Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is a-coming today,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May
It’s nearly May 1st, and this year we were planning to welcome the coming of summer in Padstow. This joyous celebration of May Day is renowned for the prancing of hobby horses, attended by costumed followers and garlanded musicians, processing through the streets of Padstow the whole day long. In normal times, the town is decked with greenery and flowers, and thronged with visitors, all keen to embrace the spectacle. We were two in the crowd a few years ago, but sadly we can’t return this year as the festival has been cancelled due to the coronavirus. So let me re-create something of the wonderful occasion we experienced, and perhaps we’ll all be inspired to find our own personal ways of welcoming the May this year. You’ll find a link to the famous song at the end of the post.
There are different ways of honouring May Day in the British Isles, including crowning a May Queen, but the Padstow May Day ceremony is focused on the hobby horses. There are two chief ‘osses in the town – the ‘original’ Old Oss, whose team wear red ribbons, and The Blue Ribbon ‘Oss, who was created, so it is said, by a Temperance organisation concerned about the free-drinking of the other team. Each ‘Obby ‘Oss consists of a round frame which is covered in a kind of black oilskin cloth that hangs down around the perimeter. A freakish horse’s head sticks through the top, with snapping jaws. The man inside the horse swings and dips and prances along the street, encouraged by another character, the ‘Teaser’. Their aim is to capture a young woman under the flapping black skirt of the horse, and thereby impregnate her – symbolically! – with the spirit of summer fertility. Drums beat with a rhythm sometimes steady, sometimes frenzied.
Everyone joins in the May Day songs which sometimes pause for the slow, solemn interlude:
O! where is St. George,
O!, where is he O,
He is out in his long boat on the salt sea O.
Up flies the kite and down tails the lark O.
Aunt Ursula Birdhood she had an old ewe
And she died in her own Park O.
Who is Ursula Birdwood? No one knows, although there are some intriguing suggestions, such as: ‘Aunt Ursula Birdhood was a disguised reference to St. Mary – a safe way for the Cornish recusant Catholics to “hail Mary” without getting caught’, as was posted on the genealogy forum Roots Web.
On and on go the processions throughout the day – up to the higher part of the town and a quick parade through the Metropole Hotel where no doubt a welcome pint speeds the troupe on its way – over to Prideaux Place, the stately house of Padstow – and round back down to the harbour side. The red team and the blue team weave their time-honoured routes.
The drum beat becomes a kind of constant throbbing heartbeat of the town. It will carry on resonating through you for days afterwards. As one who dislikes loud music or rock music, I found this particular beat magnetic and mesmerising. It seemed to harness and maintain the energy. Certainly this is a real community event, despite the huge numbers of visitors – some of those visitors are exiles of Padstow, who may return from the far corners of the world to spend this one special day in their home town. And although yes, the drink flows, drunkenness is not encouraged. a young woman berating her boyfriend on the street for getting drunk. ‘This is May Day!’ she said. ‘You just don’t do that.’ There is still an element of the sacred in this ritual.
And we experienced something of this hushed reverence the evening before. A friend of ours, a veteran of Padstow May day for decades, called us over just before closing time at the Golden Lion. ‘Just wait here,’ he said, ‘until everyone’s come out. Then we’ll go night singing.’ This lovely custom consisted of about a dozen of us heading through quiet streets to sing the May Song – albeit gently – under the windows of certain houses. People came to bedroom windows to listen, and sometimes trays of drinks and ginger fairings were brought out to refresh us. The atmosphere was magical.
One day I hope we’ll return to Padstow for May Day. This year though, we’ve had to give up our room at a guest house, reserved many months in advance, and live on our memories.
Related books by Cherry Gilchrist:
Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions of an Enchanted Landscape is a study of seasonal customs, including the Russian equivalents of British May Day – Maslnitsa and the Feast of Ivan Kupala.
The Circle of Nine includes a description and interpretation of Padstow May Day in the chapter ‘The Queen of the Earth’.
All photos copyright by Cherry Gilchrist