Repost of lost article – Beer, Bells and Bears

Beer, Bells and Bears

from Alex Beecroft’s Blogger blog by Alex Beecroft

Nobody who has suggested that the British are a phlegmatic, rational, buttoned up and repressed sort of people can have possibly ever been to any of the folk events that go on around the country on various obscure saints days and festivals.

I’ve just come home and thawed out from attending the Whittlesey Straw Bear festival, which was, I have to say, absolutely fabulous in a ‘this makes no sense but go with it anyway’ style.

It was bitterly cold.  So cold that in T-shirt, woolly jumper, fleece and calf long fake-fur coat, *with* the hood up over my knitted hat, looking a bit like a straw bear myself, I was still chilled to the bone.  However, it was the weekend before Plough Monday – the day when the ploughs are blessed and work begins on the fields in preparation for planting the corn.  The little town of Whittlesey had held a straw bear festival from time immemorial to mark the day.

(This year they had three bears, a daddy, mummy and baby, but sadly we arrived too late to see baby bear.)

Traditionally one of the ploughmen would be chosen as the bear, and would be wrapped up so tightly in straw that he couldn’t see.  Then he would be led about the village by attendants, and presented with gifts of food and beer (which presumably the attendants drank!)

This tradition was similar to many of the Jack-in-the-Green traditions about the country, and seems to me to have been clearly some sort of agricultural ritual designed to get the corn-growing year off to a good start.

In Whittlesey the tradition was stopped some time in the 1800s because it was regarded as a form of begging.  But 80 years after it stopped, and 30 years ago now, they started it up again, and it’s grown to become a big festival of morris dancing and beer.

Fleeing from the arctic cold into the first pub we came across, which happened to be The Boat Inn, we discovered these lads, who for my money were the best dance side I think I’ve ever seen.  They are the Stone Monkeys, a Northumbrian rapper sword dance side.  The bendy metal strips they’re holding there are the rappers – a kind of bendy metal strip with a handle at each end.  To quote their own article:

The rapper dance was traditionally performed in the mining villages of the Northumberland and Durham coalfield of England and involves five people connected by short, two-handled, flexible swords (called rappers) forming an unbroken chain.

Without breaking this chain the dancers weave in and out of one another twisting the swords to form locks and breastplates, sometimes even jumping or somersaulting over the swords. The dance commences by the five dancers forming a circle each holding one sword in his right hand, often clashing their swords together before grasping in their left hands the free end of the sword held by the dancer in front. The only time this chain is broken is to present a star of five interlocked swords. The dancers step or ‘jig’ in a characteristic way throughout the dance.

Intricate figures are danced with the dancers passing between and around each other, under and over the swords, seemingly into an irretrievable tangle which resolves at intervals into open circles with the swords linking the dancers or into a closed circle with the swords interlocked into the star which is presented aloft to the audience.

It was amazing to watch, and their musicians – a lady violinist in a red hat and a male accordionist – were also extremely good, as was their ‘Tommy’, who narrated what was going on and made jokes.

I’m not sure there’s a lot better than thawing out inside a warm pub with a pint of ‘Straw Bear’ bitter, listening to the kind of music that makes you tap your toes and watching this really clever and ever so slightly dangerous dance.

But one of the great things about morris is that every side has its own character.  The Old Glory Morris side have these very sinister musicians who are almost more entertaining than the dancers.  The dancers (all male) dance like men who are dancing like men – if you see what I mean.  Lots of wide legged stances and clenched fists, which made it extra amusing when they danced ‘Lord Nelson’s Revenge’, which is an 18th Century dance originally danced in Regency ballrooms by ladies in floaty white dresses.  But that whole OMG gender WTFery thing was very much a feature of the day.  While the majority of Old Glory’s menfolk were in trousers and waistcoats, this bearded gentleman had a fetching green gown and bonnet on:

Old Glory are very traditional indeed 🙂  A rather younger side were Boggart’s Breakfast from up Manchester way.  They made quite a contrast!

They call themselves ‘cyber-punk morris’, and had a mixture of male and female dancers, dancing with lots of energy and obviously having great fun at it.

(The ragged clothes are traditional though – field workers in the fens used to sew rags inside their jackets to make them warmer.  On festival days they would wear the jackets inside out, with the multi-coloured motley rags showing.)

In the market square, the Kings Morris side (from King’s Lyn) were dancing with handkerchiefs.  They were one of the few sides which actually looked as you would expect morris dancers to look.  And I must say that they did prove that men can wave hankies in a manly sort of way 🙂

I keep harping on about gender here, because it’s an important issue in morris.  Traditionally only men could dance the morris dances.  Women might be among the musicians, but they were not allowed to dance.  If there was a ‘woman’ among the dancers, it was usually the biggest and most beardy man who was wearing a dress.

Men wearing dresses also formed the core of the Molly dancers.  This is the Pig-Dyke Molly side:

who are in fact a mixture of men and women, all in dresses.  In this case the women are pretending to be men pretending to be women 🙂  The Pig-dyke Mollies (not an offensive name, as they are named after the pig-dyke drainage ditch) were wonderful.  Their musicians included a man on a tuba, which always sounds amusing to me no matter what it’s playing.  They danced both traditional dances with brooms and one they’d made up themselves, which was a dance called ‘Wardrobe Malfunction’ 🙂

These are the Gog-Magog Molly dancers:

another mixture of men and women, but where everyone is wearing a dress.

Do not ask me what this is all about, as I don’t know!  I suspect it has something to do with the ‘Lords of Misrule’ tradition, where on certain days the strict social order of society was eased or even reversed.  Men at least could have a day of doing what they liked (there was no corresponding tradition of women dressing as men and dancing the Morris) and the molly dancers prove that some of them quite fancied being women for the day.

These days, however, just to even out the spectrum, there are ladies morris sides, who are women who dance the morris and do not allow men to join (except as musicians).  The Ely and Littleport Riot side are one of these, but I wasn’t able to get a picture of them as they’d finished before we arrived.

But no folk festival is complete without a hobby horse.  I never got to find out what this one was called.  There was another, attached to the Pig-dyke Mollies, which was called Nodger, and as we drove in to Whittlesey in the car we passed Nodger the hobby horse who was riding a bicycle up the high street.  It set the tone for the whole day.

Morris has deep connections to the agricultural life of Britain.  But these days few of the rest of us share those connections, and as a result it looks immensely silly, out of date, and slightly embarrassing.  But I love it for its silliness and flagrant not giving a damn about what people think of it.  So I’m off to join the Ely and Littleport Riot side, if they’ll have me.  They meet only twenty minutes drive away from me.  Maybe next year I can be dancing through the streets behind the straw bear myself 🙂

They’ve also done a great slideshow of the festival HERE

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