How the Houghton Feast ox roast has been a highlight for centuries

The 2021 Houghton Feast begins on Friday with the ox roast, the showpiece event of the 10-day event, taking place the following day. This represents much more than a bite to eat for Feast-goers.

Sunday, 3rd October 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Tuesday, 5th October 2021, 8:55 am

In fact, should anyone have the temerity to accuse you of over-indulging or, for younger readers, committing the heinous act of potentially “spoiling your tea”, then you can rebut this unworthy suggestion by pointing out that you are not merely stuffing your face with delicious beef.

You are honouring centuries of local custom and heritage; with brown sauce if you wish.

The Houghton Feast itself has been around since the 12th century. It was originally held to commemorate Michaelmas.

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The ox-factor. Traditional roast at the 2019 Houghton Feast.

This is the feast day of St Michael among others and was of particular interest to Houghtonians, due to the historic St Michael & All Angels Church being at the centre of the town. Michaelmas actually falls on September 29.

Credit for most good things to happen in Houghton tend to be attributed to Rector Bernard Gilpin, a serial doer of good deeds and, as far as anyone is aware, an all-round good egg known as the Apostle of the North.

But he did not start the feast (nor did he hew out Houghton Cut with a toffee hammer). Nor was it, as is wrongly supposed, founded as a celebration for his return from captivity at the behest of Mary Tudor.

He might have claimed credit for the feast had he been about 500 years older. But he has plenty of other achievements for us to be going on with. Notably, Bernard Gilpin was the man responsible for the ox roast, which, at a mere 450 or so years old, is a relatively new addition to the festivities.

People queue in their hundreds for an ox sandwich at the Houghton Feast.

Born in Westmoreland 1517, in 1547 he became rector of Houghton-le-Spring.

He expanded the Michaelmas knees-up by introducing the roasting of a bullock or hog each Sunday between Michaelmas and Easter, making sure that the poor were quite literally catered for. This earned him another unofficial title – the Father of the Poor.

This made Rector Gilpin a celebrated figure in the human community. The ox community was understandably less enamoured, as evidenced in 1583 when one of their number knocked over the clergyman in Durham Market Place, fatally wounding him.

The grim irony was not lost on Houghton’s parishioners and the bovine hooligan was sentenced to be delicious.

Rector Bernard Gilpin started the traditional ox roast at Houghton Feast in the 16th century.

In many ways Gilpin made the ox roast what it is today, by which we don’t mean £4.50. But at some point the traditional carve up fell into abeyance and was only revived in comparatively recent times.

In 1967 the Rotary Club of Houghton revived the tradition. Houghton butchers Jack Kinmond and Bill Curry were put in charge of the roasting and ox sandwiches were sold for 1/6 (ask your granddad).

Today the first carving is traditionally made by the Mayor of Sunderland. Those eating it are not necessarily poor, but the ox roast is true to its origins. All proceeds from sales go back into the community by being put towards next year’s Houghton Feast.

In 2021 ox sandwiches will be sold from 3pm at the Old Rectory on Saturday, October 9. They are £4.50 each and can be ordered in advance at www.oxsarnies.com.

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