38. Morris Dancing in the Cotswolds
The sight of a group of men dressed in costume wearing hats adorned with flowers and ribbons, with garters around the legs with bells attached dancing to music with handkerchiefs or sticks might be rather an unusual one for many visitors to the Cotswolds.
But to local people, Morris dancing is just a part of everyday life, as the Cotswolds is a popular centre for this peculiarly English tradition which dates back centuries.
Very little is known about the origins of Morris dancing, but as a ritual and a form of pleasure, it is known to date back at least to the 15th Century and is perhaps much older.
Morris dancing has been traced all over the English Midlands and further north, but it is particularly associated with the Cotswolds, where the most evolved form of Morris was, and still is, to be found.
Here it is performed generally by six men and a musician, accompanied in most cases by a fool and sometimes a beast. The men wear a colourful costume or "kit" often based upon white, the old sacred colour.
They also wear bells and wave hankies or sticks to ward off evil spirits. Invariably a men's dance, it had strong ties to the Whitsun time of year with fertility and encouraging crops to grow.
In the past, most Cotswold villages had their own individual dances and tunes, but by the end of Industrial Revolution the tradition had almost died out, as the Victorians had introduced many other pastimes and sports.
But the early years of the 20th Century saw a great revival of interest in Morris dancing, led by Cecil Sharp.
Only four teams in the country can claim a continuous Morris dance tradition within their town or village and these include two Cotswold-based sides - Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire and Bampton in Oxfordshire.
The earliest records refer to a Morris dance side existing in Chipping Campden in the 1700s. The Campden side dances a unique tradition that can be found nowhere else and the dances and steps form part of a living tradition which is passed on from one generation to the next.
Each village produced its own steps and dances, and these have become the “traditions”, known by the name of the parent village. Some villages, such as Ilmington in the Warwickshire Cotswolds, have revival teams continuing the work of the old sides.
The set dances include handkerchief dances, processional dances, stick dances and hand-clapping dances. There are also jigs for one or two dancers. The men will usually wear a white shirt, white trousers or dark breeches and black shoes. Bells are worn below the knee, and the club costume may often be a coloured baldrick or a waistcoat.
The Gloucestershire Morris Men are a very active group who perform throughout the spring and summer months, dancing each Tuesday night at pubs around the county. They also perform at various fetes and other functions and have appeared on TV and radio and have formed links with many other Morris sides in England and across Europe.
The group's main dancing tour of the year is over the May Bank Holiday, which has replaced Whitsun, which sees them dancing in locations across the Cotswolds, including Winchcombe, Broadway, Chipping Campden, Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow-on-the-Wold.
The acclaimed folk musician Ashley Hutchings has provided a rather nice summary of what Morris dancing is all about, a quote which is prominently placed on the Chipping Campden Morris Men website. It says:
"The Morris is life-affirming, joyous and a bit daft. It honours our ancestors, our countryside and its traditions, and against all the odds it survives in the present day."
The Gloucestershire Morris Men
Chipping Campden Morris Men
Bampton Traditional Morris Men
The Traditional Ilmington Morris Men