by Ron Bolton
If you go down to the South West corner of England in the counties of Devon and Cornwall during the month of May you will find a very unusual custom being celebrated in some of the towns along its northern coastline.
They will be performing the ancient custom of Hobby Horse Festival, of which, the most popular one will be found in Minehead.
There are a number of theories as to the origin of the Minehead Hobby Horse. Some believe that it started in the days when the Viking marauders came to the northern coast of South West England and a seemingly weird Hobby Horse charged towards them causing them to beat a hasty retreat and put to sea in fright.
Another origin suggests that the Hobby Horse was the old King of May and is an ancient fertility rite especially as the Festival is held on the first of May.
There is also evidence that the Horse can be traced back as far as the 18th century while others say the festival began in the 15th century.
In other words, no one really knows its origin!
The present celebrations begin early on the morning of the first of May when the Hobby Horse sets off to go round the streets of Minehead.
But, what is this horse and what is so special about it?
The term Hobby Horse has many meanings. The children’s Rocking horse is a Hobby horse mounted on wooden rockers. Another form is found in the nursery rhyme Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross where the ‘Cock horse’ is also a Hobby horse. Some of you may remember the Stanley Holloway monologue about young Albert Ramsbottom who went to Blackpool ‘noted for fresh air and fun’, for a holiday. He had a stick with an ‘orses ‘ead ‘andle and was daft enough to poke it in the ear of Wallace the lion in Blackpool Zoo, which resulted in disastrous consequences for the boy.
I remember, as a young boy, making one by using my mother’s long-handled brush where the brush head was the horse’s head and the long handle was the horse’s body. We would stand astride
this and pretend to ride it like a horse while playing at cowboys and Indians or just chasing each other around the local streets.
However, the style of Hobby Horse found in the West country festivals is very different and is called a ‘Tourney horse.’
It is made from withy sticks (thin willow branches) lashed together with tarred cord in the shape of a boat with a dome shaped head and a tin painted face. A mast is made fast to the head and spliced to its back end with a cow’s tail stuck on to it. The whole frame, head and tail is covered with brightly coloured ribbons and draped to the ground, are sacks painted with coloured rings.
The ‘horse’ weighs about 50 Kilograms (one hundredweight in old money) and is carried by one man who dances to the sound of music from the accordions and drums. Just to confuse you, there are actually more than one type of Hobby Horse in Minehead. The first is the ‘Original Sailors Hobby Horse’ which is accompanied on its rounds by a drum which has a date inscribed in it
dating from the seventeenth century and traditionally comes out on the eve of May Day.
It then proceeds around the town to arrive at the White Cross Inn the next morning because legend has it that this was how far they chased some of the Viking invaders many years ago.
The Sailors’ Horse, with the traditional instruments of drummers and a squeezebox or accordion, wends its way around the town and then on to Dunster Castle and from there it then goes back to
Minehead while all along the way the attendants or crew members are collecting donations for charity.
They have an ingenious way of collecting money from the people watching the procession. The ‘victim’ is caught by two of the crew members and held by the front of the horse until they donate to the charity.
Sometimes, if the victim argues with the crew members, they are persuaded to dance for the crowd of onlookers. It is all done in a very good humoured way.
The festivities last until the third of May.
The other Minehead horse is called the ‘Town Horse’ and has its origin much later than the ‘Sailor’s Horse,’ allegedly first appearing in 1830. Actually, this ‘Horse’ begins its tour of the town on the morning of the first of May and is also a very colourful sight. The horse wanders around the town, urging people to give to the local charities in a similar way to the Sailor’s Hobby horse.
There have been several other Hobby Horse festivals in the South West of England, Padstow currently has one whose traditions have also been celebrated for many years. The Padstow horse is said to have begun in 1803 or possibly earlier. They also have two horses in the festival, the ‘Old’ one and the ‘Blue Ribbon’ horse.
In Padstow, the crew members are known as ‘teasers’ and their job is to follow the horse, which wears ‘a gruesome mask and a black framed cloak’ under which they try to capture the passers-by to
donate to their charities.
There are two other towns, Barnstaple and Coombe Martin, which have had similar festivals in the past.
So, if you are ever in that part of England at the beginning of the month of May, I’m sure you will be able to see and enjoy them in their full glorious splendour. But watch out that the Horse doesn’t get you.