2006-08-30 : Rum: It’s not just for breakfast any more !

One of the best things about my life these days is the number of times I'll look at my surroundings and thing “How in the bloody hell did I get myself involved in THIS ?”. And the August bank holiday weekend was certainly no exception. It was a distinct improvement on last year's bank holiday weekend, which I spent in at the office because I'd completely missed the fact we were having one and forgot to plan accordingly. Ah well, at least I got paid overtime. But that's hardly relevant – this year I went up to the village of Uppermill (near Manchester) for the Saddleworth Morris Men's Rushcart Festival.

Of course I'll explain what I'm babbling about.

The rushcart is – you'll never believe this – a cart, which is loaded up with rushes. The cart is then dragged around to neighbouring villages by the morris dancers, with a nominated morris man sitting atop the 30 foot + tall stack, and dancing happens wherever the cart stops. From what I'm told, the original reason for all this was that in days of yore the floor of the church in Saddleworth was covered in these rushes, and the rushcart was the annual ceremony to re-floor. These days there's no need for rushes inside the church (they must have gotten a fancy new floor or something), so the morris men drag the 2.5 tonne monstrosity around under the auspices of maintaining a tradition. Well it's a good bit of fun, and good exercise, leastaways.

Initially I was a little worried about getting up there & not knowing anyone (as my team weren't going, and to be honest I'm not 100% sure how I wound up there…), but my fears were allayed and irrespective after the first night's warmup beers at The Waggon I might as well have been born in the village.

I managed to get a couple of dances in on the Saturday with a scratch team run by the guys from Green Oak, and this proved more successful than my participation in the beer buying consortium I joined with the guys from Kennet Morris – apparently a cornerstone part of that plot was that you're meant to go and collect your beer at each stop, whereas I kept wandering off like an incredibly sexy senile uncle, and they'd have to track me down to give me my beer. Good sports though.

Another component of the fun manifested itself partway through Saturday afternoon, where my feet passed the message to my brain that my morris shoes are about a size too small. That's usually not so bad for a dance here or there, but when you're dragging a 2.5 tonne cart for about 15 miles as well as dancing you find that the net effect at the close of the day is your feet feel like bloody stumps.

Sunday involved more cart-dragging, although rather than touring the villages we made straight for the church. Being new at this, I didn't realise that the church was up a fairly steep hill, and had I known that I'd have made it to the head of the line to capture the comedy sight on film of hundreds of morris men RUNNING up a hill with a thumping great reed-laden carriage behind them. Cunningly, the church isn't at the top of the hill, but sort of at the bottom of the hill, so in addition to an artery-bursting run up, there then followed a very serious & concerted effort to slow this thing on the downhill run.

One of the things that was different about the Saddleworth weekend was that there were a fairly high number of Northwest Morris teams there – they wear clogs and dance very differently to what we, as Cotswold morris dancers, do. Probably the most vivid memory I had of the weekend was that of heaving madly to stop this 2.5 tonne mammoth from taking off down the hill and flattening a significant population of morris dancers, whilst wincing in pain from the previous day's shoe misadventures, and all the while the main sound I could hear was that of clogs sliding against wet bitumen. Who said morris wasn't an extreme sport ?

Upon arrival at the church there was more dancing, including a heroic rendition of Lads-a-Bunchum for 8 men by the AdelaideLetchworthLeedsGreen OakAnker scratch side, which was made all the more interesting by the fact that only 2 of us knew it, and my working definition of “knew” covered “have danced it once and seen it twice”. We managed to get out without offending too many of the crowd however, so that was a job done. We followed up with an expertly executed “Vandals of Hammerwich” with sadly no broken sticks but this was probably fortuitous given that we'd borrowed them.

Following that there were one or two local ales flowing, by way of the ever-so-convenient Church Inn. In the spirit of being a gracious guest, I did my best to sample these, and a fine group of beverages they were too (except for the “Ruby Tuesday” cider, which was very easily drinkable and as a result utterly eeeeeeeeeevil).

As well as the conviviality of the crowd and the spattering of dancing going on there were also a number of “Traditional Northern Entertainments” – the bulk of these I missed due to being installed in the Saddleworth Hospitality Tent (complete with al-fresco serving arrangements, pictured), but included a wrestling contest and a worlds' worst singer contest.

By far the most gripping was however the Gurning contest. Gurning is the ancient Cumbrian art of pushing your head through a horse's collar and making the ugliest face possible. It is widely accepted that the fewer teeth you have the more naturally predisposed you will be to winning.

No, I didn't win, or even enter. Thankyou.

The competition whilst fairly sparse, was fairly intense. There were 4 or 5 candidates and I suspect the first one put off any potential entrants, because he was bloody ugly.

The second entrant (and eventual winner) was probably the most confusing of the lot, because it wasn't obvious initially what her gender was. She had some amazing facial contortions in her repertoire however and was a most impressive gurner.

Personally there was another girl I felt should have won, because not only were her gurns nothing short of horrifying, but I also thought she was reasonably cute in her “normal” facial state, and I'm sure that the mark of a good gurn is how wild the transformation is between what you normally look like and where you end up with your head through the collar. In my advanced state of awareness (thanks, Ruby Tuesday) I decided to go up to her following the contest and offer some words of admiration and encouragement, but backed away when my remarks were met with “Are you sayin' ah'm oogly ?”. Didn't think that one through, really.

During the evening many of the teams present sauntered off into the sunset, but a few stayed on, and I ended up going for an unscheduled curry with some of them (including Stuart of Anker, who had turned down an invitation to a Buddhist Garden Party which he'd been given the night before at about 2am whilst drunkenly debating the meaning of life with a couple of Buddhist monks at a pedestrian crossing), and finished the night up at the Cross Keys pub on top of the hill. The night looked like it was going to fizzle out into nothing, when some of the Saddleworth lads managed to secure the back room of the pub and we all piled in there for a singalong. Fine singers, those lads ! The night was nearly out when someone noticed that I hadn't contributed anything yet (mainly because I was happily snoozing in the corner), and the only response was to get out “The Day MacArthur Farted”, which seemed to meet with universal approval.

Final analysis – Saddleworth Rushcart, whilst a bloody long way away, is a top weekend away and I shall be doing my utmost to drag more people up there next year to do it all again !