Photo Credit: Jeff Pitcher

Deep-rooted in traditional 18th-century celebrations to ring in the beginning of summer, Hastings’ Jack in the Green is much like any other folk festival held in the UK, of which there are many, and yet so often people appear confused, bemused, and stare at me wide-eyed and agog when I explain a typical May bank holiday weekend in our fair town.

Photo by JJ Waller

I mean, what’s so unusual about thousands of people lining the streets to cheer on a parade of green people covered in leaves, groups of Morris dancers, chimney sweeps, belly dancers, and drumming groups all led by a man inside a big bush donning a crown? What’s strange about following said parade, with a few pub stops thrown in for good measure, before making yourself comfortable on a windy hill with squashed sandwiches and a pint to watch people dance around a maypole?

I think the point at which most people feel at odds is when I tell them about ‘slaying the Jack’ to release the spirit of summer – oh, and the old chap dressed up like a green Gandalf with a dildo secured to the top of his staff. I guess it’s not everyone’s average bank holiday Monday…

A design spread by Richard Robinson for Get Hastings Issue 5. Photo by Euan Baker of someone holding up a green smoke bomb
A design spread by Richard Robinson for Get Hastings Issue 5. Photo by Euan Baker

Actually, the festivities take place from the Friday beforehand, where live music, workshops, and public drum-offs are among some of the highlights on the build-up to the main event on the Monday. If you’re dedicated enough, you’ll even show up for Dancing in the Dawn on the West Hill at 5am on 1st May (which is much more bearable when it’s not chucking it down).

My group of friends and I attend Jack in the Green every year and move things around in our calendar to make sure we don’t miss out; holidays, work, weddings have all been sacrificed for the cause, because it’s such an important event to us and I think most of the local community feel the same.

“It’s an essential on my calendar every year,” says local Jack in the Green enthusiast Emma Shaw. “I love how it brings everyone together. It’s full of fun and quirky madness. There’s something for all ages to enjoy – everyone’s welcome.”

Known for her ivy trail facepainting and having drummed with Section 5 for the last five years, artist and teacher Jo Richardson says, “I’ve been attending Jack in the Green since I was 11 or 12-years-old, so about 32 years, and only missed one in that time! The procession is a sight to see and a complete sensory overload and explosion of artistic expression. I love dressing up in my green medieval outfit with oversized headdress. Each year I look around and am inspired by other people’s costumes to add more to my own. I just love it and everything it embraces – it’s my favourite day of the year, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Speaking to Keith Leech MBE, Chair and Founder of Hastings Jack in the Green, he tells me how it all began. “I became interested in English folk culture when I was at university in Wales. I was struck by the difference between how the Welsh celebrated their cultural heritage and how the English didn’t even know about theirs. As I started to look deeper into it, I realised that England has probably got one of the richest cultures in Europe. Jack in the Green is such a British custom with a fascinating history and I felt it was important to maintain and look after it – to make sure it survived.”

Keith Leech MBE courtesy of Jack in the Green
Keith Leech MBE courtesy of Jack in the Green

Having moved to London with a group of likeminded people, Keith got involved in local Jacks in the Green, including the largest in the area in Deptford. “When I moved to Hastings I kind of missed all of it,” he tells me, “so I started doing some research and discovered that Hastings had lots of information on Jacks in the Green, and therefore it became obvious what needed to be done!”

In 1983 Keith launched the first Hastings Jack in the Green. “From incredibly small beginnings – where there were about 20 of us – it’s now grown into this massive thing, it’s something people desired and wanted to be part of. There is definitely something in the 21st century psyche that makes people want to do this sort of thing. Across the country, traditional customs are being mobbed by people who want to see and join in. Jack in the Green provides that, it ticks all those cultural boxes, community cohesion, it just resonates with people. In the early years it was helped considerably by that group in London – they still come down, we’re still all great friends.”

He tells me he finds joy in Jack in the Green every year, and how each is better than the last. “It’s all lovely, that’s the nice thing, there’s nothing horrible or nasty about it, everybody’s smiling, it brings happiness and all those good things. It gives me a massive buzz seeing the Jack come out and then parading through the town.”

Over the last few years funding has been one of Keith’s main concerns, “It was never intended to be as big as it is, but it’s grown in popularity and with more people comes more expense – we have to pay for all sorts of things people don’t even think about: insurance, security, toilets – they’re one of the most expensive things we have to provide! And as it grows, we need
more of everything.”

When Jack in the Green was in its infancy, Hastings Borough Council offered to fund and help grow the event, but in recent years cuts have taken their toll. “We’ve had to find ways to make ends meet.”

Keith is adamant about keeping Jack in the Green free for everyone to attend, “This is a community event for the local community, it would go completely against our ethos if we started charging people to come.”

What he wants most is local support and awareness to ensure the festival can keep going in future. “Our biggest expense is out on the West Hill because there are no facilities there, so we have to provide everything. The cleanup alone last year cost us £3,000 because people couldn’t be arsed to take their rubbish home! We have to try and get money back in somehow, so that means collection buckets, more expensive drinks – we have to fund it somehow. One possibility next year is that we try to make it smaller and not use the West Hill. We just need people to be more aware of how much it costs to put on.”

Photo: Euan Baker
Jack in the Green Traditional Costume
Euan Baker
Euan Baker
Photo by JJ Waller

To help protect it, Keith tells me there’s a chance Jack in the Green could be eligible for UNESCO status. “Jack in the Green members have been trying to get the UK to ratify the UNESCO treaty on intangible cultural heritage, meaning the nation would list its customs in the same way it lists its ancient buildings – so that’s what we’re aiming for at the moment.”

So Hastings, in order to keep our favourite event of the year running and free for all, get involved – put money in the collection buckets, take your rubbish away with you, and don’t complain about the price of the beer! There’s also a Crowdfunder link on the Jack in the Green website. Stay weird – we’ll see you on the West Hill! ⚫