Of Dragons in the forest and Dolphins amongst the cow pats; or when is a ring not a ring?

Part the sixth – Of Dragons in the forest and Dolphins amongst the cow pats; or when is a ring not a ring?

At the beginning of June for the last 42 years the Forest of Dean Morris Men have hosted a weekend of dance and general merriment in the beautiful setting of (surprise, surprise) the Forest of Dean.  The important thing about this is it is not A Ring Meeting.  Let me explain a little bit of history, dear reader.

In the 1930s Morris dancing was seeing a bit of an upsurge of interest and in 1934 the Cambridge Morris Men invited other sides to join them in the formation of a national organisation, the result was that five of the revival clubs – Cambridge, Letchworth, Thaxted, East Surrey and Greensleeves – met at Thaxted in Essex on the 11th May to inaugurate The Morris Ring.  This existed quite happily for 30 or so years until during the 1970s some ladies were found to be dancing Morris – shock horror, how dare they!!??

The Morris Ring in their infinite wisdom decided this was totally against the tradition of Morris dancing and would not allow these dancing ladies into their esteemed organisation – and it still doesn’t.  It took them many years to even allow sides with lady musicians (like ours) to remain as members.

So the ladies being ladies said a collective ‘sod you then’ and formed their own Women’s Morris Federation in 1975.  In 1980 they opened the Federation to mixed sides and a year later dropped the ‘Women’s’ from their name and are now open to any Morris side to join.  Their website can be seen here.

Why I said that it was important that the Forest of Dean weekend is not a Ring Meeting is that it welcomes all sides and their families (unlike A Ring Meeting – more of which later).

There were around 120 Morris men and women at the meeting and a large number of family members as well.  Attending the meeting has become something of a Mersey Morris tradition and 32 of us went.  We all arrive on the Friday night at the recreation ground in the village of Upper Soudley, some were camping and some stayed in local B&Bs.  The current Mrs King being the type who likes her home comforts shunned the idea of camping and we stayed in the Ship Inn in the nearby village of Newnham.  The Friday evening is a chance to renew old acquaintances and make new ones over some very good food and a pint or two of local ale.

The Saturday dawned bright and sunny and we all gathered to get on one of three coaches that would take us on a tour of the local villages (and pubs) throughout the day.  Because there were so many in the Mersey contingent we virtually had a coach to ourselves, but were joined by the excellent ladies of England’s Glory and a couple of chaps who were on their own call Billy-no-Mates and Clive.  We started with a mass dance at the Beechenhurst Lodge Visitor Centre where every side took turns to dance and we had a couple of mass dances that we all joined in.  This was my first experience of dancing with more than 7 others and, sad though it may sound, I found it really exciting.  Below is a taster but many more photos can be found here.

Mersey Morris at the Forest of Dean

We then spent the rest of the day touring the local villages.  Because the organizer had decided we would dance a rota at each pub of us, England’s Glory, us; we danced 2 out of 3 dances with Billy and Clive chipping in with the occasional, very good jig.  As a consequence we were all pretty knackered by the end of the day.

Fortunately there was nothing more tiring to do in the evening than eat a hog roast and have a drink in the pub while being entertained by about 30 musicians.

The Sunday morning again dawned bright and we gathered to walk half a mile or so down the road to the Dean Heritage Centre where again each side danced in turn and we did a few mass dances.  Again it was really fun.  We were joined by a couple of extra sides who had not been with us on the Saturday, including this lot who had their own particular way of bringing Morris into the 21st Century.

Wild Oats Morris

They are called Wild Oats and I think you can see why!!

Now, dear reader, I promised you talk of Dragons in the forest; well I lied as there was only one! But very fine he was.

Cardiff Morris's Dragon

He apparently belongs to Cardiff Morris Men and I’m told he is reasonably well trained.

All in all the weekend in the Forest Of Dean was fabulous and the current Mrs King and I can’t wait till next year.

I also promised, dear reader, talk of Dolphins among the cow pats, so here goes.  In Nottinghamshire there live a group (or should that be pod?) of dolphins.  They are very nice, friendly dolphins and dance very well.  They are the Dolphin Morris Men and they hosted my first experience of A Ring Meeting.  Now when I first heard talk of A Ring Meeting I was a little bit confused as I wondered if I was going to be meeting Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Gollum and so on.  And do you know, having now been to A Ring Meeting, I wasn’t very far off!

The Meeting took place in the very pleasant, rural village of Sutton Bonnington.  It is a quintessentially English village with a couple of pubs, a couple of churches, a couple of shops and cottages-with-roses-round-the-doors and it is surrounded by ruralness.  This means fields.  The current Mrs King was not invited, nor was any other family and/or friends – these are strict dancers and musician only events – and we were camping, in tents.  Now I assumed, not unreasonably, that this would mean a campsite with toilet and shower blocks.  Oh no, not here.  This was a field that was usually the home to what are I’m sure is a very nice heard of cows.  The problem is that they had only vacated it the day before and areas of it were still steaming.  Once we had steered our way through these and found enough cleanish grass we made camp.  The ‘facilities’ consisted of loos and showers of the porta- variety and a small marquee that had tea/coffee making facilities and a barrel of beer – arguably the only civilised thing there. Oh, and it started to rain!

The format was very similar to the Forest meeting with a meal and drinks on the Friday and then off for a couple of coach tours on the Saturday – but this time it rained quite a lot.  The main difference is on the Saturday evening when there is not just food or even a meal but a feast! We all had to stay dressed in kit and we all had to gather together.  Tables had been laid in the church hall and we were waited on by members of the Dolphins MM.  The food was very nice and the beer flowed very freely.  We even all had our own bottle of specially brewed beer to take home.  After the meal, sorry feast, we then got to the speeches.  I haven’t mentioned that a couple of the Officials from The Morris Ring were present for the weekend – the Squire and the Bagman – and the first to his feet was the Squire.  Then the Squire of Dolphins got up and thanked the Squire of the Ring and proposed some toasts.  The first to the Queen (I hadn’t noticed her come in) and then to Cecil Sharp.  “Who he?” I hear you cry, dear reader.  Well, in Morris circles (or rings) he has God-like status for it was he who spent a large part of his life writing down the dances and tunes that had previously only been handed down through local tradition, that now form the basis of all that we do.  Then someone else got up and thanked the hosts for the weekend and then someone from the hosts stood up and thanked the thanker, and then someone else… you get the idea, I’m sure. Fortunately by about 10.30 the gently sound of snoring roused people sufficiently for them to realise there was a pub to go to, so we did.  Such, apparently, are the quaint traditions of A Ring Meeting.

Another quaint tradition is that of the church service on the Sunday morning.  The purpose of this is to bless the Staves.  What?  When a Morris side applies to join and is inaugurated into The Morris Ring, they are given their official Staff of Office.  This consists of a length of broom handle about 2 feet long with some ribbons tied round it.  At the service they are all placed on the altar in church and blessed.  And then, of course, the hosts do a little dance!

Each side then had a couple of dances outside the church (in the rain) before the procession to the pub for more dancing and a hog roast lunch.  But, dear reader, this being Morris we didn’t just walk – oh no! – we Winstered.  Your challenge, dear reader, is to find out what this is.  Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

In the end, despite the rain and the speeches, it was a very enjoyable weekend and I look forward to more in the future – they just need to be taken a bit less seriously!

Next time: A year since I embarked on my quest to become a Morris Dancer – the highlights and the lowlights.