Living in an area that other people escape to, I usually keep a low profile during holiday weekends. So I spent most of the Mayday weekend engaged in private devotions in quiet places that few visitors, or even locals, are likely to frequent. I was rewarded by seeing a dipper on Afon Eleri and a hare loping across the field at the woodland edge, neither of which have I seen in these locations before although I go there often. By Bank Holiday Monday I was ready to face the crowds and we set off for a scenic drive across the Clun Forest area of Mid Wales for the small town (or rather large village) of Clun (an early Welsh word meaning ‘meadow’) just across the border in Shropshire. Every Mayday weekend they hold the Green Man Festival here which culminates on Monday with the May Fair. This is an official event with the town closed off for the procession of the Green Man to the fair ground in the precincts of the ruined medieval castle. The whole thing is something like a cross between a village fete, a pagan festival and an historical re-enactment. The Green Man comes down the hill to the old bridge over the river followed by a host of attendants and morris-style dancers. On the bridge he is met by the Frost Queen and her attendants. After some argy-bargy between them, the Green Man defeats the Frost Queen and the May Queen then appears, to be escorted by the Green Man to the castle grounds where they do the rounds and pose for photos.
The offerings of the fair stalls range from genuine crafts like wood-turning to trinkets and beads, pagan stuff and some organisations like the Historic Churches Trust. Among those in the crowd are pagans in their robes and neo-hippies in velvet cloaks who seem to have travelled to the town for the festival, but also plenty of locals including ‘county set’ types in check shirts and Barbour coats. The varied clientele is reflected in the refreshments available from the beer tent to a burger van, a place with sizzling organic sausages to a veggie curry cafe. In the events area characters in medieval armour re-enact tournaments and alternate with fire-dancing and a well practised group of young girls dancing around the maypole and exactly twining the ribbons in proper fashion.
So is this a pagan festival, a bit of rural fun or simply an event to boost tourism? Well, a bit of each, but certainly a good day out without being too hyped or over-commercialised. As for the pagan content, I would question the ‘theology’ of a conflict between the Green Man and the Frost Queen in May (or at any other time) and there seems to be more than a hint of Narnia here. It’s as if Imbolc and Beltane had been brought together in one festival and the role of the May Queen made wholly passive. But that’s because, if I were constructing such a scenario, it would be her festival and the Green Man would come into his own at Midsummer.
How far should one be a pagan purist about such things? Or about the age of the girls dancing around the maypole? Or the association with historical re-enactment? Probably not at all. There was nothing out of place here that might not have been duplicated at a ‘genuine’ pagan or druid camp. And the fact that this happens without such pretensions as an annual event of public entertainment does at least appear to put pagan themes in the mainstream of community life rather than hidden from view in private ceremonies. So I would reason. But instinctively I’ll return to my quiet places among the trees where such questions do not arise when the river whispers to me of the things she knows.