In the first of a new series, Andy Letcher looks at some of the Folklore and customs of the British Isles.
As a creature of summer, the arrival of autumn always brings a certain sadness. The days might still be bright and warm but damp in the morning and the evening chill herald the sun’s decline. The hope of an Indian summer recedes and the reality of living on a damp island sinks in once again. But over the years I’ve developed a set of seasonal habits, little markers to ease me through the changes: swapping the duvet, switching over to porridge, you know the kind of thing. They work, believe me, but just at the point where I crave something more, some bigger event to propel me across the quarters, our rich calendar of English folk customs comes up trumps. For the past five Septembers I’ve been going to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. It’s become an immovable fixture in my calendar. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
The dance, held each Wakes Monday, begins at eight in the morning when the six sets of reindeer antlers are ceremoniously taken down from their mounts in the church. After a short service, the dancers are off, following a set route through the parish of this rural Staffordshire village. The retinue consists of the six Deer Men, a Hobby Horse, a Bowman (usually a child), a bladder-wielding Fool, a dragged-up Maid Marian and a brace of musicians – all Fowlers or Bentleys by birth or marriage and all dressed in distinctive medieval-style costumes. The dance lasts all day until, finally, at eight in the evening the horns are replaced in the church, and there they remain until the following year.
The event attracts a good crowd of followers, and you’ll start to recognise familiar faces: the gentleman with the antler-topped staff, notched with every year he’s come; the woman in the wide-brimmed leather hat; Doc Rowe assiduously filming it all for posterity and his ever-expanding archive. It’s one of those gloriously idiosyncratic English days-out, where nothing very much happens and you can follow or potter as you will, easing yourself into its gentle rhythm with a pint on the village green or tea and cake at the WI.
Like so many of those odd English customs, its origins are obscure. You’d be forgiven for thinking it pagan. It certainly feels ancient, enduring like a forgotten piece of hunting magic or the relic of some licentious, Wicker Man-style fertility rite. The visible assortment of Witches, Druids and Heathens amongst the watching crowd certainly suggests that many come for that reason but, alas, the evidence is against it.
According to the historian Ronald Hutton in 'The Stations of the Sun' the Horn Dance probably began in the Tudor period as a (horn-free) hobby horse dance, common right across the midlands as a way of raising parish funds at Christmas. The horns had certainly arrived by the seventeenth century for the antiquarian Robert Plot left us a vivid description of them, but the dance fell into decline in the cheerless Cromwellian era. It was revived in the eighteenth century after a gap of nearly a hundred years, which is when it moved to its September date. The medieval-style costumes and the figure of Maid Marian arrived during the nineteenth century, immortalised in the black and white photographs of Benjamin Stone, the Doc Rowe of his day. But as to the question of how and why a hobby horse dance became a horn dance, employing antlers that have been carbon dated to the eleventh century, no one knows.
The dance itself is unique. The men process in columns, parade in spirals, then feint in and out like rows of rutting stags. They dance in short five or ten minute bursts (feel the weight of the antlers and you’ll understand why), ever onwards, from station to station, pub to pub. In between the ‘official’ dances they rest and let others have a go. Anyone can pick up the horns for a tourist photo but it’s something else to be asked to ‘dance in.’ Friends, wives, relatives, the chefs at the village Balti house and even the copper charged with managing the traffic, all get woven into these ribald mini-dances (the last, cheekily, to the theme from Z-Cars). Like most folk customs, the Horn Dance is at heart a celebration of local pride, and in these unofficial dances you can literally see the community being woven together. And there’s an implicit two fingers to the commuters and incomers who’ve flooded the village (pushing some of the dancers out), forced to watch from their SUVs while the antlers reclaim the streets.
Both official and unofficial dances are driven by the music and the steady clang of the triangle. As any folk musician will tell you, there’s a rather jaunty English tune called ‘the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance’. A three-part jig in a minor key, it seems beautifully to conjure up the image of men in breeches capering about with antlers on their shoulders, but needless to say you’ll not hear it once. “Oh we can play any tunes we like”, say the musicians when pressed, “but never that one. It was composed by someone else and it’s got nothing to do with us!” The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance has always had to fend off the wishful thinking of outsiders. There is what it is, and there is what the rest of us would like it to be.
But still it endures and the point is not to worry about its origins or what it means but to go and let whatever-it-is do whatever-it-does. As the day progresses you see the energy wax and wane and wax again. At four, beer and fatigue make the dance ragged at the edges. After supper, the men are on fire again until by the time of the final dance, with night falling and an even larger crowd assembled, they’re taken by it, surging in and out like a force of nature. The horns are carrying them.
For, no matter how you feel when you get there or how ropey the weather there’s always a moment – perhaps during that last dance, or earlier, when suddenly you spot the horns gyrating above the crowd – where something catches. You’re stopped by it. The hairs of the neck tingle. Something vital has been done. Something intangible. Significant. Necessary. The man with the antler-topped staff knows; Doc Rowe knows; the dancers all know. It’s not the music or the origins or the costumes or even the horns: it’s the doing of it that matters.
And when I’m driving back down the motorway, buffeted by gales, suddenly the thought of winter doesn’t seem quite so bad.