May a month of celebration

Harpham's holy well, dedicated to St John of Beverley.
Harpham's holy well, dedicated to St John of Beverley.

Written by Heather Elvidge

The countryside is greening rapidly. Butterflies and bees are about, swallows and sand martins are back on the coast – we’ve even had a taste of summer days.

“Going a-maying” involved all levels of society, including royalty.

April has been a most 
unusual month. It began cold and wet, then it became unusually dry. Temperatures, way above the norm, led headline writers to predict a summer heatwave. But folklore urges caution – if we’re to have a fine summer, April should really be wet.

Now, with May approaching, temperatures are dropping. We shouldn’t be surprised. Remember, “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out”, or, as an old Lincolnshire saying warns, “till the cuckoo picks up dirt”.

Yet May, with its nesting birds and lush growth, has always been a happy month. All those young leaves make us think of new beginnings. Our forebears must have felt this, too, because May was a month of celebration in countryside and town.

It began on the last day of April, May Eve, when young and old alike went out to gather leaves and flowers to decorate their houses. “Going a-maying” involved all levels of society, including royalty, and it was even supported by the church in medieval times. Cromwell’s Puritans prohibited it, yet maying made a comeback with Charles II and carried on into the 19th century, in spite of warnings about the moral dangers of being in the woods at night.

Birch, rowan, and all kinds of greenery are associated with May festivals, but the most significant is the hawthorn in flower. It’s even known as may. There are those who believe that no festivities should be held until the may blossom is out – they’ll have to wait a while yet.

Just before dawn on May Day women rushed to wash their faces in dew, which was thought good for the complexion. It was especially effective if gathered from the leaves of oak, ivy, or hawthorn, when it was believed to cure a variety of ailments.

Holy well

On May Day domestic wells were supposed to have special powers and the first person to draw “the cream o’ the well” on May morning was especially lucky. But England also had many holy wells that healed all year round. Around 200 have survived to this day and one of them is in the village of Harpham, between Driffield and Bridlington.

Harpham’s well is dedicated to St John of Beverley, a healer born in the village in the 7th century. After retiring as Bishop of York, John returned to the monastery he’d founded at Beverley, where he died in 721. In life John had helped the poor and disadvantaged; after death he was credited with miracles. His bones were later moved to a tomb in Beverley Minster.

In John’s home village, the spring became renowned for curing eye disorders and headaches. Unusually for a holy well it was also of benefit to animals - after being dosed with the water the most bad-tempered creatures could be led away, meek as lambs.

May 7 is St John’s feast day. On the nearest Tuesday, there’s a short service in Harpham’s church followed by a procession to the small, domed well house, where the railings are garlanded with fresh leaves and flowers.