Category Archives: May day

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!

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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

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“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/

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)

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 (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.