Written by Heather Elvidge
According to one reckless old saw, even a “transient beam” of sun on St Vincent’s Day, January 22, is enough to guarantee a good year. And if the birds should respond by singing, folklore says that we’ll have an early spring.
While we needn’t trouble ourselves with the first saying, the second is right in one sense. A mild, sunny spell in January does set things in motion. Bulbs sprout, buds begin to break, and some birds are spurred on to sing.
Robins were already singing up the dawn, but last week’s sun caused others to join in. Song thrushes were heard and there was even an occasional burst from a blackbird, which rarely sings before February.
Great tits move around in winter flocks with smaller tits, but on those fine days the males were lingering in their old territory to give their characteristic “teacher, teacher” call. Male starlings returned to their nest sites and perched close by to wheeze at the sun.
When the weather turned cold again the singers fell silent. Birds had more pressing matters to attend to, such as finding food.
If you’re not doing it already, this is a good time to start feeding wild birds. Food is scarce now, so any offerings will be welcome.
When you see the term “sword dancers”, you probably see kilts swinging above swords crossed on the ground. Most people have heard of Scottish sword dancing, though the sword dancers of England’s northern counties are less well known.
English dancers don’t use real swords. The “longsword” of Yorkshire and Northumberland is a lath of wood or metal about three feet long: the Durham “rapper” is a short strip of metal with a swivelling handle.
Rapper dances have a fast step beating out a rhythm, while longsword dances use a basic walking step. Both are danced in a circle, ending with a knot or rose of interlaced swords.
Today longsword thrives at Flamborough in East Yorkshire, where children learn their village’s unique dance in school. It’s said that some moves, such as “Double Threedling”, were inspired by the mending of fishing nets. The adult and junior teams dance on St Stephen’s Day, December 26.
In some places sword dancers used to accompany the farmworkers who paraded the plough on Plough Monday. The people of Goathland, near Whitby, revived this tradition in 1922 after a lapse of 40 years. Leading folk-song and dance expert Cecil Sharp helped to ensure their steps were authentic.
Sharp had visited Flamborough and villages on the North York Moors to record the notation of their dances. He’d included them in The Sword Dances of Northern England, published in parts from 1911-13.
He saw the young men who dragged the plough collect money from householders, farm workers, and travellers they met on the road. When none was forthcoming they’d plough a furrow down the garden path or across the best pasture.
Hopefully there’ll be none of that this Saturday, the 19th, when Goathland holds its annual day of dance. The Plough Stots will be dancing in the village from around 10am, starting on the green.