Beating the Bounds: The story behind the tradition
Dr. Robert Baxter wrote this article to inform the early activities of the Society that were designed to raise awareness of the Society and the geographic focus for us in the newly formed Lynsted with Kingsdown Parish.
We have brought together some images (below) from 2003 (Boundary Walks) and 2004 (Planting Holly Trees). We are very grateful to the local branch of the Men of Kent and Kentish Men who donated the holly trees.
At a time when we are celebrating the formation of the Lynsted with Kingsdown Society with a 'Marking the Bounds' event (2003 and 2004), it is perhaps timely to consider the ancient tradition that lies behind it.
Beating the Bounds
At a time when we are celebrating the formation of the Lynsted with Kingsdown Society with a 'Marking the Bounds' event, it is perhaps timely to consider the ancient tradition that lies behind it.
In the mists of time, family groups would have spread out from their initial settlement, clearing the wild wood as they went with fire and flint axe, and cultivating the virgin soil. Eventually they would have run up against the neighbouring community, coming the other way. The need for a recognised territorial boundary was thus born.
Natural features such as rock outcrops, streams and solitary trees (in later times some were 'Gospel Oaks') were often used as boundary markers. To avoid boundary disputes, it was important that the location of the boundary line was understood. Before the coming of the Ordnance Survey, with its precise maps in the nineteenth century, the position of town and parish boundaries were passed on by word of mouth. Often this was not enough, and recourse was had to the process of the 'Beating of the Bounds'.
The Beating of the Bounds is an age-old ritual, possibly having its roots in a fertility rite, traditionally carried out in Rogation Week, between the fifth Sunday after Easter and Ascension Day. In the case of a rural parish, the parson, accompanied by village worthies and a throng of inhabitants, young and old, walked around ('perambulated') the parish boundary. He would preach and give blessing at the various markers around the route. In some communities sprigs of tree foliage (oak) were carried, in others elm or willow wands were used to do the 'beating' of the boundary markers. This communal occasion was lubricated by liberal quantities of food and drink. But there was a serious purpose: to keep fresh in the local collective memory the exact location of a boundary that may never have been written on any kind of map. To reinforce the message, young lads in the procession (the elders of the future) would often be given a 'memorable' experience at particular points on the circuit. For instance a boy might be told to 'feel the heat' of a certain boundary stone. As soon as he had touched the stone, he would be grabbed and his finger given a mighty wrench - as a reminder of the stone and its importance. In another recorded instance a boy had his ears pulled and was 'set on his head' upon a marker-stone.
Understanding the position of the boundary was of vital importance to an individual in his relationship to his community, his parish church and local government. It had economic significance in defining common rights (to land, or firewood collection, for instance). In mediaeval times, the church had a right to a 'tithe': a tenth of all crops and produce went to the parson as a tribute to the church. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, however, the right to a tithe could be bought and sold, leased or sub-let. The position of a boundary would determine the value of a tithe, and be of great significance. Disputes about boundaries were common, and often heated.
The Norton Church Register records: 'This is to certify, in future, to all those whom it may concern that the Rector and other substantial men went the twenty eighth day of May 1769, the perambulation of the circuit of Norton in the County of Kent. Witness our hands this day and the year above written.'
The process Beating the Bounds was a mixture of community party and official ceremony, no doubt enjoyed by (almost) all. George Herbert, Rector of Bemerton, summed it up: 'A blessing of God for the fruits of the field; Justice in the preservation of bounds; Charity in living, walking and neighbourly accompanying one another'.
Unfortunately, because of lack of access, and danger of trespass, it is not readily feasible to walk around the exact perimeter of the Parish of Lynsted with Kingsdown today. But perhaps the spirit of the good rector will buoy us along on our celebration event in 2003, as we 'neighbourly accompany one another'!
Winchester, A. Discovering Parish Boundaries. Shire Publications, 1990.
Mabey, R. Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson,1996.
Hill, W. St Mary, Norton, the church in the orchards. History.
© R Baxter, 2003 Created: 6 August 2003
On 28th November, a cold but bright day, five members of the Lynsted with Kingsdown Society headed on foot across a field at Nouds to join Fiona Boucher at her newly planted hedge. The object was to plant holly trees near the point where the parish boundaries of Teynham and Norton met that of Lynsted with Kingsdown.
Back in 2003 Lynsted parish had been enlarged by the addition of Kingsdown. The Society was formed later that year, and its first project had been to 'mark the bounds' (boundary) of the new parish at six points. These were where two adjoining parish boundaries met our own: Teynham and Tonge, Tonge and Rodmersham, Rodmersham and Milstead, Milstead and Doddington, Doddington and Norton, and Norton and Teynham. First, inscribed chestnut stakes had been driven into the ground within the nearest hedge, and these were augmented the following year by a pair of holly bushes to act as living markers. Two were planted in case one failed to establish itself. Hollies were chosen because they are traditional marker-trees in the country landscape, and have been used for centuries to mark the position of footpath junctions, gates, stiles and vagaries of the parish boundaries. Holly trees are evergreen, so they show up in winter, and are long-lived. They also provide shelter from wind and rain to those caught abroad in inclement weather. It is also believed to be unlucky deliberately to fell a holly, so the plants are protected by tradition. Perhaps most important of all, being prickly, they disturb the path of witches who tend to fly on their broomsticks along the tops of hedgerows on their way to do ill.
The Boucher enterprise had recently removed the old, gappy, hedge that had run along parallel to the A2 just east of the Nouds Lane junction. Unfortunately the Society's brace of hollies were grubbed out as part of the clearance! As it happened I was heading along the A2 at the time: I screeched to a halt, bounded up the bank and confronted the chap supervising the mechanical digger. He proved most apologetic, and the two of us combed the heap of bulldozered vegetation. But we could not find any holly....
Subsequent discussion with Fiona established that they had not recalled our project (the planting had been fourteen years before!), but they were more than willing to replace the missing trees. So it was a happy crew who convened at the fine new double-row native-species hedge. They were even more delighted to find that Fiona had already planted not two, but three, sturdy holly whips. Mary Fielding and Norma Baxter, who, with the writer, were survivors from the original party who did the planting at this location all those years ago, carried out the symbolic addition of a spadeful of soil. Nigel Heriz-Smith, current chairman of the Society, and an original holly planter himself, Alistair Taylor, committee member, and the writer (the original project leader and first chairman of the Society), looked on. Fiona and the Boucher family were warmly thanked before we all headed for home. It was hoped that in due course it may be possible to carry out a traditional 'beating of the bounds'. In this way youngsters of the parish could be taken around the periphery and firmly shown the various features, including the hollies, that establish the position of our frontier with the rest of the world!