Padstow May Day
There is no better place to be in England on May Day then Padstow in North Cornwall, where every May 1st for many years (no one knows exactly how long it has been celebrated here, but it is probably a couple of centuries at the least) visitors are greeted with a spectacle both exotic and quintessentially English – locals dressed all in white, and either red or blue neckerchiefs and sashes, process through the streets following what is called either the Old Oss (red) or the Peace Oss (blue) – virtually indistinguishable to all but the trained eye – both manned by a frisky local wearing a round black skirt of waterproof material topped by a black pointed head-dress decorated in an African style, who wheels and jigs through the packed crowds, lured on by a ‘teaser – usually a local girl wielding a phallic ‘bladder-stick’, accompanied by a hypnotic drum-beat, accordions, whistles and singing. The atmosphere is at the very least merry – although at times it becomes wildly unBritish, something you might see in a Mediterranean religious street festival or one in say India. The narrow streets of the small fishing village are festooned with foliage and flags. There’s a fun fair and the pubs do a roaring trade. Thousands of visitors descend, causing the tiny village to gridlock. Yet the ambience remains pleasant. After the winter, especially a hard one like we’ve had this year, there’s a palpable sense of ‘easing off’ as we celebrate the start of the summer. The Silly Season starts here! Such events are a real boost to the local economy and this is often an overlooked reason why these ‘traditions’ start – medieval monks weren’t averse to ‘discovering’ some dodgy relics to boost their coffers; and modern enterprising pagans are no different, ‘reviving’ traditions – always ancient and mysterious in origin. A whiff of antiquity mixed with the weird always seems to go down well. It’s amazing what you can conjure up. A traveller was hawking that gypsy standard, ‘lucky heather’, which he promoted as ‘Cornish viagra’. In a way, Padstow May Day is a kind of economic variant – helping to resurrect the dormant ‘fertility god’, Cash Flow.
The last and only other time I had made it to Padstow was in 1997 – on the eve of a Labour landslide. I had visited it with my new friend from Bath – Steve – and I have a shot of him, running off down the road with a Tory placard. A number of these kept us warm at night as we camped on the beach. Thirteen years later and it feels like full circle – we’re on the eve of another general election and it looks like Labour is on its way out, the euphoria of their victory, when Tony Blair seemed like the Britain’s new hope, long gone in the squalid aftermath of a second Gulf War; and the gloom of the Broon Years.
Then, Padstow seemed to capture the ‘feel good’ factor that was sweeping the country. This time – who knows? A sense that, if the country is going down the tubes, let’s party while we can?
This time, I was picked up from my flat on Bathwick Hill – where I had been living ten years to the day (moved in on the first of May 2000) by my friend Kevin in his ‘Panzer’, a 1985 convertible Mercedes Benz. I helped him take the hard roof off the day before and we rode down ‘topless’ – hair blowing in the wind. As we left Bath early Saturday morning Kevin played Maddy Prior’s Padstow song on his car stereo – the song that had started it all for him. It blasted out across Combe Down and we sang along to the (until then) quiet, empty streets, probably waking up half the neighbourhood. We were in good spirits – it was great to be setting off on an early May morning, the energy not only of the day, but the whole of summer, the whole of awakening nature, behind us.
My skipper took the scenic route, over the Mendips via Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury – where they were many celebrations going on over the weekend. No doubt folk were up the Tor or in Chalice Well – we saw some likely suspects dressed in robes, obviously on their way home for breakfast after greeting the dawn. A couple of years ago I had leapt the Bel-fire in the field above Chalice Well and helped raise the May-pole. It’s a great place to celebrate it, but I was glad to be going Cornwall today.
We cruised across the Somerset Levels, crossing the M5, running the gauntlet of Taunton and out the other side – Kevin decided on a whim to go ‘cross-country’ and we ended up in some obscure backroads. But it turned out good in the end – more by luck than anything, we managed to find a pretty route along a B-road via Wiveliscombe, Bampton and other lovely places hidden within the inviting folds of Devon.
We started to fantasize about cream teas and knew it was time to stop for a break – having been on the road for nearly 3 hours.
In desperation we came off the Atlantic Highway, thinking we could find sustenance in Clovelly – much in need after a cuppa, after the weather turned damp and chilly. Guided by insistent signs, we parked and found ourselves in a surreal complex – a kind of tourist Auschwitz where new arrivals are ‘processed’. It turned out you had to pay to get into the honeypot village – all we wanted was a cuppa. We reassured the woman at the counter that we didn’t want to visit the village, just the cafe. There was a bizarre deal at the cafe where it cost more to have a straight black coffee, than a latte. The girl at the counter was unable to explain the logic of this – she was ‘only following orders’.
A little recuperated, on we went – eager not to miss the celebrations. We arrived around midday and parked up in the campsite a ‘couple of miles’ from the village as Kevin somewhat euphemistically put it. Five miles later, dying for a pint, we made it into Padstow – it seemed like all the celebrants were leaving – but it was just the ‘morning shift’ breaking for lunch. The next dance was at 2pm – time for a much-needed pint and pasty. We sat on the quayside, amongst the crowds and buntinged boats and tucked in. We had made it!
We went to see the Peace Oss at 2pm – although it was impossible to get knew the institute where it ‘lived’. My heart sank, thinking I was not going to be able to see it properly – I didn’t remember it being that busy 13 years ago, but Padstow is a changed place. Rick Stein has set up shop and the Yuppies have moved in. It has become somewhat gentrified as of late – going by the shops and some of the crowd. But there was still an excellent atmosphere.
We tagged along with the Peace Oss procession as it wended its way up the ‘high street’ towards St Petroc’s church – it became easier the see it the further it went as the hills thinned out the crowds. Finally, some decent photo-opportunities! We followed it into the church – I was told by a bullish Blue Oss followed not to bring my pint into the hallowed place – but a frollicking pagan fertility icon was obviously okay. The drums sounded extraordinary in the church – as though inside a long barrow. It was great to see the church come alive with the drumming, dancing and merry crowds.
Out the other side it went – and back down into town, for a while. We left it as it seemed to ‘die’ halfway up a little side street – walking back towards the Ship, where we met up with Kevin’s old university buddy, Steve and his family. More pints were procured and downed – quaffable local ale, Doom Bar was a popular choice. Not much of that to be had in Egypt, so I made the most of it. Kevin’s biker buddies, John and Aaron, rocked up – a little tender from a lock-in at the Tintagel Arms the night before. They had ridden across from Sussex on their Harleys – an impressive ride. We took a stroll to the quayside and enjoyed the sites, including a fine wooden figurehead on a ship with impressive curves. When you start finding carpentry erotic, you know you are in desperate need of female company! But I had other priorities at that point…
I needed a cup of tea desperately – it was all catching up with me (the Italian odyssey; workshop in Wales; a week’s marking; an early start and long car drive). I found a cafe and gratefully took a seat. Ended up chatting with a local lady – asking her about her colours: ‘How do you become a follower of the red or blue Oss?’ I wanted to know – ‘You are born into it,’ she explained – her grandfather, then father had been Old Oss stock and, thus, so was she. And her children and grandchildren. It seems an accident of birth then, which creates this friendly schism. The Peace, or Temperance Oss was started after the Second World War – so perhaps belonging to that indicates ‘incomers’, as opposed to old Padstownians. The woman enthused about it, saying how ‘It’s a kind of freedom,’ until that is the politcally-correct brigade (anathema of Daily Mail readers ) come along and spoil it, which they’ve already done with the dubiously named ‘Darkie Day’, when Padstow’s temporary black population used to be celebrated, on their annual day off. She became increasingly racist in her opinions after that – what Gordon Brown would call ‘a bigoted woman’, but not to her face. ‘Are you one of those Liberalites?’ she asked, sensing my disquiet with her loathsome opinions about Asylum Seekers and so forth. This somewhat tainted my impression of events – which now looked, in the light of this conversation, to be a thinly-disguised white power demonstration, but the Oss transcends that. Really, it’s just a bit of good old fashioned silliness. People like to ‘justify’ it by saying it’s an ancient fertility custom – practised since time immemorial – but it probably is only a couple of centuries old (Kevin thinks there are Napoleonic references in the songs – but the lyrics he quoted could easily be read in all sorts of ways). Ironically, the tradition of the Oss – the trappings of white costumes and black masks – might have been imported by Moorish mariners, but I didn’t feel like pointing this out to the Tory racist. Her theory about its origins sounded just as feasible – during the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was seen approaching. All the men were away – and so the women dressed in white, as sailors, to make the French think the place was ‘manned’. It seemed to work. When the men returned from war they were so taken by this, they started to do this themselves – women were not allowed to take part. Leaving Daily Mail woman, I rejoined my friends. We walked around the harbour, then up to the war memorial, which afforded fine views over the estuary mouth. The sun was just setting behind the headland and – after a rainy afternoon – the clouds broke. It felt like a ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ moment, I observed. I shouldn’t have invited in such ‘thought-forms’ for later on someone called me Compo, since I was wearing my woolly hat in an attempt to retain my rapidly vanishing body heat.
Our small but merry band made its way back into the village to get another one before the six o’clock dance of the Old Oss. This time I was determined to get a good view, and so I waited outside the Golden Lion inn, the ‘stables’ of the original Oss. At 6pm the Ossers emerged, sporting different coloured rain macs, as though part of their ritual regalia. The black Oss squeezed out of the narrow front entrance – a painful birth – and started jigged about furiously, falling into the crowds and being pushed back into the middle, as it zig-zagged down the lane. Touching its black skirt is meant to bring luck – get taken under it and it’s meant to make you pregnant!
My friends found me in the crowds and we followed the Oss to the ‘village square’ where it converged with the rival Oss – jigging around the enormous May Pole. The crowds packed in – but we were right up the front. The atmosphere was fantastic – the Oss was really going for it. The rain didn’t dampen our spirits. It really felt like we were tapping into something powerful and primal here – rightly or wrongly. It felt real. You could feel the sap stirring – and the carefree spirit of summer coming in after the sober days of winter.
Buzzing, but in need of some hot food we went to get some from the quayside. More beer followed and I was beginning to flag – it had been a long day and it wasn’t over yet! The final dance was at 10pm. A siesta would’ve been good – but seating space was at a premium. We went to the Golden Lion – with its incredibly low ceiling, as though at any moment its going to collapse in like a soggy paper bag. Finally a seat appeared and with relief I slumped down into it, trying to save some energy for the final stint.
The drumming started again – it will stay with me for days – and we made our way outside, girding our loins with, you’ve guessed it, a final drink. I had a shot of Jagermeister, which seemed to do the trick. The Oss appeared – the dancers and drummers in a kind of shamanic trance (induced by a day of drumming, dancing and beer). They were wilder than ever – the atmosphere was positively Bacchanalian – and I felt we had all become lost in a kind of collective folk consciousness. We followed, we sang, we cheered with the slightest of encouragement.
With one final loud cheer the drumming stopped – the dance was over – the day’s celebrations were officially over. Folk stood around chatting – bubbling with the good vibes. I was ready for bed though. It took a while to extricate the lads from their respective chinwags. We made our way up out the village – passing a couple of police. ‘You must be relieved it’s over’, I suggested. ‘Same again tomorrow,’ one responded, to my surprise. Apparently, it’s repeated the day after, which was news to me – not widely advertised. Maybe a recent addition, to cope with numbers and the uncertainties of the weather?
We made our way back along the dark country roads, feasting on a sky full of stars. We had a couple of torches between us to help us avoid being run over walking along the main road in the pitch black. I led the way like a Signalman, sending a warning flash to approaching drivers.
Despite the slog back to the campsite we were in good spirits – but not completely sozzled. The walk soon sobered us up, which made it easier putting up the tent in the dark. Finally, I slipped into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes, satisfied at experiencing such a magical, unique celebration of British culture.
Garden of Awen: Raising the May
This Garden was themed to celebrate May Day – the Celtic festival of Beltane; the International Workers’ Day; and the start of summer. I arrived back from Padstow, where I had seen the Obby Oss with my friend Kevin the day before, at 5pm – giving me an hour to turnaround (life seems to be like that at the moment – the next morning at 6am I was off to Egypt for a month – fortunately I had packed on Friday night).
Coco Boudoir, a regular burlesque, normally on Saturday was double-booked – upstairs in the Chapel – I was concerned about the noise pollution and a bit disappointed that they had done this, when the first Sunday of the month has been our regular slot since the Garden’s inception in November last year. I thought we was going having to cancel – but I managed to find a solution, by bringing it forward an hour and having the poets on first; the drumming, dancing and music in the second half. This worked out okay. We didn’t have a large crowd – but you don’t need many to fill the cafe space and it looked healthy. With it being the May Day bank holiday weekend alot of people were away or burnt out from bringing in the May. Nevertheless, it was a good atmosphere – a mixture of old friends and new faces turned up, including a contingent from Glastonbury.
I introduced the evening with my green man poem, One With the Land, getting everyone to join in with the chorus. This helped to warm things up – including me! I was tired from the long ride back, on top of everything else. It has been a full on few weeks. But that is the energy of May, I find, when the quickening of Spring reaches its climax.
Then I welcomed up our first guest poet, Helen Moore, a fellow Bard of Bath and now resident of Frome. She performed an excellent set of topical and beautifully crafted ecobardic poems, including one about Hedge Funds – both the green and greedy variety – and another called Cunt Magic – reclaiming the word from its derogatory connotations and getting into the spirit of May.
Afterwards we have some floor spots, starting with Ken Masters who had accompanied Helen on a variety of instruments, including a piper with which he emulated the noises of a washing machine for a poem called ‘Green Wash’. He shared with us a poem based upon his Greek dancing holiday.
Next, we had a poem by Verona Bass – ‘loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ – before moving on to the second guest poet, Jeff Cloves, rebel poet of Stroud, who performed his first solo set of poetry for 20 years, with readings from his new collection. He brought some of the anarchic Labour Day spirit into the proceedings – May Day was also a time when the status quo was turned on its head and the Lord of Misrule prevailed.
We ended the first half with ‘parish notices’ and a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ for Amanda.
During the break I caught up with a couple of friends – it was all a bit of a whirlwind, taking money, buying drinks, and dealing with everyone.
After the break, I started the second half with my poem to the Spring Maiden, Maid Flower Bride – which flowed well, despite my fatigue, and provided the perfect intro for Ola’s amazing dance to Oshun, an African fertility goddess, which she did with real fire, accompanied by her friend on djembe. It was great to see the Garden come alive with movement like that – the last time we’d had a dancer was in December (Irina Kuzminsky from Oz). This time it was Ola from Bonn performing African dance – we’re nothing if not international1
We had a couple more floor spots – a rendition of The Padstow May Song from Kevin Williams, dressed up in his Navy Officer’s uniform; a great ‘butterfly’ story from Kirsty; and a couple of poems from Amanda (one inspired by the Way of Awen weekend). We were meant to end with my friend Justin – but he didn’t make it, alas – but things worked out okay as Ken led us in a Greek dance with smooth the crossing for all travellers (something I could relate to). And so another Garden came to an end – in good spirits. A modest but pleasant success.
Afterwards some of us went up to enjoy the second half of Coco Boudoir – enjoying the exotic cabaret, which definitely helped to raise the May!