Yesterday, 2nd November, marked my first experience of Souling, or Soul-caking. According to Christina Hole, Souling used to be pretty widespread across Britain and Ireland, and consisted of people, often children, going from door-to-door offering cakes in exchange for money – or asking for alms – around All Souls Day. Much of this activity was related to remembering the dead, or guiding 'home' souls in purgatory, and songs would be sung, candles lit, and food left out for the souls on the move (living or dead). Sometimes, soulcakes were left in graveyards which must have been quite the sight.
At this time of the year – 'Hallowtide', which is a lovely word I'm going to have to use somewhere – The Antrobus Soul Cakers from Cheshire perform the Soul-caking play which is associated with souling but also with the St George's plays that are often performed around Christmas or Easter in other parts of the country. Christina Hole and Sara Hannant note that this play is unique due to the inclusion of a hooded horse character, the Wild Horse, so when my parents asked if they could come to stay for the weekend, I coaxed them into joining me to seek out the Antrobus Soul Cakers in leafy Walton, just south of Warrington.
The Soul Cakers take their play to four pubs each evening, collecting for local mental health charities – and indulging in the beer bought for them by the pub crowds, either anticipating their arrival or mesmerised by the surprise.
The play itself lasts around fifteen minutes and features familiar tropes from other mummers' plays I've seen – a fight, a death, a revival thanks to a quack – but I hadn't been prepared for how funny this play would be, especially with the addition of choice contemporary references. The Wild Horse, with its clacking jaws and manic expression, its tendency to back into punters, was certainly a memorable addition. I also enjoyed observing the reactions of the crowd: the children pulling their chairs close and watching in stunned silence; the half-cut women on a night out wondering aloud what they'd stumbled into; the men in rugby shirts making sure their heckles could be heard.
After each character had been introduced in turn, and the action had concluded, the players drank up, posed for a few photographs and bundled out into the waiting minibus, onto the next pub.