According to the Lindisfarne Chronicles, “Walking the ways all” was an annual tradition in all Anglo-Saxon towns. The third Thursday in July was set aside for the townsfolk to walk along the common pathways and re-establish their right to frequent these paths. According to the English Common Law, if this annual reclamation wasn’t performed these pathways would become the property of the local landowner, who could then collect tithes from the townsfolk for using the paths.
In 1471 a drunken clerk, Oliver de Turnhouse, misheard the Cleckheaton town crier’s proclamation and so the new tradition began. The town mayor for that year William de Gradlove had to walk around the paths dragging a small mammal with sharp teeth behind him. Animal rights not being of top priority, it’s believed that a different weasel was used every year.
One particularly cruel mayor, Edgar Stride, decided to ride around the paths on a horse as he didn’t want to be bitten in the ankle by the weasel. However, his fear caused his death. The weasel’s leash wasn’t quite long enough for it to walk on the ground. Not wishing to be strangled, the weasel fought and writhed against the leash until it managed to sink its teeth into the horse’s haunch. This powerful nip caused the horse to bolt – Stride was knocked from the horse’s back when it ran under a low branch. Stride hit the ground hard and died from his injuries. His quick-thinking deputy, Mortimer Sanderson, jumped over Stride’s body and managed to pick up the weasel’s leash before it could effect an escape. He walked around the rest of the paths without further mishap. This act of quick-wittedness is now enshrined in the ceremony. Since that day, when the mayors approach the area known as Mortimer’s Leap, they have to sprint for approximately one hundred yards, ensuring that the weasel is keeping up.
Only when the role of ‘The Walking Weasel’ became an officially recognized position in 1661, to commemorate the restoration of the monarchy, did the same weasel perform the ceremony more than once. Indeed it’s understood that the walk began to appeal to the weasel, as it came across the warrens of the local rabbits, which it could visit at other times of the year. The record for the number of walks undertaken by one weasel is 18 between 1872 and 1889 by Walter the weasel, whose son Barney succeeded him for a further 14 years. The ceremony has been performed nearly 540 times in a continuous line that hasn’t been broken by World Wars, Civil War, or the election of Margaret Thatcher.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker