6 of the best May Day festivals

Morris dancers, prancing maidens, the start of summer and a bank holiday—what’s not to love about this centuries-old shindig? Annunciata Walton rounds up six of the best of Britain’s May Day celebrations.

Wessex Morris Men at the Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset
Hercules, Oliver Cromwell or a very rude man—whatever you want to call the Cerne Abbas Giant, you can’t fail to miss this naked, club-wielding 180ft-tall chalk figure. He dominates the hillside above the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas and is so well endowed he’s been dubbed ‘Britain’s most famous phallus’. While some believe him to be thousands of years old, the earliest record of him was made in the 17th century. Nevertheless, the Giant has long been revered as a symbol of fertility and, as the sun rises on each May Day morn, the Wessex Morris Men can be seen performing a special ‘fertility stick dance’ above his head (5.15am), before bringing the party to the village square (7.30am). www.wessexmorrismen.co.uk


best may day festivalsJack-in-the-Green, Hastings, East Sussex
Kicking off with a dawn salute in the form of vigorous Morris dance, the weekend-long Jack-in-the-Green festival at Hastings upholds the momentum with ceilidhs, folk music and a thundering ‘drum off’ until Sunday, when the flower-bedecked Jack makes a run for it. Followed by frolicking Mad Jack’s Women, Bogies, Sweeps, Giants and the May Queen, Jack processes for hours through the town, with many a musical and culinary interlude. After the dancing, the Bogies parade the Jack down to the main stage, where he is symbolically slain and the Spirit of Summer is released for another year—it’s not as scary as it sounds.


best may day festivalsKingsbury May Festival, Kingsbury Episcopi, Somerset
Flooding over the past few years has caused a lot of trouble for the much-loved annual Kingsbury May Festival, but this year, it’ll be back with a vengeance and expects more than 5,000 visitors. The theme for 2015 is bees, with a multitude of stallholders selling beeswax, honey and bee-attracting plants. There’ll also be a fancy-dress Pram Race, maypole dancing, Morris dancing, clog dancing… and a Green Man covered in garlands, not to mention a hog roast, brass band, musical performances, a puppet show, bungee-running, face-painting, treasure hunt, egg-throwing, ‘tossing the sheaf’ and a vintage-tractor and classic-car display.

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best may day festivals’Obby ’Oss Day, Padstow, Cornwall
In a unique and delightfully bizarre tradition, two ’Obby ’Osses—otherwise known as men wearing horse masks and large hula hoops covered in a black sailcloths—gallivant through the fishing town of Padstow (all the more picturesque for the ribbons, flags and spring flowers, such as bluebells, forget-me-nots and cowslips, that the townspeople have adorned it with overnight), attempting to catch female merrymakers. They parade separately and are followed by dancers, accordionists, drummers and a Teaser with a club. Finally, the two ’Osses dance around a maypole, before returning to their respective stables. ’Obby ’Oss Day supposedly originates with the ancient festival of Beltane and, as such, is thought to be one of Britain’s oldest May Day traditions, attracting some 30,000 onlookers. Other theories explain all the horsing around as a pagan call for rain, a fertility rite, or as a frightening deterrent to a possible landing by the French.


Credit: Jasper Schwartz

Credit: Jasper Schwartz

Beltane Fire Festival, Calton Hill, Edinburgh
Like most May Day merrymakers, when the ancient Gaels celebrated Beltane, they were marking the start of the summer, when their cattle were driven out to pasture. The modern-day Beltane Fire Festival, held on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, evokes the tribal-esque flame rituals and dances that were originally carried out on the eve of May 1, usually on the top of a hill or mountain, to protect cattle and crops. Back then, a large bonfire was key to the proceedings, with the cattle sometimes driven to leap over the flames—nowadays, the bonfire’s role remains, but the leaping is left to the extravagantly costumed revellers, who parade and feast, led by a May Queen, a Green Man and a pounding drumbeat.

Gawthorpe Maypole Procession, Gawthorpe, West Yorkshire
Every first Saturday in May, the Yorkshire village of Gawthorpe—home to the earliest recorded permanent maypole (1850), not to mention the annual World Coal Carrying Championships—is taken over by a joyous pageant, one of the most well-established of its kind. Colourfully decorated floats, a May Queen and attendants, maidens in white, marching bands and the generally fancily-dressed public (some on horseback) parade for about 4½ miles and congregate on Maypole Green, where elaborate dances, which are said to include the most comprehensive plaiting sequences in the country and take six months to learn, are performed around the maypole by local schoolchildren. There’s also a funfair and coronation of the May Queen.


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