Padstow May Day
May Day by Harry Batt 1961, Padstow Museum

Now imagine a still night, the last of April, the first of May. Starlight above the chimney pots. Moon on the harbour. Moonlight shadows of houses on opposite slate walls. At about two in the morning the song begins. Here are the words.

With a merry ring and with the joyful spring,
For summer is a-come unto day
How happy are those little birds which so merrily do sing
In the merry morning of May.

Then the men go round to the big houses of the town singing below the windows a variety of verses –

‘Arise up Mr. Babyn I know you well afine
You have a shilling in your purse and I wish it were in mine.’

And then on to a house where a young girl lives –

‘Arise up Miss Lobb all in your smock of silk
And all your body under as white as any milk.’

Morning light shines on the water and the green-grey houses. Out on the quay comes the Hobby-horse – it used to be taken for a drink to a pool a mile away from the town. It is a man in a weird mask, painted red and black and white, and he wears a huge hooped skirt made of black tarpaulin which he is meant to lift up, rushing at the ladies to put it over one of their heads. The skirt used to have soot in it. A man dances with the Hobby-horse carrying a club. Suddenly, at about 11.30 in the morning, there is a pause. The Hobby-horse bows down to the ground. The attendant lays his club on its head and the day song begins, a dirge-like strain.

‘Oh where is St. George? Oh, where is he, O?
He’s down in his long boat. All on the salt sea, O.’

Then up jumps the Hobby-horse, loud shriek the girls, louder sings the crowd and wilder grows the dance –

With a merry ring and with the joyful spring
For summer is a-come unto day
How happy are those little birds which so merrily do sing
In the merry morning of May

John Betjeman, First and Last Loves (1952), A Cornish Anthology, Alfred Leslie Rowse ed. 1968 pp 265-6

Oss_Oss_Wee_Oss_Bryan-Ledgard-2007-wikicommonsIn Padstow, on Cornwall’s north coast, the Obby Oss festival for May Day hasn’t changed much since the poet Sir John Betjeman wrote this. And it hadn’t changed much in the decades, centuries maybe, before.

The chant: “Oss Oss Wee Oss!” And the song, all night and all day:

“Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is a-come unto day,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May.”

Oss Oss Wee Oss

In the morning, the obby osses come out from their “stables” and they swoop and swirl through the town, each with its own band, and its followers. Red ribbons for the Old Oss, blue for the Blue Ribbon Oss. Their parades take different routes, at different times of the day. They meet up in the evening at the May Pole in the centre of town. The osses dance and their adherents mingle.

Blue-oss-Padstow_Mayday_2009_3_-_geograph.org_.uk_-Andy-F wikicommons
Blue Ribbon Oss stable, Padstow Institute

Every year for who knows how long. Except for this and last year. The Obby Oss festival was cancelled due to the Covid pandemic. It is not an event intended to attract tourists, But it is a huge and unique spectacle so, of course, they do come. So its absence must be an economic blow to the town. But much more than that: it’s a blow to the community itself. Its history, relationships – its communitas – is celebrated every year around the pubs, the houses and the May Pole.

I went there in the early 1990s. We were welcomed, but it was nicely made clear that outsiders were expected to behave themselves and keep out of the way. This event is for locals. And what an event it is! See it once, and it sticks with you. Every May Day, the song bubbles up in your brain: “Unite and unite and let us all unite, For summer is a-come unto day…”

The Harbour Inn, former stable for Blue Ribbon Oss

Doc Rowe is a collector of community traditions and “outsider” who has been going to May Day every year since the 1960s. He told me how it acts even in reckoning time:

“If you’re here at Christmas, people get highly charged and emotional. Passionate. They’ll say, oh, only 18 weeks to May Day. I see it as the central pulse of the place. Other key events, like birthdays, weddings, funerals – they’re are all linked to May Day. So people say, well, let me think now, May Day was on the so-and-so, so it must have been such-and-such.

Golden-Lion-Padstow_Mayday_2009_4_-_geograph.org_.uk_-Andy-F wikicommons
The Golden Lion, stable of the Old Oss

“Whatever you’re talking about historically, or chronologically anyway, during the year, you more often than not find a Padstow person will start talking about May Day as the pivot. How many days, how many weeks, how many hours away from May Day it happened.”

So, with May Day being that central to the very being of Padstow, you can understand what Sir John Betjeman also said in his essay:

I knew someone who was next to a Padstow man in the trenches in the 1914 war. On the night before May Day, the Padstow man became so excited he couldn’t keep still. The old ‘obby ‘oss was mounting in his blood and his mates had to hold him back from jumping over the top and dancing about in No-man’s-land.

oss oss wee oss sweater FB Padstow Old Cornwall SocietyThe hobby horses didn’t stop for two World Wars. Nor did they for the 1918 influenza pandemic. At the end of this May Day, I hope that the final words of the May Song can come true for next year. Oss Oss Wee Oss!

“Now fare you well and bid you all good cheer,
For summer is a-come unto day,
We call no more unto your house before another year,
In the merry morning of May.”

The Padstow Museum has much more on the history of May Day. You can also check out the Doc Rowe Archives. Below is a 1953 Alan Lomax doc on May Day. Watch more recent videos of it on YouTube and you’ll see some changes, yes, but more similarities.

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