Bacup's Coconutters celebrate mining heritage in mysterious mediaeval ritual
PUBLISHED: 12:23 23 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:26 20 February 2013
Beer and dancing don't usually go together unless you are a Coconutter in need of refreshment, writes Roger Borrell
Of all the colourful creatures you are ever likely to spot in Lancashire, the Britannia Coconutters are surely the most exotic.
With their blackened faces, colourful bonnets and wonderful hooped skirts, this brave band of dancers has amused, entertained and fascinated us in equal measures for hundreds of years.
Anthropologists would have a field day - in fact, several already have. As their secretary Joe Healey points out, academics often try to delve deep into the origins of the Coconutters in the hope of revealing the roots of this eccentric custom.
Sadly for them, the whole thing remains as clear as the mist over Rossendale. There seem to be two theories. The first is that they are a throwback to mediaeval - even pagan - times when the dancers warded off evil spirits and blackened their faces so the devil wouldnt recognise them.
Then there is the mining connection. In the 18th and 19th centuries Moorish pirates are said to have settled in Cornwall and worked in the mining industry. When some migrated to Lancashire they are thought to have brought those traditions - the dances and the costumes - with them. Clogs were a local addition.
The mining connection is certainly clear and the maple wood discs - or nuts - they wear on their uniforms and clatter in time with the music are said to resemble knee and elbow protectors worn in narrow seams.
Whatever its really all about, the tradition continues to thrive with Easter Saturday being the big event in the Coconutters calendar. Thats a date they have been keeping for 200 years
Joe admits that beer is taken during breaks in the dancing but only to refresh the men. It has been the tradition that the hostelries on the route will offer the men refreshment, he said. But with the state of the pub industry and the price of beer, we only accept a gill not a pint.
There was another big turn out this Easter. The crowds were fantastic, Joe added. People came from Bristol, Leicester and Nottingham to see us and there were some from Canada and Australia. In fact, we had a great night in the Crown pub in Bacup with a mix of Australians and Irish.
When we look in our archives, there were seven troupes around 1910, all with different coloured outfits. Britannia are the survivors. Others died out when the mines and quarries shut and others ceased when men went to fight in the First World War.
However, there is no sign of the Britannia lads suffering the same fate. In fact, theres a waiting list to join and with 16 current members and eight dancing places, some lads can find themselves on the subs bench.
It takes some dedication. Joe estimates that it takes 18 months to learn the steps of all seven dances and rehearsals are held every Monday night. It also takes stamina - the Easter Saturday dancing starts at 9am and finishes at 8pm with only breaks for refreshment.
Like Morris dancers, we represent a fantastic tradition that should be upheld and nurtured so we can pass it down the line, added Joe.
There is no denying that Lancashire would be a much drearier place without them. Long live the Coconutters!