By the time of our first recorded vicar in 1215, the ceremony known as ‘beating the bounds’ was probably well established in Leigh. The custom has pre-Christian origins, associated with the springtime blessing of the crops and with prayers for a good harvest. However, Christianity adapted the idea and by the early eighth century, it had spread to England.
The ceremony generally involves the whole village walking around the parish boundary – most usually on Rogation Sunday (i.e. five weeks after Easter and a week before Ascension). Religious and secular reasons were in evidence: there is a good quote from George Herbert in 1652 explaining four of them: firstly, to bless the fields; secondly, ‘justice’ – everyone knowing the boundary for legal reasons; thirdly, ‘charity’ – you were meant to forgive your neighbours and, lastly ‘mercie’ – you gave out money to the poor.
Exact details of the walk varied around the country. Sometimes sticks (white willow or elm wands) were taken round by the boys who would literally ‘beat the bounds’ or the boundary markers, which were usually large stones or special trees. On other occasions, the willow wands were used “to beat” the choirboys – the idea being that they were ceremonially being taught where the often much–disputed boundary of the parish was. Often the choir had a more practical purpose, singing hymns, and Francis Hamlyn, through whose farm the boundary between Leigh and Weald goes, remembers marching round part of the Weald boundary with hymn singing at regular intervals. Sometimes Church officials were thrown into the boundary river or stream; and sometimes new clergymen had to do eccentric things to be accepted by the parish…
There are a few memories of the ceremony in Leigh. Doreen Brooker remembers Fred Whibley – then we think the Parish Clerk – walking the boundary each year probably in the mid 20th century – and Harry Lucas remembers his grandfather saying that the men of the village used to do it – probably the beginning of the century – but not the women.
Parish Magazine Article: May 2002: by Chris Rowley