There are some traditions that run deep. There is a drumbeat in our veins that we cannot account for in the modern world. It is something that does not often sit easy with us, it is often a source of great humour to some and derided by others as outdated. Yet, that drum keeps beating in our veins, aided by beer, the end of summer and the ritual of laying the rushes.
The laying of rushes, along with herbs, on the floors of churches to improve the comfort of church goers through the cold months stretches back further than the formation of the Church of England. The history of Rush-Bearing and the Rushcart stretches back so far that no one can say when it started. The earliest written record of it is from 1385 in Tavistock but the renewal of floors in churches and homes stretches back beyond this date. Floors in churches and homes where renewed twice a year, at harvest time and at Easter. The Easter Bunny in the fourteenth century was more likely to arrive bearing rushes rather than chocolate. The critics of such events point out that modern churches and homes now have central heating, that the festival of Rush-Bearing is redundant but this is to dismiss Rushcart as just a religious ceremony in a largely secular country.
Rushcart waned in the Saddleworth area after the Great War, as it did across many urban and rural areas, the simple fact was there were no men to cut the rushes, to be the jockey, to pull the cart and dance.
Therein lies the problem in our modern world, we are happy to wander around like the living dead with our mobile phones texting, twittering and surfing our lives away because that's okay, that fits in with what everyone else is doing in society and God forbid you do something different, God forbid that you don't obey because let's face it, you do obey. Don't believe us? Don't do Facebook for a month. Don't twitter. Don't text anyone. Don't use the internet. More people will contact you face to face, voice to voice in that month than you have spoken with for years. All concerned. All worried because you have left their world. Many will simply think you are dead. Tell people you're a Morris Dancer and they also think you are dead. Those people often miss the point.
Morris Dancing is probably older than Rushcart. It nearly died out and we let it because in Britain for all our posturing of our great history, our great buildings, we sweep away our great traditions. We think they are outmoded, a little worrying and just that bit uncool. Yet a friend staying with us for the weekend lamented that in her home town there were no men, manly enough, to take up this ancient tradition. She used to Morris dance in all female troupe. She still shudders about it. Yet we stood on the wall by the church watching troupe after troupe of folk dancing and she wanted to know how it had started, where is came from and why did we still have it when so many places shun it. Morris dancing has been linked to many origins from the Moors (hence the blacking of faces some claim) to European courts of the fifteenth century. There have been claims that it has little to do with paganism but there are often parallels with ritual dances found in Africa. There is certainly lashings of phallicism, rebirth and sex in Morris Dancing. If you've never seen that then you've never seen a good Morris troupe. Come on, do you think those sticks are just sticks? There are records from Victorian England in which such dances where modified to protect the sensibilities of ladies. There were incidents of ladies in Georgian England visiting rural areas to witness folk dancing for the first time, only to be overcome by the sight of big sweating farm hands bashing the living daylights out of each other with two foot long sticks cut from ash trees, swooning away. Morris Men in their day were the twerkers of their era, the music, the ritual, the moves just on the right side of sex. Though there claims to be no pagan imagery in the dances, the dances were linked to festivals in the church and these festivals were often linked to images of fertility and death. See the sticks. Feel the bash.
In Saddleworth we resurrected it and invited others to join in. For you maybe Morris Dancing is uncool. The fact that it is just different from everything else that happens in your world makes it cool. It makes many of us smile, even those of us who love our social media, it harks back to an age devoid of mobile phones, an age in which you met your wider community during festivals. An age in which you talked, got drunk and celebrated the fact you were alive. Our friend who had just returned from Crete had witnessed their traditional dancing but was totally unaware of the fact that our country still has a folk dance. She was embarrassed that she'd forgotten about Morris Dancing. For Morris Dancing has become our dirty little secret, something to deride, guffaw about and mock but only the lazy do this. Those that fear the traditions of the past will outlast the passing fad. I mean no one will be twerking a hundred years from now, and no one will ever want to see a man in a rag coat, bells strapped to his legs pushing his arse in the air and revolving it around in a way that borders on the medical rather than the sexual. Morris Men don't twerk. Our Rushcart plays host to troupes of folk dancers from across the UK and abroad, it celebrates the religious beside the macabre, it revels in the joy of strength beside the acceptance of community. It has ceased to be a passing fad and has become tradition.
No one may ever know where Morris Dancing came from or why after 40 years since Saddleworth Rushcart was resurrected why it continues to pull in crowds from across the country. There is a simple reason why it resonates with us all though, it's the same reason you love spring after a harsh winter, it's the same reason we grow on our hillside, it's in our veins and if you don't have it, you're missing out and no technology will fill that void.
You can see the complete photo album of the weekend on our Facebook Page.