Head to Hastings on the Saturday before the May Day holiday and there's morris dancing. Head to Hastings on the Sunday before the May Day holiday and the May Queen is crowned. Head to Hastings on the May Day holiday and a three metre cone of leaves parades through the streets followed by a long procession of gyrating garlanded attendants (and morris dancers), through the Old Town and up the hill to a celebration with dancing, food and beer looking out over the Channel and ending in death. No contest really.
There are two top weekends to visit Hastings, conveniently scheduled approximately six months apart. In October the town revels in pyromaniac bonfire celebrations, and at the start of the May there's Jack in the Green. A Jack in the Green is essentially a bloke in an cloak of leaves built up to cover his head, and with a crown of flowers on his head, who plays a starring role in the May Day parade. Jack's not a genuine age-old pagan figure, more a case of out-of-control garlanding dating back about 300 years, while Hastings' version dates back to only 1983. Nevertheless the town's festival is one of the biggest maydaystravaganzas in the southeast, equalled only by the Sweeps Festival in Rochester, and attracts thousands from across Sussex every year. Get the train from London before eight o'clock and you can watch the lot.
The procession kicks off from Rock-a-Nore Road, the coastal dead end below the cliffs in front of the fishing boats. A huge variety of otherwise staid members of the community flood in as the ten o'clock deadline approaches, bedecked in a variety of bespoke forestwear. Some have merely thrown leaves around a hat, others have gone the whole hog and donned elaborate flappy costumes and painted their faces, green of course. Most are part of a society, maybe a set of drummers or a morris troupe, or just a group of like-minded individuals with a similar taste in emerald make-up. Any other day of the year this lot are probably accountants, or retired accountants, but today they are agents of Mother Earth celebrating her bounty.
Out comes the Jack from the Fishermen's Museum for a first dance with his entourage. There are a lot of supporting characters in this roving tale, including the Bogies and Black Sal, the Mad Women and the Milkmaids. But it doesn't really matter who's who, not as a spectator, just revel in the passing spectacle and colour. Giant goddesses and mermaids go by - best concentrate on their sculpted heads rather than the blokes pushing them along at the bottom. Visiting morris troupes go by, jingling and thwacking as is their wont. And oh the drumming - there's nothing quite so pagan as a damned good beat rising relentlessly to a cavorting climax.
The streets of the Old Town are very quaint, and very narrow, so the earlybird crowds line the raised pavements to watch as 200+ painted souls pass by. Sneak in and you can watch everyonego by again, or halt in front of you as Jack reaches the refreshment stop and pauses. By now you may have been assaulted by the face-dauber, whose job it seems is to dab a splodge of green paint onto the nose of every willing spectator. And unwilling spectators too - there's mischief in his eye as he darts around the crowd with his damp pad. I managed to hold out for at least an hour, convinced I had my pursuer in check, only to be caught unawares when a young woman in regal garb strode out of the procession and marked my snout instead.
Hastings is built around a number of steep hills, and the procession has to climb one of these to reach its climax. A backstreet rises gently from the church, along a fortunate terrace whose residents spill out onto doorsteps and pavements to watch close-up. For an almost private view stay ahead of the procession - you'll never overtake it up here - and watch the army of green ascending the hill. Participants are more off-guard here, and may stop drumming, pause for a crafty fag or whip out their mobile phone. And then it's time to double back to the hilltop, which most spectators will have accessed via a more direct, but considerably steeper, set of steps.
The main festival site is atop West Hill, an expanse of elevated sloping lawn with an amazing panoramic backdrop across town and sea. The Jack and his entourage process to the temporary stage to greet all of the parade's participants, most of whom then go on to perform for the crowd over the next three hours or so. There's food and drink, if you don't mind queueing, whereas the better organised have brought picnics and slouch down on the grass to scoff. What's fun from this point on is mingling with the parade participants, now dispersed, hence you might find yourself (for example) waiting for an ice cream behind a horned beast.
Then at half past three the Jack is ceremonially 'slain' by a group of morris dancers - I'll not reveal how - symbolically releasing the spirit of summer. All of the leaves are promptly ripped off his costume and thrown to the crowd, and it's considered lucky to take one home with you. I've got mine, but whether it'll make me fortunate or fertile I'm not sure, I didn't read the smallprint. Whatever, there was a certain charge in the air throughout proceedings, and no hint whatsoever that England is a genuinely Christian country. Expect a bump in the Hastings birthrate next February, and presumably every February for the last 30 years.
And while all this was going on, on this particular Bank Holiday Monday, a massed gathering of bikers had taken over the New Town and the Promenade. There must have been at least a thousand motorbikes parked up on the Stade, and a similar number of leather-clad blokes and blokesses wandering the lower streets. A roar of engines throbbed down the Marine Parade, and encircled the town, and not a green nose amongst them. Which was great, except that I really fancied a wrap of fish and chips, but every single chippie takeaway along the seafront had a string of at least 20 bikerfolk and hangers-on queueing outside. Maybe next time.
While I was in town I thought I'd nip round the Jerwood Gallery again. It's been open for two years now, this cultural artsome regeneration, and I feared with so many people in town it'd be packed. Not so. It was like stepping out of a maelstrom into a vacuum, and I had the entire ground floor exhibition to myself. Ansel Krut's dozen canvases had a level of cartoonish smut about them, and I was intrigued to see that one had been loaned by a certain Russell Tovey. Rather more impressive, I thought, were Philip Hughes's colourful sketchy Coastlines, here only for a month. But my eye kept returning to the glass window overlooking Rock-a-Nore, and the thronging collage of bikers and green-faced celebrants framed behind, as Hastings truly came alive.