Here in England we are heading to a Bank Holiday weekend – 23rd to 25th May inclusive. The word ‘Holiday’ is derived from the term ‘Holy Day’ of the Catholic Church – the days on which, as canon 1247 of the Code of Canon Law states: On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. Moreover they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.

Britain’s term ‘Bank Holiday’ dates back to the ‘Bank Holidays Act 1871’. Until 1834, the Bank of England had observed over 30 Saints’ Days and virtually all religious festivals as holidays. These ‘holidays’ did not apply to the mass of the working class – but – in 1834 the total was reduced to four: – May 1st (May Day); November 1st (All Saints Day) and the ‘movable’ dates of Good Friday and Christmas Day.

The Act of 1871 specified that: ‘no person was compelled to make any payment, nor to do any act, upon a Bank Holiday which he would not be compelled to do or make on Christmas Day or Good Friday, and that the making of a payment or the doing of an act on the following day was equivalent to doing it on the holiday.’ However, there was no automatic right to time off on these days, although banks closed and the majority of the working population were granted time off work or extra pay for working on these days, depending on their contract. The Act was repealed in 1971 and superseded by the Banking and Financial Dealings Act which remains in force to this day.

This coming weekend is now called by many ‘Late Spring Bank Holiday’ or, more traditionally ‘Whitsun Bank Holiday’.

This Sunday – Whitsunday – is a major festival in the Christian Church. It is a ‘moveable’ festival or ‘feast’ in that it is celebrated on the Sunday that falls on the 50th day after the Easter festival. The time is also referred to as the ‘Festival of Pentecost’ (from the Greek word which means ‘fiftieth’). The biblical narrative of Pentecost is given in the second chapter of the Book of Acts.

Every Whit Sunday in the Gloucestershire village of St Briavels, high above the Wye Valley, bread and cheese is blessed by the vicar of St Mary’s Church and is then thrown from the wall for the assembled crowd of Dole Claimers to collect. Needless to say there is a scramble as the morsels land. These ‘morsels’ were said to have special properties – and these were, and still are for many – that the morsels would last the year without spoiling and would bring good luck – especially to the local miners who would keep some with them when working underground. Ownership of a morsel would also help the holder see into the future if they kept it under their pillow! Originally the event took place in the church itself, but the rowdiness was felt to be unbecoming to a place of worship so it was moved to the lane outside.

The event is said to have originated in the 12th century when Miles de Gloucester, later the Earl of Hereford, commanded the castle in the village, guarding the land against incursions by marauding Welshmen. Those who paid a penny ‘dole’ to this lord were granted the right to gather firewood in Hudnalls Wood in the district. At some time between then and now the wood seems to have changed into bread & cheese!

The Monday of the Whitsun Bank Holiday is now – and historically – a time for many communities to have fun together. As a very young lad in rural England – Cambridgeshire to be exact – I remember Whitsun was a time when the Vicar gave over his lawns for the first Fête of the year. A few years later Whit Monday was, for me, the start of the cricket season. It also brought back memories of one of the ‘Fêtes’ above. The cricket pitch then was in the next meadow to the Vicar’s lawn and straight behind the bowler’s arm. One of the visiting batsmen hit a tremendous six that when over the bowler, over the boundary, over the low wall round the vicar’s lawn and came to rest on the WI cake stall!

In the wider Britain there has been, and still is, fun to be had for communities. The Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling attracted – and still does – spectators from far and wide to see the action on Cooper’s Hill in Gloucester. It has been ‘rolled’ for well over 100 years. Now health and safety have a role to play – the event was officially cancelled in 2010. As I write, Monday next – 25th May 2015 – will probably see an unofficial event with contestants chasing an 8lb Double Gloucester cheese down a very steep hill – so steep that few contenders manage to stay on their feet.

At Audley End House and Gardens on both Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday, from 10.30am-5pm Queen Elizabeth’s look-a-like will be entertained with Jousts; Jesters and Music. Visitors are advised to prepare their bow and perfect their curtsey as they meet Queen Elizabeth I on her royal progress. You are also invited to join in the merry making with minstrels and music as the Duke of Norfolk will be welcoming her royal highness.

On the same days at Hedingham Castle you will find the ‘ever exciting and popular Knights of Royal England’ as they return to Hedingham to recreate the classic Tourney in front of the Keep, an awesome spectacle of chivalry, hand to hand combat, mounted challenges and dark deeds! Surrounding it all will be a bustling arena full of craft stalls, a range of food and a host of entertainment!


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