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43 f English Strange

The Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup in Lancashire continue their unique tradition with its origins lost in centuries past. Derek Schofield looks behind a dance that survives with pride.


acup town centre at 8am on a Saturday morning is probably much like any other. Shops are starting to open, delivery vans zip around the largely deserted

streets and the occasional pedestrian is off to work. Even on the Saturday of Easter weekend. I’ve parked my car and now I’m searching for a quick cuppa before catching the Rochdale bus through the area of town known as Britannia to alight on the town boundary at the Travellers’ Rest. It used to be a pub, but it’s closed now, converted to offices. Here, there’s more activity. Groups of people are waiting, expectantly, while strangely-dressed men and silver band musicians greet each other in friendship.

Each strangely-dressed man wears black breeches, long white socks and black clogs. Over a thick black jumper is a white strap which helps to hold up a white skirt – the men prefer the word ‘kilt’ – which has three horizontal red stripes. On his head is what looks like a short, squashed chef’s hat decorated with a rosette, zig-zag ribbon round the base and a feather. On his knees, waist and in each hand, he has a disc of wood. Oh, and his face is blackened. I said it was strange.

On the dot of 9am, the dancers (for

that’s what they are) line up in a square or quadrille formation, holding semi-circular garlands decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper. The band strikes up, and they’re off on a dance which lasts no more than a couple of minutes. Next, the dancers line up with their backs to the ex-Travellers’ Rest, and a different dance involves the men pointing at each other, cupping their ears

On the streets of Bacup…

with their hands, and striking their own and their partners’ … erm … nuts (don’t worry, that’s what the discs of wood are called).

The dance over, the men split into two groups of four and stand on each side of the road; with the band walking in a line down the street, the dancers follow – first one line, then the other, stopping alternately to perform a few dance figures. In this forma- tion, the dancers process down the road until the next stopping point (site of anoth- er, long-closed pub). And so it continues in similar fashion for the next ten or more hours – stopping at pubs (open and closed), a residential care home, the fire station, into the town centre and out the other side, through the settlements of Stacksteads (base of the silver band musicians), Water- foot and Tunstead until they reach the opposite town boundary on the Rawtenstall road, finishing at – yes, you guessed it – another long-closed pub, or more accurate- ly, the petrol station opposite.

I’ve been making this visit, off and on – but mainly on – since the 1970s, and it never ceases to fascinate.

In all, there are five different garland dances, each one lasting no more than a few minutes. In contrast to the exoticism of the costume, the dances and the tunes are known plainly as number one, number two, and so on. The nut dance can be performed in its full version, or cut down to just half the number of figures, or in two lines facing each other, or in square formation (which they call Figures Of The Nuts), or in the pro- cessional formation down the road. Each version has a core of common movements and figures, with variations. On Easter Sat-

urday and other occasions, the music comes from members of Stacksteads Silver Band, established in 1872 and currently enjoying success in band competitions in the region. Links between the dancers and the band are even closer these days as Coconutters’ secre- tary Joe Healey and his twin brother Tom are also band members. At other times, the dancers are accompanied by several English concertina players.

Recently appointed leader of the Coconutters, Ronnie Searle has been a dancer for 31 years, which though impres- sive, is nothing compared to his predecessor, Dick Shufflebottom, who retired as leader at the age of 80 after 58 years as a dancer – and he’s still dancing. He’s an inspiration to the recent influx of younger dancers – Gavin McNulty, the son of established dancer Mar- tin, and friends Luke Cooper and Ellis Ster- icker who are just into their twenties. Such very young dancers are unusual. Gavin tells me that the team has traditionally looked for committed family men and, like his pre- decessors, he had to make a written applica- tion, explaining something about himself and why he wanted to join.

The town of Bacup (the first part of the name rhymes with bake, not back) lies at the eastern end of the Rossendale valley in Lancashire, near where the river Irwell starts its journey towards Salford. The industrial revolution brought cotton mills, quarrying and coal mining to the town – all gone now, and although the shoe and slipper firms no longer manufacture, they do operate distri- bution and retail outlets. English Heritage reckons it’s the best preserved cotton town in Lancashire.

…and starring at Sidmouth Folk Week

Photo: © Judith Burrows

Photo: Derek Schofield

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