When you part from someone in the North-East, they may tell you to gan canny (take care or take it easy). When fieldworkers from the Survey of English Dialects visited the area, they collected many examples of the more leisurely side of life, away from harbour, field or coalface. Here we take a look at some of these, namely food, fairs and folk music. We also share sayings and cures that were collected by the fieldworkers in the 1950s.
North-eastern dishes include stottie or stotty cake (a flat, round loaf of bread with an indentation in the middle), pease pudding (a savoury dish of boiled peas, often served with ham – great in a stotty!) and panacalty or panackelty (a beef or lamb casserole with sliced potato on the top.)
Craster kippers are also a well-known local fare. Informant Willie Pitt, a retired farmworker and waggoner, mentioned them when he was interviewed in his home in Embleton, Northumberland. Meanwhile, during their interview, Mrs Thompson and Madge in Humshaugh, Northumberland, discuss their recipe for girdle cake (griddle cake). They recall their mother’s version of these sweet, flat scones, which she cooked over an open fire. Girdle cakes are also known as singing hinnies in parts of the North-East, because they sing as they hit the hot pan! Hinny is a term of endearment that is used in many parts of the North-East.
Spiced cakes are also mentioned by informants in the North East. One informant in County Durham mentioned yule dough (currant bread made into the shape of a man). Meanwhile, Charlie in Ovingham, Northumberland recalled the spiced-cakes sold at Ovingham Fair. Food seems to have played a significant role in feasts and fairs celebrated in the North-East.
Feasts and fairs
Annual gatherings in local towns and villages, usually known as fairs or feasts, were once a calendar highlight in the North-East. As the SED fieldworkers made their way around the North-East, many informants shared their memories of their local events.
Alongside the spiced-cakes already mentioned, Charlie recalled that sweets and toys were also sold at Ovingham Fair in Northumberland. He also recalled a Babes in the Wood puppet show, dancing on the green and the local custom of Riding the Bounds. Ovingham Goose Fair’s website explains that by 1826, the fair was principally for the sale of cattle (and geese, hence the name). Business, including the payment of rents, was preceded by a procession called Riding the Bounds. Goose Fair is still held in Ovingham on the third Sunday in June.
Other informants in Northumberland contributed details of their own annual fairs. These included Lowick Feast (July), Embleton Feast (May), Haltwhistle Fair and Allendale Fair (both in May & November – linked to the biannual hiring of farm labour, also known as arles). Ellington Sports was a two-day celebration with sports taking place on the Monday. These annual highlights were filled with activities and entertainments, including sports – races, running and jumping – wrestling, dancing, games and stalls (shooting galleries and cheap-jacks were mentioned.)
In Durham, informants described Ebchester Picnic (August), Brough Hill Fair (October), Wearhead Picnic and Eggleston Show (September). Again, sports, games and dancing were the order of the day. Informants also talked of a Kirn Supper, a post-harvest meal and dance.
Easter was also celebrated widely across the North-East. Informants in County Durham and Northumberland talked of dyeing pace eggs before bowling them or jauping them (striking them against each other).
Many fairs and feasts included music. One informant talking about St Cuthbert’s Fair in Bellingham, Northumberland, mentioned piping, fiddling and dancing. There is a strong Folk Music tradition in the North-East. The Blaydon Races and When the Boat Comes In are widely known due to their football associations (Newcastle United, that is – never to be confused with Sunderland AFC or Middlesborough FC!) and use in advertising campaigns, respectively.
A number of SED informants in the North-East recited verses, both spoken and sung, during their interviews. Charlie, who described the Ovingham Fair in Northumberland, recited ‘The Three Spice Wives of Ovingham’, Mrs Henry in Cullercoats (now in Tyne & Wear), recited ‘Cullercoats and the work of the fisher folk’ and Arthur in Medomsley, County Durham recited ‘The Bottom of the Raa.’
Pipes are usually associated with Scotland, but the North-East has its own version – the Northumbrian Pipes. Informant, Anthony Charlton, was photographed outside his home in Wark, Northumberland with a set of Northumbrian pipes.
You can hear the Northumbrian pipes being played in the following recording made by Maureen Atchison in the 1960s. The recording includes many local tunes, including ‘Keep Yer Feet Still Geordie Hinny.’
Sayings & colloquialisms
The following sayings and recommended cures were collected by SED fieldworkers while travelling around the North-East:
- ‘A swarm in May’s worth a load of hay’ (Northumberland). The full version of this proverbial bee-keepers’ saying is: ‘a swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly.’ (Meaning: the later in the year it is, the less time there will be for bees to collect pollen from flowers in blossom)
- Put a wishbone under your pillow at night and your dreams will come true (Northumberland)
- April Gowk’s Day’s past and gone; You’re a fool and I’m none – said to anyone playing a joke after midday on April Fool’s Day (Northumberland)
- Cure for scurvy – chamberlye (stale urine) (Northumberland)
- Treatment for chilblains – ointment of dock root and mutton fat (Northumberland)
- Treatment for chilblains – ointment of wax, pig’s lard and tsp of sugar also contributed (Northumberland)
- Cure for warts – pay 1d! (Northumberland)
- Cure for warts – wash hands in water from potato peelings (Washington, County Durham – now in Tyne & Wear)