An old tradition preserved.
Wonderful sunny evening down by the Bristol Trader in Quay Street with the Cleddau at its highest. A dozen boats arrive to help the Mayor beat the bounds….
Ilya Repin caught it just right.
It looked like the crowd at Kursk, at once both well-dressed and tattered, haughty and humble, ugly and handsome, limp and athletic, heads held high and others downward looking in slight embarrassment. A young man on stilts with a long bamboo pole, which he tapped repeatedly on the ground both for stability and attention, wore a brown frock coat and a three-corned hat…. He amused children eager to see the imminent river pageant with his friendly and joking banter.
It was all there.
The procession walked along the quayside at Haverfordwest behind the Mayor and her Consort that warm July evening. Five hundred years before Pembrokeshire’s county town, once even a county in its own right, had been an important port. In the Middle Ages, the Mayor was granted the grand title of ‘Admiral of the Port’ by James 1 in 1614 along with an annual salary of £30.00 and the rights of public fishery within the borough.
But tonight, in the lazy July air tinged with the electrically amplified sounds of the Vagrants Crew, a local seven-person band, with their tin whistles, tambours and ukuleles, the Mayor and her entourage commenced the annual pilgrimage to the White Stone, the town’s riverside boundary. Head held high with her husband – Consort is the official word- the Mayor in her red cape and heavy golden chain of office slung across her shoulders and hanging low across her chest walked confidently over the uneven disused quay stones. Old warehouses long since closed, their storage windows boarded, eyeless, with flaking green paint, looked down blindly on the people.
The procession stirred memories of Repin’s great canvas which hangs in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Two by two they followed the Mayor to the small boats. In she climbed to make the short river journey against an incoming full tide to ensure, like the hundreds before, that she could exercise her rights of fishery.
Around a dozen small boats with names as varied as the people who marched to them: Dynevor, Saucy Jane, Hercules, and Nautilus, waited, moored to the old quay’s thick rusty rings.
The red caped dignitaries boarded first, a plump old woman was helped down from the quay into the boat by two tanned seamen with strong hairy arms. Then came the sheriff, another chain of office around his neck, bailiffs, the sword-bearer with the highly polished scabbard held diagonally across his chest and the serjeant at mace smiling beneath his yellow banded topper wearing a long black coat. He had to attend upon the Mayor whenever necessary. Others in flowing scholar’s gowns with embroidered badges followed, and finally came men wearing suits, with unbuttoned jackets accompanied by ladies in knee length dresses wearing fascinating hats.
A red-faced man with his head forward glowed with pride at his position on the procession, yes, it was just like Kursk one hundred and thirty years ago – a small town’s annual procession. The good and the great, the halt and the healthy, the fat and the thin, the short and the tall watched by a crowd in colourful summer clothes drinking pints of ale and glasses of white wine from the bar of the Bristol Trader.
The boats steamed up the Cleddau estuary, wide and full, with its swampy riparian grasses swaying in the bow-waves. The White Stone, alone under a tree, is only half white, but it is strong and large by the river side where it has stood for centuries. Its big day had come again. A bishop in a white surplice holding a battery powered megaphone delivered an inaudible service drowned out by the sounds of the engines of the stationary boats.
Five minutes passed.
Then back to Haverfordwest, just as ships had from the 13th century, to unload their cargoes, except tonight it was not apples from Herefordshire, wines from Bordeaux or cloth from Holland but the people of Haverfordwest who once again helped the Mayor preserve an ancient and quirky custom.