Entering the streets of the white-washed town at noon, except for gay buntings across the street, one would have believed it was a city of the dead. The fact was that the people were taking their meal, preparatory to a long afternoon’s pastime. But by and by, first from one alley, and then another, I saw little white-robed girls, whose red and white and blue stockings were matched by red and white and blue sashes and shoulder knots. They were evidently bent on some central rendezvous; they were, I heard, the Maypole dancers. (p. 54)
And the sun shone out upon their rippling heads of hair, and turned them into gold, as first one and then another passed me with smiling face toward what was called the Parish Room. Then a horn was heard, and a spanking coach-and-four passed by. That was the chariot for the little white Maypole maidens. After, came a milkman’s cart laden with tiles and material, but resplendent in paint—blue and red—and with a horse that looked as if it had come out of a Flemish picture, its mane and tail gaily be-ribanded. Then dashed by an open barouche with gay postillion, then another coach. Now the Keswick Market Place was filling fast, and countless men with favours in their buttonholes ran hither and thither, shouting from a programme the places that the various May procession coaches and carriages were to take up. (pp. 54-5)
Presently I heard the skirl of the bagpipes, and in full tartan trim twelve little Cameron Highlanders, who, as I heard, had come from over the Border that morning to play the May Queen round the town, marched out of the hostel near, and I followed. Who could help following to such music? We soon found that they were marching off to bring Her gracious Majesty into the town that she might lead the procession. (p. 55)
Presently it seemed as if the end of the street was blocked with a great barrier of flowers and happy, innocent child-faces. That was the triumphal car that I had seen earlier in the morning, but now with its full complement of May-day youth and jollity. (p. 56)
Twelve little children, veritable Maid Marians, were dressed in grass-green sateen, with pretty mob-caps of muslin and grass-green on their tiny heads, and wreaths of wild wood-flowers over their shoulders, stood up behind the mossy barricades of the lorry’s rail, and held in their baby hands the red and white and blue streamers of the central Maypole. In front of the Maypole, high lifted on her throne, sat, in exquisite simplicity, and clad in spotless white, a fair child. On her head a wreath of lilies of the Vale and pear blossom; on her frock more wreaths of white spring flowers; and in her hand a white sceptre, whose head was neither of silver nor of gold of man’s making, but of pure silver and gold of God’s sweet springtide’s gift, the arum white with yellow tongue. Down from this giant lily’s lucent sceptre-head streamed a streamer of white satin, with which it had been twined to the staff. And there in simple beauty sat the children’s Queen; a personification of all things bright and beautiful, innocent and gay—May Day in very truth incarnate. (pp. 56-57)
Then the goodliest horse that ever bore behind him such a Car of Triumph moved forward, the cherry and rhododendron flowers winking at his ears. The bare-kneed kilted laddies piped a Highland march, and old faces came to upper windows and gazed wistfully, and young faces ran to the doors and tiny tots clapped hands to welcome the May Queen. And so with much sound and martial music Her Majesty entered the market place and took up a central position. “Hats off,” cried a parson, who walked beside the car, and a fine burly Cumbrian yeoman farmer, bearded like a Viking chieftain, rose up on the front of the car, and in stentorian tones read the May Queen’s proclamation. It was perhaps a bit comical in its childish language, but it had an honest intent behind it, and its commands were much to the point. (p. 57)….
Scarce had his voice died away, when the verse of the National Anthem was struck up, and at its close three cheers were called for and given heartily for the little Queen Klina, and then the Car of Triumph passed, with the pipers playing a Highland reel, away to the head of the cavalcade, and the procession began. (p. 59)….
The Maypole caught in the budding lime, and sent showers of pink glumes and delicate shells upon the little fairies in attendance. But on they went; and again the windows were filled with aged faces, and again little tots cried from the doorways. And so, with much pomp and circumstance, into the royal park they call the Fitz, the Queen brought home the May. (p. 62)….
The Car of Triumph makes stately progress towards the platform where the skippers are to put their skill to proof. Already hundreds of spectators are lounging on the sloping bank beneath the oaken grove that overlooks the place. The platform has been raised three feet from the ground, and has been securely fenced in, leaving a green lane all about wherein the pipers are to play, and the fiddlers to fiddle, and the judges to judge. (p. 64)
From the middle of this platform, some twenty-four feet square, rises a lofty Maypole with a garland at its top and riband steamers of red, white, and blue, each with a ring at the end for the Maypole dancers to hold them by. The May Queen takes up her position, and the skippers begin to skip. (p. 64)
The girls have been chosen for their proficiency, ascertained at previous trials from all the schools in the parish. Two ladies are told off to note the skipping of each pair of little feet. And soon a dozen little girls are dancing up and down in serious and most earnest silence. There is a child who, after skipping one thousand two hundred and three times in “Plain” skipping, is stopped by order of the judges, or she would have been skipping now. Here is a child who wins at what is called “Double-you-under,” by skipping fifty times over the rope which is twice whistled overhead, and is whisked twice under her little feet whilst the little feet are in the air. Then another child solemnly counts A, B, C, and lets her feet, with each letter, fall over the rope, and is in attitude of one who, though stationary, steps at quick-step, and constantly allows the rope unimpeded to flash above her head and under her heels. She counts the alphabet through thirty-five times before she fails in her task; whilst a fourth girl crosses her hands each time in front of her body, and skips through the loop that is thus made in her skipping-rope two hundred and twelve times without a miss; and a fifth child throws the rope to each side of her alternately, and alternately skips over it—“Wind-the-Clock,” so the skippers call it—for four hundred and forty times before she gives up her task. (p. 65)
Then there is a pause. The skippers give up the platform to the little white-frocked company of children chosen to dance a real old-fashioned Maypole dance, not for prowess, nor for grace, nor only for a pretty face, but just because they are the good little twelve who have attended school most regularly during the year. And the crowd gathers and grows about the platform, and the fiddlers three strike up a merry polka, and, at the signal from their teacher—a low whistle—away, with laughter in their faces and song on their lips, and a sure sense of time in their feet, go the “Merry little maidens bringing in the May,” each of them holding in her hands the Maypole riband that accords with the colour of her sash. The colours twist themselves in magic way to magic pattern on the Maypole as the children sing and dance around, and as soon as they have, as it were, twisted themselves up together, and twined the ribands from top to bottom, the whistle sounds, and then away they dance in reverse order, and untwine the ribands on the Maypole, to twist upon it another pattern by some new evolution in their dance. (pp. 65-66)….
But the fiddlers fiddled, and the dancers went about the Maypole till all their figures had been danced through and the ribands had been criss-crossed to every imaginable tartan pattern, and the last verse of the Keswick May-song had been sung. Then to the applause of the multitude the little maidens left their ribands to the wind and the platform to the skippers. For Her Majesty must give the prizes, and the skippers must be called to the edge of the platform, thence be lifted to the ground, thence lifted to the car, there to receive their silver thimble or their needle-case, or case of scissors, or writing-pad, or pen and pencil from the hands of their most sovereign lady the Queen. (p. 69)
Nor was this the least interesting part of the ceremony, for the children clapped and the crowd hurrahed, and the little Queen was solemn and sweet, and the skippers were made right glad and the skippers’ mothers were made right proud. (p.69)
The boys’ sports were all this while going forward vigorously in a ring hard by. Such honest wrestling, such fierce racing was surely never seen. Men sometimes, as the language of the ring has it, lay down to one another by agreement pre-arranged, but the boys who wrestled in honour of the May in the Fitz Park, wrestled hard till they were fairly thrown. For was not the Queen of the May to give away the prizes? Was not that an honour for which, till legs gave way, it was worth the tussle? (pp. 69-70)
Hark! there is surely the screel of the pipes again, and sure enough the brave little Cameron pipers have thrown their bannered pipes over their shoulders, drone and chanter are again at work, and the bonnets with the black cock feather are seen moving round the Maypole ring, while the people stare at a Scottish reel, a true Highland fling, executed admirably by four of the laddies. How the kilts swayed, how the green diamonds on their stockings and blue bows of riband at the knee glanced, how their red waistcoats flashed, how their bonnets dipped and danced as the braw quartette went through their figures before the astonished people, and how tumultuously screeled the pipes as they walked around the dancers’ platform. (p. 70)
Now at last the dance is over, and whilst many move to another part of the field to witness the hurdle-leaping by the horses, others pass off in the direction of the town or railway station. For the May Queen’s car is seen to be rolling from the field, and the spanking coach, with its white-frocked Maypole-dancers and the red-postillioned carriage, with some of the skippers sitting in state therein, are making for the Fitz Park Gate. Even Her Majesty must eat, and to-day part of her royal care is to see that the dancers and skippers, all and several, shall partake of the good Queen Mother’s bounty, and take tea with her own most queenly self. (pp. 70-71)….
And now the westering sun fills the heaven over Bassenthwaite with gold. Helvellyn lies an unbroken length of half-veiled, half-lustrous light. Skiddaw gleams like “the flashing of a shield.” The rooks come cawing over towards the Great Wood merrily. The thrush sings as lustily as he sang in the morn, but he sings now the May-day evening hymn. The games are ended, the Fitz Park is empty, the mist steals up from the river, and the scent from the sycamore fills the air. A great yellow moon rises above Bleaberry. The Maypole stands like a ghost upon its white deserted platform, but the thrush still sings as he once sang on a May Day to Wordsworth in the Newlands Valley. (p. 72)
(Life and Nature at the English Lakes, pp. 43-72)