A History of Thames Valley Morris

Recollections about development in isolation: Thames Valley and Field Town in London, Ontario

by Paul Handford
from American Morris Newsletter 1988

hatThames Valley’s roots stretch back to the beginnings of morris in London, Ontario, when, late in 1977, Forest City Morris was formed. Alistair Brown had encountered morris dance during the summer of that year in a workshop at Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, and was determined to get a team going in his home town. Chance led to his meeting John Gillett, an ex-Stratford (U.K.) morris man, and thus the team got rolling. Virtually all its initial membership came from people connected with The Cuckoo’s Nest Folk Club in London, and that, regardless of gender: we were a mixed team. We were also mixed in terms of traditions — the usual eclectic mixture of Headington, Adderbury, Bampton, Bledington, Brackley and — who knows? maybe ten or twelve other traditions.  I exaggerate, but it conveys at least this novice’s bewilderment at these multiple traditions. I say traditions and not styles because, as may be expected, our attempt at rendering such a broad range of dances gave, as with many other new teams, a more or less homogeneous style, regardless of the particular dance or step. Needless to say, we weren’t (or at least, I wasn’t) aware of this at the time. That came later.

In 1978, Forest City was invited to Marlboro Ale, and what a revelation that was!  All of these different teams, many doing “our” dances — but in such different ways. Barely recognisable. Clearly there was, or could be, more to this morris game. The following year, Alistair went to English week at Pinewoods Camp and returned practically speaking in tongues: there was, indeed, much that could be learned. So, in 1980, a few of us Forest City types went to Pinewoods. In retrospect this was, as they say, a turning point.

I don’t recall what else I did in English week ’80, but I do remember Tony Barrand’s morris workshops. As well as passing on the form of a few selected dances, he seemed to spend a lot of time discussing with us what that form really was: what was the reason for having different steps? how should one do them? why did this or that tradition use this or that movement? why were there different traditions? In short, he urged us to be reflective about the detail of steps and about the collection of movements that typified a particular tradition and he asked:  what were those old dancers after? Characteristically, he provided an answer to the question, being:  well, if there were different steps, then they were probably meant to look different,  so  …..one should ask what any given step might be for and bring that out;  that, given the competitive element prevailing, at least during some periods, it was probable that different sides strove to work out new, eye-catching steps, figures, or what have you, and generally tried to mark themselves off from the competition. Hence traditions. Finally, he observed that, since most of the dancers were probably agricultural labourers, they were mostly strong fellows, prepared to work hard and sweat a bit. Oh! yes, and he insisted that hankies were really napkins. Big things.

Well, all this made a pretty strong impression on me — it made a lot of internal sense (and it still does, pace John Forrest and Andy Abbott!) and it resonated with a lot of those first Marlboro experiences: steps, figures, dances and traditions could — should –have their own distinctive coherence, brought to the fore with energy and drive.  At this time, then, we were all still Forest City, still mixed in gender and traditions. And, as has been noted in AMN 1987 (3), we were also mixed in attitude and point of view about what we were doing and how (and why) we were doing it. By this time I suppose I had become something of a zealot, converted as I was to this new vision, and accordingly a bit of a pain in the neck for those who didn’t, so far as I could see, seem to share my particular morris cosmos. So it was that in the fall of 1980, I quit Forest City and set about recruiting for a new team, a team that should be unmixed in gender, tradition, attitude and energy. Well, that was the idea, anyway; most of the time we’ve stuck to it.

I don’t recall how long it took to get the team going with a regular membership, but there were complications arising from the fact that several of us were moonlighting with the embryo Thames Valley team while still actually with Forest City. This problem was particularly acute for Alistair Brown himself, who was in the unenviable position of enjoying participation in what we were doing while, at the same time, being Forest City’s squire. It would be dishonest to suggest that there weren’t some hard feelings in several quarters through this whole transition period: there was the perception that Thames was out to sabotage the old side (we did, after all, siphon off [or poach, depending on your perspective] several of Forest City’s dancers); the opinion was expressed that we were a bunch of kill-joy elitists; on my side, I was still resenting the actual circumstances leading to my decision to quit — I felt a certain:  “damn it! I’ll show them how this can work” sort of defensiveness. I mention all this merely to make the point that, though we all felt pretty rotten at the time, all of us now recognise that these changes were necessary, and that we all feel better about what we are each of us doing now. In short, the old Forest City contained many internal contradictions, which made a variety of us uneasy or discontented: these needed resolution, and the formation of Thames Valley, Goatshead (now a women’s Northwest team) and Malt Mill (a mixed Cotswold team) within the year achieved this, if not neatly, then at least effectively. We just had to suffer through it; it wasn’t fun, but I would still recommend the process to any large diverse team with similar problems.

Thames set out flying by the seat of the pants: in Forest City, we’d all relied a lot on the veteran knowledge of John Gillett. I hadn’t really thought out any of the practicalities before the leap, so our early days were, let’s say, experimental. I’d already decided that I wanted badly to do Fieldtown, and that for two reasons. Back in ’79, Tony Barrand had come to London to do a workshop with Forest City; he knew we had been in existence for a couple of years or so, and correctly suspected that we had reached the stage of thinking that we were pretty damned good: thus the famous humiliation workshop in Fieldtown. The two reasons are that I couldn’t do the sidestep-doublestep sequence, and The Rose just confused the hell out of me. The rational reasons were: no-one nearby did it, so we wouldn’t be contaminated, it was a large and diverse tradition, and Bacon suggested that it was the best. So, we’d do Fieldtown. But how? In the manner of the blind men that we were, we felt that it might be better if we all led the way, so Thames began, as we like to recall, as an anarcho-syndicalist collective, with decisions about anything being referred to a committee for ratification every 20 minutes or so etc. etc. But of course that didn’t work for long: we soon recognised that such an approach was horribly inefficient, it impeded the development of our Grail, the coherent statement, and I finally admitted that it was an abdication of responsibility. So the committee’s final act was to appoint me foreman with unlimited executive powers short of taxation.

So I set about researching Fieldtown, and interpreting what I discovered according to the Barrand principles indicated above. So what was I after in developing our Fieldtown? Well, I didn’t keep a diary, so I can’t relate justifications of the moment for all the aesthetic choices made, but I think that the way we went all stems back to my impression from Tony’s F.T. workshop that it should be BIG and loose and expansive, as opposed to anythinq neat and trim or tending to the fussy. To this end, we really workcd on a slow (64-66 beats), exaggerated jig-time in the double-step: 1……2,3….. LIFT — it was to be very UP. It’s hard work, but we found that you can cheat a bit, and give the illusion of floating longer in mid air than you actually are by timing a little upward wrist-flick on the fourth beat, which means that the (LARGE) handkerchief is still going up (you can feel it tug) while you are actually going down. In F.T., the sidestep already looks distinct from the 4-step by virtue of the hand movement being on the first beat of the bar, but we enhanced this difference by sinking onto the lead foot as the hank makes a straight, strong show upwards and across the chest. So the 4-step is big and up and noisy, but the sidestep, while still strong, is smaller and low and quiet. Capers, of course, had to be athletic. but again we wanted that floating feel to it, which can be got once more by careful use of a well-timed wrist-flick.

To go with this expansive approach to stepping, we worked on what one might call an up and open posture: straight back, head up, shoulders back, chest out — looking showy — and all this was to be enhanced by taking seriously the words in Bacon about the lift and surge on the fourth beat (the hitch-step) before moving off into any figure. Thus, for example, in the half gyp we would attempt to cover most of the distance with a hitch-step and the first 4-step, and leave the second 4-step for in place on the other side.  All in all, it is clear that much of what we developed owes a direct debt to the influence of Tony Barrand’s ideas and inspired teaching: it is a real pleasure to acknowledge that debt here.

Of course, this was not all a coherent, preconceived plan. Though I was thinking about coherence, the decisions about how to achieve it were sometimes arrived at after much experimentation. Which brings me to inventing dances. I remember consciously avoiding getting into that business when the idea first occurred. I guess I was sufficiently self-conscious of what we were after — coherence — to feel that I had better let us soak in what we were doing for a good while before launching into dance ideas that just wouldn’t fit with what was developing in stylistic terms. I still think that this was best (at least for us): since we were after something that made sense as a whole, I think it would have been all too easy to invent something which, while maybe a perfectly good dance, would owe more to, and fit better with, the dances that I had been doing for the years preceding. Anyhow, at this time I was thinking about dancing a lot, and found myself convinced that almost every tune that I liked was just tailormade for an F.T. dance. So eventually I looked at inventing one. This immediately presents the problem of: how much latitude do I have and still remain within the artistic area we call Fieldtown? I now think that this question is not really that important in itself, but the attempt to put together sequences of movements which seemed to be of a piece with the received dances was, I think, very useful in our development of what has become, it seems, a quite distinctive London style. I suspect that if I hadn’t felt some constraints, then that would have interfered with my precious “coherent statement”. As it happens, F.T. gives the inventor lots of leeway in dance structure, with common figures or rounds or heys to the A-music, and ss-half heys or rounds or corners or heys to the B-music. But I noticed at some point that not all combinations of A and B structures existed, and some of the inventions were designed to fill the gaps; for example our Jockey to the Fair is a long-figure rounds to the A-music, and a corner cross to the B. Altogether we now have an inventions repertoire (not all active in a given season) of three stick dances and twelve hank dances. It’s clear that they don’t all really work, and there are a few that hardly ever get done, probably for that reason. There are others that we don’t do often because, well, they are a bit baroque and need a lot of work to make work well. Others don’t get done because we fail in energy.  But here’s the notations to a couple of my favorites, Robin Hood’s Ride and Brighton Camp. Robin Hood was my first essay, and it was our first ever Marlboro show dance: it represents an attempt at something like The Rose that lasts longer, and I was crazy about The Trim-rigged Doxie tune [from Tony Hall’s Field Vole Music]. Brighton Camp is our total blow-out big dance. To me, it represents what Thames was all about when we were at our peak (recorded for posterity on the ’84 or ’85 Marlboro Ale video archive). I remembered hearing somebody say that the heavy backsteps in Molly Oxford were originally plain capers, so, not to be outdone… I’m pleased to find each year at ales that there are still crazies who want to risk cardiac embarrassment by doing this dance.  Here’s the notations:

Robin Hood’s Ride Tune: Trim-rigged Doxie (Rambling Sailor) [A. (2B)]2. [A. (2C)]2

CF: Two half-heys: ss/ss/hb/sj; repeat.

DF: Long figure HR: 4/4/hb/hb/4/4/G/sj; repeat. DF2,3 and 4 are as DFl, but with second two 4-steps replaced by 4PC, 2HC and 2UC respectively, the HC and UC to augmented music.

Brighton Camp    Tune: the same. [A2.B2]2. [A2.C2]2. A.

Long CF: FU, HG, HR, WH, WR.  4/4/LR/LR/4/4/G/sj repeat. In FU: inside lead, caper out, down, in, in, 4-step in place, G in and down. In HG: stay on opp. side for PCs facing out, left, in, in,4-st, 4-st, Gl, sj in place repeat to home in 2nd half, with reversed footing and G. In HR: PCs are out of circle, back around circle, in, in, etc. In WH: ss/ss to ~box position~, caper out, up or down, in, in etc. Dance finishes with WR :4/4/4/4/ss/ss/ LR/LR: big circle, turn in on last 4-step, ss/ss facing in, the PCs in, left, out, out.

DFl: ss/4/ss/J/lr/lr/Gl/sj; repeat. ss and 4-step in place;
Jump into single line (rt. shoulders), hold music and dancers one beat, then walk to opp. Gl to face. Repeat home with identical footing. DF2,3 and 4: as DFl through Jump into line and pause. lr/lr replaced by LR/LR, by HC/HC and by UC/UC respectively.

In 1985, Andy Barrand invited me to teach a workshop in “London style” Fieldtown at Pinewoods. That was tremendous fun and it was a real pleasure to find that people really seemed to enjoy the dance-style that we’d developed, and to find some of the inventions worth expending a not inconsiderable effort. This reception helped us feel vindicated in the previous years’ trials in the pursuit of our goals.

Many of the original Thames men have left both the town and the team (apart from Ian Thompson who commutes regularly from Pasadena), but the present team owes them all for the time and energy they put into those early days. I’ll always be grateful to them, especially to Eric Smith and Rob Dean for their indulgence while we tried to get the whole thing flying.

Handford, P. 1988. Recollections about development in isolation: Thames Valley and Field Town in London, Ontario. Am. Morris Newsletter 12(2): 11-15.