The few of us who still celebrate Midsummer's Eve now do so at the back end of June. A handful of ancient celebrations persist throughout the
British Isles, but Whalton’s ‘Bale Fire’ is a little
different from the rest.
The residents of Whalton, you see, mark Midsummer’s Eve on 4th July – a fact easily explained by the change here in the UK, in 1752, from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar, when we all made a ‘jump’ of several days. The minor furore caused by this shift was eventually overcome and, in time, almost everybody made the transition to the ‘new’ date for Midsummer. Not the villagers of Whalton, though. They would not be moved. And since 1903 it is the only village in the country to have maintained the curious ceremony on the wrong date. Or should that be the right date?
The word ‘bale’ (sometimes shown as ‘baal’) is derived from the Old English Bael or the Old Norse Bal meaning a great fire (it is possibly the name of an old sun god), and in Northumberland seems to have survived as a word used to describe a beacon fire lit on a prominent spot to warn locals when raiders were on their way from the north. These days the ‘bale’ is a modest bonfire on the green by The Beresford Arms pub, around which the local children and Morris dancers jig and twist – after which all present adjourn to the village hall for refreshments and yet more dancing.
Interestingly, during the black-out in World War II a few twigs were lit and quickly put out to preserve the tradition!