It's often advised to avoid Padstow in the tourist-heavy summer months, but on May Day – or, as it’s also known, ’Obby ’Oss Day – this quaint fishing town shows off its Padstonian flavour when it comes alive with the sound of music and merriment and the wild dancing of two ominous-looking ’Osses.
This ancient festival has its origins in numerous pockets of Cornish folklore – a pagan fertility ritual, a rousing welcome to summer, a rainmaking frolic, and as a strategy by local townswomen to ward off French sailors in the 14th century.
Whatever its roots, it is a day when locals, young and old, don white outfits fashioned with red or blue neckerchiefs and ribbons, signifying their family allegiance to either the original/old (red) ’Oss or the blue-ribbon/peace (blue) ’Oss, and dance, sing and drink their way through the streets of Padstow that have been decorated with boughs of fresh spring greenery, colourful flags and, of course, a traditional maypole.
The merry month of May
Throughout the day, the town reverberates with the strain of the May Song, a unique call to all Padstonians: “Unite and unite and let us all unite, for summer is a-come in today. And whither we are going we all will unite, in the merry morning of May.” But the stars of the day are the two ’Obby ’Osses – each one consisting of a 6ft-wide wooden hoop draped in black sail cloth and hoisted onto a fearsomely masked local chap – that are let out from their ‘stables’ at set times throughout the day (for the original ’Oss this is the Golden Lion pub on Lanadwell Street and for the peace Oss it’s the Institute on Market Street).
Once released onto the street the ‘Oss prances through the town preceded by an acolyte known as a teaser, who uses a wooden rod topped with a leather pad to tease and dance with the swirling beast. They are followed by a troupe of musicians, singers, drummers and dancers. As the procession meanders through the narrow streets and around Padstow’s harbour, the ’Oss attempts to capture young maidens under its skirt for a blessing of mayday fertility – if you’re caught, it’s believed you will fall pregnant by the following May Day.
Finally, late in the afternoon the ’Osses meet at the maypole and dance together before a mock death ritual at midnight that bids the ‘Osses farewell until resurrection the following May Eve.
’Obby ’Oss Day is very much a locals day (though visitors are welcome, too), but Padstow offers plenty for visitors to sample the town’s delights, especially the culinary ones, all year round. You’ll soon feel Padstonian blood running through your veins.