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Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers, 1998
Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers. Photo credit: Brian Shuel

This is England [Folk Roots, 1997]

As Boss Morris help to reignite the country's interest in traditional culture, we dig into the fRoots archive to see how these things are cyclical. Back in 1997, Colin Irwin celebrated a culture every bit as exotic as the most distant of World Music destinations.

The simplified logo for fRoots magazine, made up of an F and an R on a maroon background.
Release Date
1 April 1997
This article, dating from April 1997, was originally published in Folk Roots Magazine, issue 166. Folk Roots (which became fRoots) ran from 1979-2019 (RIP). We republish this edited version of the original article here on Tradfolk.co with kind permission.

We get around in Folk Roots. Every month we feature death-defying stories from South America, wild high jinks from Eastern Europe, bizarre traditions from Africa… and the most thrillingly exotic collections of music, customs and captivating personalities from a whole network of countries and continents few of us scarcely knew existed. Lucy Duran, for one, should instantly be given the highest award in the land for her captivating insights into world music.

But there’s one fascinating territory that even Lucy has yet to uncover with her informed prose. A country dripping in extraordinary traditions and culture yet barely discovered even by your average world roots fanatic. An island country off Northern Europe where the ancient traditions date beyond history, but are still enthusiastically observed and honoured in a mind-boggling calendar of richly colourful customs and rituals. Some are so weird as to beggar belief, inviting unyielding scorn from cynical, modern worldliness, yet steadfastly maintained with zealous respect by protective, dedicated keepers of a past that has long since obscured the original motivation for these strange ceremonies.

It’s an oddly mysterious land with roots as wonderfully magical as anywhere in the world, inspiring a wide arc of uplifting music to match.

Laydeez’n’gennelmen, I give thee… England!

No, don’t laugh. This isn’t one of those earnest academic pieces, painstakingly tracking the history of Morris dancing and its social implications to society. You want to know the evolution of the shepherd’s hey and the cultural significance of bean-setting? Go camp out at Cecil Sharp House for a few centuries. You want a thesis on why mummers plays are the original working-class social commentaries? Don’t ask me, guv, I only popped in for a pint.

Padstow May Day Obby Oss. Photo credit: Brian Shuel
Padstow May Day Obby Oss. Photo credit: Brian Shuel

Far from dying out, these customs appear to be growing in popularity and majesty by the year.

But let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Padstow. It’s May Day Eve as a bunch of chancers, wide boys and giggling Scandinavians tumble off the London train at Penzance. It’s back-packs a-go-go and suitcases shaped like that as we eye one another suspiciously, pretend to know where we’re going, and realise at a stroke that we’re all heading for the same thing… the last bus to Padstow.

The driver suddenly emerges from nowhere to take charge of affairs. He eyes the frankly worrying outbreak of bad hair days, and the unmistakeable ghosts of Cliff Richard and Una Stubbs in Summer Holiday and says: “All for Padstow, are we?”

The Scandinavians nod furiously.

“Right,” says the driver purposefully. “Follow me!”

We pile into what looks like a school bus that undertook its maiden voyage circa 1881 and set off through country lanes with a haste that frequently defies gravity, while the driver regales us with unlikely tales of magic, mystery and outlandish Cornish folklore.

Hippies are singing, Scandinavians are shrieking, and some of us are hanging on for dear life as the driver roars ever-more erratically through the night, barely glancing at the scheduled bus stops en route, blissfully unconcerned whether or not they conceal anticipatory passengers.

Suddenly we hit a village and screech to a halt in a blaze of smoke and whoops of delight from the driver. “Anyone fancy a drink?” shouts the driver, and he’s out of the cab and in the bar before anyone has a chance to answer.

The rest of us edge shuffle nervously into the bar, half-expecting to encounter the cast of Straw Dogs inside. Two hours later we totter back on the bus, having made lifelong friends with the Scandinavians, sympathised profusely with an army of singer-songwriters about the iniquities of the record industry, cured the world’s ills with a Bulgarian juggler, heard the life story of an exiled Padstonian who lives in Canada but hasn’t missed a May Day for 20 years, sampled the landlord’s local pride and joy, and bear-hugged the driver. Several times.

“Best get on to Padstow, s’pose,” he’d said eventually, gazing longingly into the bottom of his fourth pint. “Anyone for Padstow?” he yelled and marched back on the bus without another word. We left the Scandinavians in the bar. Rumour has it they’re still there.

Every May Day Padstow is collectively overtaken by a rampaging fever that seems to grip the whole town in thrilling madness

Arriving in Padstow deep into the night and the place is humming. Every bar heaves, music of all shapes and descriptions belches from every orifice. The streets are packed and everywhere you look there is singing, dancing and serious partying.

Padstow is Cornwall’s 6th Century ecclesiastical capital, described in the guidebooks as a, “quiet antiquated fishing town on the Cornish north coast with narrow, unspoilt streets converging on its harbour”. For most of the year it contentedly meets that description, drifting along in its own idyll disturbed only by the annual influx of holidaymakers admiring the picturesque quay, the vicious waves and the stonework on St Petroc’s Church.

But every May Day Padstow is collectively overtaken by a rampaging fever that seems to grip the whole town in thrilling madness. It’s street theatre; it’s impromptu music shows; it’s endless buskers; it’s dressing up and dancing and embracing complete strangers and doing things you wouldn’t normally dream of doing; it’s drinking all night; its complete mayhem, frankly. Think of the world’s great celebrations – the carnivals in Trinidad and Rio and Notting Hill; Mardi Gras in New Orleans; the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona. Imagine a whole ritual of peculiar customs and music specific to the occasion and compress it into the streets of this otherwise unremarkable harbour town and you may get an inkling of the mood of Padstow. It is, without doubt, one of the world’s most remarkable natural events with its own ritualistic customs steeped in a symbolic folklore that few of the participants understand or probably care about, yet fervently recreate as if tied by some invisible umbilical cord to ancient history.

The Oss’s head thrusts out from the skirts viciously snapping its jaws with primitive phallic imagery.

The partying begins all through May Day Eve, but the fun officially starts when the church bell strikes midnight and the masses packed outside the Golden Lion launch into their own distinctive ‘Morning Song’. The singers then march around the town visiting selected houses while the body count starts to rise in the main street.

Sleep, of course, is for pansies and you need to be up early to catch the two Obby Oss teams decorating the town and preparing their charges for the spectacular parades that are the focal point of May Day.

The Obby Osses are bizarre… huge, ungainly and faintly grotesque constructions. A satanic mask that looks more appropriate to Halloween than May Day on top of a heavy black canvas built around a six-foot diameter hoop, while the Oss’s head thrusts out from the skirts viciously snapping its jaws with primitive phallic imagery.

Rival support for the two Osses divide the town, with locals nailing their customs to the mast, wearing ribbons and rosettes representing the favoured colours of their chosen beast in the manner of footie supporters. Such is the adrenalin-fuelled hysteria that erupts around the event, there are times when they behave like them too. Fans of The Old Oss wear red and supporters of the Blue Ribbon Oss, still considered by some as something of a young imposter despite its unbroken presence at the ceremony since 1919, wear… er… blue.

However daft this may all seem, the effect as the Osses dance into action is electrifying. In a ritual that starts at 10am and continues all day, the Oss swoops and dives among the crowd, encouraged and goaded by the strutting ‘Teaser’, wielding, with alarming abandon, a pole that could seriously damage your health, while a troupe of accompanying musicians belt out the famous ‘Padstow May Day’ song, possessively guarded down the years by Padstonians, to the relentless beating of the drums which you’ll be hearing in your sleep for weeks to come. The music is irresistibly hypnotic, like some kind of left-field mantra, and the whole spectacle is both dignified and totally bonkers.

May Day is, of course, long-established as a landmark in the English rural calendar, ushering in the summer and the raucousness associated with Padstow may well have been commonplace at one time. It was those dull old Victorians apparently, who turned May Day into a largely anodyne occasion. Minehead, 100 miles from Padstow, is the only other town that maintains a traditional Obby Oss of its own, but the Minehead Oss has failed to capture public imagination, or indeed local enthusiasm, with anything like the same degree as its Padstow counterpart. Arguments still rage about the true origins of the tradition, though popular research suggests the Oss may have first appeared during the siege of Calais in 1346 when boatloads of Frenchmen started turning up at Padstow harbour. The ill-prepared locals responded by building a fearsome model of a horse and took it to the quayside in the curious belief that the Frenchmen were so thick they’d think they were being confronted by a vision of The Devil himself and sail back to France pronto. A stupid wheeze, but it worked apparently and the legend of the Padstow Obby Oss was secure. For the next six centuries at least.

Eerie truth or complete bunkum, it matters not, for Padstow plays host to a unique event that will entrance, enthral and possibly be the death of anyone who encounters it.

We went down to Padstow in ‘62 and the whole thing was so explosive for us. It really did influence us in an incredible way.

Norma Waterson

The Watersons were deeply affected when they visited early in their careers.

“We went down to Padstow in ‘62 and the whole thing was so explosive for us,” says Norma Waterson. “It really did influence us in an incredible way. The fact that this still went on in England – we’d never come across anything like it. We then went out of our way to look for traditional ceremonies and music to go with it, and Frost And Fire came out of that. The roots are so deep, I feel very, very connected whenever I go into one of these ceremonies. I feel almost that this is what it’s all about. For the people of Padstow, it’s the most important day of the year. More important than Christmas or New Year.

“From things like Padstow, which are incredible really, we’ve discovered little tiny ceremonies like the Penny Hedge thing which happens on Ascension Eve in Whitby. It’s just three men building a little hedge and a hornblower comes along and shouts ‘Out on ye, out on ye’. The hedge has to last three tides and it’s a penance for the descendants of three families. It’s so strange and quirky and it’s been going on for 900 years!”

And what are we to make of Abbots Bromley?

So there you are minding your own business taking in the Staffordshire countryside before breakfast on a pleasant Sunday in early September, and who should you bump into but a bunch of guys dressed in medieval costumes performing a peculiar dance with antlers on their heads! Well, what else would it be? “Mein Gott”, you mutter, thinking you maybe should have given the sauce a miss last night, and then you realise it’s for real. Real blokes with real antlers on their heads and a real bloke dressed up as Maid Marion and a real Fool and a real Hobby Horse and a real geezer with a bow and arrow, all dancing around from farm to farm as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Which it pretty much is to them. So natural, in fact, that you subconsciously avert your eyes and stroll casually on as if you’re always bumping into a bunch of dancing antlers on your travels.

In fact, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers perhaps represent the single most bizarre curio in a nation full of them. Again, few coherent explanations can be offered for their extraordinary behaviour, though given the antlers, the smart money would involve some sort of connection to hunting. Whatever, there they are on the first Sunday after September 4th every year, kicking off at 8am and dancing non-stop an estimated 20 miles through the area from farms to local halls to various hostelries before winding up in the village’s main street at night where, you fondly imagine, they remove horns, dive into the nearest bar and get completely rat-arsed.

It’s said that in the last century the dancers’ journey covered a much broader territory and it was four days before they got home again. Nowadays they tend to be cheered along their route by a motley mixture of locals and visitors as they go on their quest dispensing goodwill and fertility. The horns are mounted on carved wooden deer heads, with three painted white and three black. At strategic points in their journey, the white engage the black heads and lock horns in a ritual mock battle.

The whole thing takes on an almost surreal air when you discover their leader is a lorry driver from Uttoxeter

The whole thing takes on an almost surreal air when you discover their leader is a lorry driver from Uttoxeter and most of the dancers seem to belong to the Fowell family. Even more unexpected is the fact that they have no formal tradition of music for their dances, but their accordionist has an open brief which he appears to extend to the full, sometimes encompassing the hits of the day. Prepare to hear Oasis echoing through Abbots Bromley at dawn this September.

There are all sorts of myths about the horns themselves at Abbots Bromley. Superstition decrees they must never be taken out of the local parish, but expert examination suggests the particular horns used not only date back to the 11th Century, they are actually reindeer horns from a species that became extinct in Britain centuries earlier. Small wonder they became extinct if a bunch of mad dancers kept coming along sawing off their antlers…

Bampton Morris Dancers, 1997.
Bampton Morris. Photo credit: Brian Shuel

England is dripping in quaint, apparently pointless ceremonies that are still observed with solemn respect for tradition. Pace-egging plays in Yorkshire at Easter; Shrove Tuesday pancake races in Bucks; the Helston Furry Dance in Cornwall on May 8; street football matches all over the place all year; well-dressing ceremonies throughout the spring and summer; Morris dancing seemingly at every local fete and pub forecourt during the summer; the hugely dangerous Guy Fawkes Day flaming tarrel-bar rolling in Ottery St Mary; and no end of mummers plays, sword dancing and localised carols predominantly in South Yorkshire and the northeast around Christmas.

There’s something deliciously right-on about a practice that has such deep, impenetrable roots as to defiantly resist the instant, supermarket culture of the modern world.

Quaint and pointless it very well may be, but there’s something deliciously right-on about a practice that has such deep, impenetrable roots as to defiantly resist the instant, supermarket culture of the modern world. And you know what? Far from dying out, these customs appear to be growing in popularity and majesty by the year. Morris dancing, fast on its way to extinction half a century ago, has assumed a new lease of life that has taken it way beyond the realms of its apparently natural habitat on the borders of the folk song revival. A constant feature of village fetes and rural pubs, Morris is once more restored to its former rank as a familiar and pleasing backdrop to summer life in England.

John Kirkpatrick, a Morris dancer on and off for 30-odd years as man and boy, speaks with almost religious fervour about the natural high and feeling of free-fall when you get into your stride with a good Morris side.

As a former Morris dancer myself, ha, (and there was a time I would have gone to endless lengths to keep that information firmly classified!) I do know what he means. The sides I was in were unprofessional and jokey (is there any other kind?) and strictly Beezer Homes League to John K’s Premiership, but even we felt in the grip of some indefinable uplifting spirit.

Few Morris dancers could ever cogently explain why they do it. You don’t don whites and bells and tell the wife, “Right darling, I’m just off to maintain England’s links with its pagan past to appease the gods and offer a few fertility rites so that our crops may grow and our women may bear rosy-cheeked children.”

But at the risk of sounding like some goofy old New Age hippy, there is something oddly spiritual about dancing Morris that overrides all the nonsense about the strictness of individual traditions, the endless controversies about whether or not women should be allowed to dance, and the entertaining squabbles that go on in and out of the Morris Ring.

Everyone knows that the higher you jump the higher the crops will grow…

Francis Shergold

Don’t tell Rod Stradling that Morris is just a dance…

Stradling is a regular guest musician with Bampton Morris and for several years he played melodeon with Old Spot Morris.

“There are a lot of Morris scholars who will tell you that it’s a fanciful notion that any of these old traditions were done for pagan fertility reasons and all the other reasons that were advanced in the ‘60s and ‘70s as to why these things were being done. They would say that was all nonsense and the only reason they were done was to earn a bit of money, which may be partly true, but I think there must be something a little more to it. Bampton don’t go out and dance all day with four dancers and one musician in the pouring rain knowing very well they are going to get no money at all for it. You don’t do that unless there’s something a little more important to it.

“Old Spot Morris started in about ‘73 and I joined just as they were getting a bit good and over a couple of years they got very good and started going out on tours and performing in public quite a bit. We began to notice that we never got rained on. On one occasion we went up to spend the weekend with Chingford Morris and it absolutely pissed down the entire day. We went to the pub and had a pint and everyone was very apprehensive, but Chingford finally went out to dance and got wet. Then we went out and it stopped raining. We went round with them the whole day and never had a spot of rain fall on us the whole day while we were dancing. This was so odd that we began to think maybe there was something in this and for three years while Old Spot was at its height, we never got rained on at all. During one of the long hot summers when there was a drought on we actually stopped dancing and cancelled a couple of engagements at the end of August just to make it rain again. And it did! We felt we had some responsibility here…”

Strange yet true… but hang on to your bells, it gets weirder than this…

“It rained on us once. We were dancing in Andoversford, which was the village in which the foreman of the Morris lived. It was a beautiful summer day at a lovely little village fete on a hill overlooking the village, clear blue sky. We got up to dance and somebody noticed this incredible black cloud suddenly appearing on the horizon. Whilst we were dancing, this cloud became rapidly larger and rapidly closer until it came over the top of us and the skies emptied. We thought ‘What the fuck is this about? This just doesn’t happen to us.’ We subsequently discovered the foreman had his hat ribbons on upside down. Make of that what you will…”

“A little later we were up on a tour with Garstang Morris in the North West. Because we never had any money we had this dreadful 1960s coach hired from the cheapest people we could find and it kept breaking down. It was deeply embarrassing – we had to get up in the morning and jump-start it and you had 15 Morris men pushing this coach. And Garstang, of course, had this wonderful brand new thing with tinted windows and a stereo and a driver in a uniform and fluorescent lights and all this stuff.”

“Anyway, we got through it and set off home. Halfway home the driver borrowed some money off us to get some diesel and then for reasons best known for himself he left the motorway to go across the Cotswolds. He drove through Evesham, where several petrol stations were open, went out the other side, up on to the Cotswolds four or five miles out of Evesham and suddenly came to a halt having run out of diesel. Then, without a word to anybody, he got out of his seat, walked down the steps, out the door, walked down the road, round the corner of the lane, and that was the last we saw of him!”

“Nothing happened for 20 minutes or so and it was quite hot and we fancied a drink. Then someone said ‘Look, we’re on top of the Cotswolds, we can make things happen. Everyone concentrate on the idea of a bottle of Guinness’, so we all did, at which point somebody got up, looked through his case and there at the bottom was a bottle of Guinness. We all had a swig of that, and then we waited for another hour and it was getting dark and cold and having done it with the Guinness we decided to see if we could do it with the coach. So we all got out and stood on the grass at the side of the road and got the two best jig dancers in the side and the musicians there frantically tried to figure out a jig tune from the tune of the Cotswold Anthem which we used to do.”

“So we played and the two best dancers danced a jig and the idea was that while they were doing it we would all think about a coach like the one Garstang had. We did the dance and got back into the coach, and before the last person had sat down, this coach came past. It went round the corner out of sight and we all went ‘Bloody hell!’ A minute or two later it came back and stopped and the driver offered us a lift. So we all got on the coach and it took us back to Cheltenham. Poor old Ken Langsbury got on the coach and said ‘I’m absolutely terrified, I do not believe this is real!’ That was it. We never heard anything from the coach company, they never sent us a bill, we never heard another word about it.”

“So when people say this stuff doesn’t do magic, I say well no, it probably doesn’t. On the other hand there are 20 people who will tell you some very strange stories about what it does appear to do…”

Bampton Morris. Photo credit: Ian A. Anderson
Bampton Morris. Photo credit: Ian A. Anderson

The undisputed monarchs of Morris, however, are Bampton. Whitsun in Bampton is something else. A tiny Oxfordshire village that for four days at Whitsuntide is submerged in a joyous carnival of music and dancing, attracting visitors from all over the country. There are now three thriving Morris sides in Bampton who can all call on upwards of 20 members to dance Morris strictly in the Bampton tradition.

A far cry from that miserable, wet Whit Monday in the ‘50s when the squire Francis Shergold could rustle only four dancers plus one musician, Jack Newton from Aylesbury to perform the annual ritual and the tradition looked dead and buried.

Francis, now 77, and a recent recipient of the EFDSS’s highest accolade, the Gold Badge, recently retired after 60 years with the side, handing over the squireship on a democratic vote to Tony Daniels, a young doctor from the village. He hands with it the most celebrated dancing tradition in the country, involving strictly observed rules about membership being confined to those born and bred in the village, and who must dance the Bampton tradition only.

“I came to live in Bampton when I was 12 and I used to watch the dancers practising. When I was 16, the squire, Jinky Wells, asked me to join in and I danced with them for 60 years. It’s been my whole life really. We used to go round the big houses dancing, and we used to get a decent crowd even then. But now the crowds are so big things have to be much more organised and we have a whole route mapped out in advance and police and everything. The whole thing used to be much slower.”

Morris has also thrown up some magnificent music, as anyone acquainted with the Ashley Hutchings/ John Kirkpatrick Morris On and Son Of Morris On albums projects will tell you. Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson have also memorably performed Morris tunes, while the imagery of the dancer driven to self-destruction by his uncontrollable passion for the dance has been used by an assortment of writers. With such a rich fund of drama, spectacle and good music at our fingertips you wonder if that nice Cameron Mackintosh couldn’t be persuaded to put together an English Riverdance, massed Morris men and all.

But then again, why mortgage your life away to see on stage what you can find on the streets around you?

The tentacles of Morris spread wide these days, particularly when you incorporate its affiliated traditions of pace-egging, mummers plays and sword-dancing. The proud and smart Yorkshire longsword dancers of Grenoside, Handsworth and Goathland… the spectacular rapper sword dancers, traditionally associated with the mining villages of Durham and Northumberland… the stirring cloggies of Lancashire… the Morris men (and now women too) from the Cotswolds and almost everywhere else… these really are the lords of the dance.

England’s curious network of customs appear to be in remarkably vigorous health, dispensing fertility, magic and good luck with reckless abandon.

“Do we believe in the magical powers of Morris?” says Francis Shergold, shocked that we should even ask. “Of course we do. Everyone knows that the higher you jump the higher the crops will grow… well, it makes a good story, doesn’t it?”

For an informed guide to English customs we heartily recommend Bob Pegg’s book Rites And Riots: Folk Customs Of Britain And Europe (Blandford); and Brian Shuel’s entertaining but sadly out-of-print National Trust Guide To Traditional Customs Of Britain.

This is a TradFolk-edited version of the original piece, published in 1997 by Folk Roots.