Each year, over 100 morris sides1 and dance teams from all over the UK come together in Rochester for the Sweeps Festival, which takes place over the May Bank holiday and on May Day itself (if it falls separately from the weekend). The modern day festival is believed to be the biggest traditional May festival in England.
The Rochester Sweeps Festival of today was revived in 1980 from the May Day holiday which chimney sweeps of 300 years ago would have looked forward to and enjoyed. They celebrated their annual holiday on 1 May with a procession through the streets, accompanied by the Jack-in-the-Green. The Jack-in-the-Green, also known as the Green Man, is a seven foot character, representing the burgeoning forces of spring.
The Modern Festival
There are three parts to the festival. It starts with the Jack-in-the-Green awakening ceremony on top of Bluebell Hill, followed by dancing and activities thoughout the weekend, and then the final procession around the streets of Rochester.
The annual Jack-in-the-Green awakening ceremony commences at dawn on 1 May. Local morris sides greet the Jack-in-the Green. After an hour or so of dancing, everyone heads off to the various pubs which have opened early to serve breakfast to the dancers, and the festival is underway.
Throughout the weekend there are various styles of dancing performed in the High Street by a variety of dance teams, while bands and musical groups (mostly folk and traditional singing styles) perform at various venues, often in pubs. Additionally, sometimes there are workshops.
The highlights of the festival are a Sweeps Ball at the Corn Exchange, and the final procession on Bank Holiday Monday, when many of the sides proceed through the main street, all dancing in their own styles. They parade from Rochester Castle gardens, along the High Street, through the Vines and back to the castle. The parade usually starts at around 2.45pm. There are also sweeps, who are mostly young children dressed up in costume with blackened faces, collecting for charity. It is considered lucky to be kissed by a sweep. Black-faced morris men will have you believe (if you are female!) that it's lucky to kiss them as well! Many of the dancing sides also collect money, either for charity or for themselves, to cover the cost of travel and expenses.
The festival is well worth a visit and details of the festival can be found on the City of Rochester Website.