Monday, May 3, 2010

Hear ye, hear ye...Town Crier competition at Ely Eel Day

After a great day of May Day storytelling at this years Ely Eel day festival I was happily ensconced in my tent taking down my bits and pieces and thinking about the various sights and sounds I had seen and heard that day. Sights like the dancing of the eel, which was like a Chinese dragon, but an eel propelled by schoolchildren in seventeenth century dress (Presumably in honour of Oliver Cromwell who had a house in the town, and which now houses a museum) There was also a local man still making traditional eel nets just like a roman one found in the fens near Ely. It should be hardly surprising really as it was of course eel day and so a celebration of Ely's link with the slippery fish (At least I think its a fish) Even the name Ely is said to derive from the words meaning island and eel. The importance of Eels to Ely is shown in the fact that even the monks of the City were said to have used eels to pay their taxes.

There was however much more going on than the worship of the eel and I was also remembering the fantastic and very loud local samba drumming group and the obligatory reenactment group, although I was a bit disappointed that they had come as Saracens and not not the local folk hero Hereward the Wake and his loyal band of Saxon Rebels. Not that it bothered most people and everyone seemed to have a good time. As did I, although now I was looking forward to packing up and getting home, when all of a sudden I heard a the ring of many a bell and the crisp, clear and loud cry of "Oyez, Oyez" coming from just outside my tent. As I peered out through a gap in the opening I saw that I had been surrounded by a a great mass of Town Criers. I suppose you might call them a 'Cry' or perhaps a 'Shout' of Criers and all were in there finest liveries. Some were accompanied by equally well dressed escorts, although women were not just present as mere window dressing, for there were at least three female Criers amongst the group.

The first of many town criers and his escort
Click on Images to make larger

It turns out that I was trapped by the annual Ely Town crier competition, one of many that take place all over Britain at fairs, festivals and fetes. But don't get me wrong I was honored to have them doing their Crier thing outside my tent, for as one of them told me the first Town Crier competitions were held in Greece in 396 BC. to find the person who could best announce winners of the games. If its good enough for the Greeks, then its good enough for me!

That's what I like about what I do, for you never know quite what you are going to see and what unusual characters you will meet as you go about your business, telling tales. And certainly although like many I knew that there were the odd town crier doing their thing up and down the country, I didn't realise that there were so many of them and that they competed for titles. They had traveled from all over the UK and I'm told that in other competitions they come from as far a field as Australia and America and many of them although attracted by tradition are also happy to give some very modern performances.

A town crier in Early Police mans livery

Town crier in typical civic livery

Town crier and escort being judged by the great and the good of Ely

It was this that caught my interest, because on one level the criers simply look to be harking back to a now lost past, but that's not the case. Certainly all had a passion for history, not just for town criers. One contestant was an ex policeman and so had created a crier's livery based on the uniform of one of Robert Peel's early 'peelers'. Another had a passion for steam railways and so based his costume on the livery of one of the early railway companies. And even the more traditional Criers costumes of tricorne hat, frock coat etc were open to some very colorful interpretation!

There was also a great deal of variation in the performances. In the morning they had to 'cry' a message from their own town or city, but in the afternoon and outside my tent they could perform a 'cry' about a set theme, which at Ely was 'their perfect day'. As such all were judged on volume, diction, clarity etc and also on the content, which resulted in some of the criers being very creative. One of the female criers, who has been a carer for many years was waiting for the day when the government would care for carers. For another it was being out immersed in nature, whilst the winner, the town crier from Alnwick, 'cried' that any day was perfect when at the end of it he got to climb under the duvet with his wife. I liked that one best!

Town crier in early railway livery

The winning crier from Alnwick and his escort

Spot the criers relaxing with a pint!

It was good to see that such a traditional pursuit had been brought up to date and that these town criers were much like modern storytellers; willing to grow new corn from old fields. It was also good to see how much the audience enjoyed the performances especially when you consider that long ago and more often than not criers were not very popular, because they were of course in the pay of the civic elites and so often the bearers of bad news for the common people. But that was then and this is now and if I wasn't busy storytelling I'd probably have a go myself!

A 'shout' of criers and escorts giving a good 'bells-up'

Thanks to Aileen and her assistants for inviting me back!

1 comment:

  1. A splendid piece Sir! It may interest you to know that you are now linked to the homepage of the 'Ragged Society of Antiquarian Ramblers'.