History was made in Ansty on Wednesday night when the village crowned a ‘May King’ for the first time since records began.
ThisIsAlfred attended the celebrations and learned how this small community of 120 people, 6 miles east of Shaftesbury, is keeping its traditions alive by adapting them for the 21stcentury.
Anne Martin is relatively new to life in Ansty. Four years ago she fell in love with a house overlooking the pond that runs the length of this Cranborne Chase village. “We live right in the centre of the village, so we’re integral to what goes on in the village,” she said. And from her home, Anne can see the focal point – the maypole – which towers above the lane through Ansty.
“I guess this one must be about 40 feet,” said Anne. The previous version was even taller. “Our old one was something like 98 feet tall. It was twice the height of this. It was just about the tallest one in the country.”
This shorter pole was erected after the previous maypole collapsed during a gale in 1993. “I think they thought that, having such a tall maypole, it would blow down again, which wouldn’t be so great in such a ‘health and safety’ age. So they put in a lower one. But as you can see, even getting the ribbons on at that height is pretty dangerous.”
Anne explained that her husband attaches the ribbons that youngsters clutch and weave around the pole during their dancing. “He goes up a ladder. I hold the bottom and hope he doesn’t fall off. And he then attaches them all in a certain order. So it has to be blue, green, red, yellow going all the way around. He has them in a bag and hooks them on over the top,” explained Anne.
There was a time when nearly every village around Shaftesbury would have had a maypole, but perhaps not so tall. Traditionally, the Ansty structure was made of Wardour wood. The Puritans objected to the May Day dancing, which had its roots in pagan and fertility rituals, so they felled village maypoles across England.
Villager Mark acted as the Master of Ceremonies on Wednesday evening. By day he’s an archaeologist and he’s convinced that Ansty’s May Day event is the continuation of a much older village celebration.
“Ansty is mentioned in the Domesday Book and it was one of the hundreds that was recorded by William the Conqueror’s auditors. So we can guess that those pagan rites would have been carried on from that period. The pagan rite welcoming spring and beginning the sowing of the corn ready for the harvest in the autumn has just continued through time,” Mark said.
A significant part of this event’s history has been documented. “We have records of it going on for 400 years,” said Anne. There is an established order of proceedings but for this year, 2019, there has been an historic change to the evening.
“The procession of the dancers takes place first,” said Anne. “And then the Master of Ceremonies comes along and he crowns the May Queen. Then the May Queen is thrown in with the Morris Men. It’s a kind of fertility right. She dances with the Morris Men and comes of age,” she said, before announcing the big change.
“We have broken the tradition. We have got a May King. And this has created a bit of consternation amongst people who say, ‘how can this be a fertility rite?’ but we may have a gender neutral or gender fluid May Queen-King in the future,” smiled Anne.
Anne says that the move has been a talking point in Ansty. “It has been a bit controversial. George lives in the village. He’s been a dancer for about five years. He’s been one of the few boy dancers and he was very keen to perform the role, and the committee all endorsed it. So we just thought, let’s go for it.”
The May King was taking this momentous decision in his stride. “It’s been a long line of just queens, queens, queens. I think change is good, sometimes,” said George Morgan. It was the 11-year-old’s fifth May Day and he is well versed in the custom.
“For 400 years, one thing happened and now it’s just changed. No build up or anything,” George said. I reminded him that his name will be recorded in Ansty’s history. “Yes, it is overwhelming,” he said.
MC Mark had disappeared to dress. He returned wearing the traditional costume of a robe with a heavy fake fur collar and a top hat decorated with native bluebells and ivy. “I don’t know how old this costume is. We’ve been in the village for about 20 years and I’m the third person that I know of who has taken over this role. Maybe this is decades old,” Mark said.
Mark didn’t ask whether he could perform the Master of Ceremonies role. “I was ‘volun-told’, which is a good way of saying there was no one else. And of course I’m part of this community. My two daughters have both been May Queens in successive years so this is my chance to give back to Ansty,” said Mark.
And that’s why many of the people staffing stalls, marshalling and selling programmes with their attached raffle tickets were giving up their time. “We have 120 people in the village and we have a committee of about eight people that run the event,” said Anne.
Unlike many events, the Ansty Maypole celebration is just for fun and to maintain a local tradition. It is unconnected with a charitable cause. “We will eventually need to replace the maypole so we need to make sure we’ve got funds. But at the moment, we’re just doing it as a village event. We have to apply for a bar licence. We have to close the road. You have to have specific signs made and it costs us quite a bit of money to run an event like this. We have to engage the Morris men and a professional to train the dancers. Our costs are quite high,” said Anne.
By 5.15pm, the lane through the village was filling up with children, mums, dads, grandparents, villagers and visitors. The mood was vibrant. Anne says that the committee is not trying to increase numbers in the future. “Not really, because we’re such a small village. We’ve got one road, which has to be closed for the events to take place, and there’s no parking except in the surrounding villages. So we want to keep it as a fairly low key village type of event.”
At 5.30pm, the MC launched the proceedings with a shout and a ring of his hand bell. Shaftesbury folk musicians John and Margaret Cluett of Tattie Bogle accompanied the Maypole dancing by youngsters dressed in white. Later, the White Horse Morris jingled through the village. And the May King was crowned next to his attendants, standing on a hayrick next to the maypole.
The rain held off, the sun even shone for a while, and every seemed pleased. And for organiser Anne, it is the result she wanted. “I think you have to be very careful not to upset people in a small village. It’s nearly impossible. But that’s been my biggest challenge – trying to keep everyone happy,” said Anne.