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Holne Revel

Bacchanalian rites and pagan sacrifices on Dartmoor, surely not? Licentious and bawdy carousing at Holne, the birthplace of Charles Kingsley, can’t be? Well, sadly it’s was probably true, I say sadly because the ‘Holne Ram Roast’ is/was no longer any of the above. In fact in later years this event became known as the ‘Holne Revel’ – a much more sedate affair.

In 1853, the curate of Holne wrote a description of the day: “At the village of Holne, situated on one of two spurs of Dartmoor, is a field of about two acres, the property of the parish and called the Ploy (Play) Field. In the centre stands a granite pillar (Menhir) six or seven feet high. On May morning, before daybreak, the young men of the village assemble there and then proceed to the Moor, where they select a ram lamb (doubtless with the consent of the owner), and after running it down, bring it in triumph to the Ploy field, fasten it to the pillar, cut its throat, and then roast it whole, skin, wool, etc. At midday a struggle takes place, at the risk of cut hands, for a slice, it being supposed to confer luck for the ensuing year on the fortunate devourer. As an act of gallantry, in high esteem among the females, the young men sometimes fight their way through the crowd to get a slice for their chosen amongst the young women, all of whom, in their best dresses, attend the “Ram Feast,” as it is called. Dancing, wrestling and other games, assisted by copious libations of cider during the afternoon, prolong the festivity till nightfall“.

It appears that the original custom died out and was replaced with a similar rite in the late 1800’s. This involved decorating a lamb with flowers, especially roses and leading it down to the ‘Play Park’ where the beast was slaughtered, dressed and roasted. The slices of ‘lucky lamb’ were then sold off and the rest of the day was spent having fun and games. Apparently this version took place on the 6th of July as opposed to the original May Day event but there does seem to be some confusion. In later years the ceremony was again modified by obtaining a ram prior to the event once again saving the men from having to lollop all over the moor in pursuit of the ‘sacrificial ram’. It was still roasted in the Play Field and the scramble for the meat took place but afterwards the day was spent in sporting activities and general celebration. Below is an account of the event written in 1890:
As at present observed, Holne revel is held on old Midsummer’s Day, viz, 6th July, for the change in style in 1852 failed to influence such an ancient observance. On this day a ‘Ram is roasted whole,’ by virtue of ancient usage, in a field adjoining the Churchyard, known as Play Park. Formerly the inhabitants enjoyed the right to take for the purpose the first ram met with on entering the moor near the vicarage, but now the animal is purchased by subscription, and the right of seizure lost. When considered properly cooked it is carried in a procession headed by a fiddler to the inn, and there carved by an experienced person, and sold in slices, formerly when not subscribed for it was distributed gratis, the poor not being forgotten. Old people who have been lucky enough to obtain a taste every year state that ‘revel-ram beats every sort of roast meat in flavour and richness,’ for they say ’tis so sweet.’ The feast over, wrestling and other sports commence for prizes given by the principal residents, and later in the day the fiddlers appear, and dancing is kept up to a late hour; so late in fact it is necessary to obtain an extension of time for keeping the inn open, which has never been refused. The seniors are supposed to discuss parish matters, while the young enjoy themselves in other ways. So necessary is it considered for the welfare of the community that ample time be given for full discussion of these important matters, that on occasion the reason given for the application was that those who were talking over parish matters could not be interrupted to close the house.” – The Totnes Times, July 5th, 1890.
Just after this article was written the revel took on a new attraction in the form of pony races which were held on Green Down. These were properly regulated with quite handsome prizes for the winners. Apparently the idea behind the races was that it was; “hoped that a truly pleasant day will be spent, free from the old abuses frequently associated with the ancient revel.” Which basically meant a distraction from the normal licentious goings on along with the copious amounts of beer and cider consumed. Another report from the same year read; “Holne Revel and Ram Roasting, which date from time immemorial, and to which on the last two occasions have been added Galloway and pony races and athletic sports, was held on Green Down, close to the village, on Monday afternoon, and despite a storm of wind and rain there was a large gathering from Buckfastleigh, Ashburton etc. and numbers from Plymouth. A ram was roasted whole under the superintendence of veteran ‘Bill Stevens’, assisted by Tom Dodd, and the delicacy was afterwards retailed to the crowd.” – Western Morning News, July 9th, 1890.
Unfortunately this ritual goes beyond the memories of time to establish its origins but the very fact that a sacrifice at a menhir takes place on May Day is very suggestive of a pagan rite. Many think that the Ram Roast is an extension of the old Celtic celebration of Beltane which occurred around May Day and that the ram was a sacrifice to the god – Belus. This day would have marked the time of year when the livestock went out to the summer pastures and shielings, so possibly the sacrifice was to ask for a productive year. In many traditions there was also the Beltane Fire which possibly could also account for the roasting of the sacrificial ram.
Today the Holne Revel has trans mutated into an annual fete with no vestiges of any roast ram. However the villages of nearby Kingsteignton and that of Bridstowe still hold annual Ram Roasts during the summer months.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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