Morris dancing and genetic resources – an unlikely combination

I was never much good at taking exams. That is, until I studied for my Masters degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham in 1970-1971. So how come I improved?

It was exactly 50 years ago, Tuesday 1 June 1971, when I sat the first of four written exams over consecutive days. It was also the day after the Late Spring Bank Holiday, the 31st and the last Monday of May. I spent that day—all day, in fact—Morris dancing in Lichfield, a town in south Staffordshire famous for its three-spired medieval cathedral, the ‘city of philosophers’ according one of its famous sons, Samuel, Dr Johnson.

Let me backtrack a few years.

Soon after arriving in Southampton in October 1967 to begin my undergraduate studies at the university, I joined the English & Scottish Folk Dance Society in the Students’ Union, although I’d never danced before. Then, a year later, I co-founded (with Dr Joe Smartt, a genetics lecturer in the Department of Botany) the Red Stags Morris that is still dancing today although no longer associated with the university for many years now.

The Red Stags dancing outside the Arts Faculty in March 1970 at a university Open Day. I’m the second dancer from the left, facing Joe Smartt, with Dudley Savage from the Winchester Morris Men playing the fiddle.

As I described in that earlier post about the Red Stags, we were supported from the outset by the Winchester Morris Men, and during the summer term we would join them when they danced out around the villages and pubs of Hampshire. Such a beautiful county.

Each Late Spring Bank Holiday, the Winchester Morris Men would also organize a Day of Dance, beginning in late morning and lasting well into the evening, and probably visiting half a dozen villages in the process (and their hostelries). The Red Stags joined the 1969 Day of Dance around the New Forest and ending up in Winchester by early evening. By then, we’d developed some dancing skills in the Headington and Adderbury traditions and didn’t embarrass ourselves among much more accomplished dancers. Here is a group of photos taken on that particular Day of Dance, 26 May.

Move on a year. In May 1970, the Late Spring Bank Holiday (25 May) fell on the day before my Final exams were due to start. The weather was glorious, just the sort that was never conducive for exam revision. Joe Smartt encouraged me to take that last day off from revision and join the Morris tour. Peer pressure was too great. I declined, and that’s something I have regretted ever since. Those final few hours of revision didn’t help me one iota, and my exam performance over the next week was only satisfactory to say the least, not the glory I hoped for (but didn’t really expect).

Nevertheless, I was accepted on to the MSc course at Birmingham, and moved there in September 1970, full of anticipation for this new field of plant genetic resources, and looking forward to joining a new Morris side.

There were two choices in Birmingham: Jockey Men’s Morris Club or Green Man’s Morris and Sword Club [1]. I chose the latter. One of the people who’d encouraged me to join the folk dance society at Southampton, Dr Edward Johns, had moved to Birmingham and had joined Green Man a couple of years previously.

I danced with Green Man on a weekly basis for the next two years before I moved to Peru in January 1973. When I returned to the UK in 1981, I rejoined Green Man, and became Squire (club chairman) in 1982 for a year. Unfortunately I developed arthritis in my knees and my doctor discouraged me from from dancing. So, by about 1985 or ’86, my dancing days were over.

That’s me, fourth from the right.

One of Green Man’s traditions, something they did for at least 50 years, was leading the Lichfield Bower Procession (a community event dating back to the 12th century) each Late Spring Bank Holiday. This is a procession around the city, of a couple of miles at the very least. And Green Man would dance the Bower Processional, with arms outstretched and carrying leafy boughs (typically elm in the past) the whole way, but with frequent stops to take refreshment on board.

In 1971, I was again faced with the same dilemma: should I spend the last day before exams doing some last minute revision, or head off and forget my exams fears by enjoying a day of Morris dancing, and my first Lichfield Bower?

Actually, I’d more or less made the decision some months previously. Morris dancing it was. During the MSc course I had upped my game and really learnt how to study more effectively and, more importantly, how to organize myself in preparation for the written exams. Everything went to plan, and by the end of May I felt I’d done all that I could to prepare myself for the coming week of exams. I was ready and primed, so to speak.

So, without any last minute feelings of guilt, just after breakfast I joined my fellow club members traveling to Lichfield, and spent the next twelve or thirteen hours dancing, and consuming not an inconsiderable amount of beer in the process, probably at least twelve pints over the course of the day.

I don’t think I got to bed much before midnight, but then had one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever enjoyed. Not a care in the world, waking up the following morning fully refreshed and relaxed and ready to take on whatever the exam threw at me.

And the outcome? Well it’s plain to see.

During the 1980s, when I was teaching at the University of Birmingham, I gave my own students the same advice: Don’t spend the final day before exams trying to cram last minute information. Take the day off, do something completely different to take your mind of the coming exams. Relax, have a good time, and then have a good night’s sleep.

I know hindsight is a wonderful thing. I just wish I’d taken my own advice back in 1970.

[1] Sadly, in 2017 Green Man’s Morris and Sword Club decided that the side was no longer viable. With ageing members and not recruiting new blood, the club was no longer able to put up a side of six dancers and musician. Thus came to an end 60 or more years of dancers from a club that had provided two Squires of the Morris Ring, John Venables and Ray King. Click here to read a short account of how and why Green Man came to an end.

Dance as if no one is watching . . .

October 1967. I remember it well. I’d landed up in Southampton about to begin a three year BSc course in botany and geography. I’d gained a place in one of the halls of residence, South Stoneham House, and life was hunky-dory.

I think we arrived in Southampton on the Wednesday evening. On the following Saturday, the Students’ Union had organised its annual ‘Bun Fight’, when all the student societies put all their wares on display and try and persuade as many freshmen to join as possible. Like many others, I went along to see what was on offer.

1475206_origI loitered a little longer in front of the booth of the English & Scottish Folk Dance Society, and before I had chance to ‘escape’ some of the folks there had engaged me in conversation and persuaded me to come along to their next evening.

While I had long had an interest in folk music, I’d never done any folk dancing whatsoever, although I had a passing interest. Whenever there was something on the TV about folk dance I always watched. But that was it.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I did go along the next week to my first folk dance club session – and I was hooked.

It took some time to master much of the stepping for both English and Scottish country dances, but I found I was more or less ‘a natural’, with a good sense of rhythm. And for the next three years, I thoroughly enjoyed all the dancing I took part in. At the beginning of my second year in 1968 I helped found the Red Stags Morris Men, and that was my introduction to Morris dancing for more than a decade, and it really only lapsed while I was away in Latin America during the 1970s, and since 1991 when I moved to the Philippines.

I really like Scottish dancing. Mix with a great set of dancers, and dance to a band that can really make the floor bounce, and there’s nothing better.

During my Southampton days, we attended three Inter-Varsity Folk Dance Festivals, at the University of Hull (in February 1968), Strathclyde University (a year later), and the University of Reading in 1970. At Hull and Strathclyde I was a member of the Scottish dance demonstration team, the first occasion only four months or so after I first began dancing.

Scottish dancing005

I don’t remember the names of two of the girls here at the Inter-Varsity Folk Dance Festival at the University of Hull in 1968. Standing, L to R: Edward Johns, me, John Chubb. Sitting, L to R: Elizabeth Holgreaves, ??, ??.

The following year we were at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. Fortunately the Students’ Union subsidised our air fares to Glasgow from London Heathrow. We flew on a BEA Comet! We got through, but many of the university representatives from south of the Border were caught up in the bad weather when snow blocked many of the main routes from England to Scotland, and they eventually turned up almost 24 hours late. The evening ceilidh was wonderful.

By the 1970 festival at Reading, I had already help found the Morris side, and that year I participated only in Morris dancing. After Southampton, I moved to Birmingham to begin graduate studies, and joined the Green Man’s Morris & Sword Club, eventually becoming Squire in 1982.

By the end of the 1980s I’d given up dancing, having developed arthritis in my knees and hips. It was just too uncomfortable to carry on dancing even though my arthritis never became debilitating. I’d love to dance again, but given my current condition, it’s more than I can manage to make a two mile walk, never mind dance. Having both feet off the ground at the same time is something that my left leg and ankle would not tolerate.

Little Moreton Hall – an iconic Tudor manor house

The Moreton family began to build Little Moreton Hall in the last years of the reign of Henry VII, and it was completed with various additions in the 17th century. Little Moreton Hall is the epitome of a half-timbered Tudor manor house, its black and white timber-framed construction and intricate patterns typical of the architectural features of that period. It is also surrounded by a moat.

The main entrance to Little Moreton Hall, over the moat. This photo shows the south face of the hall.

The main entrance to Little Moreton Hall over the moat, on the south face.

Located in southeast Cheshire, near the small town of Congleton (where I was born), Little Moreton Hall remained in the same family for more than 400 years until it was given to the National Trust in the 1940s.

I have memories of visiting Little Moreton Hall more than 60 years ago. My family certainly went there in the late 1940s shown in the photo below on the left taken, I believe, in 1947. I was born in 1948, and Ed in 1946; I think he must have been 12-14 months when this was taken, along with my mum and dad, sister Margaret, and eldest brother Martin. The other photo was taken from more or less the same spot just a few days ago.

Much of the hall is open to the public, with the exception of a few rooms on the first floor. There is very little furniture in each of the rooms; you can take in the innate beauty of each of the rooms and their construction. The woodwork is exquisite.

Here is a plan of the ground-floor (drawn by George Ponderevo):

1. Great Hall. 2. Parlour – with painted wall decorations. 5. Withdrawing room. 6. Exhibition room. 7. Chapel. 10. Gatehouse. 11. Bridge. 13. Brewhouse (now toilets). 14/15. Restaurant. 17. Hall porch. 18. Courtyard.

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There are several rooms open on the first floor.

The first floor-plan (shaded areas not open). 1. Great Hall. 2. Prayer Room - now housing exhibits showing how the hall was constructed. 4. Guests' Hall. 5. Porch Room. 6. Garderobe and privy. 7. Guests' Parlour. 8. Brewhouse Chamber.

The first floor-plan (shaded areas not open). 1. Great Hall. 2. Prayer Room – now housing exhibits showing how the hall was constructed. 4. Guests’ Hall. 5. Porch Room. 6. Garderobe and privy. 7. Guests’ Parlour. 8. Brewhouse Chamber.

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The crowning glory of the hall is the Long Gallery on the top floor of the south wing. Apparently added at a later date from the original building, the weight of this floor has distorted the walls below, causing them to bulge outwards. Strengthening bars were added in the 19th century. But the unevenness of the walls and floor are easily seen in the slideshow below. The roof is covered on stone tiles, an additional weight that the overall structure could hardly sustain.

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The gardens are limited by the area of the island on which the hall was built. To the west is a small orchard, and on the north side a formal knot garden that is based on a 17th century design. The water quality of the moat must be quite high as we saw several large koi carp. But in Tudor times that could hardly have been the case, since the privies must have emptied directly into the moat.

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My first memory of Little Moreton Hall comes from about 1954. I’m not sure if we had made a special visit, or whether my father, as the Chief Photographer of The Congleton Chronicle, had gone there to cover an event. In any case it was my first encounter with Morris dancers. I still vividly remember the Manchester Morris Men dancing outside the hall in front of the bridge across the moat alongside the Manley Morris Men. Once upon a time we had a couple of photographs but I’m not sure if they exist any more. In any case, I did find these photos of them dancing in May 1954, as part of a Mid-Cheshire Tour, and another from May 1953 at Astbury. I’m grateful to the Manchester Morris Men for permission to use these in my blog.

Manley Morris Men

Manley Morris Men: I even remember the dancer on the left with the big grey beard – Leslie Howarth.

Dr Joe Smartt

Dr Joe SmarttJoe Smartt, an old and dear friend, passed away peacefully in his sleep on Friday 7 June, in Southampton, UK, just three months shy of his 82nd birthday. He had been in poor health for several years, and towards the end of 2012 he’d moved into a care home. I last visited Joe in July 2012, and although he was essentially bed-ridden by then, we sat and reminisced over old times while drinking many mugs of tea (a ‘Joe favorite’!).

Groundnuts and beans
A geneticist by training, Joe obtained his BSc from Durham University, took a diploma in tropical agriculture from Cambridge University, and spent time in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) working on groundnuts. He completed his PhD in the Department of Genetics at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in 1965, submitting a thesis Cross-compatibility relationships between the cultivated peanut Arachis hypogaea L. and other species of the genus Arachis.

In 1967 he was appointed to a Lectureship in the Department of Botany at the University of Southampton, and remained there until his retirement in 1996, having been appointed Reader in Biology in 1990, and awarded the DSc degree by the university in 1989 for his significant work on grain legumes – the area of scientific endeavour for which he will perhaps be best remembered. He authored two books on grain legumes, edited a major volume on groundnuts, and was invited to co-edit a second edition of the important Evolution of Crop Plants with the late Professor Norman Simmonds. In the late 60s he worked on cross compatibility relationships of Phaseolus beans, and also published a series of strategically important synthesis articles on grain legumes, which did much to re-energize interest in their development and improvement.

In the latter part of his career Joe turned his attention to the genetics and breeding of goldfish, co-editing one book and authoring another two which became essential texts for goldfish enthusiasts.

L to r: Russell Meredith, Mike Jackson, Steve Jordan, and Joe

Sticks, bells and hankies
I first met Joe in 1968, which might seem strange as I began my undergraduate studies at Southampton in 1967 in the Departments of Botany and Geography. Joe taught a second year class on genetics, so it wasn’t until the autumn term in October 1968 that I was faced with ‘Smartt genetics’. But by then I had made myself known to him, as I have described in another post on this blog. Joe and I were the co-founders of the first Morris side at the university in autumn 1968 – the Red Stags, and our common interest in traditional music (particularly bagpipe music – see this post) was the basis of a friendship that lasted more than 45 years. Many’s the time Joe and I sat down with a beer or a wee dram to enjoy many of the LPs from his extensive music library.

A friend indeed
But Joe was more than a friend – he was a mentor whose opinions and advice I sought on several occasions. In fact, it was a suggestion from him in February 1970 that I apply to the University of Birmingham for a new MSc course under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes that got me into genetic resources conservation and use in the first place, and the start of a successful career in international agricultural research lasting more than 40 years.

Physically, Joe was a big man – but a gentle person and personality. I’ve seen him slightly cross, but I never saw him angry. It seemed to me that he had the most equitable of temperaments. He married Pam in 1970, and they had two daughters, Helena and Fran (about the same ages as my two daughters), and both have been very successful academically. Joe often told me of his pride in what they had achieved. I know that was a source of great comfort to him in his latter years as his health declined.

While I feel sadness at his passing, I can also celebrate the many scientific contributions he made, and his true friendship over so many decades. He will be missed by many colleagues in legume and goldfish circles, but particularly by his family and friends. Friends like Joe come along very few times in one’s lifetime. It’s been my luck – and privilege – to be among his.

I wrote this obituary in 2013:

Jackson, MT (2013). Dr. Joseph Smartt (1931–2013). Genet Resour Crop Evol 60, 1921–1922 (doi:10.1007/s10722-013-0044-7

Click here to read the Order of Service for Joe’s funeral on 21 June 2013 in Southampton. Several homilies were delivered during the service by Joe’s brother and his daughters Helen and Fran. You can read them here.

When you’ve heard one bagpipe tune, you’ve heard them both . . . (Jack Finney) – updated 7 November 2018

Bagpipes are maybe an acquired taste.

For many Scots the skirl o’ the pipes is a profoundly cultural expression, but bagpipes are not – contrary to popular perception – a peculiarly Scottish ‘invention’. Indeed, many countries have their own indigenous varieties, and the Scottish version has been adopted widely around the world. Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota, where my elder daughter Hannah graduated in 2000 has its own pipe band, and many of its staff and student members have little or no ‘cultural’ attachment to the instrument. The band is very much in evidence during annual commencements and at other events in the state.

Pipes are a very emotive and emotional instruments. I am actually quite fond of the sound of bagpipes, and can confess to the odd raising of hairs on the back of my neck when hearing a pipe band, or even a lone piper playing a pibroch. Besides the Scottish pipes, I particularly love the softer sound of the bellows-blown Northumbrian small pipes, outstanding in the hands of a virtuoso piper like Kathryn Tickell.

And, of course, there are the Irish or uillean pipes, also bellows-blown. Maybe it’s in my Irish genes, but the sound of the Irish pipes in the hands of someone like Paddy Maloney of The Chieftains never ceases to inspire me.

November 2018 update:
Just yesterday I came across a couple of videos on YouTube that really caught my attention, and inspired me about the talent of so many young musicians. Here are just a couple of examples featuring young female pipers. And in both videos they play the same air, Táimse im’ Chodladh, but their styles are quite different.

Amy Campbell is a blind musician from Ireland who has really taken to the uillean pipes. In this video, recorded in 2016 (when she was sixteen) at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC she is joined by pipers Gay McKeon (on the left in the video) and Emmett Gill. She plays pipes without the drones that you can see played by the other two. McKeon teaches blind children how to play [and] noted what an amazing achievement it was for Amy.

Amy has a condition known as optic nerve hypoplasia, a genetic condition that carries with it a many other medical challenges. In this video she talks about her love of piping.

Having watched that video, YouTube then ‘offered’ me another featuring Catherine Ashcroft, playing in Northern Ireland in 2014.

There are two very interesting facts about Catherine. First, she’s self taught, and that must have been a great challenge to master such a notoriously difficult instrument. Second, she’s English, from Cumbria in the north of England. She has no Irish piping heritage to fall back on.

Performing with Belfast guitarist and singer Maurice Dickson as Mochara, Catherine has made a name for herself on the folk scene in the UK. I also read that she was invited to tour with Riverdance in China. Some pipes purist aficionados think her piping a little brash (my interpretation of their comments), but all acknowledge her skill and talent, and given a few more years experience will develop into an even finer piper. I’m impressed (and a little envious)!

Strakonice International Bagpipe Festival
I’ve mentioned bagpipes in a couple of previous posts about morris dancing, and my first trip abroad. Now let me recount that visit to Strakonice in Czechoslovakia in September 1969 to attend the Second International Bagpipe Festival (Mezinárodní Dudácký Festival). Czechoslovakia has a long tradition of bagpiping, and one of the foremost pipers, and founder of the Strakonice Festival, is Josef Režný

I think this is Josef Režný

Forty three years later the festival is still held every two years, with the latest taking place in August this year.

However the festival is not just about piping as such, but also about pipe music as an accompaniment to folk dance. I joined a group of pipers and dancers from Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England (along with two fellow dancers from Southampton University – Dr Joe Smartt and Russell Meredith) organized by renowned Northumbrian piper Forster Charlton. The group also comprised fiddler and piper Colin Ross [1] of High Level Ranters fame, and his wife Ray Fisher, a well-known and respected Scottish folk singer (formerly dueting with her brother Archie Fisher).

Joe, Russell and I landed in Newcastle one weekend in early September, were met at Newcastle Central by Forster, and taken to various abodes for the weekend. Meeting up that first evening, we agreed that we would put together sides to dance Morris and rapper. Now although neither of these traditions are performed to pipe music, it was one way of showing something of the dance traditions of England, besides having world-class pipers in the group.

We spent the weekend dancing around the working men’s club in colliery towns and villages near Newcastle, and I was introduced to the rigors of rapper sword dancing. The rapper dance steps are quite intricate – think of tap dancing or maybe even Riverdance, and you’ll get the idea – and I had no idea before that weekend of what was involved. I quickly learned the various moves, but the stepping alluded me for quite some time. Overhearing one old timer in one of the clubs criticizing my lack of stepping ability, one of the team – Les Williamson – quickly explained that I’d only been dancing rapper for a couple of hours. I think the old fella was quite impressed!

Traveling to Czechoslovakia
On the Monday we set off in an old Bedford minibus and a car for Harwich to take the overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland, and the 970 km drive from there to Strakonice. We were rather bleary-eyed in the Hook of Holland, but that didn’t stop some impromptu dancing on the quayside.

Ray Fisher and Joe Smartt dancing an impromptu jig on the quay at Hook of Holland

We stopped for a night in a hostel in Offenbach near Frankfurt, continuing on the next day via Nuremberg and into Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Those were pre-Schengen days when we were stopped at the German border and informed, in no uncertain terms, that we should pay a special road tax or turn around and go home. Crossing into Czechoslovakia (a Communist country, just one year after the Soviet invasion after the Prague spring of 1968) was not as difficult as I guess we all had anticipated.

At our overnight stop in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, with Colin Ross and Forster Charlton on fiddle, and Ray Fisher playing the guitar

Crossing into Czechoslovakia

Our accommodation was not in Strakonice itself, but in a small village about ten or more kilometers away. Not that this was a problem, but since our participation in the festival was sponsored by the local brewery, the drive back at night (with wild boar crossing the road on one occasion) was not without incident. We had our midday and evening meals in a local factory, manufacturing textiles if I remember correctly. The food left a lot to be desired.

The castle is in the foreground

The festival itself involved both staged performances in the castle, as well as impromptu performances around the town. There were pipers and dancers from Brittany (from Brest and Concarneau), from Romania and Bulgaria, and from Czechoslovakia itself. The Brest pipe band, Kevrenn Brest Sant Marc, played the highland pipes, but the pipes from Romania and Bulgaria looked like the skin of a sheep for the bag, and the mouthpiece, drone and chanter fastened into the neck and front legs.

Kevrenn de Brest Sant Marc

Dancers from Concarneau, Brittany

Romanian or Bulgarian pipers

There was great camaraderie among all the groups, and lively competition. The highlight was the grand parade through the town, shown in the 2012 video above. The music and dancing were wonderful, especially the haunting Celtic melodies of the Breton band and dancers. It was great to be part of such a vibrant festival – and something quite unlike anything else I’d ever experienced.

Our rapper team – I’m on the far side, facing

On one occasion, each group was asked to send a delegate to a civic reception hosted by the town authorities. I drew the short straw, since the brewery sponsoring our stay had invited our group over to the brewery to sample some special lager they had prepared in our honor. I was disappointed to miss that, and to put up with what I expected to be a rather formal and somber afternoon of speeches. Yes, there were speeches, but there were also many toasts of very strong plum brandy or slivovitz from the mayor and his colleagues to us, but then becoming a free-for-all as each group member returned the compliment  and we began to toast each other. Needless to say it didn’t take long to become extremely intoxicated!

You can view a complete album of photos here.

All too soon our stay in Strakonice was over, and we headed west to the Hook of Holland and the ferry home. I kept in touch with Les Williamson for a couple of years, since we met through the Inter-Varsity Folk Dance Festival. The Strakonice rapper team formed the nucleus of the Sallyport Rapper that is still going strong today (click here and here for stories that mention the Strakonice trip). The leader of the Brest pipe band, Gilles, sent me some tapes of their music, and a Christmas card in 1969.

Almost fifty years on, the memories are still vivid of that first trip abroad.

[1] Colin passed away in 2019 after a short illness. Here is a short obituary. A few years ago, after I published this blog post, I managed to share it with Colin and we exchanged emails. It was a few months after Ray died.


Sticks and hankies – a tale of Red Stags

I took up Morris dancing while a student at the University of Southampton. This is how it all started and how the Red Stags came into existence.

I came up to Southampton in October 1967 to read environmental botany and geography. I had a place in South Stoneham House (SSH) hall of residence in Wessex Lane (now closed down – riddled with asbestos and no longer safe for human habitation) for my first two years at Southampton. Botany and SSH have a lot to do with the founding of the Red Stags.

I’d always had an interest in folk music (especially Irish music) but had never taken part in any folk dancing whatsoever before arriving in Southampton. Well, during Freshers’ Week (the introductory week for freshman) in 1967, I attended an event known as the Bun Fight where all the Student Union societies tried to sign up as many new members as possible. Well, I happened to sort of dawdle in front of the stall of the English and Scottish Folk Dance Society (ESFDS), and before I knew it, I’d been signed up to join. And so the following Monday I went along to the Union and started to learn to dance English and Scottish dances – nothing about Morris at this time.

At the end of the first year, all botany students had to attend a field course in the summer vacation, held at Lisdoonvarna on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare – lots of Guinness and good music and dancing. I guess we must have done some work as well since the area of the Burren close to Lisdoonvarna is a limestone of outstanding natural beauty and botanical interest. While on that course, one of my fellow students, Gloria Davies mentioned that Dr. Joe Smartt, a geneticist, was involved in folk music, and apparently had danced with the Winchester Morris Men (WMM). Joe didn’t teach first year students, so I had not met him – in fact, I didn’t really know who he was.

At the beginning of the second year, in October 1968, the Botany Dept. held a welcome party for incoming freshman. After a few glasses of beer, maybe wine, I decided to introduce myself to Joe. I told him that I’d heard he was a Morris dancer. He told me about the WMM, and that he’d also danced with the Westminster Morris Men. On the basis of what he told me, I asked him that if I could find five others who were interested, would he teach the Morris to us. And, lo and behold, within two weeks, the Red Stags Morris Men was founded, and registered as a society in the Students’ Union.

In October 1968 I was Vice President of the SSH Junior Common Room, and managed to persuade a number of friends there to join the Red Stags – Neil Freeman (Law), Simon Newman (Maths), Chris Lovegrove (Music), Derek Gorham (English freshman), and Clive James (Accountancy). Joe had a collection of 78 rpm recording of William Kimber (Headington) playing Morris tunes, and we used to meet once a week in the seminar room on the first floor of the Botany Dept. (now the Shackleton Building where Geography is housed). Joe would bring a portable record player and the records; we cut short and long sticks for the stick dances, and settled on learning the Cotswold Morris traditions from the villages of Headington, Adderbury, and Bampton.

We were also joined by some friends not in SSH – Colin Anderson (Accountancy), Rob Williams (Electronic Engineering), and Steve Jordan (Maths). We were also joined from time-to-time by Russell Meredith (Maths), a year ahead of us in SSH, who was primarily with the WMM. Colin was a member of the ESFDS, and that’s where I had met him – I think he also danced with the WMM. Others joined the Red Stags after its foundation, but sadly, I can’t remember all the names.

It took a little time to decide on a name for the side, finally settling for Red Stags, as that was the university’s crest in those days. Colin’s girlfriend Veronica worked somewhere in the university’s admin, and she kindly knocked up the tabards we designed, in the university colors of gold on the front and black on the back, with the silhouette of a red stag’s head on both sides. Our choice of tabards and black hats was made to set us apart, to some extent, from the WMM. The Westminster Morris Men also wear black hats, and I guess it was Joe Smartt’s association with them that set us on that course. We had to search out a supply of straw hats in Southampton – not the easiest thing to do in mid-winter. We finally found a supply in Dunn & Co in the High Street – we caused some amusement asking for about 10 hats, different sizes. Then we had to spray them black.

Our practices continued through the autumn term of 1968, and we made our first public performance in February 1969. I was also a regular member of the folk club that met in the Students’ Union on Sunday evenings. I persuaded the club to let me organize a ceilidh at which the Red Stags would make their first performance. But we needed a musician! Joe did take up the pipe and tabor later on, but in early 1969 (and on many other occasions) we were supported by Dudley Savage, a fiddle player of considerable skill whose playing could really lift the dancers. He played also for the WMM and as lead in a local folk band. The star turn were the Red Stags – making their debut, processing on, and dancing maybe four or five Headington and Adderbury dances. Needless to say, we were very nervous, but the reception was great. And I think we went from strength to strength.

We joined up with the WMM during the summer term on their tours throughout Hampshire and especially in the New Forest. We also joined with them in West Sussex to meet up with the Martlet Sword and Morris Men from Chichester. I certainly had some great times out with the Red Stags and the WMM.

From the outset, the Red Stags were supported by the Winchester Morris Men, particularly Dr Lionel Bacon who had founded the side in 1953, had been Squire of the Morris Ring 1962-64. Here are a few photos of Lionel playing his fiddle and dancing.

Click here for a more detailed account of how the Red Stags were founded, that I wrote in 2005.

I think the Red Stags were in demand, and we did quite a few shows, at University Open Days, in the city and around. The local TV used a film of us dancing Above Bar street in Southampton for the closing credits of a weekly news program, and this was shown for well over a year.

Today the Red Stags is a border Morris side, with both men and women dancing together, and is a member of the Morris Federation. The Red Stags will celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2018.

In September 1969, Joe Smartt, Russell Meredith and myself (as Red Stags) joined a group of dancers and pipers from Newcastle, including Colin Ross – of The High Level Ranters fame – and his wife Ray Fisher (a well-known Scottish folk singer, who sadly died last year), to participate in a bagpipe festival in Strakonice, Czechoslovakia.

We danced our way across Holland, Germany and into Czechoslovakia. Our stay in Strakonice was sponsored by the local brewery! Highlights included a fabulous Breton pipe band from Brest and a dance group from Concarneau. We danced Morris and Rapper that the group had taught me very quickly in Newcastle before leaving*. A baptism of fire. Although I didn’t get the stepping entirely correct, it was more important to get the movements, patterns right. We went round workingmen’s clubs in the Newcastle area on the Saturday night – and those men know their rapper! Our stay in Strakonice was sponsored by the local brewery!

The Red Stags were represented at only one meeting of the Morris Ring, in Bristol 1970. We were unable to field a full side unfortunately, but had a good time nevertheless. Joe was not with us – being otherwise engaged, getting married in Southampton!

Well, 42 years later, what are we all up to? Joe Smartt retired from the University a few years ago, and living still in Southampton, although not in good health. Neil Freeman is semi-retired, a solicitor and senior partner in a practice in Aylesbury. He still dances with Albury Morris Men in Hertfordshire. Chris Lovegrove is a music teacher as far as I know in Bristol. Si Newman is still around in the Southampton area. I believe that Steve Jordan dances sometimes with the WMM, as does Derek Gorham occasionally. I just heard from Derek who found this post! I don’t know about the others. As for me, my Morris days are long past. I danced in Birmingham with the Green Man’s Morris & Sword Club in Birmingham from 1970 until I headed off to Peru in January 1973, and for a while in 1975 when I was back writing my PhD thesis.

I danced with them in the 1980s and became Squire 1982-1983. I gave up from the mid-1980s because I developed arthritis in my hips, and was advised that such energetic exercise was not good. Two members of Green Man I danced alongside became Squire of the Morris Ring (John Venables and Ray King), as did Geoff Jerram of the Winchester Morris Men.

This photo was taken at the annual feast where I ‘danced in’ as Squire. The group photo was taken in Lichfield in about 1982, when the side was presented with a recognition of the many years that it had led the Lichfield Bower Procession.

* Just last night (3 May 2012) I was looking for some information about Strakonice and came across a link about a rapper team that had been formed in 1969 to attend a bagpipe festival in Czechoslovakia. It seems that the Sallyport Sword Dancers continued from a nucleus of the group that went to Strakonice – and they are still active and successful!