May Day

Issue 78: May 1990

UP On Ham Hill Country Park for Dogs, just outside Yeovil, Morris dancers are the nuts who will gather in May – at sunrise on Tuesday 1st May.

Then they – and their audience – will dance down the hill to the Fleur de Lis in Stoke under Ham, licensed to open 7 am – 9 am for a Morrisman’s breakfast: mainly ale. It’s a tradition all of four years old.

The tradition of odd sorts coming down from Ham Hill is a bit older, however. Vera, who lives in Stoke, recalls her mother telling her that a lady with her head underneath her arm would come down and take her away If she was a naughty little girl. Somehow, Vera got away with it.

And Vera’s friend Dicky remembers her mother saying that one Nancy Cooper lived in a cave on Ham Hill. Nancy, ‘a good-looking woman’,  used to come down to Stoke and ‘dance for the men’ in the High Street. And the men loved it.

MORRIS DANCING on May Day does have a history: Shakespeare wrote of ‘a Morris for May Day’ in As You Like It. And Shakespeare acted for Queen Bess in 1594 with the famous comic dancer William Kemp, who later danced a Morris all the way from London to Norwich – where the mayor awarded him a pension of 40 shillings a year for life. As forty bob (£2) was worth a bit in 1600, you have to admit that not all Morris dancers are nuts.

The dance itself is believed to have been introduced to England from Spain in the 14th century by John of Gaunt; its roots run through the fandango to a military dance of the Moors of Moriscos – hence the name.

The Morris was originally Anglicized by being performed by a boy dressed in girl’s clothes, called Maid Marian, and five gaily dressed men. They carried sticks and sported bells on their fingers and bells on their toes, bells tuned to different notes but more of less in harmony.

When in the 17th century the dance was associated with May fairs and markets, other English folklore characters – Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, etc – were added to the cast.

Along with all May games the Puritans banned Morrismen, but the tradition was revived at the Restoration, with the former chaste Maid Marian replaced by the looser clownish character ‘Malkin’ or Markin’.

This ‘looser’ interpretation of the Morris has come down to us in the 20th century; the favourite theme today is the ‘fertility’ Morris, and strange it may be but female Morris dancers do seem to be remarkably fertile.

There will be no hint of licentiousness at sunrise on Ham Hill, of course; the council’s ‘Countryside Ranger’ and warden Frank Hansford (who wears his warden armband even unto bed, they say) will see to that. So behave yourself on 1st May, or Frank or the Ranger might hit you over the head with a council-issue poop-scoop.