History made as Whitby celebrates ancient tradition

Stand-in horn blower Moira Clarke during the Penny Hedge ceremony
Stand-in horn blower Moira Clarke during the Penny Hedge ceremony

History was made in Whitby this morning as the town celebrated its oldest tradition - the building of the Penny Hedge on the banks of the River Esk.

Stand-in horn blower Moira Clarke is believed to be the first woman ever to take part in the centuries-old ceremony, after she was plucked from the watching crowd and asked to do the honours when one of the usual participants failed to show.

Dozens of people gathered in the early morning sunshine along Church Street to witness the event which dates back to 1159 and sees a small fence erected out of hazel sticks by way of a penance for a sin committed by a trio of Whitby noblemen.

Once the Penny Hedge has been constructed, an 800-year old horn is sounded before Lol Hodgson, the bailiff of the Manor of Fyling, shouts “out on ye” three times.

Scarborough man Tim Osborne usually helps Mr Hodgson construct the hedge and then sounds the horn, but when he failed to appear, Ms Clarke, a seasoned cornet player, stepped forward to volunteer her services.

Ms Clarke, who is from Stokesley, told the Whitby Gazette: “I am delighted to have played a part, I will die a happy woman now.

“I have a big interest in folk tradition and travel all over the country to attend events similar to the building of the Penny Hedge, so it was great to be able to get involved.

“I must have been the only person here who plays a brass instrument. The horn’s mouthpiece is very small, but I play the cornet so I was soon able to get to grips with it.”

The story behind the custom surrounds three noblemen who were hunting a wild boar, when it was reputed to have sought refuge in a chapel in Eskdaleside.

The hunters were denied access to the building by a hermit and in a fit of rage they rode him down with spears, mortally wounding him.

On his death bed, the hermit informed those responsible for his wounding that both they and their ancestors were to build a hedge capable of withstanding three tides as penance, or face the forfeiture of their lands.

In recorded history there has only been one year when the hedge could not be built. In 1981 the tide was in at the 9am start time and planting proved impossible.

This year, Mr Hodgson, who has been planting the hedge since 2000, had to contend with a rising tide during construction.

“It was far more of a challenge this time around,” he said.

“This was the first year that the tide has been anywhere near within a foot of where we were building.”

Mr Hodgson was delighted with the big turnout to witness proceedings.

“This was the best crowd we’ve had for some years. A grand morning always brings folks out,” he added.

“When you look at how many people come from all over the UK and even as far as Europe to see the Penny Hedge being built it just shows how it important it is that we keep this tradition going.”