Ambleside rush-bearing a proud tradition that continues to this day

PUBLISHED: 10:25 06 July 2018

Ambleside rushbearing (c) Janine John, Lake District Gems

Ambleside rushbearing (c) Janine John, Lake District Gems


Ambleside epitomises the cultural landscape that was key in the Lake District being awarded World Heritage status

Ambleside rushbearing (c) Janine John, Lake District GemsAmbleside rushbearing (c) Janine John, Lake District Gems

Joan Newby admits to not quite remembering the first time she took part in the rush-bearing procession in her home village of Ambleside. Well, she was just two-and-a-half years old when she clutched her basket of flowers and joined the hundreds of local children upholding a tradition that goes back at least to the 1700s.

And now she is aged 96, in full grasp of her faculties and helping organise this year’s event, taking place on July 7. She is also the event’s unofficial archivist, having gathered pictures going back to the earliest days of photography. The event always happens on the first Saturday in July. And Joan has been involved in nearly all of those from 1924 onwards. She knows she took part that year, as she has a photo of herself doing so.

She only missed a couple of years when joining the war effort by wiring bomber planes in Chadderton, Manchester, during World War Two. Rush-bearing is a festival celebration associated with the ancient custom of annually replacing the rushes on the earth floors of churches, rushes being a general term for rushes, reeds and sweet smelling grasses. Once widespread, very few places now continue this tradition. Another is Grasmere just up the A591, which generates considerable, but friendly, rivalry.

Although the church plays a leading role, today rush-bearing is a community event, organized by an ad hoc team of volunteers. Some of that community support was nearly lost when the traditional flavour was seen to be undermined by allowing back-packers and others clutching bouquets from the local shops, some still in branded plastic bags, to join in the procession.

Ambleside rushbearing (c) Janine John, Lake District GemsAmbleside rushbearing (c) Janine John, Lake District Gems

‘It had become a bit of a rabble,’ said Mrs Newby, obviously delighted at the revival of a more traditional approach.

Last year, the new chair of the organising team, Sue Cooper, insisted on going back to basics and only allowing children carrying rushes to join the procession.

This throws up challenges, with some participants and their parents getting up before dawn to plunder the reeds from wherever they can.

‘A lot of villagers were so upset at the way the rush-bearing was going they didn’t turn out to see it. So we decided to go back to making it a community event. What do you know? People really do like tradition,’ said Mrs Cooper.

Detail of recently restored Rushbearing mural in St Mary�s Church, painted by Gordon Ransome in 1944Detail of recently restored Rushbearing mural in St Mary�s Church, painted by Gordon Ransome in 1944

More than 100 children took part and thousands lined the streets and the market place to watch, applaud and join the celebrations. ‘It was quite a sight,’ added Mrs Newby.

The bearings vary from large ornate devices such as hoops, staves and crosses to simple sheaves carried by children. Pride of place goes to the Harp of David. Composed mainly of rushes cut from nearby lake shores, they are highly decorated with mosses, flowers and greenery.

This year a rush cart is being added to the procession, after one of Mrs Newby’s six great grandchildren, from Saddleworth, saw something similar in a Morris dancing display.

The Ambleside parade tours the village to the accompaniment of a brass band. Once the Market Place is reached, the bearings are raised in the air to the cry ‘Up, Bearings’ and the Ambleside Rush-bearing Hymn is sung before the procession carries on to St Mary’s Church by about 3.15pm.

Sue Cooper and Joan NewbySue Cooper and Joan Newby

St Mary’s Church has its own tribute to the rush-bearing with a mural dominating the west wall.

It was painted and given by Gordon Ransome, an associate of the Royal College of Arts, the students of which were evacuated to Ambleside during the Second World War. The work was done in 1944 and completed in four months, with studies of identifiable local residents and students depicted. The 62 figures are arranged in four groups, showing four episodes of the procession.

After a short service, gingerbread is distributed to the children, a hangover from the 1880s when a local benefactor wanted to reward the children, with what was, for some, the only sweet they would see in the year. Mrs Newby says that rush-bearing was originally held over three days and would be the only holiday in the village apart from Christmas.

This year it culminates on Kelwick Fields with sports like sack-racing, egg and spoon races and three-legged races for the very young.

The older children, up to 16-year-olds, have a fell race over Loughrigg Fell to Todd Crag and back.

Later in July another event captures the true nature of Lakes culture, with its roots also going back to the 17th century.

On the last Thursday of the month, this year July 26, Ambleside Sports takes over Rydal Park, half a mile out of town, north on the A591.

For five hours, thousands of visitors will see Fell and Guide racing, hound trailing, Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling – for men, children and women – grass track cycling, and track running races. A highlight is the judging of the embroidery on the wrestlers’ long johns. And there is a world championship for 14-stone wrestlers. There are also food and craft stalls, a bar, children’s rides and a climbing wall.

President elect Jak Hirst says the fell running has become so popular for the juniors, they have introduced an under-nines guides race for the first time this year.

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