Category Archives: May day

Custom survived: Reach Fair and Penny Scramble Cambridgeshire

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Regular readers of posts will have noticed fairs have been covered quite a bit this year. This will probably be the last one for a bit but it certainly is an unusual one to end with. It has the attributes of the other fairs covered here – rides, fast food and an opening from the Mayor. But the opening by the Mayor is more dramatic plus bizarrely it is a Mayor from the nearby city not the village it is in.

Within Reach

There is something ancient about Reach and its fair. I decided to travel to the fair via the Devil’s Dyke path following this ancient Anglo-Saxon entrenchment which ended at the village and one part of the fair even lay along it. Reach itself is a small settlement, a picturesque village, nestled around a green called Fair Green. Officially, it received charter in 1201 it is probably much older and likely dates back to the Saxon period. Over the years like many fairs it has changed. Despite being a small village, it was economically important to East Anglia, even nationally possibly internationally important being noted for selling ponies. These would fill the village and the auction would be held at the Hythe where a large stone still stands called the Auction Stone, the bids being struct for the third time. Over time like nearly every fair in the UK it moved from trade to fun.

Reaching out

I arrived a few minutes before the official opening of the fair. Making my way to the centre of the village, to Fair Green, where in this small area were crammed an array of whirling and buzzing rides; a big wheel, dodgems and a Maypole! It was May day after all!

Then at midday, the Cambridge Corporation and the Mayor party arrived. The Mayor being attended by the Aldermen and women in top hats and sergeant at Mace and various dignitaries from the University who processed to the bank and their assembled. They were given flower posies made by the local children, originally to keep the smells away! Below them the whole of the fair assembled waiting for the proclamation and more importantly for the hundreds of children – the penny scramble!

The Sergeant-at-Mace stood forward rang his bell, or rather dropped his clanger as it didnt work, and gave the proclamation:

“The King, by a charter dated at Geddington, the 8th of January, in the 2nd year of his reign, and tested by Roger bishop of St. Andrew’s, Geoffery Fitzpeter earl of Essex, Robert earl of Leicester, William earl of Sarum, and others, granted to the burgesses of Cambridge the following privileges :

  1. That they should have a gild of merchants.
  2. That no burgess should plead without the walls of the borough of any plea, save pleas of exterior tenure (except the King’s moneyers and servants).

III. That no burgess should make duel; and that with regard to pleas of the Crown, the burgesses might defend themselves according to the ancient custom of the borough.

  1. That all burgesses of the merchant’s gild should be free of toll, passage, lastage, pontage, and stallage, in the fair, and without, and throughout the ports of the English sea, and in all the King’s lands on this side of the sea, and beyond the sea, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).
  2. That no burgess should be judged by arbitrary amerciaments, except according to the ancient late of the borough existing in the time of the King’s ancestors.

  3. That the burgesses should have justly all their lands and tenures, wages and debts whatsoever, to them due, and that right should be done to them of their lands and tenures within the borough, according to the custom thereof.

VII. That of all the debts of burgesses which should be contracted at Cambridge and of the appearances there to be made, the pleas should be holden at Cambridge.

VIII. That if anyone in all the King’s dominions, should take toll or custom from the men of Cambridge of the merchant’s gild, and should not make satisfaction, the Sheriff of Cambridgeshire, or the Bailiff of Cambridge, should take therefore a distress at Cambridge, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).

  1. That for the amendment of the borough, the burgesses should have a fair in Rogation week, with all its liberties as they had been accustomed to have.
  2. That all the burgesses of Cambridge might be free of yereshyve and of scotale, if the King’s sheriff or any other bailiff had made scotale.

  3. That the burgesses might have all other liberties and free customs which they had in the time of the King’s ancestors, when they had them better or more freely.

XII. That if any customs should be unlawfully levied in war, they should be broken.

XIII. That whosoever should come to the borough of Cambridge with his merchandise, of whatever place, whether stranger or otherwise, might come, tarry, and return in safety, and without disturbance, rendering the right customs.

XIV. That any one causing injury, loss or trouble, to the burgesses, should forfeit a £10 to the King.

  1. That the burgesses and their heirs, might have and hold the foregoing liberties, of the King and his heirs, peaceably, freely, quietly, entirely, and honourably in all things.”

Much of the proclamation being largely incomprehensible to the crowd of course but of course everyone was waiting for the penny scramble. It is worth noting that the fair was originally on Rogation Monday later being moved to May Day Bank holiday for the convenience of the attendees. Like many fairs it was a time for homecoming. The second worth noting is that the charter allowed the development of a Pie Powder court to deal with trade offences and civil disobedience. This later point was of importance because it was said that it was the time when local people would fight with their neighbours and the nearby Upware men would make it the day the fought with Reach and got their hair cut! Indeed, in 1852 the local newspaper reported that a serious fire was caused by:

“Dissolute characters… attracted by the Annual Horse Fair”

Charles Lucas records in his 1930 Fenman’s world:

“Between ten and eleven o’clock things begin to get a bit lively as Upware and boxing, or rather free fighting, seemed to be the order of the day…the Wicken and Swaffham police were dealt with summarily, one being pitched into the Lode and the other into the Fen drain…at this time a crank Cambridge, a from Jesus graduate, Richard Ramsey Fielden MA, gave out that he was King and champion of Upware and he spent his time there arguing and fighting the bargees…it was though that he was the originator of the proceedings

Reach for the pennies!

Then after the proclamation the members of the corporation called Colts and Fillies apparent reached into their pockets for their bags of coins and then with very little fanfare we were off. Coins flew through the air. At one point coins fell from the sky like bullets. Below the children were prostrate on the ground, searching every blade of grass for the golden pieces, glinting in the light. I looked down and saw some children making large bundles of coins clutched in his hand beaming widely.

The barrage was constant and just when I thought it had stopped more coins appeared. The children were hungry for it and then it stopped. The crowd disappeared and the sound of the fair cranked up and it was open. Morris dancers appeared and danced. Young children did Maypole dancing – and sadly got tangled up and burgers were sold. Reach fair an obscure oddity and a great day to spend the May Day. Certainly much of the surrounding area agreed people were walking the roads for miles from nearby villages.

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Custom revived: Chestnut Sunday Bushy Park

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One of the great joys of Maytime is the blossom that abounds. Hedgerow, fields and parks. The simple desire to appreciate and experience such natural beauty was behind the most curious of London customs; Chestnut Sunday

In a sort of homage to the tradition concept behind the northern Spa Sunday perhaps, London developed the custom soon after Queen Victoria opened the Royal Park to the public. Soon people recognised the grandeur of the chestnut trees that lined the drive in.

Bushy plants

It was during the reign of William and Mary that the mile long avenue lined by horse chestnut trees was planted by Sir Christopher Wren (not personally of course). These trees reached their zenith in the Victorian period and people, including members of the Royal family, would descend on the park on the Sunday nearest to the 11th of May when the blossom was said to be at its greatest. Thousands attended, records show that one Chestnut Sunday in 1894 over 3500 tickets were collected at Hampton Court railway station alone. Over the time it was so popular that even bus companies would organise special excursions. Although it World War I suspended any formal organisation to see the chestnuts, advertising went overboard once peace had returned. The Transport for London museum has a number of evocative posters made during the hey day of the custom – the 1930s showing people picnicking, promenading and playing amongst the trees.

Load of old chestnuts

The coming of World War II and the use of the park as a military headquarters curtailed Chestnut Sunday and it slowly disappeared. However it was not completely forgotten for a revival was coming. In 1977. Colin and Mu Pain, Hampton Wick residents came across details of the custom doing research about the suburb. The year was a good one for a revival being the Silver Jubilee of the Queen and so together with the Hampton Wick Association a one off celebration again on the Sunday closest to the 11th of May was planned. From this it grew and grew.

From tiny chestnut…

That initial revival has developed and developed that it has become a festival. I visited in 2008 to be greeted by thousands of people lining the avenue to see a parade which went from Teddington Gate to the Diana Fountain. The procession was the usual mix of vintage cars, marching bands and cavaliers…but no Morris…except from Morris Minor that is. A nice distraction although the smell of the vehicles did rather overpower the natural beauty of the avenue. Indeed Roy Vickery in his excellent Plant Lore blog notes:

Today, and one assumes throughout most of the event’s recent history, very little, if any attention is paid to the trees, a small number of local charities have stalls, there are a small number of food stalls, and a small funfair, the main attraction being a parade which starts at 12.30 p.m.  But the event is very popular with families, many of whom bring picnics.  In 2019 the parade consisted mainly of veteran vehicles – military vehicles, cars, bicycles, scooters and motorbikes.”

With a fun fair, local stalls and re-enactments, there is plenty to entertain the Londoners who attend…although one wonders how many spend time to admire its principle asset!

Custom demised: Dipping on May Day in Cornwall

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“The first of May is Dipping Day   The sixth of May is Looe Fair Day.”

 

In a previous blog post I discussed May Dew on Arthur’s Seat, in the other end of the country in Cornwall, a curious custom called dipping was associated with May Day and similarly thought to give good luck. R A Courtney is his 1886 article for Folklore on Cornish Feasts and Feasten customs records:

“In Cornwall May Day is hailed by the juveniles as ” dipping-day.” Early in the morning the children go out into the country and fetch home the flowering branches of the white-thorn, or boughs of the narrow- leaved elm, both of which are called ” May.” At a later hour all the boys of the village sally forth with their bucket, can, and syringe, and avail themselves of a licence to ” dip, or well-nigh drown, without regard to person or circumstances, the person who has not the protection of a piece of ” May ” in his hat or button-hole.”

Thomas Bond in his 1823 ‘Topographical and Historical Sketches of the Boroughs of East and West Looe, in the County of Cornwall notes:

“On May day the boys dress their hats with flowers and furnish themselves with bullocks horns in sticks of about two feet long are fixed and with those filled with water they parade the streets all day dip all persons who pass them if they have not what is May in their hats that is a sprig of hawthorn.”

Why did they do it? Perhaps Tony Dean and Tony Shaw’s 2003 Folklore of Cornwall has the answer:

“The importance of dew may have had some link with the May Day practice of sprinkling with water, ‘dipping’, to bring good luck. We have already noted that the Padstow Oss once visited Treator Pool for this purpose and all over Cornwall, dipping was a common custom.”

Dipping appears to be recorded nowhere else although it does have a similarity to customs seen in Poland associated with Easter Monday.

Custom revived: The May day Islington Milkmaid’s Garland dance

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“Many people must still remember the milk maids garland and dance now quite extinct The garland which was very splendid was at first carried by one of the milk maids but afterwards by men accompanied by the dancers and a fiddler In a scarce tract printed in 1623 eating cakes and cream at Islington and Hoxton is also mentioned as a custom on May morning To Islington and Hogsdon runnes the streame Of giddie people to eate cakes and creame.”

Hugh F. Martyndale 1831’s A familiar analysis of the calendar of the Church of England

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During my attempt to attend as many May Day customs over the weekend of 2015, details of which are available in an article for the Company of the Green Man, one firmly in my sites was the New Esperance Morris’s May Day Islington Milkmaid’s Garland. Why? One because the team, a women only one is historically important, secondly because this was no ordinary Morris dancing but a reconstructed milkmaid’s dance and third and finally it was only done on the 1st of May and as this time the 1st fell on Bank Holiday it was an ideal opportunity.

My milk dance brings…

The Milkmaid’s dance is quite well described by early writers. Thistleton Dwer (1900) Popular customs notes that the Milkmaid’s Dance. On the first day of May, was described in the Spectator (vol. v.):

“the ruddy milkmaid exerts herself in a most sprightly manner under a pyramid of silver tankards, and, like the virgin Tarpeia, oppressed by the costly ornaments which her benefactors lay upon her.”

Shaken not stirred

Timings were working well so far on the day. I had attended the May Day morning at Oxford, came into to London and made my way to north-east of the city where their guide suggested they would be present. This is not always the best guide as Morris groups can often be late or else early on a tour and missed. I placed my luck on the former being true. However on arrival at the allotted pub I found the group mid-dance at the side of a pub with a group of bemused on lookers. Light hit off their buckles and bows and made them look majestic in their dance. However, when I arrived the first I noticed was the decorated milk pail, it was a faithful reproduction of what Thistleton Dwer in his 1900 Popular customs notes:

“These decorations of silver cups, tankards, and salvers were borrowed for the purpose, and hung round the milk-pails, with the addition of flowers and ribbons, which the maidens carried upon their heads when they went to the houses of their customers, and danced in order to obtain a small gratuity from each of them. Of late years the plate, with the other decorations, was placed in a pyramidical form, and carried by two chairmen upon a wooden horse. The maidens walked before it, and performed the dance without any incumbrance.”

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Pail into insignificant

Strutt in his 1801 Sports and Past times notes:

“Sometimes in place of the silver tankards and salvers they substituted a cow. The animal had her horns gilt, and was nearly covered with ribbons of various colours, formed into bows and roses, and interspersed with green oaken leaves and bunches of flowers.”

In a set of prints called the Tempest Cryes of London, one is called the Merry Milkmaid, whose proper name was Kate Smith. She is dancing with her milk-pail on her head, .decorated with silver cups, tankards, and salvers borrowed for the purpose, and tied together with ribbons, and ornamented with flowers. Misson, too, in his Observations on My Travels in England, alludes to this custom, lie says:

“On the 1st of May, and the five and six days following, all the pretty young country girls that serve the town with milk dress themselves up very neatly, and borrow abundance of silver plate, whereof they make a pyramid, which they adorn with ribbons and flowers, and carry upon their heads instead of their common milk-pails. In this equipage, accompanied by some of their fellow milkmaids and a bag-pipe or fiddle, they go from door to door, dancing before the houses of their customers, in the midst of boys and girls that follow them in troops, and everybody gives them something.”

Of course these women are no milkmaids and are not dressed like milkmaids but traditional Morris and the group espoused the carrying of these pails on their heads. However they do carry on a platform a splendid pail adorned with cutlery.

In Head’s Weekly Times, May 5th, 1733, occurs the following :

“On May-day the milk-maids who serve the Court danced minuets and rigadoons before the Royal family, at St. James’s House, with great applause.”

Pepys in his Diary, May 1st, 1667, says,

“To Westminster; on the way meeting many milkmaids, with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them, and saw pretty Nelly [Nell Gwynne] standing at her lodgings’ door in Drury Lane in her smock sleeves and bodice, looking upon one; she seemed a mighty pretty creature.”

Milk gone sour

Hone accounts for their demise in his Every Day Book of thirty years ago. He described them then as :

“ Themselves in comely colours dressed, Their shining garland in the middle, A pipe and tabor on before, Or else the foot-inspiring fiddle. They stopt at houses where it was ‘I’heir custom to cry ‘ milk below ! And, with the music play’d, with smiles join’d hands and pointed toe to toe. Thus they tripp’d on, till —from door to door The hop’d-for annual present sent — A signal came, to courtsey low, And at that door cease merriment. Such scenes and sounds once blest my eyes.”

He then notes:

“And charm’d my ears ; but all have vanished. On May-day now no garlands go, For milkmaids and their dance are banish’d.”

Why? I am not sure they were banished in the real sense but I would imagine changes in London’s urbanisation slowly pushed out this rural pursuit and as such it lay lost for over a hundred years.

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Someone else’s churn

The revival of this old custom is intrinsically linked with the development of female Morris dancing. Unfortunately Morris dancing and women are not something which is linked in most peoples mind when Morris dancing is mentioned. Yet early accounts do mention women Morris indeed some of the earliest mentions of Morris involve women. Will Kemp, a Shakespearian actor danced the Morris from London to Norwich in 1600 states that:.

“In Chelmsford he met “ a Mayde not passing 14 yeares of age… made request … that she might dance the Morrice with me in a large great roome. …I was soone wonne to fit her with bels… and to our jumps we fell. A whole houre she held out…”

Later on in Sudbury he came across:

“a lusty country lass …saying “If I had begun to dance, I would haue held out one myle though it had cost me my life. … if the Dauncer will lend me a leash of his belles,  ile venter to tread one mile with him my selfe. (sic)”

Fast forward several hundred years to a pioneer named Mary Neal who set up the first women’s Morris, Esperance Club, which was a social club for London’s working-class in 1896. Encouraged by Cecil Sharp the great collector of Morris and other traditional dances in 1905 who provided dances he had recorded from his notebook. The Esperance girls were soon displaying at schools and other places up and down the country and to teach the dances in schools and other places. However, differences in ideas and a fear that Neal’s views on the dances will taint the traditional aspects of the dance, Sharp and Neal parted company. Neal became involved with the suffrage movement and the group disbanded around the First World War. Morris fostered and developed by the Morris Ring became a male preserve and everything died down on the women’s front.

However, the 70s folk revival saw the birth of new women’s Morris and then finally in 1975 a London group named after that founding group the New Esperance – named for the original women’s team and practicing in the same area (of which I was proud to with them came the revived milkmaid’s dance which has continued ever since. And so they do a great effort to keep Morris in the city and raise the profile of the women’s essential role in the development of Morris and it is good to hear in this celebration of the Suffragette movement and consideration all things equality that finally the Morris ring has allowed women teams to join. Long long overdue!

Custom demised: Baldock’s My-Lord and-My-Lady May day effigies, Hertfordshire

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According to the 1832, William Hone’s Yearbook:

the “good wives” of the labouring poor, mostly living in what was then called “the backside” (the yards behind Church Street), made a unique May day structure, the Lords and Ladies similar to a Guy Fawkes effigy.”..

Thisleton-Dwyer in his Popular British customs notes:

At Baldock, in former times, the peasantry were accustomed to make a ‘my-lord and-my-lady ‘ in effigy on the first of May. These figures were constructed of rags, pasteboard, old masks, canvas, straw, &c., and were dressed up in the holiday habiliments of their fabricators—’my lady’ in the best gown’d, apron, kerchief, and mob cap of the dame, and ‘my lord’ in the Sunday gear of her master. The tiring finished, ‘ the pair ‘ were seated on chairs or joint stools, placed outside the cottage-door or in the porch, their bosoms ornamented with large bouquets of May flowers.”

What was the purpose of the custom. Thistleton-Dwyer adds:

“They supported a hat, into which the contributions of the lookers-on were put. Before them, on a table were arranged a mug of ale, a drinking-horn, a pipe, a pair of spectacles, and sometimes a newspaper. The observance of this usage was exclusively confined to the wives of the labouring poor resident in the town, who were amply compensated for their pains-taking by the contributions, which generally amounted to something considerable.”

The tradition must have been long established by 1832 as a Betty Thorn, described as “long since deceased”, was remembered as a “capital hand” at making a May day “my lord and my lady” Hone notes:

These dumb shows as may be expected attracted a crowd of gazers They varied according to the materials and skill of the constructors One old woman named Betty Thorn long since deceased is still remembered as a capital hand at making up a Mayday my lord and my lady of whose appearance the above is a faithful description The origin of this singular not to say ludicrous custom of attiring inanimate figures in the humble garb of cottagers to counterfeit persons of rank or whether any particular individuals were intended to he represented and how and when they first became connected with the sports on May day are to me alike unknown The subject is worthy of elucidation The observance of the usage just detailed was exclusively confined to the good wives of the laboring poor resident in the town who were amply compensated for their pains taking by the voluntary contributions which generally amounted to something considerable.”

When and why the custom became extinct is unclear but it was long gone but not forgotten when in the town’s Festival in 1982 the custom was briefly revived as can be seen from this photo from Victoria Maddern from Baldock Museum….it has not be revived since!

In 1982, the tradition of My Lord and My Lady was revived during the Baldock Festival. A handsome couple sit outside their cottage door just as they did 150 years earlier. (Photo: Victoria Maddren)

Custom survived: May Dew collection, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

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“On May-day in a fairy ring We’ve seen them, round St. Anthon’s spring, Frae grass the caller dew-drops wring, To wet their ein, And water clear as crystal spring, To synd them clean.”

Poet Robert Fergusson

Go to bed or stay up all night?

After experiencing the dizzy delights of Edinburgh’s Beltane I had to make a decision to wait a few hours or go to sleep and wake up early – the sunrise

Now the second decision how long does it take to get to the summit:

The usage of May Dew is a well-know custom across the country but the only place which appears to still entertain it is Edinburgh. An account in:

“At Edinburgh about four o’clock in the morning there is an unusual stir; and a hurrying of gay throngs through the King’s Park to Arthur’s Seat to collect the May-dew. In the course of half an hour the entire hill is a moving mass of all sorts of people. At the summit may be seen a company of bakers and other craftsmen, dressed in kilts, dancing round a maypole. On the more level part is usually an itinerant vendor of whisky, or mountain (not May) dew. These proceedings commence with the daybreak. About six o’clock the appearance of the gentry, toiling up the ascent, becomes the signal for servants to march home; for they know that they must have the house clean and everything in order earlier than usual on May-morning. About eight o’clock the fun is all over; and by nine or ten, were it not for the drunkards who are staggering towards the ‘gude town,’ no one would know that anything particular had taken place.”

Dew you know why?

Peter Opie in his 1964 article for Folklore, Proposals for a Dictionary, Arranged on Historical Principles, of English Traditional Lore did the sterling task of assembling all the information on May Dew and saw four principle themes develop:

“Used a medicament, cosmetic or telling the future. 1602 PLAT Delights for Ladies (1611 H 8 b). Some commend May-dew gathered from Fennell and Celandine, to be most excellent for sore eyes. c. 1691 AUBREY Nat. Hist. Wiltshire (1847, 73). May dewe is a very great dissolvent of many things with the sunne that will not be dissolved any other way: which putts me in mind of the rationality of the method  used by Wm. Gore, of Clapton, Esq., for his gout, which was to walke in the dewe with his shoes pounced; he found benefit by it. I told Mr. Wm. Mullens, of Shoe Lane, Chirurgion, this story, and he sayd this was the very method and way of curing that was used in Oliver Cromwell, Protectour. I808 JAMIESON Scottish Dict. Rude [Northern Scotland]. Great virtue is ascribed to May-dew. Some, who have tender children, particularly on Rude-day [3 May], spread out a cloth to catch the dew, and wet them in it. 1850 Notes & Queries Ist Ser. II 475. They say [Launceston, Corn wall] that a child who is weak in the back may be cured by drawing him over the grass wet with the morning dew. The experiment must be thrice performed, that is, on the mornings of the Ist, 2nd, and 3rd of May. 1883 BURNE Shropshire Folk-Lore 19o. I knew a little idiot boy whose mother (fancying it was weakness of the spine which prevented him from walking) took him into the fields ‘nine mornings running’ to rub his back with May-dew. She explained that the dew had in it all the ‘nature’ of the spring herbs and grasses, and that it was only to be ex pected that it should be wonderfully strengthening. 2. Used as a cosmetic. 1667 PEPYS Diary 28 May. After dinner my wife away down with Jane and W. Hewer to Woolwich, in order to a little ayre and to lie there to-night, and so to gather May-dew to-morrow morning, which Mrs. Turner hath taught her as the only thing in the world to wash her face with; and I am contented with it. 1791 Morning Post 2 May. Yesterday, being the first of May, ac cording to annual and superstitious custom, a number of persons went into the fields and bathed their faces with the dew on the grass, under the idea that it would render them beautiful. [Brand I, 1813, 184.] 1850 Notes & Queries Ist Ser. II 475. The common notion of im proving the complexion by washing the face with the early dew in the fields on the Ist of May extensively prevails in these parts [Launceston, Cornwall]. 1952 Opie Schoolchild MS (458/2/47) Girl 14 Kirkcaldy. On the first of May you wash your face in the dew and have a good complexion all year round. 3. Considered especially efficacious when gathered from hills and/ or before sunrise. 1626 BACON Sylva Sylvarum ? 781. I suppose that he who would  gather the best May-Deaw, for Medicine, should gather it from the Hills.. 4. The rite of gathering or ‘washing’ in May-dew considered auspicious….. c. 1900oo Maclagan MS (BANKS Cal. Cus. II 224). On the first day of May girls went to wash their faces in the dew and wish before sunrise while doing this they name some lad and wish in their own mind that he may become their sweetheart and they get their wish. 1952 Opie Schoolchild MS (476/9/16) Girl 14 Aberdeen. It is said to be lucky to wash your face in the early morning dew on the first of May. 1957 Opie Schoolchild MS (999a/6/3i) Girl ii Penrith. On the first of May you wash your face in the dew and you are supposed to marry the first man you meet.”

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Despite claims that it died out in 1930, there has been reference to it since. For F. Marian McNeill in 1968 notes in ‘The Silver Bough Volume Four that:

“the May dew, in a word, was the ‘holy water’ of the Druids. Those on whom it was sprinkled were assured of health and happiness and, tradition has it, where young women were concerned, of beauty as well, throughout the ensuing year. To this day, all over Scotland numbers of young girls rise before dawn on the first of May and go out to the meadow or hillside to bathe their faces in the dew.”

McNeill (1968) highlights Arthur’s Seat stating that it:

“….is a favourite meeting place, and nearby is St. Anthony’s Well, to which many used to resort to “wish-a-wish” on this auspicious day. This picturesque survival of the old pagan rites, together with the Christian service on the summit of the hill, draws hundreds of people to the site. As dawn approaches, numbers of young girls dally on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, laughing and chattering as they perform the immemorial rite, and are regarded with amused tolerance by the majority of the arrivals as they climb to the summit to join in the Sunrise Service.”

By the 1940s a service had developed on the summit. The 1961 Glasgow Herald of the 2 May  recorded:

“About 1000 people climbed Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, yesterday to take part in the twenty-first May Day sunrise service, and to follow the old tradition of washing their faces in the morning dew.”

Certainly, several photos survive showing women washing their faces taken in the 1960s, in 1963 a 1000 climbed to reach there at 5.18 am and the Scotsman shows various photos in 1965 showing girls washing their face. By the late 80s it was still attracting reporters but numbers had dwindled to hundreds. Was it lost? Undoubtedly, there would be enough people turning up to warrant a commercial exploitation as the Scotsman added in 2008 in an article if you do one thing this week:

“Pop along to the car park near the foot of Arthur’s Seat, by the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at 10am on Thursday and you’ll find therapists from Serenity in the City spa uniting new and old beauty traditions. The first ten people to arrive will get a free ILA energy spray mist gift (worth 35) – and if having a wash in the dew isn’t for you, pop along to the spa for a facial.”

Dew going up?

It would appear that at least knowledge of it still survived. I had combined my visit with attendance to the Beltane fire festival on Carlton Hill which finished at 1! Working out on the map that it would take 1 or so to walk and that dawn was around 5.30 it I set my alarm clock at 3.30!

Arthur’s seat was cloaked in darkness when I arrived but I was not alone. On the way up I noticed St Anthony’s Well marked by a small round stone basin and a large stone.  This was the site also associated with May dew as in 1773 Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson and others later noted above. I peered inside it was dry. Once I had reached the top there was a small group of around 10 people of varying ages. The skies were cloudy but then at that moment the clouds cleared and a red orb could be seen.

Dew want to?

I kept making enquiries and was met by a blank stare. The majority of people on the seat appeared to be tourists of one sort or another me included. Perhaps the custom was extinct? However, a small group of local women I met on the way up, I asked were aware of it and one said I did it last year…but wouldn’t this year as I cannot be sure if it was dew or due to a dog. It seemed an odd rationale and maybe it was tinged with some degree of regret. Did it not work?

What dew looking for? 

Then I saw a lady and her husband walking down from the peak looking towards the floor. When she brushed her hand against some grass I knew what she was up to. I rushed down and she confirmed it…we looked together and there appeared a patch which she rubbed both hands over and then across her cheeks gleefully.

A few moments later I asked another lady and she said she was planning to. I offered to help. Strangely, like everything when you are looking for it you just cannot find it. We looked, inspected, crouched, brushed…no. To be honest there isn’t much grass at the summit. Walking down a bit there was a large patch of grass and mossy…she touched it and excitedly full of glees, said ‘yes here’s some’ then at that point she plunged her hands onto it rubbed it up and down and smiling applied. Her companion, her aunt also obliged. ‘I didn’t do it last year and felt ugly all year’ she said.

All this bizarreness was overlooked by some American tourists fresh over from Utah. I explained to them and they too become eager to find some. First they tried a small patch below the trig point…one said she couldn’t be sure it was wet might be just cold. I said about the patch I’d found and quickly they popped down and jumped into the crevice where the mossy grass lay. ‘This is it…it’s wet’ and duly or should I say dewly did it all over again. Laughing and finding the whole thing amusing and who wouldn’t.

Dew drop!

On the way down I meet a fair number of people going up – most of them attendees of the Carlton Hill event – perhaps it was more tradition just to come up rather than see the dawn!

More bizarrely my eye cast to St. Anthony’s Well it was now full of water. Dew? Mysterious source? Or something emptying the water bottle? Perhaps that had become a tradition in its own right?

So if you are on Arthur’s Seat on May Morning worth a go…it might even work!

Custom revived: May Garland, Lewes, Sussex

Standard

“The first of day is garland day, so please remember the garland; we don’t come here but once a year, so please remember the garland.”

May garlands were made across the country, but Sussex at the time appeared to be a stronghold as noted by Henry Burstow in Horsham in his 1911 Reminiscences of Horsham:

May Day, or Garland Day, was a very jolly time for us youngsters, not only because it was a holiday, but also because we used to pick up what seemed to us quite a lot of money. Early in the morning we would get up our best nosegays and garlands, some mounted on poles, and visit the private residents and tradespeople. We represented a well-recognised institution, and invariably got well received and patronised. People all seemed pleased to see us, and we were all pleased to see one another, especially if the day was fine, as it now seems to me it always was. At Manor House special arrangements were made for our reception, and quite a delightful old-time ceremony took place. Boys and girls gaily decked out for the occasion, a few at a time used to approach the front door, where a temporary railed platform was erected, and there old Mrs. Tredcroft, a nice-looking, good-hearted old lady used to stand and deal out to each and every one of us kind words and a few pence, everyone curtseying upon approach and upon leaving. Old Mrs. Smallwood, who lived in a quaint old cottage in the Bishopric, always used to go round on May Day with an immense garland drawn on a trolley by two or three boys. On the top of her little model cow, indicative of her trade — milk selling. Gaily dressed up herself in bows and ribbons, she used to take her garland round the town, call upon all the principal residents and tradespeople, to whom she was well known, and get well patronised.”

Lewes too had a strong tradition of May Garlands and an account by Lilian Candlin recalled her mother that her mother born in 1870 to Simpson that:

“Went early to the Daisy Bank a grassy slope opposite the old Fox inn at southernmost on the 1st of May to gather wild flowers…the flowers were made into a garland which she took around the neighbours who gave her a penny or a cake for the site of it.”

However, not everyone was happy to entertain children going around houses and what was tantamount to begging. It is said that to prevent the children begging a Mayor of the town J. F. Verrall established a tradition in 1874 instigated a competition with cash prizes. It became a more respectable outlet for the children’s enterprise as well as encouraging a love and knowledge of wild flowers. Jacqueline Simpson (1972) in her Folklore of Sussex thus records that:

“In Lewes around 1875-85 children used to go to Castle bank, where their garlands would be judged by a panel of ladies, and the best rewarded a shilling and the children had a half day holiday for the occasion.”

However, it may have been a short lived competition or else the begging was too attractive for Simpson (1973) records that as late as the 1920s children went door to door in Lewes the old way!

When the custom died out is unclear but it was clearly an extinct custom by the time Simpson writes about it in her book. Around the same time Lewes dance troop, Knots in May were being established and fast forward to 1980 and the group had revived the custom.

May rain?

I experience Lewes May Garland on my attempt to visit as many May customs over the May bank holiday in 2016. That may bank holiday a heavy mist laid in the air, then becoming a humid swell which deposited a fair amount of rain. I arrived there is good time and made my way up to the castle, where a mother and her little girl were awaiting with a small garland. I thought that the rain would quite literally put a dampener on it, but soon one by one, more and more elaborate May Garlands appeared – one even being carried by two masked Green Man (or rather Boys). The organisers are to be congratulated for bringing back the real feeling of May Day and over 30 garlands, one of which was I thought was a Jack in the Green, but might have been a fish instead! Some had figures in them recalling the dolls, said to be the Virgin Mary, put into the traditional garland.

May the best garland win

Once all the children and their garlands had arrived they were lined up in the shadow of the castle where the Mayor surveyed them. Broad smiles and anticipation were evident in the faces of the children including the two rather non-plused boys. There was some whispering from the Mayor and soon a decision was made, a decision as had been done back in those first May Garland awards.

Of course the other spectacle here are the Knots in May dancing troop. Holding up their own hoop garlands they weave in and out of each in a hypnotic fashion. Then came the Long Man Morris who gave a sturdy performance. At this point I checked my watch…I had to be off to Rye for the Hot Penny Scramble, for another post.

A delightful revival and one it would be nice to see encouraged elsewhere attached to Morris dancing out at May Day. A real opportunity of encouraging both community involvement and making children understand the heritage of the day off from school!

When is it on?

http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/lewes-garland-day/