A private army, a town full of morris dancers and a nobleman with two left feet

Morris men in full flight at Wimborne. Picture Hattie Miles
Morris men in full flight in Wimborne on Saturday 8th of June.                                                                                                        Picture Hattie Miles

It was Sir Thomas Beecham who issued the following cautionary advice: “You should try everything at least once…except incest and morris dancing.” Setting aside the inconvenient  fact that Beecham has been dead for more than half-a-century, one can’t help feeling that the notoriously cantankerous conductor would not have been amused had he somehow contrived to be in Wimborne Minster at the weekend.

For this mildly eccentric Dorset market town – it has its own private army of 17th century style musketeers and a monument to a nobleman with two left feet*  –  was heaving with hundreds of morris men, clog-dancers, Appalachian bog-hoppers…you name it they were there. Traditional folk dancers of every conceivable kind were rhythmically swishing and swirling their way through the Georgian streets, their whoops of joy rising above a cacophony of drums, bells, sticks, and accordions.

The occasion was the Wimborne Minster Folk Festival, a three day celebration of music, dance and folk traditions that attracted enthusiasts from all over the country. These included a bizarre array of curious characters, some with blacked-up faces, others with exotic flower arrangements on their heads. There were a lot of traditional hanky-wavers and a smattering of the good-time hangers on.  The Fez Heads for instance, a bunch of nutty boys from North Kent, who looked like Wilson, Kepple and Betty crossed with Madness c.1980.

Elsewhere a couple Cybermen ( No I don’t know why either) posed for pictures with children  and the Wimborne Militia buffed their firearms in preparation for the Grand Festival Parade through the winding streets. Town cryer and Serjant at Arms  Chris Brown, a man who once attempted to ban Bob Dylan from entering his own trailer at Glastonbury “because he looked a bit strange” (Oh so many stories) trundled ahead of the Army on his mobility scooter, his luxuriant beard flapping gently in the breeze. It was quite an affair. Beecham I am sure would have hated it. When it came to music he had wide-ranging tastes but he was a man who knew what he liked and he had a particularly dismissive attitude to anything that fell outside his rigid  opinion of what was acceptable. A journalist famously once asked him if he’d ever conducted any Stockhausen. “No, but I trod in some once.” was the withering reply. I’m sure he would have been similarly contemptuous if confronted with the folkies of Wimborne.

The festival has in fact been an annual feature of the town for the past 30 years but last summer its longtime organisers announced they were calling it a day. There had been rumblings of discontent.  They needed £35,000 to stage the 2013 festival. A lot of money in harsh financial times. They issued a statement taking a swipe at local businesses who they said enjoyed the benefits of the festival but weren’t prepared to help finance it.

It stated: “There are several issues that make it difficult to continue but the main reason is the lack of financial support from those people and businesses that make a lot of money on the back of our year round hours of voluntary hard work but give nothing in return.” They’d had enough and  said they were getting out while the going was still good: “We are convinced this is the right time before it all gets too frustrating and we stop enjoying it.”

The blow to the town was tangible. Wimborne without its annual festival was unthinkable. Within weeks a Save the Wimborne Folk Festival Facebook page had attracted more than 3,000 followers and a group of volunteers had come together to ensure that the event would live on.

Last weekend, bathed in glorious of sunshine, the new organisers watched the  first ever Wimborne Minster Folk Festival seamlessly continue from where the Wimborne Folk Festival had left off. Tens of thousands of visitors would never have guessed there’d been a problem.

*The memorial with two left feet is a sculpture in Wimborne Minster of Sir Edmund Uvedale who died in 1606.  It is  believed that the renaissance-style work was damaged while being renovated during the mid 19th century. The workmen involved, anxious to replace the smashed right foot, made a replica of Sir Edmund’s remaining left foot, stuck it on and presumably hoped no-one would notice. Doh! I think I may have employed the ancestors of those workmen on a couople of occasions. 

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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