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Whitby Penny Hedge Planting 1950: Copyright Whitby Museum [LS 0541-05] or Whitby Penny Hedge, Wikimedia Commons: 

Every year, on Ascension Eve, a curious medieval ceremony takes place in the small coastal fishing town of Whitby in North Yorkshire. At 9am, the Bailiff of the nearby manor of Fyling erects a small wattle hedge, known as the Horngarth or Penny Hedge, on the mudflats of the River Esk. Tradition dictates that he must complete the hedge with a ceremonial hammer, signal its completion with three blasts on a ceremonial horn and three cries of ‘Out on ye’, and ensure that it lasts for three tides. So far as we can see, this ceremony has happened every year since at least the 12th-century, with only two exceptions.

According to an 18th-century legend, the ceremony originated in 1159 when local landholders on a hunting trip killed a hermit, who used his dying breath to place their lands under the Abbot of Whitby and impose the building of the hedge on them as an annual penance.

At York Festival of Ideas, this Sunday, June 14, Dr Tom Pickles from the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester, will offer a new explanation, which may present the earliest evidence for the town’s long-standing fame for fish (if not chips). He will suggest that this is evidence for the Anglo-Saxon origins of the fishing port. He will then consider why this original significance disappeared, but the ceremony survived.

Tom said: “As a native of Whitby, I grew up familiar with this fascinating ceremony. But it is only recently that I was engaged in new research on the Abbey of Whitby in the 12th and 13th centuries and had a eureka moment about its origins. I just hope that the people of Whitby are sympathetic to this new interpretation, or I’ll never be allowed to return to home!”

You can see Tom’s talk – The Anglo-Saxon Origins of Whitby Fish and Chips – at York Festival of Ideas, led by the University of York, on Sunday June 14, 2020, between 4pm and 5pm. The talk is free but registration is required at: It will also be available afterwards on the York Festival of Ideas YouTube channel.

Image caption:

Whitby Penny Hedge Planting 1950: Copyright Whitby Museum [LS 0541-05] or Whitby Penny Hedge, Wikimedia Commons:  Please note further Wikimedia Commons licence attribution details below:  


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