The Soul-Cake Devotees

Friday November 1st 2013. The English – Welsh Border.

It rained.

And rained

And rained

But undaunted they travelled.

The Determined Devotees, seeking & when possible devouring, Soul Cakes.

in mists2

Across, through and along the rain drenched  ‘Middle March’.

walk area

From Llanfair Waterdine to Hyssington, via Bettws y Crwyn, Sarn, Snead & Mainstone.

The route guides can be viewed here: Soul route Bi-fold Leaflet  &  Soul Route details

The parishes linked by the walk are very small and composed of houses and farms scattered across hills or in valleys. The total population for the area covered by the walk is around 1000 people (but many more sheep).

The ‘communities’ associated with such places are very dispersed. None of the places has a shop, school or post office.

route map:sneadLlanfair, Bettws & Sarn have pubs (but with varied restrictions on opening and accessibility), they also, along with Mainstone & Hyssington have village (‘community’) halls maintained by voluntary action. In Sarn, Mainstone & Hyssington there are Nonconformist Churches & in Bettws a former chapel being restored for community use. The only feature that each parish shares is a parish church (in Snead there almost nothing else!).

The Parish Churches are therefore important points of focus for local residents. They are not simply ‘places of worship’ (very few people regularly attend such activities) – they are more important than that.

These are buildings capable of creating a sense of ‘belonging’. Regardless of religious belief they are symbols of a specific geographic community;  a means of stating that however scattered the settlement may be, it is ‘a place’. These ‘church’ buildings can be important gathering points at certain times of the year & at certain times of life (especially important are funerals).

So in each parish the ‘devotees’ visited the parish churches as a means of marking their journey through a parish  – and in each they sang.

240px-The_Church_at_Llanfair_Waterdine_-_it'  A t Llanfair the hope was that the elderly hare, observer of many events since the C16th, would help speed them on their way.

2013-11-01 09.46.54

Dry and warm at this, their starting point, they sang (hesitantly)

2013-11-01 09.52.46

They sang in the hope of Soul Cakes ….. ‘A Soul , A Soul, A Soul cake, Please good misses a Soul Cake…….(consequently they appeared frequently)

& of purgatory:

THIS ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

(given the weather conditions, a purgatorial verse was very appropriate)

From the valley of the Teme the route rose onto the hills of the Clun Forest (though apart from the incline, due to a constant mist and rain, there was no indicator of ascent ) and into the parish of Bettws y Crwyn

into Bettws

and to ‘The Church of the Skins’: Bettws y Crwyn.


and on the table – ‘soul cakes’

bettws cakes

soul cakes at Bettws

happily consumed

Bettws group

then back into the mist and rain……

through mists

through mists2


and on to The Anchor

“A unique pub in West Shropshire. Although once a drovers’ inn, the current layout incorporates a former workshop and shop. Undoubtedly “unspoilt”, it is low beamed, has original and bare stone walls, and information about its heritage adorne the wall. The wall also has the proud proclamation of 17 years of ownership in June 2013! Its situation is remote, it is the second highest (at 1266 ft) and the most westerly pub in Shropshire, and is 400 metres from the Welsh border. Altogether a rare experience! Participates in the annual Clun Valley Beer Festival each October”

at the anchor

 After excellent comforting & generous helpings of soup and beer, followed by the consumption of more ‘Bettws’ Soul Cakes, the group made their way across the border out England into Wales

crssing border2…..out of Bettws Parish & into Sarn Parish.

But soon after, back to Bettws, at the Cantlin Stone & at which they all stared in a Pooh like fashion.

The original stone marker lies beneath the present memorial. It was moved to its present position in the C19th. Previously it was placed on the other side of the Kerry Ridgeway marking the border between England and Wales.

at C stone

From the Cantlin Stone a downward path led through the mist shrouded trees

woodmist2        – and the weather seemed, if anything, to worsen


There was then arrival in The City – a collection of around 8 houses (the actual number is disputed!) & probably so named because it was, until the 1990s, the largest number of closely placed houses in the parish.

Through the city

The day concluded with the group trekking the final mile to Sarn Parish Church……. arriving in near darkness…….to Sarn Church

but being welcomed by folksy tunes on the organ & a warming drink of tea. folksy tunes


T in Sarn

Saturday November 2nd

The group, slightly altered in personnel, re-assemble for breakfast.

D2brkfst 1





It had ceased raining (though not for long!)

The route re-traced its way back through the centre of ‘The City’

D2city centre

and onto the hills, where, in the rain and increasing wind, the Pilgrim Devotees were observed carefully


On the boundary of Mainstone parish there was a welcome

D2S-M3boundaryand the group, accompanied by native guides began its descent towards Mainstone Church

Through a valley which could known, in the ‘welsh tongue’ as Cwm y bleiddiaid

There are wolves.


The valley, as well as containing wolves leads to the only Church standing on the Offa’s Dyke – Mainstone parish Church, strangely sited, at a point called ‘Churchtown’ well away from the centre of the community it serves. The parish ranges over several hill ridges and its northernmost part is in Wales.


Offa’s Dyke and the associated long distance pathway both pass the church

mainstone church

The name ‘Mainstone’ may provide a reason for this curious position (though not an explanation).

The name is from Magonsaetestane: ‘the stone of the Magonsaete‘ (or Magonset). This was a territory possibly centred on the old Roman town of Magnis (Kentchester) & which existed in the C7th/8th AD before being absorbed by the larger Saxon kingdom Mercia.

All this history is uncertain (the above link is riven with caution in its statements) – which makes Mainstone Church & its proximity to the Dyke all the more fascinating.

It was King Offa of Mercia who probably ordered the construction of the ditch and mound by which the Church stands.

D2 M1

Not only cakes but coffee and tea!

At Mainstone the Pilgrim Devotees were provided with two types of Soul cake.

D2 M2 2sl cks

on the left: The Shropshire Soul cake attributed to a Mrs Mary Ward of Pulverbatch (d.1853 aged 101) – however (‘Mainstone’ being as ‘Mainstone’ & not exactly prepared to fit with what has been stated) the shape is altered, as the word ‘soul’ has been rendered as ‘sole’ (but the toes fell off in the making). These cakes were very similar to French brioche

on the right the more common North Western biscuit version

Both link here provide some interesting background information.

Following the refreshments the group moved to the main feature of Mainstone Church – the stone.

D2 M3 stone

It is extremely heavy. There are many stories regarding its origin – and its purpose.  Given the name of the place it does seem likely that this stone has been here for a very long time. Mainstone Church it would seem, occupies a place that was of political and social significance in the centuries before  the Norman occupation.

On leaving Mainstone Church the group passed along the valley of the River Unk and climbed to Bishop’s Moat. Though extremely difficult to photograph clearly (due largely to the dense ‘overgrowth’ of plants normally termed ‘undergrowth’) this Motte and bailey is regarded as a very fine example and survives, as a series of earth ditches and mounds reasonably intact.D2bishop's motte

Though now seemingly placed high and apparently insignificantly on a junction of single track roads  it is probable that this junction point was once of considerable importance.

There are locally many similar constructions – most on lower ground, and they have been described as   ‘perhaps the most remarkable concentration of mediaeval defences on the whole of the Welsh March’

The two routes that intersect here were, in one case Yr Hen Ffordd – The Old Way – which crosses Mid Wales and then England. It is very ancient, probably as old a route as any in the UK but latterly a cattle drovers road. It is now known as the Kerry Ridgeway. The other, less recognised route, was part of one that probably connected northern Mid Wales (most importantly in the mediaeval period, Montgomery, a Royal castle) with  what is now the south-west midlands (specifically Hereford & Gloucester – another Royal castle).

More speculation about issues and times of which we know very little. Our Soul Cake Pilgrims (seeking their next ‘feed’) only stopped to be photographed alongside a curious banner (and mud and winter-feed root crop) being used by the farm that occupies the castle site.

D2 M-H1 motte

For them, wind blown and rain soaked, it was onto the valley – and Snead.

However before arrival at Snead (the smallest parish – but, comparatively, a rather large Parish Church – certainly one to compete with all the others on the route) & near to the crossing of the River Camlad (the only river that flows from England into Wales) the group was meet by ‘The Cycling Incumbent’ – i.e. the priest responsible for the local churches on the northern side of the Camlad River.

D2M-H2 bikeAfter the greeting and warning that ‘the others were around the corner’ (? – ‘The Others” – what horror awaits?) the group greeted (joyfully) ‘The Others’.


Snead Parish Church was, as with other places on this journey, more significant than it is now.

It has an historic link with Chirbury.

The pilgrim devotees were greeted by ‘The Others’ and also family.

D2M-H4 snead

Though the parish is old, the Church building is not.


There was, inevitably, singing – the same song as was repeated throughout the walk…. a-begging for Soul Cakes.


This time however the beggars were required to wait, to travel  up the hill and first face the story of the Bull of Bagbury, now trapped, in a boot (?!) at the doorway to Hyssington Church. A story told in a dingle just below Bagbury itself.

D2M-H7bgby in the rain

There was then the final ascent to Hyssington Church, through fields and along the old trackway to the Church.



Before formal arrival acknowledgement was made to the entrapped Bull


After which it was further assaulted by godly singing produced by the walkers and a local welcoming party.


This being the destination point – and to ensure that the Bagbury Bull remained passively beneath its stone, the whole group gave a spirited rendering of all the verses both of the Soul Cake song & the Lyke Wake Dirge. (The words at: A Soul Cake & Lyke Wake Dirge)

The pilgrim-devotees were then provided with a formal welcome……


….. – in Latin.

Amici, comitesque cari…
Ad finem peregrinationis tuto pervenistis.
Alii a ripis Tamii fluminis ad ripas Camladii iter fecistis,
Alii ignavi modo partem confecimus.
Per septem paroichias Silvae Cluniae erravistis.
Heri, ex ultimis finibus Aquagustatorum, ad Pellum Ecclesiam
Ad Urbem-iuxta-Sarniam, domum archiperegrini contendistis.
Per totam diem Juppiter Pluvius vobis male usus est.
Hodie, liberales Magnisaxones salutavistis,
Primum Castellum Episcoparum et monasterium Sneddium mirati estis,
Et tandem ad hanc ecclesiam Celticam Isatuniam advenistis.
Et semper, ut quondam ille praeclarus Chaucerius
Multas fabulas longas in itinere creavistis:
Fortasse de ieunio Sarnico, et de tauro feroci Bagburiense.
Hymnos permultos Dis Manibusque strenue cantavistis,
Ovibus vaccisque attentis,
Et Panes Animarum Averni avide gustavistis.
Nunc igitur Loonio duci gratias agimus, qui laboravit ut peregrinatione optima iterum gaudeamus.
Peregrini, Diem Animarum et Diem Sanctorum bene celebravistis
Nunc laeti domum revenite. Valete et curate ut valeatis.

 (for an English translation click here: latin address)

Following this laudatory encouragement the whole group shuffled off to a nearby house where soul cakes & considerable amounts of other cakes, of all shapes and sizes, were consumed.



After further singing – this time tunefully led with guitar accompaniment,  talk turned to possibilities of future celebratory activity,  beginning with an international meeting in Poznań, Wielkopolska.

4 thoughts on “The Soul-Cake Devotees

  1. Richard Whately Nov 11, 2013 — 11:15 am

    Fascinating record! good luck with your celebrations in Poznan.

  2. Peter’s question today: What is a soul cake? Or: what does it symbolise or represent?

    1. celebratorylinks Nov 25, 2013 — 7:25 am

      Presumably, in Mediaeval times each cake, given charitably, represented the soul of someone in purgatory. The giving of money was a means of reducing the time that the should remained there.The growing realisation in western Europe that this process may not have a basis in ‘hard reality’ plus the abuse of the whole process (by papal authorities) of collecting money as a means ‘saving souls’ was a major factor in creating the Protestant Reformation. In places such as Britain where Protestantism became deeply and enthusiastically embedded, the original meaning and purpose was lost – but the tradition survived as a largely children’s activity.

  3. Yep, thank you!
    I only knew the Watersons version but was delighted to find this:

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