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A Maypole Climber

From the Barwicker No.41
April 1996

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.

Arthur Nicholls and the Maypole 1960

Wet weather did not pose too much of a problem as the helpers would dry off the pole as much as possible before the raising. He used to like to wash down the pole to remove the dust thrown up by the crowds walking past it into Hall Tower Field.

Another hazard in those early days was Brylcreem from the heads of the carriers which made the pole slippery. He used to put powdered resin on his hands and on the insides of his trouser legs and coat sleeves to increase the grip. He was always confident that he would be able to complete the climb.

From his seat on the garland hooks he had to untie the five ropes and throw them down. To the impatient spectators below this often seems to take a long time but he found that he was so occupied that the task seemed to take no time at all. A newspaper photograph shows him making a cheery wave to the admiring people on the ground. Well below him, the sign outside the Gascoigne Arms was advertising Melbourne Ales.

Then came the moment to climb up to the top of the pole. He was never taught how to climb. His technique was different from other climbers. He would wrap his arms round the pole and hold on. He then put his left leg round the back of the pole and pulled his calf against it. He put his right leg across the front of the pole and pushed his shin against it. This held his legs fast to the pole. Then he would reach up with his arms and hold on again. When he moved his legs up, unlike other climbers, he would change legs, moving his right leg to the back of the pole and his left leg to the front. In this most individual of ways he rose up the pole.

Never satisfied with just reaching up to spin the fox weather vane, he would climb right to the top, spin it and survey the scene. Over the buildings of Barwick including the top of the church tower, he could see out to the surrounding countryside. He did not feel the pole swaying when he was up there, it was just the buildings that appeared to move.

The crowded street below looked like a sea of tiny faces all looking up at him. Then, with anxious spectators below shouting for him to come down, he slithered down the pole to the ground. He says that he never experienced a sense of relief on arriving on the ground safely - but his wife did, along with the rest of the crowd. The appreciative audience always give generously to a collection made for the climber and in 1960 this raised over 30, a record for the time.

On one occasion he took up a small camera strapped to his wrist and pointing in what he hoped was the right direction he took a series of unique photographs. He managed to open the shutter by pressing the lever of the camera against the pole.

Arthur climbed the pole again in 1963 and 1966, when there was increased pleasure for the village at its successful raising after the top section had been stolen by the men of Aberford and was only retrieved, and then carefully guarded, a few days before the day of the ceremony. Described by the 'Yorkshire Post' as the "maypole mountaineer" Arthur, wearing a sporty baseball cap, successfully spun the fox "with a mighty swing of the brush to the crowd's deafening cheers". "I never train for it apart from lifting bales on the farm. The worst part is definitely coming down." 'The Skyrack Express' shows a composite photograph of the three stages of his spectacular climb.

Arthur was the maypole climber again in 1969, when torrential rain delayed the raising, and in 1972, when a local newspaper reported that at the lowering "Barwick-in-Elmet marched in maypole time with beer, brawn and a barrel organ". The operation was not without incident as at one point the tilting pole swayed dangerously close to the Gascoigne Arms. Arthur described his "monkey climb" to attach the ropes as "a cinch".

At the raising ceremony there was a blustery wind but the task was safely accomplished. Stan Robshaw asked Arthur to climb only as far as was necessary to untie the ropes. "After that it is his pleasure whether he goes on to the top or not." Arthur did not disappoint the spectators and it was his pleasure to spin the fox as before. He took a microphone with him to record the feat for the radio.

Arthur wanted to retire from his duties after the 1975 raising but was persuaded to climb the pole again at the 1978 festivities. He had performed this vital and skilful task during seven ceremonies and the village owed him a great debt. In the words of a letter from Tony Shinn, Secretary of the Maypole Committee, "Over the years you have done a wonderful job and it is greatly appreciated".

For the 1981 ceremonies the position of maypole climber was advertised in the local newspapers and teenager Simon Walker, a neighbour from Lower Barnbow Farm, got the job and was schooled by Arthur in the skills of climbing.

It is sometimes said that taking part in the maypole festivities is a man's preserve despite a newspaper report of the 1919 ceremonies praising the efforts of the men of Barwick "aided by their good women-folk". Stan Robshaw when seeking a successor to Arthur as climber said that "he or she" will have to help the committee to take down the pole. But perhaps the last word on this issue should be left to Tony Shinn in his letter in 1978 thanking Arthur for his past efforts. "Please give our thanks to your wife for permitting you to climb the maypole again this time."

From the recollections of ARTHUR NICHOLLS.

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