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The Intangible Heritage of Nottinghamshire

The Intangible Heritage of Nottinghamshire

You’ve heard of bonfire night, cheese rolling and Morris dancing. If you’re from Nottingham you may have even heard someone say ‘ayup m’duck!’ However, have you heard of intangible heritage? Well let me tell you, they are two the same!

Intangible heritage can be defined as heritage that is embodied in people rather than in inanimate objects. It is a diverse spectrum of not limiting to but including oral traditions, language, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events and traditional craftsmanship. As such, it is heritage that is living, always changing, passed down from generations and something that we all value.

Living heritage

Robin Hood is a figure intertwined within the fabric of Nottingham and as a resident of Nottingham, I had to mention him. If you’re from around these parts you just cant escape the heroic outlaw of old. Yet, whilst his tangible existence is contested, his significance is not.  Robin Hood is a folkloric legend that has been inherited, adapted and popularised over generations. He is intrinsic to the landscape and the people who live within it.

However, the intangible heritage of Nottinghamshire is not limited to the gnarly oaks of Sherwood. The county is largely rural, where communities have and continue to celebrate festivities linked with the agricultural calendar. Plough Monday, May Day and the Harvest festivals are still celebrated within village life. Heading into the city, there is old and new heritage to discover. Perhaps the most well-known celebration in Nottingham is the Goose Fair. It’s arguably as popular as ever, albeit different to the fair that gathered in Market Square. Hockley Hustle and the Caribbean Festival are just two of many events that celebrate the diversity of the city. They resemble a heritage that adapts to society, always reflective of the those who make it.

Connecting both urban and rural life, the meandering Trent and its interlocking canals opened the county up to industry in the late 18th century. The remnants of coal mining can not only be seen within the landscape, but can also be heard in the oral traditions of those who worked within them. These expressions act as the linchpin of our shared sense of place. The intangible heritage of Nottinghamshire is dynamic yet immeasurable, but below are three particular case studies that I had the pleasure of researching.

Laxton May Day Sunrise

May Day festivities are common in England, but the dance that takes place at sunrise in Laxton is distinctive. Evidence of celebrations in the village can be traced back to 1605, when it was recorded that resident Peter Roos had admitted to ‘participating in the maye game’. May Day is synonymous with ‘Merry England’, a celebration of summer and communal life. The Laxton tradition was revived in the 1980s by Morris dance teams from nearby Retford. In the 1990s the dance was performed in the familiar Cotswold style by an all men’s side known as Broadstone Morris.


The tradition in its present form, however, originates from 2002 when a Retford dance side, Rattlejag Morris, took on its organisation. Rattlejag, (named after the rattles used by local plough teams on Plough Monday) are a mixed side performing morris, broom, bacca pipe and sword dances. They formed in 2002 with the aim of reviving the dance traditions of Lincolnshire, Nottingham and East and South Yorkshire . On the arrival of dawn, the dancing takes place on Castle Hill and is free of charge to visit. You are then warmed up by ‘barbecued butties’, beer and hot drinks. Attracting locals and interested individuals, the tradition grows more popular each year. Events like these are so important as they assist individuals in connecting to their heritage through experience.

For more information, visit Rattlejag Morris https://www.rattlejagmorris.org.uk

Cowslip Sunday

The small village of Lambley has its own distinctive way of celebrating the beginning of summertime. It is the cowslip, long associated with Lambley, that forms the heart of a tradition which can be traced back to the early 1800s. Held on the first Sunday of May, visitors from neighbouring areas would visit the Dumbles, a local term for a small wooded dell. Here, cowslips grew rampantly on the banks of the stream. The event attracted thousands from working-class areas of Nottingham, where cowslips would be picked to make garlands and homemade wine. Soon though, local pubs selling beer caused drunkenness and violence. Local newspapers in 1866 complained about the festivities ‘desecrating’ the Sabbath. Thus, by the 1920s, the tradition had slowly died out due to a combination of farming practices destroying cowslips in the Dumbles and growing discouragement from the police due to its rowdy nature.


The celebration of Cowslip Sunday never disappeared, but was subdued into the form of an annual church service. Under the auspices of the Lambley Arts Festival, it was revived in 2010. Adopting a theatrical tone, it included a procession led by ‘Lambley Jack’ and other characters carrying cowslips and other spring flowers. The procession passed through the church in a stark reminder to the ‘sacrilegious nature’ of such a Sunday tradition before ending with a mummers play outside. Other events included an art and craft fair, poetry displays, the church service and a ceilidh in the evening. Revival is a key characteristic of intangible expressions. Sadly, the revived tradition came to an end in 2014, having only been revived for three out of those four years. Lambley waits for it to be revived again, bringing in new aspects and traditions.

For more information on Cowslip Sunday visit http://cowslipsunday.co.uk

Gopher Bell Ringing

The ringing of church bells marks a commemoration or celebration. The ‘Ringing of the Gopher Bells’ is an annual tradition in Newark-on-Trent that has been active since the mid-19th century. However, some say it has earlier roots in the 1300s. ‘Gopher’ is believed to derive from a Flemish merchant of the same name who got lost whilst crossing the marshes in nearby Kelham. It was the muffled sounds of Newark church that enabled him to find his way through the fog and into the town safely. He, in return, provided money for the annual ringing to be relayed at Evensong ever since. Whilst this is a contested narrative, research has found that an Englishman under the name ‘Janne Goffrays’ was trading in Flanders in 1371 with Flemish merchants. ‘Goffrays’ is curiously similar to ‘Gopher’, given the changes in language over the centuries.


The bells are tolled on ‘Gopher Sunday’, a recurring ringing that takes place from the twelfth Sunday before Christmas and then the six Sundays after. The bells are handled by seven enthusiasts each year, with each toll recorded as above. You’ll hear them on a cold evening between 5 and 6 o’clock. Only the Second World War has ever silenced the bells, which are a significant part of Newark’s local heritage. They were even broadcast on national radio in 1936 and featured on School’s Radio in the 1980s. The sound of the bells on a crisp autumn evening brings familiarity, a comfort of surroundings which is characteristic of intangible heritage.

For more information on the Gopher Bells visit http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/newark-gopher-bell-ringing/

For me, intangible heritage is something that I repeat, an annual tradition or commemoration, always an experience that allows me to express my identity. What does intangible heritage mean to you?

By Jake Epton, Culture Syndicates’ Administration Assistant. Jake graduated from Nottingham Trent University’s Masters in Museum and Heritage Development in 2017 and is developing his experience and skills in collections management, exhibitions and interpretation. 

*Featured photograph (Maypole Dancing at Wellow) taken by Andy Stephenson http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1888947

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