Cheese-rolling, straw bears and weird rituals galore: one man’s mission to record all of British folklore | Folklore and mythology

Fans of British folklore are championing a campaign to safeguard a unique archive cataloguing traditions from Britain and Ireland. The collection – of more than 20,000 books, 4,000 tape cassettes and 3,500 hours of reel-to-reel audio – has been amassed by one man. David “Doc” Rowe is a 79-year-old folklorist who has travelled the UK since the 1960s, visiting calendar customs such as the Straw Bear Festival, the Krampus Run or the Hunting of the Earl of Rone.

Director Rob Curry and actor/director Tim Plester set up the crowdfunder, which has been supported by Eliza Carthy, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. The co-directors previously collaborated on two acclaimed documentaries about the British folk scene – Way of the Morris and The Ballad of Shirley Collins. They started work at the end of lockdown on a film about Rowe and his annual odyssey around the rituals of Britain, then expanded the project to help him find a permanent home for his archive.

“There are few collections of working-class histories of the British Isles,” says Curry. “The opportunity to save one of this scale is worth anybody’s money.”

A penny for the guy was a children’s bonfire night tradition that’s dying out. Photograph: Doc Rowe

The archive is currently stored in a former pharmaceutical unit in Whitby, North Yorkshire, a repository that puts Plester in mind of another British institution. “Doc is like Doctor Who. His storage facility has a small door into this Tardis-like space, and going through his archive is like travelling through time and space.”

Like the Doctor Who show, many events recorded by Rowe are extremely creepy. The trailer for Plester and Curry’s documentary evokes the current love of folk horror, dramas that use the aesthetics and style of folklore, such as this year’s cult hit Enys Men and the TV series The Gallows Pole.

“We do embrace that Wicker Man element as filmmakers,” says Curry. “There’s a theory that the British love folk horror because we were the first country to industrialise, so we are most disconnected from our agrarian roots.”

Plester says that, as a child growing up in the village of Adderbury, he was terrified by the morris men’s fool, a performer who interacts with spectators during a dance. “He prided himself on scaring us – it’s part of the bag of these traditions. They’re an opportunity for anarchy, for communities to take back the streets for a day.”

It was the morris dancers of Plester’s childhood that inspired his first film collaboration with Curry. The two friends had already started attending events such as Gloucestershire’s Cheese Rolling and the Lewes bonfire night out of curiosity. “It was my skeleton in the closet that I came from a morris dancing Mecca but, through bonding with the multicultural friends I met in London, I was able to look at my English heritage in a new way. I saw it not as a cul de sac of culture but how it connected to broader customs,” says Plester.

The Hunting of the Earl of Rone, another folk tradition.
The Hunting of the Earl of Rone, another folk tradition. Photograph: Doc Rowe

While working on promotion for their film, the pair were introduced to Rowe as the only person in the country who had information on all seven types of morris dancing. Rowe says he finds the attention his archive is currently receiving rather overwhelming, especially the response to the ongoing crowdfunder. “I’m quite humbled as you might expect and astonished by the unexpected support from the public, as I’ve always tried to be relatively private and anonymous.”

Though Curry was born in London, both his parents are immigrants. He sees folklore as a way of connecting to the land. “I need to find a way to identify with this place I’m from. It’s also part of a story of environmentalism, the land rights movement and, fundamentally, community. Something Doc feels strongly is that there is no distinction between the Notting Hill Carnival or Lunar New Year and some obscure festival you can trace through the centuries to a pre-Celtic genus. It’s about people celebrating their here and now.”

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The filmmakers ran their crowdfunder over Halloween and Bonfire Night to remind people that calendar customs are marked by many events, though the more obscure are attracting a new audience. The magazine Weird Walks recently published an art book of Britain’s pagan places and rituals. In August, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature on British women taking up morris dancing.

David ‘Doc’ Rowe with a video camera.
David ‘Doc’ Rowe.

One troupe featured was Stroud’s Boss Morris. The troupe donated a reward to the Rowe crowdfunder in the form of a dancing lesson. “In an ever more secular society, people are looking for a sense of community,” the group says. “By joining in a ritual, we share in actions that give us a euphoria rarely experienced these days. They also give us a perspective into our social history; we can see what these rituals mean to people.”

Curry says the people who’ve nurtured these traditions are integral. “There’s a political dimension to our project because, while the customs are thriving, many of the communities that maintain them are under threat – from gentrification, second home ownership.”

Plester says that one of his favourite clips from Rowe’s archive is testament to these original devotees. “It’s of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance in the 60s. They do the same dance they do now, but back then it was in front of a policeman, a dog and two kids on scooters. If you tried to see that event now you wouldn’t get close, there’s such a crowd. But the dancers and Doc Rowe were doing it before it was a meme, before it was trending.”

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