Dead tasty: English history festival revives tradition of graveside picnics

Lavish picnics and family feasts might not be the first things that come to mind when you think “cemetery”, but from Pagans holding silent dinners to Victorians dining alfresco among the gravestones, England’s food traditions have long been shaped by death – it’s only modern sensibilities that steer us away from celebration. But, as part of Heritage Open Days, Friends of Wombwell Cemetery in Barnsley, South Yorkshire has revived the tradition.

Established in 1994, Heritage Open Days is England’s largest festival of history and culture, and gives visitors a chance to look around some of England’s most historic places. This year’s theme, Edible England, will feature almost 4,000 events, including picnics, tasting tours and performances. The entire programme, which runs from 10-19 September, is free, including access to many sites that usually charge for admission. And for the second year running, there will be virtual tours and online discussions running in addition to the live events.

CemeTreats & Funeral Feasts at Wombwell Cemetery, which runs on 17 and 18 September, will include a talk on funeral traditions involving food around the world, followed by a chance to take home recipes to try out. There will also be an opportunity to learn about the history of Wombwell, with information provided by the Wombwell Heritage Group.

“We like to tell people that Wombwell Cemetery isn’t just a cemetery,” says Jessica Whiting, of Friends of Wombwell Cemetery. “It’s a place where people come together to remember their loved ones, to respect fallen soldiers, or to meet up with friends. We like to share the stories of our ancestors, of those who made Wombwell what it is today, so we learn everything we can about the people here and let them live on through their stories.

“This event in particular had a foodie theme,” Whiting adds, “and we originally thought it would be quite difficult to stick to that. But the stories we’ve learned of foodie funeral and cemetery traditions helped us to fit it quite nicely.”

Many of the events planned around the country last year on the Hidden Nature theme were disrupted or cancelled due to the pandemic, but this year’s has caught the imagination with a full programme of food-filled events.

There’s a “cool” day out featuring homemade cakes at the Ice House in Ladybelt country park, Norfolk- a relic of the Victorian age. There is A Taste of Jewish Food online from Cheltenham Hebrew Congregation, which goes beyond the bagel by exploring how Jewish cuisine has modern influences – with fish and chips traced to Sephardi migrants from Portugal.

In the north-east, there is Taste of the Toon, where volunteers from Newcastle City Guides lead a heritage tour around Graingertown, covering everything from the legendary first Greggs pasty shop through to regional classics, such as Newcastle Brown Ale and beech-smoked saveloy.

Pat Lowery, of Newcastle Association of City Guides, says: “Our heritage tours are a firm favourite with local residents. Quite a number of other ‘famous’ foods and beverages are a part of our north-east heritage, and we hope this will be a tasty, informative and enjoyable experience for everyone who joins us.”

For medieval history enthusiasts, St Albans Cathedral is hosting Medieval Munchies, a monastic culinary experience replete with a Brother Rockcliffe, inventor of the hot cross bun.

Open days also offer a chance to do plenty of cooking and baking. There is a cook-a-long with chef Ben Christopherson as he reveals the secrets of the infamous Black Forest gateau dessert. Alternatively, turn your kitchen into a time machine with a short online History of English Puddings with Paul Couchman, otherwise known as the Regency cook.

Sarah Holloway, programme manager for Heritage Open Days, said: “It is about connecting people, and nothing brings us together like food and drink. We’re excited to see what innovative events our organisers dish up, and look forward to sharing new sites and stories, as well as welcoming people back to some of England’s most vibrant places.

“Last year, for the first time, organisers embraced technology to deliver virtual tours, Q&As and behind-the-scenes experiences. We’re thrilled to encourage both in-person and online events again this year, so organisers and visitors can come together wherever they are.”

Comments are closed.