News from the foreign office: Saddleworth Rushcart 2009
There are few experiences odder for an Aussie than to be standing in Uppermill High Street – in the Pennine valley of Saddleworth, between Manchester and Leeds – on a Saturday morning, holding a wooden stang and gearing up for the Saddleworth Rushcart Festival. And yet once again, there I was: providing the token representation of the Adelaide Morris Men.
The Saddleworth Rushcart is an annual event put on by the world (in)famous Saddleworth Morris Men, whereby a cart is loaded up with about 2 tonnes of freshly-cut rushes (see, rush-cart – it’s all in the title), and then the gathered morris men drag it around the villages of the parish, before bringing it to rest on Sunday at the church. The origins of the tradition stem back to when the church had a clay floor: rushes would be collected to place down as a form of insulative matting to keep the heat in during the cold winter months. The practice died out in the early 20th century, however the Saddleworth Morris Men revived it in 1975, and it has been going strong ever since. And strong is exactly how it needs to go, because the region isn’t exactly flat.
(I understand that on this weekend there was also some sort of cricket-related fixture taking place… it was hard to get a handle on the situation, because virtually nobody really mentioned it except in passing. And they all certainly didn’t incessantly update me on the scoring situation every 10 minutes for the entire weekend.)
We dragged the cart along its 8 mile route through the towns of Greenfield, Delph, Dobcross, and Uppermill on the Saturday, stopping at each for a few dances and perhaps a restorative refreshment if the opportunity arose. The cart jockey – the lucky Saddleworth morris man who has been selected to sit astride the top of the rush stack – waved nervously from the wiggling 5 metre high pile, distributed sweets, and drank from his special brass beer kettle on a rope.
The front of the cart is always decorated by the jockey with a banner which he makes in private: this year celebrating the 50 years since the Cuban revolution. The back of the cart featured a quote from the Sunday Times article about morris dancing written by columnist AA Gill earlier this year, in which Saddleworth got quite a prominent mention – they were particularly impressed with “muscular, purposeful … physical and masculine, and beautifully aggressive”.
Sunday’s graft was shorter in terms of distance, but involved the actual uphill grunt component of the trail – to St Chad’s church. Thankfully the weather remained clement, so it only meant dragging the 2 tonnes of reeds up the hill rather than the reeds plus the extra tonne of water they might have soaked up.
Such an assortment of morris men you seldom see – this year’s teams included Moulton, Kennet, Monkseaton, Abingdon, Thaxted, Leicester, Wrigley Head, Earlsdon, Belchamp, Cambridge, and the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup, as well as various stragglers from Green Oak, Ripley, Chester, Anker, and probably a whole lot more whose getup I didn’t recognise.
Following the arrival of the rushcart was a church service (where some rushes are symbolically spread on the altar), and then dancing followed in front of The Church Inn and up the hill at The Cross Keys. Adelaide performed with distinction and my now characteristic cry of “how does this one go again?”, bumbling through Adderbury “Black Joke” (one I’ve never practiced), but nailing Fieldtown “The Valentine” with my usual level of elan and grace.
The afternoon concluded with the traditional wrestling match in the open field between the two pubs, a gurning contest (where participants thrust their head through a horse’s collar and make the ugliest face they can muster), and a contest for the worst singer. Alas, I had to forego these cultural pearls, instead leaving for London by train in order to make it home before midnight – also keen to avoid the wrestling, as I didn’t think it wise to allow England to defeat Australia in sporting contests twice in the same weekend. And so it was that I crested the hill road returning to Uppermill and turned back to see the rapper sword dancers of Monkseaton entertaining the crowd – their Betty shouting into a megaphone in his broad Geordie patter – and bade farewell to a truly excellent event. As always, a huge thanks to the men of Saddleworth for their hospitality and good humour!
Here’s a video I took of the Rushcart procession processing past. You can just make out some of them cajoling me for taking video footage rather than pulling the cart. You can probably make out one or two wittering on about cricket, as well.