Yorkshire Maypoles No.3 Burnsall - Dark deeds in the dales
from The Barwicker No.29
As with many maypoles, the origin of the Burnsall pole's tradition is lost in the mists of time. Various mentions in parish minutes, etc. survive. For example a pole erected in 1834 was blown down 'during a very wild night' in January 1839. Although the maypole has always been on the village green alongside the river in the centre of the village, old photographs show it in various positions on the green before its present central location was chosen for the pole erected in 1953.
This pole lasted until another very wild night, 20 January 1990, when it was snapped off at its base. Fortunately the prevailing NW wind blew it away from the road which runs alongside the green and the pole finished up in two pieces, the top of its fish wind vane hanging over the river. At a subsequent meeting of the Village Green Committee it was decided that the maypole must be replaced and the hunt was started for a suitable tree. Eventually a pole was selected from an estate near Skipton and brought to Burnsall, where it was placed in a croft behind the main street. Here it was left to season during the winter of 1990/91 and, as we had been advised that painting would trap in any residual moisture and induce rot, the pole was given numerous coats of creosote as it was periodically turned during the winter.
Raising day had been tentatively fixed for May Day and arrangements were in hand when our plans and excited anticipation were shattered by an amazing piece of news from our neighbouring village of Thorpe. There was a maypole erected in the centre of the village! Hearts in our mouths we rushed to check our own pole - it had gone!
An investigating party hastened to Thorpe and sure enough there it was, the Union Jack fluttering proudly from the top and as the Thorpites gathered round its base were quick to point out, very well it looked too. In the face of such a conclusive 'fait accompli', we could only return to Burnsall and the Red Lion, shaking our heads and very chastened. Although the Thorpe lads claimed to know nothing of the theft and said they were absolutely amazed when they looked out of their windows that morning and saw it, we were in no doubt it was our pole and, more to the point, it had to be retrieved.
A few of the more optimistic thought that, as the Thorpe lads clearly must have taken it, they would bring it back when they had savoured their triumph but as they hotly denied any involvement, as they still do to this day, this seemed unlikely and plans for a return raid were hatched. Time passed and to let Thorpe know that we hadn't forgotten our pole and to keep them on their toes, a few of the wilder elements in the village left the Red Lion late one night bound for Thorpe. Soon, the sound of a chain saw and cries of 'timber' rang round Thorpe, lights flashed on and startled and horrified faces appeared at the windows but the Burnsall lads were laughing their way back over the hill by then.
Meanwhile, some ill-advised soul in Thorpe had tipped off the press about their coup and soon a photo of the pole appeared in 'The Yorkshire Post'. This was a signal for the flood gates to open and soon, as Chairman of the Parish Meeting, my phone was almost literally never on the hook as news hounds from all over the country and eventually the world, sought some light relief from the gloom and doom of the daily news. Photographers and film crews arrived in the village to pump any locals incautious enough to venture out, for any snippet of information and especially the day of any retaliatory action. Naturally the fact the history was repeating itself, as Thorpe had staged a similar raid 150 years ago, was received with delight. This thirst for news of the doings of their country cousins reached a climax for me when I did a live telephone interview with an Australian radio station.
Naturally I didn't want our Thorpe adversaries to miss out on all the fun and I was happily distributing their Parish Meeting Chairman's phone number to all who inquired. Like most Dales' farmers he appeared to work from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, but soon he too was spending most of his time fielding the press.
Eventually when the furore had died down, a raiding party appeared in Thorpe one evening, armed with a tractor digger, a Land Rover with winch and the traditional ropes and ladders. Word had been put around that the pole had been set in concrete and indeed concrete did surround it but a little surreptitious digging on a previous visit had revealed that it was only an inch or so deep, for effect, and as dusk fell we had the pole horizontal and ready for its journey home. The butt end was placed in the back of the Land Rover, a trolley placed towards the back of the pole and with handlers and outriders in attendance we set off. Because the direct road to Burnsall was too narrow and twisting to negotiate we had to set off towards Grassington, travelling backwards until the main road was reached when forward progress could be made. This drew the remark from an onlooker, 'Burnsall folk never did know whether they were coming or going'. Although most of Thorpe turned out to watch the recovery operation, no resistance was offered except for a brief scuffle for possession of the home-made flag from the top but a barrage of friendly insults and ribald comments had to be endured by the rescuers. In a remarkably short time, the pole was 'parked' outside the Red Lion where, it emerged, some of the Burnsall worthies had been carousing at the very time their pole had been spirited past. When the team had taken celebratory refreshment, the pole was secreted in a hidden valley across the river to await erection day.
Thus it was that a few nights later a large assembly of locals gathered on the green to assist in removing the stump of the old pole and erecting the new one. A capsule containing items of local interest gathered by the children of Burnsall School was placed at its base and today a maypole once more stands proudly over the green, a reminder of the brief time when Burnsall and Thorpe were at the centre of so much attention in the nation's press. All is once more at peace between the two villages and Thorpe's spectacularly successful raid and the subsequent events are but a tale to relate over the bar of the Red Lion or the Fell Hotel - but Burnsall folk have a long memory.
(Chairman of Burnsall Parish Meeting)