Morris dancing: May Day welcomed with a wave of hankies

High on the South Downs, a tinkle of bells can be heard as the morris dancers of West Sussex prepare for their centuries-old ritual. But all is not well with this ancient tradition
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They arrive clad in white trousers with jangling bells and straw hats laced with flowers. Some clutch wooden sticks, others hankies. Despite this garb, all are completely unselfconscious, beaming with a palpable sense of pride and achievement. To hell with Sir Arnold Bax's words ("A man should try everything once, except incest and morris dancing"): these are morris men, and proud.

As dawn breaks over West Sussex, the Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men perform their annual May Day ritual. They climb to a summit on the South Downs, pitch camp at the famous circle of trees, and welcome the summer through an ancient ritual that, to the untrained eye, looks like a peculiar mash-up of hopscotch and gentle twirling of handkerchiefs. All at an ungodly hour of the morning.

Or course, there is far more to it than that. They uphold an English folk tradition that dates back beyond the 15th century, and could easily have been wiped out altogether when Oliver Cromwell took a sledgehammer to many hallowed traditions. Fortunately for the group, established much more recently – in 1953 – he failed. And so 20 diehards meet each week to preserve the dance. One could be forgiven for asking why.

Wal Jarvis, 74, peers at me through his spectacles. "Why not? It's good exercise, thoroughly sociable and helping to resuscitate a dying English tradition." But, come on, grown men, twirling handkerchiefs and dancing on the summit of a hill at seven in the morning surely might seem peculiar to some. "Only if you're not from around here," a woman onlooker retorts, glowering at me.

The apparently random hopping, skipping and stickbanging comes in a bewildering array of intricately prescribed forms. The most famous, Cotswold, with its handkerchiefs and sticks, is derived from Cotswold villages, including Bidford, Bampton, Adderbury and Stanton. It has been danced for hundreds of years. The group also practises the north-west variation, for which they have to don clogs, accompanied by a melodeon, fiddle and traditional tunes. The real business begins at the end of the dancing, when the performers seek refreshment in local pubs.

Marcus Gearhold, 43, a former rugby player, owns an engineering shop in Sayers Common, West Sussex. Bullish looking, with a shaved head, he defies any morris dancers stereotype. His view of the pastime is philosophical. "As a prop-forward I used to be cannon fodder to the opposition," he says, attaching a band of bells on to his legs. "Now I'm not fit enough to play rugby but I can still drink beer and foster my interest in preserving our past. This is about meeting like-minded people and more about a healthy sense of participation rather than pure competition."

Normally the group has to race to the top of Chanctonbury Ring, an Iron Age fort, by 7am and blitz through the dance before heading off to work. But 2010 is different. With May Day falling on a Saturday, the team is commemorating May 1954 – a milestone for the club, when it caught the attention of national media. The coverage, which included a photograph in a newspaper, is cited as one of the factors responsible for a revival of morris dancing in the south of England. The historic picture is being recreated and includes the four surviving members of the team.

And what of today? What of the most compelling general election for generations? "It's gotta be Ukip, innit?" quips a colleague. "Or the beer party."

The spiritual element of the dance trumps politics, according to Don Faulkner, 69, a retired artist. "Politicians have led us to believe that happiness is acutely linked to monetary security. The roots of morris dancing are about sowing, harvesting and the changing of the seasons. That may seem quaint to some, but the simple pleasure of welcoming in the summer and the understanding that the happiness of people can be found in everyday gifts of nature is something pretty special. This is not ancient nonsense. It represents soulful nourishment which can be easily lost in the frantic chase of monetary security."

Despite the best efforts of Chanctonbury, morris dancing faces a threat at least as implacable as Cromwell – time. Its participants are knocking on in years. That, and the fact that England has a sketchy relationship with its traditions. Morris dancing has not always sat entirely comfortably with Christian theology.

Peter Halfpenny, recently appointed Squire of the Morris Ring, and so their national spokesman, has to admit that membership has been in freefall. There are 14,000 members in 800 "sides" across the country. "The willingness to join sides is not quite what it used to be," he says. "There was a huge surge in membership in the 1960s and '70s, but the numbers have drifted off since then."

Insiders point to a simple, irrefutable recruitment problem: rural youngsters are far more interested in sport and computer games. "I remember the days when the procession of dancers would pass through the town," recalls Simon Mercer, 38, watching with his daughter as the dancers perform outside his branch of NatWest.

Perhaps it just doesn't sit well with our idea of how British people should behave. "For the stiff-upper-lipped Brit, the sight of grown men swirling handkerchiefs and dancing together can be embarrassing," says Mr Mercer, smiling. "But it shouldn't be."