Proud Blidworth church celebrates 100 years of keeping baby-rocking custom alive
At 3pm on Friday, a peal of bells will be rung at St Mary’s Church in Blidworth to signal the start of an event unique to the whole of England.
Nowhere else in the country, and probably the world, is there a religious ceremony that depicts the story in the Bible of baby Jesus being presented to the temple in Jerusalem.
On the first Sunday of every February, a baby from Blidworth is rocked in a cradle at the village’s 15th century church as a symbolic re-enactment of the story, which is also commemorated by the Christian holiday of Candlemas.
This year’s Rocking Ceremony carries extra poignancy because it marks the centenary of the ancient custom being re-introduced by the church in 1922.
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Therefore, the village has organised a full weekend of celebrations, including an exhibition and a concert, to complement the Rocking service on Sunday morning. Hence the bells.
"I am really looking forward to it,” enthused the Rev Zoe Burton, the vicar who will preside over the service with the Bishop of Sherwood, the Rt Rev Andy Emerton.
"It is an important and historic event, and the people of Blidworth are very proud of it.
"We have worked hard as a community to make it a celebratory weekend. Real goodness and community spirit are behind it all.
"We have lived through tough times over the last couple of years, so something like this is not a bad thing.”
The Rev Burton, who herself has just become a grandmother, added: "The ceremony depicts a beautiful story, and I see it as a symbol of light and hope.”
The Rocking Ceremony dates back hundreds of years to the Middle Ages and a time when churchgoers could not read, so Bible tales were acted out.
However, it was banned in the 1600s after it was exploited as an excuse for excess partying and drinking among villagers.
One man, 59-year-old Thomas Leake, was even murdered at the 1598 Rocking – as a book by local historian Will Richards explains.
Leake held an important job as verderer of Blidworth Forest, responsible for day-to-day administration and investigating crimes.
"But he loved his wine, and the revelry of the Rocking threw him off guard,” writes Richards. “He was drinking heavily at a pub called the Archers, where the landlady took exception to the amount of time he spent with her daughter.”
The landlady duly summoned two men to help. They pounced on Leake, who died in the ensuing fight.
A memorial tablet to Leake was later installed in the church, but not until 1842 was the Rocking revived, and even then it lasted only seven years.
It took the appreciation of the Rev John Lowndes to bring the ceremony back to life in 1922 when a centuries-old cradle was donated by villager Eliza Pointon.
The cradle has been used ever since, and Eliza’s great-great grand-daughter, Nadine Jackson, 67, who lives in neighbouring Rainworth, says she will be “proud and privileged” to be at Sunday’s service.
Traditionally, the baby chosen each year is the boy born closest to Christmas Day who is the baptised son of Christian parents living in Blidworth.
Back in 1922, it was Charles Clifford Simpson, who went on to be killed while serving in the Royal Armoured Corps in France during the Second World War, aged just 22.
This year, it will be Francis Stephen Vasey, born on December 22 to become the first child of George and Georgia Vasey, who live on The Crescent in the village.
George, aged 25, is a maintenance technician, while Georgia, 23, works as an early-years practitioner at a nursery in Hucknall.
Both recognise the prestige attached to being chosen as a Rocking baby.
“We were keeping our fingers crossed because he was actually due on December 10,” they said. “He was finally born nearly two weeks later, weighing 8lb 7oz.”
Despite his size, Francis, who was baptised on Sunday, should fit into the cradle. But it was a close call last year after the ceremony had to be delayed until August because of pandemic restrictions. Baby Jaxon Harmieson was more than eight months old by the time it took place.
Maureen Garner, 77, a lay minister and community stalwart, has co-ordinated the organisation of the weekend.
As well as Maureen, several other locals have worked hard to make this year’s Rocking Ceremony extra special.
They include 77-year-old local lay reader, Stephen Fox, who has decorated the cradle with flowers – just as he has for the last 30 years.
And then there is Chris Dabbs, whose family has Blidworth connections going back to the 1400s and looks after the village’s war memorial.
He has provided a floral display for a large, cast-iron sculpture of the cradle which sits on Forest Folk Corner in the village.
Meanwhile, Blidworth Welfare has allowed its rooms to be used for free, while Blidworth Parish Council has given a grant to help with costs.
At the heart of the event will be an exhibition of Rocking memorabilia, photos, videos and artefacts, to be staged on Saturday and Sunday by the Blidworth and District Historical and Heritage Society at St Andrew’s Mission Hall. This will include footage that has been unearthed of the BBC covering a Rockings Ceremony in the 1950s.
On Saturday evening, the welfare hosts a concert featuring Blidworth Welfare Band, folk singers and entertainment by students at Joseph Whitaker School in Rainworth – all organised by Dan Ball, the school’s head of music.
Money raised from the concert, for which tickets cost £5, will go towards the ongoing refurbishment of the mission hall.
The invitation-only Rocking service is earmarked for 10 am on Sunday, to be followed by a procession to the cradle sculpture, where there will be a service of blessing conducted by the bishop.
There will then be a buffet lunch, provided by the village’s BJ Bakery, for all at the mission hall.
By that time, Blidworth, population just 4,400, should be bursting with pride at the way it has kept alive for 100 years a medieval ritual respected across the Christian world.
Word has it that Will Scarlet is buried at St Mary’s Church. Even he, as one of Robin Hood’s outlaws, would approve.
The names of all the Rocking babies since 1922 are inscribed on a board in the church.
And attempts have been made to contact those still living to invite them to this weekend’s celebrations.
"So far, I have managed to trace 45,” said Maureen Garner, a lay minister and community stalwart.
“The oldest, Brian Baxter, who lives in Forest Town, goes back to 1932 and is 90.
"His older brother, Charles, was also a Rocking baby in 1929 but, sadly, he died just before Christmas. Brian, his wife and daughter are coming along on Sunday.
"I have also made contact with the 2000 baby, Callum McInnes, who now lives in Australia, and the 1961 baby, David Green, who lives in Canada.”