Castleton Garland Day - a centuries-old Peak District tradition

PUBLISHED: 11:15 11 August 2016 | UPDATED: 11:15 11 August 2016

The garland is carried to the host pub

The garland is carried to the host pub

as submitted

Andrew Griffiths experiences a Derbyshire tradition on a day trip to Castleton

The King, Jonathan Haddock, enjoying a well-deserved pint - Jonathan has been elected King by the Garland Committee for the last 13 yearsThe King, Jonathan Haddock, enjoying a well-deserved pint - Jonathan has been elected King by the Garland Committee for the last 13 years

Castleton village lies in the valley of Hope. The fruit of its puns hang so low it is almost embarrassing to pluck them. I’ll do my best to resist, but I say that more in hope than expectation. Sorry.

Castleton is at the foot of Mam Tor, which is also known as ‘the shivering mountain’. ‘Shivering’ here is used as a euphemism for landslides, and where a rock surface sits on a layer of shale this tends to happen quite often. This is border country in many senses of the word, where the mercurial gritstone of the Dark Peak meets the pastoral limestone of the White. Nothing lasts forever here, ask anyone who once used the A625 Sheffield to Chapel-en-le-Frith, a road which was permanently lost to one particularly sudden shiver of the volatile Mam.

But landslips and disappearing trunk roads aside, Castleton has much to thank its border geology for. If it wasn’t for the primordial soup that bubbled up during the Carboniferous period, and the resulting fluorite that crystallised out, then the village high street would be left largely twiddling its thumbs, devoid of the Blue John gems as it would be. For the semi-precious mineral Blue John is unique to this very narrow geological region. The worked stone forms the staple fare of the shops here, and one gets the feeling that successive generations of Castleton dwellers have many reasons to thank the ground on which they walk – or rather what lies beneath it, for lead too has contributed a big part of their region’s wealth.

All this mining activity going back to Roman times and geological happenchance has created an underworld worthy of exploration. It is for its spectacular show caves that Castleton is famous, as lines of schoolchildren repeat the slightly risqué incantation of: ‘mites go up, tites come down’ as they take their first fumblings into the lexicon of geology. Like Hope itself, it is a rich seam.

Dancing between The Castle and The Bull's HeadDancing between The Castle and The Bull's Head

But for one day a year, Castleton’s claim to fame comes up blinking from the dark recesses of its landscape and seeks its time in the sun. That day is Garland Day.

At its simplest, Garland Day is a flower ceremony. Nothing unusual there in the Peak District, well dressings are so numerous in the towns and villages that visiting them all could keep a sufficiently resilient tourist busy all summer long. And jolly pretty they look too, with their pastoral representations picked out in petals as they are. Ask anybody what they represent, and they will sigh something about Celtic fertility rites, tap the side of their nose in warning not to tell the local vicar, then give you a far away look of ancient wisdom that discourages further enquiry.

But the origins of most of these ceremonies can be found without wandering too far off the beaten track when feeling your way back through those ‘mists of time’. While Celtic fertility ceremonies may be at their root, most are a distinctly modern incarnation, started in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But Castleton’s Garland Day is different to your run-of-the-mill flower festival. Its pedigree is a strong one. It can be traced back to 1660, and its origins before that stretch back, er, far into the mists of time. But here are the facts, the bare bones of the itinerary for the day.

Lowering the Garland onto the King before the processionLowering the Garland onto the King before the procession

Garland Day falls on the 29th May, unless that happens to be a Sunday, in which case it is moved to the day before or after. This year the 29th did happen to be a Sunday, so it was held on the Bank Holiday Monday. The local church tower of St Edmunds has its pinnacles decorated with oak leaves in preparation.

The Garland itself is a huge, bell-shaped affair, built on a wooden frame and covered in flowers. This is made during the afternoon of the ceremony. Early in the evening it is carried to a ‘host’ pub, where it is joined by the Garland ‘King’, on horseback and dressed in Stuart costume.

He is accompanied by his consort (never referred to as a queen) and the huge flowery bell is lowered over his head and shoulders until on horseback his upper body is completely subsumed. Then a procession forms of the Castleton Silver Band, followed by children from the local schools all dressed in white and wearing their own floral garlands, and carrying a ‘garland stick’ – a miniature maypole with red, white and blue ribbons. The band play ‘The Garland Tune’, the children dance, and the whole procession starts on a pub crawl around the village’s six pubs, doing a little dance outside each before moving on to the next and ending up at the church. Once here, the 60lb garland is hoisted off the by-now-greatly-relieved King’s shoulders, winched to the top of the tower, and given pride of place beside the oak leaves on one of the church pinnacles. Then it is off to the village war memorial where a smaller garland is laid, ‘Abide with me’ sung and the ‘Last Post’ and National Anthem played. Following this solemn interlude it is back to the pub, where much merriment is had. Have you ever seen The Wicker Man? Then you are getting the idea. Needless to say, this ceremony is unique to Castleton.

To unpick the day’s events is to try to make sense of a particularly messy tangle of British social history through the millennia. Ostensibly it is an Oak Apple Day festival, to celebrate the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. May 29th was a public holiday in England until 1859. The oak leaf became a Royalist symbol after Charles II hid in an oak tree to escape the Roundheads after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. There are still a few Oak Apple celebrations around the country organised by Stuart die-hards today, and there was a time when to wave a sprig of oak was as proud and provocative an act as to wave a royalist flag.

93-year-old Rosamond Beverley of Castleton watching the procession93-year-old Rosamond Beverley of Castleton watching the procession

This explains the Stuart costume of Castleton’s Garland King and Consort, and all the oak leaves scattered around the village, but it is a bit of a leap from that to the full-on bell of flowers. To explain this, we have to turn to the English tendency when faced with change to tweak, assimilate, make something new then call it tradition, and carry on as though it has been going on like this for generations.

Here in Castleton you can take your pick from some or all of the following influences: pre-Christian flower ceremonies, Green Man theories, Jack in the Green figures, and early pagan fertility rites that stretch back, er, far into the mists of time. (Castleton does have its very own Celtic Head, a full-lipped Brigantia, the goddess of fertility, which was found in a garden wall near the local Russet Well in the 1970s. It dates from 1000 BC.)

Deciding to attend this year’s event, I headed for Castleton on Spring Bank Holiday. The road turns sharply in Castleton as it heads for the main street, the bend is almost a right angle. Just round the corner is the village school. The small schoolyard is raised and as the procession began there were a few people standing around behind the railings, left over from making the children’s garlands during the afternoon.

I asked if they’d let me in as the elevated position would be good for taking photos as the participants passed. Some in the crowd had taken the opportunity to liberate the pagan within, and cock a snook at monotheism by the wearing of a splendid hat. One in particular caught my attention – an artful explosion of flowers and pheasant tail feathers. It was like Ascot for hippies.

Purely by chance in that tiny schoolyard I found myself standing next to one Rosamond Beverley, who is 93 years old and born and bred in Castleton. It turned out she was no stranger to that schoolyard and that she had danced in the Garland Day parade as a young girl in the 1930s. She can remember when the last male played the King’s consort, when the ceremony was an altogether darker affair and the king and his consort were more like trickster figures. Tommy Liversage his name was, and quite a character by all accounts. His veil was made out of an old net curtain, Rosamond recalled. The consort only began to be played by a woman in the 1950s, and soon after, boys were allowed to dance in the parade too. Again the Garland Day evolved, bending in its own way to a society that was changing around it.

I watched the parade over Rosamond’s shoulder and as it rounded the corner with the young girls dancing in their white dresses, I slipped into journalist mode: ‘How does watching this now make you feel?’ I asked Rosamond.

‘I get a bit emotional,’ she said. ‘Especially when we get to the War Memorial, because I always feel when they are playing the “Last Post” and “Abide With Me”, that it somehow brings together people who lived here years ago and the people who live here now.’

Rosamond can trace her family back in the area to the 1700s. Like many Peak District villages, Castleton is very different now to how it was when she was a little girl, dancing in the parade. But despite all the changes, Garland Day weaves through time like a thread, holding it all together, people old and new, as they adapt to it and the day changes and moulds back to them and a changing society around it. It stands as a beacon to our ultimate adaptability and flexibility as a culture, not to mention our slightly mad Englishness. And whatever that ‘Englishness’ may be, long may it continue.

Latest from the Derbyshire Life and Countryside