Royal May Day Festival
Every year, on the first Saturday in May, Knutsford holds a May Day festival. The festival dates from 1864 when the first May Day procession was held. The procession moves through the town to the Heath where the crowning ceremony of the May Queen takes place. This is accompanied by music and dancing including dancing around the Maypole.
The festival rapidly increased in popularity from its modest beginnings. This was helped greatly by the fact that the railway had arrived in 1862, making Knutsford readily accessible from neighbouring towns. During Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year in 1887, Knutsford was visited by the Prince and Princess of Wales. They witnessed the May Day parade and crowning ceremony and were pleased to allow the festival to be known thereafter as the Royal May Day festival.
During the May Day weekend there is also a large funfair on The Heath. This is said to be one of the largest travelling funfairs in the UK.
Records show that there was horse racing on The Heath for more than 200 years. Here the gentry from Cheshire country houses raced their horses and gambled at the cock pit.
A 1791 guide to Cheshire noted that:
“The annual race meeting at Knutsford is remarkable for being honoured with a more brilliant assemblage of nobility and gentry than any other in the country; not excepting even Chester”
An 1815 print entitled “The Adventures of Knutsford Racecourse” shows a large grandstand, stalls and booths. In 1865 a more elegant grandstand was opened by The Knutsford Grandstand Company. They were hoping to attract customers arriving on the railway that had recently arrived in the town. Races were advertised and special trains ran. Unfortunately the arrival of the newcomers meant that the old supporters, the Cheshire gentry, lost interest. Racing ended in 1873 when Lord Egerton refused permission to use The Heath.
The Heath has witnessed a number of significant military gatherings.
During the Civil War both Royalists and Parliamentarians camped on The Heath which then covered a larger area than it does today.
In 1644 Prince Rupert made camp with his Royalist troops on The Heath. Later in August 1651 it was the turn of Parliamentarians with some 12,000 troops under the command of General Lambert to camp there.
At the time of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion the Cheshire Militia was assembled on the Heath and marched to Manchester to help stop the southwards march of the Jacobite army. In the event, strong action at Preston had caused the collapse of the Jacobite cause and the troops did not engage.
Most recently, American troops were camped on the Heath during the second world war.
Most of this information and more can be found in the book: “Knutsford. A History” by Joan Leach.