Ambleside Rush-bearing, CumbriaThe British, especially British church-goers, love a good procession, even if our weather is sometimes not conducive to such events. One such outing of formerly practical significance that has become a symbol of community and continuity with our past is rush-bearing.
Nowadays churches have flagged floors, floor-boards or some other civilised covering, but not too long ago most had dirt floors, on which for warmth and to keep the mud at bay rushes, dried grass, and at least where the gentry were found flowers and herbs would be strewn, usually just once a year. The provision of these rushes became an important duty, with monies left or even land bequeathed by worshippers in order to supply them.
Ceremonial rush-bearing, bringing the floor-covering to the church, still goes on in various towns and villages in the North, especially Cumbria. Ambleside has a noted procession keeping the tradition alive. In fact the processions seem to have begun even before the floors of some churches were flagged, so they are not just an alternative to the practical provision of rushes but a continued celebration of the task.
The Ambleside procession begins from the local primary school at around 2.30, winding its route around the settlement until the participants arrive at the market square. Here the rushes are raised in the air - for the many children involved perhaps a handful of rushes with a few flowers, but for some adults 'burdens', or 'bearings' which are more elaborate and weighty designs, some using wooden frames covered with posies and interwoven grasses.
After the raising a special hymn written by the Rev Owen Lloyd in 1835 is sung by the procession and onlookers alike if they know the words.
Some three quarters of an hour after the walk began it ends at St Mary's Church, where a brief ceremony is held before getting on to more important matters - certainly in the eyes of the young children - namely the gift of a piece of proper locally made gingerbread (see our food heroes section for information on this Cumbrian delicacy), and these days of a few other energy restoratives, as after the church service there are sports and games for the youngsters at the local playing field.
More British Folk Customs?