Located on the side of the A34 between Congleton and Alderley Edge in Cheshire, All Saints Church at Siddington is clearly visible on a slight rise with its distinctive timber frame filled with wattle and daub plaster and painted with black and white stripes to highlight the timber frame. However, it was not just the distinctive exterior of this historic church founded in 1337 which caught the attention of this passing cycling but rather the sign for harvest decorations and corn dollies which appeared in early October.
Corn dollies (sometimes known as “corn mothers” or “corn maidens”) are a form of straw artwork with roots in pagan traditions and culture around the harvest festival in October, with beliefs that the corn spirit (a spirit of fertility) lived amongst the crop and that through harvesting the corn spirit was made homeless and so would retreat into the last-standing ears of corn. And so the corn reapers would handcraft likeness of people or weave geometrical shapes from the last sheaves of the harvest into which the corn spirit could take refuge.
These corn dollies would be taken home for the winter and kept safe in the farmstead until spring time when a procession would take the corn dolly out to the newly ploughed field where it would be ceremonially broken open so that the corn spirit would return to the ground in the first furrow of the new season (on what was sometimes known as ‘Plough Monday’) and with it the promise of fertility for the newly sown crop.
Corn dollies formed a part of the harvest customs – pagan and Christian – in Europe prior to mechanisation and the related introduction of less traditional variants of wheat in aftermath of mechanisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Corn dollies were sometimes used to decorate straw ricks around harvest time and were thought to keep away evil spirits and even witches. Today, corn dollies can be found in some Christian churches as part of the harvest decorations and as a representation of farming craftsmanship and All Saints at Siddington is an example of this long-standing tradition.
Every October around the time of the harvest festival, All Saints church at Siddington is decorated with a rich display fruit, vegetables, flowers alongside hundreds if not thousands of corn dollies, all hand-made by local farmer Raymond Rush. Mr Rush also sells corn dollies at his workshop next to the church.
The decorating of the church alone takes a day or more with each corn dolly taking tens or sometimes hundreds of hours to make by hand by Mr Rush, who lives at a farm near the church and has been making corn dollies for most of his life and decorating the church since the 1960s. The skill and craftsmanship of his corn dollies are such that the church is kept open during daylight hours while the dollies are on display so visitors can enjoy and admire his beautiful and rare artwork.
The Corn Dollies at All Saints Siddington are on display for about a month every year from the Harvest Festival in the second week in October and, if you feel suitable inspired, you can even learn to make your own!