Perambulation is the term applied to the English practice of walking round a parish in order to ascertain its boundaries. This perambulation was, and still is, usually performed on Ascension day (q.v.). Dr. Hooke says: "Perambulations for ascertaining the boundaries of parishes are to be made by the minister, churchwardens, and parishioners, by going round the same once a year, in or about Ascension week. The parishioners may justify going over any man's land in their perambulations according to usage; and, it is said, may abate all nuisances in their way." There is a small homily, constituting the fourth part of the "Homily for Rogation Week," which is appointed to be read on the above occasion. Perambulation is now known as beating the parish bounds, as the marks are struck with a stick.
This ancient custom had a twofold object. It was designed to supplicate the divine blessing on the fruits of the earth, and to preserve in all classes of the community a correct knowledge of and due respect for the bounds of parochial and individual property. It appears to have been derived from a still older custom among the ancient Romans. called Terminalia, and Ambarvalia, which were festivals in honor of the god Terminus and the goddess Ceres. On its becoming a Christian custom the heathen rites and ceremonies were of course discarded, and those of Christianity substituted. It was appointed to be observed on one of the Rogation (q.v.) days, which were the three days next before Ascension day. "Before the Reformation, parochial perambulations were conducted with great ceremony. The lord of the manor, with a large banner, priests in surplices and with crosses, and other persons with hand-bells, banners, and staves, followed by most of the parishioners, walked in procession round the parish, stopping at crosses, forming crosses on the ground, 'saying or singing gospels to the corn,' and allowing 'drinkings and good cheer' (Grindal's Remains, p. 141, 241, and note; Whitgift's Workz, 3:266, 267; Tindal's Works, 3:62, 234, Parker Society's edition), which was remarkable, as the Rogation days were appointed fasts. From the different practices observed on the occasion the custom received the various names of processioning, rogationing, perambulating, and ganging the boundaries; and the week in which it was observed was called Rogation week; Cross week, because crosses were borne in the processions; and Grass week, because the Rogation days being fasts, vegetables formed the chief portion of diet. At the Reformation, the ceremonies and practices deemed objectionable were abolished, and only 'the useful and harmless part of the custom retained.' Yet its observance was considered so desirable that a homily was prepared for the occasion, and injunctions were issued requiring that for 'the perambulation of the circuits of parishes the people should once in the year, at the time accustomed, with the rector, vicar, or curate, and the substantial men of the parish, walk about the parishes, as they were accustomed, and at their return to the church make their common prayer. And the curate, in their said common perambulations, was at certain convenient places to admonish the people to give thanks to God (while beholding of his benefits), and for the increase and abundance of his fruits upon the face of the earth, with the saying of the 103d Psalm. At which time also the said minister was required to inculcate these, or such like sentences: Cursed be he which translateth the bounds and doles of his neighbor; or such other order of prayers as should be lawfully appointed' (Burns, Ecclesiastical Law, 3:61; Grindal, Remains, p. 168). Those engaged in the processions usually had refreshments provided for them at certain parts of the parish, which, from the extent of the circuit of some parishes, was necessary; yet the cost of such refreshment was not to be defrayed by the parish, nor could such refreshment be claimed as a custom from any particular house or family. But small annuities were often bequeathed to provide such refreshments. In the parish of Edgcott, Buckinghamshire, there was about an acre of land, let at £3 a year, called 'Gang Monday Land,' which was left to the parish officers to provide cakes and beer for those who took part in the annual perambulation of the parish. To this day questions of disputed boundary between parishes are invariably settled by the evidence afforded by these perambulations; for in such questions immemorial custom is conclusive. And so far are they recognized in law that the parishioners on such occasions are entitled to trespass on lands, and even to enter private houses if these stand on the boundary line. In Scotland, where the parochial principle has never been developed as in England, there seem to be few traces of a similar practice. But as between neighboring landowners, a brieve of perambulation is the technical remedy for setting right a dispute as to boundaries or marches; and perambulating or 'riding' the bounds of boroughs is a common practice. The necessity or determination to perambulate along the old track often occasioned curious incidents. If a canal had been cut through the boundary of a parish, it was deemed necessary that some of the parishioners should pass through the water. Where a river formed part of the boundary line, the procession either passed along it in boats, or some of the party stripped and swam along it, or boys were thrown into it at customary places. If a house had been erected on the boundary line, the procession claimed the right to pass through it. A house in Buckinghamshire, still existing, has an oven passing over the boundary line. It was customary in the perambulations to put a boy into this recess to preserve the integrity of the boundary line. At various parts of the parish boundaries, two or three of the village boys were 'bumped' — that is, a certain part of the person was swung against a stone wall, a tree, a post, or any other hard object which happened to be near the parish boundary. This, it will scarcely be doubted, was an effectual method of recording the boundaries in the memory of these battering- rams, and of those who witnessed this curious mode of registration. The custom of perambulating parishes continued in some parts of the kingdom to a late period, but the religious portion of it was generally, if not universally, omitted. The custom has, however, of late years been revived in its integrity in many parishes."