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February 4, 2015

New Zealand Morris Tour 2015

Time for a summer holiday: somewhere with a balmy climate, even temperatures, and light zephyrs from the sea... New Plymouth fits the bill though it does have a frisson of risk... a dormant volcano; Mt Taranaki stands guardian over this rich farmland and gardeners' paradise.

Gardening and Morris Dancing - two of my favourite things!
This year the New Zealand annual Morris dancing gathering was based in New Plymouth and during the week of 4th - 10th January. It was hosted by Phoenix Morris who took more than eighty participants out and about around Taranaki.

What better way to start the week than with dance workshops. Here dancers learn a new dance from homesick Helen called 'Kiwis Fly Home.' 

But our Tour organisers, keeping in mind that we were on holiday and also had a big evening gig ahead of us, had programmed a Monday afternoon of idyllic excess at Tupare Gardens.

There was a picnic lunch on the river flat with bathing for the keen as well.

We could stroll in the magnificent 
public gardens and tour the beautifully conceived and crafted Chapman Taylor house. The Arts and Crafts house and the landscaped grounds were a dream realised of asphalt baron, Russell Matthews and his wife Mary. How remarkable that this garden and its house offer free entry to the public. A personal highlight for me was meeting a young American volunteer gardener. This botany student from Boston is also a great grandson of Russell and Mary! 

As our first day drew to a close it was time for our first public appearance as Morris dancers. The group made a heady entrance along a wooded path into a performance area, where a large crowd had settled in for an evening of entertainment. We were a booked act for the evening during New Plymouth's Festival of Light at Pukekura Park.

Many of us quail a bit at the thought of stage and formal performance. We are drawn rather to the spontaneity of street performance, the opportunity to banter with one another, to interact with the audience, and to be able to get away with muddling through at times.

Yet in spite of our reservations about formalised performance, we all rise to the occasion and I have to confess, make an effort to raise the standard of presentation. At the end of two hours, with a large appreciative audience, we were, exalted, satisfied, physically tired, but wide awake with adrenalin. The park, lit up for the Festival with fairy tale lighting arrangements, beckoned us to explore. 

Water is very evident in Pukekura Park: waterfalls, lakes and rivulets were all dressed with light -  from the colourful lanterns that were really rowing boats bobbing on water, to this eye catching sculpture of rain drops and birds' nests suspended above the Poet's Bridge. I was entranced too by the native forest giants with their lofty canopy uplit: ethereal.

Back to reality and dancing in the street the following day - Tuesday...

At Hawera, east of the mountain, where along with modern public spaces, there are also varied shop fa├žades spanning the past 120 years or so. 

I particularly notice these street frontages when I'm away from Canterbury as so many of them fell in the earthquakes or have been demolished since.  But Hawera's outstanding architectural gem is the 100 year old concrete water tower!

After lunch we visited Tawhiti Museum -  a remarkable endeavour by Nigel Ogle. Not only is this a worthy collection of local artefacts but Nigel, a skilled model maker tells the local story too, with his very realistic scale models, based on local people, all made on site in the 'Body Shop.' The fellow peering out of the window, over Kitty's shoulder in the cafe gives a good idea of the realism the models bring to the historical displays. 

Wednesday was our Free day. There's always a bit of debate about the value of a free day during the annual tour. I happen to like the concept, and this year I even researched ahead what I would do with mine! The gardens of Taranaki are a national talking point for garden lovers, particularly Pukeiti, with its collection of rhododendrons in a rain forest setting. 

Unlike many famous gardens this was not a private garden bequeathed for posterity by the family, but an altruistic exercise by plantsman Douglas Cook in 1951, to establish a rhododendron garden for public enjoyment. This is another Taranaki garden, which is free to the public!

High summer is not a good time to visit a rhododendron collection for its flowers, apart from the Vireya types (one of which is shown earlier in this post), but there was still plenty of interest in the forest and in the specimen rhododendrons themselves. There's more to any plant than just its flowers and these huge seed capsules made great photographic subjects. Unfortunately I wasn't able to identify this species.

High summer is the time for hydrangeas, which were flowering prolifically all over the Taranaki countryside. A group of us arrived at Pukeiti early in the day when dew still sparkled on ferns and leaf tips, and the garden staff were gathering flowers...

which we later found arranged in the cafe. 

Disparate strands of Morris dancers  re-grouped in the evening for a ceilidh with a theme in keeping with the Tour's overall Way Out West theme...

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.  Great fun, and now I've seen the movie three times on repeat without dialogue, while it screened above the band.

Thursday was a day that became more than the sum of its parts, with a programme that somehow captured the essence of Taranaki or at least an outsider's rosy perception of it.

We danced early in the day at Waitara on the exquisitely carved and curved wharf stage beside the river.

I experimented with the 'poster' setting on my camera: Like the children jumping from the road bridge into the river; like the cows grazing in paddocks beside the railway track; and the home baked morning tea later in the morning, these bright colours remind me of a simpler, less worldly, mid 20th Century New Zealand. In fact the Duncan and Davies nursery catalogues come to mind, complete with a perfect snow-capped Mt Egmont - as Mt Taranaki was widely known then - as a backdrop to bright shrubs and flowers. 

That home-baked morning tea was waiting for us  on the platform at Tahora Station, on the Waitara Railway Preservation Society's historic line - a trip back in time.

But Taranaki's history is not just dairy cows and picture postcard scenes. It is ravaged by the repeated volcanic eruptions, brutal inter-tribal warfare, the Musket Wars, British subjugation and confiscation of Maori land.

In the afternoon we were received as guests at Owae Marae. As a group we had prepared a response song Te Aroha, for the welcome ceremony, proving that we can sing more than just traditional English ditties! Our massed voices sounded fantastic in this beautiful Wharenui, with its rich carvings representing all the Maori tribes of New Zealand. To me it felt like a perfect complement to the very English house at Tupare as this meeting house was designed a little earlier in the twentieth century by Sir Apirana Ngata who brought together the best of Maori and British culture in his work. Here at Owae Marae we also danced barefoot in the meeting house, and were feted in the Wharekai or dining hall with more home prepared food. We lunched on four varieties of fish caught for the occasion, served with fresh salads and tender cooked vegetables. The dish I couldn't get enough of wasn't quite the crayfish (lobster) salad but the marinated raw sea trout. Our hosts told us that it is possible to book accommodation at Owae Marae. If I were to stay - along with a sense of peace - I'd also be searching for a lesson on how to prepare that dish!    

Janet our chief Tour organiser - that's her in black waistcoat standing to the right of a pillar -  is affiliated with this Marae through family. What a great new family to be part of. It was sobering to be gently reminded that they are currently working towards settlement of land claims relating to the land confiscations of the 1860s. 

Phoenix Morris members certainly seem to have a deep-seated connection to this volatile land. Aaron, Janet's right hand man for this event, comes from a Cornish family who settled land around Waitara early in the 19th Century, and - it's a rare thing - that farm land is still in the family.

Phoenix Morris have also managed to get themselves a credit on the label of a New Zealand wine! They enjoy a good relationship with Kairau Vineyard. So for some sheer lazing about (and maintaining Phoenix's place on that label) the Tour spent the afternoon drinking wine, cooling off in the pool, but... for some, lazing about was too boring.

How much more English could we get? The maypole is a nifty portable model belonging to Rosewood Morris, who deftly erect it and then teach some routines. It's always satisfying to see the different woven patterns appearing during the dance, particularly when the dancers understand the process - as this group did. 

Friday was the last official day of the Tour so we hit town processing like a scene from The Wicker Man along the sea front 

and dancing there, and outside Puke Ariki, New Plymouth's museum and gallery space on its ancient fortification site.

I can't help noticing that this dance figure has been my photo of choice for three different outings in this post. For afficionados, it's the Swing from Border-style dance, Fanny Frail.

Last day, leads into last night, which means an Ale: feasting, with perennial toasts to Cecil Sharp and the Queen...

along with the realisation that I had next to no photos of me on Tour! A fellow feaster took this one of Kitty and me.

Then it was on to the dancing - completely to please ourselves. Finally I thought I'd mastered a way to get good indoor photos of dancing with an automatic setting on my camera. Alas no - the sports setting and the low light setting are independent of each other...  

so when it comes to action... this is the result.

A great night however my camera tells it. 
But do you think we could stop there. Quite a few of us hung around the next day... Kitty took me rowing on the lake... while others danced in Pukekura Park, and danced and swam at Tupare Gardens again.

For me this has been the best New Zealand tour yet, with its balance of relaxation and dancing, its strong of sense of place, and just the right number of participants to keep the family feel that I enjoy so much when NZ Morris dancers and some of our regular Australian and English fans get together. Well done to this year's organisers of the Way Out West Tour... and thank you Janet, Aaron, Glenda, Richard and Peter.  Next year 2016? Watch out for the Shake A Leg Tour around Christchurch!

Jeneane dancing in Pukekura Park, Photo by Yvonne Holmes
Kitty and Jeneane at the Feast, Photo by Barbara Riach


libby said...

Lady M that was a wonderful post...I am jealous of the sunshine and the land itself and the joy that you get from such a pursuit...the pic of you and Kitty is lovely!

Anonymous said...

What a great read. This has made me smile with pleasure for the start of my day. You've inspired me to visit the area.

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

libby: I'm so glad you enjoyed reading this post. I worry about these accounts being too long, and believe me a lot of editing goes on to bring the story down to a digestible post that non Morris dancers might like reading! It's good to know that they do :-)

Gill: I want to retire there! Especially after coming back to Nor'west gales, and tinder dry land.

Steve said...

Such a vibrant travelogue and photo diary... I really must come and see NZ for myself.

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

Of course my travelogues are directed at YOU dear Steve! How about timing a visit with Saj's housewarming?

Cro Magnon said...

Wonderful, and a superb travelogue as well.

I probably sound a bit old fashioned (I am), but my preferred venue for Morris Dancing is outside an ancient country pub, preferably in Sussex. It just seems RIGHT.

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

Thank you Cro. A lot of NZ Morris dancers would agree with you about the best place for It ;-)

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