One of the great joys of the Sidmouth Folk Festival is a week of Morris dancing and legions of Morris dancers descending  on the town to populate the Esplanade, the Market Square, Blackmore Gardens, Connaught Gardens, to name but a few of the performance spaces.

The gentle tinkle of bells provides an evocative soundscape as they pour into the town dressed in traditional costume ablaze with colour. Most days during the Festival dance troupes can be encountered performing sets and routines, the dancers ranging in years from novice youngsters through to seasoned veterans.

Sidmouth Herald: Border Morris

There is much to be learned about Morris dancing at the Festival and early in the week Michael Heaney, author of The Ancient English Morris Dance, presented a talk at the Manor Pavilion Arts Centre charting the history and disentangling some of the mythology surrounding the artform.

In addition to the many dance displays around the town, there are the processions from Connaught Gardens down the Esplanade to Blackmore Gardens. Teams are invited to participate and adapt their dance styles with choreography to move them along, pausing every so often to perform a short piece of dance. There is something elemental to the sight of whirling colour processing down the sea front.

I caught up with Northgate Rapper in the Market Square and spoke to the founding member Martin Hanley, who said: “We have been around for 35 years, and the origins of the tradition lie in the mining villages of Northumberland and Durham.” 

The Rapper style of Morris derives from sword dance tradition and is designed to be performed in intimate spaces such as rooms in pubs. The intricate dances are performed at great speed with the “rappers”, which are the flexible steel swords with a handle at each end, held above the heads, under and around which the five dancers weave. The Northgate Rapper is noted for the exciting somersaults they include in their dances.

Sidmouth Herald: The torchlight procession

On the final night of the Festival, the companies of Morris dancers all finally come together for the very popular Torchlight Procession after dark along the Esplanade.  The dancers bear flaming torches which, at the end of the procession, are doused in the sea as the end of the week-long Festival is marked with a firework display. Saturday morning, they are all gone, melted into air, until next summer.

Sidmouth Herald: Fireworks on Friday night