Sallyport at 30
some views through the haze

By Vince Rutland, with thanks to Phil Heaton and Brian Kell

Like many teams, Sallyport had their origins in a “one-off” event. In 1969, an invitation arrived in the North East for a group to join members of the Northumbrian Pipers Society in representing the region's traditional music and dance at a bagpipe festival at Strakonice, in what was then Czeckoslovakia. Amazingly, no team wanted to go, so the only option was to create one and individual dancers from a variety of sides were assembled for the occasion.

Returning from a successful trip behind the Iron Curtain, most of the dancers resolved to stay together as a team. They chose the name Sallyport Sword Dancers from the name of the tower in which they practised on Newcastle's City Walls. They designed a team emblem – still used – consisting of the three towers of Newcastle's coat of arms, above a white bull. This beast represents one of the famous Chillingham cattle, an ancient and pure-bred wild breed found only on the team's Patron, the Earl of Tankerville's, former Northumberland estate.

Les Williamson was a moving force, while other early members included the late Ron Ferguson, George Wallace and Rich Preece (both now with High Spen), a student named Mike Douglass and pipers Colin Ross and the late and legendary Forster Charlton. Bass Stanness and Phil Heaton joined soon afterwards, as did a young lad called Eddie Elliot (later “poached” by Royal Earsdon). Another recruit, Brian Kell, joined early in 1970, when Sallyport performed at Birtley Folk Song Club and Mike Douglass asked whether anyone wanted to join. By this time, Tony Davis was musician, playing small pipes & concertina. They maintained strong links with the Northumbrian Pipers Society and Forster Charlton still played occasionally until about 1980.

Besides rapper, Sallyport originally performed a wide mix of dances. Longsword and North West were early casualties but Cotswold lingered on until the early 80's. “We danced everywhere – and did everything badly,” Brian Kell recalls. On one occasion, they did a talent competition run by the Evening Chronicle and came second with Cotswold & rapper, much to the disgust of the “serious” entrants who came 1st & 3rd.

They performed all over the region and particularly at country fairs in Northumberland, including Chillingham Castle. Most early tours were by public transport, to places like Whitley Bay. They would often visit ten or more pubs in a night and once, in Bellingham, they were so strapped for time that they left their collectors in one pub while they danced in the next. Ovingham Goose Fair was a regular fixture, as was the Bal Fire which, for Brian, was the start of a close association with straw, as he later went on to revive the Whittlesea Straw Bear tradition in the Fens. Another early trip was to Belgium with Herga Morris Men (who included melodeon whizz-kid Andy Cutting's dad).

The involvement of Phil Heaton's father in the Seaham Silver Band led to an invitation to dance at the Durham Big Meeting – the Miners's Gala. Ironically, Phil missed the big spot and did not achieve this ambition until Sallyport took to the Gala platform in 1997!

The lads were known for enjoying the occasional beer and tales are many, although most can't be repeated here. To this day, they retain an uncanny knack of sniffing out “flexitime” pubs. Brian still recalls being sick in Forster Charlton's car on the way home from a boozy booking. Another incident involves a rival team member. Sallyport organised an evening “ale” in the Sallyport Tower, with other local teams as guests. Returning the next day to clear up, they found a comatose Kingsman. He had crawled into an attic turret until everyone had gone, then reappeared to finish the beer at his leisure overnight.

The Newcastle suburb of Byker's Shields Road became fixed in tradition as Sallyport's annual rapper crawl on the last Friday before Christmas Eve. Most are too clouded to remember but I recall one year, with my wife due to give birth any day, I agreed to stay sober. I saw what I saw – and I'll never do it again; drunk is blissfully ignorant!

Sallyport became very friendly with two teams in particular. They often danced with Redcar Swords and, when both teams danced at Phil Heaton's wedding, they all (Phil included) managed to lose the bride. Firmly lodged in the back bar of a pub, they told the landlord it was a private party and not to let anyone in. True to his word, he didn't – even the bride! Phil, Brian recalls, was in a very nice brown velvet Betty dress with a cape.

The other team, Southport Swords, had started up a few months before Sallyport and the two made regular dancing visits to each other until the 80's. After the Sallyport Tower became unavailable, practices moved to the Post-Graduate Union at Newcastle University, meeting first in the late-lamented Haymarket bar (from which a Kingsman figure takes its name). Later, practices moved to a community centre in Byker, then to the Barley Mow, Tanner's Arms, Bridge Hotel, Ship and, finally, the legendary Cumberland Arms in Byker, with which they have had a close drinking relationship for at least 25 years.

For many years, their dancing was not exactly premier division and by 1981, they were close to folding. The same four dancers met in the same pub (the New Bridge) every Friday night for six months, enjoying a couple of pints before concluding that the non-existent fifth or sixth weren't going to turn up and they may as well retire to the Cumberland for the rest of the night. They existed happily in this state until, one black day, a new bloke turned up and they had to do something. Five was not enough for Cotswold - but they could learn rapper, although only two or three of them really knew it properly. This was a defining moment as, although the team quickly grew and danced Cotswold (and even learned some Border) for a year or so more, they settled on becoming solely a rapper side. There was a firm belief that this was Northumbria's dance and that was what they should concentrate on.

Their first trip away after this was to Holmfirth Folk Festival. Lock after lock fell out and Jonty the musician's accordian even collapsed during a dance. He completed the music on an adjacent piano; the lads didn't miss a beat. Next trip was to Forest of Dean. The Reverend Ken, the very revered Squire of the Ring, spotted the team, saying: “Ah, Sallyport - haven't seen you dance for years.” He settled on his shooting stick in front of the musician to scrutinise the dancers at close quarters. Naturally, the lock fell out. Fortunately, it's not happened often since then.

The team enjoyed a major revival, attending many events across the country and was the very first team to take the floor at the inaugural DERT competition in 1983. The mid 80's, however, saw another reversal in fortunes, as a number of key members left the area. By 1986, things had more or less collapsed. That year, just five dancers gathered for the annual Shields Road tour. One had travelled from Kent and another from Lancashire to be there but there was no musician. Everything looked lost until Hexham's Roger Kennington strolled in, with concertina, on the offchance - and off they went. 1987 saw no dancing until Shields Road, but more organisation went into the night, including a couple of practices. Afterwards, it was resolved to attempt a proper revival. The remaining local members were mustered and several other dancers invited to help get things going again. Practices resumed, first monthly, then fortnightly and new members appeared.

Although some of these have now moved away, most remain in contact and members regularly travel from as far afield as North Yorkshire and even Glasgow for practices. Some of the dancers from the late 70's are still actively involved and a core remains in Newcastle, although there is a need to recruit afresh. Five members at a recent booking could claim well over a century of Sallyporting between them! It is this squad that has taken Sallyport to its greatest achievements. The two DERT trophies have been followed by appearances at major festivals including Sidmouth, Whitby, Holmfirth, Warwick and Beverley and a return to their roots at Strakonice in the Czech Republic in 1996 for the first time since 1969. They have been to Belgium three times, Norway once (jointly with the Kingsmen) and, in February 1999, to the eastern USA.

They have also taken it upon themselves to dance in unusual places. These include an underground stone quarry (with Northgate), in a telephone box (not easy), under the River Tyne (in the pedestrian tunnel), over the Tyne (on the Shields Ferry), under the Clyde (on the Glasgow subway), under the Thames (on the Underground) and under the English Channel (in a shuttle). Other transport modes include several steam railways, a bus, a vintage tram and the Manchester Metro.

Although Sallyport have nothing against “made-up” dances - indeed they admire many of them - they believe that the North-East's old dances still have plenty to offer. Because of this, they perform only traditional routines (“somebody has to”). The Newbiggin dance has been their great love since 1969 and most of the dancers over the years could dance it in (almost) any state of sobriety, blindfold if called on. And they have. They have modified the dance here and there over the years but it's still recognisable and it won them their 1995 DERT trophy - a feat the original Newbiggin team never managed despite years of trying. They have regularly performed it in Newbiggin itself and even own a set of original rappers (now on display at Woodhorn Colliery Museum on the outskirts of the town). It has even been said that they have “virtually made the tradition their own” (Fit to Dance Ower the Moon, G. Wallace, 1986).

In 1982, having abandoned Cotswold, they decided they needed a second dance for a trip to Southport. Joe Newton, who had family connections with the Winlaton team, handed out Sharp's notes of that dance and told everyone to “learn” it in their heads over the next few days. Meeting up at Southport on the Friday, they tried to put it together in a back room. Anyone who has ever learned a dance from Sharp's notes will understand why it crashed... but it was successfully danced before the weekend was out. Back home, the team re-learned it properly from scratch and won a category prize with a great Winlaton dance at DERT 93 in Derby.

Next on the agenda was the Beadnell, also learned from Sharpe's notes. For such simple figures, this caused its share of argument but, once the timing was sorted out, the gentle and flowing dance has become a firm favourite, particularly as the first dance of the day after a hard night before. It has also gained a unique set of Betty gags related to its nautical origins. In September, the team achieved an ambition by dancing it at Beadnell – in front of the sons of two of the original dancers. The latest challenge is Murton – a back-to-front routine which causes endless confusion every time the nut is tied. Although not danced out yet, this won't be far away.

Over the years, Sallyport dancers have moved to other parts of the country and many other teams can trace their ancestry to these exiles. Phil Heaton went to Derby, forming first Black Cap and then Stone Monkey. Brian Kell went to Hertfordshire, where Stevenage Swords resulted. Julian South went north to Glasgow to form Clydeside and Brain Tasker created White Star in Kent. Doubtless there are others.

The first 30 years have seen Sallyport change virtually out of all recognition. The ethos of enjoyment remains to this day, although the dancing is certainly considered a more serious business now. Who knows quite what they'll be like in another 30 years?