May Day in Glastonbury

May Day – known by ‘rustics and dwellers on the heath’ as Beltane – has been a big celebration in Glastonbury for many years. People begin to gather around the Market Cross in late morning. Some are garlanded, or painted green and festooned with foliage. Singers and drummers arrive, the druids and bards in their regalia.

At exactly the right time, the rune carved Maypole is lifted onto the shoulders of the Men of Glastonbury, who felled and trimmed the tree it came from. They carry it up the High Street to the place where the Red and White Springs meet, on Chalice Lane. A merry throng follows them; children, elderly wizards leaning on their staffs, local politicians, gardeners, mechanics….

Everyone pauses at the Springs, to drink and mingle, to hear the next episode of the Summer story being told. Outside there is dancing in the sun, but in the dark pillared cavern of the Wellhouse there is an eerie, otherwordly atmosphere. The reflections of dozens of candles ripple in the flowing water, illuminating strange icons, masked and horned, in shadowy alcoves.

The place echoes with a wordless singing. No-one is performing. It is the separate voices of the people wandering gently around the maze of pools, each lifting up their voice in a single note as they pass through.

The occasional traffic becomes impatient, and the motley crowd moves on to Bushy Coombe. The hole for the Maypole is already waiting – dug by the Women of Glastonbury, of course. A huge circle froms around the May Queen with her consort and entourage. The chief druid steps forward and calls upon the elements, personified by costumed celebrants. The Green Men ready themselves to lift the pole as the Queen attaches the ribboned crown.

“I like your pole,” she says to the King.

“It’s a very long one,” he replies slyly.

Up goes the Maypole, wedged securely in place. A brief instruction on the dance follows but, since everyone is welcome to have a go, it is soon a round of happy chaos. One of the bards sees to the loose ends, while the others prepare to close the ceremony. They dismiss the elements with thanks; the Royal Pair retire to their willow bower to dispense honey cakes and mead.

Gradually the participants drift away, heading home in their bright clothes like windblown confetti, to the wonder of passing tourists.

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