Winter Solstice

 A new season begins bringing with it the age-old winter festivals: a mélange of Christian and pre-Christian symbolism, celebrating light at a time when days are short, plenty after harvest and good company.

 At Winter Solstice last year we were invited to an old and lonely farmhouse deep in east Suffolk.  In the farm kitchen, little changed in centuries, were a group of people drinking and exchanging stories.  At a given time those of us who had no part in what was to come, were led out into the night by an elderly but spritely little lady.  Leaving signs of habitation behind, she sure-footedly led us through the dark along hedges, round woodland, through pastures and over stiles.  I was intrigued, but had no idea of where we were going or, for that matter, where we had come from.

 At length we crossed a narrow bridge leading over a river and through a copse to the garden of an old inn.  A menacing group of tall, black-robed, faceless and silent figures loomed out of the dark, standing sentinel, their heads lost in greenery.

 Lanterns marked a processional way across the garden and a crowd of people quietly waited for – what?  Eventually a tiny flickering light, a will-o’-the-wisp, appeared far away across the fields.  Slowly approaching it became a dozen flaming torches borne aloft by stern, black-faced, silent men in the garb of C19 farm workers.  Crossing the bridge, the only sound the thud of their hob-nailed boots, they filed between the lanterns to the courtyard and formed into sets for Molly dancing, the heavy rhythmic East Anglian form of Morris.  As the music began, some of the men stood guard, unsmilingly gazing out at the crowd as if protecting a mysterious and ancient rite.  Indeed I did have the feeling that here was something very old, a custom which had survived into the C21 in an isolated pocket of rural England.  It sent shivers up my spine.

 This was my introduction to Old Glory Molly Dancers and Musicians at the The Locks Inn at Geldeston.  Old Glory dance only during the winter, celebrating the winter festivals.  Their performances are characterised by a strong sense of theatre and if you want to see them wrap up well and get there early as there is often a torchlight procession to the venue. 

 Gill Brett

Plough Monday

In anticipation of this years Plough Monday on 8th January and the Whittlesea Straw Bear on 13th January you may like to read this recently discovered account of a previous Plough Monday from a bygone age.  This year Old Glory Molly Dancers and Musicians will be performing at the Rumburgh Buck on 8th January.

There are a few articles which descibe Plough Monday including references in “Truculent Rustics” by Elaine Bradtke and “Molly Dancing in East Anglia” by Needham and Peck.  Aticles by William Palmer, Russell Wortley and Cyril Papworth describe Plough Monday traditions in the Cambridgeshire villages of Little Downham, Littleport and Balsham, amongst others.  Unfortunately I could find few historical references to Plough Monday traditions in Suffolk, indeed one authority on the subject, Peter Millington, states in a comprehensive paper called “The Origins of Plough Monday” that “Norfolk and Suffolk are almost devoid of Plough Monday records".  So I began a diligent search of the internet and came across this article which seems to come from a late Victorian account of an event in Rumburgh.  Unfortunately, as we know, Google is an unreliable source so I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the following report. 

The Land of the Saints has a Dark Side

 “On 13th January this publication received an alarming report from several eye witnesses of a disturbing event which occurred the previous evening, the first Monday after Epiphany, which some call Plough Monday.  The incident took place in the depths of East Suffolk in the area known as The Saints; but this was no Christian ceremony and some said it was ungodly and pagan mischief.  We are persuaded that an authentic account of that affair will not be unacceptable to the public.  The principle witness, who wished to remain anonymous, has asked to be simply known as “The Apprentice”.

 “The disturbance occurred during the hours of darkness near the village of Rumburgh.  There were no warnings but there were reports of strange lights seen in the Western skies and a report of a low booming which some claimed as distant thunder but as it was a clear, dry evening this was disputed.  The lights and noise caused a crowd of anxious villagers to gather on the village outskirts and around The Buck Public House.  The lights could now be identified as flaming torches and as they approached the village “The Apprentice” reported that he saw a heavy plough being dragged into the village by a menacing group of dissolute ruffians, their identities concealed by blackened faces. 

 “No word was spoken until they arrived at The Buck where a cry went up from their apparent leader who bellowed, “Only once a year, a Penny for the Ploughboys”!  This may have been said to excuse the disturbance but it appeared to reassure some present and the crowd parted and allowed the plough to enter the pub yard. 

 The men were accompanied by a dark band of travelling musicians with herbaceous headdresses and primitive instruments who struck up a deep and earthy sound presaging the next stage of the proceedings which appeared to be part of a very strict and particular pagan ritual.  Some of the men seized hold of each other and began a series of muscular movements, turning and twisting, pulling and shoving each other giving no quarter.    The rough-music coming from this rustic orchestra which caused the men to twist and spin was like no music heard in respectable company and was more akin to the terrifying cries of beasts enduring agonising torments in the dark night.

 Some said there were women amongst these rural vagabonds and a witness said she had seen a lady with the dancing men but another disagreed and said “that were no Lady; she had whiskers under her bonnet”.  Others said they were sure it was a woman and said they’d heard her called “Bessy”.  Another said “if they was women they all looked as though they’d been dragged through a hedge back’uds”.  One witness said he could confirm that there were indeed women amongst the gang and some of them had scrubbed up quite nicely but there were no frills.

 At one point the crowd was intimidated into drinking a strange potion.  Many protested that they were determined to have a “dry January” but these cries were to no avail and the threatening presence of the men, emboldened by their disguise, induced many in the crowd to swallow the foul brew which some claimed had a strange gingerish after-taste.  A collecting box was taken around the crowd and, perhaps as a result of drinking the gingerish brew, many felt obliged to provide the “penny for the Ploughboys” demanded by the ruffians.

If readers hear of any plans for similar disorder and dissolute behaviour they are advised to stay indoors and contact the appropriate authorities.

“The Apprentice”

 

The Old Glory Christmas Carol

(Good King Wenceslas, almost, visits North Cove)

Brightly shone the stars that night
Tho’ the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight carrying winter fuel

The torch burned brightly in the night
And its glow was warming
A crowd of ploughboys formed a line, ready for their twirling

Come young man and stand by me
Get ready for the Sportsman
The Whiffler says you know this one but often need reminding

Crunching boots on icy ground,
marching with a swagger
Turn and spin and don’t let go, in case you get a clipping 

Up and down and arm in arm, listen to the music
Swing me round and keep me close
Don’t you let me go now.

Round we go and back and forth,
the circle gently swaying
to strange rhythms that the band is magnificently playing

Wrapped up warm the crowd looks on
Hands and feet they’re thumping
The dancing stops, the band retire, done with Winter dancing

 Dave Evans

Morris Man died on the Somme

George Butterworth; Morris Man and composer died on the Somme August 1916

On this day when the nation remembers its’ fallen heroes the Morris fraternity can remember one of their own who died on 5th August 1916.

Butterworth described himself as “a professional Morris dancer” and folk song collector before he became known as the composer who with Housman’s blessing set his poem “A Shropshire Lad” to music.  Collecting folk songs and Morris dances was the source of his inspiration and he became a friend of Cecil Sharp and a founder of the English Folk Dance Society in 1911.  He was a paid member of the EFDS demonstration Morris dance team three of whom were killed in 1916. 

Butterworth had joined as volunteer with the rank of Private but was soon commissioned and served with the Durham Light Infantry.  Butterworth won the Military Cross for his defence of a trench in Pozières which was subsequently named after him.  He died at the age of 31 from a sniper's bullet on the following night. 

Like many who died at the Somme he has no known grave but his name is included amongst the 73,357 listed as missing on the Thiepval Memorial near Pozières.  He is also remembered at St Mary’s Church, Deerhurst, near Tewksbury, Gloucester where his Grandfather had been Vicar.

 My thanks to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, The Guardian and Wikipedia

 

Morris On!

Misfit Molly Dancers

‘Come and Try’ sessions;

Thursday 2nd November; The Jephson Hall Walpole Cross Keys, PE34 4HE (Near Kings Lynn)

  And

Saturday 4th November; The Pavilion, Churchgate Way, Terrington St. Clement, PE34 4PG

Meet people, have fun, go places, get fit and let off steam!

 

Dancers and musicians over the age of 13 are all welcome (under 16’s must be accompanied by a responsible

adult). No experience necessary but a good sense of humour and the ability to count to 8 may help!

 

Traditionally Molly Dancing was performed by gangs of ploughboys during the winter when work was scarce. In

the Fens they would dance in Ely and Cambridge for money and on Plough Monday, in January, they would

dance outside the big houses in their villages and if no money was forthcoming they would plough a furrow

across the lawn! Rather than run the risk of being recognised, they disguised their faces with soot or black

Fenland soil.

Misfit Molly Dancers include both male and female members and now perform throughout the year at Festivals and local events and enjoy entertaining their audience while keeping a tradition alive.

They practice on Thursday evenings from 8 - 9.30pm at The Jephson Hall, Walpole Cross Keys, PE34 4HE

Find us on facebook or contact Caron on 01553 827620 or Louise on 01366 328422

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Norfolk Folk Association

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