About the Festival

The Sowerby Bridge Rushbearing Festival is one of only a few instances of this particular English tradition still being celebrated annually.

Rushbearing itself dates back several centuries to the time when church floors consisted of little more than stone flags or beaten earth and rushes were used as a winter covering. Each year, in late summer, the old and rotten rushes were cleared out and new ones taken to the churches in carts. Human nature being what it is, this annual custom developed into an excuse for celebration involving revelry, music, dancing and much drinking of strong ales.

Over the course of the weekend, our own festival sees the progress of the rushbearing procession around 7 towns and villages visiting many churches and local hostelries along the way. The focal point of the procession is the sixteen feet high, two-wheeled, handsomely decorated and thatched rushcart. A team of young ladies take turns to ride on top of the cart as it is pulled by sixty local men dressed in Panama hats, white shirts, black trousers and clogs. Accompanying them are a group of supporters in Edwardian dress along with some of the region’s finest musicians and morris dancing teams to provide entertainment for the crowds.

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of our first event back in 1977 and we have planned a weekend of entertainment appropriate to celebrating this landmark.

Rushbearing History

Historically, the custom of 'rushbearing' was confined to the Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria, Cheshire and parts of Derbyshire. It was probably well before the 16th century that this late summer custom of replenishing the rushes used in the churches developed into an anticipated yearly festival.

From the early 18th Century, the focal point of these festivals in West Yorkshire and Cheshire was always the celebrated 'rushcart.' Rivalry between the supporters and builders of different carts was sometimes intense and open brawls often developed, no doubt assisted by the large amount of beer that had inevitably been consumed.

Ultimately, the need for the rushes as a floor-covering disappeared, but the festival survived in many places. Locally, through the early to mid-1800s, rushbearing was celebrated in many local townships including Luddenden, Illingworth and Brighouse. In some places a cart was still a feature. An account of the Ripponden festival of 1842 states that the fun lasted a full week and that a rushcart was pulled through Soyland and Rishworth before finishing up back in the town.

The custom of building a rushcart had died out in most places by the end of the 19th century however the first decade of the 20th century saw a number of places revive the practice, usually to mark some civic occasion. Such a cart was built in Sowerby Bridge in 1906 as part of a celebration to mark 60 years of local government. It would be over 7 decades before the town saw another.