Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Bampton Bells

Yesterday was Whit Monday. My generation and older still remember it as Whit Monday. Sadly, this old, traditional name has been quietly shelved, replaced with a corporate-sounding Late May Bank Holiday. Historically, Whitsuntide was a time for celebration, when feasting, ale drinking and games took place on the village green. And, fortunately for all of us, there is a place in the Cotswolds where Whitsuntide still means something.

Bampton is an impossibly pretty Oxfordshire village, just a few miles from Brize Norton RAF station. Lockheed TriStars and VC10s scream overhead, competing with the robins and blackbirds that proclaim their territories in the old churchyard. The houses are of honey coloured stone with neat gardens and stone troughs overflowing with cottage flowers. Business is brisk in the four pubs (there used to be sixteen) in the village centre. And if you listen carefully, you can just hear the jingle of morris bells. For it's Whitsun in Bampton, and Whitsun means The Morris.

By all accounts, they've been dancing in Bampton for four hundred years, albeit the first mention was in 1847, when the Reverend Giles complained that the quality of dancing wasn't what it used to be. Back in those early days there was only one morris 'side'; now there are three, and all of them dance the distinctive 'Bampton' tradition. I got chatting to a couple of local youngsters, who told me there had been a 'falling out' many years ago which resulted in the original side splitting in two and going their separate ways. They likened the event to the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, where a previously homogenous group of freedom fighters split into The Judean People's Front and The People's Front of Judea. Whatever, happened, the (now) three sides happily coexist.

The members of the Traditional Bampton Morris side are scattered to the four corners of the kingdom. But they regroup the night before Whit Monday to practice and revise their dances. On the Monday morning, dancing starts at nine sharp and follows a well worn route through the village, and includes the back gardens of some of the houses. I'm told that the deeds of some of these ancient houses require the owners to give access to the dancers, and, in at least one case, insist that the householder supplies the (always) thirsty dancers with ale. There seemed to be a great deal of support from the locals. In some places, to be dressed as a morris dancer is to attract sideways glances or ridicule. Indeed, to admit to membership of a side in those places would be akin to admitting a spell in a psychiatric hospital. But not so in Bampton. They take their morris dancing seriously. 'We have to do it,' I overheard one dancer say, 'It's the tradition'. And in a world where home grown Tradition is seen as an anachronism by people who would happily travel thousands of miles to watch Russian folk dancing or listen to a Balinese gamelan band, it's a tradition I'm happy to see continuing (judging by the number of young dancers I saw) into the next generation.

Dancing continues until 6pm, at which time other morris sides, which have travelled to Bampton by special invitation, join in the festivities. This year I and my associates of Long Man Morris were one of the sides fortunate to be invited, and we were pleased to dance our own Wilmington Tradition in the village square and outside the aptly-named Morris Clown public house.

Bampton's a long way from Seaford; around a hundred and forty miles and a six hour round trip.  So, why did I go? To be part, if only for a few hours, of a centuries old tradition. The world turns. Generations come and go. But in Bampton, there will always be The Morris.