By Sean Wilson, Master Bailiff
On Saturday, 16th October, Ashburton’s Courts Leet and Baron held their annual Ale Tasting and Bread Weighing ceremony – a little later than the traditional date of the third Saturday in July and over two years since the last ceremony.
The ceremony celebrates the Courts’ role in ensuring the quality of produce sold in the town. Though scaled down as a precaution, the event attracted both local regulars and visitors to the town who enjoyed the event both for its traditional significance and its entertaining street theatrics.
The procession, led by a Jester, the Courts’ Marshalls, Portreeve, Master Bailiff, the Town Mayor and representative of The Lord of the Borough, and Court Chaplain in his bishop’s robes, visited fourteen pubs and bakeries, tasting tankards of ale and collecting and weighing loaves of bread. Certificates were awarded to each establishment and sprigs of evergreen given to each of the pubs to certify that they do sell good ale here!’
Whilst two tankards of ale were consumed at each pub, the ‘tasting’ itself involves spreading ale on a wooden stool and then sitting on it whilst wearing leather breeches. The story goes that if the breeches stick to the stool the beer has too much sugar in it and is not ‘good ale’.
The outlandish costumes of the pub landlords and humorous banter of the Ale Tasters and Bread Weighers makes for great street theatre that keeps the spectators entertained from one establishment to the next until the end of the ceremony when all the bread collected along the route is auctioned off.
A local auctioneer added real excitement to the auction, taking bids over £20 for several of the loaves. The Portreeve and Master Bailiff awarded the Bay Horse pub a cup for the best-dressed landlord who donned a dress for the occasion and really entered into the spirit of the event despite having only recently moved into the town.
After eighteen months of uncertainty, the event brought locals and visitors together in the sunshine for a much-needed afternoon of entertainment and laughter and raised over £170 for the Portreeve’s charity.
John Nutley the 1,199-1,200th Portreeve of Ashburton said: “Having been disappointed in not being able to have the ale tasting and bread weighing ceremony last year, it was a pleasure for the Portreeve and Master Bailiff to put on their robes and chains, taste the ale and be part of this ancient ceremony. I would like to thank all those that helped organise the day, those in the Courts Leet and Baron for taking part and the many spectators for supporting us.”
A bit of history
The first Portreeve of Ashburton was appointed in 820AD, around the time of Egbert, the first Saxon King of England. Originally the Portreeve would be responsible for maintaining law and order and carrying out the decisions of the Courts. These days the Portreeve’s function is mainly as a social head of the town, attending many charitable fundraising events and, together with the mayor, representing the town.
Ale Tasters (or Connors), Bread Weighers, Viewers of Markets, Inspectors of Trees, Pig Drovers, Searchers and Sealers of Leather, Scavengers and Constables are all roles that would have been carried out under the direction of the Courts and were largely concerned with the quality of produce and health and safety of local residents. These days, together with the Portreeve and Master Bailiff, they help to keep our traditions alive whilst raising funds to support local causes.
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