Grolling

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The Hobby Horse of Stow Pawley

All across the country, there are small pockets of people who periodically break from the routines of their daily lives; the demands of twenty-first century existence and the ‘all-seeing eye’ of wi-fi connectivity, mobile phone signals, Twitter and other modern distractions of that ilk. For some, this is a deliberate act of defiance, others may see it as a pleasant respite from the hurly-burly of modern life.

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The Straw Bear of Turlington

But there is another group who meet to continue the ancient practices, traditions and rituals that maintain the long-established links with time and place. They continue the links between a community and their environment, and form a long chain of folk practice and local rites, that can seem a little odd to modern minds, and those whose misfortune it is to live beyond the boundaries of such archaic practices.

Soddenham is one such place with a number of unique traditions that tie it to its past, from the very founding of the village itself, the blessing of the bridges in March, and the annual ‘Oppen Eve’ festival[1] celebrating the death of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. All of these events will be revealed here during the coming months, but for now we wish to introduce the ancient practice of ‘Grolling’.

Grolling has a long tradition in East Anglia but its origins lay a little further afield in Holland. Indeed it is thought that the word grolling was taken from the Dutch ‘groeiland’ meaning emerging land, and originally applied to the early drainage of the Fens, which were inspired and instructed by those masters of water management from the Low Countries.

The earliest mention of grolling in print is a single reference in Defoe’s ‘Complete English Tradesmen’ in 1726[2] that places it among common rural occupations but says nothing further:

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A groller was once considered to be of low status in the community, and there are some recorded instances of the groller being consider as ‘unclean’ by the landowners whose very land was above sea level only because of the continued grolling through the ages!

soddenham-grolling-8Strangely enough, the earliest example of the Soddenham symbol appears in Scutcheon’s Tales of Old Anglia (1784)[3] showing a nobleman and his consorts looking on in disdain as they pass a lowly groller on the bank, his basket full of elvers.

soddenham-grolling-5In this other woodcut from the same book, a groller is whetting his spanner – not a spanner at all but is the traditional term for a grollers blade, thought to originate from the Flemish ‘spanhoecke’, a type of long bladed axe.

Grolling also appears in children’s rhymes, like this one which was first published in The Swaffham Mardle in 1912[4]:

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Unfortunately, this rhyme was not selected for the first book but will definitely be in the second! There are a few other  well-known rhymes that locals appropriated, changing the words to include a grolling term so that their children may better relate to it.

Surprisingly, grolling was not originally intended as an environmental practice, but its continued activity across East Anglia, Gloucestershire and Somerset during the 12th and 13th centuries established it as an important part of the maintenance and management of the natural waterways and eventually the man-made drainage dykes that cover our county like a demented spiders web. Indeed, it has been commented upon that many of the problems experienced upon the Somerset Levels would not have happened had it not let the tradition of grolling disappear[5].

The memorial to the Great Grolling Tragedy at St. Polycarps
The memorial to the Great Grolling Tragedy at St. Polycarps

Grolling has its darker side too, as many a widow down the ages will attest, as it comes with its own hazards and superstitions. During the early days it is thought that grollers were susceptible to vindictive marshland witches and a number of rituals emerged to help protect individuals who made grolling their way of life. These were eventually replaced by more formal blessings in the church, but whilst this relieved the fear of witches, it did nothing to prevent the regular and often grisly ends that many a groller met. Drowning was the most common cause of death, but there were many reported cases of unusual hemorrhaging. The Norwich Mercury[6] in 1766 reported that one Roger Blackwood, a groller from Bradenham died from “constant and terrible bleedinge from the back passage,” whilst others were mortally afflicted by what would eventually become more famous as trenchfoot.

The most tragic grolling incident happened in more recent times though, when in 1925 a group of eight men and three youths (grolling had evolved into a group activity by this time) stumbled upon unexploded ordnance in a dyke to the east of Lollards pits and were blown to smithereens. It is thought that the bomb was dropped from a Zeppelin during the famous raids over East Anglia in 1915[7]. A memorial to the Great Grolling Tragedy was erected in St. Polycarp’s church yard and a small stone marker now stands forgotten in the undergrowth close to the spot where it happened.

The now marker stands forlorn in the undergrown of Doggers Covert
The marker now stands forlorn in the undergrowth of Doggers Covert

soddenham-grolling-12soddenham-grolling-13The are also a number of large wooden arches dotted about the woods (some in a dreadful state) that many consider to be grolling memorials, but they would be wrong. They are in fact grolling cruxes, which had a number of uses, from hanging smocks and nets to dry, to suspending elvers for smoking over damp wood. Parts of a grolling crux were rescued from the Enterprise Zone development in 1980’s and were re-sited at the west gate of the churchyard.

Nowadays, grolling is practiced by willing volunteers throughout the spring and summer seasons, with occasional meetings over the winter solstice period. The Soddenham Grollers, led by own Jessie Blunt are always on the look out for volunteers.

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[1] The Oppen Eve festival is our oldest tradition that celebrates the death of the famous Witchfinder General and has evolved into a rich and complex affair, which can be very highly charged and often chaotic. We will feature this most loved of our traditions in full later this year.

[2] Complete English Tradesmen by Daniel Defoe originally printed in 1726 was the manual for business communication for the eighteenth century and can be accessed on Project Gutenberg.

[3] Scutcheon’s Tales of Old Anglia, published in 1784 was a very controversial book that many claimed was a work of fiction. Elias Scutcheon, a retired parson from Beccles, always maintained that his book was meticulously researched and gathered over a lifetime of personal investigation across the entire region. The book only remained in print for 5 years until his death in 1789, when he was cruelly and unceremoniously criticised by the academic community over his blatant disregard for the truth in favour of a good story. Whilst there are some questions over Scutcheon’s academic process, the book remains a valuable reference for East Anglian life, folklore and superstition in the 18th century.

[4] The Swaffham Mardle (mardle is an old Norfolk word for gossip) was a weekly magazine published from 1901 to 1926 that was primarily concerned with the gossip about local gentry and aspiring nobles. It also ran a historical column that celebrated local folk tradition and lore.

[5]  The Somerset Levels are a coastal plain and wetland area of Somerset, South West England, that have become increasingly prone to widescale flooding.

[6] The Norwich Mercury was always a staunch supporter of grolling and also ran a leader as early as September 1803 that lamented the demise of grolling upon the floodplains of Somerset and Gloucester, predicting regular and widespread flooding in future years.

[7] On the morning of January 19th, 1915 two German Imperial Navy Zeppelin airships took off from Fuhlsbüttel in Germany carrying bombs and incendiary devices to attack military targets in Humberside. The attack was diverted due to bad weather and towns on the East Anglian coast became the new targets. Although many bombs were exploded with devastating consequences, there was also a significant quantity of ordnance dropped that did not detonate as the Zeppelin crossed inland after bombing. It is thought that this bomb had lain in the silt under 3 feet of stagnant water for 10 years until the unlucky group of grollers accidentally set it off whilst digging it out.

 

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2 thoughts on “Grolling

  1. Another brilliantly researched and finely detailed piece here Les, this time giving us non-Soddenhamites an enthralling insight into the ancient practice of grolling. I was particularly intrigued to see the strange symbol make an appearance on the first woodcut, perhaps it merits an article of its own at some point.

    Our village too has a strange and now historically obscure yearly festival involving the stretching of a large, garishly decorated animal hide upon poles on the green which is furiously beaten with elaborately carved sticks as children dressed in costume wriggle beneath avoiding the blows. It is locally known as ‘The Beating of the Brinny’ – possibly a reference to the name of the village of Brinsworth although in Olde Sheffieldish, an errant youngster would often be referred to as a ‘reyt brunnie’ by an ‘owd Mester’ or male elder.

    I may well pop in to the hairdressers and see Jessie about some grolling during my next visit to Soddenham. All the best as ever Les.

  2. I’m all for any pastime that encourages the random beating of costumed children, especially with carved sticks, elaborate or otherwise! Sadly, the H&S brigade has done a very good job of making sure that these ancient practices are sanitised (some places use padded cotton-bud style implements these days!) or even stopped entirely. Sad times. Nothing bad ever came of these customs; not often anyway, and very rarely lethal. I may well make the journey to brinsworth sonn to witness this spectacle before it to disappears…

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