Friday, 2 August 2013

If you're ever in Cornwall at the start of May, head for Padstow and follow the Oss

The first time my wife took me to a Cornish pageant/parade/carnival/whatever in Fowey, it embarrassed the hell out of me. There were floats and people dressed up as pirates and whatnot, and I didn't know where to look. I knew I was supposed to be enjoying it, but just couldn't get a handle on the thing.  Fast forward two or three years and my wife and I and various of her relatives are gathered on a muggy May Day in the garden of her mother’s house in Padstow to witness the town’s annual Obby Oss parade, whose origins are probably pre-Christian. There’s an Old Oss (“stabled” at The Golden Lion pub) and a Blue Oss, introduced in the late 19th Century as a sort of Temperance version of the original, but whose anti-drinking associations have long been jettisoned. There are also some junior “osses” for youngsters to operate.

Here's some rather more recent video, proving that things haven't changed much in the last 80 years, except that the crowds appear bigger and noisier:

Cut a long story short, it’s all to do with fertility (just for a change) and capturing young maids for the purpose, one presumes, of impregnation, and everyone dresses up in special costumes and some wear wild-flowers on their hats or in their hair and there are designated drummers who set up a strangely threatening pulse that beats through most of the day, and a lot of alcohol is consumed, and everyone endlessly sings one of those weird old English folk songs (which can be heard in both the video clips), and which also sounds vaguely minatory:
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.

Not surprisingly, many of the participants end up alarmingly red-faced and glassy-eyed - and there can be few tourists who don't at some stage begin to worry that the locals might turn on them at any moment and drag them off for a spot of Whicker Man-style human sacrifice to ensure that the crops don't fail, that there's a plentiful supply of fish, and that the EU subsidies keep rolling in..

We watched from our prime position up the hill on Church Street and then, when the Old Oss contingent turned round and marched back down the hill, we joined the throng and followed them down to the maypole which had been erected in the centre of the village.

I had been expecting to hate every minute of it, and my hair was clenched in anticipatory embarrassment at the start of proceedings – but I loved every noisy, hypnotic  moment. There was nothing twee or fake or touristy about the chaotic ceremony. No, I didn’t understand what the hell was going on, but it simply didn’t matter – it throbbed with meaning. I have no idea what it’s like these days, but the photos I’ve just downloaded on the internet would suggest nothing much has changed in the last 24 years (or for that matter, in the preceding centuries).

A jolly pretty local girl, c.1989 - I wonder what became of her?
Even if the very thought of this sort of event brings you out in a rash, I guarantee you'd enjoy it, at the very least. I was already smitten with Cornwall when we attended that first May Day in Padstow - but I genuinely fell in love with it that day.

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