BIG READ: Meet the Morris Men keeping the tradition alive

There are some English traditions that have really struggled to keep pace with the times.

Sunday, 22nd April 2018, 7:00 am
Victory Morrismen in Portsmouth Guildhall. They are keeping the ancient traditional alive.

Historic hobbies and pasttimes have faded away as the digital world tightens its vice-like grip.

But despite all of this, there is one tradition that soldiers on, capturing the interest of people across the world.

Morris dancing has been around since the 15th century, and while the world around it has changed considerably since then, it has remained a steadfast part of English culture.

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Morris dancers, Victory Morris.

Here in Portsmouth, it has become entrenched into a number of events throughout the year, with Morris dancers often seen along the Hot Walls in Old Portsmouth, or dancing up a storm in Guildhall Square.

In many cases, the dancers you see in the city are part of the Victory Morrismen group, which is based in Southsea.

The group's calendar of events will usually begin with May Day celebrations, running through to November.

Mark Taylor from Victory Morrismen says that while he is relatively new to Morris dancing, the group has welcomed him with open arms.

Wickham Morris dancers at the Roebuck Wickham

He says: 'I got involved in Morris dancing through my interest in mumming, which is a traditional type of folk play.

'I am relatively new to Morris dancing myself; there are a lot of really experienced dancers here, with some people having done it for almost 40 years; in fact, if you're under 40, you're considered to be quite a young Morris dancer.

'There's quite a lot of events on our calendar this year, with some of these being events that we do every single year.

'We always go along to the St Mary's Church fair, as well as the charity beer festival organised by the Rose in June pub, in Milton.

The Victory Morris men of Portsmouth.

'But it is really a case of going wherever we can; we do lots events all over the region, and sometimes further afield.'

As with all Morris dancing groups, the Victory Morrismen has a few unique quirks that set it apart from others.

In this case, an all-male lineup of dancers and a costume that pays tribute to the historical spirit of Portsmouth.

Mark explains: 'Our Morris dancing group is all-male, but there are groups throughout the country that are all-female or a mix of the two.

Morris dancers, Victory Morris.

'But something that we are very proud of is that we have a lot of incredibly talented female musicians, and without them we really wouldn't be able to put on the sort of spectacle that we do.

'Not only do different Morris dancing groups have different compositions, they also have different costumes.

'I think our costume is a really good representation of Portsmouth for when we go on our tours, because it has a really strong naval theme.

'It plays on naval tradition, especially with the hats; it's something that makes different Morris dancing groups stand out from one another, so no two groups are alike. There's something rather special about that.'

With May Day typically kicking off the Morris dancing calendar, the Victory Morrismen go on a mystery tour each year, organised by one of the group's members.

'We have a chap called John Ritchie who takes us to different places for May Day every year' says Mark.

Wickham Morris dancers at the Roebuck Wickham

'He never tells us where we're going so it's always a nice surprise, and we've been a fair distance before.

'We went to Stonehenge one year and have also been to Malta, Austria and France in the past.

'Everywhere we go, we get a really warm welcome.

'People like to see other people dancing, no matter where you are; add the music in and it's a great way for people to just let their hair down and enjoy themselves.

'Putting a smile on other people's faces is what makes it so worthwhile.'

Every year, Victory Morrismen join by other folk dancers from the UK and beyond in Portsmouth for a day of dance throughout the city. This year it's July 14. 

Mark says: 'It is great to have so many different dancers come to Portsmouth for the day, and they are given the same welcome here as we are given when we travel.

'People in Portsmouth really seem to enjoy the day and it is certainly one of the highlights of our year.

'We invite a lot of dance groups to join us with a mix of traditional folk styles from around the world. Their traditions tend to blend very well with ours too.'

Further afield, the Wickham Morris dancers have more than 20 diary dates from May to August, with most of these taking place in the surrounding area.

The group has been in existence since 1980, and having evolved into a mixed troop, has performed in the London Millennium Parade in front of the Queen, in the grand Easter parade at Maastricht and at the Millennium Dome.

Ian Nichols says: 'I have been part of Wickham Morris for more than 20 years now.

'It is something I got into because I liked the idea of doing something that is not only good fun, but also quintessentially English too.

'We have a number of events lined up from May until the end of August, which will take us right around the area.

'It works out at a dance per week, so we are all really looking forward to it.

'One of the things we really look forward to doing is the festivals. We have things like the Swanage Folk Festival lined up for this year, which is always fun.

'But like Victory Morris, it all kicks off on May Day for us; we'll be up at sun rise for a special dance, and it all just carries on from there.'

The Victory Morris men of Portsmouth.