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Gower animal head customs

Animal head customs were widespread in Gower. Horse's head ceremonies were known at Mumbles, Llangennith, Horton and Rhosili, and Mumbles also had a ram's head tradition. Although the local people sometimes used the name Mari Lwyd to describe these traditions, the Gower horse's heads came from a different background to the Welsh language Mari tradition, which was widespread in the valleys to the north.


(This article was written by Mick Tems and appeared in the December 1998 issue of Taplas. The Mumbles Horse did not, after all, go out that year; volunteers came forward, but too late for the skull to be decorated. But in 1999, the last Christmas of the century, enough interest was shown and the Horse was back on the streets. Len Bowden is hopeful that, now interest has been aroused, it will be possible for the Horse's Head to go out every year in the future).

ONE of South Wales' most venerable and genuine folk customs is waiting to take to the streets again this Christmas if only a handful of enthusiastic singers can be found to give it a rousing send-off.

The Horse's Head has not been out on its rounds of the clubs and pubs of Mumbles since about 1985. It is brought out most years and shown to a couple of schools, including one up in Crynant, above Neath; but despite fond memories and lots of good wishes from the folk of the village at the Gower end of Swansea Bay, no one has the time to commit to go with the horse and sing its songs.

The Horse's Head first appeared 134 years ago, and ever since then the decorated skull has remained in the possession of the same Mumbles family. The tradition is that it tours the pubs and clubs of Mumbles for the seven nights leading up to Christmas Eve, originally raising money for the party but in more recent years collecting for charity.

The tradition has meant immortality for Sharper, a horse which used to pull the cart bringing vegetables up from Gower. When he died, his body was buried in a lime pit at Barland Quarry, Bishopston.

The story goes that the English-speaking boys of Mumbles had heard about the Mari Lwyd horses in the Swansea Valley, and wanted some of the action for themselves. They dug up Sharper's skull and decorated it, while the vicar, the curate and the choirboys of All Saint's, Mumbles, composed the song.

Len Bowden is now 55 years old and anxious that his sons, Neil and Wayne, should carry on with the tradition in future; Len's wife, Lorna, is the one who will have the task of renewing all the decorations if the volunteers come forward and if the Horse goes out this year. She's not keen on the job: "I was actually sick the first time I saw it," she admits. "How would you like to put your hand up a horse's skull to stick rosettes on it?"

Lorna and Len were trained in their tasks by Len's mother, Marjory Bowden, who died in February 1981. I first met her five years earlier, when I recorded her Mumbles songs and her recollections of the village's old traditions.

Apart from Poor Old Horse, Mrs Bowden sang Soap, Starch and Candles (a song which was also known to have been in Phil Tanner's repertoire), The Derby Ram (which was used by the boys of Mumbles who were too young to go out with the Horse's Head... Mrs Bowden said they would get a ram's head from the butcher and parade it around behind the horse) and The Mistletoe Bough, which was used by the Horse's Head party as an encore. Around the same time, I met Mr Tom Gammon of Thistleboon, Mumbles, who not only sang The Mistletoe Bough but assured me that all the older people of the village believed it to be a true account of a ghastly tragedy which had happened at Oystermouth Castle.

(Coincidentally, the very same story is told in Welsh language tradition about the cursed valley of Nant Gwrtheyn, in Llyn, Gwynedd, where the National Language Centre is situated. One of the curses on the Nant was that no couple from the valley should ever be happily married... and when Rhys and Menir tied the knot, she ran from him and hid. Her skeleton was only found when, many years later, a bolt of lightning split the oak tree outside the cottage where Rhys lived, the ruins of which stand in the Nant to this day.)

Last month, Len told me: "The head hasn't been out for many years because we can't get a choir like we used to. The schools have it and a couple of halls have it, but the last time it went out properly for charity was about 17 years ago.

"Every time you ask somebody, it's: "Great, love to help but I'm too busy." It's a tradition that should be kept going but without people to give you a hand, you just can't do it.

"You need 10 or 12 voices to do it properly. It would be nice to keep it going, but we can't. Back in the old days, the boys used to walk to Gower with it. They'd be invited to parties in the big houses, Langland, Caswell, down as far as Three Cliffs."

In the darkest days when it seemed that the Horse's Head would never go out again, the Bowdens even offered it to the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans. "They didn't want it," says Laura. "They said they had got too many already."

If that's right, the Museum was way off the mark. Some people in Mumbles may call their horse the Mari Lwyd, but Sharper and the other horse's heads of Gower -- and they were known to exist in Llangennith, Horton and Rhossili and probably in other places as well - came from a related, but distinctly different, tradition. There was no Welsh language here, no question and answer - just the song, an encore, carols in some places. And the action is placed firmly before Christmas, rather than Nos Galan.

The Bowdens still stick to the family tradition that the Poor Old Horse song was put together by the vicar, the curate (who was also the organist) and the choirboys of All Saints Church. "We've been told that it comes from somewhere else," says Len, "but we beg to differ on that one."

What about the story that the vicar had arrived in Mumbles from the Derby area, from where he could have brought the outline of the song?

"I've never heard that, but it's quite possible," Len agrees... doubtfully.

Still, it doesn't matter. In its Mumbles form, gracing Sharper's excursions, the song belongs to the village and is as much of a fixture as Oystermouth Castle.

Len is hoping choir volunteers will come forward in time to arrange a few rehearsals. "You can't be looking down at the words, mumbling into the paper," he says."You've got to have a choir that knows it."

If you can offer Len a couple of nights - Monday December 21 and Tuesday 22 look the most likely - you can contact him on 01792 520160. You'll be helping a good cause - Julia Stewart of the South Wales Evening Post has taken a lot of interest in the Horse's Head lately, and Len has promised her that if it goes out this year, proceeds will go to the Post's current appeal for hospital equipment.

You can sing, but don't expect to go under the Horse. "Nobody does that but me," says Len. "It's 134 years old now - and if anybody breaks it, it's going to be me."

POOR OLD HORSE (as sung by Mrs Marjorie Bowden, Mumbles, 1976)

My clothing it was once
And my limbs they were so fine
My mane and tail was long
And my coat it used to shine
But now I'm getting an old horse
And my courage is getting small
I'm forced to eat the sour grobs
That grow beneath the wall.

Poor old horse, let him die (here the horse bows low)
Poor old horse, let him die.

He eateth all my hay and corn
Devoureth all my straw
He is not fit to ride upon
Nor yet my carriage draw
Likewise these actiful limbs of mine
That have travelled many a mile
Over hedges, ditches, bramble bushes,
Gates and narrow stiles

My bones unto the huntsman
So freely I would give
My flesh unto the hounds
Well I really do believe
Then it's whip him, spur him, cut him,
To the huntsman let him go
It's whip him, spur him, cut him,
To the huntsman let him go

So now they've eaten all my flesh
My bones are white and dry
They put my head upon a stick
To go out at Christmastime
So now my song is ended
But I still am very gay
To wish you all your happiness
On this coming Christmas Day

On this coming Christmas Day
On this coming Christmas Day

(as sung by the Mumbles Horse's Head party, Christmas, 1976)

The mistletoe hung in the castle hall
The holly branch hung on the old oak wall
The baron's retainers were blithe and gay
In keeping their Christmas holiday.
The baron behld with a father's pride
His beautiful child, Young Lover's bride
And she with her bright eye seemed to be
The star of that goodly company.
Oh, the mistletoe bough, oh, the mistletoe bough.

I'm weary of dancing now, she cried,
I'll tarry a moment, I'll hide, I'll hide.
Young Lover, be sure you're the first to trace
The clue to my secret hiding place.
And away she ran and her friends began
Each tower to search and each nook to scan;
Young Lover, he cried: "Oh where dost thou hide?
I'm lonely without thee, my own dear bride."
Oh, the mistletoe bough, oh, the mistletoe bough.

They sought her that night and they sought her next day;
They sought her in vain 'til a week passed away,
In the highest, the lowest. the loneliest spot,
Young Lover sought wisely but found her not.
And years flew by and their grief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past;
When Lover appeared, the children cried:
"See the old man weep for his fairy bride."
Oh, the mistletoe bough, oh, the mistletoe bough.

At length, an oak chest that had long lain hid,
They found in the castle, they raised the lid.
A skeleton form lay mouldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair.
Sad was the fate of her sporting jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest;
The lid sprang shut, and her bridal bloom
Lay withering there in a living tomb.
Oh, the mistletoe bough, oh, the mistletoe bough.

THE DERBY RAM (as sung by Mrs Marjorie Bowden, Mumbles, 1976.

As I was going to Derby,
'Twas on a Derby day,
I met the finest ram, sir,
That ever was fed upon hay.

CHORUS: Hi-way, follow-me-oh,

This ram had two great horns, sir,
As far as your eye could see.
And inside of his horns, sir,
The parson used to preach.

This ram had two great eyes, sir,
As big as you ever can see;
The boys had them for footballs
To kick around, you see.

And all the boys in Derby
Was looking for his skin
To make a handy waistcoat
For that was just the thing.

So now my tale is ended,
I cannot sing no more,
And if we come another year, We hope you'll give us more.

Mrs Bowden told Mick Tems in 1976: "The boys used to go round the Mumbles and collect the money on a Christmas time. Then, when they got older, they'd go with the Horse's Head. They boys used to go with the Ram's Head and the men used to go with the Horse's Head; but of course, as the boys grew up big enough, they'd go with the Horse's Head. That's what they used to do.

"They'd go to the butcher and get a sheep's head. They'd take it home and boil it, so they got it whole. They'd trim it up, then, like the Horse's Head. A bit of colour, ribbons, ears and everything on it, just like the Horse's Head... and a sheet, or a towel, over it anything to cover them. A gang of them would get together and off they'd go singing. They'd make no end of pocket money for Christmas.

"Sharper used to come up from Gower every week, selling vegetables. He was a young horse, but he died and they buried him out at Barland. The boys had grown up and they wanted this Horse's Head. They'd heard there was a horse's head up the valleys, so they thought they'd have a horse's head as well. They'd got too big for the Ram's Head.

"So they went out and dug him up. They brought him back and buried him in lime until he was clean. Couple of years, or the next year after, they dug him up, wired his jasw up and made him work. My father took him home to his father and his mother, and she had the job then to dress him up. She didn't know what to do with him... she broke two bottles and stuck them in for his eyes, his mother made a cover to go right over the head to pin the rosettes on... ribbons, they made up rosettes. He's been dressed ever since the same way. That was my father and his brotherm when he was about 16 years of age.

"Once or twice my sisters and I have said, oh, give it to a museum out of the way, but when it comes to it, all in all, we couldn't part with Sharper. He's been in the family too long."

"They sang the Horse's Head song. They went to the church Bible class, my father and his brother, and the minister of the church helped them to make this song up, and the same old song has gone down the years... They used to sing The Mistletoe Bough as an encore, if they wanted to hear another song."


In his article My Gower, written for the Gower Society journal in 1957, Horatio Tucker said: "During the 19th century the Horse's Head was in evidence throughout Gower, usually for two or three weeks before Christmas... The version as sung today at Oystermouth, however, is a corruption of the old ballad of a hundred years ago, when the lament by the old horse was sung as a solo part, the rest joining in the chorus and the finale. The old ballad runs:

Once I was a young horse
And in my stable gay,
I had the best of everything,
Of barley, oats and hay;
But now I'm getting an old horse,
My courage is getting small
I'm forced to eat the sour grass
That grows beneath the wall.

Chorus: Poor old horse, let him die.
Poor old horse, let him die.

I've eaten all my oats and hay,
Devoured all my straw;
Now I can hardly move about
Nor can my carriage draw.
With these poor weary limbs of mine
I've travelled many a mile,
O'er hedges, ditches, bramble bushes,
Gates and narrow stiles.

Chorus: Poor old horse, let him die.
Poor old horse, let him die.

My hide unto the huntsman
So freely I would give
And my body to the hounds
For I'd rather die than live.
So it's shoot him, cut him, strip him,
To the huntsman let him go
For he's neither fit to ride upon
Nor can his carriage draw.

Chorus: Poor old horse, you must die.
Poor old horse, you must die.

"After having cajoled the residents to unbar the door, the Horse, bowing and snapping its jaws, cavorted around the kitchen, its antics rather belying its avowed decrepitude. The company was proffered hospitality, and on retiring was suitable rewarded for its traditional display. At Oystermouth, however, the party as a farewell gesture sang The Mistletoe Bough. Why this well-known ballad should have been associated with the Horse's Head only at Oystermouth is curous, but as long as memory serves it has been so...

"The Ram's Head, another custom exclusive to Oystermouth... unfortunately died out early in this century. Organised by the younger lads of the village, it was also expected and welcomed by householders at Christmastide...

As I was going to Derby,
'Twas on a Derby day,
I met the finest ram, sir,
That ever was fed upon hay.

CHORUS: Fol der ree, dol der ree, fol der ree, di do.

The ram was fat behind, sir,
The ram was fat before,
The ram was ten yards high, sir,
Indeed, he was no more.
The wool upon his back, sir,
Reached up into the sky,
The eagles made their nests there,
I heard the young ones cry.

The wool upon his belly, sir,
It dragged upon the ground
And it was sold in Derby, sir,
For forty thousand pound.

This ram had two big horns, sir,
As high as a man could reach,
And inside one of the horns, sir,
The parson used to preach.

The butcher that killed this ram, sir,
Was up to his knees in blood;
And four and twenty butcher boys
Were washed away in the flood.

And all the men o' Derby
Was looking for his eyes,
To kick about for a football
For they was just the size.

And all the women in Derby
Was looking for his skin
To make a fancy waistcoat
For that was just the thing.

And now my story's ended,
I cannot sing no more,
And when I come another night, I hope you won't say no.

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Last updated 08 March 2010 . Copyright 1999 Celfyddydau Mari Arts.