May 2018 - What’s the buzz? Is spring finally here?

A misty sunrise over Chirk Castle estate
Published : 14 May 2018

We have grown used to ‘May Day’ as a regular Bank Holiday, but as a national feature it is fairly recent. It was adopted at the behest of the Trade Union movement to recognise the British labour force. However, the tradition of May Day is much older, and we can probably trace some Welsh celebrations back as far as the Roman Occupation!

The ‘Calends’ of a Roman month (ie the first day) gives its name to the Welsh ‘Calan Mai’ or ‘Galan Haf’, when it was considered that good spirits (and demons) were close, and the thin curtain between the real and the paranormal world was at its thinnest.

In Wales, in ancient times, Hawthorn (‘Draenen wen’ – the white-thorn) was gathered to protect and decorate houses, and to celebrate new growth and fertility. During Calan Haf a man representing Winter, carrying a Blackthorn stick (‘Draenen ddu’) would engage in mock battle with a man dressed as Summer, who carried a Willow (‘Helygen’) or young ferns (‘Rhedyn’). The forces of Winter were ritually beaten, before the May King and a May Queen were crowned. Having long-abandoned the ‘May King’, many British village fetes still include the ancient tradition of selecting a ‘May Queen’, not knowing its origin.

Occasionally, in early spring in Anglesey and Caernarfonshire, ‘Crogi gwr gwellt’ was the temporary focus of the village. A spurned suitor would carefully make a straw effigy of his successful rival, and put it on display in a public place. Traditionally also pinning on a note describing his feelings towards his which would, we assume, cause some trouble...

Summer dancing, and the singing of bawdy ‘Summer carols’ known as ‘Carolau Haf’ were popular, as lively groups meandered from house to house, accompanied by a fiddler or a harpist. Another summer activity was the drinking of mead made from natural honey... and here we come right up to date. The grounds of Chirk Castle now once more resonate with the reassuring soft drone of honey bees... but please don’t think that the above account of May traditions was merely a link for the following!

A bee among the visitors enjoying bluebells at Chirk Castle
Bee feeding on a bluebell
A bee among the visitors enjoying bluebells at Chirk Castle

We are very pleased to announce that John Beavan, a local bee keeper now based in Chirk, has been invited to set up some hives on the estate. As has been well documented in the news bee numbers have been declining heavily recently, and with our wildflower meadow developments still ongoing it is a great opportunity to get some more pollinators on the estate.

John will also be running a few events through the year to introduce visitors to his bees, and to give advice to any budding bee-keepers out there. It will be possible, when kitted-up, for our visitors to experience the ancient art of bee keeping at first hand. Without using honeyed words (ouch!) we anticipate that this will be a very popular feature of the season.

We are looking forward to following John’s progress at the castle in much greater depth in a future article, but for now I must disappoint anyone already licking their lips. Unfortunately ‘Chirk Castle Honey’ is not likely to be available for local consumption very soon, as John’s existing customers have already got their names down for this year’s harvest!