Herefordshire People: Nick Read: A Man of Many Parts

PUBLISHED: 17:01 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013

Nick Read

Nick Read

Nick Read is a man of many parts. Michael Vockins reveals all.

Where, in one person, could you find an enthusiastic Morris dancer, an art which our national newspapers claim is fast dying out; a passionate and dedicated champion of the environment, rural communities and rural life; a support for farmers during the foot and mouth epidemic, an expert in dealing with rural stress - and often in disguise?

The answer is in Nick Read, Chaplain for Agriculture and Rural Life for the Hereford Diocese since 1998. Nick's wide-ranging role sees him providing pastoral support for the agricultural community. This might include meeting farmers at the local markets, setting up a local network of rural chaplains, advising clergy on rural issues and policy, or meeting with Government Ministers to hammer home matters of major import for the rural community along the Marches.

The network of contacts and support he and colleagues established for farmers and their families during the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic deservedly earned praise. He provided a conduit, too, for the Addington Fund's much-needed financial support for farmers. It was a testing time for all, and there's no doubt that in the eyes of Herefordshire's agricultural community Nick 'won his spurs' during this period.

His expertise and experience - gained as the founding director of the national charity Rural Stress Information Network - assisted in re-launching the Herefordshire Rural Support Network, a local charity providing practical support for those facing the stresses which modern day farming and the associated agricultural industries often create.

And the disguise? Nick is a Morris dancer, a member of the Shropshire Bedlams, who dances the Welsh Border tradition where the men black up their faces, necks and hands.

Not only do they black up, but their 'tatter shirts' covered in colourful strips of cloth, and top hats adorned with pheasant feathers certainly add to the disguise. Nick says: "There have been plenty of times when the Shropshire Bedlams have been dancing in front of audiences where there are folk who know me well in my other roles, but have not recognised me in dancing mode. They're amazed, so the disguise certainly works!"

Those with sensitivities about 'blacking up' need not worry. The Shropshire Bedlams are merely maintaining an ages-old tradition, one explanation for which suggests that blacking up helped disguise those who, during the hard winters of the 17th and 18th centuries, sought to supplement their income anonymously by a bit of dancing and charity-begins-at-home fund-raising.

Nick took up Morris dancing, of the more traditional English kind - with bells on the breeches, cross-belts (the 'baldrick') across the dancers' shirts, flower-decked straw hats, and hankies - when he moved to Oxfordshire in the mid-1990s. Oxfordshire has long associations with Morris dancing, and when neighbours discovered Nick came from Padstow they recognised a potential recruit. Like most of that Cornish community he had regularly joined its May Day custom of dancing in the streets.

Morris steps, he found, were easy to pick up, and he's never been one to feel self-conscious or embarrassed about the traditional costume, or the folksy element. Equally he relishes the social life that goes with the dancing. "It's a very social activity," says Nick. "We practise regularly through the winter months and seldom end without having a few beers together. Then, in the summer there are the fetes and festivals we take part in - so you get to see parts of the country you might not otherwise see."

Social links were often strengthened when six or seven teams met in winter months for a festival, known appropriately as a Morris Ale. How tempting that sounds! Today, summer brings regular dates at local fetes and festivals in Herefordshire and Shropshire but the Shropshire Bedlams find their dancing (and their reputation) takes them further afield to places like Bideford, Whitby, Chippenham and Warwick. The band has danced in Italy and hopes to visit Austria in the future.

When Nick, his wife Julie (who is Rector of the Pembridge group of parishes), and their family moved first to Shropshire, and then to Herefordshire, he was advised: "Look up the Shropshire Bedlams". Their style of Morris dancing, following the Welsh Border tradition, with its unique stepping, disguise, and heavy robust staves was different from that of the Cotswolds and Oxford Downs, but he found he adapted quickly.

"Our sticks are hefty, there's nothing genteel about what we do. It's all fast and furious. In fact the only time I've needed to see a doctor in recent years has been with dancing injuries - a broken thumb and such."

The Shropshire Bedlams can be noisy, too. A well-known personality around Clun a few years back was a character known as 'Dummy' Locke, a deaf mute. Whenever he saw the Bedlams dancing he would join in and make whooping noises - and the Bedlams touchingly incorporated that into their tradition. It remains part of their tradition today.

Although Nick plays the melodeon - "badly" - he is usually banging a tambourine, to accompany the other instruments including melodeons, concertina, recorder and tin whistle, saxophone and tuba, and more recently a fiddler. "We make a good sound," Nick says. "We have some really good musicians, including professional folk musicians.

Morris dancing traditionally was a male-only preserve, with women's groups opting for clog dancing, but mixed groups have been established, despite the fears of misogynist ultra-traditionalists. Ironically it is the groups who hold hard to the purist male-only tradition who find recruitment more of a challenge - and who gave rise to the recent headlines.

Though the Shropshire Bedlams are male-only they have a sister group, Martha Rhoden's Tuppenny Dish, and at fetes and other events they attend together, the women provide music for the men's dancing, and then they reverse roles.

Morris dancing has always attracted suggestions of a pagan background, but this is not something that concerns Nick - other than to refute the premise. "Historical research shows Morris dancing was around at the Tudor Court - and here in the Marches we have always had strong links with the Church," Nick explains. "On St John's Day, in midsummer, we maintain the annual tradition of dancing in Bishop's Castle Church, and playing a part in that day's traditions, including bringing the rushes into church. And, like good Morris men, we eventually all end up in the Three Tuns."

Another great joy of Morris dancing for Nick is that his sons Jonathan and Andrew dance alongside him in the Shropshire Bedlams. "It's great to have this shared interest, and take part in something we all enjoy."

Morris dancing, energetic and fast and furious though it is, provides a welcome contrast to Nick's other demanding roles.

As Chaplain for Agriculture and Rural Life, with the specialist knowledge and experience gained as a former NFU staff member and through more than a decade in this specialised chaplaincy, Nick is happy to reach out to all members of the agricultural and rural communities. Nevertheless, he is sufficient of a realist to recognise that were his role solely pastoral or missionary, he would need to spread himself extremely thinly.

Consequently, with his special gifts for developing strategy, he spends much time working with regional and national government, in high-powered committees and other forums (such as Community First, the Institute of Rural Health, Caring For God's Acre, and OPUS, the support network and lobbying body for farmers and farm-workers affected by pesticide poisoning), ensuring that this rural part of the world is properly represented. He is determined to see that government officials and advisers take account of those who live in places like Herefordshire and Shropshire and don't simply focus decision-making and planning on Birmingham and the more populated urban areas.

To achieve this and properly represent the communities of the border counties Nick serves on, or chairs, a number of key boards. He is passionate about the work of the West Midlands Rural Affairs Forum, where he recently stood down from the chairmanship, but remains chairman of its cross-border group. Through this he has fostered active and lively co-operation between the Welsh Assembly Government and the West Midlands Regional Assembly. Recent issues have included participating in the debate about health care for both Welsh and English patients during the restructuring of the NHS in Wales, and giving evidence to the Welsh Parliamentary Select Committee.

Nick enthuses that, through the prompting of the cross-border group, a good many agencies have now signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together. "It is immensely exciting, " he says, "and when one thinks of the role of the Police and other key services, hospitals and other medical services, local authorities, bus services and the like, with so many more bodies working cross-border the benefits for local people are enormous."

Herefordshire and south Shropshire folk and rural communities in general, are indeed well served by Nick's determined championing of our cause - even when he is sometimes in disguise and dancing.

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