If you're visiting London, but fancy getting the bustle out of your bones and a taste of something new, .... but very old, the Thaxted Morris Weekend might just be the thing for you. It's a bit like Withnail and the Midsomer Hipsters Through the Looking Glass Wardrobe of the Rings, probably.
Just a short drive north east of London is an almost forgotten piece of the scattered jigsaw puzzle that is English folklore. The county of Essex isn't always a place one associates with history, pagan rituals and country dancing but here, on the borders with Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, lies a town called Thaxted. Dominated by the 14th Century Parish Church, this spired marvel, often called the Cathedral of Essex, can be seen from every direction and this, along with the half timbered Guildhall, is the centre point of the town. Ancient Watling St meanders through the centre of town and it's here that one of the main events of the weekend unfolds, but more on that later.
In 1927 the Thaxted Morris Men hosted an event between local rival groups that has continued on to this day, but has now expanded and includes groups from all over the world. In essence, the weekend is a pagan ritual built around the celebration of Spring & Summer, and the harvest cycle. Morris dancing is often mocked, albeit lovingly, and can be a source of great amusement amongst the British themselves but to witness and be part of this revivalist movement, only serves to increase our understanding of its significance - It also helps to instill a belief in its continuation and protection. You soon become hooked, not only by the dancing's significance, but in the good humour and self mockery of the participants themselves. These men, women and children put their hearts and souls into the conservation of this ancient tradition, and opening up ones own heart to the rituals presented only serves to increase the enjoyment of the weekend's festivities.
It all takes place during the first weekend in June. The various Morris teams (18 invited groups this year) and their associated audiences, gather in the various pubs within the town, and warm up, both with tankards of ale and some relaxed dancing in the churchyard outside The Swan Hotel. This in itself is quite the thing for those of a romantic nature, as the churchyard is ringed with cherry blossom, historic alms houses, a windmill serenely overlooks the proceedings and the enormous church spire casts its shadow over the throng. It's a hive of frenzied activity and anticipation, to the strains of fiddle, accordion and drum.
You can't help but think that if this was held in Ireland or amongst the Lochs of Scotland, the place, already packed with revellers of every age and persuasion, would be even more so. It would be marked on everyone's calendar and set aside in the manner in St.Patrick's Day. It's a booze up of easy comparison to be fair. The only thing that might slow this process down is actually getting served in one of the towns half a dozen pubs and bars. To aid in the process of letting your hair down, many of the local residences have an open door policy and long lost friends and acquaintances are welcomed with open bottles, flagons and kegs. If this is a warm up, it is sorely needed as Saturday itself, the main act if you will, kicks off almost as soon as you've finished your late breakfast.
The idea is this, of the invited groups, a couple from each Ring combine and go off into the surrounding countryside on one of the several routes outlined beforehand, to perform their dances in the gardens, car parks and lanes of local country pubs. With each tour visiting possibly 6 pubs on their own individual route. Towns and villages with evocative names like Steeple Bumpstead, Finchingfield, Molehill Green and Saffron Walden, play host to the dancers and followers alike, many of whom have devised their own route around the county - taking in their favourite pubs and outlooks. Finchingfield, with its duckpond and sweeping main street proving to be amongst the most popular. The weather isn't vital to its success but if you can imagine sitting in the beer garden of a thatched English country inn, in the warm summer sun, drinking craft beer or cider, watching the smiling faces and the sheer fun of it all unfold, if you can do that, you should be here. Bells are rung, , hankies are waved, sticks are bashed and bladders are filled..... Choose your pub for lunch and continue on until the early afternoon before heading back to Thaxted for the rest of the action. At this point the Morris mostly disappear to do secret Morris Men stuff, like eat. Not something that is encouraged in front of the gathered audience - Ale, yes, and plenty of it, but not so much food to be seen. The late afternoon is a little respite - it's really just a time to refresh, ready for the evenings activities.
There is dancing to be found on Thaxted High St during the day, should you not wish to drive into the countryside but I do encourage you to do so, as this really is a delight, and the local country pubs need all the help they can get these days. At 6pm, the Morris Men gather at the top of the hill and in the form of a procession, wend their way down to the Guildhall for more dancing until about 10pm when it's time for the haunting Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. In front of a silent and respectful crowd , members of the Thaxted Ring, most donning antlers and including such characters as a hobby horse, Maid Marian, and a Fool, pay their own respects to the crops and also signal the bringing down of the curtain to Saturday's main events. From this point, it's about drinking, stamina and enjoying the late summer's day, and for those poor unfortunate designated drivers, trying to gather their rather worse for wear passengers for the drive home.
Sunday, following an even later breakfast, is a much more peaceful affair - After a morning procession and church service, there is some further, and more sedate, dancing in the churchyard once again, before those with energy to spare and a willingness to join in, gather in the Margaret Gardens for some quintessentially English country dancing at about 1.30pm. Goodbyes are said and with the bells still ringing in your ears, the weekend once again becomes an incredibly fond and head-thumping memory. I know of no-one who's only ever been to one Morris weekend. Once you've witnessed this archaic weekend, you will always hope to come back, and probably will.
Thaxted Morris Weekend always takes part during the first week of June. Accommodation options are limited, so please be prepared to book early.