May Day has long been a day for welcoming the spring. It was marked by the Romans and the Celts with the festivals of Flora and Beltane, celebrating new life, fertility and renewal.
May Day events throughout Britain still include Morris dancing, dressing up in nature-inspired costumes and lighting large bonfires. In Somerset May Day traditions have been warmly embraced. Glastonbury Tor becomes the focal point for people who want to greet the May Day sunrise, while in Chalice Well gardens, at the base of the Tor, the Beltane fire is lit and the sun is welcomed back into the land with music and dancing.
But perhaps Somerset’s most striking May Day tradition is the Minehead hobby horse which takes to the streets on the first three days of the month (excluding Sunday as a rest day). The earliest written record of the tradition dates only from 1830, but its origins are probably much earlier. Some even believe that it dates back to the Viking attacks on Somerset and that the hobby horse acted as a monster to scare away the enemy.
Originally the hobby horse paraded in Minehead and Dunster followed by drums, concertinas and fiddles, money collectors called gullivers and, of course, a large band of supporters. The men would be given money and ale at Dunster Castle. The horse itself measured 12 feet in length and 4 feet in width so a team of carriers took turns with it to ensure that no one carried it for too long. Minehead still keeps the custom alive each year, a “Town Horse” now being added to the traditional “Sailors’ Horse”. Modern hobby horses measure about 8 feet in length and have rope tails, a light canvas-covered frame and a masked horseman. Collections are still made for charity.
So if you’re in Minehead around May Day and you hear the banging of drums, the jingling of bells or the cheers of a crowd, make sure you go to see the hobby horses in action and help keep Somerset’s ancient folk traditions alive.