Colourful processions wind along streets decked with branches and bluebells. Drummers, dancers and giants perform clifftop pageants against a backdrop of sky and surf. Entire towns don their gladrags to celebrate the stirring of summer. Welcome to Maytime in Cornwall…
From the peculiar to the spectacular, when it comes to May Day celebrations and traditions, Cornwall is home to some of the oldest, oddest and most charming customs you could ever hope to encounter. As the daylight hours lengthen, villages and towns up and down the county seem to spontaneously erupt into blossom and bunting. Streets are decorated with hawthorn, rowan, bluebells and greenery gathered from woods, fields and hedgerows to herald the turning of the season as spring leaps into summer. And merriment beckons around every corner. We’ve gathered a few of our favourite Cornish Maytime celebrations to give you a flavour of the festivities in store.
Where will you come a-Maying?
29 – 30th April
The rugged north coast cliffs at St Agnes are usually home to surfers, seabirds and walkers. But come the May holiday, the clifftops bustle with drummers, dancers and onlookers gathered to watch the Bolster Day pageant unfold. Nab yourself a front row seat as villagers, brave knights and cunning saints enact a battle to defeat the tyrannical Giant Bolster. Wend your way to light the beacon bonfire with the lantern procession. Stay on for live music, singing, street theatre, puppetry and pageantry. All played out against the backdrop of wind and waves on the wild Cornish coast.
We couldn’t possibly compile a list of Cornish May Day traditions without mention of Padstow’s very own Obby Oss celebrations. Padstonians have been keeping the
town’s popular May Day customs alive for centuries. Traditionally, the singing begins at the stroke of midnight on 30 April, and carries on into the early hours. As May Day dawns, the streets are strewn with flowers and foliage, and musicians take up the Maysong on drums and accordions. The famous red and blue osses dance through the streets, coaxed and cajoled by Teazers, cheered on by their supporters. Get swept up in the singing as the merry, wild parade wends its way around the town centre, Prideaux Place and the maypole.
Like many traditions, its origins have been lost in the mists of time. Whatever its roots – ancient Celtic Beltane festival to welcome the spring, fertility dance, or defense against invaders – today it’s as vibrant as ever, drawing curious crowds flocking from around the world to marvel at the spectacle. “It’s become symbolic of everything that’s special about Padstow,” says John Buckingham, president of the Padstow Old Cornwall Society in Padstow on the 1st of May
Top hats and tails. Summer gowns. Flower garlands. Lincoln green. The townsfolk of Helston break out their finery in celebration of their ancient Flora Day festivities. Arrive early to catch a glimpse of the first dancers taking to the streets. The band strikes up at 7am, setting the town a-buzz with the beat of drums that reverberates throughout the day. Join in the merry throng as couples and children dance in and out of Georgian townhouses, taverns and shops, driving out the darkness of winter and bringing in the light of spring. Brush up on your Cornish history as the Hal an Tow pageant tells the story of the town, complete with the battle of St George and the dragon. Or simply soak up the carnival atmosphere amid the flags, flowers, stalls and live music.
After the clatter of the May Horns has died away, and the fanfare of the celebrations has subsided, there are plenty of reasons to stay on in Cornwall. The county has a special spring in its step throughout the merry month of May. Woods adorned with carpets of flowers. Cliffs and moors crowned with yellow gorse. No wonder our ancestors felt compelled to celebrate.
Do you hear Maytime calling? Come and experience Cornish Maytide for yourself.
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