Saturday, 2 July 2022

Morris Men (and Women!)

The family surname - the one I was born with - is Dommett, a good old West Country name, and we are especially thick on the ground in East Devon and South Somerset, with offshoots in Hampshire and Gloucestershire. 

I am incidentally no relation to Joel Dommett the comedian, at least not so far as I know; besides, the example of Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (formerly one of the country's leading comedians) bears out the notion that successful comedians are clever, quick-witted, politically nimble, and in touch with real life. So we must have different genes, as I can't claim those attributes.  

Nor am I any relation to Roy Dommett, once the country's Chief Missile Scientist, the man behind a series of rockets and missiles you may have heard of, such as Black Knight, Blue Streak, Black Arrow, Polaris and Trident. He's in Wikipedia: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Dommett.

Roy Dommett had another passion: country dancing of various kinds, including Morris Dancing. It does seem a bizarre thing for a leading scientist with heavy responsibilities to also be interested in strange ritualised cavortings on village greens and outside pubs. Or maybe this is what most people do when their official working life is secret and heavyweight - balance things out with something completely different. 

He died in 2015. I never knew him, nor had any connection whatever, but I discovered some twenty years ago that he was a leading light in the Morris Dancing world. That was intriguing; but as I was not (and am still not) remotely interested in folk and country dancing - nor any dancing, come to that - it was a distinction that I could not appreciate. As for Morris Dancing itself, I noticed fliers stuck to lamp-posts and notice boards now and then, advertising the forthcoming visitation of this or that troupe of Morris Dancers, but I was never tempted to go and see them perform. Which is rather odd of me, considering that I always go out with a camera, and it would have been one of those countryside events that might provide at least a few good pictures. 

But recently I got a taste of what I'd been missing. It was while I was on holiday at Ashwell in northern Hertfordshire, a place well within easy striking distance of northern Essex, which is an area of outstandingly pretty countryside, containing several picturesque small towns and villages. Completely different from the Thames-estuary image of Essex epitomised by Southend and Canvey Island, or loud beach resorts like Clacton. In fact two-thirds of Essex is lush countryside with an empty feel. 

I went first to Thaxted, which has three must-see things for the tourist: its windmill, its famous town hall, and its amazing spired church. Notwithstanding that, I hadn't been to Thaxted since 2006. The reason? I couldn't stomach the awful Dartford Crossing traffic queues before they got rid of the physical toll booths - which created a dreadful bottleneck and slowed the flow of the traffic down to a standstill - and put the toll-paying online. Nowadays the traffic flows easily, and the one-way online toll of £2.50 (even with a caravan in tow) doesn't put me off an occasional foray into Essex. Much of Essex is easily doable from Sussex as a day trip. Being able to get there will become ever more important as my stamina for long-distance travel decreases with age, although I hasten to say that such decrepitude is still a long way off! 

Here are a few shots, taken of course with LXV. 


The church at Thaxted was a big one, with many nooks and crannies. One corner was given over to refreshments - an entire panel of serving ladies, very eager to talk, very friendly, who gave me tea and cake and claimed never before to have had a visitor wishing to pay by phone. But they had a machine to hand, and a man who knew his stuff tethered it to his phone, and enabled me to pay electronically. Space Age or what? Wheee. Here are those ladies. LXV was becoming adept at taking unobtrusive shots for me.


And this is what I took away to a table to scoff.


That jettied town hall is rather a trademark of Thaxted.

Digressing a bit, I discovered that bell-ringing must be a big thing hereabouts. There were plenty of charts and notices and certificates in the bell-tower.


That's the first time I've seen a chart like that, attempting to explain how various changes are constructed, and the right bell sequence for ringing them. It all looks fiendishly mathematical and complicated to me, but no doubt depends entirely on having a good bell captain, a simple ability to count, and a competent rope-pulling technique. Alas, I know that I would most certainly miscount or somehow get confused. So I'm never going to offer my services. Besides, I'm away too often to commit myself to anything like this. 

In another corner was a little exhibition devoted to the Thaxted Morris Men, with their particular 'uniform' and other regalia, and some nice pictures taken during the 1970s. 


Ah, merry country village life! That was Thaxted before Stanstead Airport was developed into what it is today, when no jets were flying over every five minutes, and when there were more tractors than cars in the streets. I don't suppose there are such things as village choirboys nowadays, either: only the semi-pro youths who sing and record for the university college chapels. So many things have disappeared from ordinary village life in the last fifty years. People - visitors from big towns especially - are nostalgic for them, and cherish what remains. Maybe that explains why Morris Dancing endures. I mean, it can't simply be an excuse to dress up in unusual and unmanly costumes (and get away with it), and drink lots of beer, can it? 

Let us pass seamlessly to Finchingfield, not far away from Thaxted, another place I hadn't been to since 2006, which to my mind was even more attractive, having a large scenic green with a big duck pond, and (of course) pubs galore. A magnet for anyone with two or four wheels, but somehow able to swallow the crowds and look lovely, at least in sunshine. Here are some pictures of Finchingfield, again courtesy of LXV:


The zoom on my camera is modest, but useful. 

Finchingfield has a tucked-away windmill too. I made the effort to see it, as that would get me half-way up the steep hill using easy slopes. 


My objective was the church (surely Thaxted's equal), but this ochre-coloured pub caught my eye as I limped up the hill.


Or more particularly, the knot of spectators at its side car park, and the sound of accordions and jingling bells. Aha, Morris Dancing in progress. I decided to get closer and secure a few shots.


I wonder what those handkerchiefs were meant to represent? It wasn't all men: there was a woman in that line-up. Judging by their costume, I thought these dancers must be from Thaxted. I was right. Asking, I was told that Morris Dancers had come in by coach from Thaxted and two other villages, to compete with each other. Who knows where the coaches were discreetly parked, but considering the amount of beer being swilled (by the men at least), it was clearly a good idea to have such transport.


The nearest musician, getting a funny look from the one next to him, seemed to have a grudge against one of the dancers. Or was it one of the flowery-hatted team captains? Anyway, he was disgruntled. I encountered him later, down at the duck pond, and we had a brief conversation. There was a bit of 'professional jealousy' going on, so far as I could gather, although I couldn't grasp quite why. I imagine that, behind the jolly public scenes, questions of fairness and prestige might well arise, and no doubt Morris Dancing is in reality a cut-throat business. This might explain why so many people are murdered in TV dramas set in pretty country villages. No doubt bell-ringing is also in the background of many a country vendetta.


I couldn't get in too close, so I was so grateful for LXV having a zoom. But I also dodged around the parked cars and spectators for a better view. Nobody minded my moving around so purposefully. I think they saw the red Leica dot and thought I must be a pro on her day off. Or, as I was almost the only person there with a proper camera - the only woman at any rate - everyone else shooting with their phone - they apparently thought I should have some precedence in getting a clear shot. 


A rival dancer from another village looks on, assessing form.

I chatted to spectators too. I found myself joining a very friendly lady supping a large refreshing gin and tonic, and indeed debated whether to pop in and get one for myself. But I didn't want to miss any of the proceedings. Her daughter and little grand-daughter were with her, and presently we were joined by her husband, who was one of the rival dancing captains. Being on my own, I was reluctant to abandon this pleasant convivial conversation, and so missed shooting some of the next dancing, this time by one of the other teams. But people-contact comes before photos! 


Those men in especially flowery hats and extra-elaborate costumes were the dance captain and his deputy (or whatever their proper titles are). They seemed to take no part in the actual dancing, but stood aside with solemn faces and big tankards, supping their ale carefully while muttering together sotto voce. It must be an exacting task, a dull duty, and a heavy responsibility - even a burden - leading a team of Morris Dancers. Although that woman's husband was himself very cheerful when not superintending.

I do hope readers are not bored by my wallowing in this (for me) very novel and unusual experience. You're not? More pictures then. Another team of dancers had taken over, showing their skill with staves.


So it was clack-clack! every few seconds, and it seemed to me that this was a potentially injurious form of dancing, where over-enthusiasm, or a misjudgement, or too much honest country ale, could result in bruised fingers or broken nails. Still, more exciting, and more to my taste, than waving handkerchiefs had been. And just as strenuous, if not more so. Really, you'd have to be pretty fit to do this for very long.


I liked it when they thumped the staves on the ground. 


I'm sure there is never any danger of clobbering a bystander by accident, but even so I was happy to zoom in while standing at a safe distance.


Strewth! It's getting serious! You can just imagine stave-dancing couples thrashing it out inside their cottage, if one or other ever oversteps the mark. Or they might lie in wait for each other, and pounce when the door opens. You know, like in the old Pink Panther films, when Inspector Clouseau (played by Peter Sellers) comes home knowing that his manservant Cato (Bert Kwouk) will be lurking, ready to attack him using martial arts. It's a way of saying 'Welcome home!' 


But it all ended with friendly hopping and capering. Still, I can't help thinking that this mock-combat with stout heavy staves is but a toned-down ritual relic of serious and perhaps deadly medieval fighting between the thugs of rival villages. 

Then it was the turn of a troupe of girls and ladies. I much admired their costume, mostly green, and cut to emphasise those fruitful womanly hips and bottoms so dear to the hearts of lusty country men. 


They didn't leap about as the men had. It was all slower and more dignified, as if they were already quick with child and had to be careful. (I am letting my notions of traditional country life run riot) I loved the brightly-coloured leggings, and was very curious to know where they might have got those clog-like shoes. But I didn't get the chance to ask. I dare say a little research on the Internet will provide the answer.

Across the road was the church. The next thing for me. I won't mention what I found there in this post. But as I emerged, I saw from a passageway that the Morris Men were starting to make their way down the hill to the green, either to go home, or (more likely) refresh themselves for further exertions at a different public house. They were nicely framed as they passed. Locals too.


If they saw me, they smiled. 'It's that woman with the camera,' they probably said. The camera set me apart from them, making me a recorder of transient scenes and yet not part of any scene: separate, only a visitor. Not aloof, mind you; but definitely an observer rather than a performer - unless my taking pictures was in itself a performance for their benefit, my own contribution to the event as it were. Implying that I appreciated what I saw, and judged it very well worth remembering and preserving with a picture taken. (One could get very philosophical about this)


I fell into conversation with that man with the dog. He was waiting for his wife. She soon arrived, fresh from the pub. She looked young, but they had been married nineteen years, so she was presumably in her forties, and he must have acquired his distinguished grey hair at quite an early age. She was very vivacious, and embraced me. Had I seen the church? Yes, I'd just been inside for a good long look. Ah, but had I been up the bell tower and got the aerial view of the entire village? No; I couldn't see any way up. She'd show me! Come on! No, I'm sorry, I can't do steps. 

How I wished I didn't have a bad knee. It would have been one of those unmissable experiences. Oh well.

So now back to Fiona, and then back to Ashwell via a place called Steeple Bumpstead. You couldn't invent these Essex village names if you tried.

FOOTNOTE
Well, well! It seems (from a little Internet research) that I stumbled innocently and accidentally upon one of the events in the Thaxted Morris Mens' three-day dancing festival in June. Also that the visiting female troupe were probably the Chelmsford Ladies. I haven't so far sourced those rather attractive dancing shoes or clogs they were wearing. I'd want a red pair.

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