Category Archives: May day

Custom revived: Beltane Fires, Port Meadow, Oxford

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INVITE YOUR ENTIRE FRIENDS LIST PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: This is the last year May Day falls on a weekend or Bank Holiday until 2021. This is the last massive May Day for the next four years. I suggest you go large. CALLING ALL LOSERS, HARD BOOZERS, QUEEN BEES, WANNABES, FULL TIME PUNKS, SHIPS THAT SUNK, MONKS, TIGERS, RAVERS, LIFE SAVERS, MAYBES AND CRY BABIES, MISFITS AND WOTSITS, DAILY FAILURES, DAILY MAILERS, HEATHENS AND FIRE BREATHERS, NORMS, TEACUP STORMS, OLD TIMELYS AND ACID CASUALTIES, THE TUNELESS, TONEDEAF AND ALL THE OTHER DISCORDANT OR OTHERWISE ARE ALL WELCOME!!! ALL WHO FEEL THEY CAN ADD TO THE ATMOSPHERE, WHATEVER YOUR SKILL, POET, JUGGLER, POI, MUSICION, SPEED DRINKER, JOKER, PROFFESIONAL…”

So reads the Facebook invite to Beltane 2017

Last year I started my mammoth quest to visit as a many May Day customs as I could. I started my journey begun with planning to experience May Day at Oxford. The well renowned University town is noted for its unique May Day morning;  a strange smorgasbord of customs. However, I had read a small note of something rather unique and low key the night before and after checking into my accommodation I decided to investigate.

May it be on?

This supplementary custom occurred on the common at the edge of Oxford, so I decided to venture in the darkness of the wide open space. It was an all or nothing venture. This was something not official nor confirmed – I couldn’t find anything online particularly on Facebook. But nevertheless I decided it was worth exploring.

It was pitch black and I walked a few yards along the causeway looking for evidence of any activity. I felt quite unnerved to be honest. The common was a black void, lonely and forbidding. After an hour I couldn’t see anything and was about to turn back when I saw a flickering light in the distance. Was this it? I walked nearer and could hear music. Closer and it revealed itself to be a small group of twenty somethings around a fire listening to music. They were quite bemused by my appearance and said ‘They is a much larger bonfire around the corner’.

May it be a survival?

Of course, folklorists will be intrigued by these fires, being lit as they are on the eve of May Day, or Beltane. In parts of Northern Britain and Ireland the lighting of such fires has a long possibly pre-Christian origin, dating back to our dark Celtic times. Indeed the first written evidence comes from a 900 CE Irish glossary called the Sanus Chormaic which states:

“Beltaine. May Day i.e bil-tene i.e lucky fire i.e two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle against disease of each year to those fires they used to drive cattle between them.”

Interesting until recently cattle were being pushed through such fires in Ireland and Scotland until the 19th century. As a form of purification for the new year. A survival in the Celtic homelands is plausible – but in genteel Oxfordshire unlikely. Despite the link between Port Meadow and grazing thereabouts!

Beltaine and braces!

Well I decided to explore with some degree of trepidation! After a fair walk, I thought it was a wind up. But then I could again hear sounds and see flickering flames in a small opening in the woody area. Making my way through the foliage I found a larger group of people surrounding a larger bonfire. In their little arbour surrounded by fairy lights tangled through the undergrowth there was much chatting and laughter as they listened to the music and drank. Nearby was a reveler spinning around some flaming balls to great effect. All in all ,a typical rave akin to those of the 1990s, but this one being tied to a date made it of interest to the folklorist.

I asked about the history of the custom. One of the organisers said that their parents used to do it and they would attend as children. It was more a town event than the May morning after was most definitely gown event and had been going at least 40 years. She then said that a few years back they as adults went out looking for the fires one May Day Eve and being disappointed in not finding any decided to get organised the year after and do their own. Ten or so years later they were still doing it. This was a big one of course as May Eve was on the weekend without any work restrictions. She was unaware of its significance of the fires, but her name ‘Stardust’ I think explained its origins! A new age custom taken up and brought back to life by the neo-pagan parents, but now strangely like many ancient customs its significance not known to the current celebrants. This in a way indicates how quickly the meaning behind customs is forgotten.

Which in a way is good as its celebrated as deemed fit. The whole affair was very convivial and relaxed; so much that I wish I had stayed longer and not booked somewhere to stay, especially as it was such a fine evening.

Oxford’s May Eve celebrations are the very best of our British customs – an event special to its community, secretive but not exclusive.

Custom revived: Wath upon Dearne Bun throwing

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Throwing things at the general public appears to be a sub genre of custom. You could spend the large part of the year having anything ranging from pennies to pies, chocolates to cheese! However, the most favoured forms of preferred projectile is bread..one of the least known perhaps purveyors of baked ballistics is that of the Wath upon Dearne.

Wath upon Dearne Bun Throwing 2015 (127)Wath upon Dearne Bun Throwing 2015 (222)

The current custom is a revival suggested it appears by a local historian cum baker…doesn’t every town have one, called Tim Binns. Eschewing a previous publicity attempt of making a giant pie, which fed 480 people…after all giant pies in Yorkshire aren’t unusual, the team behind the Wath festival in 1980 looked to an old custom for revival. They unearthed the WIll of a Thomas Turk which provided money so that 40 dozen penny loaves should be thrown from the “the leads of the Church” on St Thomas Day … forever”. Of course the shrewd reader will say that St Thomas day is in December…but a sensible change in date doesn’t deter a good revival, after all you wants to be on top of a church tower in such a windy cold and slippery time of the year?

Almighty bun fight

Of course distributions of bread doles are not unusual. Throwing them from church towers is..why? Was it that the poor here were particularly athletic or rather more uncouth and unclean? Perhaps the later and distribution the dole this way would avoid any contact. Let us hope it was not for some perverse pleasure of its instigator who might have liked the idea of his town folk scrambling in the soil for sustenance. Whatever the truth the more virtuous Victorians clearly didn’t like the fighting for food which ensued and in 1870 banned it…although the charity still continued in a more genteel and perhaps less genuflecting fashion.

Wath upon Dearne Bun Throwing 2015 (353)

Our daily bread

The modern custom has all the familiar elements – Morris dancers, procession and associated festivities. I arrived as the Harthill Morris entertained the crowds with some fleet of foot dances. At 11.30 the Vicar arrived dressed in a Georgian attire with bowler. She was accompanied by her ‘lawyer’ similarly attired. She took great pleasure in reading out the Will giving a sideways wry smile and a wink to the line ‘to the Women who takes me to bed’ and one wonders what the story is behind the ‘natural born daughter’.

Wath upon Dearne Bun Throwing 2015 (340)Wath upon Dearne Bun Throwing 2015 (289)Wath upon Dearne Bun Throwing 2015 (285)

In the church the full benefaction, one of a considerable number for such a parish, can be read:

“1810 July 24th Thomas Tuke Esquire bequeathed the interest of £4 to be distributed in Penny Loaves at this church on Christmas Day by the church wardens. Annually forever.

However, as can be seen no mention of throwing bread, but that was outlined in the Will. At the church the will is read again and the bread basket attached to a rope and pulled up onto the narrow church tower…hopefully to join more above! The Morris dancers filled the void whilst a large crowd fronted by large numbers of chattering children, nervously eager to catch this free lunch. The church struck 12 and all heads looked up. Then the heavens opened and the rather surreal and not a bit too scary sight of flying tea cakes could be seen above us. Kids scrambled feverishly grabbing the buns…In front of me a small boy had one bounce off his head, another landed fair and square in his hood. Despite being so large and so many actually catching them was easier said than done. I managed to grab one, or rather it landed in my hands by accident! Looking around some children were clearly more skilful and agile and had collected 10.

 

Custom contrived: St. Richard Festival, Droitwich

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The Richard festival illustrates how an ancient feast day can be used to create a local event which celebrates the town’s claim to fame – it’sbrine pits in a manner which incorporates all the classic aspects of a May festival: Morris Men, maypole dancing, historical reenactment and err… classic cars.

Take with a pinch of saltimage

The town had some history of celebrating these brine pits. John Leland in his Itinerary, written around 1540 gives the legend:

Some say that this salt springe dyd fayle in the tyme of Richard de la Wiche Byschope of Chichester and that after by his intercession it was restored to the profit of the old course. Such is the superstition of the people. In token whereof, or for the honour that the Wiche-men and saulters bare unto this Richard their cuntre-man, they used of late tymes on his daye to hang about this sault spring or well once a yeere with tapestry, and to have drinking games and revels at it.”

John Aubrey noted that:

“on the day of St Richard the Patron of ye Well (i.e.) saltwell, they keep Holyday, dresse the well with green Boughes and flowers. One yeare sc. Ao 164-, in the Presbyterian times it was discontinued in the Civil-warres; and after that the spring shranke up or dried up for some time. So afterwards they kept their annuall custome (notwithstanding the power of ye Parliament and soldiers), and the salt-water returned again and still continues.

This appears to have been an early record of well dressing in the country, albeit not as elaborate as those of Derbyshire today and simply arches over the well to give thanks. When this custom fell into abeyance is unclear, but it was probably around the Reformation, although according some sources his statue, erected 1935, was dressed on the 3rd April until the 1990s but details are difficult to find.

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A new custom ready salted

What exists today is a celebration with a modern twist, not exactly a revival, but an concoction of what these events should have. it combines elements of the traditional custom with modern twists. Arriving in the town one comes face to face with Morris Men whacking sticks close to vintage Morris Minors. The cars are indeed such a big attraction they’ve taken over the billing and the event us renamed St Richard’s Boat and Car Festival, and these cars rather surreally spreads through the quaint streets of the town.

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However the wells are not forgotten. The replica Upwich pit and a brine pump in town are imaginatively dressed in honour of the saint with a model of a swan made of flowers and other flower dressing. In the last few years a local Probus 87 group, a local business group, have reenacted the blessing. Now a group dressed as friars wind their way from the church carrying a banner with the saint and a floral cross. At the well a ‘bishop of Chichester’ blesses the pit. After such a traditional aspects it’s back to the puppets, boats, classic cars…all in all a splendid advert for the town.

Custom contrived: Yaxley Jack in the Green

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Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (128)May the best event win!

This May I experienced two ‘revived’ or rather ‘contrived’ May Day events. Events which attempted to instil the traditions of the time of year with a modern twist. One was fairly dreadful, a travesty, no better than a glorified car boot sale with a May theme tacked on…that wasn’t Yaxley! I won’t say where the other was but Yaxley’s event really showed how such an event, albeit based on an older Fair tradition can be both credible and relevant to a whole range of people. The fair itself dates back from the 13th century when Royal decree, Henry III granted a fair to be held on Ascension Day in Yaxley to Thornton Abbey. I am unaware of the survival of this Fair into modern times, but the modern event is clearly not tied to Ascension Day.

I’m alright Jack

Furthermore, no Jack in Green is not recorded in Yaxley either, but he does have a history in the Cambridgeshire area. The Women’s Institute recorded of Melbourn: “A procession of dancers, headed by Jack in the Green, the local sweep, who walked in a framework of boughs, made their way through the village to the Maypole” Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (203) I arrived at the Three Horses Pub, a delightful thatched establishment on the main street to see all the procession assembled and some organiser towering above them on a wall giving directors.  Here the shell of the Jack was being prepared, with ribbons attached and a man stood green faced waiting with his attendants, a Sap-Engro and Copperface wearing the original Ancient Order of the Foresters sash, which was worn in the village’s parades in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Then at the allotted time, the shell was raised and the man enclosed. Then we waited for the other star, a larger one, a star of stage and screen, Warwick Davis. A local celebrity to the village who has gladly became a patron of the festival. He soon arrived and climbing into a car with the other patron, the local MP, the procession continued. Although the procession had all the clichés of a parade: marionettes, Saxon and Civil War re-enactors and of course Morris, or in this case Molly, dancers, it does not feel predictable…perhaps as a result of the inclusion of the Jack and his sweep attendees, something only seen in 16 other places and not always in a procession. Thus it makes the procession feel unique and certainly ancient. Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (455)

Down to earth

At the recreation ground the procession greeted an impressive spread of fun fair and fete. At the arena awaiting Jack and the patrons was a square sod of earth. Here Warwick Davis was asked to cut a Y into a piece of pre-cut turf. The cutting of a Y was obvious but despite Mr. Davis’s enquiring no-one could immediately tell him. Perhaps summing up many an English tradition,, but if you going to do something pointless…you’ve got to have a reason for it I say. The reason was that during the fair, any house which cut a piece of turf and displayed it, could sell alcohol and function as a pub even without a certificate. I am sure that had this been explained one of the crowd would have rushed forward to affix to their house and make a quick buck!

Jack of all trades

Warwick was the genial host freely entering into the spirit of the event. He enjoyed a fair bit of kick about humour from the parliamentarians who accused Warwick Davis of sorcery saying that he was digging a big hole for himself…and you can make up the rest of the joke. Afterwards, the day continued with the local primary undertaking some Maypole dancing and the Pig Dyke Molly dancers regaling the crowds in their black and white garb and curious dancing. Outside the arena was an expansive funfair, the usual collection of novelty stalls and even a Guess your age stall who got my age wrong by 10 years! Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (502)Yaxley Jack in the Green 2014 (529)           The organisers of Yaxley’s festival are to be congratulated they have pulled off a credible event which mixes a bit of folklore tradition with a modern concert and all the fun of the fair. If you find yourself in the area do come; it’s a village fete par excellence! Find out when its on Calendar Customs …its not on there yet. Yaxley festival website is Copyright Pixyledpublications

Custom Survived: London Merrie England May Queens

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London’s sprawling suburbs are often wrongly portrayed as featureless places with little traditional about. They are crammed full of commuters with their busy jobs and no interest beyond dinner parties with the boss, the latest car, and boorish one-upmanship. Pure Terry and June. Perhaps, these suburbs are more like The Good Life in nature, despite the blandness something more earthy one lays beneath.

Although perhaps one cannot call Hayes annual celebration of May earthy; the participants are far too well groomed and presented for that. There’s no Jack in the Green, no Morris Men and no pagan peculiarities. However it is nevertheless more traditional than the Rotary club dinner. This is May Day in its most quaint, charming and if emasculated, trimmed down to the basic nucleus the May Queen.

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Making Merrie! 

The origins of the custom derive from a Dulwich headmaster Joseph Deedy who was keen on folklore, having compiled in 1907 a register of local May Queen coronations listing 81. He established the Bromley and Hayes May Queen festival first taking place on the 4th May 1907. This lead to the establishing of the Merrie England Society, organising a pageant in Greenwich in 1913 which had four other may queens: Brixton, Chelsea, Bromley and Lewisham and at it was crowned the first May Queen of London. The society charged 1p a month to join the Merrie England children’ being grouped into realms across London. Each February, each Realm chooses a Queen and they compete to be the May Queen of London.

The organisation encouraged the children to act, dance, sing or play a musical instrument and was part of the movement supported by people such as Ruskin and Disreali on the back of work such as George Daniels 1842’s Merrie England in the Olden Times. Interesting Ronald Hutton in his Stations of the Sun, suggests that such revivals:

“may well be that enthusiasm helped kill the surviving manifestations of the very traditional that was ostensibly revived.”

However, as these customs were dying out, I’d sooner have a revival than a demised custom, and as such this custom in a way is a fossilisation of those Victorian olde worlde ideals. My first notice of the custom was in George Long’s The Folklore calendar (1930):

“on the first Saturday after May 1st (or the same afternoon, when May 1st falls on a Saturday), the great May Queen of London festival is held on Hayes Common, near Bromley, Kent. It is a truly delightful festival of youth and beauty. It usually commences about 2pm with a procession of May Queens attended by Maids of Honour carrying garlands, and many little tots with gaily decorated prams containing May Dolls. They proceed to the common, where the prettiest of the May Queens is crowned ‘May Queen of London’. The ceremony is performed by ‘The Prince of Merrie England,’ who is a pretty girl, dressed in tights like the principal boy in the pantomime; and is usually the May Queen of London of last year. It is an extremely attractive sight, the gay costumes of the little girls, the ribbons, and the flowers forming a lovely picture. The May Queens are usually pretty girls of twelve to fourteen years of age: and even if the May Queen of London only wears a tinsel crown, she has what very few real queens possess – radiant youth and beauty. The May Queen, having been duly crowned, receives the homage of all the lesser queens, who sweep up to her, make a deep curtsey, and retire again. A large choir gives musical features at intervals, and there is dancing round the Maypole and ‘all the fun of the fair’”

Surely I thought this particular Victorian-Edwardian concoction of May would have died out years ago, and back in 1996 I was determined to find out more. In the days before the internet, books were the sole source of information and after that a good place to ask was the library. Many a time I have found the local librarian a font of knowledge and enthusiasm. Not this time! Never heard of it they cried. Moments later a cavalcade of colourful children streamed by the library on their way to the church! Let’s hope they noticed for next year in case someone asked. In the churchyard ‘Little Sanctum’ was read, a short service written by Deedy was read listened to by the Queen May Queen (for want of another name because I was unclear of what she would be called other than of all London of course) and her retinue. Then they paraded back to the common for the crowning. It was a wonderful site, almost thrusting us back into those early 20th century with maids of honour carrying garlands, members with May Doles in prams and each designated a colour scheme.

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Following the parade it ended entering a large field where a dais and chair was erected. The field had seen the presentation of this event since 2012, with a brief indoors in the Second World War. Here another Deedy speech was read and all the other May Queens.

Things have changed the cost of the membership has moved from 1p to £5 and now a committee organise it, but the nature of it remains the same. As noted, verses and speeches by Deedy are still recited and it still remains how he devised it.

FA on!

When I saw it in 1996, there was an important clash: the FA cup. It was apparent that some of the spectators sitting around the perimeter on garden chairs, eating sandwiches, teary eyed and gleeful, looking out for their daughters, had one ear on the proceedings and the other on their transistor radios. Indeed the nature of event was very like the FA cup, the tournament of all May Queens! Indeed this is the best part of the day, for it supports other May Queens and gives them a further day to dress up and celebrate.

The event of course was not a fully female only day, some younger boys, some more at ease with it than others I remember, were page boys. However, what I was impressed with was the ‘professionalism’ of these children. I saw no tantrums, no bored faces, no fighting…some were a bit worse for wear, yes, it was a long way from the church to the field but clearly some sandwiches had a very reviving affect and soon everyone was up dancing around the maypole which considering the array of colourful customs was a bit surreal.

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Queen for a day

I have wondered what ever happened to the May Queens of 1996. Most would be in their 20s and well into their careers. It would be nice to think that given this boost in their early ‘career’ that they would be encouraged to be top in their careers. Let’s hope that they became doctors, politicians and industry leaders! Being May Queen giving them that first flavour of success and fame!

May be old fashioned?

Overall, London’s May Queen is an event trapped in time. In this world where children appear to jump from watching cBBC to CSI in one week, appear to have little time for such activities or interest, it is pleasing to see the May Queen still has support and that the children have not become all Americanised Beauty pageant girls or grown up too soon!

I also feared back in 1996, that this was a final hurray; that the Queens were terminal decline and soon abdication would occur due to the lack of interest and changing views. But it has survived to see its centenary, and although the number of realms has dropped from 100 in 1930 to 27 in 1996, with 20 realms in 2011 its centenary. The realms being Beckenham, Beddington, Bletchingly, Bromley Common, Caterham, Chislehurst, Coney Hall, Downe, Eden Park, Elmers End, Green St Green, Hayes, Hayes Common, Hayes Village, Orpington, Petts Wood, Shortlands, Wallington, Warlingham and West Wickham. As can be seen from the photo one Coulsdon has become extinct! I suppose the loss of 7 in 15 years is not that rapid.

Still the spectacle of 20 May Queens and their entourage is still a spectacle to behold. It survives, fighting back a rear guard defence against ‘modern Americanised beauty pageants’, ‘loss of childhood’ and perhaps the football’ to see into another 100 years. Long may she reign!

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

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Custom survived: Minehead Hobby Horse

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The Merry Month of May..is a great month of those fascinated with calendar customs and ceremonies, there are hundreds alone on May 1st or one some occasions to the May Bank Holiday, restricting oneself to three is difficult..so I’ve picked a favourite surviving one..

“Do you have any information on the Minehead Hobby horses, particularly the Town Horse?”

“Oh is it out today?”

So was my question and reply from Minehead’s tourist information! Now what I am inferr from this enquiry? Are Tourist Information places useful for information on customs? Perhaps not always. Is that the organisers did not want it overly advertised? Perhaps yes and in a way that is not always a bad thing….for I get the impression that this tradition, in an area over-run by the holidayer and tourist, is perhaps culturally the only remaining local thing and that this custom is done for the locals and not for us tourists…and I have no problem with that…such customs are more likely to be driven by the locals need and desire to do it. Why wonders how many of these revived customs, forced back to life perhaps by parish’s and councils with one eye on the tourist potential, will survive.

Anyhow I digress! Last year May day bank holiday fell on a convenient date for those customs who have rightly stubbornly stuck to the first of May for their observations…the Minehead Hobby Horse is one of these.

A comical aside….

I had booked a nice guest house on the route of the Hobby Horse via the internet and arriving at its location found….I wasn’t booked in! It was their fault fair enough, but wasn’t going to get me somewhere to stay….the owner rung around and finally found a room. I think I know where it is…she said and we jumped into the car and followed her…Well I thought it was here….I’ll ask a taxi driver. So she did and the Taxi driver said….yeah follow me. And so we both followed him…..back to where he had started and which he jumped out of the car and said….it’s around him somewhere! Of course all along my satnav was saying something else..but you don’t like to disagree with locals do you?

Finally following the satnav we arrived at our destination, a delightful Edwardian house high above the town and only minutes from where the Hobby Horse was to be awoken.

Back to the Hobby Horse…Warning Night

The night before the 1st May is called Warning night and sitting by the harbour at the Old Ship Aground when the sound of accordionists bursts out of the club and the hobby horse is awoken to tour the town, swirling and jumping with the joys of spring, scaring children and comforting cars with a strange children like head nod.

May Day

I had decided to see the awakening of the traditional sailor’s horse which happened at 5 am. It traditionally comes out on the eve of May Day and proceeds from the Quay over the hill through Higher town to arrive at White Cross early on May 1st. Looking out it was beginning to rain. Through the drizzle I could hear the eerie sound of the drums as they echoed from the harbour below and the addict sound of the accordionist which occasionally broke from its tradition ditty to the strains of Yankee doodle dandy!. They rain was not stopping this ancient observation which made its way through the lanes and streets of the old town ensuring that no-one slept that morning. This was a tradition in its truest sense, the hobby horse joined only by a handful of attendants and curious bystanders. At certain times the Hobby Horse changed owners with the young men seeming desperate to be part of the action.

It made its way to the white cross where it undertook a whirling and spinning dance and was joined by another horse…after a break it continued its journey back into the town. By then the town was coming alive and people were making their way around. Some particularly young women were barracked by the beast to much hilarity.

No Bootie Night for me!

Sadly I missed the famed Bootie Night. During this the horse is allowed to grab any young lady it sees with the help of two crew members who hold them by the arms and legs at the front of the horse, which rises up and down ten times as the crowd cries Bootie! The victim is said to have dance avoiding being lashed by the tail. This is done on the Cher steps and Wellington square where the horse says goodbye for the rest of the year. This appears to have originated according to an early account of 1830 to have arisen from those who did not pay it says:

many other persons, inhabitants of the places they visit, give them small sums, and such persons as they meet are also asked to contribute a trifle; if they are refused, the person of the refuser is subjected to the ceremony of booting or pursing; this is done by some of the attendants holding his person while one of the figures inflict ten slight blows on him with the top of a boot; he is then liberated and all parties give three huzzas: the most trifling sum buys off this ceremony, and it is seldom or never performed but on those who purposely throw themselves in their way and join the party, or obstruct them in their vagaries.”

Origins of the hobby horse.

Three hobby horse traditions exist along the Somerset-Devon-Cornwall coast and each claim to be the oldest and be unique. Clearly there is a link between each of them and indeed probably between these and those found through Europe, Africa and beyond! As regards Minehead, one story states that it was used to frighten off the Viking raiders and where the horse stops, the white cross, is as far as the Vikings were chased. However another account in a local newspaper of May 1863 states:

“The origin professes to be in commemoration of the wreck of a vessel at Minehead in remote times, or the advent of a sort of phantom ship which entered the harbour without Captain or crew.”

Certainly the Hobby Horse is boat like only having a length of rope for its cow tail and is covered with brightly coloured ribbons with a hole cut in for the body with a disc shaped face.

Whatever the origin Minehead’s Hobby Horse will continue to be one of the best May day customs in Britain, full of music, mischief and always mystery.

Custom revived: Lambley’s Cowslip Sunday

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Outside Nottinghamshire and perhaps outside the Nottingham area, Lambley’s Cowslip Sunday or simply Lambley Sunday, the first Sunday in May, is not very well known. This was an interesting custom which was an unusual may day custom fixed on Sunday, usually a day frowned upon for such frivolities, which appeared to be a mass flower pick with associated side attractions. For on this date local people and visitors from neighbouring Nottingham and nearby villages (several thousand in the early 20th century) would visit the Dumbles where Dover Beck flowed and picked cowslips. This rather innocent if ultimately destructive custom soon became associated with festivities and commerce. Stalls would be established in the main street selling refreshments and local pubs would sell beer causing unfortunately associated drunkenness and violence. In 1866 local newspapers complained about the day desecrating the Sabbath and moves were afoot to move the day. A brief undated cutting in Nottingham Central Library reads:

“Cowslip Sunday. About dinner time and during the early afternoon yesterday a large number of cyclists and pedestrians could have been seen returning into Nottingham carrying either bunches of cowslips or small branches of blossom taken from the hedgerows. Many of the pedestrians were boys, and it seemed in one sense, a pity that better use was not made of what must have cost them many a mile of trudging. Some of the youths left their little burdens of cowslips and wild violets scattered on the road.”  

In a booklet ‘Lambley Sunday’ a picturesque May Day festival, local historian Stapleton provides the best account of the custom and I have quoted it at length. He notes that in his youth:

“commencing not later than 4 a.m., the lashing of straining brake-horses, pulling densely-packed loads of holiday humanity, the braying of a never ending series of bugle horns, the beat of many iron hooves rattling over the granite roads and the heavy chaff and laughter of habitually thirsty throats made up a Sabbath bedlam that surely would be tolerated in the streets of no other great English city”

Stapleton was confused why especially after a heavy night drinking on the Saturday were people not recovering on the Sunday but rather walking or travelling to this small village the day after…he was never able to get a reply other than its Lambley or Cowslip Sunday and as such this was reason enough as we have seen with many of these customs the reason having long gone before the ceasing of the tradition. Stapleton gives a colourful account of his own pilgrimage:

“Eight o’clock and a wet morning! It was the uncompromising sort of weather when the lazy town-dwelle, having glanced out of the window, debates whether it be not the wiser plan to spend a few more hours in bed…”

Giving himself that lie-in he promised himself, he begun at 11 am:

“Bereft by the discouraging climatic conditions of expected companionship, and tire dof awaiting a change in that never came, I set out alone …..via Mapperley Park for Nottinghamites May Sunday Mecca duly equipped with overcoat and umbrella. The wind and rain drove consistently and horizontally from the right or eastern side…”

Clearly the weather had put many off and he states that :

“Cowslip Sunday was a comparative failure that year, but ardent youths were not to be denied. In nearly every green field they were to be found, trampling the saturated grass in search of floral treasures…..they boasted neither umbrellas nor overcoats, but did not seem to mind the wet very much. En route they were buoyed up by anticipations of floral wealth, and on returning there was all the swelling pride of conquest and spoils.”

Even by the 1800s when Stapleton was describing his experiences, the custom was in decline

“There is little to distinguish this from another Sunday. Yet the people of Mapperley tell of a time, not so many years ago either, when the conveyances stopping at the local licensing houses stretched fifty yards or more the excursionists…sat on the opposite side of the road eating bread and cheese and no children were allowed out of doors.”

Stapleton notes that he

“met the first three returning ‘Cowslippers’…they were somewhat more than fully-grown men, but they were not proof against the all-powerful fascination of the occasion. One of them had five bunches of cowslips in his hand, and the second was whimsically adorned with a like number dangling in a string from his top button hole..”

Cowslip wine

Was available again at the event although made in Oxfordshire, in the early form of the tradition this was one of the main reasons for collecting cowslips, especially it appears by children! Stapleton talks of how cowslip wine was made:

“Pluck off all the little yellow heads place in a vessel in the oven, add water, and stew until you have a good, strong infusion. Then decant into old medicine bottles and add as much sugar and milk as your mother will give you or as much as you can steal, among the lot and it is ready for use at once, whether it be hot or cold.”

Is the custom unique? What is its origin?

There appears to have been an industrial background behind the tradition and it Sileby in Leicestershire, where in May children of the area were ‘employed’ to collect cowslips in an annual harvest where children were given time off school. The custom appears to have died out in the 1920s. Several ideas have been put forward for the custom occurring on Sunday. One being that this was a Wake Sunday or Patronal day but the wake week was in Whitsun. Another that it is a vestige of commoners rights to unenclosed areas of Thorneywood chase which covered Lambley and Gedling. Clearly it is more probably associated with May Day.

The decline

By the 1920s the tradition had all but died out. This was due to a number of factors: the ploughing up of some of the dumbles, probably the weather and the police discouraging the tradition due to its rowdy nature. Of this a report in the Nottinghamshire Guardian notes:

“if we judge, from the manners and customs of a great part of them and their acts and language, we should conclude that the class has not improved since their last annual visit. The police had much trouble in keeping decent order in the village. …The great cry is why cannot another day in the week be devoted to this much-desired ramble, if all are so anxious that it should be continued, so that all might enjoy the pleasure more freely without desecrating the Sabbath.”

Certainly the very action of picking the flowers could not have been favourable to their survival as the urban population enlarged. Certainly the weather and inconsistency of growth could have contributed to the downfall as a correspondent in Nottinghamshire Guardian of May 11th noted:

“This much-talked of day, annually held on the first Sunday in May, was duly celebrated. The weather for some time previous had been cold and wet with frosty nights; consequently vegetation had not made so much progress as usual at this season of the year so that the cowslips and other spring flowers were not quite so properly matured..”

The revival

Certainly with this reputation this quiet village may not have been in favour of a true revival and as such Cowslip Sunday is perhaps radically different from that 100 years ago and all the better for it. Gone are the hoards of pickers and the dawn pilgrimage, the rowdy drinking and indeed perhaps the cowslips! Although some have made it into the garlands carried.

It was 2010 when Lambley Parish council who in 2010 resurrected the tradition, albeit a little more organised and lending itself more to May day, which probably the original focus was. A report in 2010 for the BBC reports:

“The residents of a Nottinghamshire village are reviving a forgotten rural folk tradition. …..  On Sunday, 2 May 2010, the celebrations return with folk tales, live performance and a ceilidh.   Playwright and Lambley resident David Longford has researched Cowslip Sunday, traditionally held on the first Sunday in May, for a play being performed on the day.”

David Longford notes in the article:

“Now Lambley’s recently established Cowslip Sunday now consists of a procession though the village, attended by a giant called Cowslip Jack. Afterwards there is a free open air rustic play telling the history of Lambley and end in a ceilidh. Cowslip wine will be available again. 

Lambley Jack and his procession

Cowslip Jack was retired in 2012.The procession is lead by a Lambley Jack, a top hat wearing broom carrying urchin, who figures in the play. The name is a local one for someone who is cheeky or impudent, legendarily associated with the burning down of Nottingham castle. However, no such Jack or John is named in the assizes which followed.

This procession with a neatly sown Cowslip banner  and accompanied with a hotch-potch of characters: an accordionist, antlered ‘fawns’, an elf, fairies carrying garlands with spring flowers around them, some peasant girls and a dandy. They process around the village with an amusing short cut through the church, perhaps to remind the church of the sacrilegious nature of such a Sunday celebration! As they went along they cried Cowslip Sunday and called out the letters of Cowslip! Once they returned the most interesting part of the custom begins

The play-Lambley Jack and the Golden Stocking Frame

The play is a one off each year, described on the programme as:

“rustic rough-hewn style and knockabout hour it can easily be described as ‘a Panto for springtime’. Therefore in keeping with the style of this kind of performance your cheers vocal appreciation and friendly banter are well throughout. In other words join in.”

This year, as noted, the giant, whose head sat by the village hall, was sadly absent as the story centred around the tradition of William Lee and the stocking frame, a local invention for neighbouring Calverton cleverly interwoven with the classic Rumplestiltskin (or as they said in the a Play-the English version Tom Tit). The story was framed by the Cowslip Fairs and fawns, referencing the activities which went on in days of old, collecting cowslips and making cowslip balls (thrown of course). There was a great Pantomime dame with some great banter with the crowd, some very professional turns from some of the younger members of the parish. There were of course some very obvious in-jokes based nationally, a Dragon’s Den inspired chat between Lee, Elizabeth I and the King of France and their sponsorship of the said stocking frame, or some locally based of  inter-village rivalry. All in all it was an excellent play taking some of the best features of traditional approaches such as Panto and Mummers and throwing in some modern comedy….going to show that Nottinghamshire can provide some of the best of amateur theatricals.

The organisers of Cowslip Sunday appear determined to keep the custom alive, and it is interesting to note they have avoiding the obvious fall back May event staple-The Morris dancer. Hopefully they can in the cash strapped days ahead but with large numbers of people coming to the village , who otherwise would pass straight through, with spending cash, it should survive; after all where were they in 2009? I heartily recommend a visit especially as they are few customs on this day.