In Comes I That Never Came Yet...

It's getting close to the time of year for soul caking in Cheshire.  The swift passing of the seasons and the sudden arrival of the autumn's tradition never fails to surprise us, but I'm glad it's here again.  I've been doing the play for 19 years now, which means that for as much as it is about keeping a tradition alive, it's also great to have the occasion to bring together friends that we only see at this time.
Helsby Soul Cakers, circa 1920
We always get asked what it's all about, and there isn't a straightforward answer.  When I first started performing in the plays, I was a keen archaeology student and did a lot of reading around wanting to know more about the tradition.  The books then were full of writings about the plays being an enactment of a pre-Christian ritual, the triumph of spring over winter, the death of the old year and birth of the new.  Sounds great, but even then I knew that wasn't quite right.  These days, there are thankfully many more considered works and much detailed study has taken place, it's essentially a seasonal folk play of a form that seems to stretch back to the mid-18th century, (If you're so inclined to read more you could begin with the website of the Traditional Drama Research Group.)  But my short answer when I'm asked in the pub after a performance is that it's an old Cheshire tradition and a bit of a spectacle so that the performers can do a collection at the end. 
Soul caking is one of those seasonal mummers' plays where a hero, St George in our case, challenges his enemies to a fight and slays one of them who is then revived by a quack doctor before a host of odd characters appear and collect money from the audience.  The plays are fairly widespread across England and crop up in some parts of Wales and Scotland too being performed at different times of the year in different regions.  The Cheshire versions, with the exception of Alderley, are performed around All Souls' Day, 2nd November and from that they derive their name.  In earlier times the performers would receive a soul cake, a spiced bun, in memory of those that had died in the past year.  These days we collect money for charities instead, and whilst sometimes soul cakes are presented we more usually receive a round of drinks instead from the landlords in the pubs we perform in.
A particular element of the Cheshire version of these plays is the presence of a wild horse character, a cloaked figure with a horse skull and there are stories of a tradition that if a gang of soulers didn't have the horse skull with them they couldn't collect, so rival gangs would try to steal each other's horse.  Thankfully we've managed to keep hold of our horse, Young Ball, all the time I've been with the group.

Our lot are called Jones' Ale Soul Cakers as they emerged from Jones' Ale Folk Club more than forty years ago.  Some of us, myself included, inherited the roles from our dads or fathers-in-law, others have been roped in after they showed passing interest at the end of a performance.  There's about eight characters in the play, but on occasion it has been tricky to get everyone along to each performance, so I know it can be done with four people and some speedy costume changes.  We'll have a full ensemble this year, but as I type I've no idea who I'll end up being, I've done all the parts over the years. 
The first generation of Jones' Ale Soul Cakers
If you want to catch us we'll be out and about on Friday 1st November around Lower Bridge Street area of Chester and over the river in Handbridge on Saturday 2nd November.  The timings and those for the other groups going out and about usually get listed on the Master Mummers website.  One of them, Antrobus Soulcakers, are supposed to be the folk play group with the longest unbroken tradition in Britain.  They perform not too far from us, but I've never yet seen them, though I hope to one day.  Then again I say that each year, and our failure to catch them is becoming a tradition in itself.