Tradition in pole position at Barwick

Maypoles usually go with May Day. But not in one Yorkshire village.

There's something missing in Barwick in Elmet at the moment. Word has it some lads from Aberford could have it, or could it be those boys from Garforth?

But don't worry, this isn't a story of rural theft or burglary. If you are a regular traveller through the village you will know that Barwick has its very own place in northern folklore for having what is considered to be the largest maypole in England.

But in recent weeks it hasn't been seen, and that's for a very good reason. It's that time again when the 90ft pole disappears in order to be made good for the triennial "raising of the maypole". The stripes are being repainted, new garlands are being made and the village is preparing for another huge day out, with sightseers visiting from miles around.

The first record of a maypole in Barwick is in a poem by local writer Edward Burland in 1829 which refers to the theft of the maypole by the men of Garforth. In more recent times, the men of Aberford have been known to "steal" the maypole between "lowering" and raising days.

Nigel Trotter is chairman of the Barwick in Elmet Maypole Trust and will be at the helm for the second time when the maypole is raised on Spring Bank Holiday Monday, May 26. He remembers with great fondness the days when the maypole was raised by a combination of ropes, ladders and a hundred or so villagers, but, due to health and safety measures and heavy insurance premiums the old spectacle has had to be replaced in the new millennium.

"The former Maypole Committee had done an absolutely splendid job over many years in keeping up the tradition," he says.

"The maypole was taken down on Easter Tuesday and put back up again on Spring Bank Holiday Tuesday every third year.

"The whole event had been kept in exactly the same way using ropes and ladders, but unfortunately modern times crept up and health and safety requirements meant that the action itself was not viewed as being safe."

The insurance companies were very concerned and, following the cancellation of the 2002 event on health and safety grounds, there were a series of meetings to discuss what should be done, and that's when Nigel put his cap into the ring.

Now a Barwicker of a mere 42 years (so nearly a proper villager, he says), he saw a way in which tradition could be preserved.

"The traditional way was that the pole was carried down from Hall Tower Field (where the medieval motte and bailey castle once stood) by the villagers and fitted into the socket in the natural limestone in the centre of the village.

"The end was put into the hole and the pole itself was then lifted into position via a combination of ladders, ropes and lots of people pulling and pushing.

"Soil was also rammed in and as soon as everybody was happy they retired to the village's three local hostelries, The Gascoigne, Black Swan and New Inn. The way in which we changed was to still have it carried down by the villagers – but use a crane to lift it up and put it in the hole.

"We continue to have ropes on it to steady it and line it up to a true vertical though and there's the compacting of the soil that takes a good half an hour to threequarters.

"We moved the raising of the maypole to 11 in the morning rather than 6.30 in the evening. The children then maypole dance in the field in the afternoon and bring the brightly coloured garlands and fasten them on to the pole.

"Traditionally what happens next is that a climber, a young man who has lived in the village all of his life, shins up the pole. His first job is to unfasten the ropes. He then climbs to the top of the 90ft pole, or as far as he can get, and reaches out to spin the fox, which is both Barwick's emblem and a weather vane."

This year's climber is Stephen Ward, a young villager. "He's been in training, in fact so much so that we've hardly seem him over the past few weeks because he's doing nothing else but train. Word has it he's going around the area climbing trees and now has a small maypole at his house."

Nigel believes that more than 3,000 people attended the 2005 raising. "Other villages who also have maypoles don't seem to command the same attention as us. Perhaps that's because ours is one of the tallest, if not the tallest, in the county."

There are those who believe that May Day is the real day for maypole celebrations, so why is it different in Barwick? "The whole country seems to expect to be dancing around maypoles on May Day but here we do it at Whitsuntide. It's really the rest of the country that's out of step with Yorkshire you know."