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On the second Friday August The Burry Man, decorated in burrs walks the boundaris of south Queensferry, Lothian calling in pubs on his way.

On the second Friday of August the Burry Man, decorated in burrs, walks the boundaries of South Queensferry, Lothian, calling in pubs along the way. Here John (Jacko) Hart – underneath the burrs – is taking a break with his helpers Billy Scott and David Scott in South Queensferry Ex Servicemans Club. Hart was the local grave digger in 1971.

Celebrating British folk traditions

Like other galleries which have been unlocked, Lucy Bell Gallery has opened its door again with a suitable May exhibition of idiosyncratic British customs and traditions. HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went along to learn more about and to wonder at the extraordinary antics of the British.

In Hastings we have our own Jack in the Green ceremony: the ‘Jack’ is released early on May Bank Holiday morning to parade through the town accompanied by his bogies, chimney sweeps, plus bizarre add-ons of belly dancers, various ubiquitous drumming groups and others. They process up towards the Castle where the Jack is  killed to release the spirit of Spring.

Prince Charming and his bride, Gawthorpe May Day, Gawthorpe, Yorkshire England 1974.

Prince Charming and his bride, Gawthorpe May Day, Gawthorpe, Yorkshire, 1974.

Homer Sykes, a Canadian/British photographer, became intrigued with the idea of these traditions after reading about the Britannia Coconut dancers in In Britain magazine. He began his career taking pictures in colour until on a visit to New York’s MOMA he discovered the impact of black and white from photographers like Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand.

Martin Parr has captured the cultural landscape of photographing the British at leisure, to the extent that he seems to have blotted out other photographers who have tiptoed into that area with different and gentler perpectives. Some criticism has been levelled at Parr that he likes to poke fun at his subjects, making them seem comic or particularly bizarre. That is open to discussion, whether it is intentional or simply that the chosen subjects’ behaviour attracts that interpretation.

Sykes’ approach is straight reportage. He photographs the event as it is, allowing the action and people to speak for themselves. There is no sense of mining the comical or grotesque; the event is what it is in all its unruliness and chaos. By capturing these rituals and traditions he is showing part of British life in its connection, community, history, fun and individuality – wrapped up in a certain degree of madness.

Photographed in the 1970s, his work shows a very different era in clothes and hair styles. A time before the change in culture of relative wealth, sophistication, the introduction of the internet and multiple television channels, the children show an innocence, seen standing, watching in wonder at the adult shenanigans.

Farthing Bundles Fern Street Settlement London east end Bow.

Farthing Bundles: Fern Street Settlement, Bow, London’s East End. Irene Wood giving out the Farthing Bundles.

The turn of the century saw the founding of a number of settlements in the poorest parts of London. The Fern Street Settlement was set up on behalf of Devon Junior School in 1907 by the school’s headmistress and warden, Miss Clara Grant. She started an imaginative scheme known as ‘farthing bundles’; any child who had a farthing and could walk  under a wooden arch forty-eight inches high without stooping received a bundle which usually contained note-pads, pencils, small toys, pieces of string, etc.

At its peak 700-800 children would line up to file through the arch. By the 1970s the number had dwindled to between 15 and 30 and it limped on, according to different accounts, into the 1960s or even the 1980s.

May Day at Dawn. The Minehead Hobby Horse, Somerset. 1971

May Day at Dawn. The Minehead Hobby Horse, Somerset. 1971

If he had to choose one of the events, Sykes would choose the Minehead Hobby Horse. He had slept in his car the night before; waking up at sunrise he followed the Minehead Sailors Horse team up to Whitecross “where the Hobby Horse bows three times to the sun. On the way back the Hobby Horse got ahead of the band and I noticed that a young boy had come out to see the horse, he looks a little surprised, the sun is breaking over the top of a house and there is a certain stillness to the image. Just two frames and this one, if I may say so, is perfect.”

Cheese Rolling, Coopers Hill, Brockworth, Gloucestershire, England 1975.

Cheese rolling, Coopers Hill, Brockworth, Gloucestershire, 1975.

It is surprising that Health and Safety haven’t elbowed their way more frequently into events – particularly since fire, smoke  and booze seem to feature strongly in the festivities. For instance, the early May Cheese Rolling Festival in Brockworth, Gloucestershire featuring an eight-pound double gloucester cheese released on Cooper’s Hill has come under scrutiny. At the count of three the cheese is released, at four the locals pound down the hill in an attempt to catch it. Because of the 45 degree steep gradient the custom was officially banned in 2010 but intrepid supporters are keen to continue the ritual.

It is reassuring that in these days with supposed sophisticated technology the extraordinarily idiosyncratic nature of these British traditions is still celebrated and enjoyed, without extreme patriotism.

All images © Homer Sykes.

Once a Year  – Homer Sykes is at The Lucy Bell Gallery, 46 Norman Road, TN38 0EJ until 26 June 2021. Opening times Thursday, Friday, Sunday, 11am-4pm. Saturday 11am-5pm. Homer Sykes will be in the gallery on Monday 17 May, 6-8pm, for a signing of his revised book, Once a Year.


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Posted 12:09 Wednesday, May 12, 2021 In: Photography

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