Dr Derek J Ripley recounts an ancient Dunsop ritual
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 June 2014 | UPDATED: 17:51 19 January 2016
It is doubtful there is even a grain of truth in this report from our resident historian Dr Derek J. Ripley
This month I shall focus on a curious custom which originated in Lancashire and which may be of interest to those of you, who, like me this year are planning to take what I believe is termed a ‘staycation’. I make no bones about preferring to holiday in this charming county, rather than repeat my mistake of booking what I understood to be a recuperative break on the holiday isle of Ibiza. Throughout our long weekend we were constantly harangued by what appeared to be teenagers offering us the opportunity to share time with them in an, as yet unbuilt, villa. Furthermore, our evening’s dancing was also repeatedly ruined when the dance floor apparently had to be frequently cleaned. I have no idea why the proprietors could not clean their floor at a reasonable hour, instead of when people were dancing, or, indeed, what cleansing product they were using, but it resulted in the entire area being completely obliterated with foaming bubbles for a good part of both the Valeta and the Military two-step.
If your home country travels take you as far as the moors by Dunsop it is there, three days after the fourth full moon after Easter that you are likely to encounter the ‘Grindley sand counters’.
All participants (and there are up to a thousand of such, both male and female) costume themselves in traditional, black tunics and tights and sit, facing each, other across long, elaborately decorated trestle tables, or ‘quoils’, whose ancient markings are by now indecipherable.
At a given signal (a light cough by the wife of the Mayor on the occasion I caught the festival), a huge mound of sand is shovelled on to the ‘dreck’ or centre of the tables. A non-participant onlooker informed me that the sand is baked dry for several days in a ceremonial oven adjacent to the rather handsome Pizza Palace across the square.
The participants present their tweezers in a time-honoured ritual, before they set to their task, which is to transfer the largest pile of sand, individually, by tweezers, to their ‘Tromble’ in a given space of time.
As with all ancient customs and traditions, this one is steeped in history.
My research shows that this contest dates back to the 18th Century, when two rival families, the Turnbulls and the Houghtons were disputing the ownership of a tract of land which separated their two properties.
For generations their fierce rivalry consumed all their time and energies until in 1706 matters came to a head when they presented their case to the stipendiary magistrate, Mr Justice John Kavanagh (the legendary ‘Thumbscrew Judge’).
In a verdict worthy of Shakespeare’s Portia or even Judge Judy, Kavanagh decreed that the land should be divided exactly equally between the two parties, with neither entitled to ‘so much as a grain of sand more than the other.’
The village folk (who had been intrigued and inconvenienced by this enmity for many years) loudly cheered this impossible pronouncement and swarmed on to the disputed land, secure in the knowledge that it could never be legally owned. They dragged with them a trestle table, where they mocked the landowners by pretending to count out the grains of sand.
Thus was a tradition born and celebrated annually, ever more elaborately, for over 300 years.
Strangely, although the re-enactment has been maintained for centuries, nothing is now known of the original, disputing families.