An ancient Mummers’ play marks the start of a Dorset year

And so the new year begins.

The earth is saturated with rain water. Dogs come in, muddy from the fields. An aeroplane shoots across the sky, unseen behind the clouds, its distant rumble giving away its presence as it takes travellers to faraway lands.

In the woods, the rooks are cawing. In the distance, the church clock strikes nine. A robin sings a beautiful song and is joined for the chorus by a croaky cockerel who’s the king of the hen coop, at least for the moment.

On the coast, the weather is wild and windy. Waves crash on the Chesil Beach shingle and sea-borne foam is blown on the wind above the Cobb at Lyme Regis.

In the village there are hangovers the size of bread ovens. Partying went on in the pub until well after three in the morning, with regulars sitting on the floor, rowing to the Gap Band and then up on their feet for the Cha Cha Slide.

On New Year’s Day, the Babylon Mummers re-enact a shortened version of their ancient play of life, death and rebirth, good versus evil, with the hero of the hour being St George. They huddle in the doorway of the village hall until it’s their turn to join the rowdy throng, coming out into the rain to dance, fight with wooden swords and pass round the hat.

Their black faces hark back to the days when mummers went around to the big country houses performing their play to make extra money for Christmas. They went in disguise, wearing masks, elaborate headgear or black faces, because they didn’t want to be recognised and seen to be begging.

The Mummers’ Plays of old could be quite lucrative for the participants. It’s said that three nights of mumming often raised as much as a whole month’s wages for the agricultural labourers who mostly made up the groups.

Today they probably get just about enough for a pint of beer each, if that. Crowd numbers are down because of the weather and because they’re tucked away up by the village hall. They need to get back into the village square again, the energising square, and passing cars will just have to put their brakes on.

The Mummers take a bow and then head on to nearby Waytown and the Hare and Hounds Inn, performing inside should the heavens open again.

And then all is quiet on New Year’s Day.

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