St Briavels Bread and Cheese Throwing, GloucestershireEvery Whit Sunday after evensong has been heard in St Mary’s church a crowd gathers beneath a high wall in the pretty Gloucestershire village of St Briavels , high above the Wye Valley . They are waiting for bread and cheese, but not a nice ploughman’s supper or sandwich. They soon get it, or the chance to grab it, as two figures lob small pieces of bread and cheese at them from above, picking the food from large baskets. There is a scramble, as these morsels are said to have special properties: to last without spoiling; to bring good luck (local miners used to keep some on them when working underground); or to help the holder see into the future if kept beneath their pillow.
The scramble today is said to be more sedate than it used to be, but then Wagon Wheels are smaller and it doesn’t snow as much in winter does it? At one time the event took place in the church itself, but the rowdiness was felt to be unbecoming to a place of worship, so long ago it moved to the lane outside.
These days some claimants dress in medieval garb, reflecting the belief that the custom dates back many centuries. It is said by some to have originated at the time in the 12th century when Miles de Gloucester , subsequently made Earl of Hereford , commanded the castle in the village, guarding the land against incursions by marauding Welshmen. Those who paid a penny ‘dole’ to this lord were granted the right to gather firewood in Hudnalls Wood in the district, though quite how this is linked with the distribution of bread and cheese nobody is sure - perhaps the noble commander used the combined pennies to purchase the food and distribute it to the poor.
Alternatively, the custom could date from a visit by King John to the village, and the grant of a large area of land to the villagers, though this seems entirely out of character for that financially embarrassed monarch.
St Briavels is in the Forest of Dean , an area with more than its fair share of traditional rights – the use of common land for grazing, the rights of those born locally who have worked for a year and a day in certain trades to mine where they please in the forest, and so on. People in the area are keen to retain their traditions, which in many cases convey economic benefits, so it is likely the bread and cheese will continue to be thrown to the waiting crowd every Whitsun in this lovely part of the country, much to the delight of visitors.
More British Folk Customs?