Gawthorpe Celebrations is a traditional English holiday event occurring on the first Saturday in May

As Eric Hobsbawm has remarked in a classic study, The invention of tradition (1983), traditions don’t spring out of nowhere. They have to be invented.

The same can be said of nation states, which Benedict Arnold famously spoke of as imagined communities. As a March 28, 2013 Globe and Mail article indicates, sometimes these imagined communities have a limited impact on human affairs compared to other sources of influence. By way of example, the transnational flow of capital is at times oblivious to the existence of nation states. An April 4, 2013 New York Times article addresses a similar theme.

Jane’s Walks take place around the first weekend in May

In preparing for the 2013 Jane’s Walks, it has occurred to me that it would be good to talk of the time of year in which these walks typically occur. A wide range of festivities are traditionally associated with the month of May.

The book of the year: A brief history of the seasonal holidays (2003)

We are dealing, in this regard, with reflections about how the springtime gives rise to varied festivities.

Many books address springtime festivals. Among the ones that I’ve found enjoyable to read is The English Year (2006). The book’s subtitle notes that Steve Roud’s study provides a month-by-month guide to English customs and festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night.

The Jane’s Walks that Mike James and I will lead on May 4 and May 5, 2013 are in Long Branch, Ontario. Given that this used to be a farming community, I imagine that in years past many festivities were organized in Long Branch to mark the turn of the seasons.

By way of relating the discussion to my own life, I recall a time in the mid-1970s when I lived on McCaul Street in Toronto. When the late summer would arrive, I would notice that leaves on the large trees along nearby streets had grown very large and turned a deep hue of green.

Steve Roud

I enjoyed reading the biographical sketch for Steve Roud which appears at the start of the above-mentioned book:

“Steve Roud has been researching British folklore for over thirty years and is the author of the acclaimed Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, which won the 2004 Katherine Briggs Folklore Award. He is joint author of the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, as well as other books on traditional drama and folk song. He also compiles the Folk Song Index and the Broadside Index, two internationally known databases of folk and popular song. He is Local Studies Librarian for the London Borough of Croydon, and he served as Honorary Librarian of the Folklore Society for over fifteen years. He lives in Sussex.”


It’s always enjoyable to read an authoritative account of the Maypole tradition, a subject that comes to mind at once when we think of the month of May. On that topic, I’m pleased to share the following excerpt (p. 221) from Roud’s month-by-month account of English customs and festivals:

“Real maypoles need regular replacement. The part that is underground quickly rots, and poles are regularly blown down or damaged in winter storms. The fetching and setting up of a new pole was always an occasion for celebration and merriment, and this was one of the grounds on which the reformers sought to ban the custom. The famous diatribe against maypoles, penned by Puritan Philip Stubbes in 1583, is worth quoting in full, as it not only demonstrates the depth of feeling against such events but also provides our best description of the custom at this period:”

A diatribe by Philip Stubbes follows the passage. You can read the full quotation if you’re able to get a hold of the book such as through the Toronto Public Library.

May 4, 2013

Our first Jane’s Walk in South Long Branch occurs on the first Saturday of May. Roud notes (p. 231) that the first Saturday in May is the occasion for the Gawthorpe Celebrations among other events.

He notes that Gawthorpe, the Yorkshire village famous for its World Coal-Carrying Championship contest every Easter Monday, also holds impressive May Day celebrations on the first Saturday in that month:

“A procession involving themed floats, bands, children in fancy dress, and the local May Queen takes place, and there is also plaited maypole dancing, of which Gawthorpe is particularly proud, performed by schoolgirls from the village. The event has been organized by the Maypole Committee since 1874, but this was merely a formalization of an older tradition of maypoles in the village.

“Earlier May celebrations were not always so well disciplined as the Current ones. In 1850, for example, inter-village rivalry got out of hand when men from nearby Chickenley undertook a raid and sawed partway through the pole; in the ensuing fight, one man died and many were injured. The wind finished off that particular pole not long after, but there have been others since.”


Roud notes (p. 207), with regard to fighting, that “People in the past seem to have taken their feeling of home territory very seriously, and to have readily used it as an excuse for a good punch-up.

“Even such a staid and decorous affair as ‘beating the bounds’ could result in fights if parties from one parish met another on their rounds…. Yarleton Hill, in Gloucestershire, formed the intersection of several parishes, an opportunity too good to miss. In 1779, county historian Samuel Rudder described the events that occurred there:

“‘Annually, on the first day of May, there is a custom of assembling in bodies on the top of this hill, from the several parishes, to fight for the possession of it, upon which account it is sometimes called May-Hill.'”

It follows, then, that when we talk about springtime customs, our thoughts naturally also turn to military history, with which Long Branch and surrounding communities have long been associated.


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