The annual medieval 'Penny Hedge' tradition that takes place in Whitby 38 days after Easter Sunday

This image shows the ceremony in 2016, as it has been done every year since 1159 apart from 1981. Credit: ITV Calendar

Small crowds gather for one day each year for an unusual North Yorkshire tradition.

Every year since 1159, besides the year 1981, a short 'hedge' of sticks is woven together on the east bank of the River Esk, in Whitby.

After a horn is sounded and "out on ye" is called, onlookers watch the structure withstand three tides and the ritual is complete.

But despite the quaint tone it has nowadays taken on, the ceremony is rooted in murder and superstition. Here's the story of Penny Hedge:

What is Penny Hedge?

The legend begins with a chase.

Eight hundred and sixty three years ago, three noblemen and their hounds pursued a wild boar through the forests which then surrounded Whitby.

Their hunt led them to a hermitage in Eskdale, a small stone structure into which the hog ran.

The ruins of Whitby Abbey, where the hermit monk was announced Abbott of Whitby according to legend. Credit: Timothy Gregory

Just as the dogs were about to enter the building and dispatch of their prey, the door slammed shut.

The Abbott of Whitby, who was living an ascetic life there, was attempting to save the boar. In their rage the noblemen set upon the monk and inflicted fatal injuries.

As he lay dying, the monk consented to pardon his killers and spare their souls if they and their descendants enact an eternal penance.

Every year on the eve of Ascension Day, they must produce a woven hedge made from sticks strong enough to remain standing after three tides.

According to most accounts, they have kept their promise for 862 of the 863 years since the gruesome event.

The Penny Hedge of 2016. Credit: ITV Calendar

Why was one year missed?

Many Christians believe Jesus' soul ascended to heaven 39 days after Easter Sunday on what is known as Ascension Day.

The monk wanted the annual penance to take place on the eve of Ascension Day, but in 1981 the forces of nature intervened. That year's ceremony was cancelled after unprecedentedly high tides drowned the site under eight feet of seawater.

The tradition recommenced the following year and every year since. The impact the hiatus had on the noblemen's souls is currently unknown.

Why is it called 'Penny Hedge'?

Among the strange details of the story is the stipulation that a knife "of penny price" be used to cut the stems used for the hedge.

Historians are a little unsure as to why this condition was included, but perhaps the use of a cheap knife would make the penance all the more difficult to endure.