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Penny Hedge


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At 9 o'clock in the morning of the day before Ascension Day a small group of Whitby residents in north Yorkshire gather on the foreshore of the harbour to construct what looks like a small fence, but is called a ‘hedge’, out of willow sticks and interwoven strips of hazel. This hedge has to be strong enough to withstand three tides, and always is. When the hedge is complete, the Bailiff of the Court Leet of Fyling blows a horn and shouts ‘Out upon ye! Out upon ye!’, meaning ‘shame on you’. As usual, there is a legend to explain this odd event. In 1159, two lords, William de Bruce and Ralph de Piercie were out boar-hunting on the Abbot of Whitby's land. One particular boar took refuge in a local hermitage, and the hermit refused (or neglected, as he was praying) to open the door. They were so angry that they attacked, and mortally wounded, the poor hermit. Before he finally died, the hermit begged the Abbot to spare the lives of the lords if they agreed to an annual penance. He left precise instructions that they should build this hedge, on the foreshore, having carried the sticks on their backs, supervised by the Officer of Eskdale-Side. Failure to do so would result in forfeiture of their lands. There is no doubt that this legend is completely untrue. All authorities agree that the custom goes back well beyond the 12th century and is a relic of Horngarth, which was a manorial obligation by which tenants had to build and maintain particular hedges or fences on the Lord of the Manor's land. These same authorities all disagree on this particular hedge, and whether it was to keep animals in or out, and whether the horn refers to the horned animal or a hunting horn, and so on.

Smith, 1989: 29–32;Kightly, 1986: 187–8;Jeffrey, 1923: 38–45;Gutch, 1901: 344–8.


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