Morris men recall Merrie England

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Crowds watch the ardent display by morris dancers from England and the Netherlands, but not all the dancers survived the afternoon unscathed

Three teams of morris dancers from East Surrey, Wimbledon and Helmond in the Netherlands enlivened the scene outside Rye Town Hall on Sunday May 25.

The East Surrey Morris Men were making their 56th visit to Rye and were greeted by Mayor Bernadine Fiddimore at the Mermaid Inn for a welcoming drink, but after a dance or two they were thirsty again. Fortunately, a resident of Market Street came to the dancers’ rescue with a generous gift of a 12-pack of beer which, downed in pewter tankards, refreshed them mightily.

The Morrisdansgroep from the city of Helmond in the south Netherlands brought nine dancers. Unfortunately, one suffered cramp and another retired nursing a finger, badly bruised by an over-enthusiastic stick-wielding compatriot.

Also in attendance where The Greensleeves Morris Men from Wimbledon, who were formed in 1926, and now boast 30 members. One of them enthused: “Rye’s a wonderful place to dance, we always have a good time here.”

Morris dancer Ray from the East Sussex Morris Men club and his horse Tom, with Peter Halfpenney of the Morris Ring
Morris dancer Ray (left) from the East Sussex Morris Men club, with Peter Halfpenney of the Morris Ring

The proceedings were overseen by Peter Halfpenney from North Anston in Yorkshire. Peter is a former Squire of the Morris Ring, the international association for morris dancing and associated activities that represents almost 200 clubs around the world.

Morris dancing in England is recorded as far back as the mid-15th century, but is almost certainly much older. After a long period of decline it was revived at the turn of the 20th century when the remaining dances were recorded, ensuring the survival of the pastime, along with clog and sword traditions in the north of England. The eye-catching finale on Sunday was a rousing dance performed with great energy by all three groups in swirling motion, much to the delight of the assembled crowd of onlookers.