There are only two occasions when the annual harborside ceremony, which dates back to the 12th century, has not taken place – and the coronavirus lockdown was one of them.
However, yesterday at 9am, on the eve of Ascension Day, the ceremony of the Horngarth, or the planting of the Penny Hedge, took place on the east bank of the River Esk and was overseen by the Bailiff of Fyling Court Leet mansion, which since 1999 is Lol Hodgson.
Legend has it that the act is part of a penance served to three hunters and their descendants forever, for the murder of a hermit/monk on the outskirts of the town of Eskdale.
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Mr Hodgson was joined by Tim Osborne, the chairman of nearby Staintondale Hunt, who acts as horn blower to signal the end of the ceremony. There was a good turnout, with people from as far away as Hastings traveling to Whitby specifically to observe the ancient custom.
Mr Hodgson said: ‘It’s hugely important that we keep these traditions moving – it’s vital. It was done before me and when I landed the job of Usher of Fyling Manor, I also landed this one – it’s as simple as that.
The hazel tree is used annually for the hedge and cut from the ground inside the mansion, where the hunt would have taken place, with nine vertical and nine horizontal stakes, plus four side posts.
However, it is always worth putting in a spare bet, added Mr Hodgson who also had his say on recent debates that suggest the story is not true.
Mr Hodgson added: “We always have a spare, we learned the hard way to always bring a spare. Sometimes you get eight and hit a rock with the ninth, but there was no problem with that today, but we broke one.
“I can understand the talk of folk customs and I’m not saying it’s not true, but the country is built on legend and how can anyone argue? We need to have light moments with life as it is now.
Whitby Community Choir closed the ceremony by singing The Famous Penny Hedge.
The origins of the planting of the Penny Hedge date back to 1159 and according to Lionel Charlton’s ‘History of Whitby Book II’ (1779) began with a series of events on October 16 of that year, but Ascension is chosen for the ceremony as a time of year when the tides are low.
A group of men gathered to hunt and chased a boar to a hermitage where it died. The monk closed the door to the hunters but they killed him and he died soon after. As he lay dying, he forgave them the act if they had to perform penance, which meant they had to bring hazel stakes to the River Esk and build a hedge to withstand the tide.
Penance was paid in the 1980s with the last family involved, but Whitby Town Council asked Fyling Court Leet Manor to carry on the tradition.