There are only two towns left in Britain which still celebrate the beginning of summer with the appearance of hobby horses – Padstow, in Cornwall, and Minehead, in Somerset.
Both towns claim they came up with the idea first, and the other copied it – but I’m going to concentrate on the Minehead tradition here, as I grew up in the area (and we did get there first…).
Three days from now, the three hobby horses of Minehead – the Original Sailors’ Horse, the Traditional Sailors’ Horse, and the Town Horse – will come out on May Day Eve, or Warning Night, and spend the next three days welcoming in the May by dancing through the streets of the town and surrounding villages.
The three horses are broadly similar in appearance – a boat-shaped frame, covered in horsecloth, is decorated with ribbons and painted circles, and has a long, rope tail, and the dancer inside wears a tall hat and mask. He was once accompanied by two masked figures known as Gullivers, who used whips and tongs to persuade people to give money – needless to say that these days folk are encouraged to give to the various local good causes associated with the hobby horses of their own volition, and the Gullivers have long since disappeared (they are alleged to have possibly killed a man back in the 1800’s…).
The music that accompanies the horses’ dancing consists of traditional tunes such as Soldier’s Joy and Joe, the Boat is Tipping Over, played on the accordion, with thunderous tenor drums keeping the rhythm.
The origins of the hobby horse in Minehead date back to at least 1792 (the earliest written record), and, according to legend, much earlier than that – to the Viking invasions of the Eighth and Ninth Centuries, when it was used to scare away some (clearly pretty gullible) Danish marauders. Another possibility is that Minehead sailors brought the idea back from Africa – the horse’s mask bears a striking resemblance to some traditional African masks.
So if you happen to find yourself in the Minehead area around the beginning of May, keep an eye out for the horse – in one of its incarnations – but remember not to get in its way, or you might get a booting (bound up with the horse’s tail, and struck – lightly! – ten times with a boot)…