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August 2, 2014

Recalling The Lammas Tour: 27 July - 4 August 2013

New Zealand Morris dancers and musicians frequently visit and dance in England, often teaming up with fellow Kiwis for mini 'tours,' all of which are memorable for those involved. 
But as a national body we had not travelled further than Tasmania. That was a daring thing to do in 2009, when our Tasmanian fans felt they ought to host us for a change. It was during that very successful annual Tour, that my friend Helen and I mused on what else was possible.

The obvious next step was England and we set out to make it happen, she and I. Somewhere along the way her circumstances re-directed her energy elsewhere, but she and her husband, Richard were still able to join The Lammas Tour. Thirty six New Zealanders - some from the Western Islands (Australia) - were joined in England by camp followers for a week of dancing and sight-seeing. 

Ideas - dreams - start big: 

they are broad in scope; limitless. But there have to be limits. Early on, Helen and I knew that we wanted to base this tour on the way our group already does things here in NZ. A week at the most meant dismissing long-distance travel. Elwin's and my connections with Oxford made a starting point for a Cotswold Morris pilgrimage teamed with historic and cultural excess. 

By the time we had settled in to the Centenary Lodge, at Youlbury Activity Centre on Boars Hill, this Welcome meal was welcome in more ways than one. But the over-riding sentiment was wonder that we were all here together on the other side of the world. 

Dancing began that night with a dance from the Bucknell tradition, Saturday Night On in the Bucknell Village Hall. 

I only remembered once we were all there, with extra visitors along as well, that this wasn't just a four year old dream realised but had been a whimsical thought when I used to practise with Bucknell Morris (now defunct) in that hall over twenty years ago. New Zealanders take liberties with the dance but often begin a get-together with it en masse. Well it wasn't just me that felt the rapture: Saturday night set the vibe for the rest of the week.

Our Sunday venue fitted the bill for idyllic English setting, 
Wolvercote Green, and the hospitable Plough inn are not as far as I know, associated with a Cotwold Morris tradition, but Wolvercote does have it's own current Morris side, 
Wolvercote Morris.  

I have such a strong memory of the English summer being hot and dry, but there was plenty of rain over our week,

thankfully the intermittent sort.

This was the day that I realised that the Tour was becoming bigger than the sum of its parts. People from all over Britain joined us at Wolvercote. All of them had at some time danced in New Zealand including Celia Briar. We don't usually dance to harp music but having the harp felt like a blessing on us all.  And since our official musicians were thin on the ground - Aaron under umbrella, er I mean on accordion, Keith, and also Gay on recorder, Andy on melodeon  - 

it was a privilege to find that so many people were prepared to tag along and play for us including Roger on fiddle and Ross, who joined us from Jersey later in the week.

If Wolvercote was bucolic bliss, Blenheim Palace the following day, was a breathtaking stage set, its arcades and repetitive lines of windows and columns echoing our dance groupings.

invigorating our step

and providing shelter from the rain!

What with all the thunder and lightning and rain, we were grateful to be able to retreat inside the Palace for a spot of viewing. By the time our scheduled dancing was finished the day had dried out enough to explore the grounds. 

That evening we met our first deeply traditional Cotsold Morris side with ancestry dating back 500 years - Mr Hemmings Traditonal Abingdon Morris Dancers. 

It seemed that at every turn, whether that was literally through the gates onto the magnificent lake view at Blenheim Palace, or in meeting illustrious Morris personalities, many of us were constantly weak at the knees. I was no exception, in spite of spending six weeks beforehand schmoozing with the various Morris sides. Here at The Greyhound in Besselsleigh, I was star-struck to meet Keith Chandler (on the melodeon below), author of 'Bells, Ribbons and Squeaking Fiddles,' my favourite Morris history. Others were star struck at having the locals playing for them to dance to!

And if I look like the cat who's got the cream as I crouch between the Squire of Mr Hemmings and Handy Andy, I was pretty giddy at meeting a real live Mr Hemmings; all that weight of tradition in his family name. Actually I was pretty giddy with the whole damned thing!

I hadn't managed to arrange the same reception at Headington Quarry on Tuesday - but had received the local dancers' blessing to dance on their patch. This little village on the edge of Oxford is significant in the history of the Morris revival initiated by the folklorist Cecil Sharpe. It was here on Boxing Day 1899

that he first saw Morris dancing and set about recording and teaching it further afield.  Our own Britannic Bedlam Morris Gentlemen originally modelled themselves on the Headington Quarry Morris Dancers. William Kimber, dancer and musician became Sharpe's ally in spreading the dance, and his grave in the 

Holy Trinity churchyard pays homage to his musicianship. Star-struck again we barely registered C S Lewis' grave a few yards away. We also met a retired Headington Morris man who, at the age of eleven, had been trained by Kimber!

Later that day we tempered the glut of tradition with a visit to Restore: this mental health, support charity operates a garden, shop and kitchen to help people return to work after illness. 

After dancing, and touring the facility we took our time strolling through the remarkable sculpture garden at Restore's Elder Stubbs site in Oxford. 

There was no let up at the end of our days as this was the best time to meet the local sides at their summer evening dance-outs.  Ducklington Village fields a revival side, and invited us to dance with them at the Bell Inn. Then, following a day away to Kennilworth Castle - that was my day of rest - we joined the Oxford City and Oxford University Morris Men for an unexpectedly high energy night in an alleyway, Far From the Madding Crowd. It was pretty crowded that Wednesday night!

Thursday morning found us taking tea and cake at Aston Pottery. Butterflies in the garden were a distraction in the lovely herbaceous border, 

but we had a date with tradition in the next village: Bampton.

Most of the villagers including the Morris dancers were just heading to a funeral at the church as we arrived at the Morris Clown, but we enjoyed a small audience and plenty of dancing in the pub's garden.

On then to meet Icknield Way Morris Men in Wantage, and what a turn-out considering it was the middle of a working day. I'd enjoyed their company and guidance over previous weeks so getting together to dance on their home patch was great fun.

After lunch, when we'd worn the locals out and bought up their supply of delightful wyvern-decorated badges, we moved on for some sightseeing: to the Uffington White Horse overlooking its Vale, followed by a walk along the Ridgeway to Wayland's Smithy.

Driving back to Oxford at the end of this hot, glorious day at the beginning of August, I noticed that the harvest had begun in the Cotswolds. Kitty and I had been watching the cereal crops developing in the fields, since we arrived in England in early June, and now we had reached the seasonal event, that Helen and I had named this Tour for so long ago. I couldn't quite believe that the timing had worked out!

That evening we were beginning to show signs of flagging. A gathering with Cry Havoc and Old Speckled Hen at Shippon was not quite as lively as previous nights, but we still had two days to go...  Friday was a fill-in-the-gaps day: Jump in the vans and whip round some of the villages that we hadn't yet visited, but whose names we use all the time when we 'call' or describe our dances back in New Zealand. 

At Eynsham, one of the Morris men, left his shop counter to come and watch while our Palmerston North contingent stepped a very passable version of the Eynsham Morris dance Feathers. This is a great show-off favourite in New Zealand and often done with more vigour than precision. I've noticed how we generally dance everything much faster than the English do, but for once the New Zealanders appeared stately, as Eynsham Morris do their dances at top speed and with precision! 

At nearby Stanton Harcourt, where the village shop is tucked into the Harcourt Arms, there was the distraction of ice creams as well as beer. After lunch at Appleton - because we had two (quite unrelated) Appletons on tour - the group managed to get to Bledington and Leafield. Our dances use the old name for Leafield, Fieldtown, to describe their tradition. 

Friday night was a quiet night in - or out at the Fox Inn - in preparation for our final day of dancing in Oxford. Local mixed (as in gender) side Cry Havoc helped organise the dance spots at Oxford Castle 

and The Head of the River pub.

Then it was time for a very personal surprise appearance for a bride and her groom on the Broad Walk. Her father had been one of Elwin's contemporaries with the Oxford City Morris Men, and Elly had been a little girl the last time I saw her. Our troupe pulled our wedding repertoire out of the hat and below, you can see the Auckland dancers doing the Headington dance, Haste to the Wedding. (Getting Upstairs comes next...)

The wedding dance marked the end of our formal programme but Eynsham Morris, unable to dance with us during our visit to their village, had invited us to join them for the Mock Mayor festivities at Woodstock. I had a feast to finalise so headed back to camp while the others made the most of that last opportunity to mingle with the locals and experience crazy English customs.

And then it was time for our Lammas Ale. 

Held at and catered by the Wootton and Dry Sandford Community Centre, the Ale was a time for feasting, drinking

and dancing to suit ourselves and our guests: a grand finale to four years of planning and a week of unforgettable Morris memories to take home to New Zealand.

Links to Morris Sides we danced with during The Lammas Tour in order of appearance:


Cro Magnon said...

Wonderful, and what an experience for you all. I've said before that I'm a great fan of Morris Dancing; I love it. My favourite side being the black faced Coconuts, whom I hope you get to meet one day.

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

Hiya Cro, it was definitely one of my Lifetime highlights! I think some of our group had been cavorting with the Britannia Coconut dancers beforehand. Funny, I have chased the various traditions around over the years but not caught up with that bunch yet. Happy Lammas time :-)

rusty duck said...

I too know Oxford well, so I recognise many of the places in your photos.
What a schedule. It must have been a fantastic experience but dancing at Blenheim, how to top that!

Steve said...

All of which backs up my firm belief that Morris Dancers live life to the fullest.

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

rusty duck: It's neat that you recognise some of the settings. I arranged the Blenheim Palace visit from NZ and found them very good to work with. The place might seem costly to visit at first, but they give very generous concessions to groups, and a free annual pass based on first ticket purchase, which I did use again before I left England.

Steve: You bet :-)