A N EXTRAORDINARY giant corn dolly that was once a traditional visitor to a Northumberland village at harvest time is coming home next month after a century’s absence.

The Whalton Kern Baby was a much-loved celebration of bringing the harvest home up until the First World War and in 1902, British photographer Sir Benjamin Stone captured her on camera as part of a project to record local customs for posterity.

Inspired by Sir Benjamin’s photographs, a Warkwickshire artist, Faye Claridge, created the extraordinary 15ft high sculpture, Kern Baby, thanks to financial assistance from the Arts Council.

Following an acclaimed exhibition at the prestigious Compton Verney art gallery and park near Stratford-upon-Avon, she is now heading home to the village of Whalton, three miles from Belsay.

It’s more than 100 years since Sir Benjamin photographed the famous Bale (or Baal) Fire in Whalton; a custom that has continued each year on July 4, when he also snapped the Kern Baby.

Harvests were not as late as they are today, and so the celebration happened in early summer.

This year, the village is uniting the two traditions with a newly-choreographed dance for the local school and a revival of corn dolly making by the children who will be taught by members of the Guild of Straw Craftsmen.

The Kern Baby’s return, from June 9, will also be filmed to capture her story for generations to come.

Artist Faye Claridge said, “I loved the Benjamin Stone images from Whalton and was inspired to make several art works from them.

“It seems fitting to bring the Kern Baby to her ancestral home more than 100 years after Sir Benjamin photographed the original.

“I hope her rebirth allows Whalton to reclaim her from the archive. She represents beliefs, communities and legends that deserve to be re-examined.”

Sheila Lough, who chairs the committee of Whalton Village Hall, outside which Kern Baby will stand, was amazed to discover her Whalton connection and went to see the sculpture at Compton Verney.

“She’s a big girl and will make quite an impression,” she said.

The ‘Harvest Home’ festival was about the local community celebrating the corn (wheat) harvest, using the last corn that was gathered to create a human shape, which was dressed in fine clothes and called the ‘Kern Baby’ or ‘Harvest Queen’.

Sheila said that each year, the previous year’s corn dolly would be thrown on the Baal fire and a new one made to keep for the next harvest.

“The Baal fire has been going since the Middle Ages. During the war they weren’t allowed to do a bonfire so they used to light twigs to keep the tradition alive, but the baby tradition we couldn’t find anything about post First World War. However there were people who used to make small corn dollies.”

Corn dollies probably date back to pagan times. Sir James George Frazer, the famous anthropologist, wrote that the annual cycle of growth and decay was represented by many societies as a sacred king who had to be killed and replaced when he grew old, because his strength was linked to the life-force of crops.

This would tie in with the custom of cutting the last standing corn and holding onto it for luck and the hope of a good harvest.