After spending a few extra days in Padstow after the May Day celebrations, I took the train to London (playing banjo and trading songs with a fellow on the train), where I stayed in a rather unfortunate hostel. Luckily, I was only there for about 6 hours, as I got up ridiculously early to take two trains and two buses up to Newcastle, where I stayed over with one of the Kingsmen, unwound, and got to talk about my trip so far. As I mentioned in the last post, I am starting to feel like I can put bits and pieces of this experience together in more interesting ways, and so it was nice to have a moment to just relax and think about it. The moment didn’t last particularly long as the next day I met up with some dancers from Snark Rapper and drove down to Goathland for the first gathering of every traditional hilt-and-point sword dance team left in the UK.
To clarify, these are not reconstructed teams, but groups that have been dancing their village dance, so to speak, and are continuing to do so. In the UK there are only six left: Handsworth Longsword, Flamborough Longsword, Goathland Plough Stots, Grenoside Longsword, High Spen Blue Diamonds Rapper, and The Papa Stor Sword Dancers. This last team I was particularly interested to visit, as they are from the Shetland Islands, and this was one of the first times they have ever performed on the mainland.
We arrived and set up our tents on the cricket pitch before the first dances. I had visited the town of Goathland (famous for its steam railway featured in the Harry Potter movies, its spraypainted sheep sheep which have a right to free grazing all around town, and for being in some UK TV show called Heartbeat) when I was dancing with my rapper team Beside the Point at the Sword Spectacular in 2004.
It is a rather small town and the two performance venues were outside the small row of shops and in the parking lot of the garage, which had taken the name of the garage in the TV show Heartbeat. I wanted to mostly follow Papa Stor and so went to the Garage for the first stand of the day, where they were dancing with Grenoside.
I was astonished by just how different it was to every other rendition of the dance I had seen when performed by other groups. The performance started with a series of speeches to introduce the seven dancers, who represent the Seven Champions of Christendom, the patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, and Wales. Interestingly for a dance originating in Shetland, the captain of the dance is St. George, not St. Andrew. All the dancers are introduced and then each is called forward to dance, with sword arched over his head.
I say arched as the swords are made from flexible steel that’s slightly less flexible than typical rapper swords. They also have colored hilts that correspond with the colors of each dancer’s baldric, a new idea which was introduced by the current leader, George Peterson. George, who is now nearly 80, plays fiddle for the group along with a younger woman.The dance itself is performed slowly and solemnly, and everyone involved in it emphasized that it is supposed to be a dignified and solemn dance, and dancers shouldn’t be smiling during the performance. I have usually seen the dance done running or jogging, while they did it walking. The flexible swords allow the dancers to move closer together at times, and during over-the-sword figures, the swords are arched down to the ground.
After the first performances were over I cornered George and we got to talk for a while about his experiences growing up dancing, and collecting various bits of folk culture from Papa Stor. He first learned the dance at 16 and has been instrumental in maintaining the tradition. Since Papa Stor only has 10 people currently living on it, the dancers are now drawn from local schools off the island. Today the dance is going strong, and has a youth team as well. On dancer told me he thought that around 40 people from the community were involved in the sword dancing, which represents a very strong interest in maintaining the dance. One interesting tidbit is that when learning or practicing the dance, the group always refers to the positions by the name of the Saint, not by a numbering system, which I think is cool! The dance is particularly interesting as it is so and far away from the sword dancing from the Yorkshire or Northumberland areas,. George believes that the dance most likely came to Shetland with the servant of an English lord who had a residence in the area and created a sword dance from experiences seeing Yorkshire longsword. It is certainly a topic for more investigation and I am particularly intrigued that, while it has a sword lock (a particularly English figure) many figures that more closely resemble continental sword dances.
The Goathland Plough Stots organized the weekend and put on a fine performance. They have several dances that use six (or occasionally eight) dancers who dance with inflexible metal swords and dress in blue and pink, which represent the old political parties of Torys and Whigs. In January they still celebrate Plough Monday by taking the Plough around the village and performing the sword dance. They also have a strong youth tradition and were able to field three teams simultaneously during the weekend!
It was time for lunch, and all the groups ate together and socialized for a bit before resuming dancing. For the next stand I continued to follow Papa Stor, and saw the team from Grenoside as well. I had seen them a few times before, and they didn’t dissapoint.
Grenoside certainly is up there for cool costumes! It also has the distinction of dancing with swords from 1933 which were given to them by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which had adopted the sword lock as their logo. Grenoside performs on Boxing day with the captain singing a song and being beheaded in quick order! While it may date back to 1750 or earlier, the earliest written record of the Grenoside sword dance is 1895.
The Handsworth Sword Dancers dance in big rubber boots and strange looking caps with eight dancers. They also dance on Boxing Day, although if that is a Sunday they will postpone until Monday. (I forgot to say in my last post on Padstow May Day that postponing Sunday May Days to Monday is also the custom) Interestingly enough, the dance was able to continue through WWII (unlike many others) as the dancers were all working with steel or mining, which were deemed essential industries, and thus not called to serve in the military. Both Grenoside and Handsworth face uncertain futures, as they have yet to be successful involving younger people in the dances. I hope that both teams will be able to recruit youth into the dance and will continue to thrive.
On the other hand, the Flamborough team has a flourishing youth team, who performed at the weekend alongside their older counterparts. There have been kids teams off and on as far back as 1934, and children helped keep the dance alive during the world wars. The distinctive kit of the team is the navy blue ganseys (sweaters) used by fishermen of the village and grey caps (for adults) or red hats (children) The sword are made from wood, and there is certain speculation that they may have originally been derived from a tool used to repair fishing nets.
While the adult team is all male, the youth section of the Flamborough sword dancers (and the Goathland sword team for that mater!) includes girls. While at first I assumed that this was a recent development, it actually has an older basis in tradition, as a “Girl Guides” team kept the dance going from about 1928-1938!
That night there was a big party, complete with dancing, singing, jamming, food, drink, and general merrymaking! George Patterson received the Gold Badge from EFDSS (Equivelent to CDSS’s Lifetime Achievement Award) in a wonderful ceremony. There was even a mini concert by Eliza Carthy, who grew up playing for the Goathland Plough Stots and still comes and plays for them! We stayed up far to late singing bawdy songs before finally going back and shivering through the night (Frost? In May? WHY??) in our tents.
I had breakfast at the Goathland Inn the next day with some of the members of Snark Rapper, the only non-traditional team to be invited to the weekend.
Even if they aren’t traditional they certainly are a lot of fun, and contributed in songs what they lacked in history. As the High Spen Blue Diamonds were unfortunately unable to perform at the weekend, they contributed the rapper for the event.We had a May pole performance by the school children of Goathland which was great. The men had dug a big hole for the pole and they performed around 5 different patterns of dances, which was impressive! I think it is so cool how this type of dance pops up in so many different countries and cultures!
I also got to try out the Papa Stor sword dance after convincing one of the dancers to teach a bit! It definitely is a different feeling dancing with the flexible swords.
After a bit more dancing it was time to head down to Beck Hole, a lovely spot at the bottom of town with the smallest pub you can imagine! Obviously, Snark insisted upon dancing in it, which was entertaining to say the least, as the dancers had to step up onto chairs and other obstacles as they did a moving ring! Beck Hole is also a place with fond memories of 2004, as GMMS and Sallyport joined forces to make “The World’s Biggest Sword Lock” I am on the far left with the hair that looks like my hair.
This time around was lots of fun too, but unfortunately we had to rush back home to Newcastle for a big party at the Cumberland Arms, where the Kingsmen were performing. I said my farewells and with that I was heading back to Newcastle! Ahm gannin back te the toon agyen!