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Ancient parish tradition 'beating the bounds' to be revived in Norwich

PUBLISHED: 10:56 06 May 2018

The Ancient Stonemasons' Guild Ceremony at the Town Hall in King's Lynn in 2017. At the front is Clerk of the Guild of St Stephen and St George, Colin Howey. Picture: Ian Burt

The Ancient Stonemasons' Guild Ceremony at the Town Hall in King's Lynn in 2017. At the front is Clerk of the Guild of St Stephen and St George, Colin Howey. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2017

Beating The Bounds – an ancient, almost forgotten and fun-filled colourful custom from another time - is being revived in Norwich city centre next week. Derek James reports.

The Rev Wynter Blathwayt, vicar of St Andrew's Church, beating the bounds in the Norfolk News Company Composing Room in Norwich in late 1950s or early 1960s.The Rev Wynter Blathwayt, vicar of St Andrew's Church, beating the bounds in the Norfolk News Company Composing Room in Norwich in late 1950s or early 1960s.

The Stonemason’s Guild of St Stephen and St George, based at St Clement’s Church, Colegate, in Norwich has been actively re-enacting street processions and dramatic performances in recent years.

Their colourful and enthusiastic displays through the city streets have been admired and enjoyed by all and the stonemasons and their apprentices have brought some ancient rites back into the public eye and reminded us of ceremonies which were commonplace in days of old.

Now members of the guild will be “beating” the boundary of their parish on Thursday

May 10 wearing their traditional aprons and unique white box hats thanks to a good deal of research by their clerk Colin Howey and historian and author David Berwick who wrote a fascinating book on the subject.

He has surveyed the area and discovered that much of the historic boundary line can still be found and followed – although a 250-metre stretch where it follows the middle of the river may prove a touch tricky!

The roots of beating, or perambulation, of church boundaries dates back to the early Roman observances associated with the annual processions to the shrine of their ancient god, Robigalia. The festival fell on April 25 and involved a procession in Rome.

The Christian origin of circuiting religious boundaries would seem to have started in France although it is not known when the beating of parish boundaries began in England.

But we can say it was practised as long ago as around 1100 because of the amazing carved front in Burnham Deepdale Church showing a figure standing in a field of corn holding a boundary-marking flag pole.

David discovered May 10 was a popular date for beating parish boundaries in Norwich so this year’s revival on that day is very appropriate.

The whole idea was to perambulate the boundaries every two or three years to make sure that the parish officials were collecting the parish rate throughout the year.

The income went towards paying for the parish constable, the upkeep of the churchyard and pavements and other services. The ceremony also reminded everyone where the parish boundary line ran – and warned neighbouring parishes to keep off!

Owing to the often complex contours of many parish boundaries in Georgian Norwich many residents might otherwise not always know for certain which parish they lived in and when it came to registering births, baptisms, marriages and deaths.

As David points out: “We also have to bear in mind that there were no maps available to the general public at this time so the civic pageant of the boundary processions, which incorporated physical beating upon the walls of buildings on the boundary line, all helped to create a mental memory map of the various boundary limits.

“These public ceremonies were very necessary therefore to regularly sort out the prevailing jumble of parishes which were so characteristic of Georgian Norwich. There were more than 40 parishes and none had a simple definable border – it was a nightmare to easily sort one area from another,” he added.

In the 21st century there are still dozens of boundary markers on buildings in central Norwich. They are rather time-warped, belonging to another time but they are of great historical interest and importance.

The hope is that the boundary-beating procession next week will recapture the colourful spectacle which was once seen so regularly on our streets, lanes and alleyways.

Our ancient forebears made sure that their public perambulations were accompanied by singing and general merriment, along with more than a little prankish tomfoolery. Soaking people with water, giving choirboys the “bumps” and beating the boundary markers with willow wands or “osiers” – it was all part of the ceremony... along with visiting local inns.

David has discovered and worked out that in St Clement’s in 1821, 11 hostelries were visited over two days and no fewer than 775 pints of beer were consumed by the good folk of the parish that year. Sadly, all the inns have gone so there are no plans to emulate that feat this year.

The Beating the Bounds ceremony will take place at St Clement’s, Colegate, Norwich, on Thursday May 10 at 2pm. The best place to view the ancient custom will be outside the church and along Colegate towards St George’s Street and on Fye Bridge. The circuit, down alleyways and lanes, will take about 40/50 minutes.

It will be certainly worth a look. A traditional blast from the past.... thanks to the stonemasons.

Beating the Bounds in Georgian Norwich by David Berwick is still in print and is highly recommended. It is available from the author who still gives illustrated talks on this fascinating topic. He can be reached at davidaberwick@gmail.com

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