There’s a tendency for young(ish) people in the UK to scoff at Morris Dancing, dismissing it as a rather embarrassing pastime better left to the elderly and/or inebriated. Given this unfortunate presumption, it’s surprising to find that it continues to exist – which makes the longevity of the Bampton Morris tradition, and others like it, even more intriguing.
Bampton (or Bampton-in-the-Bush) is a village fairly well hidden in the Oxfordshire countryside. Reaching it requires your own transportation or a considerable amount of time and patience, and perhaps this isolation is one of the reasons for the continuation of its Morris dancing customs. Morris aficionados will, of course, know plenty about Bampton, but for the uninitiated it can be quite a revelation. Since the village is perhaps better known (on a worldwide scale) as the filming location for the BBC drama, Downton Abbey, a visit on Whit Monday is great for fans of people watching, as international tourists arrive in small flocks and stare agape as men in flowers and bells leap around the town and guzzle from silver tankards. “Why wasn’t I warned about this by my travel agent?!”, you can almost hear them thinking. WTF moments abound.
Local tradition has it that people have been Morris dancing in this part of the world for over 400 years, and it’s in this area that Cecil Sharp had his Road to Damascus moment when he happened upon the Headington Quarry Morrismen dancing up a storm outside his mother-in-law’s house, thus sparking a lifelong interest in England’s song and dance traditions. While scholars tend to disagree on many things Morris, there seems to be consensus that the word ‘Morris’ is derived from ‘Moorish’ (ie, of the Arabian Moors), possibly because the dancing originated in North Africa and travelled across the European continent, or perhaps simply as an adjective describing what medieval onlookers believed to be dancing of a Moorish nature. At one time most English towns and villages will have had a Morris side (or several), but in many cases these have long since died out, so a village of under 3,000 people with three existing sides, as is the case in Bampton, is a rare thing indeed.
The Spring Bank Holiday (Whit Monday) festivities in Bampton offer a unique opportunity to see all three sides (with ages ranging from teens to the not-so-teens) performing (and making merry) for around 10 solid hours. That’s a lot of Morris dancing to take in, but spectators are made to feel very welcome and there’s food and drink aplenty. It also affords visitors the opportunity to enter the grounds of some of Oxfordshire’s most beautiful old houses, as the dancing takes places in a number of private gardens.
Intrigued to find out more, the Grizzly Folk charged up our trusty camera, jumped in the car and lit out for the Bampton Morris Whit Monday celebrations, 2017, to see what we could see.
Early morning in Bampton (the dancing starts at 9am) and the pubs are preparing for a roaring trade.
Also prepping for a busy day: Patrick Strainge, the butcher, whose hog roast is a must for anyone with an empty belly.
Around 11am, the local village children arrive in the town square to present their Spring garlands. By this point, however, the dancers are in full swing and you can find an example of Morris dancing outside various village landmarks throughout the day.
As you might expect with something so unique, there are eccentric-looking characters all over the place in Bampton on Whit Monday, not least the Morris Clown himself, Mr Barry Care MBE. The bladder in his hand is apparently for bopping misbehaving Morris men whenever they get out of hand.
Barry aside, there was no shortage of lens candy for the eager photographer to focus in on…
Many of the activities centre around the church and the surrounding houses – the Deanery and Churchgate House in particular – where the sides sometimes arrive at similar times and take the chance to watch the other dancers. Each dance is unique, and the formations and number of dancers frequently change.
Young and old, the Morris men keep on coming…
While we started this article pointing out that Morris dancing isn’t all about old men getting drunk – and we feel these photos show some evidence of a much younger generation taking an active interest – it’d be remiss of us to ignore the fact that it all ends up with a jolly good knees up, with dancing and merry making continuing long into the night. After all, what kind of a British tradition would it be without that?