Town Criers, by definition, tend to be rather solitary figures. Wearing brightly-coloured regalia, white tights, yards of gold braid, frilly lace, white gloves, buckles on shoes, ringing bells and shouting their collective heads off – it has to be said, they do stand out in a crowd. Our dress is designed to do exactly that. Even though we may be surrounded by an admiring public, clicking away on their cameras, iPhones, iPads, iPods and the like, in some respects, we stand there very much alone, as pieces of bellowing, animated living history – or at least, until people come up to us and have a chat.
So, it is therefore, quite heartening, every once in a while, to meet up with other Town Criers and their escorts. Town Crier Competitions provide a means of doing just that.
Yeovil Town Criers’ Competition, April 2016
Observing how other town criers manage the whole business of “crying” can be quite illuminating and at times instructive.
For a start, the way they ring their bells is fascinating. Some ring their bells “hell-for-leather” in what you might call “fire alarm mode”, (I probably come under that category!)
Others simply perform gentle, deliberate, measured and quite frankly, economical bell rings.
Some do all the bell-ringing first before shouting the “OYEZs” three times. Others intersperse bell ringing with the obligatory, introductory shouting.
One crier from South Gloucestershire, a most informed and jovial gentleman, showed me his bell over dinner. He owned a bell that came with a fascinating and positively romantic history, of which he was keen to impart. The bell was once used on a horse-drawn fire engine!
How’s that for a piece of history! His pre-cry bell-ringing action was pretty engaging too.
Before his cry, he would hold the bell up and ring it from below, as you can see in the photograph. (I managed to restrain myself from shouting out: “Where’s the fire?”)
Then there’s the shouting of “OYEZ, OYEZ, OYEZ!” which is French for “Hear Ye!” One delightful lady Town Crier engages in a ritual of flinging her arms out, at full stretch and follows on by actually the singing the words with full operatic abandon!
It wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a Wagnerian opera! This was quite a novelty, I thought, although perhaps an afternoon of it, on the High Street, could become a tad tedious for shopkeepers? Each crier seemed to have an idiosyncratic way of shouting out the words. That alone made the contest interesting – even before we got on to the contents of their cries!
As I mentioned before, some criers are female and very pretty they look too, but inevitably, they do not generally have the lung capacity and strength of projection possessed by their male counterparts.
The most successful of them are those who do not try to match the men, but develop their own individual style, within the limitations that evolution has bestowed upon them. If they over-shout they tend to screech.
Personally, I shout “OYEZ, OYEZ, OYEZ!” long and loud but without the frills or silly antics.
I look for some spectators in the distance and imagine that I am trying to shout to the people beyond them!
I couldn’t help but notice that the “message” of a few Town Criers became very fragmented and a little hard to follow at times. This is simply because they took numerous pauses for breath and only managed a few words at a time in between huge gulps of air. I have realised that convincing and effective “crying” has to strike the correct balance between breathing to stay alive, trying to say a full sentence without breaking it up and maintaining a creditable volume throughout. Crying almost continuously for several hours (not in competitions, I hasten to add) is quite physically exhausting. I often return home from a Town Crying session, totally drained and with a deep husky voice reminiscent of Barry White!
For most competitions two cries are performed. Firstly, a “Home Cry” is made, extolling the virtues of our respective towns.
Here is my “Home Cry”, written for me by Lisa Goodwin, Glastonbury’s celebrated wordsmith:
OYEZ, OYEZ, OYEZ!
I bring sincere salutations
from the town of Glastonbury.
A magical, mythical place
a celebrated sanctuary.
Everyone knows the famous Tor;
it won Olympic recognition,
yet there is so much more
to our history, myths and tradition.
Waters of chalk and chalice well,
rich in myth and story.
Saints and Kings, the Holy Grail,
tales of heartbreak and glory.
Our Abbey on the Isle of Glass;
still considered the holiest earth,
though many years have passed
since the mother church was birthed.
Men who walked these hills of green
rooted a tree, most auspicious,
the Holy Thorn, a bough to the queen,
presented every Christmas.
In Glastonbury we recognise
so many faiths in unity,
and from the heart we harmonise
unity through diversity.
LONG MAY GLASTONBURY FLOURISH!
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!
After an interval, our “Own” cries are done. Sometimes we have a free choice and on other occasions, we’re given a theme. “Birds”, “Grandad”, “The Queen’s 90th Birthday” have been some recent topics!
The Town Crier competitions are run according to the rules of the Ancient and Honourable Guild of Criers.
Anxious Town Criers and Escorts wait their turn
The rules are quite strict too. Here are a few of the more interesting ones to give you an idea of the limitations that exist:
• The length of the cry must be between 100-125 words.
• Props, including the use of animals, must NOT be used by Criers whilst a competition is in progress.
• A crier may only take one means of calling attention onto the crying platform and carry a scroll for their cry.
• The order of the cry will be decided by a draw.
• The draw will take place in the presence of a majority of the participating Criers.
• All competitors must be available within 1 minute of their name being called.
• Criers must not wear badges, awards or medals relating to previous championship wins, or any such decoration that could influence the judges.
• Any Crier encouraging crowd participation may, at the discretion of the Competition Co-ordinator, be penalised or disqualified.
• All cries must be non-political, non-religious, and in good taste.
• If, during a cry, there is an exceptional noise or distraction (for example Low Flying Jet, Helicopter, Motorcycle, Explosion, Peal of Bells etc.) the Crier may stop their cry and restart, either from the position in their cry that they had reached, or from the beginning of their cry, without loss of points.
• Town Criers will be judged on:
– Diction (The pronouncement of the words)
– Inflection (The pitch of the voice and it’s variation)
– Volume (The output of sound)
– Clarity (The ability to be understood despite the volume)
The all-important “Draw”
My escort or “consort” for Town Crier competitions is Councillor Denise Michell, a member of the Glastonbury Town Council.
Councillor Denise Michell (ex Mayor of Glastonbury) – a worthy prizewinner!
I’m often asked why I don’t bring my wife along to these events. I should explain that my dear wife, June, is quite a private person and prefers not to get involved in Town Crier Competitions and I totally respect her wishes. However, June is perfectly happy to see me attend these events with our very good friend Denny. Denny enjoys dressing up in historic costumes very much.
She is very successful at it too, winning the “Best Dressed Escort” prize at the recent competition in Yeovil. (We also won the “Best Dressed Town Crier and Escort” prize at the 2018 Ilminster competition, by the way).
Our recent successes have been keeping the trophy engraver busy!
Denny and I have attended four competitions to date……we’ve been in the prize winners every time. Long may it continue!
After the competition is over, a three-course meal, alcoholic drinks, chats with fellow town criers or escorts and of course, the presentation of prizes, is a lovely way to round off the day.
During the course of a year, I receive numerous invitations to attend town crier competitions. Town Councils and the like tend to put them on to boost tourism. Seeing and hearing 25 town criers walking down a main street is quite a spectacle and cameras are usually out! Unfortunately, they generally occur on Saturdays in the summer months, when town criers are inevitably at their busiest, opening fetes and so forth. If I’m at a town crier competition then I cannot be available to serve Glastonbury, when called upon to do so. Clearly, there has to be a limit and so I usually support our two nearest ones every year
At the end of recent contests we were enthralled by the performance of an eight year old boy (grandson of one of the contestants!) – believed to be the youngest Town Crier in the UK. Since some of us are not in the “first flush of youth” shall we say, it was good to take a glimpse into the future!
A young crier