In Mirkmere the usual ‘Field Sports’ are overshadowed by the local and ancient art of Rat Hunting. The Mirkmere Rat Hounds hunt on foot throughout the year (excepting only Christmas Day) and the sight of the village huntsmen in their blue jackets and yellow knee breeches following the pack of specially bred and trained Fenland Terriers (or rat hounds) is a rare sight. This dance commemorates the ancient tradition of the hunt.
Unusually, there are two distinct forms of the chorus figure. In the original chorus (A) the steps recall the encircling of the rats by the huntsmen as they catch up with them out in the fen. In the alternative version (B) more usually danced in the rush-punt festivities (q.v.) the steps were adopted by the dancers early this century – the story of their origin is interesting. A wandering French matelot apparently spent some time in the village just before the first war and showed the morris dancers the steps of a French sailors’ rat-killing dance traditionally performed in the holds of old wooden navel vessels. The dance has spectacular leaps and turns in it that, supposedly, confuse the rats and thereby make them easier to catch and kill in the confined space of a ship. The use of this feature for ridding the Mirkmere Rush-Punts of rats prior to the ceremony of the Rush-Punt Procession was so attractive that the morris team adopted the steps into the traditional dance with alacrity. The tune (“Trunkles” – a morris tune found in many village traditions besides this one) is named after the rat huntsman’s trunkle – a long brass-capped rod or pole used to help the huntsman keep his feet in the soggy fenland, to poke into rat holes and, to keep the pack of hounds under control
Trunkles (similar to the Bledington village variant) – (A2BC)4.A2
Eight dancers – tops and bottoms with sticks and middles with handkerchiefs.
(A) Original chorus
B-music – walk in circle four steps clockwise then four steps back to place – placing the feet firmly on each step and peering hard at the centre of the circle “to watch the encircled rats”
C-music – all facing into the centre of the circle – dancers with handkerchiefs “stamp” twice on the rats in the centre; dancers with sticks then beat the rats twice on the ground; handkerchiefs repeat; sticks repeat; then all dance one double step facing in and an ftj to place
(B) Alternative (French) chorus
All face across the set to partners during the B-music and, with hands on belts, leap sideways onto the right foot. leap back onto the left foot, cross the set turning back to back with partner and landing on the right foot facing across again, leap to the left foot. This is then repeated back to the original position. The subsequent C-music is as for the traditional chorus.