Monday, 23 January 2017

The push and pull of changing times: a weekend in Whitby, by Natalie Reid

On Friday 13, January 2017, the first of our research journeys had us delving into the treasures of Doc Rowe’s archive, housed in the mythopoeic coastal town of Whitby.

Like children in a sweet shop, we gazed into the room with marvel and delight as Doc began to tell us stories behind his remarkable collection. The snug storeroom is a place of intrigue, full to the brim with footage, documentation and folkloric ephemera: towering film reels in their metal containers, bulging shelves of open reel tape, vintage cameras, long rows of video cassettes, books and boxes, carefully labelled with curious words such as Padstow Obby Oss and Haxey Hood, not to mention a doll-sized replica of the formidable Burryman of South Queensferry, decorated from head to toe in sticky burdock burrs and topped with a crown of flowers.

Encased within each box are photographs, old and new, of strange creatures dancing, people singing and musicians playing; captured moments of folk art performance, seasonal rituals and stories of celebration. Doc’s collection is diverse, exciting and I consider his work to be valuable in documenting the breadth of our cultural heritage in the British Isles. He shows passion and dedication towards the customs he records, not purely as a photographer, film maker and archivist, but Doc himself, has become an important part of the events he records. He is a storyteller, a trusted friend to those communities and in some cases, an integral character!

The Plough Stots' Day of Dance brought a crisp winter morning and a beautiful blue sky over the North York Moors. We joined Doc on his annual documentation of the festivities. From morning 'til evening, the long sword dancers of Goathland meander their way through the village, dancing for each and every household. In return, there are hot mugs of spiced cider, malt whisky and warmed mince pies, as well as a good few coins in the collection tin towards the building of a new community centre. Their custom not only has a deep-rooted connection to the people that belong to Goathland, but also to the land on which they live, for historically, the dance is believed to bring fertility to the land and plentiful crops come harvest time. The community may not depend quite so heavily on the yields of their land nowadays, but it is clear to see that today, there is much more to it than that. For me, the most memorable moments of the day were experiencing the warm generosity of people in the village, observing gratification in the dancers and musicians, the gesture of social outreach and celebration of life itself. In contemporary society, perhaps seasonal customs have developed new significances for people and their communities.

However, some customs still seem to be motivated by the influence of superstition. The planting of the Penny Hedge, for example, takes place in Whitby Harbour every Ascension Eve. According to 12th Century legend, by request of a fatally wounded hermit, a penance hedge, woven from hazel wood, should be planted into the low tide silt and it must withstand three tides, or the builders will forfeit their lands. We drifted past the seemingly delicate Penny Hedge on Sunday morning, eight months after its construction. It still stands, resisting the push and pull of the tides, as the tradition itself resists the push and pull of changing times.

The weekend left my thoughts in murmeration, captivated by curious characters conjured up by tradition bearers, the power of superstition and the commitment that helps to preserve our countries’ traditional heritage. From the flamboyant processions, to the discreet, almost secretive, ceremonies that Doc observes today, it is clear to see that his collection is not an archive of bygone customs, but a unique glimpse into our thriving present day culture.