A Thaxted tradition


EXG JUN 14 THAXTED - Credit: Archant

Thaxted is known for celebrating its historic rituals and Lily Floyd reveals why this month is such a unique time to visit this special Essex town

THAXTED could be described as one of the county’s finest architectural towns. Despite not being home to any of the more contemporary or artificial tourist attractions, this small country town boasts a recorded history which dates back to the 11th century. History and heritage are indeed pillars of this community and just one aspect of this is the way residents and visitors recognise the town for its connection with the Thaxted Morris Men and the distinctive history they give to this very English tradition.

The Thaxted Morris Men have played a key role in the history of English Morris dancing, following their formation in 1911, which incorporated elements of the first Morris revival with the Christian social ideals and church reforms under Conrad Noel, the Vicar of Thaxted, and the work of the social reformer Mary Neal. In 1905, Mary founded the Esperance Club, which aimed to provide girls with a vehicle for championing, demonstrating and teaching the Morris dances and folksongs. Their music was collected by Cecil Sharp, the founder of the folklore revival in England and also many of England’s traditional dances, as he made it his quest to return folk dances and songs to the people.

The Thaxted Morris dancers were predominantly female at the time, but they gradually became an all male affair by the 1920s. Today there are around 750 Morris sides and the Thaxted Morris Men are the oldest surviving revival side in the country.

Daniel Fox, a Thaxted Morris Men dancer, has been performing with the group for more than 35 years and believes the dancing is a very important aspect for the town. Daniel explains: ‘Morris Men dancing is one of England’s traditional ritual dances. No one knows of its origins, but it has obviously evolved over the centuries with influences from other cultures. Most of the Thaxted Morris Men dances are from the Cotswolds, where Cecil Sharp first started collecting dances from at least 20 villages as they all had their own style of dancing.’

In 1927, Thaxted’s annual Morris gatherings led the Morris Ring following invitations from Conrad Noel, who encouraged dancing on a Sunday only if the men attended church. Since then, Thaxted has hosted Morris dance meetings every year, apart from 1940 to 1945 during the war.

On June 2, 1934, the constitution meeting of the Morris Ring was held in the town and Thaxted resident, Alec Hunter, became the first squire of the Morris Ring. Roy Page, squire for the Thaxted Morris Men, joined as a member 18 years ago after watching them dance on a number of occasions. Roy says: ‘I have lived in this town for more than two decades. The dancing is a long-established part of Thaxted history and many people have described this town as the spiritual home of the Morris revival. My job as a squire is to choose and lead the various dances performed and organise the men for each performance.’

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The Thaxted Morris Men will be hosting several big events over the next couple of months including the Thaxted Morris Weekend on May 30 to June 2, which will offer the opportunity for local residents and visitors to enjoy the unique setting of the town and surrounding villages. There will be ceremonial dances and music from many parts of England and up to 200 Morris Men will attend this annual weekend.

Daniel adds: ‘We take our guests on tours around the surrounding villages and the first evening show starts with Morris dancers entering Town Street from both ends in a dancing procession. Each side is given the opportunity to dance in Town Street, with all the sides coming together to do a massed display, and on Sunday morning the Morris Men process to church for the regular morning service.’

On June 21 the Thaxted Patronal Festival, an event of St John the Baptist, St Mary and St Laurence, the Thaxted Country Dance Club and the Thaxted Morris Men, will see both groups dancing around the town in the evening and ending with The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance in the churchyard.

Chairman of the council and local resident, John Freeman, has lived in Thaxted most of his life and encourages people to come and see these events. John says: ‘This town is a good place to live. Our dancing events bring a great deal of visitors to our town, which helps to support our local community, and many people return to Thaxted just because of their Morris dancing experience.’

Thaxted Morris Men dance from May to September and this year’s programme marks the 81st consecutive year of dancing on Bank Holidays in Thaxted. The practices are held from 8pm to 10pm on Monday evenings in the local church hall and the group is always looking for new dancers and musicians.

Roy adds: ‘We currently have 24 members aging from 10 to early 70s, and we have an honorary member who is 82, who came with us on our Australian tour in 2013. We practice every Monday for two hours during the winter months and in the summer we dance out in villages across Essex. We are always looking for new men to join.’ n