Formed in 1990, the New Forest Meddlars perform dances from a variety of traditions, in both Border and Cotswold styles. In fact, it was this unfussy assortment of dances that inspired the name 'Meddlars'. For some, the terms 'Border' and 'Cotswold' when applied to morris dancing mean very little, so there follows a brief explanation.
The Border dances come from a number of villages located on the English side of the England-Wales border, in the counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire. They were originally danced in winter, notably at Christmas, by up to a dozen dancers with blackened faces who dressed in tattered jackets and wielded long ash sticks.
The music was supplied by as many musicians as could be had at the time - today, bands comprising melodeons, fiddles, concertinas, tambourines and drum are common. The dances are characterised by vigorous stepping and whooping.
The picture on the right shows Border morris dancers dancing by the river at the Upton-upon-Severn Festival in 2009. Note the mix of instruments played by the band here. Border dances are generally noisy, frantic and good fun. They are, however, quite different from the earlier dances that were developed and handed down through generations of dancers living in the villages of the South Midlands (the Cotswolds).
Cotswold dances are usually, but not always, for six dancers, arranged in two lines of three. Each dancer is dressed in white shirt and white trousers, although black breeches with long socks are common, together with black shoes.
On top of the shirt is worn a waistcoat or baldrics - coloured sashes crossed over each shoulder - and, often, ribbons and small bells. Bellpads are strapped below the knees and, for many dances, a large handkerchief is held in each hand. Another significant difference between Cotswold and Border dancing can be seen in the picture on the left, of the Adderbury Morris Men, where just one musician (Chris Leslie) is providing the music for the dance. Although most Cotswold sides have a number of musicians, large bands are uncommon in this tradition.
All this might suggest to you that Meddlars have a problem with dress if they are to dance both Border and Cotswold styles of dance. We overcome this with a simple compromise. The only thing that cannot be readily altered when changing dance styles is a blackened face, so we don't black up. The rest is easy - if you see Meddlars wearing tattered jackets, or 'raggies' as they are called, then we are dancing a Border dance. No raggie means that it is a Cotswold dance. Easy, isn't it?
So, here we are on the right, dressed for a Border dance. You can see from the way that Jenny (front left) is dressed that the raggie is simply put on over the waistcoat that forms part of our Cotswold kit. Then, it takes just a few seconds to change. The dance, performed here at Beaulieu Fete, is from the village of White Ladies Aston in Worcestershire and is called, well, 'White Ladies Aston'.
This picture also shows you clearly what New Forest Meddlars members look like when dancing out. Dancers and musicians wear the same kit - white shirt and trousers, black belt and shoes and purple velvet waistcoat. The Border raggie jacket follows the purple theme. Bell pads, ribbons and armbells, together with red and purple hankies, complete the dancers' outfit.
In summer, we often dance out with one or more other sides. These may be Border only sides, such Hobos Ladies Morris, or Cotswold sides, such as Sarum Morris. Sometimes we dance out with sides like the Quayside Cloggies, who dance in the North West Clog Dance tradition and, occasionally, those who perform the 'Rapper' Sword Dance tradition. The advantages of this arrangement are that each side has a period of rest between dances while others are dancing and the spectators have an opportunity to see a range of dances from different traditions.
In recent years, the number of members in the side has grown and at the end of 2009 there were twenty four of us. Of these, a few are musicians who also dance and a few are musicians who do not dance. Unlike many sides in the country, which are declining in numbers, the New Forest Meddlars looks to be quite healthy for the immediate future.
At the end of the summer, when regular dance outs come to an end (we still dance in the winter at a few planned events) we begin our practice season. Until this year we practised in the Scout Hut at Lyndhurst, where the side is based. Unfortunately, this building was demolished in the summer so that the construction of a replacement could be started. This forced us to look for another venue for practice and so we have now moved to the Scout Hut in Copythorne, near Cadnam.
We meet once a week to learn new dances and to polish up on the old favourites. This keeps us up to standard and also keeps us in touch with friends. After practice, we adjourn to the pub for a drink and a chat - Morris dancing is a great social activity.