How morris dancing Otley poet journeyed through Britain's folk traditions for new collection

Poet Matthew Hedley Stoppard has immersed himself in some of the nation’s folk traditions for his latest collection of verse. He tells Laura Reid about his experiences.

Otley town poet Matthew Hedley Stoppard with his new collection.

“If you’ve ever wondered why morris dancers look so happy, it’s because you’re witnessing a person who is shedding every distraction in their life,” Matthew Hedley Stoppard reflects.

“They’re only focusing on movements of music and movements of their body that have been carried through centuries. This is what I felt the first time I danced five years ago.”

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Librarian and poet Matthew has found himself drawn to folk traditions around the country since joining the Wharfedale Wayzgoose morris side. For half a decade now, he has immersed himself in those customs – “like a method actor”, to use his words – and the result is a new poetry book drawing on his experiences.

Matthew has immersed himself in folk traditions as he has penned the poems.

Readers can expect a blurring of the old and the new in The Garland King. The collection of verse celebrates quaint, age-old customs, largely rituals created and sustained by the labouring and working classes, and combines them with Matthew’s modern day anxieties and emotions around parenthood and the wider world.

“I would say [the book] is an uncanny space where British traditions and modern anxieties meet in one line,” the 35-year-old explains. “I explore, for example, the idea of men struggling with toxic masculinity, through customs where they’re decorated or disguised as something.”

Each poem has been inspired by a folk activity, in which Matthew frames his personal thoughts, experiences and worries. One, entitled May Day, features morris dancers melting in the midst of a climate emergency.

It is based around a tradition in the town of Otley, where Matthew lives and dances. The area’s morris sides traditionally meet on Otley Chevin at dawn on May 1 to perform together in celebration of Spring.

Matthew's latest poems explore age-old folk customs whilst reflecting on modern-day anxieties and issues.

“The first time I did that was really emotional,” reflects Matthew, who published his debut collection of poetry in 2013. “But it also got me thinking about seeing the sun rise at such a high point in Yorkshire. Climate change was on my mind - what if this sun comes up and it’s so hot that it literally scorches the world and destroys everything?

“Climate change is firmly on the agenda at the moment, as the world is changing rapidly. We’re making changes in our lives and in our house. As a family, we do way more walking now rather than driving.”

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Another poem focuses on how a mummer, a costumed actor in a traditional folk play, deals with his depression after his child is diagnosed with cancer. It is inspired by Matthew’s experiences and emotions when his son Ted had a benign tumour on his skull at the age of three.

At the time, father and son would act out mummers’ plays in the house as light relief – and in the years that have followed since, Matthew’s wife Victoria and children Fran, nine, and Ted, now seven, have all joined him with community performances of mummers’ plays.

It wasn’t a political statement, he says, when asked about the issues and anxieties that are highlighted through the poems. “It’s more of a personal than a preachy thing.”

The book has been five years in the making, stemming directly from his first morris dancing experience after he saw a performance at Otley Folk Festival. “It looked like fun and I didn’t do any exercise at the time so I was feeling a bit unhealthy.

“Morris dancing looked like a good way of breaking the habit of being quite lazy. But I also noticed that two or three of the dancers in the side seemed to be really channelling something, almost shamanic, and I was interested in that.”

He went along to rehearsals the following week and was struck by how his participation in the centuries-old tradition stirred within him a feeling of connection with people involved in folk activity, both now and in the past, in countries and cultures across the globe.

Chesterfield-born Matthew felt driven to explore more about some of Britain’s folk customs, delving into the history books and joining online community groups to discover which traditions were still going today.

Such knowledge sparked a desire to experience many of them and to connect directly with the heritage of the nation’s villages and towns. And with that immersion, came inspiration for verse.

For one tradition, Garland Day, the custom after which Matthew’s book is named, he found himself back in his birth region of Derbyshire. The event sees a Garland King, riding on horseback and covered to the waist in a floral garland, lead a procession through the village of Castleton.

“The Garland King poem I felt like I couldn’t write without being part of that procession so we went to Castleton for the event,” Matthew says. “It’s a massive procession that the whole village comes out for and it was really emotional.”

Taking part in the customs and then crafting verse has taken Matthew some time, as he juggles his poetry writing with family life and his day job as a librarian in Pudsey.

The wordsmith previously worked as a journalist, after completing a creative writing degree at Bretton Hall, and in the mid 2000s was booked for the poetry tent at Latitude Festival. “There was a group of us on before John Cooper Clarke and that was definitely the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” he reflects.

Four years ago, he became Otley’s first town poet, with a remit to engage people in the craft and spread the word about the town through poetry. He’s worked on projects focused around the Tour de Yorkshire cycling race and the tricentenary year of the birth of Otley furniture maker Thomas Chippendale.

Though The Garland King has been launched virtually via Zoom, the coronavirus pandemic has put paid to plans for a live launch and folk revue at Otley Courthouse later this month. Matthew is hoping an “extravaganza” celebrating the nation’s folk traditions can instead be arranged for the Spring.

“The uncanny experience of being part of or seeing these customs is so moving and memorable,” he says. “I think now with the things being discussed about English heritage in particular, in terms of Black Lives Matter and English identity, a lot of people are getting interested in these folk customs...

“You think of Irish folk culture and you have a really clear idea of it, the same with Welsh folk culture and Scottish folk culture. But morris dancing or mumming or people dressed with flowers all over their body doesn’t really spring to mind when you think of Englishness. You might think of Empire instead or all the awful things we’ve done as a nation.”

“I applaud any community that keeps these folk traditions going,” he adds. “With a lot of them, people don’t know why they started but continue with them for the sake of bringing everyone together and I think that’s just marvellous.”

The Garland King is available from Valley Press at valleypressuk.com, £9.99.

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