It was just a typical Saturday in London’s most diverse borough. A Polish film at the David Lean Cinema, Japanese food at Yo! Sushi, and then on a stroll back, there on the street outside the Royal Standard (a gem of a pub hidden beneath the flyover), a couple of hours of traditional folk music and Morris dancers.
Yes. Morris dancers. In Croydon. In 2015.
The incongruity, as thousands of vehicles sped past on the six-lane urban motorway above their heads during their performance, was not lost on the dancers of the North Wood Morris Men.
With bells tied around their trousers, they strutted their quaint stuff on Sheldon Street in the evening sunshine, performing clashing stick dances or waving around outsized hankies, usually with the evocative accordion playing, and probably the worst euphonium player you will ever have the pleasure of hearing. Certainly the only one you’ll see dressed as a court jester. It was a better schtick than many on Britain’s Got Talent.
And it was all tremendously joyful good fun.
The North Wood Morris Men are named after the Great North Wood which in ancient times covered a huge part of the land south of the Thames; hence “Norwood”. They are in their 40th year, performing outside pubs and at festivals and fairs whenever they are asked nicely, little-by-little raising cash for various charitable causes. Over time, they reckon they have contributed £16,000 to local causes, including Mayday Hospital and St Christopher’s Hospice. This afternoon, they’re at the Addiscombe Carnival.
They proudly call themselves “Croydon’s own Morris dancers”.
Like a football team, they have their own colours – white shirts and trousers, green waistcoats, often embellished with various badges, and yellow and green “baldricks” – that’s a cross-belt to most of us (but it may be where Richard Curtis got the cunning idea of the character’s name from).
“Our baldricks bear a badge that has the image of an acorn, to celebrate the Great North Wood, that was a oak forest that grew around Croydon, south of Norwood,” they say.
Morris dancing has its roots in some of the pagan traditions of the greenwood, of the rites of spring and fertility dances. Its history can be traced back to the mid-1400s, and it gets mentioned several times in the works of Shakespeare. There is some historical record which shows a group of Morris Men performing on Surrey Street to celebrate May Day during the reign of Henry VIII. The various villages around Croydon – such as Shirley and Addington – are known to have had their own groups of Morris dancers around a century ago, before the First World War.
But it was the work of a Victorian historian, Cecil Sharp, which preserved the folk tradition.
“We perform dances collected a hundred years ago by Cecil Sharp from the Cotswolds and others developed later,” The North Wood Morris Men say. “The different styles are named after the names of the villages and towns where the dances were collected and include Bampton, Bledington and Fieldtown. We have dances from other remarkable sources like Addington Quarry and more recently from Brockley, found during a refurbishment at a local pub called The Brockley Barge.”
They often perform with other groups – as was the case a couple of weeks ago outside the Standard, which was the final stop on the “North Wood Day of Dance”, when with a bus-load of other Morris Men, and women, they had been dancing to the delight of customers of six Surrey pubs.
Happily, most of the car drivers on the one-way street outside the Standard were good natured and patient enough to pause their journey for a few minutes while the dancers strutted their stuff.
It was all very relaxed and looked barely rehearsed at all. But appearances are probably deceptive. The North Wood Morris Men encourage others to join them – whether as dancers or as musicians. “We will train dancers and musicians from scratch if need be,” says the Squire, Stephen Collingwood, who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We dance for enjoyment more than tradition. It puts a smile on our faces and gives us an excuse to share a beer with good friends, young and old. It’s exercise that doesn’t feel like it.”
And when the dance came to an end, the jester passed his euphonium to one of his friends who, standing on the corner of Wandle Road, played a final solo with great skill and musicianship, a haunting end to a typical day in Croydon.
Their next planned performance in Croydon is on the evening of June 11, at The Oval Tavern near East Croydon Station, while the following Thursday (June 18), they will be on Surrey Street at the Dog and Bull. In July, they will perform twice in Warlingham: one evening at The Harrow (July 9) and on July 19 at the Classic Car Festival being staged at the rugby club.
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