Jack in the Green may be a pre-lockdown Hastings memory, but many other weird and wonderful May Day events take place around the country … as Jamie Sellers discovered when he visited the ‘Homer Sykes: Once a Year’ exhibition at the Lucy Bell gallery in St Leonards.

Its opening appropriately coinciding with the early May Bank Holiday, Homer Sykes: Once a Year is a photographic documentation of Britain’s many strange folkloric customs and traditions. The images on display, dating mostly from the early 1970s, are from May Day events, but also from holidays throughout the calendar – wherever and whenever the Brits dress up and parade, shout a lot, hit things down hills, chase elaborately costumed individuals through villages, and most inevitably end up clutching some sort of alcoholic libation at the day’s end. Many depict celebrations of traditions whose meaning has been long lost in the mists of time, while others have, over the years, been slightly modified in the interests of safety.

Burry Man, South Queensferry
PICTURE: Homer Sykes

Take the 14th century Haxey Hood Game, played in the titular Lincolnshire parish on 6th January, and commemorating the rescue of a Lady’s riding
hood. Probably the oldest surviving tradition in England, it begins with singing and drinking in a pub, before a ‘Fool’ makes a run for it. He is caught by the ‘Boggins’ (still with me?) and tells the crowd the legend of the hood, before he is ‘smoked’. Homer Sykes’ image shows a very 1972 Fool, face painted, holding court, while a bale behind him is lit by the grown-ups, and fascinated children look on. The Hood Game follows, as a hessian sack is pushed for several hours by around 200 people until it lands in one of the pubs in either Haxey or neighbouring Westwoodside.

Sykes’ photos show The Burry Man, the centrepiece of an August ritual in South Queensferry, Edinburgh, being walked around the town’s boundaries. He’s clad, head to foot, in burrs, and walked for over nine hours. The subject, a gravedigger by trade, doesn’t look overly comfortable in his costume. The tradition may, like The Green Man, relate to rebirth, or it may be intended to ward off evil spirits. One look at The Burry Man would probably do that. A second, and even more utterly bizarre image in the exhibition, shows him at a bar, sucking whiskey through a straw while still in full costume, flanked by two helpers. If you didn’t read the photo caption first, you’d swear they were about to do him in. Hasn’t the man suffered enough already, I wondered? 

It’s the sense of time, as well as place and tradition that make these monochrome images so special. While something peculiar or idiosyncratic is at the centre of the photograph, normal 1970s life is going on all around it, suits and ties, tank tops and anoraks, wet pavements and cloudy skies.

Sykes is a widely exhibited documentary photographer. Among his numerous projects, his recording of our eccentric annual celebrations is his longest ongoing work. His 1977 book Once a Year, Some Traditional British Customs was republished in 2016 with 50 previously unseen images, and the updated volume is on sale during the exhibition run.

Homer Sykes: Once a Year is on at Lucy Bell Fine Art Photography, 46 Norman Road, St Leonards TN38 0EJ until 26th June 2021. 

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