Albion, Art, Don and Wen, TOLL, travel

Morris, mayhem and wandering trees…

I am still not back to whatever constitutes normality around here, though most of my guests have now departed. Today I have a long drive north on taxi duty for one son, while the other temporarily occupies my guest room… But tomorrow, I have a whole half a day to myself to catch up from a fortnight of glorious madness before I’m off again. I still have a lot to share about the workshop itself… and much to share of our adventures after the workshop with dear friends too. I can barely remember what I have written so far! What I do know is that I only shared a fraction of the day we spent celebrating May Day in Oxford…. the rest was wonderful too 🙂

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Photo by Stuart France

There are many accounts in folklore of wandering stones and trees. In Oxford, you may well meet at least one of these as Jack in the Green is led through the streets as the celebration on May Day moves from sacred song at Magdalen Tower to jazz, folk music and Morris dancers.

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Photo by Stuart France

Bands appear on every corner, traffic is banished  and the roads are left to the dancers. Pheasant feathers, bells and ribbons flutter and jingle as the day begins and, even at this early hour, the pubs and cafés open their doors to provide sustenance for the revellers.

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By the time we had dashed back to move the car to a longer-term parking space, the streets had cleared. Twenty-five thousand people had thinned out to a manageable throng, the cleaning carts had all-but obliterated the traces of the previous night’s excess of booze and burgers and the sun was shining.

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We passed a rather suspicious conical mound, hiding in plain sight and pretending to be an innocent motte and bailey part of the castle… and definitely deserving of a little investigation. While the mound, as it now stands, is part of the Norman castle built by Robert D’Oyly between 1071–73AD, there are earlier, Anglo Saxon remains… and we wondered at the mound’s true origin.

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The ornate, golden stone of the town, washed by sunlight and now clean once more, was at its best. These very early Sundays are undoubtedly the best time to see the streets and the wonderful mix of architectural eras that  snuggle up against each other, telling the tale of history.

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From the grand and glorious, through Georgian charm, to Victorian whimsy and a Saxon tower… centuries of history form the fabric of the town… a perfect backdrop to the living traditions of May Day Morning.

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The earliest surviving document to mention the Morris dates back to 1448… and who knows how far back the dance itself may go or what its origins may have been. Watching the dancers, I had to wonder if it was not a much-domesticated form of some of Man’s oldest dances… those performed to call forth the sun and rain that sustain life, or perhaps  a dance to ensure that the game would be plentiful.

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Little remains in the ribbons and bells to suggest such an interpretation, but the folk-memory is long and more is hidden in the old traditions than may at first meet the eye. It takes little imagination to replace the pristine white with fur and feather, the pipes with the shaman’s drum and the sticks with spears…

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Even if you are not ‘into’ Morris, there is something about the dance and the music that calls to people… and when one team called for volunteers to dance, young, old and even a dog got in on the act.

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Quite what the watchers of Oxford made of the whole affair from their lofty pedestals and towers, we will never know. For the revellers who had risen so early to greet the day, it was a wonderful way to reconnect with tradition.

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