Mucky Mountains Morris was formed in 1989 by Paul and Leslie and friends in St Helens, Merseyside. Paul and Leslie had lived in Warrington, Cheshire, and danced with the Earl of Stamford Morris (a mixed side based in Wilmslow). Leslie had also danced with Black Bear Morris (a women’s side based in Warrington). After a break from morris whilst they had a two-year trip round the world they settled in St Helens and started their own side in the town rather than travel the forty miles to Wilmslow to practise every week. They were joined by Lyn and Alan, who were also Earl of Stamford members from Warrington, and Sally, who was also a friend of Paul and Leslie and had a little experience of morris through family links in Hampshire. Jane, Nick, Tim H and Hazel were also at the inaugural meeting at the Tressell’s Tavern in the TUC Unemployment Centre in St Helens on 15th November 1989. Paul advertised the new side with a poster in Coggler’s Music, a mainly folk music shop in St Helens, and Dave and Fay, who ran the shop, and their son Tim, all experienced musicians, were an asset from very early on — we had started learning the dances using a cassette tape player for music! Jane and Tim provided the first MMM romance, and they married in 1991. Sally’s daughter Jill and some of her ten-year-old friends were there from the start (and continued to dance for the side until they left for university), as were Clare and Frank who still occasionally play or dance with the side, and Gaynor.
After Paul and Leslie emigrated to Australia in 1992 (where they formed Molonglo Mayhem Morris in Canberra — note the same initials!) Tim and Jane took the helm of the side. When they in turn moved away to the south of England Sally and Frank became the main musicians.
We are named after an old waste tip created by Muspratt’s Vitriol Works between 1830 and 1851 at Newton-le-Willows, St Helens. It is alongside the Sankey Canal, one of the country’s oldest canals, which, although now no longer navigable, runs from the River Mersey in Warrington to St Helens. The works converted salt into soda ash, using sulphuric acid, limestone and coal, through the highly polluting Leblanc process. The soda ash was important for the local glass industry. The waste was dumped by the canal and the initially soggy and toxic galligu eventually weathered into complex rock-like formations which became known as the Mucky Mountains. They became a popular local feature after the works had closed and plants and wildlife had begun to colonise. Because of the high lime content the vegetation here is different from that on other waste tips around the St Helens area and the Mucky Mountains have been designated as a local wildlife site.
This landscape evolution from black spot to valued green space is typical of many sites in St Helens, so Mucky Mountains Morris was thought to be an appropriate name.
We have always done a mixture of dances from Border and Cotswold traditions.
Our first Cotswold tradition was Stanton Harcourt, danced for several years and rested for even more, but reintroduced for our 25th season. Others have included Adderbury, Bampton, Lichfield, Ducklington, Ilmington, Bucknell, Bledington, Steeple Claydon, and the unique Hereford May Day dance.
The Border dances have included Prescot Clock and African Swallow, both made up by ourselves, and Dilwyn, Welly Boot, Much Wenlock, Portsmouth, Three Jolly Sheepskins, Stick Chuck, Monty’s Revenge, Off to California, Tinner’s Rabbit, Bobby Shaftoe, Greenham, Upton Stick and Hanky and Woodhouse Bog. Some of these we learnt from a workshop given by All Fools from North Wales and some from other sides and workshops.
Leslie and others decided on a kit based on a drawing of the Border dancers from Dilwyn in the early 20th century, published by Dave Jones in The Roots of Welsh Border Morris, 1988. We wanted rosettes rather than baldrics. The green and burgundy side colours were coincidentally similar to those of the suffragettes. We later added decorated straw hats (decorated as desired by members but usually involving at least some flowers and feathers) and changed one of the burgundy socks for a green one. We wear white shirts and black breeches, and add a tatter jacket for Border dances and in cold weather. The resultant kit we feel is appropriate for a side that dances both Cotswold and Border tradition dances. We designed the bell pads on dog collars so that they were not too heavy and could be worn directly below the knee.
Dances special to Mucky Mountains Morris — and how they spread!
African Swallow is a border style dance written by Tim and Jane. Paul and Leslie took it to Molonglo Mayhem Morris in Australia who taught it at a workshop at the Yorkshire Coast Morris Scarborough Fayre when the side visited the UK in 1999. With the demise of Molonglo Mayhem we thought the dance was no longer being performed, but were pleasantly surprised when Sally saw it being danced by Rant and Raven Morris in Alaska in 2014 — they had been at the workshop in Scarborough in 1999!
Prescot Clock was written in its present, Border style form by Lyn and Alan, who based it on a North West dance from Prescot, near St Helens, where Lyn grew up. Prescot was historically an important centre for watch making so Lyn based the dance on watch/clock workings. Sally wrote the tune to echo watch/clock sounds. The dance is now performed by at least two other sides.
Portsmouth, another Border dance, was taught to us by All Fools Morris of North Wales who wrote the dance. All Fools folded in the early 1990s so we suspect we were the only side still dancing it. In 2014 Sally taught it to Ragged Robin Morris. As a result of this it is now being taught to Yorkshire Coast Morris in Scarborough and Locos in Motion in Darlington.
The Hereford May Day Dance was taught to us by Jenni, who had danced in the 1980s with Bishop Heys Ladies Morris in Herefordshire; unfortunately they are no longer in existence. They devised the dance and stepping with input from local people who remembered a May Day dance being performed with ribbons in Eaton Bishop and surrounding villages. It was danced to the tune Old Woman Tossed Up in a Blanket, which we still use. So the dance and is now over 35 years old, with its roots even further back. The dance uses short sticks with long ribbons attached. The ends of the ribbons are handed to a Green Man in the centre in the last figure of the dance, forming a Maypole effect when the dancers dance round the Green Man. As far as we know we are the only side performing this dance.
Welly Boot was collected by Roy Dommett and taught at a workshop in Preston in 1993. He had collected it from Wellington Morris Men in New Zealand, who had learnt it from a side in California. After the workshop, we had forgotten the name of the dance, but had remembered how to do it and where it was collected, so Welly Boot seemed a good name. When Tim and family were in France, they heard a local tune that goes well with the dance. We now use that tune, whose name we have also forgotten! The dance is now performed by Freaks in the Peaks, and went back round the world to Australia, where it has been danced as Mucky Gumboots!
Our first dance out was in Macclesfield on 5th May 1990 at the Earl of Stamford Weekend of Dance.
We have regularly hosted a Weekend or Day of Dance in and around the Saint Helens and Liverpool areas. We are very lucky the team has Mike, the side’s natural comic (or should that be fool?). He provides outstanding accommodation and hospitality in his mediaeval-style barn, not to mention his swimming pool, decorated with wall tiles that include an image of Mike in his morris kit.
We hosted the national Open Morris Weekend in 2008 to coincide with the Liverpool European Capital of Culture. We have danced at other sides’ events, at town and village carnivals, for charity fundraisers, international students at Liverpool Hope University, brownies and cubs, and more recently for dementia support groups and special needs schools. We have danced several times at folk festivals, including Fylde, Four Fools, and Otley. We regularly join Yorkshire Coast for their weekends in Scarborough, Robin Hood’s Bay or Whitby and have twice been awarded their Gordon Crowther Memorial Staff for The Spirit of the Dance.
We have had several weekends away in Anglesey and near Barmouth, and have done practical conservation work at the Mucky Mountains. We have regularly danced at the St Helens Historical Society socials and at the National Trust’s Speke Hall Tudor May Day Festival.
Bus Pass Morris
In recent years, enough members have retired (or have not been working) to enable us to dance to entertain local charitable groups and schools during the daytime on weekdays.
The team has been ably led by Paul and Leslie, Tim and Jane, Sally, and Helen. Most of the members are local, but we’ve occasionally had dancers from Germany, Romania and The Netherlands. We have averaged about a dozen active members, and a handful of supporters and less regular members. Music has included accordions, fiddles, melodeons, concertinas and percussion. We once had a bass saxophone. Our musicians have included Dave, Fay, Tim, Sally, Alan, Bernard C, Gerry, Julia, Ellen and Debbie. At present Sally, Alan and Ellen are the musicians.
The team prioritises enjoyment and inclusion as well as performance skills. We actively encourage the public, especially children, to join in a dance when we are performing. We have always been active members of Open Morris.
From the early days the side made a donation to charity when there was end of year surplus. We have contributed to the Nieman-Pick Disease Group, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, and have done many other charitable bookings for free, particularly for local Alzheimer’s and dementia support groups.
We meet to practise in St Helens every Thursday and dance at local pubs in the summer.
Written by Lyn, Alan and Sally, with help from Peter in February 2015. Updated November 2016.