I WAS THERE WHEN . . - Part Four

Rushbearing takes place each summer in Ambleside, Grasmere, Warcop and Musgrave as if by Royal decree; nobody actually decides whether or not to have it, but some unwritten rule of tradition dictates that the procession and service which re-enacts the annual laying of a new rush floor for the parish church will take place on a given day, even if its a bad year for rushes or the ceremony clashes with Ladies Finals at Wimbledon.

Indeed, tradition is still of such importance in a fast-changing century, that it seems more vital than ever to observe the customs of past generations. But the tradition has to be correct - and no better way to ensure things are done properly than to listen to those who remember earlier Rushbearings from years ago and who can advise on the present, in case any proposed changes in proceedure should stray too far from the original.

This last in the series, which has looked through individual eyes at special events, will concentrate entirely on Rushbearings past, when children began to prepare for the great day at school, sometimes weeks in advance with a craft lesson:

"We did all manner of things, handicrafts with paper and all sorts. We used to go down to the park - there's quite a rushy, reedy bit in the park and we frequently made visits, fairly regularly, and we used to cut these rushes as part of our lesson, just for quarter of an hour or so, and then we used to come back and cut bits of paper and thread them and do all sorts. When I think about Rushbearing, I think about all these, they were like one of these Hawaiian hoops, you know."

But what were they used for? Somebody else remembered:

"They decorated the windows, they threaded a piece cut from a rush, one circle of tissue, one rush, one circle of tissue, done with a fine needle."

Special grasses were also gathered:

"Well, the whole school on a fine day used to go down to the park and pick what they call "tickley grass", that very fine frizzy grass and sometimes it wasn't out at the right time if we had a bad summer, and we had to wait and wait and thought we were never going to get it. Then in the end it would come out and off we used to go, wellingtons and all, down the park and pick these, the whole school....now the rushes - they got their own rushes for their own Rushbearings, and they had to get the water lilies from Rydal and some special rushes. I don't know who it was that went, but somebody went in a boat; it was a man from Ambleside and he and another man took a boat out on to Rydal to get the rushes."

Bearings were heavier and had to be kept very moist with wet moss so that the flowers wouldn't die en route to Church:

"The bearings are not what they were. They all had the base of a wooden cross which was covered with moss and the idea was that the moss was damped and kept your flowers alive. They've got staves now, which are light and easy to carry, but they don't make the Church as beautiful because the flowers are dead by the time you've carried them round. Fathers were handy men; they made these crosses for us with a base too, so that you could put it down when your arms got tired. And they were heavy if you'd damped your moss by the time you'd walked up Smithy Brow!"

There was another gradual change in the making of bearings - the decline of the large country house with its resident gardener:

"The gardener would come with masses and masses of flowers, and the ladies would come and make lots of the church bearings...they gathered you up, these kind ladies, and said, 'Do help yourself to my flowers!'

Nowadays, children in their teens in Ambleside don't usually want to walk in the procession, but in years past,older people took part:

"I think the difference was that more schoolchildren went, perhaps a little bit older. Because lots of ones that get to thirteen and fourteen now, you don't see too many of them. It seems as though the younger ones have increased all the time. But everyone used to take them then, there was some quite elderly people used to take them, used to carry them for years. There were lots of characters I know that carried them all their life, they'd carried them since they were a boy and never stopped. There was one old gentleman that lived at the bottom of Compston, a man called Roger Fleming and he was a tailor and when he died he'd be about 90. And he always carried a rushbearing, and when he walked in one of the Ambleside rushbearing processions when he was a small boy, he walked with William Wordsworth. And I do believe on one occasion, it was reported, that they went all the way to Rydal Mount, from the old church of St Anne's."

When the procession used to arrive back at Church, the grown-ups were asked to wait outside by one well-remembered Head Mistress of the Infants, Miss Routledge, until every child was in place:

"She wouldn't have an adult in the service until every child was seated. She was brave enough to say, 'Children first!'"

After the service, during which not a head turned, nor a whisper was heard, the children received their gingerbread, and the Rushbearing Sports took place the following Monday, or Tuesday if wet:

"There was racing, egg and spoon racing, three-legged racing, and hoop and sack racing for little children."

"The juniors and seniors were lovely because a man rang his bell to summon us - we didn't have whistles and guns and things."

Tea was Hawkshead Whigs or buns - and not a glass of squash in sight:

"Tea, no orange juice. Tea. We all drank tea. And after the Sports the Band stayed in the Park, and it was the adults' turn, they danced. We always had the Band until a few years ago. And they came and played, "See The Conquering Hero" when the first boy came in the fell race, always. But long ago, you had to collect your bearings after you'd been to Church, and it had to be wooden, and then it was taken to, I gather, where Greenbank is now, and nailed to the trestle tables and you stood or sat beside your own bearing."

This year, Ambleside Rushbearing Sports were held on Rushbearing Saturday itself, rather than the following Monday. But, far from being a break with tradition, the change was a re-instatement of the Victorian custom when the Sports took place on Greenbank straight after the church service.Perhaps the Greenbank days were too far in the past for anyone to recall being there; but it didn't stop somebody from saying "I know what happened - because my grandmother was there...!"