THE annual planting of the Penny Hedge took place beside Whitby Harbour on Wednesday.
The ancient tradition reputedly dates from 1159 and at 9am on Ascension Eve a small fence made from hazel sticks is built in the mud beside Church Street.
The story surrounding the building of the penny hedge, or horngarth, relates to three noblemen who killed a hermit while chasing a wild boar.
As penance, the men and their ancestors were required to build the hedge, with sticks cut down by a “penny knife”.
The responsibility for building the hedge has passed to Tim Osborne and Lol Hodgson, bailiff for the manor of Fylingthorpe.
Mr Hodgson explained why he now builds the hedge himself.
“When the noblemen were given the penalty it was up to the bailiff to make sure they carried out their penance,” he said.
“They had to build a hedge and it had to stand for three days, otherwise they would lose their lands.
“Really there should be three noblemen down there in the mud, but they died a thousand years ago.”
In recorded history there has only been one year when the hedge could not be built, 1981, and that was due to the tide being in at 9am.
Whitby mayor John Freeman passes down Church Street on his way to work and said: “I’ve walked past it for years and it’s amazing how well it stands.
“I’ve just had a chap from Wakefield saying congratulations for keeping such an ancient tradition going.”
After the horngarth is built the bailiff cries out “Out on ye, out on ye, out on ye” and a horn is blown three times.
The instrument, made of ram’s or cow’s horn, is believed to be the original, dating back to the origins of the tradition and is stored in the safe room of Pinkney Grunwell solicitors in Golden Lion Bank.
The tradition is even mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s 1808 epic poem Marmion and an 1857 book published by Richardson and Son on Flowergate claims to shed new light on its origins.
It identifies the Lord of Ugglebarnby, William de Bruce, the Lord of Sneaton, Ralph de Percie and a gentleman of Fylingdales named Allatson as the three hunters.
On 16 October 1159 they were hunting a wild boar through Eskdaleside with their hounds.
The boar was injured and in a desperate attempt to escape, ran through the door of a chapel.
Although it succumbed to its wounds and died, the chapel’s hermit closed the door and denied the hunters access to the carcass.
In a fit of rage they rode the hermit down with the spears, mortally wounding him.
Before he died, on 18 December, the hermit forbade Sedman, the Abbott of Whitby, from sentencing the men to death, instead instructing them and their heirs to carry out the penny hedge penance, or their lands would be forfeited.
However, the writer of the 1857 book doubts the story’s authenticity as it claims the names do not correlate with any recorded in history – Sedman for example is suggested as a corruption of Caedmon.
The planting of a horngarth was also an annual tradition at Dunsley, Sleights, Sneaton, Ugglebarnby and Fyling and this tradition took place long before the time of this supposed hermit.
Another reason to doubt it was that Ascension Day and 9am are identified as the best time to make a fence by the shore as this was the most common point in the year when the tide would be low enough to build a fence. The fact 1981 was the only recorded year the fence could not be built is testament to that.
Whether the story is true or not, it has become a part of Whitby folklore and Mr Osborne says it is important it continues for many years to come.
“The tradition is a serious part of the Whitby heritage and it has been on the go for a thousand years,” he said.
“It’s of the upmost importance that it keeps going as it’s a vital part of Whitby’s history.”