The Burning of Old Bartle: A Glimpse into Wensleydale’s Unique Tradition

in West Witton

In the heart of Wensleydale, the village of West Witton plays host to a tradition that is as enigmatic as it is enduring. The Burning of Old Bartle, held annually close to St. Bartholomew’s Day in late August, captures the imagination and curiosity of both locals and visitors alike. This event, far removed from the quaint charm often associated with country galas, offers a deeper, more primal form of entertainment and communal gathering.

As dusk settles on West Witton, after a day filled with the lively festivities of fell running and a country gala, a transformation occurs. The focal point of this evening tradition is an effigy known colloquially as “Old Bartle” or “Owd Bartle.” This figure, devoid of any antlers contrary to some misconceptions, becomes the centerpiece of a procession that meanders through the village streets. The procession is a spectacle of community spirit, marked by stops at select houses for doorstep drinks, enhancing the communal feel of the event.

Integral to the ceremony is the chanting of an ancient verse, recounting the grim tale of Old Bartle’s chase and eventual demise. The doggerel, stark in its imagery, narrates a harrowing pursuit across local landmarks, culminating in Bartle’s fatal end:

“At Penhill crags he tore his rags
At Hunter’s thorn he blew his horn
At Capplebank Stee he broke his knee
At Grassgill Beck, he broke his neck
At Waddam’s End he couldn’t fend
At Grassgill End we’ll make his end
Shout lads shout!”

This is followed by three cheers, and it is an interesting event to participate in, as it takes place on the main A684 road through the village.

This verse not only serves as a narrative to Bartle’s chase but also binds the participants in a shared recital, echoing the unity and continuity of this tradition through generations. The procession ends at the edge of the village where the effigy is consigned to flames, a spectacle that, while it concludes the physical journey of Old Bartle, marks the beginning of continued revelries into the night.

The origins of this peculiar tradition are shrouded in mystery. Some speculate a connection to St. Bartholomew himself, pondering the reasons for commemorating the saint in such a seemingly pagan ceremony reminiscent of scenes from “The Wicker Man.” Another theory suggests Old Bartle was a sheep rustler or an unfortunate scapegoat who met a dire fate at the hands of his community.

Whatever the true origins, the Burning of Old Bartle stands as a testament to the enduring nature of local traditions and the powerful role they play in community identity. This event, with its unique blend of festivity, folklore, and a touch of the macabre, invites us to ponder the deeper connections between past and present, community and individual, in the continuing tapestry of rural English life.

Related Accommodation

The accommodation below is nearby - and has been updated recently.

Prospect Barn

Main Street, West Witton, DL8 4LP, United Kingdom

The Wensleydale Heifer

Main Street, West Witton, Leyburn, North Yorkshire, DL8 4LS

The Old Star

Main Street, West Witton, Leyburn, North Yorkshire, DL8 4LU

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