Oxford Mail
May 2000


Troubled Bridge over water
The river is off-limits, but as Amanda Castleman explains, we need to innovate to keep the silliness of May morning alive

Sure, the Morris
dancers will stamp,
the choir warble and
booze shall flow, but
the celebration strangles
on those Magdalen
Bridge cordons.


Four years ago I glimpsed Oxford's true welcome to Spring. As students catapulted into the Cherwell River, a tipsy man hoisted himself onto the railing. Slowly, seductively, he began peeling off his overcoat, tie, and three-piece suit.

I've never seen a Tory MP candidate so sauced – or human, for that matter. He almost had my vote. If only he hadn't chickened out before the plunge...

Those days are over. Too many submerged shopping trolleys, too much water in the river, too much strain on the masonry, we're told by those sensible coppers. Apparently, the pressure of 11,000 bodies could crumble the stone walls.

And three years ago, a male student dived off the parapet and suffered serious spinal injuries. He is now in a wheelchair. Enough is enough, say local officials.

"May Day morning celebrations are a lovely, enjoyable occasion and we don't want that to stop, but the whole day is marred if someone is hurt," explains University Marshal Ted Roberts, who welcomes an end to "stupid stunts".

So the festivities are once again curtailed. Sure, the Morris dancers will stamp, the choir warble and booze shall flow, but the celebration strangles on those Magdalen Bridge cordons.

But we shouldn't let the true spirit of May Day die so easily. At its heart lies the need for mass absurdity. For one moment – however brief – society shrugs off its conventions and order.

This mild misbehaviour brings a sense of bonding, camaraderie. Never before had a politician seemed likeable, until that man teetered on the bridge, casting aside stuffy responsibility and a stuffier pin-stripe waistcoat.

History is dotted with such festivals. Ancient Greeks paraded through the streets bearing huge pastry genitalia. The Roman Empire ground to a halt for a day, while slaves bossed around Senators. Even the repressed Victorians had days of wine and roses.

Our neighbours abroad manage nicely, from the Pamplona's running of the bulls to America's barbecue-and-beer Fourth of July, complete with fireworks.

Modern British society – sated by video players and central heating – doesn't encourage such scenes, however. We live in cosy isolation, then release our inhibitions several hundred miles away in Ibiza, Corfu or Mykonos. Any embarrassment dwindles with distance, and holiday excess is easily forgiven and forgotten.

Here lies the problem. Firstly, that community goofiness is a good thing, a social glue. Clogging drunkenly with your neighbour breaks down those barriers, as does jumping naked off Magdalen Bridge.

Secondly, not everyone relaxes at the same time. May Morning reaches banker and bin-man alike, regardless of holiday allotment and budget. It's not a case of staggered, solitary vacations – rather all of Oxford (or a good portion at least) has a collective hang-over, and the warm glow of celebration shared.

This is why the tradition – revived once by Shadowlands – needs protecting and intensifying. If the river is off-limits, we need to innovate, to keep the silliness alive. May Balls – those exclusive, extravagant and expensive affairs – just aren't enough.

Perhaps we should introduce a fancy dress punt parade or set fire to a huge wicker scholar. We could even have a nude bungee jump, to satisfy those exhibitionists denied the Cherwell. Whatever the solution, it needs to be cheap and cheerful.

Don't let May Day become water under the bridge.

Sidebar: May morning tradition
"May Day is rich in customs, perhaps more than any other day of the year," explains the Oxford Companion to the Year. "Records of bringing in the May are found as early as the thirteenth century in England."

Dating back to pagan fertility rituals, May Day has always been a strange mix of innocence (children lisping songs, sprightly Morris dancing) and mild misbehaviour. Parliament even tried to discourage the darker element, banning maypoles in 1644 as a "heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness".

Now garlands, parading milkmaids and chimney sweeps have given way to champagned antics. And nowhere is the day so rapturously celebrated as in Oxford.

For centuries the Magdalen College Choir has greeted the dawn, singing atop the 144ft tower. Ten bells then signify the start of Spring, while pubs and restaurants open at 6am to accommodate the giddy crowd.

Modern additions include street theatre, baroque music, jazz, barber-shop quartets, Punch and Judy, and mobile discos. Inevitably, trouble brews, but this is nothing new.

"Magdalen College men and the rabble of the towns came on May Day to their disturbance," complained a 16th-century local. Two hundred years later, spectators were regularly pelted with rotten eggs, flower and other missiles.

The tradition of jumping off the bridge dates back ten years, when one sozzled undergraduate took the plunge. Others followed suit, including – most famously – Jocelyn Witchard in 1995. She made a second topless splash in The Sun, which paid her £1,000 for a Page Three appearance.

A low-key alternative celebration began in 1989 on Aristotle Bridge in Jericho. Oxford sculptor Michael Black built a 20ft-high replica of the tower to escape the raucous downtown crowds.

As Roy Judge wrote in the Journal of the Folklore Society: "It will be interesting to see how the occasion evolves. The essential act at its centre still remains as simple, poetic and beautiful as ever."


Oxford Canal, Duke's Lock
north of the Cherwell










We live in cosy
isolation, then release
our inhibitions several
hundred miles away in
Ibiza, Corfu or Mykonos.

May Morning reaches
banker and bin-man
alike, regardless of
holiday allotment
and budget.


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