THE EXPECTANT audience didn’t need warming up after an afternoon of glorious sunshine on the South Downs.

But the sight of a 30-foot Wickerman going up in flames definitely fired up the crowd at Butser Ancient Farm on Saturday.

The amazing spectacle was the highlight of a record-breaking Beltain Festival which drew more than 2,300 people to the heritage attraction near Chalton.

It was also the biggest in their history with tickets selling out in advance of the festival, which traditionally welcomes the start of the warm summer months.

“It was definitely the biggest and the demand surprised everyone including us,” said the farm’s project co-ordinator, Trevor Creighton.

“It’s never sold out before so, unfortunately, we had to turn a lot of people away, which was a big shame.”

A falconry display was an addition to this year’s festival while visitors were also treated to a lesson in leather tanning and a performance by the South Downs Folk Singers.

The event was also educational with visitors learning how Bronze Age inhabitants made tools, clothing and fire.

The bar was busy all afternoon while performances by the Pentacle Drummers, Ed Goodale and Yee Haa Granma all struck a chord with the crowds on the hillside.

But the Wickerman and his forthcoming demise was the biggest talking point, with this year’s behemoth taking the shape of a Roman centurion.

Having taken weeks to assemble, the sustainably-sourced wickerman took less than a couple of hours to meet his maker. In previous years, wicker creations representing a shepherd, archer, Saxon, hunter and Green Man had all been symbolically burned.

“We have a different theme each year so this year we decided it was time to burn a Roman,” said Mr Creighton, before adding: “It was about time and I think that delighted a few Celts in the crowd.”

On social media, the reaction was equally positive.

“An incredible time with such wonderful people today,” said Steph West on the the farm’s Facebook page.

“I’d urge many to seek the variety of activities there.”