This was it! After months of meticulous planning, invites, rsvp’s, e-mails, ‘phone calls, food orders, booze orders, bookings, debates about timings/programme/content, summer evening meetings to finalise the already finalised, Saturday 13th September 2014 dawned at last. A bit grey and murky, but BBC West weatherman Ian Fergusson said it would turn out fine, so that was nice. Holt Morris had organised a day of fun starting in the ancient town of Bradford on Avon, aimed at sharing 25 years of morris existence with chums past and present. We were especially keen to be with the sides which had supported us so unconditionally in our 1989-1992 infancy: Hips and Haws, Priston Jubilee Morris and the Famous Angel Morris. Plus we also wanted to share the day with Holt’s better halves – Bell’s Angels.
The day began at 11.30 am, with two different “tours” at two different venues. One tour enjoyed access to ale and other delights, dancing at the Barge Inn and the Canal Tavern, whilst the second tour rejoiced in the genteel vibe of Lamb Yard followed by Westbury Gardens. Both lovely, but ale free.
The outcome of our meticulous planning had placed Holt Morris alongside those sides performing at the ale-free venues: Angel Morris and Hips and Haws before lunch, and Bell’s Angels and Priston Morris after. As the pre-lunch dancing progressed, the full horror of this organisational debacle slowly dawned on members of Holt Morris – but more of that later. For now, let’s check out what happened when the two tours got going, starting with the ale-blessed canal side dancers.
Well, as we know, early starts aren’t quite a Morris thing but our stalwart friends from Priston Jubilee Morris (“alive and sticking”, they claim) managed to get up, dressed and into Bradford on Avon by 11:30am. They sought, and found, reviving coffee in The Barge, then the enterprising barmaid pointed out that she could just as easily serve beer – and she did. A good start to the day along with the sunshine and a pervasive atmosphere of good cheer.
Bells Angels musicians were a bit occupied with Holt Morris duties, so Helen Bousfield stepped up to the plate with her concertina and did a great job on her first real solo outing. Priston musicians, friendly as ever, joined in to add to the volume – it’s lucky that Morris tunes are so widely known, although “Lollipop Girls” had to be a “Bousfield solo”.
Suspicious glances at one of the Priston dancers were justified when one of them confessed to being of the female gender. But, she added quite spontaneously, she had very short hair and a boy’s name. Nice dancing, Sam !
Then the short walk to The Canal Tavern – not such a good dance surface (gravelly and on the slope) but lots more people watching and, in some cases, barging past as the set did rather block the footpath. The spot was enlivened by a hen party across the way – all dressed as pirates with the bride-to-be got up as a sailor. Their applause was loud and prolonged due, no doubt, to the precision and verve of the dancing from both sides. And so the morning drifted pleasantly towards lunchtime.
All fine and dandy, then. But what of the ale-free Avon side dancers?
Holt Morris and Hips and Haws arrived in good time for the 11.30 am start at Lamb Yard, and were soon strutting their stuff and enjoying themselves. Meanwhile, Angel Morris musicians, dancers and partners arrived, drib and drab like, reminiscent of those plucky London Marathon entrants at the fag end of the run. And, like them, seemingly doubting the wisdom of participating. But conditioned behaviour and muscle memory, honed in white-hot urban morris combat on the streets of London town, remained undiminished over the years of inactivity. Without any outward show of stress, coffees and cakes were ordered, seats occupied, and evasiveness of the highest quality employed to dish any prospect of Angel Morris dancing at this first spot: “My coffee’s only just arrived”; “I’ve got to park the car”; We’re still two short”; “We’re trying to decide what to dance first”; and so on and on and on......
After Holt and Hips and Haws had performed several well received dances, it was time to move on to the second spot, Westbury Gardens, a mere 200 yards across the town bridge. Organisationally, it resembled infinity.
Your correspondent, a proud founder member of Angel Morris, felt that a firm hand was called for to encourage a prompt arrival and performance at the second spot. An ultimatum was delivered to the Angel’s cafe society. This, astonishingly, seemed to do the trick, and in less than the ultimatum deadline, all Angel Morris performers were assembled in Westbury Gardens, albeit still being evasive about dancing. All of our lovely chums from Hips and Haws were also there. But, apart from your correspondent and the elegant Mr Baker, where were the rest of Holt Morris?
By skilful deduction – ale free first and second spots, nearest pub the Swan – we had an inkling as to the probable location. Mr Baker reached for his mobile ‘phone, punched the buttons, and spat stern words of advice. Very soon, the town bridge was blessed with Holt Morris men bearing pint glasses in various states of consumption.
And so dancing began at Westbury Gardens. Angel Morris, with no soul under 60 years old, did a couple of dances to great approbation. After 10 or more years of abstinence, it took a few hesitant steps before confidence and collective coordination grew, and a very creditable effort was rapturously received. Hips and Haws included a delightful bit of clog-stepping from Jan, and Holt stumbled through the “Laughing Cavalier”.
One o’clock: Lunchtime. Let’s remember that, apart from most of Holt Morris, the tour alongside the Avon had arrived at this hour without any form of traditional morris refreshment. Hands were shaking, facial tics were ticking, throats were rasping...and some tummies were rumbling. Time to join up with the canal side tour at the Canal Tavern!
On arrival, both bars in the Canal Tavern were found to be crammed with several thousand jostling punters, wanting to buy beer and food. On enquiry, it was established that the poor, lone barman trying to supply this lot would continue to enjoy sole serving rights for the foreseeable future. So, to relieve the burden of service, most Angel Morris and followers, and some Holt Morris went on to the Barge Inn, whilst everyone else stayed at the Canal Tavern.
Lunch was a leisurely affair. Food and drink at both venues were found to be delicious: please see the Facebook evidence of Mr Ian Carter’s steak and ale pie.
At this point, the carefully laid plans were in disarray. Three and a half sides were at the Canal Tavern, and one and a half were at the Barge Inn. Holt Morris conferred between the two venues and, showing uncharacteristic decisiveness, determined that it would be nice for all 5 sides to remain together for the afternoon’s dancing, sharing this between the two excellent pubs by the canal. But how to manage this? Confusion and indecisiveness returned and it wasn’t until those people at the Canal Tavern took the initiative to wander over to the Barge Inn that total unification was realised.
This led to a lovely mass dance session with all five sides doing their party pieces on the hastily prepared centre stage. Angel Morris had so revived their dancing mojo that they were battling one another for the chance to perform.
The afternoon drifted along. Sides mingled. Mass photos were taken and shared. Beer was consumed. Bees buzzed. All too soon it was 4.15 pm and Mr Nibbs, in fine voice throughout the day, announced that dancing was over and the canal boat was due to dock shortly. Sadly, for some, it was time to go home: long journeys, followed by Horlicks, a hotty bottle and bed. Hugs, kisses, thanks, handshakes and what not followed. Some Holt men and camp followers headed back to the village hall, to prepare for the evening’s festivities.
The remainder made their way to the quayside, where the magnificent “Empress of the Seas” towered above those hoping to board. Capacity exceeded hopefuls, so all was well. An orderly queue formed at the bar, Hips and Haws commandeered the prized bow seats, and the pleasant sounds of conversation and music wafted over the billow. All told, a very gentle affair, with the “Empress” never exceeding more than 35 knots.
All too soon the brave mariners tumbled ashore, legs awry and heads spinning – testimony to the tricky conditions experienced negotiating the notorious Kennet and Avon Canal Trust Bar. More farewells and “see you laters” as two hours respite beckoned before the ceilidh began.
The day moved on to 7.30 pm. We assembled in Holt Village Hall, wonderfully enhanced by Holt Morris memorabilia, tables, bar, the aroma of food and the music of the ceilidh band. The band was the excellent “ThingamaJig”, featuring our very own Colin Wyatt with Bertie Wright guesting, and all band members had very generously agreed to perform for free – for which very many thanks.
The caller, Sarah, worked tirelessly to draw reluctant punters onto the dance floor, employing verbal sallies which shamed serial avoiders into action. Hard men of the morris world, veterans of bitterly fought dance-offs, retreated to the bar in terror. The cavalry, in the form of a super hot supper (many thanks to Jo, Karen and Shirley) plus wonderful afters (thanks to all Holt Morris better halves), arrived. The hall was still, save for the contented sound of grazing. There was food a plenty, so seconds and sometimes thirds were devoured.
Supper over, more spirited and funny calling from the lovely Sarah followed, and overfed ceilidh dancers burped around the dance floor. And if the conversation, drink, dancing, and food failed to entertain, there was always the slide show projected onto the hall wall to revive jaded memories. Plus there was also the joy of seeing and chatting to some retired dancers, friends and families who had joined the evening knees up.
11 pm arrived. A last dance and drink, and much applause for the band. Terry, Holt Morris squire in this anniversary year, spoke for us all in thanking everyone for helping to make the day and the last 25 years such fun. As Mr Mike Bettison of Angel Morris has put it: “What a charming day!”