Beating The Bounds

Footpaths In Marldon – Beating The Bounds


The tradition of Beating the Bounds (a walking of Parish boundaries) is an ancient custom which has its origins in pagan times.  The ritual “beating” (of the ground) would have begun as a way of awakening the sleeping crops in the Spring.

The custom later took on a Christian form, and processions were held by the Priest and villagers to beseech or ask God’s Blessing on the newly springing crops.   These processions took place on the four days of Rogationtide, which falls in the fifth week after Easter, before Ascension Day (Thursday).   “Rogation” comes from the Latin word “rogere”, meaning to ask or beseech.

The custom spread to Britain in the 8th Century and was soon combined with an already long established custom here of fixing Parish boundaries by ceremonially walking them annually, preceded by a cross or banner on “Cross” or “Ganging” days  (“Ganging being Old English for “going” or  “walking”).   Crop beating and boundary walking were thereafter performed in the same ceremony – or were until the Reformation when the crop-blessing element was viewed as “Popish”, or at least superstitious, and was banned.  Fortunately, in the time of Elizabeth 1 the clergy were again permitted to walk in procession on Ascension Day to mark the boundaries of their Parishes, and this part of the custom became much the more important element and has generally remained so ever since.   At each natural boundary marker, be it a stream, pond, hedge or tree, the Priest would recite a passage from the Scriptures or lead the singing of Psalms.

There was an obvious need for fixing the Parish boundaries securely in the memory in times when maps and written records were few, and most people could neither read nor write.  The tradition also ensured that no land-hungry neighbouring village or farmer had encroached upon the bounds of the Parish, perhaps depriving the community of some outlying fishpond, grazing or firewood-yielding copse, valuable to the survival of the village.   The simplest way of ensuring that the Parish boundaries were known and remembered was to walk them every year and mark them – either by a natural feature such as a stream, tree or hedge or by a marker placed for the purpose such as a marker stone or boulder.   To impress the location of the boundaries on the younger walkers, children would traditionally be “bumped” on marker stones, dragged through streams or ponds or thrown over hedges and walls!    Afterwards they would be rewarded with gifts and refreshments or willow wands with which to join in the “beating of the bounds”.   The theory was that they would not forget their experience and would remember where the boundary markers were in future!

Regrettably, this ancient tradition has suffered by becoming redundant or unnecessary, for practical purposes, by the Enclosure laws of the 18th and early 19th Centuries, and by the introduction of Ordnance Survey Maps.    However, the custom survives in very many parts of the country, in both rural and urban areas, and is more often than not a civic ceremonial whilst often retaining some involvement of the local clergy.