The Way of the Morris and Barleymow

Telling the Bees played at Lunar Festival a couple of weekends ago, and despite the biblical weather it was a fine festival indeed with some excellent music. We sheltered from the deluge in the cafe tent and while we were there a video started up in the background. Despite the noise, kerfuffle and general distractions of a festival, we all found ourselves steadily drawn into watching it. It was Tim Plester's beautiful documentary, Way of the Morris, all about the fall and rise of the Adderbury side.

Adderbury is a small village about twenty miles north of Oxford. It's famous for its red sandstone buildings and for the medieval carvings of musicians on the side of its church, one of which is a fine bagpiper.

But it's also famous for its morris side. Barring one sole survivor, who couldn't bear to dance again, the side was obliterated during World War I at the Battle of the Somme. It was revived in the 1970s by a group of proud locals, buoyed up on a heady mix of Fairport Convention and Hook Norton Ale, who were determined to find the original earthy dance lurking behind the morris-lite pickled and preserved by Cecil Sharp.

Using wonderful archive Super-8 film footage, the film charts how they succeeded, and it tells the story of a recent pilgrimage to the Somme to honour their fallen predecessors. But making the film proves to be a journey for Plester too. His father was one of those enthusiastic revivalists, yet embarrassment meant he never danced himself. Over the course of the film he gradually comes to terms with what he realises is an essential part of his heritage. It's beautiful to watch.

And, needless to say, the film is about so much more: Englishness, identity, the effects of war, seasonality, life, death and continuity, rootedness and tradition. It's very moving and I can't recommend it enough. Don't be put off if you saw the toe-curling Morris: A Life with Bells On. This is the real deal.

I've also been watching some of the many short films brought together on the DVD, Here's a Health to the Barleymow, released by the BFI.

Here you'll find records of many of Britain's odd folk customs, from 1920s silent footage of Cecil Sharp morris dancing, through to Alan Lomax's 1953 film of the Padstow May Day celebrations, Oss Oss Wee Oss. Barbaric, strange and downright nonsensical at the best of times, our weird folk customs are given an added poignancy by the vintage nature of the footage: in the words of one Padstownian, almost everyone you're watching has gone west. The traditions, however, remain, which is why they matter.

Highly recommended for all lovers of the strange.


  1. Thanks so much for your recommendations. I have just gone ahead and bought both DVDs and I am really looking forward to watching them!



Featured post

Shroom: ten years on

I find it hard to believe but it's exactly ten years since my book Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom was published. Thou...

Popular Posts

Twitter Updates