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Folk Traditions Are What Makes Britain Weird

'Ceremony' is an exhibition about whatever is going on in the Great British Countryside.

by Dean Kissick
28 July 2014, 11:40am

James Pearson-Howes – Tar Barrels

Britain is fucking weird – and nowhere is this better showcased than in our folk festivals taking place all over the country throughout the year, with hardly any of us noticing. Except photographer James Pearson-Howes and menswear designer Liam Hodges, who met through their mutual interest in old rural rituals and are now collaborating on an exhibition of that theme at London’s Ditto Press.

Having both spent some time travelling around the country to witness unlikely spectacles such as Whittlesea Straw Bear, they compiled photos, videos and clothes inspired by those experiences into Ceremony, which is set to open this coming Thursday. In light of that, I caught up with them to find out what exactly goes on in the Great British countryside.

When I was in primary school we used to dance around a maypole, and when I was older my mates and I would visit the stone circles in the woods where people still sacrificed animals. How did you first become interested in Britain's old traditions and rituals?
I’m from Dorset, which is Morris Dancing heaven but I was never that impressed by the dance. Later, I stumbled across a Morris Dancing group called Hunters Moon, who are visually so much more striking – with blackened faces and black leather jackets with tatters, and phallic things on their hats. So I started researching and someone told me to look at Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s Folk Archive, and that was amazing. I’d never really known what folk was before, but it’s crazy, colourful, dark, surreal. Folk isn’t really sung about because most British people don’t keep traditions. No one gives a shit about them really.

Liam: When I was studying fashion I started looking into Morris Dancing, and one of the books I would look at was James’s. I grew up in Kent so I’d seen Morris Men at the Sweeps Festival in Rochester, and there was always a nice beer festival on the side which was such a good laugh. It made me want to go and see more. So I went up to Whittlesea in the Fens for the Straw Bear Festival, and started documenting it for my own research.

James Pearson-Howes – Hunting of Earl Rone

What happens there?
James: Let's not beat around the bush, most people just go to these things to get pissed. But I’m sure it is rooted in pagan fertility rituals.

Liam: Nowadays it’s just a celebration of local culture I guess.

James: A lot of these places are tiny but everyone turns up and it really does bind the village together. I get jealous when I go down there. I think, “This must be great to be a part of!” It must feel good to be a part of a wider community at an event that’s not money-driven.

I think that’s why a lot of people don’t know about these festivals: because there’s no money involved. They’re not advertised, you don’t have to pay to go – you only have to get up off your arse to find out about them and I like that. Folk’s for the people and it’s by the people.

James Pearson-Howes – Burryman

What actually happens at the Whittlesea Straw Bear?
James: There’s a man in a straw bear outfit, and he is paraded around the town. It’s a huge costume and he’s stuck inside it for the best part of the day. It’s surreal as fuck. 

Liam: When I first arrived in Whittlesea everything seemed fairly normal. And then you see a hobby horse stood in the pub with his paws up, and everyone else just squeezing 'round him. You go round the corner and there’s this 25-person parade coming towards you – they’re playing music and stop at certain places, like pub car parks, to dance around for a bit and everyone will watch and cheer.

On other streets, there’ll be different teams of Morris Dancers and Mummers plays with some bloke in a dress telling a story while everyone else is acting it out with weird wooden animals and puppets and stuff. By the end of the day, there’s 100 people going down the road and playing music. It’s really fantastic.

James: When I started the books, my aim was to show how exciting Britain actually is. It’s weird and surreal and comic as well.

Liam Hodges – collage inspired by Morris Men

What are the weirdest ceremonies you’ve attended?
James: I went to see the Burryman in Scotland, where a man parades around a small town wearing a balaclava and covered entirely in burr. Burr is like Scottish vegetation that sticks together – they stick thousands and thousands all over his body and he walks around the whole day, drinking whisky. You can only see his eyes and his little mouth, and there’s no way out of the costume.

He can’t move his arms very low, and he’s carted around with these two sticks and two people to help him out. They take him to these small council estates and the dogs are really spinning out at him, and the children come out with mouths wide open. Imagine if you were a kid – you’d be like, “What the fuck is going on over there?” 

James Pearson-Howes – Haxey Hood

Liam: It’s almost like being at Disneyland isn’t it?

James: Yeah, and that’s the magic of it. Another really weird one was The Hunting of the Earl of Rone, which takes place in North Devon. The story is that the villagers are hunting this guy, who is wanted by the constabulary for following some woman around. Every year they chase him into the woods and find him in this sack with some bread around him, wearing a really weird shamanic kind of mask. They stick him on a donkey and parade him round the town; all the townspeople are dressed in white and they dance around, and then they chuck him in the sea.

Liam Hodges – collage inspired by Morris Men

And what are the most dangerous ceremonies you’ve attended?
James: I’ve been to one called Uppies and Downies in West Cumbria. They’ve got this ball that they paint, and they chuck it in the middle of this massive scrum of about 500 men that goes wherever it wants in the village: over cars, through people’s gardens, into rivers. That was fucking mental.

There’s also Tar Barrels in Devon, where they take these old beer barrels and line them with tar and hay, then set fire to one and take turns to run down the main street with it until it disintegrates. Young kids will try it – it’s a real kind of rite of passage there.

That’s the other side of folk; these festivals that are somehow able to escape health and safety. I love the anarchy of that shit. Lewes Bonfire is like that too –  you can light fireworks, and burn effigies of parliament and the pope.

James Pearson-Howes – Lewes Bonfire

There’s a real fascination with old, secret traditions in popular culture at the moment – like in True Detective, Kill List, Game of Thrones – but they’re portrayed as evil. Why do you think that is?
James: Well, stories need darkness in order to be gripping. I’ve seen rituals of throwing a man in a river or grabbing women to make them pregnant. Obviously, these things have a dark element.

Liam: But it's only seen as a dark element in today’s society. When these ceremonies were created they were more of a celebration of life. The world was just looked at differently back then. I think folk teaches you to enjoy things a little bit more.

Ceremony will run from the 31st of July to the 24th of August at Ditto Press, 4 Benyon Road, N1 5TY.

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James Pearson-Howes
Liam Hodges