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Making merry on May Day

PUBLISHED: 17:32 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 10:07 02 July 2010

Simon Parkin

May Day is the time when warmer weather begins and flowers and trees start to blossom. It is also traditionally a time when strange things customs take place. SIMON PARKIN looks at where to go.

May Day is the time when warmer weather begins and flowers and trees start to blossom. It is also traditionally a time of love, romance and when strange things customs take place. SIMON PARKIN looks at where you can go with all the family to see customs old and modern.

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“Tra la! It's May!

The lusty month of May!

That lovely month when everyone goes

Blissfully astray."

May is a time when people celebrate the coming of summer with lots of different customs that are expressions of joy and hope after a long winter. Come the sun and the British let their hair down.

When Guinevere sings about May in Lerner and Loewe's Camelot - as above - she could be singing the praises of ancient pagan festivals and traditions, celebrating the mating game, that continue to this day.

And over the years, May has become associated with all manner of strange customs - some old, some more modern - that are in truth a great excuse to let your hair down and celebrate the end of the dark days of winter.

MORRIS DANCING

The King's Morris, various venues, May 1/3. More details: 01553 768930, www.thekingsmorris.co.uk

King's Morris revived this old tradition in 1983 and it is a proper May Day, complete with a large garland of flowers, greenery and beads surrounding a doll, mounted on a May Pole and carried through the town accompanied by the blowing of ox horns.

For a view of the olde traditions you'll need to set your alarm clock though. Dancing The Dawn Up takes place at 5.15am at Knight's Hill Roundabout, South Wootan, King's Lynn. Thankfully its then repeated at the friendlier hour of 12pm as part of the King's Lynn May Garland Procession, starting at St Mary's Church. Then again at 2pm The Green Quay pub at South Quay, King's Lynn.

The King's Morris was formed in 1978. Like most modern Morris teams, they are a revival side, which is a team formed in a town that does not have a tradition of Morris dancing. The King's Morris perform jigs and dances mainly from the Cotswold 'traditions'.

The King's Morris perform in public from May until September and they will also be performing this Bank Holiday Monday. Catch the dancing Bircham Windmill, Bircham, at 11am, The Jolly Sailors, Brancaster Staithe, at 12pm, and The Hoste Arms, Burnham Market at 1pm.

CHEESE ROLLING

Stilton, Cambridgeshire, May 3, from 10.30am, www.stilton.org

While the famous Cooper's Hill cheese-rolling competition in Gloucestershire has been cancelled amid health and safety fears, the Cambridgeshire village of Stilton - birthplace of the king of cheeses - is still raring to go.

This annual knockout event attracts teams from as far afield as France, Poland and the US. Because real Stilton is rather smelly and ends up covered in grit, the teams of four instead roll wooden "cheeses" - actually sections of telegraph poles chopped up and painted white - down the high street for around 100 yards in a bid to win a 16lb Stilton and a tray of local beer.

Enter by 11am on the day for the separate men's, women's and junior contests - the £5 entry fee is waived if you come in fancy dress (this year's theme is "international dance").

MAY DAY FOOD FAIR

Gressenhall, Dereham, May 3, 10am-5pm, £8.10 (£6.90 cons), children (4-16) £5.80, 01362 860563, www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk

There is the chance to try Norfolk foods as well as learning, enjoying and participating in finding out more about local producers at the May Day Food Fair.

Food producers from all over Norfolk will be on hand to sell you their produce. There's a chance to make an eel trap, meet a local eel fisherman and try some of Gressenhall's very own special recipe gruel! If that does whet your appetite, you'll be able to watch a cookery demonstrations.

Alison Tebbit, museum, events co-ordinator, said: “We are a rural life museum, so it makes sense to add the farming element, and it is increasingly important that people make the connection between what we grow and what we have grown and what we eat. Food and farming have changed our landscape. It is really an appreciation of how what we grow is reflected in what is in our fridge.”

The day will include foraging sessions where visitors can see what edible items they can find in the Gressenhall grounds. Those not accustomed to searching for their food anywhere wilder than a supermarket aisle may be surprised what they can find - nettles, dandelions, mallow, chickweed, perhaps elderflowers and violets, all good to eat.

They will be led by Jacky Sutton-Adam, a forager and wild food expert who will be running a morning and afternoon foraging trip, with a lunchtime cookery demonstration in between.

She says: “I hope people will be surprised. I think the momentum and interest in eating wild plants is definitely growing year on year. But there still seems to be a leap between the passive knowledge that it is possible to eat these things and actually having the confidence to eat it yourself.”

There will be story telling and art and craft activities for the children as well as an opportunity to find out what food miles really mean for us all.

EEL THOWING

Ely, Cambridgeshire, May 1, 10.30am-4pm, 01353 662062

On May Day, the good folk of Ely hold an annual festival dedicated to the humble eel - that slipperiest of fish that gave the city its name.

Eel throwing is a sport dating back almost half a decade and is famed for its adherence to moral tradition, athletic showmanship, gallant competitors - and measuring how far people can throw, er, a bunch of socks!

Of course, live eels are not used - instead competitors are given socks rolled into some tights with rice in the end to weight it down. It's much like the popular village fete game of wellie-throwing.

Filled with activities for any age, the weekend starts with the Eel Procession at 10.30 am from Cross Green (next to Ely Cathedral) to the Jubilee Gardens. As well as tastings, folk music and a parade with Ellie the Eel - a giant rendering of the Anguilla anguilla, created by local schoolchildren, there is the opportunity to try your hand in the eel-throwing competition. Entry is open to all. More details: eastcambs.gov.uk/tourism; visiteastofengland.com

WORLD LAUGHTER DAY

The Forum, Norwich, May 2, 12pm, 01603 279252

Laugh in summertime. They say it's the best medicine and if so the healthiest people in Norfolk will be showing show tickled they are outside the Forum at this special free event to celebrate World Laughter Day. People will actually be laughing all over the globe at 12pm local time.

If you've never experienced Laughter For No Reason - as its known - this is the perfect introduction. Leading the hilarity will be Norfolk Laughter Club - no really - a group of people who gather regularly to get their chuckle muscles working.

Is it possible to laugh at nothing? Who knows. If the worst comes to the worst you'll always be able to laugh at others giving it a go. Pop along for an hour of May madness. For more details visit: www.norfolklaughterclub.vpweb.co.uk

DRAGON BOAT RACING

Oulton Broad, Lowestoft, May 9, 9am-6pm, 01780 470718, www.dragonboatfestivals.co.uk

Dragon boat racing is an ancient Chinese tradition but it is also the fastest growing water activity in Britain today - as well as the most fun.

Up to 10 people paddle each 30ft boat with a drummer at the front beating time and a helm at the tail steering a straight course. No previous experience is required, just plenty of team spirit.

The Dragon Boat Festival is open to everyone and over 50 teams are expected to battle it out over the 250m race course across Oulton Broad, watched by several thousand spectators.

After the spectacular success of last year's festival, the event has now raised more than £75,000 raised to date for East Anglia's Children's Hospices (EACH).

As well as the colourful and exciting races, a wide range of continuous bank-side entertainment including funfair, inflatable games, children's activities, food stalls and bar guarantee a fabulous day out for all the family.

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