A.S.H. Smyth

On the road with a long-distance morris dancer

When A.S.H. Smyth was asked to accompany a friend on a 150-mile morris dance from London to Norwich, he could hardly say no. But morris dancing is a perilous pursuit

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‘I’m morris dancing to Norwich and I need someone to captain my road-crew. You’re the only man for the job. Yours, Tim.’ Tim FitzHigham, Bt. BA Hons. Dunelm. FRGS (all Ret.) is a man so wildly different even Ranulph Fiennes thinks he’s a little crazy. And Sir Ranulph is by no means alone. When Tim rowed the Channel in an original Thos. Crapper bath (one example among many), Marcus Brigstocke felt duty-bound to ask him if he was aware that ‘most of us just stay at home and write our jokes from there’.

Naturally, I took the job (who the hell else was going to?) and thus found myself playing Jeeves to Tim FitzHigham’s Wooster as he attempted his latest mad challenge: a re-enactment of William Kemp’s stunt of 1600, in which, after falling out with Shakespeare over the dramatic value of a ‘humorous’ dog-on-wheels (in Hamlet, of course), Kemp amply demonstrated who was the sharper wit by morris dancing home to Norfolk.

His subsequent account, Kemps Nine Daies VVonder, is an entertaining piece of self-promotion, but would hardly pass for an expeditionary report at the RGS. Foremost among many questionable elements is the fact that Kemp allowed himself plenty of days off for drinking, wenching, and/or putting his feet up. All in, his nine daies took about five weeks.

Tim, viewing this as the soft option, decided to cover the same 150 miles in nine days flat. Thus:

SATURDAY (beeing the first dayes iourney, etc). The Globe Theatre, 9 a.m. Tim, sporting a fashion best described as Late-Mediaeval Pimp, stands for photos with Japanese tourists before skipping off over the Millennium Bridge to a melodeon accompaniment from Dave Dunham, on loan from Woodside Morris Men. Dave’s other task is to count the shouts/gestures of ‘Wanker!’ as we pass through east London. (The tally only gets out of hand — as it were — when, in the badlands outside Stratford, Dave tells local revellers that he is their strippergram.)

When challenged, I say that this capering, bearded fool is raising money for Comic Relief and for DebRA, a British skin-disorder charity. Or I pretend I don’t know him: it depends who’s asking.

SUNDAY. Romford to Margaretting. While I take the day off to fulfil choral duties, Tim is harried by officers of the law who are convinced he is up to something but who cannot locate the relevant subsections of the Highway Code which prohibit a) being stupidly dressed or b) dancing in an archaic manner.

MONDAY. Margaretting to Braintree. Following an appearance on BBC Radio Essex, Tim is overwhelmed by generous donations. Heartening, certainly; but it causes logistical difficulties with(in) the pantaloons. Also, though Tim has perfected his own ‘wild morris’ — basically, aggressive skipping with hankies — news of this evolutionary step hasn’t got round yet, as evidenced by occasional cries of ‘’Ave you lost the others then, mate?!’

Tim is already a full day ahead of Kemp. The morris is strong in him.

TUESDAY. Braintree to Sudbury. A mean road with big lorries and no footpaths. Tim spends half the morning mouthing ‘You wouldn’t hit a man in yellow trouse...?’ and the other half pulling himself out of the hedge. He tears a morris hanky and we fear for bad karma. Doubling back in the support vehicle, I am increasingly convinced that I will be the one who kills him (and with his own van, too). Approaching built-up areas, he utters delirious cries of ‘Pavement!’

WEDNESDAY. Sudbury to Poslingford. Kemp veered off course here, to Clare, to make whoopee with a wealthy widow. We follow his template assiduously as ever, but cannot rustle up a widow, wealthy or otherwise, nor persuade the local butcher to dance a myle or two. Tim has better luck resolving the issue of his brutally chafing braces; but his ankles, meanwhile, have gone green.

An evening morris session in Lavenham, with the Little Egypt and Bury Fair sides. Despite his ailing feet, Tim gamely joins in ‘The Vandals of Hammerswick’ (or possibly ‘Hammersmith’). I narrowly escape, citing journalistic objectivity.

THURSDAY. Poslingford to Ingham. I leave him muttering wrathfully about ‘a seam of weakness’, and promptly get lost in the sun-kissed cornfields above Hawkedon (somehow Tim’s route incorporates all five hills in Anglia). Humming the Gladiator soundtrack, I attempt some artsy filming until I fall off the bumper.

Novenas are being said for Tim’s beleaguered feet (his left is much the healthier-looking), but at Rede I catch him performing ‘emergency surgery’ in a bus shelter, and talking to a blister the size of a ping pong ball. His whole body is suffering now, and I am terrified lest I be put in charge of the Vaseline. At dinner, his better half — who grew up around here — suggests a variety of treatments, all equine.

FRIDAY. Ingham to Wretham. On air with the local media, Tim repeatedly confuses BBC Radio Norfolk with ‘Radio Norwich’, Alan Partridge’s fictional outfit. They don’t like it. Back on the road, he is convinced that dark forces have been moving Norwich by night. He laughs as he skips — and not in a good way.

Tim’s highway rights are once again called into question. I pull over to see if I can help, and before anyone knows what’s going on, Tim’s affable suggestion that the constable look him up ‘on the computer’ has developed into a fully-fledged CRB check. At which point I discover that the Citroën van I’m driving recently had its plates nicked and used in a series of bank raids.

SATURDAY. Wretham to Hingham. Tim’s little cadential flourishes have regained something of their former zest. Caught in a cartoon downpour, our deranged hero nonchalantly dons a poncho (and swimming goggles) and quickens his pace.

Come the evening, he is booked to do his Flanders & Swann show at a wedding — in Bedfordshire. So ravaged is his lower body that a guest congratulates him on a brilliant physical impersonation of Michael Flanders.

SUNDAY. Hingham to Norwich. ‘Once more unto my breeches, dear friend!’ Tim is on the road at 7:10. ‘Always expect something to go wrong on the last day,’ he yells stalwartly, as he lurches away round the bend.

Sure enough, four miles outside Norwich, the Citroën breaks down. The flesh is strong but the French engineering is weak. After nine days on the road the driver, cameraman, research assistant and physio may be about to miss the triumphal entrance into Norwich.

The RAC’s finest get me into town just ahead of Tim’s welcoming party (comprising two Bury Fair ladies and the Squire of Kemp’s Men, playing ‘Kemp’s Jig’). I am just settling in to a sorely needed (free) beer at The Wig & Pen when the Lord Mayor’s official bodyguards, the Whifflers, arrive, clearing the way with their wooden swords and promptly whiffling Tim across the road to the Bishop’s Garden to be met by His Worship (who adroitly requisitions Tim’s fancy doublet to be displayed in Norwich Museum, beside — or, perhaps, above — the pantaloons of one William Kemp).

In honour of Tim’s successful compression of five weeks’ morrising into one, I promptly attempt the same trick with the rest of Kemp’s revels, whereupon there ensues much boozing, cigars aplenty, and a full and frank exchange of views with a member of the Catholic clergy (for which transgression I am duly smote with a rotten hangover the following morning).

I fall asleep in the doorway of a priest-hole, and awake, somehow, in an army camp bed. The first-floor view of the Waveney is admittedly delightful; but nothing — not even in the last nine days — could have prepared me for the taxidermised cat.

In The Bath is published by Preface. Donations to DebRA and Comic Relief can be made at www.fitzhigham.com.

Written byA.S.H. Smyth

A.S.H Smyth is a journalist and radio presenter in the Falkland Islands. He was once selected to play cricket for the national side but couldn’t make it.

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