ABBOT'S BROMLEY HORN DANCE
The alarm went off at about half past four though happily I didn’t feel too tired, as the night before I had managed to get to bed a little earlier than lately. Phoebe seemed quite happy, and after a bit of a walk by the streetlights for her, and a cup of tea for me we started off. On this sort of journey I don’t mind starting out in the dark as there is not much to see going up the M6 and through the industrial parts of the midlands, and by the time the day was lightening enough to see much we were off the motorways and into the Staffordshire countryside.
The morning was really cold, not helped by the fact that somehow the plate holding the heating controls behind Thebus’ walnut facia had been loosened, with the result that non of the heating worked, including the demister, so not only was it cold for Phoebe and me, but I had to use the big windscreen fans in order to see out, which cooled everything down even more.
The mists were lying flat and low in the valleys as we neared our destination: a real ‘hop-picking morning’ which boded well for a good day later on. Then, opening out in front of us I wasn’t sure if it was a vast area of mist or a body of water or both. Although the mist had been lying, the sun was now up and reflecting most beautifully off the still smooth surface of the Blithfield Reservoir, apparently an eight hundred acre lake set up sometime in the early fifties to supply drinking water, and which has now become a haven for wildlife and been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The surface of the still water was a silver and blue mirror, with hints of rose from the early dawn. Flights of birds lifted from the glassy surface as we crossed the road bisecting the lake. Silhouetted as they were against the low sunlight it was impossible to identify any, though I did see a skein of geese honking their way across the sky when I arrived in the almost silent streets of Abbots Bromley. And what a delightful place it was: a real country town, now reverted to a village having lost most of its shops and businesses, but still with its lovely market house proudly standing on the old green outside The Goat Inn.
The Goat Inn must be named for the Bagot Goat which was a semi-wild breed, surviving at Blithfield Hall for hundreds of years, having being introduced there in about 1380, possibly by returning Crusaders. It is said the original Bagot Goats were given to John Bagot of Blithfield by King Richard II in honour of the good hunting the King had enjoyed at Blithfield.
I think they may have been moved from the park when the estate was sold off to the council not long after the Second World War, and I have a feeling there are non there now, certainly anyone I asked knew nothing about them. A flock of Bagot goats is still kept by the Bagot family in the deer park of Levens Hall in Cumbria, and though in 2010 the breed was considered ‘Critically Endangered’ by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, with less than one hundred breeding females. A successful breeding programme has noe seen the breed upgraded to ‘Vulnerable'
If you would like to read more about the Bagot Goat follow the links below
Reaching Abbots Bromley so early in the morning I managed to stop on the High Street in amongst a line of parked cars, which, though surprised at my luck, I thought it politic to phone the nearest police station just to check I would be allowed to stay there, and having asked me if there were parking restrictions, which there were non, plus if I was obstructing the traffic, which I wasn’t, they said I would be fine. But I still asked any early morning passers-by and commuters I saw leaving for their offices if I would be nuisance there, and the unanimous opinion was that I would be fine, and I was best not to try to move Thebus anywhere else today. So with parking sorted I headed off to try for some photos of the lovely buildings before the traffic built up.
Before visiting I had tried to do some research on the internet and check I had my dates right, but the information was limited, and it was only a couple of days before that I was certain I was visiting on the correct day. Once here there is a leaflet on the event, which was apparently originally linked to St. Bartholemew’s Day - and all I know of him is that St. Barts in London is named after him, and the old saying that 'St. Bartlebus Shuts up the Bees’ - and judging by the coldness off the morning as we travelled I can see this is very probably true.
As with Easter, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is a ‘moveable feast’ and is now held each year ‘the Monday following the Sunday following the 4th September’ There are twelve dancers in the team, which was originally composed solely of men, but as the Vicar said at the blessing before the dance is now an ‘equal opportunities’ festival
Six of the dancers carry the most magnificent horns attached to small carved wooden deer heads each on a pole to help the dancers carry the weight - the largest set weighing over 25 lbs or about 20 kilos. The horns are carried for the TEN MILES of the dance, and that is just the distance covered: at regular spots the leader calls for the group to form up for the dance which then lasts for quite a few minutes. When the tip of one of the horns or should I say antlers, for that is what they actually are, was accidentally damaged a while ago a sliver was sent for radio carbon dating and came in at around 1065, about the time that William was doing his conquering - which is interesting as once he had done his conquering one of the first things he did was to stop the locals hunting deer!
The dancing day starts before eight in the morning when the stepladders are put up to remove the sets of antlers from the church wall where they have hung for the previous year, and continues until the horns are replaced at the late evening service of Compline at eight thirty.
Apart from the six horn bearers there is a Hobby Horse and Boy Attendant who carries a bow and arrow, a Maid Marion, a Jester, and two musicians. Having been blessed by the Vicar of Abbots Bromley the team assembled outside the church doors, then they were off at quite a smart pace, unexpectedly stopping every so often to perform their circling and crossing dance, and then all of a sudden off again, with their band of followers tagging along behind, this year including a camera team from Channel Four
I watched the Horn Dancers out of the churchyard and followed them to the old Butter Cross outside The Goat Inn, where they performed in the middle of the main road through Abbots Bromley
- totally halting the early morning commuter traffic whilst they performed, then presumably slowing the traffic to walking pace as the whole gaggle proceeded up the main road to the next historic ‘dancing place’ As I didn’t want to leave Phoebe for hours and hours, and thinking that over twelve hours following the dancers would be quite a few hours too many for me as well as Phoebe I retired to Thebus.
The programme said that the dancers were returning to the village green just before five in the afternoon, so I left a little early in time to have a look round the stalls on the Village Green selling various items, or hosting Tombola and the usual fete stalls. Having spent a suitable amount of money and winning a bottle of beer I heard the jingle of the bells as the dancers approached for a well earned break at The Goat Inn, then after a dance in front of The Crown they were off again.
Once they were back in Abbots Bromley all afternoon and evening there would be a sound of the bells as they moved rapidly from one dancing spot to another, with occasional glimpses of the band and their followers crossing a lane or disappearing round a corner.
The dancers had gone up to the Coach and Horses at the top of the town and had to pass Thebus as they headed back to the Market House, looking a bit tired. I watched them pass then followed them back as darkness was beginning to fall, and they had a last dance in front of the Crown then wearily tagged off towards the church to the tune of ‘Show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I want to go to bed'
When the dance was recorded in 1857 the dancers recalled their Grandfathers talking about their dancing days which would take it back to well before 1800 implying that it is one of the few dancing customs which has continued down the years, rather than being a 20th C. revival. Its nice to participate in a day of something which is so much a part of our common human heritage. I first read about this celebration sometime in the nineteen sixties and always intended to go sometime, and at last I have visited and seen it for myself. And most enjoyable it was too. Thank you Abbots Bromley for keeping one of our traditions alive.