COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
ROGATIONTIDE - the fifth week after Easter - is the traditional time for Beating the Bounds, one of the many occasions where the Church has felt it prudent to absorb an ancient pagan ritual rather than demonising it. Beating the Bounds - or "Perambulation" - is a relic of spring fertility rites, in which giving magical encouragement to the crops fitted in naturally with the reaffirmation of shared land-rights. The ceremony is currently undergoing something of a revival, and for the past 10 years, the next- door villagers of Boxmoor (now part of the carapace of Hemel Hempstead New Town) have perambulated their common, a more practical and relevant gesture these days than attempting the whole parish.

About 80 people, mostly families with children, turned up on Rogation Sunday afternoon, and were soon strung out in a cheerful and garrulous crocodile across the complex network of meadows and woodland which a trust has held for the village for more than four centuries. The children carried willow wands to give the crucial boundary features a token thwack.

In previous days the kids would have been whacked themselves, as an aide- memoire, but this was hardly a full-blown "Rammalation". In the 18th century they were extraordinary affairs, by turns Christian sacrament, civic demonstration and village frolic. Their chief purpose was to impress upon each generation the extent of the parish, especially common lands, and to warn landowners against abusing commoners' rights. On the procession itself, between stops for gospel reading and beer, encroachments were often dealt with summarily, by the tearing down of fences and opening of blocked paths. It was an elaborate ceremonial, and in Selborne, Hampshire, where the boundary is 18 miles long, it lasted three whole days.

Boxmoor Common's boundaries are nothing like as long as this, but, remarkably for these land-hungry times, have actually stretched over the past couple of years, thanks to land-swaps during the building of the bypass, and a lease from the local authority of a farm. Our proces-sion was little more than a recce, but we had time to register what a slice of parish history the commons now embrace: the gravemarker of a highwayman, Robert Snooks, among the pasture-land buttercups; a set-aside field turning into a wood; a medieval bank-and-ditch along the boundary between the grazed common and the coppiced "outwood". The amazing thing was to find these fragments tucked between railway and bypass and factory estates, the industrial order being obliged to respect common rights. No wonder our procession was cheerful, and followed the admonitions of the 17th-century poet and cleric George Herbert, who listed among the benefits of Perambulation: "Justice in the preservation of bounds [and] Charitie in living, walking and neigh- bourly accompanying one another." 8

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