The Bedford Morris Men are always looking for new recruits.
Come along to our regular Wednesday night sessions for a taste of Morris dancing and join us for a drink afterwards at The Wellington in Bedford.
We welcome everyone, from the curious to the fully committed.
It’s fun, keeps you fit, and it’s cheaper than the gym.
Bedford Morris Men - Live Dates for our Winter and Summer seasons - Where to watch Morris dancing in Bedfordshire
What is Cotswold Morris?
"The perfect expression in rhythm and movement of the English character"
Cecil J Sharp
The six-man dances referred to as the Cotswold Morris were originally associated with Spring or Whitsuntide. They were called "Cotswold" by the early collectors such as Cecil Sharp because they were discovered mostly in the South-Midlands/Cotswold region.
"The Morris dance is the bodily manifestation of vigour and rude health"
Since 1945 the Bedford Morris Men have been particularly interested in the dances from Brackley (Northamptonshire) and its nearby hamlet of Hinton-in-the Hedges, principally because of research work done by Fred Hamer, one of our past Squires (Leader).
Bedford generally "dance on" to the Wheatley (Oxford) processional dance adapted to the local Bromham May-carol tune at the beginning of a show, and "dance off" to the Bampton-in-the-Bush tune "Bonny Green Garters".
Another dance from Bampton is associated with one of the side's oldest traditions. Arthur Walmesly, a Squire of the side in the 1950's, so enjoyed dancing The Quaker, that he insisted on it being the last dance of every performance. Even today when The Quaker finishes, the side immediately start removing their bells and baldricks to signal that the end has come.
"There is nothing sinuous in it, nothing dreamy"
The music is an integral part of the Cotswold Morris. Each tune is associated with, and gives its name to, a particular dance and the rhythms tell the dancers what steps to use. The same tune often occurs in different villages in different forms. This could well have been caused either by the type of instrument in use or simply vagaries of the musician's memory.
Traditionally the music was supplied by a single musician playing a pipe and tabor, that is, a three-holed pipe and a small drum. The early Bedford musicians played the mouth-organ but subsequently fiddles, concertinas, melodeons and accordions have been introduced.
"The bells are there that they may ring their music"
Each Cotswold Morris side had its own unique dress, a custom which has been continued by today's revival sides. The old costumes were mainly white, with coloured sashes, ribbons, baldricks and rosettes.
The Bedford Morris Men’s costume consists of blue breeches, white shirts and socks, a blue "Puritan" hat (paying mock homage to our town’s favourite son, John Bunyan). The costume is finished with orange rosettes and bell-pads decorated with orange and blue ribbons.
The Bedford fool traditionally wore a Warwickshire shepherd's smock hand made in Wootton.
"The varieties of these were innumerable"
It was once said that a Cotswold Morris side was made of "Six fools and one dancer" The inference here was that the Fool was actually the best dancer. Indeed in some cases he was the Squire or leader of the side. He is also the master of ceremonies and a link between the audience and the dancers.
The fool is the most important character surviving in the Cotswold Morris. He prepares the dancing site by "sweeping it" with a heifer's tail that symbolises purity. He also berates the dancers and audience with a sow's bladder that represents fertility. These magical activities supplement the dancers' white handkerchiefs and bells which are supposed to frighten away evil spirits.
Another character in the Cotswold Morris was the Man/woman or Maid Marian. Bedford now only use a Man/woman "Bessie or Betsy" as "the Lady" in the Plough Play.
"The Hobby Horse man was dressed like a jockey... he and the fool carried on innumerable capers"
While Hobby Horses are often associated with the Cotswold Morris, the Hobby Horse tradition was found right across England, from the wooden horse of Kent to the larger and more grotesque Horses of Padstow and Minehead. The Bedford Morris Men possess a Hobby Horse called "Noddy" who now only comes out on special occasions.
We also have "Beaky" a giant Bedford Eagle, whose shape is more like that of a "Hooden Horse" and has an insatiable appetite for coin. Beaky now manages our Twitter feed.
Have your cake - and eat it
"The credulous even treasured a piece of it the year round"
The Bedford Men follow an old Bampton tradition of offering round a cake pierced with a sword. Buying a small piece of this cake is supposed to bring good luck. Placing a piece under the pillow will bring dreams of a lover.....
Our musicians are brilliant, but we are always looking for more to join the side. Anyone who plays any instrument suitable for morris tunes would be very welcome. e.g. melodeon, fiddle, woodwind.
The Feast of the Boar's Head is one of the oldest known customs of the Christmas Period.
In Bedford, the Morris Men dance at the Ceremony on Boxing Day every year and sing the ancient Boar's Head Carol, accompanying its procession to the Mayor's table:
The Boar’s Head Carol
The Boar's Head in hand bear, I
Bedecked with bay and rosemary;
So I pray you my masters be merry,
Quot estis in convivio:
Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino.
The boar's head as I understand,
Is the bravest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland,
Let us servire cantico:
Our steward hath provided this,
In honour of the King of bliss,
Which on this day to be servèd is
In Reginensi atrio.
'Lords of Mysrule'
Description of Shrewsbury Morris Dancers, 1584
These wild, high tempo Morris Dances come from the Welsh Border Country where they were traditionally performed at Christmas by men with blackened faces and outlandish costumes.
In this tradition men dance in groups or "sides" of four, six or eight, wearing distinctive 'rag coats' and decorated hats. The dancing is vigorous and often incorporates stick clashing.
The Bedford men's repertoire includes dances from Bromsberrow Heath (Gloucestershire), Brimfield (Herefordshire), Much Wenlock (Shropshire) and White Ladies Aston (Worcestershire).
The blacking of faces was intended to disguise the dancers from gentry who might disapprove of their ribaldry or view the collection of money from the audience as a form of begging.
It was also common for outlaws (such as poachers and machine breakers) to cover their faces in this way and Morris Dancers are often associated with trouble making in the historical record.
The blackened faces of the Morris, therefore, could be symbolic, suggesting that normal social rules were being suspended for the duration of a performance - or be a real effort to hide identity while trouble was being caused.
The practice is an important reminder of the way a class war was being fought in our early modern history.
The fast and furious Border dances and the rituals that surround them, show us how ordinary working people sought to find freedom and exercise a kind of power within a tightly controlled society.
The North-West Morris comes from the industrial towns of Lancashire and Cheshire, the dances being more associated with a leader or a district in a town than with the town itself. Its ornate dress of sashes, beads, floral hats or caps, dancing clogs and slings, "tiddlers" or sticks, makes it unmistakable. The slings are made from twisted rope or waste; the tiddlers are made of rope. Both are decorated with ribbons. In the dance they are twirled above the head or twisted at hip level. The short sticks used in some dances are decorated, and never clashed (unlike Cotswold Morris). Dancing clogs are decorated with brass trimmings and the leather uppers may be carved or embossed.
During street dances, the soles are protected in the same way as a horse shoe protects a horse's hoof. These curved strips of metal are called "irons" and are fixed around the soles and heels of the clog. These irons are removed when dancing indoors, to avoid damage to floors! The polka and skip step accentuate the rhythmic sound of the clogs.
The dances have many figures which are either called by the leader/conductor or danced in set sequences. Although the dances were originally processionals (danced whilst traveling along), the Bedford men perform four of them as stationary dances, using a fifth as a processional. The video to the right, a polka dance, using cotton slings, comes from Royton, a district of Oldham near Manchester.
Another polka dance, this time using tiddlers, is made up from some North-West figures passed on by Roger Edwards of Garstang and subsequently ordered into a dance sequence called "The Bedford Dance". The third polka dance, from Ashton-Under-Lyne also near Manchester, uses sticks and is the one used by us for processions.
The only skip step dance performed by Bedford Morris Men comes from the Preston Plain, where the dances were revived in the 1890's for use in secular and religious carnivals and fetes. This particular dance was associated with the Catholic Church of St. Ignatius in Preston
"This here mumming be more like Parson's work"
An Oxfordshire Mummer, 1932
The Plough Play is the oldest known form of the English folk dramas commonly known as Mummers’ Plays.
It is found in villages across Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Intriguingly, its text is almost the same, word for word, wherever it is performed.
Traditionally the play was presented on Plough Monday (the start of the Agricultural Year). On this day local plough boys would pull their ploughs around the village, performing in the kitchens of the larger houses and collecting money from their audiences.
The play represents the same "death and resurrection" struggle found in many Winter rituals from the earliest times. Although the dialogue is obscure, the story is very simple. A Recruiting Sergeant is killed by King George and brought back to life by a Doctor, who uses a collection of mumbo-jumbo and nonsense words to effect his cure.
The particular play performed by Bedford Morris Men comes from Branston, a Leicestershire village just south of Belvoir Castle and was one of two, collected in that district by Davd Welti, a former squire of Bedford Morris and the Morris Ring.
In Bedfordshire the historical records show that Morris Men appeared in Stevington on Plough Monday during the 19th Century. Presumably, this appearance included a performance of a Plough Play like the one we still act out today.
Bedford Morris - The Archive
Bedford Morris Men have maintained an Archive of material related to their activities since the earliest days. The main documents were the Log Books and the Scrapbooks that were kept by most Morris Sides. However, the Archive also contains Minutes, Accounts, Secretary's Files and Diaries of the Bedford Morris Men and information from sundry other sources, including the Archives of The Morris Ring.
The archive, which is always expanding, is full of photos old and new, a few of which we share here:
Move along. There's nothing to see here.