A Morris dancer at Oxford's May Day celebration
AN EXTRACT FROM MY MEMOIR "OXFORD, A DECADE IN WONDERLAND"
SUMMER IS ICUMMIN IN continued...
On this occasion, dotted
among the crowd were teams of Morris Dancers dressed in traditional
costume; white shirts, white trousers, heavy boots or clogs with rows
of bells around their legs. Headgear, depending on which dance group
they were affiliated with, varied from floppy felt hats, bowler hats,
black top hats, and straw hats decorated with fresh lilac, daffodils,
peach blossom and early summer roses. The Morris Dancers’
traditional dancing goes back more than 600 years.
the crowd became restless a musician struck up the fiddle and dancing
in the Green,
a figure who accompanies the Morris Men on their dances, stood
motionless beside me, and I suspected that I was being observed. The
man was invisible beneath a tree-shaped arrangement threaded with
greenery. As I photographed the Morris Men, a voice came from deep
within the evergreen. “When am I going to see the photographs you
took of us last time, Anne Gordon?”
I pulled some of the leaves
aside and peered into the darkness and the face of Peter Lund, a don
from Christ Church who had loaned me a book on the history of the
As 6 a.m. approached, a
choir of Magdalen men and teen boys emerged with their singing master
onto the sloping roof at the top of Magdalen tower. For more than
500 years this ceremony, or one very similar, had been re-enacted
right there on the banks of the River Cherwell. It was originally a
pagan tradition, culminating in the crowning of a Summer Queen to
honour the spirit of vegetation.
Suddenly a splash of light
touched the ancient stone of Magdalen tower. All eyes turned towards
Christ Church meadow where the first rays of sun pierced the dawn
shadows. There was an expectant hush. Who would have thought that
there were thousands of people beside the river at that moment?
Then, from high above us, soprano voices burst into song; a Latin
hymn followed by a lively rendition of “Summer is Icummen In.”
For a moment my mind
flashed back centuries to the millions of people who had welcomed
past summers in this same place.
As the singing faded,
enthusiastic applause greeted the deafening peals of church bells
reverberating across the city. With summer appropriately ushered in,
each group of Morris Men, like pied pipers, drew the crowds behind
them as they danced along cobbled streets to the music of fiddle,
pipe and drum. Other entertainers had gathered at their traditional
venue beside the Sheldonian Theatre, Fire-eaters spewed flames.
Jugglers and gypsy bands entertained the crowds and a Morris Man
encouraged children o try their hands at weaving the red, white and
blue ribbons as they danced around the maypole.
this the 20th
century? I felt as if I had stepped back in time.
Morris dancers celebrating May Day in Oxford
The Morris Men clambered
onto a raised platform opposite the theatre. Then to the music of a
fiddle, they launched into the intricate formations that make up
their dance. Heavy boots beat rhythmically on the ground, sticks
crashed together and handkerchiefs fluttered like butterflies as the
men bobbed and weaved from one step to the next.
As the sun climbed higher,
weary crowds drifted away. Two university undergraduates in naval
dress uniform sat befuddled on the sidewalk as I passed on my way
home. One made a half-hearted attempt to summon a passing taxi, the
other, smiling contentedly, slumped in a heap beside his empty beer
Would they, with others of
their year, return to Oxford to celebrate in the future, encouraged
by fond memories of that May Morning so long ago?
Photo copyright Anne Gordon
Posted by Anne Gordon on Thursday, 28th November, 2013