Gathering in the name of good sport

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WHAT links the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering to the modern Olympic Games?

Steve Cram, winner of the 1976 Gathering Boys’ Hill Race, went on to gain the silver medal at the Los Angeles Games in 1984. But of course Morpeth had its very own hugely popular Olympic Games from the 1870s to 1958, and this coming weekend, starting on Friday morning, the Gathering will celebrate our local sporting heritage at the town’s annual regional festival of music, dance, craft, dialect and customs.

This year’s theme, ‘A Good Sport’, has a second strand, though, as the recent restoration of the town’s coat of arms gives an excuse to remember Charles II, the ‘Merry Monarch’ who regranted the arms 350 years ago in 1662. Another anniversary featured is the 150th birthday of the Blaydon Races song, with the characters portrayed by actors from Morpeth Theatre Club and St George’s Community Players among the costumed groups in Saturday morning’s pageant.

Festival organisers are delighted that they can again offer a free Park and Ride facility for Saturday’s big day. Leyland Tiger vintage buses will run a shuttle system from 10am to 4pm between County Hall and the bus station. Committee chairman Kim Bibby-Wilson said: “The aim is to free visitors from the worry of parking and possible traffic congestion. From 10.45am there’ll be the usual hour-long road closure of the central streets to allow the pageant to arrive for the speeches of welcome at the Town Hall at 11am, but diversions will operate to allow through-traffic to continue to flow.”

Held the weekend after Easter, the Gathering has throughout its 45 years included sporting events as an important part of local traditional culture. These have included hill races, tug-of-war, wrestling and most recently orienteering, with this year’s event taking place on Sunday morning with the prizegiving on the Park bandstand at noon, organised by Northumberland and Tyneside Orienteering.

There are plenty of north-eastern songs about champion rowers and tunes named after winning racehorses (the amazingly successful horse Beeswing gave its name to a pub where it was stabled in Morpeth) – some will be revealed by Keith Gregson at a special Saturday lunchtime presentation at St Robert’s Church Hall, and at Friday’s opening concert at the Methodist Church Johnny Handle and others will perform, the grand finale being the region’s best-known song, the Blaydon Races.

On Saturday evening a world première will be held of a song all about the Morpeth Olympics. Kim said: “We heard that north-east singer Jez Lowe was writing songs on the modern Olympics for the BBC Radio Ballads and thought with his track record there was nobody better placed to create a modern folk song about our own local Games. Like the Blaydon Races, it brings to life the characters involved and some of the scenes to be seen during Sunday’s archive film show.

“Jez actually wrote the song on tour in Australia and has just e-mailed us the result, and he’s done us proud. The tune touches on the Morpeth Rant melody, it’s got a good chorus for everyone to belt out, the numerous verses make very clever use of internal rhyme, and the whole thing celebrates the local working man dreaming of escape from daily drudgery, seeking healthy recreation, a chance to win some money and a good family day out.

“Jez can’t be at the Gathering himself, but the song will be premiered by another grand local singer, Benny Graham, who headlines the Saturday Winners’ Concert at the Town Hall.”

The second world première will be staged earlier on Saturday, at 5pm, at the Chantry Bagpipe Museum. By coincidence, the new piece also uses dreaming as a starting point, but with a very different treatment from Jez’s traditional style. The Gathering is keen to bring Northumberland’s traditions into the 21st century, and jumped at the chance to have outstanding Newcastle University music student Rachael Hales present her digital soundscape composition, ‘Dreams of Morpeth’ to the weekend’s audience. It weaves together sounds recorded around the town, including the William Turner Herb Garden in Carlisle Park, the Clock Tower bells and Northumbrian pipes, creating a sound-surround experience.

Sunday evening is devoted to the Morpeth Olympics and sporting history, with national expert Dr Martin Polley of Southampton University, giving an illustrated talk on the Morpeth Olympics. Among the audience will be family members of some of the athletes featured, including the grandson of champion wrestler Jack Little of Carlisle who has promised to bring along the trophy won in 1897. Afterwards Keith Hartnell will show archive films from the 1930s Morpeth Games and other rare footage of local sporting champions.

The other theme is inspired by the return of the coat of arms to Morpeth Town, recalling the regranting of the ancient borough’s arms by Charles II in 1662 (also the date that Punch and Judy first appeared in England – so the Gathering will again present Professor Grunermench’s puppets). Early music duo Hautbois perform from their handcart on the Market Place throughout Friday, and the Selaed Knot will re-enact a Stuart battle in the park on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Leading cornett player Jamie Savan will play a fanfare to welcome the coat of arms during Saturday morning’s pageant, and will later play 17th century music on Saturday teatime in the Chantry at a concert also featuring Border pipers Bill Telfer and Matt Seattle.

The music and dance of ordinary people will feature in a workshop on Playford Style among the Town Hall dance workshops on Friday. Music historian and composer Bennett Hogg has wokred with a community band to play at Friday night’s concert. With the title ‘A Concert of Two Halves’, to use true sporting jargon, it combines the weekend’s themes.

The first half is devoted to the music of Charles II’s time and sees among the performers the return of the dynamic young group Fligarishon, launched at last year’s festival, playing music from the local 17th century Atkinson manuscript. Ray Alexander will appear at the concert and the following day’s procession as Morpeth’s MP during Charles II’s reign, Sir George Downing, best known for developing Downing Street which became the Prime Minister’s residence.

As well as the spectacular Saturday morning Border Cavalcade and Pageant, as usual there will be a barn dance (with Fiddler’s Elbow), competitions for performers, reciters, and craftspeople, exhibitions, workshops, pub sessions, dance teams and street entertainers, and a special afternoon of dialect led by the Northumbrian Language Society and guest Sid Calderbank of Lancashire. Sid conceived the idea of National Dialect Day hosted by different regions each year and Northumberland is to host the now-annual event on 20th October.

A visual art project, supported by the Sir James Knott Trust, has involved local schoolchildren and a community group to produce new artwork for the procession, with banners showing sporting traditions and heraldic pieces linked with the Gathering’s twin themes. Centre stage in the Market Place on Friday will be the big yurt, or tent, provided by Barnabas Safe and Sound for free family art activities. Elaine Porter will help you create sporting medals or costume items to take away or even to join in with the following day’s street pageant.

In the afternoon storyteller Jim Grant will be in the yurt, while on all three days there will be stalls and historic characters in the Market Place.

Jim and fellow storyteller Chris Bostock will also appear at sessions in the library, the Bakehouse Yard Millennium Green and during Sunday afternoon’s free Family Concert in the Town Hall which brings together seasoned performers and some of our younger musicians and dancers.

Special mention should go to the Clock Tower Cloggies who run weekly clog dance lessons as part of the Gathering’s outreach work. Recently they received a BBC Performing Arts Fund grant to run extra master classes and taster sessions for novices during the year. On Gathering Friday they’ll host a workshop for those who’d like to try Ulverston-style clog, and Saturday morning sees a shorter session for novices. Other local dance teams will display across the weekend – look out for times given on the big white ‘Gadgy’ boards showing the logo of the Morpeth Gadgy, portrayed in the flesh during the weekend by MC Alex Swailes.

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in traditional artskills over the weekend, with crafts demonstrations in the Town Hall exhibition on all three days, a series of workshops in dance, Anita Gordon stepping to replace an indisposed Ernie Gordon for a session on the mouth organ, plus daily workshops with Ray Langton who will teach melodeon from scratch, using special mini-melodeons (they’re the rectangular squeezeboxes with buttons on both sides) that are ideal for beginners. Ray will also appear at a special family show at the Methodist Church on Saturday afternoon with Prof. Squeezyjig’s Songbook.

The Town Hall plays host to the box office and the Gathering’s crafts exhibition. As well as displays of needlework, paintings, shepherds’ sticks and other craft competition entries, there will be demonstrations and stalls including proggy mats, smallpipes, jewellery and embroidery.

During Friday the Gathering sees the launch of Bridget Gubbins’ new book on the drove roads, funded by Heritage Lottery and facilitated by Greater Morpeth Development Trust, which has also helped support some of the Gathering’s programme, and Sunday afternoon is when there are tours of the treasures of the Council Chamber and Mayor’s Parlour, including one of the Morpeth Games trophies.