THERE are a number of doles throughout the country but the one at St Briavels in the Forest of Dean must be one of the nicest. It takes place each Whit Sunday as it has done for hundreds of years. It begins with a church service at the St Mary Church in the Gloucestershire village - a service which incorporates the sermon for the Whittington Purse. During the service the baskets of bread and cheese are blessed by the vicar. These are prepared by the Keeper of the Wood, Gerald Cresiick - a title that has been in his family for nearly two centuries and one which he obviously carries with great pride.
In 2004, when the pictures on this page were taken, he was accompanied by his sister, Margaret. After the service they leave the church and prepare to share out the 'dole'. Gerald and Margaret (pictured left) climb onto the Pound, a small building near the church. The dole used to be distributed inside the church but apparently this became far too boisterous.
Awaiting under the Pound are dozens of villagers waiting for the bread and cheese. The fun begins when they try to catch the cheese! A number use umbrellas to catch it, others use hats, aprons or just their bare hands. Gerald and Margaret had obviously spent much time cutting up the bread and cheese as it took nearly quarter of an hour to share it out. It is said that, as the food is blessed, you can keep it for a year without it going off. I heard no tales of anyone either trying this or finding it to be true!
The handing out of the dole is linked with nearby Hudnalls Wood and the right to cut and collect firewood. This right was tried in the court as recently as the Seventies and, because the Dole had been carried out without interruption since Medieval times, the rights of the villagers was upheld. It seems inconceivable that the tradition will ever die out - although there will no doubt be some EU food or health regulation flouted by distributing bread and cheese in this manner!
If you wish to attend the Dole you will be made most welcome. Check the date and time in advance but arrive about 6pm for Evening Song. The nearby post office serves a delightful afternoon tea and also offers bed and breakfast
The custom of the Tichborne Dole dates back around 800 years to the reign of King Henry II and it looks a safe bet to last another eight centuries. Not that most of the recipients actually need the dole - one gallon of flour per adult and half per child. They just don't want to miss the occasion, which is an important link with the past and a fine chance to meet the neighbours.
The Dole is held every Lady Day, March 25th, regardless of the day of the week and around two tons of high-grade self-raising flour is dispensed. That figure can be 20 per cent higher when Lady Day falls on a weekend. Villagers bring carrier bags, pillow cases and any other suitable receptacle. Their booty - a family of six merits the maximum of 28lbs - is worth having in any age and is particularly welcome to the elderly and needy.
Before the flour is apportioned, however, it is blessed and the huge flour box is sprinkled with incense and holy water. Then a blessing is made on the soul of Lady Mabella Tichborne, who started it all.
Lady Mabella, a woman noted for her charity and piety, was married to Roger de Tichborne, son of Walter de Tichborne, direct male line ancestor of the Tibornes of Tichborne. The surname, incidentally, derives from the nearby Itchen, with the suffix "bourn", meaning a stream. Roger, a rough and ready soldier, was a complete contrast to his saintly wife and even the imminent death of Mabella failed to arouse any compassion. Her last request that the value of a small portion of the Tichborne estates be given annually to the poor of the parish in the form of a dole was greeted with typical brutality. No supporter of charity, Roger answered his aged wife's plea by saying that he would agree to give every year the value of as much land as she could encompass while holding a blazing torch in her hand.
Legend has it that Mabella, who was cripped by a wasting disease, crawled around 23 acres of land, upon which she charged her husband and his heirs to forever give the produce value of that land to the poor. But mindful of Roger's black character, Mabella added a rider to her request. She said that should the dole ever be stopped then seven sons would be born to the house, followed immediately by a generation of seven daughters, after which the name would die out and the ancient house fall into ruin.
To this day there is a a field at Tichborne known as "The Crawls". The custom of giving the dole, in the form of bread, continued for over 600 years, until 1794, when owing to abuse by vagabonds and vagrants, it was abolished by order of the Magistrates. Clearly somebody had forgotten Mabella's curse, for at that time Sir Henry Tichborne had seven sons. In 1802, George, the sixth son, died at the age of 13; and the same year the old house partly fell and was partly pulled down. Four years later, John, the fifth son died unmarried in the East Indies. Another four years saw Benjamin, the second son, die in China. He, too, had been a bachelor. A few years later, seventh son Roger died. He was married without children. However, Henry, the eldest son, managed to father seven children - all of them girls. Edward, the third son, changed his name to Doughty in 1826. He produced the male heir so wanted. But in 1835, the six-year-old Henry suddenly died. Edward Doughty immediately revived the Dole, which has continued ever since.
James, the fourth son, had married in 1827 and produced two son, one born before and the other after the restoration fo the Dole. The eldest, Roger Charles Tichborne, was lost at sea in 1845, and was impersonated two decades later. The unsuccessful claimant was unmasked as Arthur Orton, a butcher. But the legal case dragged on for two years and cost the family £100,000 to defend their estates. Alfred Joseph, the youngest of James's sons, was the only one to survive Mabella's deathbed curse. He was the great grandfather of the late Sir Anthony Doughty Tichborne, the 14th baronet. Only those families in Tichborne, Cheriton and Lane End are entitled to the dole.