About 3 years ago as of the time I write this, back in 2015, I was driving home after a particularly long day of work, when I was waved down, along with every other motorist, by a couple of men in fluorescent jackets at the entrance to the small village of West Witton in North Yorkshire. I initially assumed that there’d been some sort of accident that had blocked the road that runs through it – there are some nasty corners on the village’s Western approach – and quickly got to thinking about how big a detour I’d have to take, when one of them approached my window and explained the situation. I was told that the road had been temporarily shut for half an hour due to a local festival being held and that I could either wait or join in the proceedings. Others opted to stay in their vehicles in that curmudgeonly way that some people have of dealing with light inconvenience, but I thought I may as well investigate – surprised that living so close by, I’d not even heard of this event before. I didn’t take any photos, but had a good time witnessing a little piece of local tradition, and now that I’m somewhat proficient with a camera, I decided to return and properly document the 2018 festival, in all it’s bizarre glory.
Like all good British festivals it combines, drinking, singing, lynching and immolation in equal measure, and what generally happens is this: Every year on the Saturday closest to August 24th, a masked, straw-filled effigy of a man known only as ‘Bartle’ is paraded by villagers around the streets of West Witton while shouting cryptic doggerel verses, bound for a small patch of ground next to some dry-stone wall, against which he’s laid, before being subsequently knifed in the chest and set alight while onlookers sing in triumph.
Here’s a rather rough recording I made of the verses shouted:
And if you can’t make it out (and I can’t say I blame you), here’s the transcription:
At Penhill crags he tore his rags
At Hunter’s thorn he blew his horn
At Capplebank Stee he brok’ his knee
At Grassgill Beck, he brok’ his neck
At Waddam’s End he couldn’t fend
At Grassgill End we’ll make his end
Shout lads shout!
The references are all local landmarks, mentioned in descending order of altitude, seeming to suggest Bartle fell from the top of Penhill, before being finished off close to the village. As with a great many folk customs, the origins of the this one are hazy, as practices and stories have metamorphosed and blurred over the intervening centuries since the tradition’s inception. Numerous theories abound over exactly who Bartle was and what he’d done to deserve such a fate: I’ve seen speculative links that he represents the Penhill Giant of local legend, the village priest – chased and burned by it’s residents for reasons unknown, a prolific local sheep rustler, and possibly a scapegoat for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre that occurred during the Reformation. The mystery is all part of the fun, but if I had to take a guess, I’d say the sheep thief is the most likely of these – the land around Penhill is prime grazing territory, and it makes sense that he’d be caught and chased before being on the receiving end of some swift mob justice. The similarity between the names Bartle and (St.) Bartholomew is curious too – possibly, whatever event occurred to incite the custom, fell near the Saint’s Feast day, and his name was taken as a suitable substitute?
I like seeing these small, rural traditions kept alive – No-one’s quite sure why they’re doing it, only that it was important enough for the last generation to carry on, so they’ll continue to do likewise – echoing the ghosts of the past, into the present in an ever-changing ritual. Check back in another few hundred years, and it’ll probably have mutated again- maybe with a robot Bartle – although hopefully there’ll still be fire. And drink. And probably lasers too – they’re still futuristic right?