I had never heard of Rushbearing until I moved to the Ambleside area many years ago. My first introduction was when my son was young and I was informed that it was traditional to take part in the rushbearing parade with a decorated pram, oh and the best place to collect rushes very early in the morning was at Waterhead on the shores of Windermere Lake. It was a sharp but enjoyable learning curve, and my introduction to a very historic tradition.
Ambleside and Grasmere Rushbearing vary slightly but the general concept has remained the same for many centuries. It is a relic from the days when churches and other buildings had earthen floors. Rushes were collected from beside the lake and strewn on the floor for cleanliness and warmth. The custom is no longer needed as Grasmere church has now had a flagged floor since 1841, but has been preserved as a village festival. It is the one thing that all villagers take part in from the youngest to the oldest.
Even the teenagers take part with pride. It may be the allure of Rushbearing sports and Gingerbread afterwards but even the boys hold the decorated floral bearings high.
The two uses for the reeds and rushes show two different strands in the festival history.Firstly, carrying floral decorations in a procession had it’s origins in either the Roman pageant in honour of the Goddess Flora, or in even older Celtic summer rituals. Secondly the aforementioned more practical reason of carpeting the church floor.
I collect postcards of Grasmere Rushbearing and this one shows how little the ceremony has changed over the years.
While personal bearings tend to be made early in the morning, the larger bearings are a real labour of love and take several days to work on. This year will prove a particular trial as we have had an extremely warm and dry summer. Rushes are easiest to work when they are not so dry and therefore more pliable. The first bearing in the procession is the Gold Cross. This is made from at least 400 blooms.
Other bearings are simply “set off” with flowers. Originally it was taboo to use anything other than wild flowers, but gradually over the years cultivated flowers have appeared. They make the rushbearings look brighter and with so many wild flower species threatened it makes sense.
The procession starts at the village school in Stock Lane and winds it’s way round the village to the village green where there is a short service and singing.
Many of the bearings are traditional emblems that appear year after year. Moses in the bullrushes, St. Oswalds hand, with the message “May this hand never perish”, and the serpent (satan), and hoops, (symbols of eternity). The one I like just says “Peace” and was introduced after the First World War.
A maypole for the younger children to parade with, makes a lovely spectacle. (aren’t policemen getting younger all the time!”.
The thing that makes Grasmere Rushbearing unique are the Rushbearing Maidens. Usually chosen from the older girls in school, six are chosen to carry a hand woven linen sheet, trimmed with rushes, as the focal point of the procession.
After processing round the village, bearers, led by the clergy, choir, rushbearing maidens with their sheet, the banner of St Oswald and the band playing what is known as “Jimmy Dawson’s March” the procession arrives at St Oswald’s church for a short service. Three Rushbearing hymns are sung. “The hymn for St Oswald”, “The hymn for the Rushbearers” and “The hymn for the Rushbearing” by Canon Rawnsley one of the founders of the National Trust.
In Grasmere Village Hall there is a beautiful painting of the Rushbearing by Frank Bramley,R.A. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1913. The painting is in the care of the National Trust and sadly out of sight most of the time behind wooden shutters for security. Every individual in the painting sat for their portrait. Mr Bramley lived at Tongue Ghyll in Grasmere for many years. There is a tablet in his memory in the Church above the belfry door.
Like these people taking photos, hopefully one day, you too might experience this wonderful piece of living history, unique to Grasmere Village. And a final word. Yes some of these bearings are extremely heavy!.
Grasmere Rushbearing is on the 16th July 2011