In the UK, especially in its small rural towns, festivals and traditions often mark the most exciting day of the year; a day when the small population all muck in and congregate to celebrate some pretty eccentric customs from centuries past. It’s these traditions that have always “intrigued” the photographer Lauren Maccabee. “Folk customs are often unique and wonderful and involve so much creativity – with community at its core,” she says. “There is so much to be celebrated in that”.
When researching such customary rituals, Lauren focused on Derbyshire in the Peak District, a place she knew to have many. Growing up in Manchester, Lauren spent much of her childhood visiting the Peaks, and she now often returns to the city to make work, visit family and simply, “because I love the North”. Through her research, Lauren came across Garland Day, which takes place in the small village of Castleton and involves a flower garland made by locals being ridden on horseback by the ‘king’. Dating back the 1700s (though many of the locals think it could go back even further), the festival is thought to be a derivative of Oak Apple Day, which began in 1660 to commemorate the restoration of the monarchy. Other theories suggest it to be a pagan festival to celebrate spring, and some even observe it as having originated as an ancient fertility rite with Celtic connections. “I like to think it’s a mixture of all three,” Lauren says.
With there being little documentation of Garland Day, Lauren felt it important to enter the project with an open mind and schedule. “I arrived early in the morning and the preparations were already beginning,” she details. “I had been speaking to a lady called Julie who I found through a Facebook group and who helps organise the day. She talked me through everything. It seems like the whole village takes the day off!” Lauren then traversed the various houses involved in the preparations – including Andrew’s “a lovely old man who was making headdresses for the kids to wear from locally picked flowers”, before later being invited by another group of people to a pub lunch. A “chaotic and brilliant” day, it seems Lauren really got the authentic Garland Day experience. The attention she paid to getting to know and spend time with her subjects certainly paid off; the sense of ease people have in front of the camera and the warmth and excitement coming from them so palpable in the final images.
In some pictures, the Garland king is shown atop the horse, the colourful flowers giving the impression of some mystical figure from a folk tale. While others show children in line, waiting for their time at the maypole. “I love their expressions,” Lauren adds, “their parents have probably had them getting ready for ages, they’ve learned all these maypole dances and they’re so excited – and then they just still act like kids and pull faces and can’t stand still.”
One interaction stood out particularly for Lauren – her conversations with 82-year-old Jean. The image shows Jean meditatively weaving oak apple sprigs and, when she was younger, she was the consort who rides alongside the king. Understandably, Jean had a lot of stories for Lauren, some of which she recorded. “I was 15 when I first became the consort - the person who rides on horseback alongside the Garland King. At that time The Daily Express used to have a picture of a girl on Page 3,” Jean told Lauren. “It was almost like Page 3 nowadays - the way people saw it. That year there was a new costume and a photographer came to take a photo of me the day before the actual event. The next morning I was the girl on Page 3! Everyone saw it. They all thought it was hilarious”.
For Lauren, much of her photography practice is about retaining the importance of storytelling, seeing it as “a way of communicating our past to future generations”. Reflecting on the project, this is perhaps what is now most powerful for her; the legacy of history and community subtly woven through her heartwarming series. “There is something really beautiful about the way customs and traditions evolve and change with time, and what it means to the places that have them,” Lauren wraps up.
GalleryLauren Maccabee: Garland Day (Copyright © Lauren Maccabee 2022)
Lauren Maccabee: Garland Day (Copyright © Lauren Maccabee 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.