I don’t think there is any town more proud of its May Day than Knutsford, and rightly so. It has been a tradition in the town since 1864 when the Vicar of Knutsford at the time, Rev. Robert Clowes set it up. The ‘Royal’ part came about 23 years later when the title was bestowed upon it by the Prince and Princess of Wales, TRH Edward and Alexandra, who would become King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra further down the line. They visited the celebrations in 1887 which was the Golden Jubilee year of Edward’s mother and one of England’s most well-known monarchs, Queen Victoria.
The town of Knutsford itself is very historic, and the Knutsford Royal May Day festivities are no different, being steeped in heritage and tradition. One that is unique to Knutsford is the act of ‘sanding’. This is not an exercise in carpentry, but a creative yet fleeing way of celebrating May Day. On the morning of the celebrations, the women of the Gilbert family take to the streets and lay down brightly coloured sand into sentences and patterns. Obviously, they don’t last long when the thousands of spectators trample all over them but get out early enough and you’ll see them. The practice of sanding apparently dates back to the times of King Canute (or Cnut, you choose) and started life as a wedding tradition before migrating to May Day.
Canute the Great was King of England from 1017 to 1035 and is, according to the tale, the namesake of the town of Knutsford. The town marks the spot where Canute crossed The Lily, or ‘forded’ it. You might see where we’re going with this. Decades down the road, the place known as Canute’s Ford became Knutsford. Apparently, once Canute had crossed The Lily he stopped to empty the sand from his shoes. As he was doing so, a wedding party passed by him. He shook the sand out in front of them, wishing them ‘great joy, and as many children as there are grains of sand’. From there sanding was born.
The focus of the May Day parade is undoubtedly the May Queen herself. Each year, a local girl is crowned the May Queen in a coronation which takes place on The Heath, the end point of the parade. The coronation is preceded and succeeded by a handful of folk dances, including maypole dancing, which has been enjoyed by the British people since the mid-1300s. The first of the ‘Royal’ May Queens was a girl named Mary Howarth, and coincidentally this year’s May Queen, Sophie, shares her surname. Unfortunately, I don’t have their family trees to hand to check if they’re related, but it would be fun if they were!
The parade route follows the same path each year and features a whole host of children in costume, including literary and fairytale characters, Henry VIII and his Six Wives, flowers, animals. There is also a section where the children are dressed in the national costume of many other countries. According to my mother, a Knutsford local, she was once ousted from the role of May Queen, landing instead in the role of ‘Polish Girl’. She never lets us forget it. My personal favourite appears near the beginning of the parade: ‘Jack in the Green’. Or, as he should be known, ‘Man in Tree’. It’s quite a funny sight.
Having done my research, it turns out that ‘Jack in the Green’ is a figure of English folklore, which first developed in the 18th century after stemming from a milkmaids’ tradition in the 1600s. Milkmaids would carry decorated pails with them in their May Day parades, which then changed to them carrying decorated pyramids on their heads. This was copied by other professions including chimney sweeps, who, somewhere down the line, chose to cover themselves entirely in foliage. We’re still unsure as to why.
Another highlight for a lot of people is the Fun Fair that comes in on the May Day weekend. It is said to be the largest travelling fair in the country, and it is so much fun! There were some rides, however, that I felt queasy at the mere sight of, including ‘Vertigo’. Its name suggests it was designed with the sole purpose of making people sick and dizzy, so I’d avoid riding it straight after those fairground chicken nuggets and chips. I’d much rather stick to the dodgems, penny arcades, and ghost trains.
So, if you’re in need of something to do on the first Saturday of May, head to Knutsford! Even if it’s just for the fair… honestly, it’s so good. For more about the Knutsford Royal May Day, their website can be found here.