Beltane at Thornborough


Oliver Robinson leads Beltane at Thornborough

Oliver Robinson leads Beltane at Thornborough


Beltane: Pre Christian May Festival

It’s no wonder that our ancestors celebrated the onset of May – the pre-Christian May festival of Beltane.  In the May countryside, it’s impossible not to feel a surge of joy as the strengthening sun brings an explosion of new life.  Lambs leap, pristine new leaves are as yet unmarked by pests, flowers bloom and the breeze loses its customary sharpness, becoming a gentle caress on bare skin.

Keen amateur historian Oliver Robinson has a talent for imagining the lives of former generations, and decided to reinstate a traditional May Festival at the ancient prehistoric site of Thornborough Henge. Thus, in 2004, he founded Beltane at Thornborough.

Ancient Monument

He says, “I’m interested in ancient monuments, so I thought it would be interesting to have a gathering at Thornborough, like the summer solstice at Stonehenge.”


Crowds enjoy Beltane at Thornborough

Crowds enjoy Beltane at Thornborough

Although an ancient monument, Thornborough is privately owned, and access to the festival, says Oliver, is dependent upon the henges, and the people living nearby, being respected and untroubled.  So no-one is allowed onto the earthworks, but they may gather within the circle of the circular earthen embankment of the Henge.


Here, a lively mix of people celebrate in their own way.  Musicians, dancers, Mummers, traders, crafters and picnickers mingle happily.  Musicians perform, and so too does nature: cascades of skylarks, the burble of a passing curlew, cheerful thrushes in the hedges.


Thornborough Henge: Prehistoric Monument

Thornborough Henge is actually one of three three large circular earthworks, estimated to be around 5,000 years old, and situated near West Tanfield.


Cattle graze the precessionary avenue

Cattle graze the precessionary avenue

It’s part of a wider landscape of pre-historic monuments around the lower reaches of the River Ure that includes a precessionary avenue, the Devil’s Arrows at Boroughbridge, and more henges.  Archaeologists say that it the most important prehistoric area between Stonehenge and the Orkneys.  However, says Oliver, “I don’t think there is awareness of the importance of this monument.”  He therefore hopes that Beltane at Thornborough will raise awareness of the monument.

When I went last year, the people who come loved it, praising the peaceful atmosphere and relaxed nature of the events.  It certainly was a lovely day: sun shining, birds singing, grass fresh and bright green.  Women wore flowers in their hair, and we were well entertained with a seasonal play, performed with gusto.

Long tradition of May celebrations

As for Oliver, he says, “There’s a long tradition of May celebrations in the British Isles, all linked to agriculture and living off the land.  So in their day, they had far more relevance to people’s lives.”


Blodywedd is star of the play

Blodywedd is star of the play

“Today, most of us aren’t living on the land, so there’s less connection.  So now, we celebrate the start of summer, and our traditions.  Beltane is a genuinely attested pre-Christian celebration.  But it was constantly re-invented – the Tudors had Mayday, the Victorians had Flower festivals.  Each new generation takes a tradition and reinvents it.  So today, we’re not claiming to be an authentic celebration of what happened thousands of years ago: we’re claiming this monument for use in modern times.”

Read more in ‘Stonehenge of the North’ in Dalesman, May 2015,

Discover more about the history of Thornborough from archaeologists at Newcastle University at

Make bookings for Beltane at Thornborough at



About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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