May Morning is a bright, festive, folksy affair. A bracing early rise for children and adults alike to participate in and observe the silliest rituals of our land, basking in the fresh spring air and joyously ringing in the merry month. Maypoles, centuries-old Morris dance, with its postcard-worthy outfits, handkerchief and stick flailing, and bells jangling upon the person, spring up on village greens for a good morning knees-up – literally. The festivities bring good luck, too, according to legend – a successful display is said to yield a bountiful month of two bank holidays.
It isn’t just picturesque triple-barrelled Cotswold communities which are mad for May. The City of Oxford is smitten with the early morning costumed choreography, and boasts its own unique traditions too. Most famously, throngs gather on Magdalen Bridge to hear the harmonies of the chapel choir drifting down from atop the College’s tower. The bridge is closed to traffic for the morning rush hour and temporarily pedestrianised, and so packed are the crowds that even to traverse the bridge on foot can prove a three-quarter hour struggle.
If you do find yourself navigating the sea of bodies, you do have plenty of time to have a good look at your fellow revellers. The atmosphere is thoroughly convivial, and the music beautiful. This centrepiece is over rather quickly, but it brings young and old, town and gown together to participate in something which is at once national and local. Various local accents are added around the country – perhaps leaning more towards pagan roots, rather than the Christian elements seen amongst (or atop) the dreaming spires.
The celebration can be so important, even to the city’s temporary residents
It’s not all quite so jolly – many of the aforementioned attendees are not bright-eyed early risers, brimming with enthusiasm for springtime sprightliness. The palette of skin tones on display does not overlap that of the healthy human. Pallid translucence sways next to yellow-green sorrow. Hair is dishevelled, and clothes once pristine are now unwilling to fit their owners. Bodies akimbo, or perhaps not quite perpendicular to the ground, are accompanied by pained expressions, which are nevertheless unmoveable in their gritted-teeth determination to hear some choristers warbling before finally collapsing into bed. If nothing else, it shows how important the celebration can be, even to the city’s temporary residents.
The dispersing crowds are treated to music in the High Street, Morris dancing under Hertford College’s Bridge of Sighs, and, of course, the early opening of pubs and restaurants to lubricate the morning. Last year, after a heavy night, a few friends and I attempted Eggs Benedict and prosecco at the Quod Brasserie, choking back tears of exhaustion at the terrible chore of having another bite. This year, the Turl Street Kitchen proved a perfect spot for a couple gin and tonics, followed by a flying visit to University College for a little breakfast, and finally a well-deserved pint or three of Guinness at The Bear (reputedly Oxford’s oldest pub, a claim supported by the decapitation risk from low beams), all accompanied by live music exacerbating the hangovers of Christ Church students next door. Spring has sprung