Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is believed to have been running since the Barthelmy Fair, granted to the Abbots of Burton by Henry III in 1226, celebrating Bartholomew’s Day – August 24th. The changing of the Julian Calender in 1752 has moved the Fair to the beginning of September, and the Fair became one day, rather than three days. Yet the horns have been dated to centuries before – circa 11th century – and being reindeer antlers, they obviously came from Scandinavia, probably down the River Trent and into the Staffordshire region.

The Horn dance day is always held on a Monday – Here is how you remember which day it is on. It’s always ‘the Monday following the first Sunday after the fourth of September’ – remember that folks, many a person has turned up on the wrong Monday and been disappointed…..

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

So I managed to go to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance in 2012 on the 10th of September. My friend Steve goes every year, and has done since 1989. So when I thought I could go, I emailed Steve about it, he told me he could not go, but told me how much it was going to cost me to go via public transport. It did not seem worth it, considering if I had to travel there myself, funds were low, and I had plane tickets to buy to get back home to Australia.  But then Steve changed his mind, saying he would be able to go and help me pay for my travel there. Suddenly that was it – I was going!

I met Steve at Wakefield station at 10am, and we made our way south to Derby, then to Uttoxeter where a cab driver was waiting for us – Steve books him every year, so he knows him personally. From there, the village was about a 15 – 20 min drive away.

In Abbots Bromley, you found yourself in a relatively untouched village – a typical Staffordshire village at that – with not much changed. Some of the buildings here still are certainly medieval. We were dropped off at the Buttercross – a hexagonal shaped building near the green that was used for market day over many centuries – I’ve seen one other like it in Bungay, in Suffolk. This one is more medieval looking, the Bungay one looks Georgian. Someone there that day told me what a Buttercross was – at market, it was where people bought butter, milk and eggs.

The Buttercross, with the Goat's
Head pub behind it
We visited a pagan art stall – a longhaired, bearded attractive man named Chris Bell, selling his pagan art in the market and I bought a few as gifts for people back home. After that we had our first pint at the Goat’s Head pub, and met some of Steve’s pagan friends there. Great chats with people I’d just met, who had good stories to tell. Even Steve had stories to tell about his annual jaunts to Abbots Bromley. As he’s been coming since 1989, he had a few tales, and I think, could write a book about the goings on that he had witnessed over the years – the pagan camps, the large and small crowds, the popularity of the event, and how they’ve evolved. One story he told was about how he and his pagan friends were sitting in the pub or somewhere and a tradesman came along and asked them about runes – he had seen some around the village – under the tiles of the old roofs and houses – dating back centuries, probably even the middle ages. They had been scratched into the architecture of the old buildings – some of these probably not repaired for many centuries. Sketching the runes for the pagans, the tradesman was told they may have been symbols of protection upon the house. Kind of reminds me of the concealed shoes superstition. Now THAT would be good article.
The Church House
After our pint, we went to the old Church House – that is certainly medieval or even later, but definitely one of the oldest houses in the village. They put on a great spread there – sandwiches and cakes to eat, and endless tea – we had our lunch there – well, a small lunch, we also ate more later on.
St Nicholas Parish Church down from the Church House
Steve took me to the St Nicholas Parish Church to see where the horns are kept. I could tell by looking at it, parts of it were Saxon, and like all Saxon churches, had been added to over the years, especially in the Norman times. Saxon and Norman buildings go together a lot here. This one was quite a lovely church. The bars that hang the horns up are there, and even the old hobby horse from years ago – I’ve seen old images from the 70’s of that hobby horse being ridden about the place – it says that it is from the middle ages – could it actually be that old? I often hold doubt of things like this – what looks medieval, could have been made as recently as the 19th century. They use a new one in the dance now. There were also glass cabinets holding the regalia and costumes of horn dancers past.

St Nicholas Parish Church

Racks for hanging horns

Horn dancers past

Where they hang the horns for 364 days of the year

There was also a story from Steve about the pagans who actually came to church services in previous Horn dance weekends, in their velvet robes and pentacles, and sat in the front row, much to the annoyance of the vicar. The Christian locals preferred to sit up the back as far away from the pagans as possible. Would have loved to have seen that.

In the churchyard, the ground surrounding the church was raised, as if it was small pre-Christian mound. It makes us wonder if indeed a Saxon church was here, maybe something before it existed. Steve also showed me a headstone, belonging to a man that was once a leader of the horn dancers – and it says that on his headstone. He belonged to the Fowell family, and they are the official horn dancers – their family and another one are the only members that can dance, and have been for many, many generations.  Steve also told me about another friend of his and visitor to the Horn Dance day would spend the night in the graveyard because he had nowhere else to sleep. And people and locals did not mind – he was just the ‘guy who slept in the graveyard.’ Oh Boy! The characters you get at these events.

We walked up the street to the Bagot Arms, passing some of the places where Steve says the dancers stop for a pint, or food. In the Bagot Arms, Steve and I had another pint and we chatted about many other things – pagans in the UK and Australia, folk dancing, horse brasses, and many other things that crossed our minds. I kept seeing more and more people walking past the pub window, as I realised the tourists were arriving. It was probably about 3.00 - 3.30pm by now, and the dancers were due to arrive in the village. After a toilet run, I went outside to find Steve standing there, prompting me along. As I looked west down the road, I saw the dancers skipping along the road with their horns. I got really excited here – this was it! I was finally going to see this horn dance. It all dawned on me where I was when I saw them. I began to not believe that I was here!

Steve and Shamus

As they came along, they circled around each other, and I saw my Staffordshire friend Shamus, he acknowledged me and gave me a head bow. I began to take some short footage of the dance, and Angela, the leader of my border morris team back in Yorkshire, was in the background. She saw me and came around to give me a hug. After this dance the dancers went under an arch and out into the backyard of one of their friends who had put on a bit of food. Steve suggested we walk back into the village, and before we walked off, Ang invited us out the back with the dancers to hang out with Shamus. The four of us got some group photos together and then went further out the back to the lawn to watch some of the dancers dance with some locals. They are a more open folk dance than I thought. You think about Padstow and how only locals can go to the May Day Festival because the tourists ‘clogged the village.’ And the Morris Ring who have men-only sides who refuse to let women join, but here in Abbots Bromley, they let locals dance and WOMEN too! What a nice bunch of people! Not superstitious about a woman holding the horns let alone having a dance!

The Hobby Horse of Abbots Bromley

After that, we followed the dancers out to the street again and walked along as we watched them head to the Bagot Arms back towards the village. At this car park, Shamus dragged me over to where the horns were laid on the ground, and shoved a set of horns into my hands. I was holding the lighter horns that were damaged in the mid 70’s and the broken bit was dated to have been from around 1060s. I made sure veteran attendee Steve got to hold them as well.



We headed back towards the Buttercross, running into more pagan friends of Steve on the way and stopping for chats. At the Crown Pub, we went inside to see the new décor of the renovated pub – all modern and new, and saw the Horn Dance paintings done in the 1940s. Then we went round the back of the pub and visited the pagan camp site up the back – I saw Nick from the Black Pigs Border Morris and went to say hello to him by his hearse. Then we got a hotdog outside the front of the Crown and then stood with more of Steve’s friends, Cathy and Robin. It was now when the horn dancers had made their way down into the village and arrived outside the Goat’s Head and held up the traffic doing their road-hogging dance. Then they rested by the Goat’s Head and let friends dance with them.

I chatted to friends Ang, Fran, and Shamus, and Steve and his friends joined us. I visited the stalls again and bought some Horn Dancer pins. Then the dancers went out the back of the Goat’s Head and posed for photos. We stayed back there in the large beer garden until about 6pm, then headed back to the Crown. It was time for Steve and I to get back to the station, so we looked for our cab. I could not find Ang or Shamus at all, so never got to say goodbye. It was the last time I saw Shamus too. Our cab was waiting when it started to rain again. We got the train from Uttoxeter to Derby and on the Derby train, an announcement told us we were not stopping at Wakefield, so Steve had to get off at Sheffield. I went onto Leeds and eventually got home via Shipley, as trains were down that night.
Steve gets to hold the horns

The painting in the Crown Pub

I had an awesome and memorable day at Abbots Bromley and am very glad I got to go. It was magic! And brilliant to witness such an old dance and finally see how it was conducted, especially since I have been going to folk dances all year. Getting to know so many people apart from Steve in England has been wonderful, meeting Shamus in March and becoming friends with him, and then learning that he was the accordion player for the Horn Dancers absolutely blew my mind! What are the chances of such a meeting! I had such a wonderful day!


1 comment:

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