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Everything you need to know about May Day

There's a much-overlooked bank holiday tucked in between Easter and the May half term break. Discover what May Day is all about and find the best May Day celebrations in the UK.

May Day, or the first Monday in May, only became a bank holiday in 1978 but its origins as a day of celebration go back over two thousand years! It falls roughly between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and Celts celebrated it as the first day of summer, calling it Beltane.

With the advent of Christianity, May Day hung on as one of the few holidays not associated with religion. In rural Britain, celebrations were associated with the fertility of spring and the start of summer. The seeds of the new crops had been planted, farm labourers were given a day off - and they made the most of it!

The traditional picture of May Day conjures up dances round the maypole, the crowning of the May queen, and Morris dancers led by the Green Man. All of that can still be found today, as we find out on our tour of Great Britain's May Day events.

1. Horsing around in Cornwall

One of the oldest surviving May Day Celebrations is Padstow's Obby Oss. The stable doors are opened on the morning of 1 May and the Obby Oss (hobby horse) leads a musical procession through the streets. The town is bedecked with spring greenery and blossom and the celebrations continue throughout the day. Deerpark is a 50-minute drive away. 

2. Dancing in the summer in Hampshire

You will need to be up early to catch the Yateley Morris Men dancing in the summer. This annual ritual takes place at Wyndham Pond on Yateley Common in Hampshire as the sun rises on 1 May. When the dancing is done, take the three Ponds walk around Yateley Common and know that summer has truly arrived! Our cabins at Blackwood Forest are just a 40-minute drive away.

3. Dawn dancing on a Gloucestershire hill-top

It's another early start to see the Morris dancers dancing in the sunrise on top of May Hill in Gloucestershire, but this magical spectacle will connect you to centuries of rural tradition. Once the sun has risen, enjoy spectacular views of the River Severn, the Cotswold Hills and, to the west, the mountains of Wales. Stay at Forest of Dean, which is just a short drive away.

4. Traditional Tudor celebrations in Suffolk

There is a traditional Tudor May Day at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk. May Day was very big in Tudor times and the fertility of spring was celebrated with noise and merriment. This atmosphere is recreated in fine style from 29 April to 1 May with over 100 people in Tudor dress, traditional Mummers plays which portray the forces of good overcoming evil, and lively processions and dances. Stay at Thorpe Forest which is just 50 minutes' drive away.

5. Robin Hood and Merrie May Day

Nottinghamshire has been described as the "May Day county" by local historian Frank Earp. May Day festivities have long been associated with Robin Hood folklore and the characters of Robin Hood and Maid Marion were crowned, in Tudor celebrations, as the May King and May Queen.

© Copyright David Lally and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

To this day, the Foresters Morris Men dance around the statue of Robin Hood by Castle Gate in Nottingham, but set your alarm - it's another sunrise start. Stay at Sherwood Forest for the full Robin Hood experience.

6. Celtic festivities in Yorkshire

The further north you head, the more the celebrations reflect the ancient Celtic and pagan festivities of Beltane, as May Day was originally known. For the full Celtic experience, head up to Thornborough Henge - three giant prehistoric earthworks, where the festivities start at 12 noon on 30 April for this celebration of summer and the traditions, magic, and landscape of northern England. Stay at nearby Keldy or Cropton.

Attribution: Tony Newbold

7. The Inveraray Bluebell Festival

We finish by stretching out the May Day celebrations for the whole month of May. The Inveraray Bluebell Festival has events every weekend in May and fairies and elves go free - in keeping with the folklore that bluebells are of the fairy world, children dressed as fairies or elves get free admission to events. See the bluebells in the private gardens of Inveraray Castle, witness the Jailbreak run on 14 May and enjoy the music at the George Hotel Bluebell Music Festival to round off the month. Stay at Ardgartan Argyll.

Wherever you go, enjoy the age-old and exuberant traditions of May Day. Centuries ago, when the year was charted by the position of the sun in the sky, it heralded the start of summer and that is what makes it such a special day. Keep the natural connection by staying in the forest; book today to make your May Day appointment with summer. Can't escape to the forest for the weekend? Why not join us for a midweek escape - you'll only need to take four days off work and you could book an early check-in on the Bank Holiday Monday to make the most of your stay!

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