Padstow Hobby Horse

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This north Cornwall village has a day-long custom to celebrate the coming of May, with a hobby horse who dances in the streets while its attendants sing:Unite and unite and let us all uniteFor summer is acome unto dayAnd whither we are going we will all uniteIn the merry morning of May.

The narrow streets of the town are decorated with flags, flowers, branches, and bunting, half the locals are dressed all in white with a dash of blue or red as a wrist-band, sash, head-scarf, or neckerchief, there is a huge maypole in the middle of the town, and the 'Obby'Oss cavorts through the narrow streets to the sound of massed accordions, drums, and singing. This goes on all day, and there is nothing else like it in the English calendar. At present there are two Osses and therefore two teams, blue and red, and there have been others in the past. Both Osses are constructed in the same way: a circular wooden framework with a man inside with his head poking out through a hole in the top. A skirt of black material hangs all the way round the frame, and a tall pointed head, with mask, is placed on the man's head. The Oss also has a small head in front and a tail behind, but by no stretch of imagination does it look like a horse. The Oss can be made to dance, it can swing from side to side, up and down, swirling and swaying. The musicians walk slowly in front or behind, and there is one who acts as Teaser, dancing in front of the Oss, holding a painted club. Others in the party dance as well. The whole party sings the song, over and over again, the first verse of which is quoted above, and other verses make little sense but work remarkably well. Every now and then the music slows, the rhythm of the song changes, the Oss sinks to the ground, the dancers crouch down, those nearest stroke it gently:O where is St GeorgeO where is he OHe is out on his long boat on the salt sea OUp flies the kiteAnd down falls the lark OAunt Ursula Broadwood she had an old eweAnd she died in her own park

and to the triumphant shout of ‘Oss! Oss! Wee Oss!’, it springs back to life with renewed vigour.

Earlier in the day, children's horses can be seen around the town, smaller versions of the real thing, learning their trade. The night before, starting as the church clock strikes midnight, the night-singers perambulate the town, singing to the inhabitants. Padstow Obby Oss has fascinated folklorists and other commentators for years, and many are the theories of origin which are presented, normally on some variation of the fertility ritual. It is true that women caught under the skirts of the Oss will be married (or pregnant) within a year, and there are numerous other little details which can be used to ‘prove’ anything one likes. One local story relates that once, when Padstow was about to be invaded by the French, and the menfolk were away at sea fishing, the women of the town constructed the Oss and its antics frightened the cowardly invaders away.


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