IN these achingly politically correct times, it seems hard to imagine a proudly men-only dance group capering through the streets with their faces blacked up, exchanging jokes and insults with the watching crowds.
Yet this is a living tradition in the strange Lancashire town of Bacup.
Every Easter Saturday morning (this year excepted because of the lockdown) a troupe known as the Britannia Coconut Dancers convene at the Traveller’s Rest, a former pub on the boundary between Bacup and Whitworth, now boarded up (the pub, not the boundary). For the next ten hours, accompanied by members of the Stacksteads Silver Band, the gang affectionately known as Nutters – eight dancers and a whipper-in – follow a seven-mile route along the Rossendale Valley, calling of course at countless grim hostelries on the way.
Their name comes from the wooden nuts worn on the waist, wrists and knees made from bobbins. These were protective devices used down the mines when men often had to crawl. The costume comprises clogs, a floral garland, black jersey with white sash, white skirt with red horizontal stripes, black tights, white knee socks with a red top and a white turban with blue plume. Oh yes, and the black face. Now where did that come from?
I quote from the troupe’s website: ‘The dances the team perform are “folk dances” and the custom of blackened faces are thought to reflect a pagan tradition as a disguise from the evil spirits / and part of the mining connections. The dances are known to be originated with Moorish pirates which the costume is that of what a Moorish pirate would wear. The Moorish pirates which originated from North Africa are said to have settled in Cornwall and they became employed in the local mines. As mines and quarries opened in Lancashire in the 18th & 19th centenary some of the Cornish men headed north bringing their mining expertise with them and it is with these men that the dances were reputedly brought into this area.’
In 2009 A A Gill wrote a piece about morris dancing for the Sunday Times which included a foray into deepest Bacup. He said: ‘The dance begins with each Nutter cocking a hand to his ear to listen to something we human folk can’t catch. They then wag a finger at each other, and they’re off, stamping and circling, occasionally holding bent wands covered with red, white and blue rosettes that they weave into simple patterns. It’s not pretty and it’s not clever. It is, simply, awe-inspiringly, astonishingly other. Morris men from southern troupes come and watch in slack-jawed silence. Nothing in the civilised world is quite as elementally bizarre and awkwardly compelling as the Coco-nutters of Bacup.’
Inevitably, accusations of racism have been thrown at the coal-faced Nutters over the years and in 2013 there was a threat to halt their Easter parade on the pretext that the crowds watching them spilled into the road. However it came to nothing and the dance goes on. Here’s a glimpse of last year’s event.
I said earlier that Bacup is ‘strange’. It was the location for one of the weirdest nights of my life.
This was about 30 years ago when Bacup was at a low ebb, having lost its cotton and wool mills and its rail station. It was a bit like a frontier town, except that it is in a ravine of the Pennines so it gets a lot less sun than they do in the Wild West, in fact about two days in June. When you walked along the main street you had the distinct sense that hidden eyes were watching and you expected to see horses tied up outside the saloon.
Alan and I visited his sister, who was living there with William, her boyfriend of the time. He had a massive Victorian villa, no doubt a former mill-owner’s residence, which was built into a cliff face, to the extent that there was a back room with a waterfall running down the wall. He used this as a home brewery. There was no central heating, the only source of warmth being the open fires (if they were lit).
The night we visited was soon after Christmas, and they had chosen the middle of winter to have all the upstairs windows removed for renovation. There was nothing in their place, no boarding, no shutters, just space. We gathered in one of the downstairs rooms in our outdoor coats and watched Weary Willie assemble a small pile of sticks in the centre of a vast grate, then light it. A few miserable flames made an appearance. It was no warmer. We had not brought any drink as Alan’s sister assured us there would be plenty of beer, being as WW had his own brewery. In fact he produced one pint bottle of cloudy muck which didn’t go far between four. We suggested a trip to the off-licence but it was shut. Alan had also been promised a game of snooker on WW’s ‘full-sized table’. This proved to be a toy outfit no more than 3ft in length with marble-sized balls and tiny cues with no tips.
‘We’ve got a really cheap Indian takeaway and it’s great,’ said WW. He and Alan went to fetch a meal which cost about six quid for four curries, two lots of rice and two naan breads. WW said with a straight face that he’d forgotten his wallet so Alan paid. We wuz robbed. It was basically watery gravy with a few indeterminate bits swimming in it. The worst Indian we have ever had.
Then came the highlight of the evening. ‘Would you like to see my gun?’ asked WW. This is never an easy question to answer but it seemed a good idea to say ‘Yes, of course!’ A handgun of some sort was produced, lovingly wrapped in chamois leather. We passed it round, trying to think of suitable admiring comments, such as ‘Isn’t it heavy?’ and ‘It is very shiny.’ We refrained from asking what he used it for in case he told us.
Mercifully the evening came to an end after about 18 hours and we went to bed stone cold and sober. We wore every stitch we had on, including coats, and shivered sleepless as snow blew in through the big hole in the wall. In the morning it was two feet deep and we had to dig the car out after a slap-up breakfast of toast and margarine. Bacup: hospitality capital of the world. We have never been back.
Gunnera news: Motoring now. This is last week’s picture:
And this is yesterday’s:
Finally, to prove that cacti can be grown this far north, this is part of the display in our tiny greenhouse: