In a few days time, the Original Sailor’s Hobby Horse will grace us with its annual presence. An old Minehead story and tradition, there remains much speculation as to its origins. In an 1863 edition, the West Somerset Free Press observed it, “… to be in commemoration of the wreck of a vessel at Minehead in remote times, or the advent of a sort of phantom ship which entered the harbour without captain or crew.” Or perhaps it remembers the time when Viking raiders were scared away from these shores over a thousand years ago …
Which story do you like? My personal favourite comes from an ancient tradition of Cornish storytelling and if you love Minehead you may see why …
Once a long time ago, way back in 1345 some Cornish fishermen were caught up in a terrible storm far away from home. Without keels to help them the sailors managed to battle in their coracles, up the Severn Sea until they came to shelter in the ley of a great hill.
Some local fishermen saw the Cornish crew in difficulty and rushed down to the shore. They pulled the little crafts high up the pebble beach and helped the exhausted sailors into their houses where they were fed and dried.
“Where are we” they asked, “You’r in Mynehedd in the county of Somersetshire” was the reply. ”And you are welcome to stay here until the storm abates”
The following day (being the last in April) the Cornish sailors were invited to join the start of the May Day celebrations. They watched as an old coracle; (more elongated than the Cornish crafts) was overturned, sacking was attached to the sides and then a horse’s head added over a hole made in the middle. Circles were painted on it’s sides in honour of the trout, known to bring riches to fishermen. A man then carried the horse-being on his shoulders (for horse it was supposed to be) while his own head was covered by the horse’s in the centre of the creation.
The horse complete, a drum and several more instruments came forth from the dark corners of the house and the music began to play. At once the horse sprang to life and danced out into the street. Regardless of the wind and rain the merry band continued on their way warning all that tomorrow was May and it was time to prepare for the festival in earnest.
For three days the Cornish sailors joined the merry throng of Mynehedd folk. With smiles on their faces and laughter in their hearts, they who had nearly perished at sea followed the horse from house to house dancing from street to street whilst gathering largess from rich and poor. And at the end of each night they all staggered back to bed worse for their heavy heads but thoroughly content.
Vivid memories held dear to the Cornish storyteller included highlights such as the dawn visit up to White Cross where the Sun was praised and bowed to three times. There was the visit to Dunster Castle where they were treated right royally and of course the last ‘bootie night’ at the top of Cher where a public fertility ceremony was performed over young maidens of the town.
Finally the ferocious winds abated and the Cornish fishermen were able to launch their boats once more and with enough provisions to see them home they said goodbye and set off.
Eventually they came into harbour at Padstow where there was much rejoicing at the miraculous return of the men feared lost in the terrible storm. The sailors regaled their families with stories of adventure, the big hearted hospitality of their fellow fishermen of Mynehedd and of course the feasting and drinking at the May Day festival with the Sailors Horse and townsfolk.
And perhaps what you didn’t know (unless you’ve heard this story before) those Cornish sailors remembered Mynehedd well for they vowed the very next May Day (and the ones after that) to commemorate their deliverance and the generous hospitality of those Somersetshire fishermen. They made their own horse from their own coracle and took it dancing through the Padstow streets, collecting thanksgiving gifts of drink and food to be consumed in memory of the kind hearted folk of Mynehedd.
And there so ends my tale.
Does it answer to the Hobby Horse’s origins? Possibly not, yet like many old stories and traditions the meaning can change with the times. Personally I see this colourful May Day ritual as a rousing rampant reminder to appreciate life and be generous to others. So put on your May Day shoes and join the fun of the May Day dance!