Beating the Bounds – the project
On a cold, bright day in January 2022, I walked from my family’s home to the beach at Birkdale in Southport and turned left, heading south. The aim is to make a complete circuit of the edge of England: around the coast, along the Welsh and Scottish borders. The historic practice called “beating the bounds” was a walk around the borders of a parish with the purpose of confirming the boundary (see the explanatory text below).
Although Germany is my country of residence, England is my parish – it is the land I love, and I also love walking. If I succeed in completing the circuit, which is intended as pleasure, not an ordeal, it will take at least ten years in many separate stages to cover about 3,300 miles.
Without good health and congenial companions to walk with me, I will not be able to complete the journey, but am optimistic that in 2032 I will approach Birkdale beach from the north, turn left, drink a pint in The Fisherman’s Rest, and arrive home without a limp.
The website is not about me (except for this page) and the details of my journey. It is about some of the places that I find beautiful or interesting on the coast and borders of England – a personal, subjective selection.
Texts by John Sykes
Photos by John Sykes except: below left, Jenny Stula, Köln; New Brighton, Blackpool and Eiffel Towers (day 3), Wikimedia Commons
Maps by Birgit Weber
Safety warning. This is not a guide for walkers with exact details of how to find the way. The
descriptions next to the maps outline the route that I took. Depending on the weather and tides, this route may be dangerous or impossible. If you want to follow in my footsteps, please take a printed map or a digital aid to navigation, and take great care.
My name is John Sykes. I come from Southport on the Irish Sea north of Liverpool. I have spent most of my life in Cologne and have dual citizenship – British and German. I am an author of travel guides and other books, a translator of texts from German to English, and a city guide in Cologne.
Books in English
- 111 Places in London That You Should Not Miss
- Exploring London with Sherlock Holmes (English-only edition)
Books in English and German (parallel texts)
- Exploring London with Sherlock Holmes – Mit Sherlock Holmes durch London
- Wie ticken die Engländer? – What are the English Like?
- Truly Criminal – Wahrhaft kriminell
Guided tours in Cologne
on many themes, especially:
- walks through the Old Town
- Cologne Cathedral
- Jewish heritage in Cologne – see rhenaniajudaica.de
Books in German: see Deutsch
Get in touch:
kontakt [at] beatingthebounds.eu
Beating the Bounds – an ancient custom
Origins of the phrase
According to Collins Dictionary, to beat the bounds is “to define the boundaries of a parish by making a procession around them and hitting the ground with rods”. The origins of this go back more than 1,000 years in England. Two kinds of beating took place: not only boundary stones or other markers were hit, but also young boys. The pain of the beating, or being bumped on a stone, was meant to burn the event into their minds, so that the course of the parish borders would remain in the communal memory for many years to come.
Why beat the bounds?
Parish boundaries mattered because they determined property rights and obligations. It was important to stop neighbours from encroaching and to know who could be buried in the churchyard, who had to pay for church repairs and who paid taxes for feeding and housing local paupers, which was responsibility of parishes for centuries. Beating the bounds, alternatively known as “perambulating”, was often combined with processions at the church festival of Rogation in spring before Ascension Day, when the priest and parishioners prayed for a good harvest. It was also associated with drinking and riotous behaviour.
Where the tradition survives
There are survivals and revivals of the practice in many places. At Bodmin the custom was resurrected in the 1860s and involves an eighteen-mile walk followed by a game of Cornish hurling – a silver ball thrown into a pool by the mayor is carried along a fixed route. At Richmond in Yorkshire the mayor, dressed in full regalia, leads a crowd of dignitaries and citizens every seven years and wades into the River Swale where it marks the boundary. At Poole in Dorset, the border between the open sea and the harbour is established by boat. In Oxford, where the parish perimeter of St Michael at the North Gate has been obscured by building, the priest and his flock carry their willow wands into a Marks and Spencer’s store, shouting “Mark, mark!” The Liverpool Arts Lab organises a walk around the limits of Toxteth Park as a creative happening, substituting rituals of death for spring prayers for the crops. In London, St Martin-in-the-Fields allows everyone to beat its bounds virtually by means of an app, and the ancient precinct around the Tower of London is perambulated annually by Yeomen of the Guard with school children and choir boys. At the border of this precinct with the parish of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, a violent confrontation between the two sides took place in 1698, so All Hallows defends its territory with a procession. To see some entertaining footage of ceremonies held in the twentieth century, search the term on Youtube.
The tradition was carried to North America long ago and survives in New England. In Germany, too, a similar event takes place every seven years in the town of Biedenkopf, which contested the rights to a forest with a neighbouring community in 1525 and now celebrates the practice with a festival.
The walk described on this website is a non-religious, non-violent perambulation. I have no plans to beat anybody or anything.