The 29th of May is Oak Apple Day, and also the date for the annual Castleton Garland Ceremony, except when the date falls on a Sunday, in which case the ceremony is held on the preceding Saturday. In 2015, the day of the ceremony was a rather cloudy Friday.
The Garland itself is a cone of flowers and greenery, topped by a smaller version, known as the Queen. Both together are worn by an elected King, who is led around the village on a horse, accompanied by his Consort (these days female, but traditionally a man dressed as a woman).
The ceremony is thought to predate the declaration of the 29th of May as Oak Apple Day (in 1660 to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy), although the earliest record of the ceremony dates from the following century when the purchase of a new rod on which to hang the Garland is documented in the parish records. Traditionally, the wearing of oak leaves to commemorate the day was compulsory throughout Britain, and sprigs of oak were on sale as we gathered to watch the ceremony.
While villagers, visitors and the village band are gathering, the King and Consort are led around the village boundaries on their horses (usually shires, since King and Garland together are pretty heavy). The wearing of Stuart costumes can be dated to late Victorian times, before which the pair wore more regular fancy clothes with a few alterations (such as a coachman’s coat turned inside out).
The procession, led by King and Consort with the village band and a group of dancing girls first moves to the village pub which is that year’s host for the ceremony, where the King receives the Garland. The procession then makes its way to the edge of the village before turning around and visiting each of the six village pubs one after the other.
At each pub, the procession stops for music, dancing and the serving of drinks to band, King and Consort (the King keeps the Garland in place while drinking).
The procession finishes at the village church, where the garland is hoised from the King’s shoulders and raised up to thee top of the church tower, which has already been decorated with flowers and greenery (all the flowers for each part of the ceremony come from village gardens).
The band and dancers then move to the May Pole which has been errected near to the village green for more dancing.
Usually, I’d have stayed for this part, but I was getting cold and even sausage and chips from the Fish and Chip Shop failed to warm me up (the young dancers looked very cold and had to be told to smile by their teacher). However, the dancing is generally followed by the laying of the Queen from the garland on the village war memorial.
Before the First World War, the Queen was presented to the wife of a local dignitary.
Castleton Garland is a fascinating mix of traditions from different centuries: I’ve seen drawings of other garlands dancing in processions (no horses) from Georgian and Regency times, but those were reported as celebrating May Day rather than Oak Apple Day.