Why Knutsford blossoms in May

PUBLISHED: 21:16 01 December 2009 | UPDATED: 15:57 20 February 2013

May Queen crowns on display at the Heritage Centre....shown here by Val Bryant, Ken Gresty, Amy Bishop and Diana Stenson (seated)

May Queen crowns on display at the Heritage Centre....shown here by Val Bryant, Ken Gresty, Amy Bishop and Diana Stenson (seated)

Knutsford's Royal May Day brings excitement to the town every May but it has extra jewels in its crowns this month: an exhibition of queen dresses and crowns dating back to 1887.

Elsewhere in the world, May Day might be a workers' fiesta or even the international signal for distress. But in Knutsford it means just one thing. May Day means May queens and this year more crowns than you'll find in the Tower of London.

Because this month for the first time the town's May Queen crowns will be on display at the Knutsford Heritage Centre.

(It is also home to the Knutsford Tapestry, to my mind a far more fascinating bit of stitching than its more famous cousin at Bayeux. That shows William and Harold at Hastings: this one shows every road and street in this historic Cheshire town.)

The Heritage Centre has been awarded a grant of 9,165 under the North West Awards 4 All scheme. The grant will fund the exhibition of past May Queens' dresses and crowns representing different decades in the long history of Knutsford Royal May Day.

The centrepiece of the exhibition will be the dress and crown worn by the May Queen of 1887, the year in which the May Day was given its 'Royal' title by the visiting Prince and Princess of Wales (eventually to become Edward VII and Alexandra.)
Plotting for this year's May Day involved a formidable group of Knutsfordians including Amy Bishop curator of the Heritage Centre, Ken Gresty, chairman of the committee, Di Stenson previously of Gardener's Question Time and textile expert Val Bryant.

Dating back to 1864, Knutsford's May Day festival is a highlight of the town's calendar and takes place on Saturday May 2nd. It attracts thousands of visitors, who come to join in the carnival atmosphere and watch the spectacular procession of 500 children in costume, Morris dancers, four bands, one sedan chair, the Cheshire Wheelmen on antique bicycles, a whole host of characters and finally the Royal May Queen accompanied by footmen, ladies in waiting, and the crown bearer. This year's May queen is 12-year-old Katie Smith.

This historic exhibition at the Heritage Centre will offer a glimpse of past fashions and textiles and, through the exquisite dresses and crowns, will tell the story of the event and the part it plays in Knutsford life. The 1887 dress is on loan to Knutsford Heritage Centre from the Salt Museum, Northwich. Some of the dresses have been loaned from past May Queens and their families, and come with fascinating recollections of times gone by. The crowns, some of which were made in India, can be worth as much as 1,000.

Knutsford's 'Royal' May Day organisers are in full support of this project and chairman Ken Gresty says: 'We are delighted to hear that the Heritage Centre has been awarded this grant and are now all looking forward to the exhibition.'

The exhibition will be open at Knutsford Heritage Centre from Saturday May 2nd to July 25th (01565 650506) and will be one of the highlight events of the Three Shires Textile Festival (www.textilefestival.com), running from July 4th to 19th.

And all that is a curtain raiser to an even bigger event next year: the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mrs Gaskell who brought fame backed by the recent BBC series (Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins et al) to the town as Cranford.

The year 2010 will bring even more fame and fun to Knutsford with the return of the Penny Farthing race from the town's famous Courtyard Coffee House, where incidentally John Cocks and l enjoyed some delicious scones courtesy of Matthew Fay.

Down the road where Gareth Fryer will be exhibiting his rose of the year, 'Lucky' at the RHS show at Tatton, there are plans for another centenary commemorating the launch in 1912 of Arthur Fryer's rose business that is now international. It even includes a rose called Cheshire Life.

Here in Knutsford quality counts. So much so that Lynne Miller at the splendidly titled Black Rose can produce designs that are good enough to win Best in Show at Tatton. It is a town with its own sense of humour, as I noticed in the very un-PC instruction in the window of Amador art, announcing that 'unattended children will be sold as slaves.' Ho hum.

It is also a town with chutzpah. Nowhere was that more visible than in the bird of prey centre next to Fryers, where amid all the eagles, hawks and vultures a pair of Cheshire magpies were building their nest. Cheeky, I'd say so.

Knutsford notes

Knutsford's narrow pavements are the result of a decree by Lady Stanley who thought it immoral to allow couples to walk side by side.

The ancient tradition of sanding takes place on the morning of May Day when the pavements are decorated with mottoes and patterns in honour of the 'Royal' day.

Mrs Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell was brought up by her aunt in Knutsford. Her literary works included Cranford which was given a boost by the BBC who transmitted it as a classic serial with Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins. Elizabeth Gaskell spent most of her life in the town, was married in the parish church and is buried in the graveyard of Brook Street Chapel.

The Knutsford Tapestry contains 6.5 million stitches and 52 miles of wool. It took four years to make involving 3,000 members of the local community.

George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor and MP for Knutsford, has his own website www.GeorgeOsborne.co.uk You can use it to find out what he has been up to in the Tatton area and to see what he's been saying in his role as Shadow Chancellor. He recently chaired a meeting of shopkeepers and business owners at Belle Epoque to discuss how they could cope with the credit crunch.

Archaeological digs suggest that Knutsford has been inhabited since around 8,000BC. The name Cunetesford appears in the Domesday Book (1086) and many names of Danish origin are found nearby. Connections with King Cnut are the stuff of legend.

The town's first charter was granted in 1292 and its central position in Cheshire led to it becoming known as the 'capital' of mid Cheshire. In 1955 Knutsford received its own Armorial Bearings featuring the motto 'Respice, Aspice, Prospice' which means Look to the past, the present, and the future'.

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