The church of St Edmund, Castleton, in the Diocese of Derby, was once called ‘the church of Peak Castle’ . That was back in 1269, when Prince Edward (later Edward I) gave it to the Abbey of Vale Royal, in Cheshire. The current church is a mix of styles, but there is an impressive tower at the west end, with what are described as ‘crocketed pinnacles’ on the battlements.
The small Derbyshire town of Castleton is famous for a number of things; Peveril Castle, a Norman fortification which dominates the skyline; ‘Blue John’, a unique semi-precious mineral which is used to produce the signature jewelry of the same name; the caverns and show caves – including ‘Titan’ the biggest cave in Britain - underneath the nearby Peak District hills; and the Castleton Garland Day. St. Edmund’s Church in the center of the village plays a big part in this event, which is usually held on Oak Apple Day, May 29th (an oak apple is a type of plant gall, found on oak trees)
This festival commemorates the restoration of the Stuart dynasty, in the person of King Charles II, to the throne of England in 1660. Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, wrote,
“Parliament had ordered the 29 of May, the King’s birthday, to be for ever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny and the King’s return to his Government, he entering London that day.”
The whole town as well as people from miles around come to see the Garland King paraded through the centre of Castleton wearing a most elaborate outfit, which covers him from the waist upwards, like a giant inverted ice cream cone, woven from spring flowers and greenery. He is accompanied by his Consort, who also rides the same route; fortunately, she doesn’t have to wear an incredibly heavy ‘garland’. At the end of their ride their horses are lead into St Edmund’s churchyard, where the garland is finally lifted from the ‘Kings’ shoulders, and hauled by rope to the top of the church tower. It is displayed there for a week. A small part of the garland, called the Queen Posey, is removed and carried to the town war memorial. Sprigs of oak leaves are worn by many, to commemorate the fact that King Charles II hid in an oak tree to escape Parliamentary troopers, as he fled to France.
Oak Apple Day is no longer an official holiday, but various communities celebrate it in some fashion. It is highly likely that what we are seeing is a holdover from pre-Roman times, when the local Celtic tribe, the Brigantes, would have held a fertility festival to welcome back the warm sun. Castleton may be small, but it is full of hidden delights!