East Anglia’s Winter Traditions

by | Feb 1, 2024

Winter has almost come to a close, and with Spring just around the corner it’s time to reflect on some of our seasonal traditions. Walking around East Anglia in the Winter certainly helps to give you the impression that this is an ancient land. Steeped in tradition, the frozen landscape sits silently as it has done for centuries. Winter is now on its way out, but what are some of these Norfolk traditions? Well, from the truly ancient, to the arguably bizarre, East Anglia has many Winter customs. Some of these are sadly lost but many survive today to delight both locals and visitors.

green grass field near body of water under white clouds during daytime
Norfolk is a land of waterways, marshes, heaths and woodland!

Whether braving the frozen waters of the North Sea or providing tiny boots for Turkeys, the inhabitants of these eastern counties have many things to look forward to over the coldest months of the year.

Winter Swim

Although a tradition found all over the world, the cold waters of the North Sea and the abundant coast line around East Anglia have attracted brave Winter swimmers for centuries. Winter Swimming has been seen as either a challenge, a health benefit or a ritual for eons and is still enjoyed by many people today! In Eastern Europe, among members of the Eastern Orthodox churches, a ritual mirroring the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan would be observed. This was by cutting holes into the thick ice of lakes or rivers in the shape of a cross. At midnight, the congregation would then submerge themselves in the water three times to reflect the holy trinity. This custom died out under the Soviet Union but is occasionally observed by modern Easter Orthodox Christians today under a revival from the 90s!

Suzanne Brooke recently performed a sponsored swim in mid Dec for us at The Shoebox!

Here in Britain though, evidence can be found going back a long way. The Roman, Tacitus, observed that Roman Soldiers stationed in Britain in the Winter would dip into the freezing pools or sea in full armour. This was to “clean both body and armour” while minimising contact with the numbing water. The Viking settlers from Scandinavia brought over their own traditions of Winter Swimming. To them, it was a way of de-stressing and they argued (and still do today) that it had many health benefits. In the middle ages, professional soldiers would train by swimming across frozen rivers, or dropping from boats into the frozen sea. This was to prepare them for any of these uncomfortable situations they may encounter during Winter warfare (although fighting in Winter was avoided if possible.)

In the Tudor Era, Winter Swimming was a form of court entertainment and in fact wood cuttings exist showing nude swimmers performing strange swimming styles lost to time. During the “Romantic Era,” writers and artists would come to East Anglia in Winter to swim in the cold seas to experience what they called “the sublime.” This was a belief that by experiencing nature in its scariest forms, you could connect with it on a philosophical and emotional level. To the Victorians, it once again became a part of a health regime. Especially to those living in the cities full of choking smog from the many factories. Clean air, clean water and the invigorating cold were seen as great benefits. Although generally, women wouldn’t be permitted to swim in the same locations as the men.

Unfortunately, in the 20th century, natural waterways and the sea started to become clogged with pollution and Winter swimming took to heated, indoor pools instead. However recently, some improvements have been observed in some areas and you will still find dedicated groups who swear by a dip in the cold! Charity fundraising swims have also become popular, especially on boxing day. Hundreds of people, many dressed in fancy dress, attend races in the searing cold sea to raise money for a plethora of different charities.

If you do decide to take a swim this Winter, be careful. It is not for the faint of heart and takes some proper preparation and sometimes training! The waters can completely take your breath away which can be incredibly dangerous if you’re trying to swim!

The Turkey March

Now this next tradition seems a strange one to our modern eyes. During the 17th century, through to the 19th century, turkeys farmed in Norfolk would be taken down to London. They would complete this journey however, on foot. Imagine trying to herd hundreds, sometimes thousands of turkeys over 100 miles through the Autumn and Winter months just so some people could have them for Christmas Dinner!

flock of turkeys near plants
Turkeys are not the most natural herding animal!

Turkeys start appearing in England in the Tudor period of the later 16th Century. It is a common story to hear that King Henry VIII was the first person to enjoy one for Christmas Dinner. Turkeys were being brought to Europe from the newly “discovered” Americas and were very expensive birds to purchase. This meant that initially, it was the aristocracy who would enjoy the meat around Christmas. They remained a luxury up until the 1950s with goose being the popular alternative.

Being a farming county, Norfolk became the place to breed and farm turkeys, once they became popular among the upper classes. However, most aristocracy at the time lived around London. Seeing as though large lorries were not yet invented, it posed a problem. How do we get the thousands of turkeys down to London in time for Christmas? Well, like most people over the centuries unable to afford horses, only one answer remained. On foot.

Around August time, preparations would begin. First the turkeys were gathered and checked for quality. Next, they were given a large feed to prepare them for the long journey and finally, they were outfitted with little boots! Small pieces of leather would be carefully wrapped around each turkey’s feet and bound at the top. This was to protect their feet from the hard road surfaces and many hazards along the long road south. Some farmers, who couldn’t afford the leather, would take a different approach. They would take each turkey and dip their feet into hot tar, which would harden to become boot-like.

The turkeys were then herded in groups sometimes into the thousands from their farms and down the winding country lanes out of the county. They followed the roads stopping only to feed the turkeys and rest at night. Losses were inevitable along the way, with a bird sometimes making a break for it or being lost to the elements. The majority, however, would make it just in time for the Christmas season, where they would be sold to the slaughterhouses to prepare the meat. So after all that walking, the only reward for the poor turkeys was the chopping block! It’s something to think about next time you’re forced on that family Winter walk, you could be on a turkey death march!

The Ceremony Of The Cutty Wren

If you were to find yourself in a small Suffolk town on Boxing Day, you may be treated to the sight of the Cutty Wren Ceremony. To the uninitiated, this could appear very strange and even a little scary! From the darkness of the night-shrouded village comes a procession of men and women dressed in unusual, black, period costumes. They walk silently save for the slight jingling of bells. Their faces are heavily painted to disguise their identities and their costumes decorated with holly and other winter greenery. At the head, a man carrying a long wooden pole garlanded in green and atop it sits a wooden wren. They march to a central village pub through the main street.

Members of Old Glory still following these old traditions today. (Image courtesy of Old Glory)

Once at their destination, the party discard their heavy winter coats and reveal instruments. The Molly Dancing is about to begin. It is at this point that you may notice that some of the women you see in the crowd are in fact men and some of the men are women. Molly Dancing is a form of Morris Dancing involving the traditional bells and sticks but is arguably far more chaotic and raucous. Traditionally, some of those partaking would cross dress. There are also roles among the members of the party. A sweeper sweeps the street before the march to rid it of snow and evil spirits. The Umbrella Man who is the only one to speak and carries a large furled umbrella to cover the musicians from the elements if needs be. The Cadger goes around the waiting crowd with a box collecting donations and the Lord and Lady are the leaders of the dance.

The origins and reasons for this strange practice may leave outsiders scratching their heads but to learn them gives you a real insight into how the East Anglia of the past would work. Traditionally this winter festival was performed by farm labourers who were out of work in the Winter months. Their faces were heavily covered in soot to disguise themselves (especially if they wanted to be hired again after such a loud night of celebration.) This can be controversial now, for obvious reasons, as “black-face” is the cultural mocking of people from Africa or the West Indies that used to be performed by minstrels. Although the intentions of the Cutty Wren ceremony were purely to do with masking one’s identity, out of respect, many Molly Dancing groups now use different colours. The festival performers then spend their time dancing and acting, traditionally in order to earn some coin to see them through the Winter months.

The second aspect of the ceremony is that of the Wren itself. A Wren is a small, hedge-dwelling bird. In traditional folklore, it became king of the birds after it rode on the back of an Eagle in a competition to see which bird could fly the highest. Since then it has been seen as good luck and, (in true traditional English style, as we weren’t celebrating something until we had killed it first) a hunt was held each Boxing Day to capture and kill a Wren to strap to the pole. It would head up the procession of Molly Dancers that night. Thankfully this wanton destruction of wildlife is not part of the tradition any more and a wooden bird takes the place of the poor Wren.

The tradition started to die between the 1930s and 1950s (some say due to the slum clearances that broke up communities). It has recently been revived by some local groups such as Old Glory. Many of the traditional dances have been lost as the upper classes didn’t see them worthy of recording as this was an exclusively working class festival.

Plough Monday

Plough Monday started all the way back in the 14th century and was held on the first Monday after the Epiphany Feast (taking place on January 6th, Epiphany was a Catholic festival celebrating the first manifestation of Jesus). It was when farm workers would return to the fields after Christmas. Traditionally a “plough light” (a large candle) was lit in the windows of the churches. This remained burning throughout the year to bring luck to the field workers. The church would also bless the ploughs as well for extra luck!

Members of Old Glory with the “blessed plough”

Farm labourers would then drag a decorated plough around the village from door to door, asking for donations to be made for the parish. Sometimes this donation was for the plough men themselves and they would accept food or ale if money wasn’t an option! An element of threat went alongside this. It was often found that refusal to donate would result in your front garden being ploughed up by the revelers! The plough was often accompanied by dancers (see Molly Dancers above during the Cutty Wren ceremony), as well as a Plough Fool (a jester) and a Strawbear. A Strawbear is an ancient Pagan tradition of dressing head to toe in grasses or straw with an animal skull over the face to create a shaggy looking monster.

Some villages would host a “Plough Play” which was usually a surreal play involving a mockery of the local gentry, usually around affairs and fights. Usually a man dressed as a rich “Dame” would be “killed” by the Plough Fool and resurrected before the end of the play.

A festive Plough Pudding, invented here in Norfolk, would also be eaten on the day. It consisted of a suet crust filled with sausage meat, chopped bacon, onions and sage and sugar. It was sometimes served with boiled potatoes and gravy and would be boiled down over a three and a half hour period!

Plough Monday started to decline in the Tudor period of the 16th Century with the reformation of the church. Henry VIII banned “plough candles” and then later his son Edward condemned the “conjuring of the ploughs.” Somehow the ceremonies survived in small pockets across mostly East Anglia and continued into the 19th century. In the 1960s and 1970s, local cultural groups attempted to revive it and to this day, some local villages still observe the Plough Monday traditions.

An interesting insight into this festival remains in Cawston Church in Norfolk as, carved into the stonework, presumerably by a local ploughman, is the following inscription: “God spede the Plough and send us ale corne anow, our purpose for to make.” Which sounds a bit to us like this parishioner had only one thing on their mind, ale!

Walking in the Beautiful Natural Countryside

There is one thing that draws people to Norfolk and the rest of East Anglia. Regardless of the time of year, our beautiful open skies and lush, green rural landscapes are very popular. For centuries the eastern counties have been sought by (usually wealthy) city folk looking to escape the choking fumes and rowdy crowds of their urban environment. They would look to escape to the quiet coast or sprawling woodlands and fields. Many artists and writers come here to find inspiration and today, film makers take to our ancient towns and landscapes to inspire through the big screen.

people on beach during daytime
Norfolk’s Coastline is a big draw for walkers

Walking as a leisure activity is, however, a relatively new concept. It only really became popular during the romanticism movement of the 18th Century. Before then, having to walk was seen as a sign of poverty or even vagrancy as the richer and middle classes stuck to horses or carriages. With the romantic era, artists and those involved in the literary world would try to find a bridge between society and the natural world around us. Often it was cited that reconnecting with nature would restore harmony to the human soul as we accept our place in the natural world. With this came more and more of the upper classes looking to find this feeling for themselves and so leisure walks were born.

Winter leisure walks became popular to witness the way our landscape would change in the winter months. Glistening frosts that lay over the fields, the barren trees and the incredible winter skies would bring inspiration to many who witnessed them. Others were drawn by the peace and quiet. Avoiding the increasingly common crowds of Summer tourists coming to the area. The Boxing Day walk also became popular in the Victorian era with the belief that it would improve your health after sitting for the entire previous day doing nothing but eating and drinking. Even today, there is plenty to see around this time of year. A particular favourite Boxing Day pastime in East Anglia is going to the coast around Blakeney or Sea Palling to see the growing number of seals coming onto the beaches to have their pups.

Winter isn’t all bleak!

So as we can see from above, Winter has, for a long time, been a time when people try to beat the cold and dark months with revelry and strange traditions. Many of us feel that January and most of February are the most depressing months of the year. With Christmas gone and Spring still some way off, it’s difficult to have much to look forward to. So why not pick one of the traditions above, (or maybe you already have your own!) and bring a little joy or excitement to your winter.


Weird East Anglia

Turkey March

AtlasObscura Turkey March

The Cutty Wren Festival

Old Glory Home Website

Plough Monday

British Folk Festivals