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Guest Post by BK
May Day in England is celebrated with any number of customs and festivities. Although there is a great deal of regional difference they usually celebrate the return of spring and summer with the greenery and flowers of the countryside. The usual term for this was ‘going a-Maying’ or ‘bringing in the May’ and initially this involved people going out into the country and returning with flowers and blossom to decorate the home.
Perhaps the grandest example of going a-Maying occurred in 1515 when Henry VIII and Catherine Of Aragon took a trip out from Greenwich Palace to Shooters Hill. In an elaborate charade some of The King’s Archers had disguised themselves as Robin Hood and his Merry Men. After discharging their arrows over the heads of the Royal Party they ‘captured’ the King and Queen and took them to their lair. A bower decorated with flowers. After a feast of venison and wine the couple were returned. On their way back they were met by ladies on floral chariots who sang songs in their praise until they arrived back at Greenwich to be met by cheering crowds and, of course, another feast.
A local custom that is being revived in that of Jack In The Green. Jack appeared in many towns throughout England but was particularly strong in London. He was traditionally a chimney sweep. He was completely covered in a wicker frame from his feet to a point one or two feet over his head and the frame would be fully festooned with flowers and greenery. Jack would often be accompanied by a makeshift band to whose music he would dance around. He also often had a Queen, usually a milkmaid, and various princes and princesses; When the custom started in the late 1700s they would have been child sweeps. As this strangely dressed bunch paraded down the street banging cans and shovels they collected money to tide them over the summer when demand for sweeps slackened.
The custom appears to have survived to about World War One. It is well documented in Lewisham and there are photographs in the Library Archive. A diary entry says:
“May Day, 1894, at Lewisham. In the High Street we saw a Jack with a Queen Of The May, two maidens proper, a man dressed as a woman, and a man with a piano organ. The organ was playing a quick tune and the Queen and the maidens danced around the Jack. The man-woman sometimes danced with the maidens, turned wheels and collected the pence.”
The Jack was a bottle-shaped case covered with ivy leaves and surmounted by a crown of paper roses. The man-woman had a Holland dress, his face was blackened and he had a Zulu hat trimmed with red.
An effort is being made to revive the tradition and on May Day a parade will leave the Dog and Bell in Deptford at noon and arriving at the Ashburnham Arms in Greenwich at 17:00. Further details here:
Another local custom was that couples who wished to have good fortune in conceiving a baby would copulate whilst rolling down the hill in Greenwich Park on May Morning. I have not heard of any proposals to reinstate this admirable custom.
One of the benefits of living on an island is that we have a coastline of enormous variety, scenic beauty and interest. Artists through history have got inspiration from the coast and have left us with an historical record.
In the 19th Century Pre-Raphaelite artists were particularly fond of the Kent coast and have left us an accurate record of the landscape at that time.
William Dysce’s Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 captures the sighting of the Donati’s Comet in the sky. The painting shows the artist’s wife, her sisters and his son on the beach collecting shells at low tide.
When I visited there was no one collecting shells but there were a team of foragers. Will, a very pleasant young man introduced me to the two types of samphire; rock and golden. Their harvest ends up in a few local restaurants but mainly to top end ones in London. Other than a couple of dog walkers and the foragers the scene was empty and very much like Dysce’s picture.
Initially you can be fooled into thinking the landscape hasn’t changed that much in 150 years but look again the evidence of erosion is abundant. Trees grow on perilous overhangs and are close to inevitable collapse. Smooth chalk stones that were once part of the cliff face now form a pathway between the foreshore and the cliffs.
The light was hazy and the sun blocked by a solid sheet of cloud. Flocks of shell ducks were grazing in the exposed pools and other than the birdsong it was extraordinarily quiet.
There was an abundance of empty dogfish eggs and unfortunately too much rubbish. This is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world and collecting the rubbish must be like painting the Forth Bridge.
After one of the wettest winters on record its good to see that parts of the Green Chain Walk are again in bloom. The cherry blossom in Eltham Park is, this year, truly magnificent. In Japan the blossom is a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life and is celebrated in the annual festival of Hanami. After three poor blossom seasons this splash of colour against a clear blue sky is a welcome vision.
From the park a walk into Oxleas Woods and there are more signs that spring has arrived. The woods are full of birdsong; the squeeking hinge sound of the blue tit and the squarking of the invading parakeets. The woodland flowers are awakening. The best display is the wood anemonies that have carpeted whole sections of these ancient woodlands.
“We must learn to walk slowly, so that we have time to see; we must learn to tread quietly, so that we do not cause alarm; above all we must think peace.”
Robert Gibbings – Sweet Thames run softly 1940
The path to Hadleigh Castle is uphill but well worth the slog as the view always take you by surprise and is heart stirring. Without doubt this is the best view on the estuary. The sky is big with the river and marsh land below stretching out along the horizon. The sun’s rays pierce the clouds and gild the river. The marshland still showing evidence of the heavy winter rainfall with swollen ponds. Look carefully and the river’s long history is revealed.
From this vantage point invaders can be spotted from a long way. The remains of the ancient castle built in C13th a reminder of the strategic importance of high ground along the Thames’ banks. Built on unstable clay the signs of subsidy can still be detected on the ruins.
To the east Southend’s pier extends far into the sea. In the C19th this was a favourite destination for day trippers from London, well for East Enders and became known as “Whitechapel-on-Sea”. The bulk of the excurtionists, according to Dickens (1880), would be children brought by their parson or Sunday school teacher. Their journey would be a steamboat from Fenchurch Street costing two old pence.
Over to the south you can see the North Kent Coast. Not the “Garden of England” landscape you normally associate with Kent but a place of river fogs, atmospheric marshland described so well by Dickens in Great Expectations. It’s also a place with a manufacturing past; gunpowder, cement and paper.
A large skeletal pagoda dominates the riverscape to the east; LondonThames Gateway the new deep water port. It promises to restore London’s past glory as the centre of World Trade welcoming some of the biggest ships and creating new jobs in this part of Essex. Funded through investment from Dubai the project is set to de-stabalise industry in other parts of the country. The planned logistics park is dependent upon hauliers and distributors shifting their businesses from the Midlands. Felixstowe a deep water port on the East coast is set to lose out as is Thamesport. Readers may scratch their heads trying to remember the name Thamesport but back in the 1990s this was the new port on the block. It’s not visible from Hadleigh but on the Isle of Grain on the Kent side of the Thames. It’s so close it does make you question why another deep water port is needed.
Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames from Oxford to The Nore, 1880: An unconventional Handbook Issue 2
Margate is still waiting for the Bilbao effect to transform it to its former glory, but here and there are signs that the town is on the up – The Turner Contemporary, the old town and now The Royal Seabathing Hospital. (Previous post on Margate’s regeneration)
The old buildings which for so long were abandoned have had a face lift and repurposed into luxury seaside apartments.
Margate’s climate has much to do with its early success as a seaside town. This is how it was described in Ward Lock’s Illustrated Guide Books(1951):
“First among its natural assets is Margate’s unrivalled air, clear, invigorating and laden with ozone. All the winds except those from the south west blow as sea breezes, while the chalky soil absorbs moisture, so that the air has the same exhilarating effect as that of the Alps, intensified by the flavour of the sea.”
It was this reputation and an unquestionable belief in the curative properties of sea air that led to the foundation of The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital 1791. For two hundred years the hospital treated patients with tuberculosis and other diseases. The hospital closed in 1996 and photographs taken in 2005 can be found on Abandoned Britain.
The hospital was founded by John Coakley Lettsom a Quaker physician for London’s poor who would benefit from sun, sea and ozone. He was, however, lampooned:
“When my patients call on me,
I physic, bleed, and sweats ‘em;
Then if they choose to die,
Why, what care I, I Lettsom”.
The hospital was quite visionary and from the outset was designed with open arcased and verandas although it would be another century before open-air treatment for pulmonary TB was standard. Initially the hospital was only open during the summer months but in 1858 an indoor bath enabled the wards to be open all year round. Wards were only used for sleeping in during bad weather with beds more usually found on the verandah. Perhaps this is why London’s poor, not used to sleeping in the open air, questioned Dr Lettsom’s motivation.