Saddleworth Rushcart Festival by John Kirkbride

John Kirkbride reminds us of what we’ve got to look forward to in 2022 when Saddleworth’s famous Rushcart event is due to return

I CAN’T help wondering how the concept of Morris dancing came into being.

Imagine the scene in an ancient tavern after some likely lad’s supped a tankard too many: “’Ey up, lads, ‘appen we should get some o’ them theer jazzy wesscuts and stick flowers in us ‘ats, then dance in us clogs an’ ‘it each other wi’ sticks?”

Assuming his friends had supped a tankard too many as well, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. We’ve all been there.

A previous rushcart (Pic thanks to Michael Powis)

In fact, the origins of Morris dancing are bit more complicated, but it’s Morris Men we have to thank not only for the ancient rushcart tradition but also for its revival in Saddleworth in the 1970s.

In steadier times, there are quite a few annual occasions to look forward to in our villages, including Whit Friday and the Yanks weekend, but the Rushcart holds a special place in many local hearts.

Sadly, the effects of the global pandemic have seen all three celebrations put on hold, but all being well they’ll be back next year, bigger and better than ever.

Rushcart 1890

So in lieu of the actual event, let’s immerse ourselves for a little while in the fascinating tradition of the ancient rushcart festival.

A little bit of history
If you want to delve deeper into the history of the centuries-old rushcart celebration, the website of the Saddleworth Morris Men is a great place to start. But for now I’ll try and give a flavour of how it all began and why.

Back in the day, many churches had only rudimentary floors made of earth, which can’t have been very pleasant in wet weather. So to make them more comfortable and inviting for special occasions it was common to cover them with hay, straw or rushes.

As towns and villages expanded, the rushes had to be carried from further afield, so they were often piled on sledges and dragged to the church. Then at some point someone obviously remembered that the wheel had been invented and had the bright idea of stacking the rushes on a cart. And voila, the rushcart was born.

As these things so often did, over the years the task of carting the rushes to the church became an excuse for a bit of a shindig, which began to coincide with the annual mill holidays, or wakes week.

The addition of music was quickly followed by the introduction of dancing (something else that seems to happen quite a lot in the UK) and the occasion soon evolved into an annual festival.

Originally the carts were pulled by horses, but when a rider was killed in Delph after his steed took fright and bolted, the search began for an alternative source of power. It wasn’t a long search, because right there on hand were several teams of strapping chaps in sturdy clogs – and so it was that the tradition of the dancers pulling the carts became the norm.

In areas like Saddleworth every village would have its own rushcart, and it soon became a bit of a contest to see who could make the biggest stack with the most elaborate decorations.

Everyone loves a procession, and this annual event was soon being circled in red on the local calendar.

Nowadays, Saddleworth is one of only a few places in Britain where the rushcart tradition survives.

Its decline was fairly inevitable when dirt floors in churches began to be replaced by stone flags.

With the introduction of wooden pews and more effective ways of heating these large stone structures, the days of the rushcart were numbered.

According to Wikipedia, the ceremony now only takes place in parts of Cumbria and the north west of England.

What happens in Saddleworth
Saddleworth Rushcart Festival usually spans the weekend of the August Bank Holiday. On paper that sounds like a good time to hold it, but this being the UK, perfect weather is far from guaranteed.

In fact, according to a list of summer bank holiday weather between 1970 and 2004, rain and wind have been a common feature. 1991 appears to have been the pick of the bunch, with the weather described as being “dry, very warm and sunny”.

On the Saturday, the rushcart procession generally makes its way through some of Saddleworth’s villages, including Uppermill, Greenfield, Delph and Dobcross.

The ranks of our own Morris Men are swelled by troupes from up and down the country, making this a colourful and exuberant parade.

The streets are lined with spectators, though I suspect some of them are only there to see if the Morris Man on top of the rushes will fall off.

On the Sunday, the event generally clogs off in Uppermill Square, later making its way up to the Church Inn and Cross Keys, where the festivities continue till late afternoon (and most of the evening for some).

It’s here that the gurning competition takes place, along with some entertaining performances from the combined Morris Men.

Yet again I find I have a personal connection with my subject matter, as for many years my father drew a cartoon for the cover of the rushcart programme. These often ended up on beer mats, leather badges and sweatshirts, and in 1998 his cartoon was used to decorate the banner that traditionally adorns the front of the 13-foot high stack of rushes.

Here’s to next year
Obviously it’s disappointing that this year’s event had to be called off, but it’s my understanding that some of the Morris Men from around the country were unable to attend, and there were concerns there wouldn’t be enough of them to pull the cart.

I think we’re all hoping that 2022 will be a different kind of year, as we strive for a return to some kind of normality.

So if you find yourself in a Saddleworth pub and you’re not sure what to drink to, why not raise a glass to the Morris Men and next year’s Rushcart Festival. Cheers!

One Reply to “Saddleworth Rushcart Festival by John Kirkbride”

  1. The date of the cart is the second weekend after August 12th. That means that sometimes it’s as early as the 20th, sometimes as late as the bank holiday weekend

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.