Upton upon Severn Folk Festival – the one where I didn’t dance the Upton Stick Dance

Posted in Dance, Folk Traditions, Morris Dancing, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2018 by Jester

First, a quick apology. I’m sorry I haven’t blogged for so long. Phew that’s done.

I have made this comeback due to a large number of people begging me to start writing this blog again (okay, just one, Clare, but she is very persuasive) and I suppose our weekend in Upton is a fitting way to relaunch my blogging career (if that’s what you can call it).

Well, as usual, I took the Friday off work and after a preliminary shopping trip to buy our weekly shopping and a few essentials for the weekend (mainly beer), Mr Dark Morris Dancer (aka Greg) and I set off for Upton upon Severn. It was an uneventful journey and we reached the campsite in good time and put up our new (well, new since I last blogged) Outwell Rockwell 3 tent – a wonder of camping technology: tall enough to stand in but small enough to leave room in the car for our other camping essentials and a large selection of musical instruments.

I need to digress here.

I now have the following instruments:

A piano with no name (no use for Morris because I can only play classical music on it)
Jeffrey, the piano accordion (a slightly less heavy instrument than the piano)
Señor Parp, the tarota (it has no volume control and the volume is set to eleven)
Ike, the ukulele (the second lightest of the collection)
A harmonica with no name (I can’t play this, yet)

Anyway, digression over. Once the tent was up (with the help of the wonderful Ady and Graham), we started on the beer we had brought. Once I had drunk enough to feel a little bit uncomfortable about moving my car, I was asked to do that very same thing by Gaynor and Keith, so they could fit their campervan into the Crows’ Corral. I may have been a little bit reluctant at first: after all there were a number of other cars, a caravan or two, a few rugby posts and a couple of portaloos that could have been damaged in the process but I quickly saw reason and moved it and managed to damage precisely nothing.

To cut a long day short, we got our tea from the fish and chip shop, I managed to mix beer, wine and whisky and, after a long, interesting and amusing conversation with our fellow crows in the Village Hall (an enormous awning attached to Graham and Anne’s caravan), we went to bed and I woke up without a hangover. Amazing.

I started Saturday by cadging a cup of coffee from Pete and Elaine and some suncream from Anthony, and eating my muesli. Anne had already mentioned that she had a nearly full carton of soya milk that she had no further use for, so I went to her caravan and relieved her of the soya flavoured burden.

We then got into our kit and we all wandered off into Upton Central, where we congregated outside the Plough to share a spot with a few other sides, including Bakanalia. I have to mention now that it was very hot and I am practically a white walker, so it didn’t take me long to go into the Plough and ask for them to fill my tankard with water, thus eliciting a few remarks of “You’re starting a bit early”, to which I replied “This beer is watery”.

Thirsty Crow

A thirsty crow drinking water or maybe Guinness

We started with Ragged Crow and I didn’t dance, so I played Ike. We then waited for the other sides to dance and I disappeared back into the pub for more watery “beer”. We were going to do Upton Stick at this spot and Pete had pretty well ordered me to dance it opposite him but unfortunately John, our Foreman, left me out of the set, so I played Ike and Pete had to make do with another dancer.

My memory is a little hazy now, so I’m going to have to stop trying to give a blow by blow account of proceedings. I remember having excellent chips for dinner from one of the chip vans. I remember speaking to Ian from Carreg Las and reminding him about us discussing my ambition to own and learn to play a shawm at the session at Clerical Error’s 25th birthday bash and showing him Señor Parp. He had been very supportive of the idea and I was looking forward to him hearing me play, even though it could easily have been quite an ordeal for him.

After that conversation, Stone the Crows did Ashpole (with a little bit of good natured heckling from the Ironmen [after all it is adapted from one of their dances]) and I played Señor Parp and managed not to squeak too much. Ian later came by and complimented me on my playing, saying he liked the counter melodies and that it gave the music a medieval feel.

There was also a stick incident involving Alan, who is a postman by trade. Obviously he was unable to control his postman instincts and upon finding a stick shaped hole, he posted his stick through a grid into the surface water drain in the road. I think he was mortified but that didn’t stop us Crows taking the proverbial.

When we had finished, we went back to the campsite and Gaynor presented me with a bottle of Black Sheep ale in thanks for moving my car the day before. I thought that was very kind of her and told her if she ever needs me to move my car again, I will do, willingly, even by a hundred miles. I then got my bottle opener and started on it.

Saturday is the day when we have tea and cakes and I had baked Boston Brownies specially for the occasion. Anne had baked a vegan cake (which is why she had the soya milk) and Mary Roach had also brought vegan cake, so there was definitely enough cake to satisfy a greedy vegan like me. After the cakes, we went to the Swan to find a session and we found one in one of the back rooms. It was the sort of session that makes me want to really raise my game and I quickly identified an accordion player who had a style I would really like to emulate – punchy and syncopated. I tried my best with the tunes I didn’t know and joined in with the ones I did.

At one point, Clare came in (she had just arrived in Upton) and said that Mary T was in one of the other rooms and required our presence there, so we made our apologies and I explained it was us, not them and we went to join Mary. There was nice mixture of instruments: a couple of accordions (including Jeffrey, of course), some fiddles, some guitars and a soprano sax, to name but a few. We were later joined by Alistair Gillies of the Ironmasters with his soprano sax and he sat next to me. No pressure there Sharon!

He started off a few tunes and one seemed to keep going for rather longer than the usual three repetitions. My suspicions were confirmed when at the end, he announced that he had decided to keep going until he got it right. I responded by saying it’s a good job I don’t do that or we’d be there the whole night and probably most of the following day too.

After a while, I decided to be sensible and suggested to Greg and Mark that we return to the campsite, so I could get some kip and we made our way back. I then discovered that the torch I had so sensibly brought was probably only good for illuminating the valve on the filling loop for the boiler (located in the loft), which we have to repressurise on a regular basis, and not for illuminating the way back to our tent in an unlit campsite. Fortunately Mark had a torch that shines with the light of a thousand suns, so we were able to get back without tripping over any guy ropes.

Postman Crow

Postman Crow with stick attached

Sunday was destined to be as sunny and hot as Saturday, which was a shame because I had managed to get sunburnt on Saturday and I didn’t want to repeat the experience. Alan had a stick attached to his arm with gaffer tape. We all found this highly amusing, although I’m sure that the removal of the gaffer tape would have been even more amusing had I witnessed it. We had a show spot at 10.10, so we had to get up and out pretty quickly. Our show dances were Cuckoos Nest and Crows Nest and I danced in both, so Ike and Señor Parp had to sit in a corner and sulk. They didn’t sulk for long though, because Ike had an outing for Loxley Barratt where I was able to use the pick I’d bought from Pete Grassby’s stall and Señor Parp came out for Sod Hall.

The sun had the same intensity as it has on the day of Meursault’s mother’s funeral in L’Étranger and I was doing my best to avoid it. Fortunately, I had managed to get cadged suncream on all exposed bits of skin so the sunburn did not get any worse. I had also bought a bucket hat and was wearing it between performances. My consumption of water rocketed, although there were some halves of Guinness thrown in for good measure.

After a day of dancing, we finished with a Worcester Hey in about 28 degrees Celsius. I declined to dance because I was so hot and feeling really uncomfortable, so I played Ike, using another pick I had bought from Pete Grassby. We then went back to the campsite and retired to the village hall once we had changed and cleaned up.

I was beginning to feel a bit ill. I already had a heavy cold, which I could ignore while we were doing things like dancing or playing in sessions but once I was inactive it would tap me on the shoulder and say “Hi, I’m here. Look, here’s an irritating cough. Try sneezing, it will produce about three gallons of snot, most of which will fly onto your t-shirt or some poor unsuspecting passer by”. I think I also had heatstroke: white walkers don’t really cope with heat too well.

My first thought was food and my second was Chinese. There were some people amongst us, doubting Thomases all, who told me the Chinese was shut. That didn’t seem to make economic sense and at about fiveish, Greg and I went to investigate and found it open, although, at this early hour not exactly full to bursting with punters. We ordered food and chopsticks and took it back to the village hall where I slowly and determinedly demolished my Szechuan Bean Curd and rice.

Come 8 O’clock I was ready for bed and pleading the cold and heatstroke, I retired to the tent. I had 12 hours broken sleep, which equates to about 8 hours unbroken sleep and, although I didn’t wake refreshed, I was ready to face the world again.

We then had the job of packing everything back into the i10 and that done we made our way back in convoy with Mark along the A49 all the way to the Alvanley Arms in Cotebrook, Cheshire, where we stopped for a meal, and then made our separate ways back home, thus ending yet another great weekend at the Upton upon Severn Folk Festival.

One last thing, I haven’t mentioned all the sides we danced with but I’ve tagged them plus a couple more who I like and who I saw at Upton this year. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to share a spot with you all another year.


Clerical Error’s 25th Birthday Bash: a weekend of dancing, beer, camaraderie and quite a lot of rain.

Posted in Dance, Folk Traditions, Morris Dancing, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2016 by Jester

Stone the Crows’ very particular friends, Clerical Error, are 25 this year. When we turned 21 last year, we had a big celebriation (a cross between celebration and inebriation) and invited our lovely friends, including the aforementioned Denbighshire side, who helped us break a Guinness World Record on the Flag Market in Preston. I didn’t get a chance to blog about that even though it was very exciting indeed because Greg and I went on holiday the following weekend and when we returned and I’d uploaded all my photos to Facebook, it seemed a bit late.

Greg and I set off Friday lunchtime and managed to be the first Crows to arrive at the campsite at Trefnant Village Hall, which is a first in so many ways, so we claimed a pitch at the bottom of the field and then, remembering that heavy rain was forecast, we relocated to the top of the field and claimed that bit instead. I quickly set about pitching the tent all by myself so it could be just so. I was pleased with the result and by the time I had finished making sure everything was perfectly in place, Frances and John arrived and it transpired that we weren’t the first Crows there because they’d got there before us (and put a windbreak up at the bottom of the field to stake a claim [which John had to go and retrieve]). Greg and I had acquired a fire bucket and already had beers cooling in it. Frances added a bottle of wine and the obligatory photos were taken.

Crows kept turning up during the afternoon and we ended up sat in a circle drinking beer and wine (but not from the same tankard) and doing what Crows do best, putting the world to rights. A few of us decided to have our tea at the pub across the road and we did. Mine wasn’t a success because they’d run out of the obviously Vegan option, so I went for the veggie burger, which contained cheese. I used to really like cheese but it appears I don’t anymore, so I left it. When we got back to the campsite, we did that sitting in a circle and putting the world to rights thing again. I was getting cold though and I knew there was a session in the Village Hall, so Julie, Greg and I went to join in.

Tent all shipshape and Bristol fashion, while I adjust my waistline.

Tent all shipshape and Bristol fashion, while I adjust my waistline.

The session was one of those advanced jobbies and I felt right out of my depth but I  joined in anyway, otherwise how will I ever improve? I also like to learn new tunes and the one from this session is The Galopede, which I will practice intensely over the next few weeks and which you can find here. At one point during the session I asked “Have there been any Cotswold tunes?” and Graham from Powderkegs started playing Valentine. I think he’d read my mind. Anyway, it was a good session and I stayed late enough that when we tripped our way back to the tent, I wished I’d brought a torch with me. The first night’s sleep was disturbed, mainly because the bunting fairy had hung some bunting on our tent and every time the wind made it flap against the sides, it sounded like a medium sized furry animal with a long tail was running up and down it.

We awoke to the sound of rain drumming on the tent. Not a good start to the day. However, I decided to ignore all the weather forecasts for the day (all variations on a theme: it’s going to piss down all day and you’re going to be miserable) and come up with my own, which I declaimed to my fellow Crows while the rain penetrated my waterproof coat (I need to rewaterproof it now). My forecast was: “It’s going to piss down until 10.00, when we catch the bus to Conwy, at which point it will ease to a light drizzle and, when we get to Conwy, the sun will break through and it will be glorious.” Actually, it was a damn sight more accurate than the Met Office and BBC Weather combined because it eased off at 09.52 and, although it did rain a bit in Conwy, it certainly did not persist it down.

There were three dance spots in Conwy and we got to dance at two of them: the Square and the Castle. Our first spot was at the Square, where we danced with our hosts, Clerical Error, Carreg Las and Ripley Green Garters. We started off with Ragged Crow and then did Black Widow when our turn came round again. When it was time for our third dance, we did Ashpole, where I had to pretend to be a man because we didn’t have enough (we normally have a 50/50 split). I think I did a reasonable impression, making low grunting noises and generally looking macho, although the other Crows did seem to be laughing at me rather a lot. I might have been more convincing if I’d had a beard but then I don’t think Greg would like me as much if I did.

Wytchwood and Crows getting very dirty trouser legs.

Wytchwood and Crows getting very dirty trouser legs in the Castle Cellars.

After three dances, we made our way to the Castle. On our way, one of the Crows overheard a tour guide give the best description of a castle ever when he said, “This is a castle. it’s lovely, it’s very old and ……. Yeah.” We danced in the Cellar (now open to the elements), which has a gritty surface, is very slippery and managed to get nearly all the way up our trouser legs. We shared this spot with Ripley Green Garters and Wytchwood Morris. We danced STC (the space was perfect for it, even though the surface wasn’t), a double set of Upton Stick, where 12 Crows barely managed to keep on their feet (we could have called it the Upton Banana Skin Dance) and finished up with a White Ladies Aston, which I think was pretty brave of us considering our feet’s propensity to go sliding in different directions every time we took a step, before going off to find lunch.

Lunch was a bowl of chips, which I had to guard jealously from Greg’s rampaging fork, and then we went back to the Square again, where we were dancing with Powderkegs and Ripley Green Garters. Powderkegs kicked off proceedings with their version of Much Wenlock, while we were waiting for all the Crows to arrive, and then Ripley Green Garters danced, while we were still waiting for all the Crows to arrive. Arrive they did, in the end, and it was our turn to dance. I got a set up for Much Wenlock. I know Powderkegs had just danced it but we do it a bit differently, so why not? Powderkegs then did their version of Black Widow, which they do with eight dancers. We do it with six. We all had time to do three dances at this spot and our final one was Mr Benn, which is a particular favourite of mine, although it leaves me feeling like I’ve just tried to sprint a marathon. When I’d got my breath back, it was time to go back to the castle for some massed dances.

We did three massed dances: Bonny Green Garters, a Cotswold dance taught to us by Mad Jacks Morris; Gisburn, a North West Morris dance taught to us by Ripley Green Garters (with an unholy scramble for sticks beforehand); Tinners Rabbit was the Border dance taught to us by Graham from Powderkegs. Then, because we had not run out of time yet, we did another dance, a bottle Cuckoo’s Nest, where you use bottles instead of sticks, although Greg and I didn’t have bottles, so we used sticks instead.

Then we caught the bus back to the campsite and I went off to have a shower and get face paint all over Greg’s camping towel (naughty me). Then there were cakes and beer and then, once I’d ruined my appetite, we went into the village hall for tea. My tea was vegetable curry and chips and I couldn’t manage even half of it and I never had any of the puddings on offer. Then there was a game where a representative from each team had to do a cross between a treasure hunt and musical chairs. Why Stone the Crows chose me for their representative, I will never know. I’m very lazy and very slow and not particularly competitive (or too quick to give up if things aren’t going my way). I lost on the round where I had to get a man’s sock: it was Graham’s. It was a bit of a relief, although I could easily have won the next round because we had to find a bra and it would have been the work of a moment to sit in the chair and remove my own.

Musical Chairs a la Clerical Error

Musical Chairs a la Clerical Error

After that, there was the result of the quiz (we had all been handed quiz sheets earlier in the day) and prizes, the rather beautiful birthday cake was cut, there was a special dance created that same day and danced to a Black Sabbath medley by members of Box Hill Bedlam and Clerical Error. Then the tables were cleared and there was a band. We managed to stay for a few numbers but then Cat, our Squire, had to take her two young sons back to the campsite and put them to bed as they were worn out by their day’s exertions: it can be hard work dragging your father around Conwy and forcing him to spend his money on you. We couldn’t leave her on her own, so we stayed for another song or two and then left to keep her company.

We went back to doing the sitting in a circle and putting the world to rights thing while Cat would occasionally go back to her tent to arbitrate the odd squabble from her progeny until they feel asleep. It wasn’t long after that I decided it was time to hit the sack myself. Partly because I too was worn out by my day’s exertions (involving quite a lot of dancing and a smaller amount of beer) but more because I was getting cold and bed seemed to be the best place to warm up again.

It was warm but the mattress, which had not been properly inflated (I had not overseen that operation), had leaked air during the day and I was almost in contact with the tent floor. When Greg got in a little bit later, I nearly bounced out and spent the rest of the night trying to climb out of the trough that formed in the middle and then nearly rolling off the side. However, it was still more restful than the previous night because I was no longer under the impression that the local rats were using our tent as an obstacle course.

Sunday started in a  more promising manner than Saturday because it didn’t start raining at the crack of dawn: it waited until the tents had had a chance to dry and then came down just enough to wet them thoroughly. We dodged showers, ate our breakfasts, performed our morning ablutions and then dropped the still wet tents. At about eleven we set off to Erddig House in convoy – well, a sort of convoy: it was a convoy of two cars – Mary’s and ours. We managed to get there without incident – Mary’s satnav is obviously better than ours – and rendezvoused with the other Morris dancers.

There was time for a cup of tea and a packet of crisps, despite a fire alarm going off, and then Clerical Error’s Squire requested the presence of an officer from each side to discuss the order of dance. I went along as I couldn’t see Cat just at that moment and I swear I paid attention but by the time I got back to the Crows the information I had absorbed was limited. We were going to look round the house first and then dance outside it second but the timings had completely escaped me. Fortunately Cat had returned and she decided that we would look round the house and meet up outside at 1.15.

The view from the top of the steps at the back of the house with Crows waiting to dance. Jeffrey is in his jet pack to my left.

The view from the top of the steps at the back of the house with Crows waiting to dance. Jeffrey is in his jet pack to my left.

Mark, Greg and I went to look round the house. I had Jeffrey on my back in his jet pack, so I was relieved to be relieved of him in the cellars, ostensibly to protect the priceless treasures in the house but probably because the National Trust volunteer could see me struggling with him. Her face was a picture when she took him off me and felt how heavy he is for the first time. We looked round the house and saw the lovely collection, including some stuffed animals depicting household pests, such as woodworm and deathwatch beetle, and met the other Crows outside at about 1.15pm as planned and watched the other sides finishing off their sets.

The order of dance was drawn up and we were to dance after Belly Fusion Dance Collective. Unfortunately another side had also been told they were going after Belly Fusion and there was nearly a very unpleasant altercation with shouts of “We were after Belly Fusion!” and “No! We were after Belly Fusion!” and “We haven’t danced yet!” and “Neither have we!”. However, we retired [almost] gracefully and as a member of the other side came over later and proffered an apology and olive branch, no names shall be named. Anyway, we got to dance and we did two sets of Ragged Crow. There was time for another dance, which was White Ladies with Greg and I leading and then there was a massed dance, which was Echoes.

I usually dance Echoes but I thought that this time I would play Jeffrey with the band. I always thought I knew the tune to Echoes but memory can be deceptive and I found out I was harmonising quite nicely but not actually playing the tune. No matter, I didn’t play too loudly and paid attention and I think that by the end I was playing a close approximation of the actual tune. One of the melodeon players for Powderkegs said afterwards that I seemed to have picked it up quite well, so I’ll take that as vindication of my playing.

After Echoes we had a group photo of all the sides taken on the steps and then it was time to depart. Graham and Anne had offered tea and cake in their caravan but Greg and I were keen to go home, so we set off to the car, our pace quickening with every step as the rain started to fall again and put Jeffrey and Greg in the car and I drove home.

It was a fabulous weekend and an absolute honour to be able to help such a wonderful Morris side to celebrate their 25th birthday. Here’s to many more!

Group photo outside Erddig House.

Group photo outside Erddig House.

Gate to Southwell Folk Festival – the one where it rained a bit.

Posted in Dance, Folk Traditions, Morris Dancing, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2016 by Jester

Firstly, an apology. I have left you in the lurch about what happened in Upton upon Severn on Sunday and Monday. This is because I’ve had too many things on my plate (mostly playing Jeffrey and going on Facebook). Now I have pretty well forgotten what happened on those two days so I’m afraid you are going to have to make it up for yourselves.

Now another apology. I’ve always tried to stick to 1500 words or thereabouts for these blogs but I’ve done this one in one go so it’s gone way over my usual limit. There is no natural break at 1500 words or thereabouts, so I have decided to keep this as one blog, so you will have to put up with a blog over twice the length of my usual offerings. Sorry. You may want to make yourself a cup of tea half way through to break it up a bit.

Getting back to what I was saying before, I do remember what happened at Southwell last weekend and I have even made notes, so I have decided to make it up to you by telling you all about the Gate to Southwell Folk Festival and I promise you it is very exciting indeed.

I got the whole of Friday off work and was able to put the morning to good use getting all our camping equipment packed into the car, going on Facebook and drinking lots of coffee (we’d had a late night on Thursday). Greg was finishing work at 12.00, so I set off at 11.40 and was waiting impatiently outside his place of work at 12.00 on the dot. We then made our way to Mark’s where we were going to form a convoy and, indeed, did. Mark and I have something in common: we don’t like driving on motorways, so I was happy when he turned off the M60 at Stockport to take us through Derbyshire.

The road took us over hill and dale, through pretty villages and stunning countryside, all of which were very wet due to several downpours of biblical proportions. Then Mark’s satnav took us off the beaten track (a bit reminiscent of my own satnav when I went to Bodnant Garden) and suddenly I found myself avoiding potholes, fording a stream, fording a bigger stream, fording a river and finally driving through a lake. It was all a bit nerve wracking because up to that moment, I hadn’t realised that Hyundai had designed the i10 as an amphibious vehicle.

We did make it to the campsite, though, and we did find the other happy campers (of the crow variety) and got the tent up with Pete’s help (he had just finished erecting his own). This was done in double quick time because the rain had started coming down again. This meant that the tent was not erected to my exacting standards (they are very exacting) but no matter because it did not fall down and didn’t leak. It just didn’t look quite right.

When the tent was up and I had drunk the cup of tea kindly donated by Anne; Greg, Pete, Mark and I made our way to the Festival Site to find food and beer. For me, the food was rice, three types of curry (including the most delicious curry I have ever had – plantain curry), lime pickle and aubergine pickle from Leon Vegetarian Cuisine. Pete had chips, having already eaten, Mark had fish and chips and Greg had scampi and chips.

That's the place. Ask for the plaintain curry, you know you want to.

That’s the place. Ask for the plaintain curry, you know you want to.

We then moved onto the beer tent, where I found to my delight that there was a wheat beer on offer, which, being unfiltered, is Vegan. I have missed out quite a lot on real ale recently because of the Isinglass used to fine it, so I was happy as the proverbial pig. The lack of alcohol has made me a bit of a lightweight, though, so I needed to be careful and I wasn’t. We noticed a couple of Witchmen and being under strict instructions from Murray to say hello to Terry from the aforesaid Witchmen, we went over to find out if either of them was Terry. Neither was but one of them, Erik, who also knows a Crow or two turned out to be very good company and we (now joined by Jean) spent a good part of the evening with him entertaining him with tales of naked Cumbrian wrestling and demonstrations of how varifocals work. He even took notes, we were so informative. He later introduced us to Terry so we could say hello from Murray.

After a while, Erik managed to tear himself away from us despite our best efforts and we had to entertain ourselves. I found I was getting a bit inebriated and, to be honest, it was fun. Greg tells me I’m a bit talkative when I’m drunk but I don’t notice the difference myself: I have the ability to talk the hind legs off a donkey at all times. I never got to the stage where my speech was slurred so I wasn’t that bad. After a while we decided we’d had enough to drink (or maybe Greg decided that I’d had enough to drink) so we made our way back to our tents and settled down for our first night’s sleep in Southwell. This wasn’t entirely undisturbed because I could hear snoring in stereo: on one side Greg and on the other, in the next tent, a person who shall remain nameless. There was also heavy rain in the night that drowned out the snoring to an extent but did little to alleviate my fears that we would be awash by morning.

Which we weren’t. However, I was slightly hungover – I really need to start drinking more to build up my resistance. Fortunately, due to the hangover’s slight nature, a good strong coffee from Anne and a gentle breeze, it was dispelled relatively quickly. We went and performed our morning ablutions in the nearest toilet block, which had no hot water, resulting in an amusing scene where a man unexpectedly found he had to hose soap off his top half with cold water from the fresh water supply. This amused Greg considerably. We then had a meeting or a huddle or a cuddle where I decided who would be dancing which dance in what position and we then caught the bus into Southwell.

There was time for a coffee (because we caught the early bus) and then it was time for the procession. We were near the back behind Glorishears of Brummagen, we had Cat’s son Jed carrying the Standard (a rather tatty looking crow on a Stone the Crows sign) and we had practiced our processional dance beforehand, so nothing could go wrong. Well, first of all, we weren’t aware that Glorishears have a processional dance that goes backwards as well as forwards, so Jed found himself surrounded by ladies in blue dancing Cotswold morris on several occasions and I found myself shouting “You need to rethink your processional” as Jed yet again disappeared into a mass of hankie waving ladies. Furthermore, we kept catching up with them and then having to shout “Reverse! Reverse!” as they would start backing up into us bringing a bemused Jed with them. Plus one or two of our dancers went in the wrong direction (the right direction being forwards: this is a processional dance, after all) once or twice, adding to my frustration. Jed, however, was a perfect standard bearer and is a credit to his parents.

Stone the Crows' standard bearer with a motley bunch of Crows.

Stone the Crows’ standard bearer with a motley bunch of Crows.

At the end of the procession, we went through the traditional morris guard of honour and then formed one ourselves at the back for the last few teams behind us. That done, we went back to the Admiral Rodney, whence we had processed, for the first spot. We shared this spot with Harlequin, an excellent young Cotswold side, Silkstone Greens, of the North West persuasion and Sheffield Steel, a very talented ladies’ rapper side. There was time for one dance only and we did Ragged Crow. I think it went rather well and I got a very satisfactory reaction from two audience members as I charged at them at the end of the dance.

After that, we went up to the next spot outside One-Stop, where we were dancing with Silkstone Greens (again), the Raving Maes and Lincoln & Mickelbarrow Morris Men. The Witchmen were finishing their set as we arrived and we were first up. We did Black Widow and then Ashpole when our turn came round again. We had time for a quick one once the other sides had danced again, so we did Tinners Rabbit and, for some reason known only to myself, I decided to drum. Probably not the best idea because I was completely lost for about a third of it. However, I didn’t put Graham or any other musicians off so it can’t have been all bad. After that, it was time for lunch.

Lunch was a roasted vegetable panini and a cup of tea in the Alfresco Caffe Bar on Queen Street, after which we started to make our way to our next spot outside the library. I say we started to make our way because we had not gone far when Greg realised that he had left his stick in the Alfresco Caffe Bar and I realised I didn’t have mine either. Greg went back and Mark and I started talking to some chaps from Ooks of Hazzard, who were performing at the festival. Greg returned with just his stick as mine was nowhere to be seen. Evidently somebody had half-inched it or I hadn’t had it with me when we went for lunch. I now tend towards the latter hypothesis as I am a serial stick abandoner.

We got to the library a little bit late expecting to find hordes of impatient Crows there; I think there were two and the others rolled up in twos and threes over the next ten or so minutes until we were quorate and it was time to dance again. We shared this spot with Bishops Morris and Poacher Morris from Lincoln. For some reason I chose only eight man dances for this spot: White Ladies, STC and Crows Nest. Poacher were either very impressed or very polite because each dance got a rapturous reception from them. Of course it was easy to return the compliment because they were fantastic.

Okay, I've not found any of the pictures of STC and L & M in Prebend Passage but this is a picture of a donkey, so it'll have to do.

Okay, I’ve not found any of the pictures of STC and L & M in Prebend Passage but this is a picture of a donkey, so it’ll have to do.

The final spot of the day was in Prebend Passage by the Methodist Hall with Lincoln and Mickelbarrow. When we got there it appeared that this was the naughty corner of the Southwell Festival because there was absolutely nobody there who wasn’t either a Crow or L & M. Now a lack of audience wasn’t a major problem because we would be able to practice a dance or two, so I chose to practice one of our easier dances, Much Wenlock. My instructions were clear and simple – loud, dirty, rude. The Crows obeyed orders and I had a bit of a When Harry Met Sally moment. Even our lines were straight. However, the lack of audience was telling so we decided to move on again. Before we did, though, we decided to have a joint group photograph taken around a poster for the “Donkey Dump”. Now I’m not sure what that is but we liked the sound and the photos were taken.

We then went back to the library where we shared a spot very briefly with Raving Maes and Rhubarb Tarts Molly. We did one dance only, Cuckoos Nest, and then made our way back to the bus stop to catch the bus back to the Festival site. There we had a long, long wait for the bus (something like 40 minutes) until it arrived to much cheering and whooping.

Back at the campsite we had our traditional Saturday afternoon tea and cake once we had removed our blacking. With the tea drunk and the cakes consumed, we decided to go to the festival site in search of food and beer. However, while we were queuing for food, the rain started, so we decided to take refuge in the beer tent. We just about made it in time because as we were making our purchases, a torrential downpour started with what appeared to be no intention of stopping. Well, we are nothing if we are not adaptable, so we had our beer first and, when the rain had slackened off a little, we ventured out into the mudbath that was now the Southwell Festival site to stock up on chips and other sources of sustenance. We took them back to the beer tent concerned that the rain might start again and, indeed, it did.

Meanwhile in the beer tent, there was a very, very advanced session going on: the sort of session where I would not have been able to keep up, even if I had had Jeffrey with me (I’d left him at home sulking). However, in amongst all these virtuosi was a bodhran player who seemed to be accompanying a very different tune. Each time a Crow joined us (we ended up quite a large group at the end of the evening), there would be a little bit of conversation, a few gulps of beer, cider or wine and then the inevitable exclamation “That has to be the worst bodhran playing I’ve ever heard!” At some point a decision was made that we would have to have a rhythm section all of our own. We didn’t actually have any instruments but we managed to fashion some out of empty coffee cups, an empty plastic bottle, some wooden cutlery and various tankards and plastic glasses.

Greg and the coat of many colours

Greg and the coat of many colours

While all this was going on, Linda and Jo had a leaflet collecting competition, seeing who could amass the largest number of different folk festival flyers. Every now and again one of them would say something like “I’ll raise you a Derby Festival!” to which the other would reply “I’ll raise you a Bath Folk Festival”. However, the Folk Festival flyers ran out so Linda had to be a little more inventive and raised Jo a Poetry Airlines flyer: not a festival but beggars can’t be choosers and Greg immediately turned it into a paper plane and threw it into the air. It flew straight into a steward’s head causing much mirth and merriment on our table.

In the end it was time to brave the rain and mud to go and see Show of Hands (or Show Off Hands as I had read the poster on Friday). We managed to get there without getting too wet, although we ended up with very muddy feet. However, while we were in the marquee, the rain came down again in a downpour of positively biblical proportions. Inside the tent Show of Hands were magnificent and Steve Knightly even managed to do a Bob Dylan impression during Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed (it was Bob’s 75th birthday in case you didn’t know). We stayed right to the end before making our way back to the tent through mud, puddles, rivers, lakes and a small inland sea, complete with whales and salt water crocodiles. We didn’t get eaten fortunately and the tent wasn’t flooded, although there was a small puddle in our porch for which Greg got the blame (he’s used to it).

That night was similar to Friday in that I experienced snoring in stereo from Greg and the mystery gentleman in the tent next to ours but not at quite the same volume and the rain was heavier and therefore drowned out the snoring even more.

Sunday started reasonably dry so we made the decision to drop the tent after giving it a jolly good shake and giving it a slight chance to dry off. After we had packed everything away, we had a quick meeting before going off to catch the bus. While we were waiting for the bus, Cat told us where we were dancing, at what time and which bus we would need to catch back to the Festival Site for the dance on the stage. This was overheard by two Everards Anstey Morris men, who were highly impressed with her ability to get our attention and keep it and they asked if she could be their squire. She politely declined.

Our first spot was at the Hearty Goodfellow pub with Silkstone Greens and Grimsby Morris. We didn’t start immediately because it was raining, so we took shelter under some parasols at the back. Some of us took this opportunity to sample the ales, one of which was called Brian Clough and I found the idea of going up to the bar and saying “I’ll have half a Brian Clough. Leave the other half in the freezer, please” hilarious. I didn’t though and instead had a half a glass of water, a packet of crisps and some chilli nuts.

Greg looking for food on the barbecue and being bitterly disappointed.

Greg looking for food on the barbecue and being bitterly disappointed.

After a while the weather cleared a bit and we did our first dance. In a break with tradition, I decided to do Much Wenlock. I requested the same level of loudness, rudeness and dirtiness as the day before and was rewarded with much panting, moaning and calls of “harder” and “faster” and that was just the audience. I also heard an “Ooh missus!” from Julie opposite me when I was bashing her stick with fervour. There may well be calls of “Ooh matron!” at future performances.

After us Silkstone Greens came on and then Grimsby Morris men. We then did a Black Widow and, when it was our turn again, a White Ladies. White Ladies was to be our final dance there because while Silkstone Greens were doing their next dance, the heavens opened. The musicians dashed for cover without missing a beat and the dancers danced on while simultaneously getting soaked to the skin. Once the rain had slackened off, it was time to move to the next spot, the Minster, where we were dancing with the Witchmen, Silkstone Greens and Harlequin. We had time for only one dance, here, Skirmish, and then we went back to the festival site to dance on the festival stage.

It was too slippy, so it was decided not to dance and Stone the Crows called it a day for the weekend. We all went our separate ways, some to the beer tent, some to the beer tent and some to the beer tent.Well, actually some of us went to say hello to Pete Grassby, who had his stall opposite the stage and Jed, the Stone the Crows mascot even managed to get a harp lesson from Sandy, Pete’s partner. After that we went to get some food and I went for the particularly healthy option of churros with cinnamon sugar washed down with strong black coffee.

Fortified with sustenance, we went back to the campsite to remove our make up and eventually set off home in convoy. Mark’s satnav decided not to mess with our minds and took us a reasonably direct route on A roads back up to Stockport and thence on the M60 and M61 until Mark turned off and Greg and I made our merry way back home, where we could unpack our stuff, have some tea and wash the weekend’s grime off us.

Upton Folk Festival: Cider, Border Morris, Sessions and Pitta Bread and Salad

Posted in Dance, Folk Traditions, Morris Dancing, Music with tags , , , , , , on May 29, 2016 by Jester

Right at the end of April into right at the beginning of this month was the Upton Folk Festival, the first festival of the year, where I tend to get a little bit drunk, a little bit frostbitten and get to play Jeffrey an awful lot. Now a lot has happened since then and I’m not sure if I’m going to remember much of what went on that weekend but I’ll try because my intention was always to keep an account of all the Stone the Crows stuff I do and, to be honest, I’ve not really been a resounding success in that department.

I do remember that I took the Friday off work and collected Greg from work when he finished at 11am. We then drove down to Upton via a couple of Motorways, a lot of A Roads and a Co-op where we stopped off to get some much needed refreshment in the form of a large packet of crisps and some gluten free biscuits. We got to Upton and I managed not to miss the entrance to the campsite and we managed to find the Crows’ patch with reasonable ease. I think we’re beginning to get used to Upton now.

I got the tent up just fine even though Greg helped  and we got it furnished like a little home from home (Greg is a pastmaster at inflating the airbed and doing that “To you, to me” thing to get it into the bedroom of the tent). We were not the last ones onto the campsite and Gaynor and I helped John and Carol with the very precise job of backing up their caravan, using just our heads, when they arrived.

Sharon and Gaynor very carefully moving John and Carol's caravan into position using just their heads

Sharon and Gaynor very carefully moving John and Carol’s caravan into position using just their heads

I know we went down to the Festival Office to find out where we were going to be dancing on the Saturday and Sunday and then promptly forgot again. We also had tea in the Fish and Chip shop and, because I’m a fussy eater (for that read Vegan), I had a green salad in a Pitta bread. Yes really. They fry everything together: fish, chips, sausages, mushrooms, spring rolls, meat pies, salad. Well, maybe not the salad but I can’t have chips that have been contaminated with dead animals. No really.

After tea, we went back to the campsite to get Jeffrey and set off in search of a session. After a drink in the Swan, where they tend to have the virtuosi’s session (no beginners allowed), we went off to the Kings Head to see what was on offer there. What was on offer was a couple of very irritating guitarists singing various non-folky songs, including a truly appalling rendition of Hound Dog. We soon realised that this was not the sort of thing we wanted, so we went back to the Swan, where, apparently, Stuart had found a session worthy of the name.

He had indeed and it was the session that is decidedly not for beginners. I had to elbow my way through the pub to get to the room from which all the extremely difficult and fast music was emanating – I say elbow but in fact Jeffrey in his jet pack can send people flying with one twist of my back: it probably does untold damage to my back but it gets me through crowds. There was standing room only and that was in the corridor leading to the room but I deposited my coat and got Jeffrey out of his jet pack and strapped him on my chest ready for action.

I have this attitude to playing the accordion. It goes something like this:

Person sitting next to me – “Sharon, do you know your accordion’s on my foot?”

Me – “No but you hum it and I’ll play it.”

Meaning that I’ll have a go at anything. I’ll usually try the right hand part first and if I can’t get my head round that (or my right hand round it) I’ll have a go at the chords. This has served me well in many a session and I decided to put it to use. I’m not used to playing standing up and definitely prefer to play sitting down and, when a couple got out of a couple of chairs near me and Stuart (who was stood nearby), we made a beeline for them before anybody else got a chance to get anywhere near them.

Being sat down made playing much easier and it also made staying until the bitter end (when polite but heavy hints were made that we had outstayed our welcome) much easier. At the bitter end I located Greg, who hadn’t been able to find a chair, Jeffrey’s backpack and all my coats and got myself ready for the walk back to the tent. I had been remarkably organised and brought a torch with me so we didn’t fall over any guy ropes on the way back or crawl into the wrong tent and after putting on about 5 layers, including a sleeping bag, I fell asleep.

Sharon and Greg dancing Cuckoo's Nest outside the Plough. Photo courtesy of Mark Brazier

Sharon and Greg dancing Cuckoo’s Nest outside the Plough.
Photo courtesy of Mark Brazier

I got up reasonably early on Saturday and had some muesli for my breakfast and a cup of coffee kindly donated by Pete and Elaine. All the Crows had been told to assemble at 10.30 ready for dancing and, amazingly,  we all did. We walked down to the Plough near the bridge, where we joined a couple of other sides who were already there. We started off with a Ragged Crow (well, we always do, don’t we?) We did other dances, including Cuckoo’s Nest (all in a row) and when we were under the bridge I decided to give the new dance, Shambles, its first showcase. It wasn’t a resounding success but it was explained that this was the first time we had danced it outside practice and the audience appeared to be reasonably appreciative. I suspect it was 10 out of 10 for effort. We also danced Loxley Barratt and I got Barbara up to dance it. She had only learned it the previous Thursday and this was the second time she was to dance it. She did an admirable job (she’s a natural, after all) and I decided that Loxley was going to be one of our show dances for the day and Barbara was going to be in it.

We did the show dances outside the King’s Head at about 2pm. I had decided to go for the two dances that had gone best and they were both six man dances: Loxley Barratt and Black Widow. An unusual choice, I know, but the eight man dances hadn’t gone particularly well (apart from Ashpole but I had forgotten about that one) and I didn’t want to take any chances. The two six man dances went just fine and we then went back to the bridge for more dancing.

We will have finished for tea and I think we had a chinese (I definitely had bean curd over the weekend). I hadn’t been feeling very well all day. I had put it down to the cider I had drunk on Friday (and I have sworn off it since), so Greg and I went for a sit down and a brew in the King’s Head. Fortunately the irritating guitarists were not there (they were presumably practicing another Elvis hit for an appalling rendition later in the evening), so the pub was quiet. After the brew and when I had begun to feel more normal again, we returned to the campsite to get Jeffrey again and set off for the Swan in search of another session.

Mary, mystery fiddle player and Dark Morris Dancer with Jeffrey, showing those young whippersnappers they will not be beaten.

Mary, mystery fiddle player and Dark Morris Dancer with Jeffrey, showing those young whippersnappers they will not be beaten.

Stuart and other Crows were already there but the room they were in was so crowded it wasn’t even standing room, so we went back to the scene of the previous evening’s session and joined two fiddle players, another accordion player and a drummer. They were very good indeed and I was a little bit reluctant to get Jeffrey out of his jet pack at first but we were quickly joined by a fiddle player and he was less shy than me, so I was a little happier to get Jeffrey out. Others joined us, including Stuart with some others from the other room. I had had my doubts about one of the musicians who had been there when we arrived and he confirmed them when he said “Oh no, not bloody melodeon players, play something in A”. To those not initiated in the niceties of folk music, melodeons tend to be in G and A major is an awkward key for melodeon players.

It doesn’t really matter how good you are at the fiddle or how drunk or how gobby or even how downright bloody rude you are, you are not going to put off a bunch of curmudgeonly melodeon, fiddle, accordion or anything else players from playing their instruments if they want to, so we did not let them dominate the session and we did play what we wanted and whenever they managed to get a note in edgeways, play in A and at twice the proper speed, we sat there patiently biding our time until we could get the initiative back and start playing “Speed the Plough” or “Winster Gallop” or whatever took our fancy. The session did leave a sour taste in my mouth though, and a desire to tear a strip off the offender if I got the chance (which I did but I didn’t take it).

Well, I didn’t do too badly remembering Friday and Saturday. I’m going to leave Sunday and Monday for another time. See you again!

Amounderness Day of Dance, the one I can’t remember anymore

Posted in Dance, Folk Traditions, Morris Dancing, Music with tags , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2016 by Jester

You know the Morris Year has really kicked off when you’re driving to Chorley with an accordion in the back of the car and a Gregory with twigs painted on his face in the passenger seat: you’ve done John O’Gaunt a week or two or three or four or even five ago, the sun is shining and there is a song in your heart (the song is probably a rude one about sex or sailors or alcohol or even all three). Oh and it’s about 9.30 on the Saturday of the last full weekend in April and this year it was even St George’s Day.

Yes, you’ve guessed it, this one is about Amounderness’ Day of Dance. Now this all happened just over three weeks ago and I didn’t take notes. My memory is not what is was so don’t expect 1500 words from me this time. You’ll be lucky if you get five words from me.

We did a few dances.

You see what I mean.

So I’ll try to remember so you can see what it is like to be a Dark Morris Dancer.

I know we got to Chorley at about 9.45 because I waited to get a parking ticket so I would only have to pay a pound for the day. So did a lot of other Morris dancers on the same car park. I put my face paint on in the car and probably missed a bit (usually on the nose) because I always do. Greg was probably champing at the bit (he usually does) and then it turned 10am and a load of Morris dancers bought a parking ticket each. I will then have hoisted Jeffrey in his jet pack onto my back.

We then made our way to the church to convene with the other Crows. Following a suggestion by a very helpful Crow, I then decided to delegate the organisation of the different dance spots to various Crows. I reserved the first and final spots for myself and asked Mary, Jean, Keith Two and John to organise the other and they very kindly agreed to do it. This would enable me to play Jeffrey because I wouldn’t have to spend the whole day organising and, of course, it gives valuable experience to people who might one day be mad enough to think of being Foreman.

Our first spot was on Chapel Street where we were dancing with 400 Roses and Westmoreland Step and Garland. Here I organised and our first dance was Ragged Crow. I didn’t dance and I didn’t play, so I cast a critical eye over the three sets but it all went well and then it was 400 Roses’ turn. 400 Roses are belly dancers but they have a proper Morris band and they dance to Morris tunes (mainly North West tunes if I remember rightly). It works really well and they are always a joy to watch. After them it was Westmoreland and then it was our turn again. My memory is hazy but I’m pretty sure we did STC at this spot and I definitely played Jeffrey when we danced it because it is one of the tunes I know well.

Crows performing the Hey in STC on Chapel Street. I'm out of shot squeezing Jeffrey.

Crows performing the Hey in STC on Chapel Street. I’m out of shot squeezing Jeffrey.

Our next spot was on Market Street, but they’d opened it up to traffic so we couldn’t dance there. Instead we went around the corner to New Market Street where we joined Newburgh and Fylde Coast Morris. I had asked Mary to organise this spot and she had already approached me to dance Black Widow. This was probably a good idea because I’m rubbish at the tune and I probably would have put off the other musicians if I’d have played it. We danced and, if I remember rightly, it went just fine. However, there was a small problem because our musicians managed to drown out the lone fiddle player playing for a side dancing round the corner from us and they asked us to miss a turn to give him or her a chance. We co-operated but it meant that one of the dances had to be dropped and, of course, the other sides had to make up the shortfall, which was a little bit confusing.

No matter, we did two dances and Newburgh did three or was it four? And Fylde Coast did four or was it three? Then it was time to move onto the next spot which Jean organised. This was outside the Market Tavern and I now have absolutely no idea what dances we did. What I do know, though is that we danced with the lovely Briggate ladies, the also lovely Fylde Coast and the equally lovely Furness. I suspect I played Jeffrey and I suspect I did one or two of the dances. In fact this spot may have been organised by Keith Two. I’m really unsure about this: after all I have slept several times since.

What I can be certain about is that after this, we all went off for dinner. Some of us had a liquid lunch in the Shepherd’s Hall Ale House and some, including me, had a pretty solid lunch in Wetherspoons. Greg and I sat with Simon, Robynne and their delightful daughter Charlotte, who is one of the most entertaining people I know (and has been since a very young age). We discussed such matters as the advantages and disadvantages of having an inclusive Morris side versus an invitation only side, lactose intolerance, gluten free diets, fracking, renewable energy and Daddy having to go on the naughty mat because he had creosoted Charlotte’s slide by accident. When we had finished our lunch there was still about 20 minutes before we had to dance again, so Greg and I went to the aforementioned Alehouse to partake of its selection of fine ales.

Ulverston Morris doing what is quite clearly a hankie dance

Ulverston Morris doing what is quite clearly a hankie dance. (Photo courtesy of Mark Brazier)

After that we went back to New Market Street, where we were dancing with Ulverston again. I’m pretty sure that Keith Two organised this spot but if he didn’t, then it was Jean. I’m really sorry but I don’t remember what we danced but I’m absolutely sure we danced really well, all our lines were straight and we all turned in the right direction when we had to. I probably gave Jeffrey a squeeze or two and I probably bashed someone’s stick. I don’t think anybody was injured. When we had finished we all went off to our final spot before the grand finale, which was back outside the Market Tavern.

I’m on much firmer ground here because I know John organised this one and I know that one of the dances was Crows Nest. I didn’t dance but played Jeffrey, Strike the Bell being one of the tunes I can play quite easily, as long as I don’t play too loud and stop squeezing if I hit a wrong note or chord. We shared this spot with Amounderness and 400 Roses and I imagine we did three dances but I have no idea what the other two were.

After that it was time for the grand finale where every side would get to showcase one of their dances before a highly critical and analytical Morris audience. First up was Amounderness, followed by Bollin Morris from Cheshire dancing Porlock Hill. Then there was a succession of North West Morris sides: Westmoreland, Singleton and Fylde Coast, followed by an Appalachian side, Leap to your Feet. Then Furness and then 400 Roses, who mercifully did not invite any male Crows to join them (I have seen it happen before and it’s not a pretty sight). Then it was Briggate’s turn, then Eccleston’s and then Newburgh’s and then it was our turn to shine.

I was up first with Simon and, to be honest, I was cold. It’s not good to dance when you’re cold because you can’t feel your feet or fingers properly and it affects your stepping and sticking. I noticed this as I danced on from the side and found myself stumbling a bit. “Never mind” I thought, “Nobody will notice. It’s not as if they’re a highly critical and analytical Morris audience.” It appears the cold had affected my brain as well. When the next couple came on (nope, I can’t remember who they were now) we did a creditable star and I could really feel my feet and hands now. The Hey was “interesting” because I went wrong but not so wrong that I bumped into anybody and I’m pretty sure that the Figure of Eight went without a hitch. That finished, I danced off and rushed to get Jeffrey, so I could join in the rousing finale with just Keith One and (I think) Anthony still on. I unzipped the bag as quickly as I could, grabbed Jeffrey, rushed back to the musicians, strapped him to my chest as quickly as I could and…

The music finished. What a bummer!

After that, when everybody should have been going back to the church for tea and cake, we decided to have a massed Tinners. I put Jeffrey away and got a stick and got into a set of three with one of the 400 Roses and her son. They both put in creditable performances: I would expect nothing less from a belly dancer but the small son appears to be a natural talent. After the final flourish and after I had put the sticks away (we don’t allow the other dancers to keep them as souvenirs) it was finally time to go back for tea and cake and after the tea and cake, Greg and I returned to our humble abode to take off the war paint and sit down and talk about what a jolly good day we’d had.

Shambles: the making of a dance

Posted in Dance, Folk Traditions, Morris Dancing, Music with tags , , , , , on April 12, 2016 by Jester

One of the things that made me think Morris dancing could be cool was seeing Plum Jerkum dancing to Stop the Cavalry by Jona Lewie. I’d gone to Ludlow on a short break with my now ex-husband and we were going to the castle, being both of us castle-buffs. On the way, we saw the aforementioned Morris dancers in Castle Square. I don’t think I’d ever seen Border Morris dancers before and I was impressed, so I insisted on stopping to watch them and I took a few snaps of them. After we had looked round the castle we came back out and the Morris dancers were still there, so we stayed and watched them a bit more. I think it was then that they danced to Stop the Cavalry.

Eventually, by a rather tortuous route, I joined Stone the Crows and learned their dances, none of which were done to Stop the Cavalry, which I thought a shame. After a few years, I thought it would be nice to write a dance to the tune, so I came up with STC, which is now a part of our repertoire. That’s my original dance #1. Original dance #2 is a rather different beast.

Shambles is inspired by a song called A Tale They Won’t Believe, which in turn was inspired by the story of Alexander Pearce, a nineteenth Century convict, transportee, escapee and cannibal (in that order). He was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in Tasmania for the theft of six pairs of shoes. He escaped from Macquarie Harbour Penal Station with several other convicts and over a period of months, because of a shortage of food, they cannibalised each other until only Pearce was left.


Okay, a bit macabre, I know, but this is the most accurate picture of Alexander Pearce available. It was sketched after his execution.

My intention was to write a dance that starts with six dancers and one by one they drop off until, at last, just one is left. This may seem a bit strange but it has its advantages: for a start Stone the Crows has its fair share of crocks, so people who can’t make it through an entire dance without pulling a muscle or tendon, destroying a kneecap or something similar can be one of the first “victims” and our more athletic dancers can make it right through to the end. The other novel feature was to be singing. Other sides include songs in their dances, including the perennial Border Morris favourite, “My Friend Billy”, but ours does not. The song I chose is the chorus from A Tale They Won’t Believe and we would sing it after walking on but before the dance starts and, because I am particularly ambitious, we would also sing an extended version at the end and I have set Linda, a lyrically talented Crow, the task of adapting the words for it.

Now, I prefer to have a tune when I’m writing a dance and I had nothing in mind: A Tale They Won’t Believe is far too fast – I wanted something stompy and slow and in a minor key – so Vicky, a multi-talented Crow, wrote a tune, now known as Alexander Pearce. Now I had the tune, it was time to start coming up with the figures. I usually borrow figures from other dances and change them slightly, so they look original. This had worked just fine in STC so I used the same process in the new dance.

I needed figures for two to six people (although not in that order) – quite a challenge. Fortunately my tendency to borrow figures from other dances stood me in good stead and I had a dance roughed out reasonably quickly. I borrowed the six-person figure from a Clerical Error dance (they do it with eight people but it works well with six too), the five-person figure came from Ragged Crow with an extra dancer thrown in for good measure, the four-person figure is the closest to an original because I was feeling extra-creative that day, the three-person figure is a Hey on the side (or Middles Right from our version of Upton Stick) and the two-person figure is a Gypsy.

Before I try figures out on real dancers, I like to work them out at home, using whatever is to hand:


The six-person figure for Shambles being worked out in the kitchen. As we are a Border Morris side, our dancers would look least like Steggy the Stegosaurus and most like Bob, the minion in the middle, although with a stick, not a banana.

The dance obviously needed a name and I had been toying with the name “Shambles”: a) because a shambles is where animals were butchered and meat sold in medieval towns and cities and b) (more importantly) because if it was an utter shambles, at least we’d have an excuse. I think the choice of name was popular, although there were other suggestions, including “The Bastard with the Axe”, which I rejected because I did not want to offend our audience/s.  The figures also needed names, so I borrowed or adapted them from the lyrics of the song: Jailbreak, Franklin River, Western Tiers, Snakebite, Axeman. These are quite unusual names for figures and I still stumble when calling the dance.

Now it was roughed out and tested on minions and small furry animals, it was time to try it out with people, or Crows. We arranged an extra practice on a Saturday afternoon to go through the figures and the sticking. The dance is for six people and eleven turned up. Not quite enough for two sets but it meant there were plenty of people watching and able to make suggestions on how to improve it. An immediate improvement was suggested for the third figure, Western Tiers, in which I had imagined two dancers tracing tear drop shapes on the floor while the other two did a waist swing in the middle of the set. This did not work, so Chris suggested we simplify it by having the non waist-swinging dancers do a half circle. This worked much better so the suggestion has been adopted. The sticking was also simplified at this stage.

Finally, I had to make sure the people in the dance looked aggressive. Smiling was strictly prohibited: brows were to be beetling, scowls were mandatory, sticks were to be wielded as if they meant business. This is actually not as easy as it sounds. Crows do tend to smile, even in adversity, so I had to be extra strict and maybe even shout at them. This seemed to work and scary face of the year so far goes to Jean: I definitely will not be getting on her bad side any time soon.

We decided the dance needed some more work before taking to the team, so we arranged another Saturday afternoon for both musicians (to hone their skills on the tune) and dancers. This was held at the Whittingham and Goosnargh Sports and Social Club and had the added attraction of beer on tap and also a break for a brew and some cake. We started by practicing the tune and then got the dancers up to sing and then dance. This worked well, so we decided to take Shambles to practice that next Thursday. I got a set of six together up in front of a critical audience, the musicians got ready, the dancers turned out, sang the chorus (I’d been putting them through their singing paces too) and turned round and…

It was an utter shambles.

Being the sort of person I am, I stared adversity in the face, gave it a middle fingered salute, told it to go away in a variety of four-letter words, and got another six up to dance it. The second attempt was no better but the critical audience was able to see through the mistakes to the dance itself and was willing to give it a try. So I started teaching the dance to the Crows. I have encouraged people to try different positions in the dance, so hopefully we will never be in a position when I call a set for Shambles and find out I have six people there who only know position three. It is heartening to see that a decent number of crows do seem to want to learn the dance.

For the ending I had envisaged the last man standing (or Alex) stood there triumphantly, stick in hand, and singing an extended version of the Shambles song and being joined by the other dancers bar by bar or line by line to build it up to a rousing finale. I found to my chagrin a couple of weeks ago that it will not work. I had decided to take the part of Alex myself, as I am not averse to singing in public, but when it got to the end and I started singing, I realised that I just didn’t have the breath. It was a brave try but it was not to be. I don’t like being thwarted in my plans, so I was determined to keep the song but decided to have a non-dancer to start it off and bring on the other dancers in reverse order of leaving the dance to build up the volume bit by bit. Maybe that will work.

It is still a work in progress but there is a distinct possibility that a dance called Shambles will be coming to a pub or a folk festival near you in the not too distant future.

John O’Gaunt’s Day of Dance

Posted in Dance, Folk Traditions, Morris Dancing, Music with tags , , , , , , , on April 1, 2016 by Jester

It’s eight months since I’ve written a blog according to WordPress but it hasn’t been an eight-month-Morris-void; I’ve just been lazy when it comes to blogging. So here’s a whistle-stop tour of what we’ve been doing since Buxton:

  • Lots of pub dance-outs, where we descend on a different pub every Thursday like a plague of extremely talented singing-and-dancing locusts, entertain any unsuspecting locals and drink the pub dry.
  • Filming a video with a band called Ten Foot Wizard.
  • Dancing at the Moulton Crow Fair.
  • Dancing at Rebellion Punk Festival for the second year running.
  • A small matter of a Guinness World Record for the largest number of Morris Dancers dancing the same dance at the same time during Stone the Crows’ 21st birthday celebrations. I would have blogged about that but went on holiday straight after and didn’t get a chance. I may have to do a retrospective blog about that one.

We’ve been practicing hard all winter trying to get our lines straighter, our dances sharper and our sticking stickier. I’ve even introduced a new dance which in a moment of hilarity I named Shambles. More of that later.

On Good Friday we got a chance to put all that practice into practice when we joined John O’Gaunt for their annual Day of Dance. Derek, their Bagman, had informed us of a new rendezvous at the Lansil Club. After careful checking of Google Maps, both traffic and satellite, I was pretty confident I could find the car park and we set off with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, I had not reckoned for the combined effects of Bank Holiday traffic and roadworks just north of Lancaster and we got to the car park just in time.

I applied my make-up in the coach (and missed a bit) and before long we were in Milnthorpe and raring to go. We were dancing at the Market Cross because there had been complaints in previous years about the noise we made outside the church. Derek asked us to go first, so I got two sets up for Ragged Crow and even danced myself (I’ve been “resting” for a few weeks because of a bad back and then a persistent cough). That went well and I do think we looked pretty stylish, so all that practice hadn’t gone to waste.

After us, John O’Gaunt danced, then the lady cloggers, then Derek’s grandson, a pretty good clogger himself and then Southport Swords. Then it was our turn again and I got a set up to do STC. It was almost interesting because I started to turn the wrong way in the Figure of Eight but realised my mistake quickly, did a quick about-turn and figure of eighted like I knew what I was doing.

Stone the Crows dancing STC at the Market Cross. Photo courtesy of David Pullin

Stone the Crows dancing STC at the Market Cross. Photo courtesy of David Pullin

When John O’Gaunt and Southport Swords had done a joint Balance the Straw (with me joining in very quietly on Jeffrey) and the other sides had had their goes, we received an unexpected request to dance outside the church so we all wandered off in that general direction. I was the first there and with Jeffrey strapped to my chest, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to draw a crowd by a truly marvellous rendition of Princess Royal. It wasn’t truly marvellous but it wasn’t truly awful either and I didn’t frighten anybody off, so there was a reasonable crowd when everybody else had gathered and Crows were ready to dance Black Widow.

I wasn’t in the set and played along quietly because I didn’t want to put off the other musicians: I hardly ever play the tune, so you couldn’t even say I’m out of practice; I was never in practice. When I wasn’t looking at the keyboard, trying to find the right keys, and wincing at the all the bum notes I was playing, I sneaked a look at the dancers and was delighted to see they were making a better job of it than me.

After the other sides had done their dance, we had a spare twenty minutes or so to wander around the farmers’ market, where I bought a parsnip, and then we all got on the coach to move onto the next stop, the Malt Shovel in Warton, where dinner and beer were to be served. As we arrived, Derek announced that vegetarians would would get first choice at the buffet, to which I, a recently converted vegan (or to be more accurate, a Vogon: I eat honey) cheered and whooped and shouted “Woo Hoo!” All heads turned in my direction.

In the pub I had a bottle of Old Speckled Hen, as I no longer drink cask ale because they use fish guts to fine it, and went out to the beer garden to wait for the call to feed. The call came and I joined the other vegetarians to load our plates with various vegetable based foodstuffs. Our appetites sated and our thirsts quenched, it was time to dance again and first up it was Ashpole, with our new Ashpole wielder, Pete, who has never yet dropped the Ashpole (something none of our previous Ashpole wielders can boast). I took this opportunity to play the accordion because I know the tune and there were already enough people in the set.

Normally, we take it in turns with other sides to dance but they were in the beer garden and we were in the car park, so somebody suggested we do Upton Stick and I took this opportunity to answer a call of nature and, when I got back, they had finished Upton and were now dancing Skirmish and managing perfectly well without me. With there being no rest for the wicked, we did a White Ladies Aston with Cat, our new squire, and I leading the set. Then it was time to get on the coach for our final destination for the day, Arnside.

Derek looks on while Southport Swords prepare to "kill" an unsuspecting member of the audience.

Derek looks on while Southport Swords prepare to “kill” an unsuspecting member of the public.

We kicked off proceedings again in Arnside with another Ragged Crow. This time we were sharing the dance spot with the other dancers so we got a rest. Southport Swords did the one where they get a member of the audience into the dance with them, who eventually ends up lying on the ground supposedly dead, so they call for beer to revive him. When no beer is forthcoming, they call for a virgin to revive him, at which point four female Crows rushed in shouting “I’m a virgin! I’m a virgin!” The poor man was looking decidedly nervous but we were shooed away at sword point and denounced as impostors.

Our next dance, after our rest, was Much Wenlock. Again I was in the set and found that dancing on a slope has its advantages and disadvantages. For example during the figure we call “Sod off” (I love calling that figure), I sodded off downhill at something in the region of 25MPH – that’s an advantage – and then had the long hard slog of sodding back on uphill – a distinct disadvantage. At the end of the dance, the very flat pier across the road was looking very inviting and I suggested to the other Crows and Derek, who was organising, that we do a dance or two there. Derek was amenable to this idea as the pub was beckoning, so we disappeared across the road to said pier and did an Odd Sheepskins, followed by another STC. Then we had a photocall and then finally made it to the pub.

Armed with a ginger beer (non-alcoholic: I was driving after all) I deposited Jeffrey on the decking outside the Albion in Arnside to give my shoulders a rest and had a proper relax for the first time that day. There was talk of a mass Bonny Green Garters, so when I had finished my drink, I set off with Keith to find it. We rendezvoused with a few Southport Swords, who were getting their hankies out ready for it. Our hankies were in the music bag and I got some out for me and Keith and some other Crows who were now turning up. Geoff from Southport Swords admired our lovely black silky hankies comparing them favourably with his own beer-stained one. I like beer stains though: they’re more authentically Morris.

We managed to get a few dancers together and a member of John O’Gaunt put me through my paces beforehand. I managed not to make a complete hash of it – it is a reasonably simple dance, after all, but my capers are pretty rubbish. Still it was good fun and when we had finished, it was time to go back to Lancaster. There was to be a meal and a session but, as the club could not cater for vegans (or bloody nuisances, as I like to call us), I just used the facilities to remove my blacking and make a mess of their sink and then returned to the car with Jeffrey and went home musing on what a good start to the Morris year it had been, just like every other John O’Gaunt Day of Dance we have done.