Cap And Bells

The first “true Penallter” I met asked why I had to come to live in “our village.” (a true Penallter was – perhaps still is – one whose family roots go back to the enclosures in the early 19th century and beyond.) My prosaic reasons were cut short. “I just wondered,” he said, “if you knew the old jingle – Penallt air makes young men dance for joy and old men live forever.” I didn’t know it, but I was glad to hear it.

Some years later, the newly-formed local Morris dancers appeared on the village green on May Day. I was admiring their agility and their courage in showing us what they could and could not do, when a neighbour joined me and said, half to himself, “I can’t see much joy on their faces and if they carry on that frantic for too long, they certainly won’t live for ever!” Clearly, he knew the jingle.

Morris dancing was reintroduced into our district in our time by the Vicar. In 1989 Rev. Keith Denerley formed his team (or “side” we are told it is properly known) with members from Penallt and Trellech and launched a comparatively short career with a display on Penallt village green opposite the Bush Inn the next May Day. Keith played the accordion and other instrumentalists helped, depending on the dance. The drummer was perhaps the hardest worked of all. The dancers’ costumes included the traditional white shirts, flat straw hats or “boaters,” sashes and bells. Their appearance was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd, cheering mightily when the show closed with a single file dancing down into the bar of the Bush. They soon reappeared to pose for photographs and to demonstrate what a thirsty business is Morris dancing. Thereafter, the Morris dancers appeared frequently in the district at village celebrations, usually to raise money for charities, going so far in 1991 as undertaking a “marathon” dance from Tintern to Trellech, most of it in the rain.

It was sad when after a few years, one by one, members moved away – they last appeared in July 1996. They were always popular, especially with children who have more sense than to scoff at the capturing of echoes of a distant past (which goes back at least to the 15th century), especially when the sun is shining and cameras are at the ready. Morris men are scarce these days but they can sometimes be tempted to visit Penallt from outside the parish – but it’s not quite the same as having your friends under the flowered boaters.

We wish that they had survived like those active dancers recalled by Charles Lamb as “a set of morrice-men going about in the reign of James II, being ten dancers, a Maid Marion and a tabor and pipe, who had ages taken together totalling twelve hundred years.” Lamb tells us that a credulous friend observed that “it was not so much that so many lived so long but that they still had the vigour and desire to travel and to dance.”

[from: Penallt Revisited]