CROWDS walking round with big sticks, scholars drinking beer flavoured with ground ivy, and students throwing coins off a tower roof... it can only be Ascension Day in Oxford.

While most people had no idea that the Christian festival passed them by on Thursday, a host of ancient traditions are still practiced in the city centre.

Each year, hapless visitors not versed in Oxford’s traditions are left bemused when locals armed with six-foot sticks march through shops, looking like an under-funded rebel army.

Both St Mary the Virgin University Church and St Michael at the North Gate both mark out their ancient parish boundaries in ‘beating of the bounds’ ceremonies.

Parishioners stop and hit boundary markers, including those at Boots and Marks & Spencer, in a tradition that once prevented encroachment into the parish.

The Very Rev Bob Wilkes, of St Michael at the North Gate, said: “I’ve spent much of my ministry in the Middle East and Central Asia, so this is a bit different.

“I enjoy the fact we connect with the public space right in the city centre.

“We get to meet people, they ask what we are doing, and we start some conversations. People seem to really enjoy it.”

The earliest mention of the tradition is in St Michael’s churchwarden’s accounts in 1428, and the procession still follows the traditional route as closely as possible.

For a few minutes each year, a small door linking Brasenose College to Lincoln College, known as “The Needle’s Eye” is unlocked and opened, and the St Michael’s party and Brasenose students pour into Lincoln to drink a specially-brewed ale flavour-ed with ground ivy.

Post-graduate history student Robert Cashmore, 27, said: “The ivy beer is not the sweetest of beverages, but it is free and we are students.”

According to a guide to the tradition, published in 1961 by St Michael’s then vicar Canon R R Martin, the Lincoln College’s butler should collect the plant, put it in a muslin bag, and insert it into the bung hole of the beer barrel for a fortnight before it is served.

Canon Martin said the tradition may hark back to an ancient method of brewing, prior to the arrival of hops to England in the 15th century.

Lincoln College students then throw coins from the roof of the tower to children in the quad below.

But some traditions do fade: in the past, undergraduates would heat the pennies in a fire, and watch as the youngsters decided whether it was more important to bag the dosh or avoid getting burnt.