Twice recently, I found myself engaged in a conversation about the plaque in the local village pub which erroneously records that Oliver Cromwell once sat there, while waiting to liberate the City of Oxford. “In a place like Oxford,” I said, “pretty much any historical event of any significance would have been written down and recorded for posterity.”
It is a classic English pub, in a rural setting on the edge of Oxford, with characterful architecture and a garden which rolls down to the bucolic River Cherwell, surrounded by countryside unspoiled by development - thanks to its owners, a local preservation trust. Listed in many tourist guide books, it is what is termed in the hospitality industry a ‘destination pub’, not least because of its Inspector Morse connection, the last episode of which was filmed there almost twenty years ago. This is also recorded with a plaque, elsewhere in the pub, along with a number of black and white location photographs.
On one occasion recently, I had gone there to write, but instead was distracted by chatting with some visiting Australian tourists, who were delighted that there was a performance about to take place by Abingdon Traditional Morris and other local ‘sides’, as a group of dancers are termed. As I tweeted to my friend, “you can’t beat a bit of seventeenth century dancing on a Monday night.” And for the Australian visitors, it was like all their expectations of England had been made manifest before their very eyes; their delight was palpable.
Walking through the centre of Abingdon this week, I rounded the corner on Bridge Street, where the now traditional display of Morris memorabilia caught my eye, resplendent as it was with a Lego model of local Morris dancers taking part in the Mayor of Ock Street ceremony – a so-called mock mayor tradition dating back to the eighteenth century.
There can be few greater honours in life than to be depicted in this manner in a shop window in the centre of your own home town, especially one such as Abingdon, which is one of the claimants to the title of Britain’s oldest town. One fellow, a genial and talented musician, is depicted carrying a broom, said to be used to sweep away evil spirits.
Among the dances often performed by Abingdon Morris is Going to Nuneham – highly localised Oxfordshire slang, for having an affair, accompanied by rousing song. Such manifestations of local folklore date from before the age of the internet and are lost in the mists of time.
In the modern social media age, Morris dancing appears incongruous and a harmless affectation of old men who like to wear white jeans and jump around with bells attached to their ankles.
But Abingdon Traditional Morris offers more than just harking back to a bygone era with quaint, displays of quintessentially English entertainment. They are colourful and fun and they tell us in their music and dance something about who we are and where we have come from.