diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 10, 2009

What I really wanted to do this weekend was head up to the Chilterns for a walk in the bluebell woods. Train to Tring, down the lane to Aldbury village and then a wander through the Ashridge Estate to Ivinghoe Beacon. Vibrant colours, radiant glades and rolling chalkland. It would have been lovely. Instead I can only imagine how lovely that walk might be, because I'm stuck in London instead.

The Thaxted Morris MenSo it was very kind of the villagers of Aldbury to pop down to London yesterday and amuse me with their handkerchiefs. They (and the menfolk of many other southeastern villages) were in town for the Westminster Day of Dance - a Morris Dancing extravagnza centred on Trafalgar Square. You might have seen the Ravensbourne Morris Men outside a pub on the Strand, or the Thaxted Morris Men in Waterloo Place or even the Westminster Morris Men in the heart of Chinatown. You'd certainly have heard them. Jingle jingle jingle, wherever they walked, which would have been rather further than their usual hike from the village green to the village pub.

I bumped into a quintet of Morris troupes in Victoria Tower Gardens, in the shadow of the Palace of Westminster, performing for a handful of bemused foreign tourists. I'm not quite sure what these overseas visitors thought of grown men in floral hats thwacking big sticks in public. They weren't to know that this rhythmic stepping was a long-established English rural tradition with its origins in Whitsuntide festivities. Indeed I doubt that many of the city-bound youngsters watching with their parents had ever seen the like before. But the small crowd certainly enjoyed the spectacle, grinning broadly and taking lots of photos. Jaunty tune, clink, accordion melody, clink, waggled hanky, clink, jig on the spot, clink.

DobbinWhilst their eyes were fixed on the garter-wearing dancers, various spectators were visited by the Aldbury Morris Men's hobby horse. He's called Dobbin, and he's obviously a real horse and not a man in a black cloak holding a papier mache head on a stick. As the Men's fool, Dobbin engaged in the centuries-old tradition of "making the audience look stupid". He crept up behind one woman and nuzzled his paper face gently in her hair, in that special way that only morris dancing horses can get away with without being arrested. The woman was genuinely startled, but only briefly, and was soon smiling as broadly as her amused boyfriend.

Dobbin progressed round the ignorant rear of the crowd, scaring a pushchair-bound toddler and kneeling suggestively behind a crouching photographer. You had to smile, not least because if you'd already spotted the stalking horse then there was no danger of him embarrassing you. This may be a cheap way of entertaining a crowd - ridiculing unwitting bystanders for the amusement of everyone else - but nobody really seemed to mind. Indeed several "victims" chose to express their gratitude by posting a coin into a slot on Dobbin's face, which I suspect ended up as beer money for the lads down the pub later.

With the fool's circuit complete, the chimes of Big Ben signalled that it was time for the morris men to move on. They untied their pig's bladder from the arm of one of the Burghers of Calais, assembled their sticks and bells and drums and lunchboxes, and processed merrily out of the park. I bumped into the Aldbury Morris Men again a couple of hours later, performing to much larger crowds in Trafalgar Square. Still highly entertaining, but somehow it wasn't quite the same, hemmed in between the fountains and tightly encircled by spectators. Much better, I thought, to have seen them on the "village green" at Westminster where their Maytide revels felt rather more at home. Thanks guys, and I promise to come and see your bluebells next year.

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