Thousands enjoy Swanage Folk Festival despite sweltering heat

Huge crowds thronged the seafront at Swanage in Dorset to watch the UK’s largest collection of Morris and folk dance sides on the hottest day of 2023 so far.

More than 60 different groups from as far away as Kent and Lancashire danced along the seafront, in pub car parks and in open spaces throughout the town, reflecting every style of Morris and folk.

The Magog Ladies danced the length of Shore Road with flower hoops

The Magog Ladies danced the length of Shore Road with flower hoops

Purbeck Ukulele got a home town welcome from the audience in the marquee on Sandpit Field

Three days of music, dance and comedy

The changing face of Britain’s folk tradition, from bells and sticks to face paint and gothic folk was not only on show, but also drawing loud applause and cheers from spectators, with several groups reporting interest in new blood joining their ranks.

Swanage Folk Festival weekend from Friday 8th to Sunday 10th September 2023 was pronounced a great success after three days of music, dance, children’s entertainment and comedy, with free and ticketed concerts drawing large crowds.

Dancing in Gothic folk costume is very warm at the best of times for Oxford side Armaleggan

But after an hour long parade, cooling down in the sea is the only option

Bands took a dip in the sea after parade

Despite the sweltering conditions, the bands danced for an hour down Shore Road, treating themselves to ice cream or a dip in the sea afterwards.

A large marquee on Sandpit Field was sold out for big names in folk music, including Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys, Kathryn Tickell and The Darkening, Magpie Lane, Merry Hell, duo Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, and Keith Slater.

Free concerts for bands including the Purbeck Ukulele Band, Krelys, Buffalo Gals, the Carrivick Sisters, the Salts, and duo Janice Burns and Jon Doran were also so well supported that it was difficult to find a free seat at times.

As an alternative to all things folk, an inaugural comedy club event held at the Conservative Club and hosted by Den Miller was very well received and seems likely to be back again in 2024.

Anonymous Morris from Poole took over the Red Lion car park in the High Street…

… closely followed by the ladies of Fishbourne Mill Morris

A celebration of all things folk

Jon Baker, committee chair of Swanage Folk Festival, said:

“It was an amazing weekend to celebrate all kinds of folk music and dance, with enthusiastic teenagers as much in evidence as the older, more traditional dance sides.

“The music also varied from modern folk rock through to foot stomping jigs and traditional soul stirring ballads, and we had a wonderful response to all of it.

“We sold more tickets than we have ever done before, we had sell out concerts Friday, Saturday and Sunday night and even more impressively, we had a jam packed marque for the free concerts, even on Sunday afternoon which is traditionally a quieter spot for newer bands.

“We have about 65 Morris dancing sides over the weekend, the biggest collection of dance bands at any festival in the country – the next largest is probably 35 to 40 bands, so you can see how well Swanage does.

“All the dancers absolutely love coming here – they love the town, the greeting that they are given by locals and the fact that they can do the parade and afterwards go and dance in the sea!”

Violin maker Glyn Jones enjoyed the sunshine while showing off his folk fiddles

All kinds of decorations for the garden were on sale at the festival

Festival support for local charities

More than 60 stalls selling everything from folklore inspired garden ornaments to natty waistcoats – not to mention violins and banjos for wannabe folk musicians – were set up in Sandpit Field and traders reported their busiest festival to date.

Takings for the weekend are still being counted, but anything that is left over and above covering the cost of staging the festival is given to local charities.

Beneficiaries for 2023 are yet to be decided, but in 2022 the festival committee donated £500 to Dorset Air Ambulance and also gave support to Lewis Manning Hospice Care and Swanage Food Bank among other good causes.

Loose Women Folk from Kent take a break from the sun in Prince Albert Gardens

The Morena folk band from a London based Slovakian community delighted the crowds

And the band played on – the parade lasted for almost an hour in the blazing heat

Worried there might be a touch of heat stroke

Jon Baker added:

“Three weeks before the festival I was running around asking what our contingency plans were for torrential rain, three days before the festival I was more concerned about our contingency plans for a heatwave.

“Some of the dancers wear very heavy costumes and the dancing can be strenuous, so I was worried that there might be a touch of heat stroke, but the worst was a sprained ankle and even that wasn’t done while dancing.”

The Hurst Morris People – otherwise known as Hump – made the most of their day at the sea

It was a long walk to the start of the main parade

Morris dancing banned by Oliver Cromwell

The first historical reference to Morris dancing in England is a payment of seven shillings to ‘the Moryssh daunsers’ by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths for the annual St Dunstan’s Day feast on 19th May 1448 – likely to have been entertainment for the court of King Henry VI.

Having been introduced from Europe, it became wildly popular through England until the English Civil War when Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans banned Whitsun, Christmas and many other festivals and suppressed Morris dancing at the same time.

It was reintroduced when Charles II was restored to the throne, but began to fade away naturally until Victorian folk enthusiast Cecil Sharp began a personal mission in 1899 to save traditional customs, publishing thousands of country songs and dances collected from England’s villages.

His idea that Morris was related to ancient male fertility rites helped spread the false link with paganism, which was also responsible for keeping women out of dance sides until the 1970s when the feminist movement helped to diversify it.

Today there are 800 Morris sides – men’s, women’s, mixed gender and LGBTQ, each with their own identity, taking inspiration from Morris tradition, regional heritage, folklore, seasonal customs and local crafts.

There was no lack of energy even as temperatures neared 30 degrees centigrade in the shade

Czech and Slovak folk dance group Kuitek and Kuet showed off their version of line dancing

Many of Swanage’s beach huts were taken over for the weekend by folk dance sides

The Garston Gallopers, a Berkshire side which dances in the Cotswold style

Everyone’s a star in the big folk parade…

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