Midsummer Cushion Ceremony, CambridgeshireTo the south of the church of St Botolph in Helpston, a village now in Cambridgeshire though formerly part of Northants , sits John Clare’s grave. The peasant poet is these days regarded as one of the outstanding voices of the 19th century, though in his day his success was limited, not helped by his losing struggle with mental illness.
Clare loved the nature he saw in the English countryside, the beauty of the flowers and the woods. It is fitting that a very localised folk custom survives in Helpston because of him. The poet admired the miniature gardens created in midsummer in his district, flowers and other decorations worked into a small square of turf, the resultant displays known as ‘midsummer cushions’, placed prominently on window ledges or in front of houses as a celebration of nature.
The children of Helpston now keep this custom alive by creating the tiny portable gardens at the primary school named for the poet in the village, and on his birthday, July 13, or at least during the weekend nearest it, placing the cushions around his grave. By this very act they give the lie to two of his most famous lines, written about Helpston:
‘Unknown to grandeur and unknown to fame
No minstrel boasting to advance thy name’
More British Folk Customs?