So here am I settled into my new life in Stroud, where I moved in December last year – and a sign of this is connecting with local events celebrating the ‘turning of the wheel’. There’s no better way to connect with community than its such shared festivities. With May Day only a week ago there have been a flurry of colourful and quirky celebrations across the country – kicked started by the Royal Wedding of course (which happened to fall, funnily enough, on Oak Apple Day – which is held to remember when Charles the Second hid in an oak tree to escape his pursuers. In my old home town of Northampton (which was a Cromwellian stronghold) they place an oak garland on the statue of the Merry Monarch above the portico of All Saints Church in the centre of town. He became popular, of course, for reinstating the May Day celebrations (a shrewd move – a real people-pleaser – perhaps Clegg should take note, if he wants to claw back some popularity after the recent drubbing the Lib Dems got in the local elections). Jenni and I popped into the charming Hawkwood Open Day on the way back from camping in the Brecons – and got our fix of May-Pole dancing and the like, in the stunning grounds of the holistic education centre. The atmosphere was lovely and it was a curious experience to return as a ‘Stroudie’ – in previous years I’ve just been a day visitor. When the May-pole dancing got under way, initially with adults bearing the ribbons – I saw in the weaving together of the rainbow ribbons a metaphor for the interlacement of community. The adults got into a muddle, attempting a knot called a ‘hyacinth’ but were fortunately able to disentangle themselves (another metaphor – for the ties we make and sometimes wish to unmake!). Yet the ‘World Tree’ of the May-Pole (an English Yggdrasil) holds us all together under its ‘branches’ – like the magnificent horse chestnut that grows over a spring in the grounds of Hawkwood. The children who danced the May-Pole looked like the Victorian image of fairies, skipping on the sward – a bucolic idyll to enjoy in the warm Spring sun.
And today Jenni and I cycled to Randwick to experience their annual ‘Wap’, a quirky seasonal celebration which celebrates its fortieth year this year – although it dates back to the Middle Ages originally. The unusual name comes from a Saxon word – ‘Wappenschaw’, a ‘periodical gathering of people within an area for the purpose of seeing that each man was armed in accordance with his rank, and ready to take to the field when required’ – so, a showing of arms – and perhaps a precursor of the phrase ‘wap it out’. The celebration seems to have had a more peaceful origin though – apparently connected to the building of the church, nestled in the curve of the valley with stunning views of Stroud and the Five Valleys. Randwick is a very pretty Cotswold village so its hard to imagine it being the scene of ‘rowdiness’ which got the Wap banned in 1892. It was revived in 1971 by the Rev. Niall Morrison and grew in popularity – often making national news – until it was decided it was getting a victim of its own success and to down-size again, back to a village event. And a charming one it is too.
The Wap starts in February with nominations for the Wap Mayor and Queen – an election is held from all those who have signed the Wap Poll Book. Then there follows Cheese Rolling Sunday, the first in May, which this year happened to fall on May Day. Three local cheeses (made by a local dairy farmer, Jonathan Crump) are blessed and then rolled widdershins arounds the church by the Mayor, Queen and Vicar. Then a week later the Randwick Wap itself takes place. Jenni and I locked our bikes and walked up to the war memorial where the ‘personalities’ were gathering (all the official members of the procession including the Wap Mayor, Queen, High Sheriff, Mop Man, flag bearers, ladies-in-waiting, cheese bearers, May Maids, flowers girls and so on. The Mayor and the Queen were processed down the lane, led by the Mop Man (whose job it is to clear a way through the throng with his wet mop) and the Medieval minstrels known as the Bubonic Wind Band – to be dunked in the ‘Mayor’s Pool’ with all due ceremony. There follows the singing of the Mayor’s Song, accompanied by the Nailsworth Silver Band, with the fine chorus of: ‘Let love and friendship still agree/To hold the Banns of Amity’. When everyone had received a ‘spraying’ from the Wap VIPs, we made our way through the churchyard to a steep lane called Well Leaze where the Mayor and Queen competed at cheese- rolling. The crowds lined the walls and I thought how only in Britain you’d get such a turnout for such a ridiculous activity (although maybe I’m wrong and people are as silly all over the world). But eccentricity is something we do so well as a nation (there must be something in the water). Carrying on to the playing fields, where a village fete had been set up we enjoyed our repast and watch the various displays of falconry, morris dancing, and armouring a knight (the last appropriate, considering the Wap’s etymological roots). The provincial delights of a tug of war, raffle and welly wanging awaited, but we had been well and truly ‘wapped’ and decided to head back down the leafy lanes, happy to be living in such a beautiful and colourful neck of the woods. Long live the Wap!
PS if you want to know more about such colourful events then you might be interested in my forthcoming book, ‘Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels’, to be published by O Books later this year. Watch this space for more details…