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Nobody knows quite how it started, or even what it means, but if you find yourself in Heptonstall on any Good Friday the chances are you'll get to see a performance of the village's Pace Egg Play. We've been finding out more...
Heptonstall Pace Egg players (including David)
David Burnop from Hebden Bridge is both a graphic designer and lecturer at Bradford College but every Good Friday he takes on a very different identity as the Doctor in Heptonstall's annual Pace Egg play. It was David, who in 1979 revived the Pace Egg after it hadn't been performed for over a decade, so we thought he'd have a thing or two to say about a tradition which is so old, no one can quite say when it started.
'In step I': David Burnop as the Doctor
The Pace Egg play is not unique to Heptonstall but it is one of only a few still performed today. David explains: "It was a thing that at one time any boy would have done, often to get a little money to go to the local fair which is reflected at the end of our play which refers to 'taking our bonnie lass to Todmorden Fair.' It was a bit like doing a Penny for the Guy." He thinks it's not unlike May Pole dancing traditionally done by village girls.
But how did it all begin? David believes its origins have been lost: "The Pace Egg play has disappeared and been restored so many times. There's nothing really recorded before the 1500s. Before that it's all folklore history theory, the theory being it wasn't originally a play but a good luck ceremony for the new season. If we go back to a more pagan or Celtic time when people saw the Sun as God - if the Sun doesn't come up the next day we are all in serious trouble - it was logical to pray to the Sun and it could be seen as a rebirth ceremony, a good luck ceremony.
"You could say that all the plays have a hero character. Ours has Saint George, some have Nelson and other have George and the dragon. Whoever comes on, whoever challenges him, George always wins. He represents the Sun so he has to win or the seasons won't continue but this is all theory.
Pace Eggers in combat!
"This tradition goes back right across Europe to Syria. The plays were passed down by word of mouth so they must have changed in a variety of different ways and they'll have their own localisms." For years the Heptonstall players wondered why their particular Pace Egg mentioned a "cat behind the manger" until a mummified cat was found bricked up in the wall of a barn which was being demolished. When further research revealed this was a tradition to bring good luck, the lines suddenly made sense.
David took part in the Pace Egg play when he was a pupil at Heptonstall School in the 1960s but performances stopped when one of the teachers, Mr Dobson, retired. As one of the events to mark the centenary of the school in 1979, David suggested the Pace Egg revival to some of his fellow old boys. He says: "When I revived it I talked to many old men in the pub who had done it as boys and there was a lot of disagreement between them about who said what line. Memories had already been lost."
Pace Egging in Heptonstall has a long history!
Unlike the Heptonstall Pace Egg, the version associated with the nearby village of Midgeley and performed by pupils at Calder High School, has a Fool. Scripts, which are still being found, relating to plays that are no longer performed, also show big differences in the Pace Egg tradition: "There's a Bradford one, a tremendously long play involving the Industrial Revolution and workers' rights. Whereas ours is usually a 15 minute play - 20 minutes if we ham it out and there's interaction with the audience - the Bradford one looks as though it goes on for 40 minutes or so."
And just in case you think these are Pace Egg plays because they are meant to be performed at a certain time of the year, David points out that the Upper Calder Valley is unusual in that it associates the tradition with Easter: "If you look around, most of these plays are actually performed at New Year. In Lancashire it fits in with the first-footing tradition of bringing in the coal, some are done on All Souls Day but often it's done much earlier for luck throughout the year.
"The name is a mystery. One theory is it's from 'pasch', the French for Easter while some think it means peace. There's a Pace Egg in Preston in Lancashire which also happens around Easter and it's a completely different activity. They decorate eggs and race them down a hill in the park but it has the same name. In Bacup, just over in Lancashire, it's running and dancing through the town."
For Heptonstall and St George!
In addition there are three different types of Pace Egg: combat, wooing and sword-dancing. Heptonstall follows the 'combat' version: "What once might have been a pagan ceremony for good luck now has elements of the Crusades. Saint George is challenged by Bold Slasher, the Saracen knight and by the Black Prince. Then comes the King of Egypt and his knight, Hector. Like a lot of old pagan and Celtic ceremonies, if the church couldn't get rid of them, they took them over and adapted them..."
So why the 'egg' if the play hasn't got a definite link with Easter? David says: "One character who is fairly unique to the Upper Calder Valley is Toss Pot. Everyone loves Toss Pot. He's a tramp, a drunk but he's fun. In our play he rushes into the crowd and kisses a bonny lass and he gives them an egg which is a symbol of fertility."
Nowadays the Heptonstall Pace Eggers also use this tried and tested format as the basis for 'alternative' plays performed at the Heptonstall Festival in the summer. Themes have included poll tax, wind power, planning and the law.
Everybody loves Toss Pot!
Three decades after its revival Heptonstall's Pace Egg is still going strong: "People like our play because we stay in the village. We do performances and we probably have a few drinks between them so there may be more ad-libbing but our audience knows the lines and join in. We've got a big following of people who come regularly...I think people like to feel a connection with these things. It's something to do with the past, with nostalgia and with some deeper cultural meaning that they don't quite know but it's the mystery that makes it interesting."
As for today's Pace Egg players, there's only been one cast change in the last decade. David says: "Everyone loves doing it. It's become part of their life, part of their year. We can't not do it. It's a marvellous day and I just think it's a very important cultural thing to keep going. It's wonderful that so many people follow it. It's become more than a play."
You can find out more about the Pace Egg and other Heptonstall traditions by visiting the village museum. David asks that visitors do not try and bring their cars into the village as parking is very limited.
[All photos are (c) Chris Ratcliffe except Pace Egg 1966 which is courtesy of David Burnop].
last updated: 21/04/2008 at 16:04
West Yorkshire people's lives and stories revealed!