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Riding Water

Riding Water

Whilst browsing through an old book of 1875 I came across the following eyewitness account of the ancient tradition of ‘riding to water’ which took place in the Dartmoor village of Lydford.

We spent the morning with our friends, and early in the afternoon retraced our steps to Lydford. As we approached the village, an unusual hubbub saluted our ears. Sounds of merry voices, and peals of laughter resounded through the place which we had found so silent in our early walk. Every now and then a scream might be heard, with the distant blast of a rude trumpet; and above all came that peculiar din which proceeds from what is termed the music of marrow bones and cleavers. As we turned the corner of the road which led into what by courtesy we may call the street, the occasion of all this uproar appeared before us. Men, women, and children in holiday attire were scattered here and there, flying before the appearance of two figures, ridiculously apparelled, who were seated back to back upon a donkey, belabouring sometimes each other, sometimes the beast, and sometimes the spectators with a broom and ladle. The noisy procession proceeded with full speed to the banks of the Lyd, when the two figures leaped from their poor little steed, and begun with fresh vigor to scatter dismay around. The broom and ladle were now made service in flinging water over the devoted heads of the bystanders, who ran screaming away in every direction in most laughable confusion. It was a curious and animated scene to look on from the heights above. The whole face of the landscape appeared so completely changed since the morning: then all had been wrapt in gloom and melancholy; now every feature appeared smiling with gaiety and mirth. But what could have occasioned this transformation? an old woman who had not joined the giddy assemblage explained to us that, a young couple had quarrelled and fought within the first year of their marriage, and that this was the mode adopted to hold their conduct in derision: the figures on the donkey represented the man and his wife: in fact it was what in Devonshire parlance is termed “riding to water”. We heard the shouts of the performers in this rustic drama long after we had set off on our road toward home” – 1875.

In her book of 1845, The novels and Romances of A. E. Bray’ Eliza writes the following:

“… What, Captain, going to see Mistress Raleigh home! on the back of an old troop horse! Ha, ha, well, well, better she be made to ride that way than riding to water; but Mistress Raleigh need not fear the latter, since it is reserved for a scold“.

At the bottom of the page is the following footnote: “Riding to water, a custom practised within living memory of some now living in Devonshire, was the same thing as riding the skimmington, noticed in Hudibras“. Interestingly enough the O.E.D. gives the following definition for ‘skimmington’:

skimmington: a procession made through a village intended to bring ridicule on and make an example of a nagging wife or an unfaithful husband. Recorded from the early 17th century, the term may come from skimming-ladle, used as a thrashing instrument during the procession”.

Although the actual ‘crime’ at Lydford was an arguing couple as opposed to a nag or unfaithful husband the ladle certainly ties in with the account. In effect this practice could be deemed as an early blend of marriage counselling and a ASBO and certainly shows how serious an unhappy marriage was viewed within the community. There does seem to be some sort of individuality in the Lydford tradition insomuch as the splashing of water was involved – see also ‘The Stag Hunt


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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