May Day celebrations: five quirky customs

Whether you like dressing up and dancing round the maypole, immersing yourself in early morning birdsong or just watching one of the many quirky customs that takes place across the country, there’s a way for everyone to celebrate the marvellous month of May. Here are five of our favourites…

Obby Oss Day

This must-see event on 1 May is the biggest day in Padstow’s calendar. Join the thousands of people crammed into this Cornish fishing port – adorned overnight with flags and flowers – to watch the two osses (men dressed in vaguely horsey costumes) prance about the narrow streets. They’re taunted by a ‘teaser’ with a club and followed by dancers and drummers. No one’s really sure what this bizarre behaviour is all about, but it’s great entertainment.

May Morning

This centuries-old celebration of the coming of spring is held annually on 1 May. It kicks off early – gather with the huge crowds under the Great Tower of Magdalen College to hear the choristers sing a seven-minute-long Latin hymn at 6am. Bells then ring out across the city for 20 minutes or more. Afterwards, follow the procession to the city centre and enjoy a morning of merry making with Morris dancing, folk music, singing and (incongruously) South American samba.

Giant Dancing

Cerne Abbas
The 55-metre-tall, naked, club-wielding giant, carved into the Dorset countryside above the village of Cerne Abbas, is Britain’s largest chalk hill figure – and famously well endowed. Long revered as a symbol of fertility, the Wessex Morris Men perform a special stick dance above the big man’s bonce as the sun rises on the morning of 1 May. After watching their dawn display, head to the village square for more fun and games.

The Hunting of the Earl of Rone

Combe Martin
This is another curious May-time custom from the West Country, acted out over the bank holiday weekend at the end of the month. Only locals are allowed to search for the elusive Earl, hidden somewhere in the woods, but you can watch the action as it unfolds. When found, he’s mounted ‘backsy-fore’ (as they say in North Devon) on a donkey and paraded through the village before being ‘shot’ and thrown into the sea. The origins of this strange tradition are unclear, but it was revived in 1974 and now takes place every year.

International Dawn Chorus Day

This worldwide appreciation of nature’s sunrise symphony takes place every year on the first Sunday in May, but you don’t have to go too far afield – or even get up at the crack of dawn – to join in. The RSPB reserve at Newport Wetlands is holding a Family Birdsong Walk on 6 May from 9:30am – 11am (RSPB members £4.40 / Non-members £5.50). Guides will be on hand to help you distinguish the different avian tunes, from blackbirds to blackcaps and chaffinches to chiffchaffs.