Phileas French

Travel Writer

Phileas French

Phileas French

Travel Writer | Exploring every country in the world, one adventure at a time

Sweeps Festival Rochester



For various reasons over recent years, major festivals have left me cold. Christmas, Easter. Meh. Don't even get me started on Mother's Day. Regular readers will know that I'm a Halloween fanatic. But this year I decided that it was time to go large on May Day too.

Twenty years ago at Teddy Hall, Oxford, everyone had to stay awake all night into May morning, and just as we were ready to crash into bed after a weird dawn champagne breakfast, the Morris Dancers would start their performance in the quad. It was accompanied by tired groans at the time but that, plus people leaping naked into the Cherwell, constitutes cherished memories these days.


Keen to establish a new family tradition, I looked into options that were vaguely plausible as a day trip from North London. I stumbled across a three day festival that seemed to provide exactly the mixture of tradition, eccentricity and spring joy that I was looking for. Rochester hosts an ancient pageant which commemorates the one day of the year when chimney sweeps were once permitted to hang loose and do their own thing. These days it has grown into a really engaging spectacle, with over 50 Morris sides, a huge fun fair, Splat! (a new festival component with free crafts and performers for children), and much more.

About half five on May morning itself sees the Jack-in-the-Green awakening ceremony, in which costumed sweeps and Morris dancers bring Jack back to life on the mythical and famously haunted Bluebell Hill.


My expectations were not particularly high, but they were greatly exceeded by what we found. The children could barely take everything in, and it provided that rare attraction where an 11 year old, a 7 year old and an 8 month old were all able to derive real enjoyment from different facets of the experience. I would have been happy to partake of the free flowing Pimms and Prosecco but as designated driver sadly had to resist. The restaurants and pubs were understandably heaving, and many of the cheerful punters sensibly partook of the stalls and street food instead.

The atmosphere towards the end of the day got rather Bacchanalian, so my top tip would be to get there at 9.30 in the morning, grab one of the last parking spaces in the cathedral car park, and watch the town waking up before the real crowds arrive at lunchtime. It was a very special experience and one that we certainly intend to repeat next year. Guess it isn't so hard to forge a new family tradition after all.

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Tuesday, 25 February 2020