When I was a student at St Andrews University there were various optional ancient traditions one of which was swimming in the freezing North Sea on May 1st. Curiously enough, whilst it was not then a preferred pastime, I do now rather enjoy swimming in colder waters. It is very invigorating especially within sight of a warm bath afterwards.
May Day remains a bank holiday in many countries for any number of differing historical reasons. In England it has a long and varied justification from dancing around maypoles (banished by Thomas Cromwell and then reinstated by Charles II in about 1660), to celebrating the union of England and Scotland in 1707 and finally becoming Labour day in the 20th century. In northern Europe it was Walpurgis Day and in Southern Europe it is all about flowers and love.
Whatever else, May Day heralded a busy month at Highclere, withthe joy of the gardens and explosion of all flowers (weeds included) to events within and around the Castle. We moved from our Newbury Spring Festival concert to Jane Austen and a fun week of talks and tours around the books and legacy of this remarkable author. Paula Byrne gave some great lectures, which I much enjoyed, whilst my friends Kate Felsus and Laura Mayer entertained everyone again. We welcomed Annalie Talent, Hazel Jones and Phil Howe who walked us around Jane Austen’s world though roads, landscapes and houses. The pianist Lisa Tims and friends joined us in the Saloon to play Jane Austen’s music on a Broadwood piano. Dressed appropriately from 1800, the trio sang and read. It was very memorable and extraordinarily peaceful, listening to the singing.
That week ended with my husband running 10km for a homeless charity in Reading which is a town about 20 miles from Highclere. We have supported Launchpad for a number of years. It helps, houses, mentors and supports people who have slid off the grid for whatever reason and who need a hand to help them restart their lives.
The end of May was focused on the Highclere country fair, which has taken place here for about 15 years on the Whitsun (or Spring as it is now called) bank holiday. An enormous number of people attend which involves traffic strategies, set up plans, camp sites and a never ending stream of signage. The Castle radios are alive as John, Robert, Pat, and Lee and his team make sure everything goes smoothly.Meanwhile in the gardens, Paul and his team fought hard to stay on top of the work and not call out “Mayday” for help as they try to get round the borders, lawns and woodlands. The haha needed strimming, whilst the park verges needed John on his tractor to cut them back.
Some of the sheep and all of the horses were moved out of the way to somewhere safe where they wouldn’t be distressed by all the hubbub. This year Sheila, my pet sheep, was almost left behind. Seeing the ponies led off, she set up a racket and then, having been let out so that she could follow along, took off at high speed until she caught up. A 15 years old sheep at full gallop is quite a sight and a testimony to her sprightliness. To add to her irritation we then decided to take the opportunity to shear her as well which she finds most undignified, and perhaps her own “mayday”!