If you’re a morning person, or suffering from jet lag, then May Morning in Oxford is just the event for you.I am not a morning person, or suffering from jet lag, but it seemed rude to turn down a 500 year long tradition that ties in with my Birthday celebrations and so I found myself, last weekend, rolling out of bed at 5am and heading out to Magdalen Bridge in Oxford to hear a choir sing over the city at 6am.
Taking place every year on May First, May Day is a northern hemisphere spring festival. In Great Britain it is associated with Celtic traditions and pagan Anglo-Saxon customs that celebrate spring fertility. English traditions include Morris and Maypole Dancing, as well as crowning a May Queen (that’ll be me, thank you very much).
Unfortunately, few places in Great Britain still seem to celebrate May Day with the same enthusiasm as Oxford. The day, as previously mentioned, kicks off at 6am with the Magdalen College choir singing from the top of the college tower while a crowd of mainly students and visitors congregate on Magdalen Bridge to hear Hymnus Eucharisticus.
Traditionally students will attend an all night ball the evening before May First and appear on the streets in formal wear, in my own experience the gowns have been swapped for festival style dress, but the signs of an all-nighter are still visible. Alas, my own enthusiasm for an all-nighter was unceremoniously trampled and instead I got three hours sleep – which was just enough time to give the hangover a chance to take effect.
When the bell tolls for a second time, to signal the choir has finished, the festivities are underway around the town center and for a few hours you will see pub doors open and serve, despite the early hour, while Morris Dancers dance and Bands play in the street.
My personal favourite part of this tradition, in my slightly hungover state, was the early opening of the central restaurants and pubs for a hearty breakfast. My squeeze and I headed straight for Quod to get a seat, for an upmarket morning meal of eggs benedict, smoked salmon scrambled eggs and, most importantly, coffee, which set us right before exploring the streets and the various celebrations going on around the university buildings.
If you’re looking to join the crowd by falling off the wagon nice and early, Oxford has a good range of pubs to wet your whistle, but for location convenience and a true cosy atmosphere, I would recommend The Turf Tavern. I’m not sure about its claim to be the oldest pub in Oxford, I believe that title might belong to The Bear, but it’s extensive beer garden and chatter will get you in the mood to join the fun.
As a side note, while, The Turf is more conveniently located for May Morning, on your visit I wouldn’t miss the chance to sample an ale at The Eagle and Child (affectionately called The Bird & Baby), which was the meeting place of The Inklings, a group of writers including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, for 20 years.
If you are a tourist to Oxford, like I was myself, and you’re looking to stay out and spend the rest of the day exploring, you will find that normal opening times for colleges etc are not much affected by the early morning the rest of the city gets. However, with plenty of parks to wander and festivities to see, this isn’t much of a problem.
All in all, I’ll still have my bed over a 6am start any day, but you can’t help but feel the infectious party atmosphere in Oxford, The City of Spires, on a sunny May Morning. And what better weekend to explore the picturesque University town?
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