England is a country rife with tradition & local custom, which gives rise to some fascinating events – I’ve written before about the tar barrel running in Ottery St Mary before, and alluded to but not gotten around to writing about the cheese rolling race at Coopers Hill in Gloucestershire.  In May I was lucky enough to be invited to Padstow, in Cornwall, for another distinct local gem – the Mayday ‘Obby ‘Oss Festival.

Mitch & Bill from our morris dancing team have been heading down to Padstow for years now – like 30 or so years – and effecting roughly the same routine: they, along with their chums Roy, Mac, and over time other local folkies, set up in the front bar of The Cornish Arms in St Merryn nightly for most of the week leading up to May Day and get cranking on a session of folk tunes & songs.  Some of it’s traditional Cornish music & song picked up over time from the locals, and then they also do all manner of other music, including the odd Elvis tune.  They invited me to join them & experience this cultural gem, and with almost no thanks to First Great Western trains & in spite of their curious bike-carriage booking policy (whereby you book space in the carriage for your bike, and then when you get off the train and open the carriage door to get your bike out learn that about 80 people along the way have jammed their bikes in & around yours, and narrowly avoid getting slammed shut in the bike carriage whilst trying to wrestle yours from the bottom of the pile) I managed to make it down to the westernmost end of the rainy island.

Cheating slightly: this isn't from The Cornish Arms. It's from another pub a little way around from there. But it DOES show Roy on the left and Mac on the right.

The main event, however, is the ‘Oss parade.

This annual event has been traced back to the 1800s according to written accounts, however there is proof that as far back as the 1600s the Padstonians have held great May Day celebrations.  The locals of the fishing village of Padstow decorate the streets with flags & foliage; the main colours used are red and blue, as there are 2 ‘osses which process around the town.

As it was, we had timed our visit to be about the place for the red ‘Oss, known as The Old ‘Oss, or The Original ‘Oss.  The Blue Ribbon ‘Oss – known also as The Peace ‘Oss – processes around the village earlier in the day.  The procession consists of a large group of the ‘Oss’s supporters – bedecked in white and their ‘Oss’s colour – gathering outside the stabling place of the ‘Oss (in the case of the Old ‘Oss, it’s The Golden Lion Inn), and waiting for it to emerge.

“What’s an ‘Oss?”, is probably a pertinent question at this juncture: the name is a regional contraction of Hobby Horse, although the ‘Oss itself doesn’t particularly resemble the child’s toy of the same name.  This ‘Oss is a large black lacquered disc with a black fabric “skirt” around the circumference.  On one side is a protruding horse head, opposite, a tail.  In the middle the wearer’s head pokes through, wearing some sort of conical hat & mask arrangement.

Once the ‘Oss emerges from the stable it dances around – cavorting and pitching erratically back & forth in a space made by the crowd – following the agitations of a person designated as the “teaser”.  As the ‘Oss dances the song is played, and periodically as directed by no hand that I could discern the villagers strike up the accompanying song.  In addition to singing, often you’d hear the cry of “Oss! Oss!”.  It wasn’t readily apparent to me whether this was to get the attention of the ‘Oss and beckon it towards you, or just a general bark of enthusiasm.

And through the magic of YouTube I managed to track down a video of the ‘Oss emerging from the stable, to give you some idea of what’s going on.  The tune of the song’s quite clear:

Once the ‘Oss is out, the band of musicians lead their way through the streets with teaser & ‘Oss following, and then the rest of the paraders follow up.  They make their way around some sort of predetermined parade route, which must take in a series of relevant or historical sites – buggered if I know what was going on.

One of the exhilarating features of the thing is that everybody seems to get involved: Mitch pointed out the “accordion army”, comprising – it seemed – nearly every bloke in the whole town, all playing the ‘Oss song.  To see this gives some sense of how important the event is to the people – many of them go to the trouble of buying an accordion (not a cheap instrument, at all) and learning this tune (and in many cases, this tune only!) in order to be a part of the festivities.

People of all ages are involved, and the vibe in the town is a very happy one.  Mitch explained: “To a lot of these people, this is bigger than Christmas”.  The weather’s certainly better, for starters.

Tradition & legend dictate that if a young lady gets caught ‘neath the ‘Oss’s “skirt” then this will bring beneficial fertility side effects, and as with so many allegedly fertility-based customs, she will soon fall pregnant.  You may call me a cynic, but one can’t help but wonder if this rumour isn’t due to a statistical increase in pregnancies culminating in early-February births: certainly it correlates with the arrival of the ‘Oss, as well as coinciding with a large festive celebration where people are probably happy, drunk & keen to… errm… celebrate.

Without talking to many of the people (they seemed fairly wrapped up in their celebrations, to be honest) I didn’t really get to find out much about why people follow one ‘Oss or the other.  There didn’t appear to be any sort of competitive element to it, or any signs of rivalry (other than that everyone appeared to have picked one to support).

The tune’s quite catchy, if a shade repetetive, and has many verses – all of which end with “In the merry morning of May”, and is therefore more than likely the only lyric you’ll discern from the video, and indeed the only one that half the people are joining in with.  The full lyrics are found at the Wikipedia entry, but the first 2 verses, bridge stanza, and final verse are:

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

Arise up Mr. ….. I know you well afine,
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.

O! where is St. George,
O!, where is he O,
He is out in his long boat on the salt sea O.
Up flies the kite and down tails the lark O.
Aunt Ursula Birdhood she had an old ewe
And she died in her own Park O.

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

And again, through the magic of YouTube I found a live recording of folk band Steeleye Span singing their song, “Padstow”, which bizarrely enough is centred around the same lyrics and tune.

So, that’s how that all worked.  Part of the fun was that everyone was involved, and like so many of these regional traditions it gave off a sense of vibrancy, counterbalancing the ever-present assertion that folk traditions are dying out.  Happily, there doesn’t appear to be any lulling in the energy of the ‘Oss Festival.

Other than that, we spend the days looking around that end of Cornwall – Mitch, Bill & I went & had a stickybeak at The Flambard’s Experience –  an amusement park which bravely advertises that it’s fun “come rain or shine”, however the queues of people not there spoke out for the favour of people not wanting to ride water rides in drizzly May.  It featured an excellent museum of London during the Blitz, as well as a recreated Victorian village, and a large section on Aviation (including a section of Concorde fuselage/cockpit that you could walk through!).

Another day we drove down to river inlet town Boscastle, and the muso’s had another session at The Cobweb: a spectacularly dingy pub with an eclectic bunch of stuff shoved in & stuck to every surface.

I mentioned pushbikes earlier – one of the other things we did was saddle up on the bikes we’d all hauled down there and go for a lovely ride from Padstow along to Wadebridge.  It was both brilliant fun, and completely an unjustified amount of riding to necessitate hauling a bike all the way down there from London, and back.

That’s enough of the slide night for now: as usual, I’ve got a Flickr gallery of all of my photos from the Padstow trip.  It really is magnificent country, and somewhere which I’m extremely keen to get back to at some point soon!

One final thing worth mentioning though – the beer.  Mitch & Bill tell me that for a long time Cornish beers weren’t exactly excellent, but happily in recent times this has been adequately corrected, and we spent a goodly chunk of our evenings sampling the local brews from St Austell, Sharp’s and Skinner’s breweries.  As well as the handpumped cask ales we also got our hands on the Rick Stein inspired bottle beers from Sharp’s – Chalky’s Bark and Chalky’s Bite.

Of the varieties we tasted, I found the Bark & the Bite interesting as an exercise, but ultimately not an enjoyable thing to settle in to a session of.  That honour went to St Austell’s Proper Job – a fresh, hoppy & citrussy IPA.  I’ll readily confess that one of the selling points was that every time I asked Mitch to buy one he’d say “Praaaper Jaaaab” in an hilarious mock-Cornish accent.  A very close second place was the excellent bitter St Austell’s Tribute.  We’ve longtime been a fan of Tribute, and to get it this close to its home was an absolute pleasure.

I can’t remember much about Tinners.  Perhaps I ought to schedule another trip down there to take some more notes?

‘Oss ‘oss!
🌳 Buy me a Tree