May Day. The streets of Rochester. Sixty teams of morris dancers, cavorting with big sticks and hankies. What's not to love? [photo]
They kicked off at dawn on Blue Bell Hill. A gathering to see in May morning. A dance to awaken the Jack-in-the Green. A cloak of leaves, topped off with a flowery ring, and inside a space where a man might stand. They gather again in the High Street before noon. The Mayor of Medway stands outside the Guildhall, surrounded by tradition. His short speech over, the feathered men lift their tower of foliage to the edge of the kerb. Then they gather round in primary-coloured pairs, and spin, and beat, and flap. The 30th Rochester Sweeps Festival is underway. [photo]
The event has its roots many centuries back. A springtime celebration by local chimney sweeps, now echoed in modern revival. Many of today's dancers black their faces as if speckled by soot. It's facepaint, it's disguise, it's Goth meets Black and White Minstrel meets Dick Van Dyke. Some go the whole hog and wear black from plumed hat to hobnail boots. Others wear brighter colours throughout, but with ink-smeared faces. And the rest eschew black altogether for their usual Morris costume of purple, gold, green or red. Traditional fancy dress rules. [photo]
The entire High Street is a field of dance. Every fifty yards another troupe lines up in the middle of the road, ready to perform. The musicians kick in with fiddles or accordions. Twitching feet spring to life. Silver bells ring and tassels fly. Pairs advance and retreat. Wooden batons swish together with a rhythmic click. Arms interlock and bodies spin. Some sing, some yelp, most grin. Some will be knackered by the end of it, others not even out of breath. Each performance so very different, yet underneath so very similar. [photo]
Ravensbourne Morris, Bishop Gundulfs Longsword, Old Palace Clog - they've come from far and wide to perform here today. A motley collection of Englishfolk plucked from the everyday. Hearty men, beardy men, men who could easily be someone's art teacher. Stern ladies, flowery ladies, ladies who are probably retired librarians. Hats with badges, headbands with posies. Some of the groups are elderly, others fired up by exuberant youth. There's no maximum age for a May maiden, no minimum age for playing the fool. Everyone's an extrovert, even if only for the day. Anyone can Morris. [photo]
When each team's dance is over, another takes its place. There's plenty of time between performances to drink, and eat, and drink again. Pewter tankards and plastic tumblers froth with ale. Hog roasts and fresh-grilled burgers are the menu of choice. Old friends quaff together, new friends swap tales over a pint. As the day goes on the atmosphere gets noticeably merrier. The centre of town has become a hedonistic pseudo-pagan social club. And they'll all be back on Sunday, and again on Monday, as Rochester's Maytide mayhem continues. Pray the rain holds off.
Other things to see in Rochester Rochester Castle: Now this is a proper castle. A multi-storey Norman keep whose walls are in surprisingly good repair [photo]. A series of spiral staircases and passages permits vertigo-inducing exploration, from the deep cavernous cesspit to the rim of the castle ramparts. From the battlements there's an excellent view across town and the Medway Valley [photo]. And the top floor's even higher than... Rochester Cathedral: England's second oldest cathedral (founded 604AD), with a bold Norman nave and a fine Romanesque façade. It's a friendly place, complete with crypt and blossom-rich cloister garden, although not especially enormous. [photo] Guildhall Museum: A collection of Rochestery and Medwayish artefacts, which turned out to be rather more interesting than I first expected. There is, of course, a lot of information about Charles Dickens - who spent his childhood and later years living nearby and based many of his novels on life in the city. Six Poor Travellers House: Rochester's Tudor almshouse afforded a one night charitable stay to passing pilgrims. Charles Dickens visited once and wrote a short story about the place, which is reason enough to open the ground floor and garden to the public today.