Every year since time immemorial, the people of the north Cornish town of Padstow have gathered on May Eve – April 30th – and on the stroke of midnight they begin one of this countries most endearing and ancient customs. So for the uninitiated, allow me to introduce you to “The Padstow Mayday Celebrations”.
The whole thing starts as the town’s pubs begin to empty on Mayday eve, and the crowds gather outside the Golden Lion pub, the stable of the red or Original ‘Oss. Following the midnight chimes of the church clock, the festivities begin with the Padstow night song – Unite and unite and let us all unite, for summer is acome unto day…… The large choir then travels around the town passing under the windows of prominent members of the community as they sing each verse of the song …
Arise up Mr Bate I know you well and fine,
For summer is acome unto day.
You have a shilling in your purse and I wish it were in mine,
In the merry morning of May.
This continues well into the early hours of the morning until everyone eventually gathers around the Maypole where this part of the proceedings are brought to a close.
At long last it’s May Day! The narrow streets are decorated with coloured bunting, greenery and spring flowers, there’s an excitement in the air as Padstonians and visitors alike are dressed in white adorned with red or blue sashes and neckerchiefs – depending on which ‘Oss party you chose to follow – waiting in anticipation of the music striking up.
Eventually, the band strikes up and the May song fills the air. Played on dozens of accordions and driven by the throbbing beat of the Breton drums raising the now fragile roof of the Old ‘Oss stable. The stirring music will carry on for a while until eventually, accompanied by an almighty cheer from the crowd, the ‘Obby ‘Oss bursts onto the street swishing it’s huge black cape around to the beat of the music.
The party continues to process through the streets stopping only when the ‘Oss goes to ground as the drum beat goes silent and the tune changes to a gentle lament Oh where is St George, Oh Where is he O, He’s out in his long-boat all on the salt sea O… Then with a renewed vigour, the whole thing starts again with the Oss bursting back into life as the crowds cry out “Oss Oss Wee Oss”!
This whole procedure continues on throughout the day as the procession visits Prideux Place then back through the town centre, stopping off at the maypole before venturing out of town to one of the housing estates – eventually returning to dance around the quayside. It continues right through to late evening until the Oss finally returns to it’s stable and the whole thing is brought to a close as the evocative farewell song is sung (The Soldiers Farewell) – Farewell farewell my own true love….
It must be emphasised, this rather short description is not much of a substitute for the real thing. I’m afraid that with my meagre writing skills it’s difficult to find adequate words to describe quite how it feels when the many drums beat out the rhythm of this simple tune and it makes your insides reverberate. The one thing I can say with any certainty is that this festival – just like the people of Padstow – is very special and as part of our rich heritage, it really should be seen first hand at least once to be fully appreciated!