No one knows when the ‘Obby ‘Oss festival, which takes place on the 1st of May (or the 2nd if the 1st is on a Sunday) every year in Padstow, Cornwall, started. The earliest written reference to it is in about 1800, but it’s likely that the festival dates back to much earlier times and is probably related to Celtic Spring rituals.
The celebrations start at midnight the night before when the Night Song is sung to the landlord of the Golden Lion Inn. The next morning, with the town decorated with branches of green leaves, bluebells and cowslips, the children’s parade, with smaller sized, colt ‘Osses, starts at about 8.00am. The Day Song is accompanied by drums and accordions.
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.
Since the end of the First World War there have been two ‘Osses, the Old (Red) ‘Oss and the Armistice or Peace ‘Oss which took on the Blue Ribbon. The Blue ‘Oss starts its parade at 10.00 followed at 11.00 by the Old ‘Oss. The two ‘Osses tour around the town, seldom meeting, led by the MC with his top hat and decorated cane, then the accordions and drums, followed by the Teaser and the ‘Oss, and the rest of the ‘Mayers’. The tour climbs the hill out of Padstow via the church to Prideaux Place where the Red ‘Oss dances outside the house. Later the Blue ‘Oss visits the house and is invited in.
The white clothing (which should only be worn by true Padstonians) is decorated with neckerchiefs of red or blue. The ‘Oss is made from a large circular hoop covered with black sailcloth that falls to the ground. The man carrying the ‘Oss wears a tall, fearsome, conical mask. At various points in the parade the ‘Oss ‘dies’ and the relentless beat of the drums stops while a mournful chorus is sung.
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.
The ‘Oss is then ‘reborn’ to the cry of ‘Oss ‘Oss, Wee ‘Oss! and the drums and parade carry on.
As it begins to get dark, the two ‘Osses eventually meet in the town square and dance around the maypole, after which they are returned to their stables. The supporters then meet again at the maypole to carry on singing until midnight.
(Click on the photos to see them larger.)
These photos were taken 40 years ago at the May Day celebrations in 1975. I arrived from Trebetherick where I was staying with friends at about 8.00 in the morning having caught the Black Tor Ferry across the Camel estuary from Rock and I stayed all day until well into the evening. I don’t remember how I got back to Trebetherick that night – possibly one or two beers had been drunk.
You can see more photos from the day in my collection at Flickr.
Thanks to John Buckingham of the Padstow Museum for help with the facts.