A new season begins bringing with it the age-old winter festivals: a mélange of Christian and pre-Christian symbolism, celebrating light at a time when days are short, plenty after harvest and good company.
At Winter Solstice last year we were invited to an old and lonely farmhouse deep in east Suffolk. In the farm kitchen, little changed in centuries, were a group of people drinking and exchanging stories. At a given time those of us who had no part in what was to come, were led out into the night by an elderly but spritely little lady. Leaving signs of habitation behind, she sure-footedly led us through the dark along hedges, round woodland, through pastures and over stiles. I was intrigued, but had no idea of where we were going or, for that matter, where we had come from.
At length we crossed a narrow bridge leading over a river and through a copse to the garden of an old inn. A menacing group of tall, black-robed, faceless and silent figures loomed out of the dark, standing sentinel, their heads lost in greenery.
Lanterns marked a processional way across the garden and a crowd of people quietly waited for – what? Eventually a tiny flickering light, a will-o’-the-wisp, appeared far away across the fields. Slowly approaching it became a dozen flaming torches borne aloft by stern, black-faced, silent men in the garb of C19 farm workers. Crossing the bridge, the only sound the thud of their hob-nailed boots, they filed between the lanterns to the courtyard and formed into sets for Molly dancing, the heavy rhythmic East Anglian form of Morris. As the music began, some of the men stood guard, unsmilingly gazing out at the crowd as if protecting a mysterious and ancient rite. Indeed I did have the feeling that here was something very old, a custom which had survived into the C21 in an isolated pocket of rural England. It sent shivers up my spine.
This was my introduction to Old Glory Molly Dancers and Musicians at the The Locks Inn at Geldeston. Old Glory dance only during the winter, celebrating the winter festivals. Their performances are characterised by a strong sense of theatre and if you want to see them wrap up well and get there early as there is often a torchlight procession to the venue.