A Maypole Climber
The article below is taken from ‘The Barwicker’ magazine, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society:-
A Maypole Climber
(the recollections of Arthur Nicholls)
From the Barwicker No. 41
Arthur Nicholls was born in the now-demolished gamekeeper’s cottage on Barnbow Lane at the top of the hill close to the ruined covered reservoir. His grandmother, Mrs Sarah Ann Nicholls, took over Upper Barnbow Farm in 1935 and members of the family have lived there ever since. His father, Henry Nicholls, ran the farm from 1949 and Arthur and his wife Ann have farmed there since 1980, now with the help of their son Andrew. Four generations of Barnbow farming history!
Acrophobia – the fear of heights – has no place in Arthur’s psyche. As a boy he attended the Barwick maypole celebrations and when watching the climber attach and remove the ropes he thought, “I could do that”. His chance came in 1960, after Ken Birch had retired after climbing the pole on four previous occasions. Early that year, an article in the Yorkshire Post about the forthcoming ceremonies contained a request for a climber to come forward.
“It is beginning to assume the proportions of a local Everest or Kanchenjunga to the residents of Barwick-in-Elmet, the old world village seven miles from Leeds and they want a man with Sir Edmund Hillary’s spirit to climb their 93-feet-high maypole.
Dr Somerville Smith, the secretary of the Maypole Committee, reported that as many as ten men had applied from as far away as Leeds and Wakefield but on the evening when a trial was to be held only three were present including the young Arthur. The first volunteer had difficulty climbing over the garland hooks. The second man lost interest at this stage but Arthur climbed over the garland hooks as requested but then continued up to the top of the pole, spun the fox and came down safely. He got the job – at the age of 18. At the same time he won a ten shillings bet that he had made three years before with his friend David Townsley that he would one day climb to the top of the pole.
On Easter Monday evening Arthur successfully attached the ropes on the first of the seven triennial festivals when he was the maypole climber. This process is the first practical operation of the lowering. The climber mounts a ladder and then shins up the pole and over the hooks. He pulls up a short plank which he positions over the hooks and sits on it, a reasonably comfortable situation as sitting on the hooks themselves can be painful.
The next job is to pull up one of the ropes and attach it to the pole. The method of fixing was taught him by John White, the Maypole Master in 1960. The rope is wrapped once round the pole and the end is wound several times round the encircling rope passing between it and the pole. The rope can then be pulled to tighten it. Arthur usually tied a simple knot at this stage to complete the fastening. He then attached the other four ropes in the same way. The seat was lowered and, hand over hand, he slid down to the ground. In the words of the Yorkshire Evening Post, John White, and “the brawny arms of about 200 helpers, a couple of ladders, ropes and pitchforks” then lowered the pole and placed it on the line of railway sleepers propped up by oil drums prepared for its reception. The YEP reporter came to the village a few weeks later.
“Jumping off a tractor outside his father’s farm yesterday, Arthur Nicholls, who will be 19 on Friday, climbed onto a wall and in a trice had shinned up a telegraph pole as far as he could without getting entangled in the wires.”
This, as Arthur later explained, was not so much to keep himself in trim as the article suggests but at the request of the reporter to give him a better story.
The climber brings to an end the ceremony of raising the maypole on Whit Tuesday (later changed to Bank Holiday Tuesday) evening by removing the ropes. Arthur liked to keep out of the way during the earlier proceedings. He was usually busy on the farm – they had a dairy herd – and there were too many people who would want to ply him with drink before he climbed.