Other Cornish May Customs

black prince pageantThere are a number of other notable May Customs in Cornwall including The Black Prince Pageant The first Black Prince Pageant took place at Trematon Castle in Saltash in 1914 but ended in 1938 at the start of the Second World War.

There is a tradition that the Black Prince, being at Saltash on the eve of a battle, wished to join his troops on the other side of the river, and that two Saltash women rowed him over to the Devon side but refused any reward. The story goes that the Prince, in gratitude for this service, granted the Passage to the inhabitants of Saltash

Revived in 2006 the Pageant now forms part of festival weeks in the Saltash Area.

“Revels” are common at this time of year in the small villages in the Bude area.

No longer celebrated

Polperro May Day

According to TQ Couch, noted historian of the folklore of East Cornwall, the people of Polperro held their own peculiar traditions on the first of May. Like many Cornish communities, gathering the “May” was a popular activity. Unusually, “May” was considered to be the early budding of the narrow leaved elm tree. Couch also describes a tradition known as dipping, where the young people of the town would “drown” each other in water. Passers by were not immune to this soaking, and would often end up with a face full of cold water. In this part of Cornwall May Day was often called dipping day.

Fowey

This text, which appears in Rambles beyond railways by Wilkie Collins (1861), is splendidly colourful and described a May Day in Fowey.

Nothing can be much better adapted to show how simple and unsophisticated the Cornish character still remains in many respects, than Cornish notions of organizing a public festival, and Cornish enjoyment of that festival when it is organized. We had already seen how they managed a public boat-race at Looe, and we saw again how they conducted the preparations for the same popular festival, on a larger scale, at the coast town of Fowey.

In the first place, the dormant public enthusiasm was stimulated by music at an uncomfortably early hour in the morning. Two horn players and a clarionet player; a fat musician who blew through a very small fife and kept time with his head; and a withered little man who beat furiously on a mighty drum—drew up in martial array, one behind the other, before the principal inn. Two boys, staring about them in a stolidly important manner, and carrying flags which bore a suspicious resemblance to India pocket handkerchiefs sewn together, formed in front of the musicians. Two corpulent, solemn, elderly gentlemen in black (belonging, apparently, to the churchwarden-type of the human species), formed in their turn on each side of the boys—and then the procession started; walking briskly up and down, and in and out, and round and round the same streets, over and over again; the musicians playing on all their instruments at once (drum included), without a moment’s intermission on the part of any one of them. Nothing could exceed the gravity and silence of the popular concourse which followed this grotesque procession. The solemn composure on the countenances of the two corpulent civil officers who went before it, was reflected on the features of the smallest boy who followed humbly behind. Profound musical amateurs in attendance at a classical quartet concert, could have exhibited no graver or more breathless attention than that displayed by the inhabitants of Fowey, as they marched at the heels of the peripatetic town band.

But, while the music was proceeding, another adjunct to the dignity of the festival was in course of preparation, which appealed more strongly to popular sympathy even than the band and procession. A quantity of young trees—miserable little saplings cut short in their early infancy—were brought into the town, curiously sharpened at the stems. Holes were rapidly drilled in the ground, here, there, and everywhere, for their reception, at corners of house walls. While men outside set them up, women in a high state of excitement appeared at first-floor windows with long pieces of string, which they fastened to the branches to steady the trees at the top, hauling them about this way and that most unmercifully during the operation, and then vanishing to tie the loose ends of the lines to bars of grates and legs of tables. Mazes of long tight strings ran all across our room at the inn; broken twigs and drooping leaves peered in sadly at us through the three windows that lighted it. We were driven about from corner to corner out of the way of this rigging by an imperious old woman, who fastened and fettered the wretched trees with as fierce an air as if they were criminals whom she was handcuffing, and who at last fairly told us that she thought we had better leave the room, and see how beautiful things looked from the outside. On obeying this intimation, we found that the trees had absorbed the whole public attention to themselves. The band marched by, playing furiously; but the boys deserted it. The people from the country, hastening into the town, hot and eager, paused, reckless of the music, reckless of the flags, reckless of the procession, to look forth upon the streets “with verdure clad.” The popularity of the Sons of Apollo was a thing of the past already! Nothing can well be imagined more miserably ugly than the appearance of the trees, standing strung into unnatural positions, and looking half dead already; but they evidently inspired the liveliest public satisfaction. Women returned to the windows to give a last perfecting tug to their branches; men patted approvingly with spades the loose earth round their stems. Spectators, one by one, took a near view and a distant view, and then walked gently by and took an occasional view, and lastly gathered together in little groups and took a general view. As connoisseurs look at their pictures, as mothers look at their children, as lovers look at their mistresses—so did the people of Fowey assemble with one accord and look at their trees”.