Here are the latest developments in the County Council vs Britannia Coconutters battle, previously reported earlier in the year.
Members of Britannia Coconutters, dressed in turbans, red and white kilts, clogs and blackened faces, perform 12 hours of dances at 20 pubs in Bacup, every Easter Saturday. But council bosses say the tradition must end, after photographs taken covertly at the last event show spectators standing on the highway.
The group – affectionately known as the Nutters – traces its origins back to 1857 and has held an Easter Boundary Dance parade in its current form for 110 years.
Their treasurer Neville Earnshaw said: “We are the envy of the folk-dancing world. We can dance in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day or Yorkshire – but we can’t dance in our own town.”
He said he received the ‘shocking’ news at a meeting with police and county council chiefs. The officials have safety concerns about the dancers and crowds using the roads and suggested the dancing be contained to the pavement, something organisers say is not viable.
Local councillor Jimmy Eaton said banning the march would be ‘barmy’. Mr Earnshaw said he and secretary Joe Healey were shown photographs taken at this April’s event which showed spectators standing on the highway.
He said: “Myself and Joe walked into the meeting and noticed a lot of black and white photos on the table. The officers asked us how we thought it went and we said it was great. We raised more than £600 for charity. They said they had someone photographing the event – covertly – and that having members of the public on the highway was dangerous. The county council said the parade would not be sanctioned again in its current format.”
The boundary dance, which goes from Britannia through Bacup and Stacksteads to the border with Waterfoot, was almost cancelled this year after the group was asked to pay road closure fees of £1,000 for the first time. Grants from councillor Eaton and Peter Steen, both county councillors at the time, ensured it went ahead and ten police officers helped marshal the 800-strong crowd. Mr Earnshaw said the county council’s demand for future dances to be held on the pavement rather than the road were ‘impossible’. He added: “For us as a group to receive the blame or be deemed unsafe because of the actions of others is ridiculous. They said people were standing on the highway to take photos of us. If that’s the case, why didn’t the police officers deal with it? It beggars belief. It’s impossible for us to dance on the pavement. Can you imagine asking the bandsmen to read music, play and walk on a pavement? Our tradition is a huge source of income and pride for the people of this town and the people in charge don’t understand. They don’t want us on the highway at all.”
Councillor Eaton, whose Greensclough ward the dancers pass through, said he had never known any serious trouble at the event. He said: “I think there will be an uproar in the town if it doesn’t go ahead. Surely the Nutters can’t be responsible for everybody who is watching them? They’ve put Bacup and Rossendale on the map and it’s absolutely appalling what they’ve been told.”
The Nutters’ committee is due to meet to discuss their formal response to the county council.
Oliver Starkey, the county council’s highways manager for Rossendale, said: “Officers from the county council, Rossendale Council and the police met with the dancers and highlighted some issues following this year’s event. The problems were explained to the dancers and we discussed how we would like to work with them to ensure a safe event for next Easter.”
The Nutters’ custom of blackened faces is believed to stem from dancers who had a pagan or medieval background disguising themselves from being recognised by evil spirits, or members’ historic connections with the mining industry. The Coconutters perform around 40 gigs a year and their youngest member 43-year-old Steve Esther dances alongside their oldest member 76, Dick Shufflebottom who has become an icon in the folk world after dancing for more than 56 years.