WHAT do we up so early this May morn?
Hath Health the huntress from some neighbouring hill
Blown such a blast of her enchanted horn,
That Youth forgets his slumber? . . . Gathering still,
Quick eager forms the solemn pathway fill:
Pass Magdalen’s portal, scale her endless stair,
Still spiring upward, like the lark, until
Bursts on the sense the fresh cool matin air,
And cheerful speech of friends already gathering there.
MAY MORNING ON MAGDALEN TOWER: BY THE VERY REV. JOHN W. BURGON, B.D., LATE DEAN OF CHICHESTER, Formerly Fellow of Oriel and Vicar of St. Mary-the-Virgin
Ah! Bliss it was indeed, as celebrated in Holman Hunt’s magical evocation of May Day Morning above. But what might Hunt or indeed the V Rev JW Burgon BD (pictured left), author of the splendid doggerel quoted, make of more recent celebrations?
Their surprised concern then vexation perhaps that Magdalen Bridge was, Dear Lord, barricaded off, while a whole army of police and mechanicals did battle below with townies and revellers and the baser elements of the University, all inexplicably driven to jump o’er parapet into the Cherwell?
Not to mention the thousands of said revellers (Youth that forgets his slumber indeed), of every gender and denomination, packed tight together like so many inebriate sardines after partying all night; to say nothing of the ubiquitous kebab stands doing a roaring trade.
At least we might expect both to find a morsel of solace in the unchanging ceremony at Magdalen! The College Choir singing the Hymnus Eucharisticus to the Holy Trinity from atop Magdalen Tower at the crack of a May dawn. A tradition going back centuries and one that, as Alden’s Guide to Oxford (1908) rather quaintly puts it, may well represent ‘a relic of pagan times.’
That other great May Day ‘tradition': jumping off Magdalen Bridge some 25 feet into the icy shallows of the Cherwell River, is also considered by many as but another ‘Pagan’ Rite particular to Oxford, Be that as it may, its origins lie not in the mists of Animist or even Medieval England, but in the darkling, anarchic days of the 1970s.
jumping Mayhem 2005 Zack Alexanderwww.flickr.com/photos/zach_a/376129991
That such a May Day frolic grew immensely popular, an act of anarchic daring-do in the pellucid light of an Oxford dawn without parallel, should, however, surprise no one!
For the Thrills, however, there are, unfortunately, the Spills, and jumping off Magdalen Bridge greatly favours the Spills. Most years the Cherwell River is around 2 – 3 foot deep by the Bridge, making the landing more often a Crunch Crack Ambulance Affair than a Splash Utterly Awesome Event. At it’s peak in 2005, 40 jumpers ended up in hospital with broken bones. In 2009 one jumper was paralysed.
Natch, the Bridge was closed off for a number of years. For the past four, it’s reopened but with parapets heavily barricaded and guarded. Last year no would-be jumpers made the leap.
If the weather is good, then May Morning in Oxford is a memorable and wicked experience with lots of parties and events and a real buzz to the place.
Expect: a Heavenly Choir; a festival atmosphere with all night opening for bars and pubs, and early breakfasts; crowds of affable partygoers in various states of inebriation and decline; snogging; lots of folk music and Morris dancing; fantastic May Day costumes; drinking (and queues for the kebabs). Lyon Photography, Daily Info
Wojtek Szyczak www.cherwell.org
Not to be missed!
But do check the forecast before venturing out in the wee hours