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Know Your Cheshire: Antrobus Soul Cakers

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An old tradition is being kept alive by a group of local enthusiasts, based at The Antrobus Arms pub near Northwich.

It’s the ancient art of ‘souling’ which is an old-time precursor to the modern ‘trick or treating’.

Souling marks the three days around All Saints Day (1st November).

Susan Singola, of the Antrobus Soul Cakers, explained: “Long ago, people believed that the walls between the living and dead were very thin at this time of year.

“The Christian church adopted 2nd November as All Souls Day and 1st November as All Saints (Hallows) Day, making  31st October All Hallows Eve [Halloween].”

Susan continued: “The three days were celebrated by eating special cakes, called soul cakes.

“A tradition developed for children to go from house to house, singing and asking for soul cakes.

“Later, in certain areas – especially Cheshire – this changed into the performance of mumming plays by groups called soul cakers.”

The tradition was taken to America by early settlers and became widely popular, ultimately returning to the UK in the guise of what we now know as trick or treating.

The tradition of souling largely died out in the UK after the First World War.

In Antrobus village, however, Major Arnold Boyd (a naturalist and historian) recorded the words used in the traditional mummers plays and the tradition was preserved.

These words, called a ‘nominy’, had been passed down through the generations.

Thanks to Major Boyd, the plays continue to be performed to this day, with the Antrobus Soul Cakers visiting local public houses to raise money for good causes.

Antrobus’ troop is one of very few around the country keeping the ancient tradition alive. They perform in pubs around Cheshire between 31st October and 12th November each year.

It’s believed that more than forty Cheshire villages would once have each had their own versions of the play.

The play itself has a number of unusual characters – the Letter-in, Black Prince, King George, the Quack Doctor, and ‘Dick’ the Wild Horse and his Driver, resplendent in Cheshire Hunt livery.

All the parts, played by men, are thought to represent the souls of the dead.

The star of their performances is undoubtedly the supernatural Wild Horse.

The character Wild Horse’s head is a real horse’s skull, with its jaws wired so it can ‘snap’ its teeth at the audience!

It’s operated by a man covered with a blanket. His legs form the horse’s back legs, and a short pole supports the skull at the front.

The Antrobus Soul Cakers have raised hundreds of pounds for charity over the years they’ve been performing.

The plays have enjoyed a revival in a  number of Cheshire towns and villages including: Chester, Knutsford, Alderley Edge, Comberbach and Mobberley.

 

Where you can find the Antrobus Soul Cakers this year:

 

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