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May Day in St Ives

The ending of Winter and the coming of Spring

St Ives and West Cornwall has a long history of unique, fascinating and sometimes pretty ‘out there’ traditions. One tradition that goes back the furthest, first recorded in 1573 and stemming from Celtic and Pagan history, is the spring festival of May Day which celebrates the ending of winter and the coming of spring, a change definitely welcomed by most of us!

The festivities began at noon and although the weather was a little grey and cloudy the atmosphere was anything but as we gathered outside St Ives Guildhall.

If you’ve never seen May Day celebrated in St Ives before it can seem like a strange way to  welcome spring especially when you first hear the blast of the ‘May Horn’. Making a sound that can best be described as that of an ancient car horn, the blowing of the Old May Horn marks the end of winter and the New May Horn the start of spring, both are blown by two young boys to the amusement and applause of the crowd.

Next came the crowning of the May Day royalty. The Mayor of St Ives, along with other local dignitaries, had to choose from a group girls dressed in fresh spring flowers and floral dresses and boys dressed in…  what boys usually dress in… casual surfy gear, to become the May King and Queen. As you might expect there was a definite lack of prospective kings in the line-up with one reluctant and embarrassed looking lad pushed forward by his mother! After a brief inauguration the new King and Queen were chosen and ready to be given pride of place in the soon to be held parade.

Before that though came the 1st St Ives Scouts group for the blowing of the ‘pee whips’ which are little green whistles made from hollowed out wood sticks which thankfully weren’t as loud as the May Horns!

As the crowd grew we had to shuffle around and make room for the first of the day’s May Pole dances performed by the children of local theatre group ‘Kidz R Us’. The May Pole dance is performed by each dancer taking a piece of colourful hanging ribbon and dancing around the pole while interweaving with each other to create a multicoloured plait around the pole. After much applause from the crowd the music started up again and the girls finished the dance by unwinding the plait, I for one hoping I wasn’t the only one getting a little dizzy watching.

Now it was time for the big parade through the town, many of us having to dash ahead down the street to secure the best views. Led by Hayle Town Band, a traditional brass band, with St Ives group Bagas Porthia bringing up the rear with a more folky, Celtic sound, the parade started its walk – and in some cases dance – through the town. The procession included many local clubs, schools and societies, some with their own colourful banners and in the case of the Hi-Tide Kids Club one very large mascot!

We stopped at West Pier which was now crammed with interested spectators vying to see the second bout of May Pole dancing which seemed even faster than the first. Dancers, musicians and the procession soon took off again across the harbour front watched from the balconies of restaurants and pubs by people, many lucky enough to be enjoying a lunchtime tipple.

With a sizzling barbecue manned by the St Ives Rotary Club tempting some of us away, another May Pole dance took place by the Shamrock fishermen’s lodge before proceedings ended and everyone drifted away to warm up. Along the Wharf a number of stalls had been set up selling souvenirs, gifts and, if you felt like something sweet, a selection of delicious looking home-made  cakes.

The May Horns just about worked their magic keeping the serious rain away til later in day and May Day was declared a success! All in all a quaint and interesting St Ives tradition definitely worth a look if you’re in the town for May Day.

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