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News from the foreign office: Saddleworth Rushcart 2009

25 August 2009 773 views 7 Comments

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!

(there’s a Flickr gallery with more shots, if you’re interested)

Update 2009-08-25:

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.


  • rogerbux said:

    Nice one Jason, we’ll make it one day…….I also seem to recall some high quality drinking at the first Rushcart you went to………same again??

  • jasonbstanding (author) said:

    It would be fair to say that the local economy was given significant numbers of small boosts throughout the course of the entire weekend.

    I’d totally forgotten that I’d written a blog entry about the last time I trekked up there, which having now found, you can read here (http://jasonbstanding.com/2006/08/2006-08-30-rum-its-not-just-for-breakfast-any-more/) if you’re short of things to do.

  • Young Pat said:

    Fantastic report of the whole darn situation..
    I seem to remember being there.

    Adelaide he did you proud.. with his elan!!

  • Ed Worrall said:

    Hi Jason, glad you enjoyed the ‘Cart (although there seems to have been a lot of slacking judging by the photos…), hope you can make it next year.

    To the Adelaide lads – He did you proud, be great to see you over as a side. I can promise it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen!

    Rushcart Sec
    Saddleworth MM

    P.S. He’s a brave man to attend the Rushcart during the Ashes decider, although by his own admission, we’d struggle to find someone less interested in Cricket!

  • Matt of Kennet said:

    Brilliant report Jason
    Was good to see you again and for you to join us on the bottom table with the traditional English Curry

    See you again next year if not at our ale??

  • charles flynn said:

    Hi Jason

    I took some of the photos on Sunday, as an interested spectator…had no idea we had an Aussie visitor, or I may have mentioned cricket..never mind! My wife spent many years in your country, and was’nt aware Morris dancing was thriving down under. All the very best to you all, and if you come over again, maybe we can say hello!


  • jasonbstanding.com » Blog Archive » This whole “hankywaving” malarkey – what’s all that about? said:

    […] It really is top fun — not just for the reasons Mike outlined back in Adelaide (although 5 and 7 are less relevant over here): we also do some pretty cool stuff, like all the weekend trips away to bits of Britain I’d probably have never seen had I just remained a tourist.  We have an annual weekend in The Cotswolds, a bi-annual trip to Devizes (in Wiltshire), occasional trips up to Chester, and then there’s been various other one-offs, such as our Gloucestershire tour, Southwold (Suffolk), Exeter, Eastbourne, Dartington, Ripley, Saddleworth… […]

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