I was born in a castle – a real castle with lots of history steeped into its walls and surroundings, and a mention in the Domesday Book. The castle is Hazlewood Castle near Tadcaster in Yorkshire. It was owned by barons and dukes for 900 years, and in 1461 a battle in the Wars of the Roses took place on the adjacent moor. It has priest holes and underground passages, and its own chapel. It is now a rather classy country hotel but it retains most of its original features.
Between 1939 and 1953 the castle was requisitioned as a maternity hospital and my mum was booked in to Hazlewood for my birth in September 1945. She left heavily blitzed London for Yorkshire and going north must have felt like going to a foreign land for her; she was a Londoner through and through.
Her stories about the castle as a maternity home included a description of the large Norman Hall as the lying-in ward, where the expectant mums stayed. Babies were born in a separate, adjacent room where Queen Victoria is supposed to have once stayed. It has a huge stone fireplace with ornate chimney breast and is now used as the room where weddings take place.
The Norman Hall used as the lying-in ward. The impressive birthing room
During the time that Hazlewood was used as a maternity home, over 2,500 babies were born there. I’ve made a couple of nostalgic visits which brought my mum’s stories to life. Especially moving was to stand in that grand room where I was born.
My dad travelled from London to see me as a new-born. The bus dropped him off at the end of the castle drive and he walked for what seemed nearly a mile between huge rhododendron bushes. When he arrived, the matron told all the ladies in the ward to smarten themselves up as the King had come to visit. Then in walked my dad! It was a story that used to come out at family gatherings, as did the fact that there were not enough cots for all the babies, so a bed was made for me in a large drawer.
I grew up with the photograph on the left in a frame on top of our piano. My mum told me it was my cousin Bertie, who was killed by a sniper along the Rhine, a month before WW2 ended. That’s pretty much all I knew for many years and I didn’t think much about it until I was contacted several years ago by a cousin, Bertie’s sister, who was asking for family stories as she was putting together a family tree.
I’d not seen her for years so I called her to pass on a few details for her project. We talked about the family, which for me was a treat because I’m an only child and very much the baby of the entire family; everyone was and is a lot older than me. I remembered Bertie’s photo and asked about him, and discovered the very dramatic true story of the experiences of this young man who I never knew. He was 23 when he was killed, and he is buried in Hanover War Cemetery.
Bertie was a member of “A” Company of the 8th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment ACC and he was parachuted into France as part of the D-Day operations on 6th June 1944. The weather was bad and the paras, dropping from the gliders which carried them, were blown off course from their target. Bertie, in a group of 40 paras, was found by 17 year old Gaston le Baron who was helping the resistance, and had gone into the marshes near the River Dives to search for the paras who he hoped would help liberate France. Continue reading
The May Day parade in our small town is always led by the same three characters: first comes the Marshal, mounted on a gleamingly groomed horse, followed by the Town Crier ringing a bell and calling “O-yez”. Behind him comes Jack-in-the-Green, a walking tree mounted on a wood and wire frame. It’s all very English.
Jack is my favourite character as he represents the pagan origins of May Day celebrations. I wonder, each year, what sort of shoes the person in Jack’s green costume might be wearing. This year the shoes were hardly visible. I spotted a flash of sensible brown leather. Maybe the days of the white trainers and socks, which in years past have provided chuckles of amusement for the watching crowd, are over.
The Green Man, who Jack-in-the-Green represents, is pagan but his image appears in Christian churches around the world.
I always look out for him when visiting a church or cathedral on my travels. He was sitting high up in the wooden beams of Bridlington Priory in Yorkshire, his face a carved roof boss.
These gentlemen cyclists were taking part in the recent Knutsford May Day parade which has a strong Victorian flavour as the Prince and Princess of Wales (later to become King Edward VI and Queen Alexandra) visited the town in 1887 when a special version of the festival was rolled out for them.
The local vintage cycling enthusiasts always dress up for the parade and ride their penny-farthings and boneshakers through the streets, often veering alarmingly close to the onlookers as they wobble along.
It becomes even more interesting when they reach the hill, as they have here. Some of them get off and walk if they’re riding bicyles with no brakes.
These smiling women are part of a Morris dancing team who took part in the traditional May Day parade in our small Cheshire town. They danced through the streets, accompanied by music played on a small accordion and a tin whistle, with a drum beating time. The ladies wear wooden clogs and hold wooden shuttles, which would have been used in the cotton mills in the north west. These are decorated with bells and ribbons.
Bells also feature in the costume worn by men Morris dancers but worn on their clogs. This group, also at the parade, have music to dance to and they carry small twisted ropes which they wave as part of the dance. The steps are heavy and noisy; stamping rhymically on the ground in time to the music, the dancers change places and make different formations and patterns as they weave around each other.
This group wear staw hats decorated with ribbons and flowers, and have been coming to our May Day parade for over 30 years. I couldn’t help noticing how some of the are now getting on a bit. There’s not been a big influx of new blood over the years, but it’s good that these grey-haired gentlemen are still able to enjoy this very English traditional form of dance and share it in the streets on a sunny day.
Morris dancing is thought to have been around since the mid 15th century. It’s traditional folk dancing associated with Maytime, the Maypole and the May queen. I’ve always understood that the stamping style of dance is meant to awaken the earth from its winter slumber and the small twised ropes held and waved by the dancers are symbolic of seeds being scattered on the ground. May Day has its origins in pagan festivals, the awakening of the earth and the Celtic festival of Beltane.