The Gawthorpe Maypole Procession and World Coal Carrying Championships 

Every folkloric festival in Britain started at the pub. Even the ones that predate the invention of the pub started at the pub.

And the synthetic ones? You know, the ones that date back seven and a half years and were started by the local Let’s Lure Visitors in Here So They Can Spend Money Commission? 

Yup. Those started at the pub too. 

If we’ve established that, let’s talk about the Gawthorpe Maypole Procession and World Coal Carrying Championships, which is an odd mix of the folkloric and the synthetic and should leave us wondering whether a synthetic festival becomes folkloric if it sticks around long enough. 

In keeping with a tradition here at Notes, I’m posting this in the wrong season. Maypole celebrations have a way of happening in May, but screw it. Even in this time of pandemic, May will come around eventually. But even more than that, the contest won’t be held this year, so we can celebrate early if we want to.

Besides, ever since lockdown hit us, half the people I know can’t keep track of the days of the week, so let’s not be sticklers about the months.

Irrelevant photo: You may have already guessed that this is not a maypole. It’s not even a spring flower, it’s an autumn one, but damn, isn’t it beautiful?

If you’re ready, then, this post is for all you people who want to believe that somewhere people still dance around maypoles and life is bright and shiny and innocent. It’s for you because you’re half right. The maypole half. Bright and shiny? Not when it shares a three-day weekend with a coal-carrying race. As for innocence, I’ve never been to the event so I have no evidence one way or another. I expect it’ll all depends on how you want to define innocence. Also folkloric. But let’s dodge the difficult questions and go straight for the fluff.

The coal carrying event started in 1963, but in the traditional way: A bunch of guys were sitting around a pub, and at this point I’ll yield the stage so the event’s own web page can tell the story, with its own punctuation and dialect. If they overshot the local accent, blame them.

“At the century-old Beehive Inn . . . Reggie Sedgewick and one Amos Clapham, a local coal merchant and current president of the Maypole Committee were enjoying some well-earned liquid refreshment whilst stood at the bar lost in their own thoughts. When in bursts one Lewis Hartley in a somewhat exuberant mood. On seeing the other two he said to Reggie, ‘Ba gum lad tha’ looks buggered !’ slapping Reggie heartily on the back. Whether because of the force of the blow or because of the words that accompanied it, Reggie was just a little put out. ‘Ah’m as fit as thee’ he told Lewis, ’an’ if tha’ dun’t believe me gerra a bagga coil on thi back an ‘ah’ll get one on mine an ‘ah’ll race thee to t’ top o’ t’ wood !’ (Coil, let me explain is Yorkshire speak for coal). While Lewis digested the implications of this challenge a Mr. Fred Hirst, Secretary of the Gawthorpe Maypole Committee (and not a man to let a good idea go to waste) raised a cautioning hand. ‘Owd on a minute,’ said Fred and there was something in his voice that made them all listen. ‘ ‘Aven’t we been looking fer some’at to do on Easter Monday? If we’re gonna ‘ave a race let’s ‘ave it then. Let’s ‘ave a coil race from Barracks t’ Maypole.’ (The Barracks being the more common name given by the locals to The Royal Oak Public House.)”

If I can step in and interpret that last bit for you, what happened was that the secretary said, “Let there be a coal race,” and lo, there was a coal race. And it was good.

Also dirty.

And it still is. Men race with 50 kilo sacks of coal and women with 20 kilo sacks. If you want that in pounds, just multiply it by 2.2. I’m outta here. 

Both groups run 1,012 meters, most of it uphill. Kids, as far as I can figure out, run coalless and a shorter distance.

The rules list lots of things not to do. No coaching during the race. No assistance, no advice, no information, no cutting corners, and no general busybodying, and that’s all in red type with lots of random quotation marks, so you don’t get to tell anyone that you didn’t see the warnings.  

The event is sponsored by Eric F. Box, Funeral Directors. 

No, I can’t explain why Eric is more than one director, but maybe I should’ve mentioned his involvement earlier, by way of a health and safety warning. It’s enough to make a person wonder if, what with all that coal and hopefully a bit of coal dust to keep it company, he counts on the race bringing in a few customers.

But let’s leave Eric and his customers to work things out among themselves and move on to the maypole dance. We’ll do the general history first, then the local stuff.

Did maypole dancing start at the pub? Oh, hell yes, even if it predated the pub’s invention. It’s ancient enough to be considered pagan, it was probably linked to fertility, and it was rowdy–as fertility so often is. You can trace it back to the Celtic seasonal holiday of Beltane if you like–spring, rebirth, all that sort of thing–although the maypole was probably an Anglo-Saxon addition

Or you can trace it to the Roman holiday Floralia if you like.

Hell, you can do anything you want. You can eat your shoelaces if you like. I can’t stop you, can I? 

Assorted websites take the Floralia route, and they’re as convincing as the ones that trace it to the Celts. Me? I don’t honestly care. It was all such a long time ago that we’re left spinning theories–some better informed than others, but still educated guesses at best.

As England Christianized, the church tolerated May Day celebrations, and in medieval England laborers could often claim the day as a holiday. We can’t document that they danced around a maypole, but if we were to bet that they drank and got rowdy and then if we could somehow find out what really happened I doubt we’d lose our money. The day might or might not have involved a pole but it surely involved lots of regional variations.  

According to Gawthorpe’s website, maypole dancing dates back to the reign of Richard II (1483-1485, so you had to hurry or you’d be docked for coming late), but another website says that maypole dancing gets a mention in Chaucer and he died in 1400, meaning we can dock Richard’s pay. 

By the time Henry VIII was rampaging through his assorted marriages (1509-1547), maypole dancing had reached most of England’s rural villages (or so says the Gawthorpe website). Historic UK swears that May Day celebrations were banned in the sixteenth century, which caused riots, but other websites wait an extra century, blaming the Puritans for banning them and letting Henry off the hook. There were May Day riots one year, but they don’t seem to have been related to maypoles or bans.

The Puritans, though, were beyond question skillful disapprovers, and they disapproved of all tha rowdy, paganish carrying on, and their best to stamp out May Day.

Then the monarchy was restored and with it May Day celebrations and maypoles.

Then we skip merrily along until we come to the eighteenth century, when (to give you the flavor of the holiday) a newspaper clipping preserved the tale of some village rowdies stealing another village’s maypole. That seems to have been an accepted part of the carrying on. 

In addition to poles (your own or someone else’s), the holiday seems to have involved flowers, herbs, adults, and general uproar. Also, I’d be willing to bet, alcohol.

The first evidence of maypoles having ribbons is from 1759, and they may have wandered in from Italy. 

Then the Victorians came along and sanitized the holiday, turning it into an activity for kids and calling it an ancient tradition. Maypole dancing was taught to schoolmistresses-in-training, and they made it part of the folk revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

One website says that the crowning of the queen and the dancing were controlled by the village elite, taking the holiday away from the kind of folk tradition that grew from the ground up.

As for the Gawthorpe, the maypole business sounds painfully respectable, with local dignitaries and a four and a half mile procession involving floats and marching bands and horses. Not to mention some poor girl who gets chosen as queen and some other poor girls who don’t. I’m not sure which is worse. They should all sue. 

Can you sue an entire culture?

The maypole part of the Gawthorpe celebration dates back to 1906, when a teacher at the local school–probably one of the ones who’d been taught the reinvented tradition in teacher training–taught the kids what the website swears are intricate steps. And they probably are intricate because they have to hold ribbons and circle a pole multiple times without tying anyone to it. It takes six months to teach the steps, the website says. Cynic that I am, I can’t help thinking that’s because it takes so much time to chase down the dancers and make them stop having fun, but please don’t mistake me for anyone who knows that. For all I know, it fills every last one of them with joy. 

Give me a coal race any day.