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Icknield Way Morris Men

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Icknield Way Morris Men
By Sem Seabourne, read by Leonard Ash

As this is a longer piece about the Icknield Way Morris Men, the recording is split into three parts. The first is about its founding to the 1970s. The second is from the 1970s onwards. The third is about its 50th anniversary.

The first recording can be heard here: IWMM Founding to 1970s
The second recording can be heard here: IWMM 1970s onwards
The third recording can be heard here: IWMM 50th anniversary

More information on the Icknield Way Morris Men can be found here: IWMM

The full text is as follows:
Over Sixty Years of Icknield Way Morris Men. Hi, I’m Len, one of the Icknield Way Morris Men and I want to tell you a bit about the Icknield Way Morris Men, a morris dancing team which was started in 1959.

In the 1950s, Mary Shunn was a teacher at Icknield School in Wantage, that stood by the ancient Icknield Way as it passes through the town. Her interests were in folk music and dance, and she was a member of the Oxford branch of the English Folk Dance and Song Society through which she met many people associated with morris dancing around Oxfordshire and Berkshire. She had helped to maintain the Whitsun dancing in Headington during the War when menfolk were in short supply.

Miss Shunn, as the boys respectfully called her (or “Granny Shunn” out of her hearing), was a strict disciplinarian who taught English, Geography and History and was a Deputy Head at Icknield School in Wantage. She introduced country dancing and morris dancing into the school activities but being a traditionalist only taught morris dancing to the boys. Many men who live in Wantage still remember those classes. As well as Cotswold morris, Miss Shunn instructed on rapper and longsword, and there is evidence of groups of dancers associated with Icknield School and Miss Shunn’s endeavours predating the Icknield Way Morris Men. Many of the dances she taught had been learned at close quarters from her friends at Headington Quarry and Oxford.

One September evening in 1958 a group of ex-Icknield School lads were standing in the Market Place discussing their options on what to do, since the Youth Club was only open one night a week. As they had learnt some morris dancing at school it was suggested that they might approach Miss Shunn concerning the possibility of starting a club. She was keen to give it a go, and started Wednesday night sessions at Icknield School, instructing the dance with her piano accompaniment.

Those original men whose idea eventually created the Icknield Way Morris Men were soon joined by other ex-schoolboys who were younger than the “pioneers”. They named the men Icknield rather than Wantage Morris Men because of the school connection. The school emblem of a gold wyvern on a blue background (from the battle pennant of the Wessex kings), was taken for the kit, which included a blue tabard.

The dances taught were from Adderbury, Bampton, Bucknell, Bledington, Brackley and Headington. Mary had friends like from other Morris Men dance groups, such as Oxford City, Headington Quarry, Kennet (Reading) and Abingdon. These men were pivotal in developing the Icknield Club, instructing on chosen traditions and providing music for dancing out and other morris engagements. Jim Phillips who was the national Squire of the Morris Ring from 1958-60 also used to attend Icknield practices and gave detailed instruction on the Headington tradition.

Mary Shunn, ever the traditionalist, refused to accompany the men out of the classroom, and always sought male musicians. The main reason the side didn’t dance out much was the absence of a permanent musician. From about 1963, the team danced at events by invitation from the Abingdon and Oxford groups; and John White (Abingdon) was frequently the musician on these occasions. Graham Pearce, who was the first Squire of the Icknield Way Morris Men, held the position for over seven years. There were no formal elections; Graham was the automatic choice because he was the oldest.

The first tour out occurred in 1965 in the presence of Ring officials Leslie Nicholls & Ewart Russell. The lads must have impressed because in September that year they were invited by Dennis Manners to the 100th Meeting of the Morris Ring in Oxford where some 40 teams participated with 12 different tours being organised around the county. The Icknield Way Morris Men also joined in with the May Day revels that year. Tours with Kennet Morris Men were also popular, such as the visit to Goring Mill in 1966 which was photographed and famously turned into a national jig-saw entitled “The Morris Dancers” by Whitman Publishing.

The team entered a new era when they acquired their own musician in 1967 during National Folk Week when a Market Place performance grabbed the attention of Joe Marns a skilful musician. Joe offered his accordion playing skills and Mary gladly gave him her treasured music collection which Joe quickly learned. Joe was to become the most important person in the history of the Icknield Way Morris Men for the next 20 years. He attended many instruction sessions, notably Ducklington, Stanton Harcourt and Lichfield.

Although the Icknield Way Morris Men did not join the Ring until 1974 at the Stratford meeting, they attended a number of Ring meetings prior to this, mainly in Oxford, Yeovil and Headington. However, the Staff of Office was finally received by Tony Paddock, the 1975 Squire, from Morris Sunderland on 28th June 1975 at Shakespeare’s meeting. Later that year the team performed at events for Pete Townsend of the Who, and Princess Margaret.

New members joined in the 1970s who brought experience from other teams, notably Jim Birch from Sweyn’s Eye and Arthur Wright, a founder member of Tim Radford’s Adderbury Revival, who instilled a long lasting commitment to the Adderbury dances in the team. The early 1980s saw the arrival of Charles Whitlock, as Foreman and Squire. Charles started dancing when up at Oxford and had maintained the May Day Revels tradition, and many of his contacts, including Roy Judge, an important researcher and writer on morris history. Charles was also a member of Whitchurch Morris Men, and St. Albans Morris Men and brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to Icknield Way which was to form the core knowledge of the current team.

The mid-80s was a vigorous recruiting period with many new members coming from the scientific and engineering business community around south Oxfordshire, and Charles willingly knocked them into shape. The arrival of more musicians and members from a professional background greatly increased the team’s activities profile, benefiting from Charles’s network of contacts. Visits to the Whitchurch and St. Alban’s events became regular and The May Day Revels in Oxford remains a fixture to this day. Joe made all the new musicians learn to dance before they played for the dance, and that was excellent advice worth repeating. By this time there was none of the original team still active, although they willingly turned out for the anniversary occasions (and still do!).

During the late 80s the team increased the number of Stanton Harcourt dances originally started by Joe to include the entire repertoire described in Percy Manning’s manuscript. A Morris Off, a circular (Maid of the Mill) dance, and a complete corner dance (Jockey to the Fair) were added to produce an entire programme, and in the absence of a local team, we actively promoted the dances in the area.

At the start of the 90s there was great enthusiasm for Ring events and Ring meetings were regularly attended as well as the Musicians weekend and Jigs instructionals. We had gained more members and musicians, and there was an active boys team to act as a feeder team to the Icknield Way Morris Men. In 1992 they attended a young Ring meeting hosted by Shakespeare Morris Men in Stratford.

The amount of touring increased, particularly to Cornwall, and there were some performances at prestigious events such as the visit of the Princess of Wales, and the European Particle Accelerator Conference at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Who would have thought that morris dancing could be after dinner entertainment for 200 particle physicists? Well, it worked brilliantly but not without some apprehension. We also joined forces with local amdram groups to create a promenade performance of Flora Thompson’s “Larkrise to Candleford”.

This was followed in July 1996 by hosting the 267th meeting of the Ring in Wantage. We sent tours out to the four locations where the morris had some semblance of continuity, viz. Headington, Eynsham, Bampton and Abingdon, and were well supported by those local teams. Mary Shunn was proud to have lived to be a guest of honour at this occasion. She died just 6 months later, and at her request Joe played at her funeral, but died two years later. Following Joe’s departure Sem Seaborne became the main musician.

Our associations with the world of drama brought us an invitation to film a much repeated edition of Midsomer Murders, with John Nettles, Peter Jones, Tessa Peake-Jones and other celebrities, and later (2007) we performed in the BBC2 showing of Michael Hirst’s “The Tudors”.

Early in the new millennium, thanks to an excellent website, we attracted a number of younger dancers who have had a tremendous impact on our activities and the young morris world in general, by creating Morris 18-30 and gaining support from the Ring. There’s nothing like youth and energy for generating new ideas, and we met up with many new teams, learned new dances, and went to different events, including more festivals. There was also some evidence that the older members were getting off the ground a bit more!

Our 2005/6 season received the blessing of Lord Hattersley (Baron Hattersley of Sparkbrook, one time Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Secretary of State, Shadow Chancellor & Home Secretary), in his role as Daily Mail Journalist. The nationally published article included the immortal words “each man foot perfect singing in perfect harmony” It seemed unreal having milord sitting in the Abingdon Arms buying a round.

We cemented our long relationship with Kennet Morris Men with the Squire’s daughter marrying Alistair Hutchinson, the son of long standing Kennet man Chris Hutchinson, in Kennet’s 50th Anniversary year. Coincidentally, his younger daughter married Graham Hubbard the son of Ian Hubbard, past Squire of Leicester Morris Men in our 50th Anniversary year. Talk about morris Mafia! The current energy and enthusiasm in the team owes much to Graham who is now our current Foreman and has worked hard to expand the younger member influence on the team’s activities.

At our 50th Anniversary Ale there were over 100 guests; friends old and new came from Yately, Kennet, Oxford, Charlbury, Gloucestershire, Bampton, Porthleven, White Hart, Headington, Lassington Oak, Whitchurch, Ebor, Thames Valley, Letchworth, Leicester, and West Somerset. We also held a Weekend of Dance in Wantage for the numerous old boys and non-Ring sides with whom we enjoy good relations. In a strange co-incidence there were 50 Icknield Way Morris Men dancers on the day.

In the same year, the men danced at a number of locations along 50 miles of the Icknield Way, from Ivinghoe Beacon to Wantage. It would have been difficult to achieve without the help of Whitchurch Morris Men and Aldbury Morris Men. Our “Brothers-in-Law” from Kennet joined us en-route at Goring where we re-created that famous Jig-Saw scene from over 40 years ago.

As we journeyed through our sixth decade a taste for foreign adventures developed and we toured France, Switzerland and Germany with Kennett MM and European locals Ferret MM. We also visited Bajo Duero’s Festival in Spain and danced at the regional Folk Dance Festival in Evreux, Normandy. As well as the regular local events we danced at folk festivals held in Chippenham, Swanage and Wimborne. Sadly, during that decade we lost some long serving members, like Bob Hart a founder member who died in 2017 and Chas Whitlock our Foreman from the eighties. But, we’ve also gained new members like our current Squire Jonathan Marriot.

Another sad event in 2017 was the closure and demolition of Icknield School where it all began; the site is now a housing estate but one name will be everlasting – a road has been named after Mary Shunn our creator.

We celebrated sixty years of dancing with a tour of Cotswold towns, Burford, Bourton, Stowe, Woodstock and Witney with our friends of sixty years – Kennet Morris Men from Reading.

At a time when many morris teams are folding, the Icknield Way Morris Men still have an active list of 18 dancers including the next generation. Much of this is due to the enthusiasm of men like Graham whose son is now also a member. Other new members have brought new ideas and new directions and I hope that will continue for the next six decades at least!

If you’d like to know more about the Icknield Way Morris Men, check out our website: www.icknieldwaymorrismen.org.uk.

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