patron saint of fishermen. Church towers in fishing villages were illuminated and bonfires, tar barrels and fireworks lit in celebration.

Scotland: Fires were lit in memory of St Peter. Fishermen in the Hebrides used to set sail today, regardless of the weather, as it was felt that the saint protected them.


St Monan (Scotland, Fife): First Saturday in July. St Monan’s Sea Queen Festival.

Tweedmouth (Northumberland): 3rd or 4th week. Crowning of Salmon Queen.

Polperro (Cornwall): St Peter is the patron saint of Polperro. A three-day festival feast and fair was held in St Peter’s honour on 10 July (Old Calendar).

Isle of Man: 16 July. A law passed in 1610 allowed for the herring fishing to begin on this day. At a later date it was allowed to start much earlier.

Wick (Scotland): Festival of the Herring Queen. The original gala lapsed in 1953 but has since been revived, although the ceremony is now the Gala week when a Gala Queen is crowned.

Eyemouth (Berwickshire): Late July. Herring Queen Festival. The festival dates back to 1939.


Grimsby: Fish Dock carnival held on Grimsby Docks.

Pittenweem, Fife: Fishing festival.


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.

Cockenzie (Fisherrow and Port Seton, Scotland): 3rd Friday in September. Fishermen’s Walk. The walk has now been abandoned in favour of a dinner-dance in the burgh hall.

Stonehaven (Grampian, Scotland): New Year’s Eve. Fireballs. Combustible material is made into balls enclosed in a wire mesh and held by means of wire strings. The balls are set alight and whirled around the heads of those in the parade until they reach the beach where the balls are flung into the sea. Prior to the 19th century the festival was a fishermen’s purification ritual, but with the decline of the local fishing fleet the custom has become one of a community hoping for future prosperity.

As with other topics on this website, do let the authors know of any incorrect details in the above, and we would be delighted to have details of events not included here.