Almanac

Evergreen - - Contents - John Greeves

The Ab­bots Brom­ley Horn Dance group is the old­est tra­di­tion­al­ist dance group in Bri­tain dat­ing back hun­dreds of years with an­tecedents stretch­ing even fur­ther back to pre- his­tory, if you be­lieve some folk­lorists. The dance takes place an­nu­ally in Ab­bots Brom­ley, an at­trac­tive 13th- cen­tury vil­lage in Stafford­shire, on Wakes Mon­day ( the Mon­day fol­low­ing the first Sun­day after 4th September). This year it is on 11th September.

Six men ( known as the Deer­men) carry heavy sets of antlers and are ac­com­pa­nied by Maid Marian ( a man dressed up), the Hobby Horse, the Jester or Fool, a boy car­ry­ing a bow and ar­row and an­other young boy with a tri­an­gle who beats time to the mu­sic. Nowa­days there can be two mu­si­cians play­ing the ac­cor­dion, although in the past a vi­o­lin was used, with ear­lier mu­sic com­ing from the pipe and ta­bor. Maid Marian who pre­dates the le­gends of Robin Hood col­lects money from passers- by. The Fool dances with a pig’s blad­der and stops to amuse the crowds and answers ques­tions. The Hobby Horse ca­reers about open­ing and clos­ing its mouth while the bow­man ap­pears to shoot into it to ward away the evil spir­its.

The dance is a liv­ing, breath­ing thing that goes back hun­dreds of years and, ac­cord­ing to Terry Bai­ley — who plays the Jester — his­to­ri­ans still can’t find the true date when it be­gan. Var­i­ous views about its ori­gin ex­ist. The dance was per­formed at the three- day Barthelmy Fair in 1226 to cel­e­brate St. Bartholomew’s Day ( 24th Au­gust) and was later moved to the be­gin­ning of September when corrections were made to the Ju­lian Cal­en­dar in 1752. No recorded ref­er­ences ex­ist to the Horn Dance prior to Robert Plot’s Nat­u­ral His­tory of Stafford­shire, writ­ten in 1686. Ac­cord­ing to Robert Plot, it was also re- en­acted some­times on Christ­mas Day and New Year’s Day. Con­nec­tions have been made that go back even fur­ther in time. In the Trois- Frères Caves, in Arieg, France, an im­age ex­ists that dates back 14,000 years. Known as the “Sorcerer”, this is thought to be a danc­ing man wear­ing antlers on his head and sug­gests an even more an­cient ori­gin.

Terry ex­plains how some peo­ple in­ter­pret their en­act­ment as a fer­til­ity dance. For them, “It’s like the rut­ting sea­son when you see the horns go­ing back and for­ward and the cir­cling part of the dance, where the fe­male teases the male.” Oth­ers in the vil­lage re­gard it as a cel­e­bra­tion of get­ting the harvest in. Some peo­ple have pos­tu­lated it as an as­ser­tion of lo­cal forestry rights. For Terry and his troupe, there is no ex­act def­i­ni­tion of when it started, and what it rep­re­sents. He lets oth­ers draw their own con­clu­sions; his sole con­cern is to see this tra­di­tion car­ried on.

Ev­ery­one would as­sume the antlers used in the Ab­bots Brom­ley Dance were deer, but they are in fact rein­deer so the mys­tery deep­ens. Rein­deer were ex­tinct be­fore Saxon times. It seems the likely source of these antlers came from Scan­di­navia. The area around Stafford­shire was set­tled by both the Sax­ons and Danes. The neigh­bour­ing River Trent would have en­sured a fea­si­ble route be­tween Vik­ing set­tle­ments and Den­mark and Nor­way via the Hum­ber Es­tu­ary. When the sec­ond brown ( antler) was da­m­aged, just over 20 years ago, it was sent to Derby Uni­ver­sity where it was car­bon- dated to the year 1065 plus or mi­nus 80 years, which raises yet an­other co­nun­drum for those seek­ing a com­pre­hen­sive ex­pla­na­tion.

The day be­gins at 7.30am when the antlers are col­lected from St. Ni­cholas’ Church. They’re kept in the Hurst Chapel un­der the su­per­vi­sion

of the lo­cal vicar. The horns are fixed to wooden stags’ heads dat­ing from the 16th cen­tury and clearly seem to rep­re­sent the hunted rather than the hun­ters. One item that is not re­moved from the church is the former Hobby Horse. It’s too old and frag­ile and has been re­placed by a more durable and lighter ver­sion.

After a short ser­vice, the horns are first “danced” in front of the church. The dance con­sists of two parts, but as Terry tells me there can be vari­a­tions. It be­gins with the horn- bear­ers form­ing a silent cir­cle. The mu­sic be­gins with the leader break­ing the cir­cle and snaking his way be­tween the sec­ond and third dancers. The rest fol­low him, then they form two lines with three dancers in each line fac­ing each other. The antlers are raised with the white horns op­pos­ing the brown horns. The two lines ad­vance and re­tire and cross sides as they ap­pear to lock horns ( but never do).

The dancers used to wear their own clothes which they dec­o­rated with a few rib­bons and bits of coloured cloth. The more mod­ern cos­tumes came into ex­is­tence just be­fore Queen Vic­to­ria’s Golden Ju­bilee in 1887 and were de­signed by the daugh­ters of John Man­ley Lowe Jnr. who was the vicar at the time. Var­i­ous cos­tumes fol­lowed over the years.

The present cos­tumes for the horn car­ri­ers con­sist of con­trast­ing shirts and waist­coats for those car­ry­ing the antlers. The white horn car­ri­ers wear

a rust- coloured oak leaf- pat­terned shirt with plain sleeves and a light green waist­coat. Those car­ry­ing the brown horns in con­trast wear a light green oak- pat­terned shirt with plain sleeves and a rust- coloured waist­coat. All wear tan hats, breeches with oak leaf pat­terns and long green socks. The Jester and other mem­bers are dressed in cos­tumes to suit their char­ac­ter.

The Deer­men pro­ceed through the vil­lage and fur­ther away to the out­ly­ing farms and then, around noon, to Blith­field Hall. This was home quite re­cently to the Bagot fam­ily who resided there since 1360. Here the troupe dance on the front lawn be­fore they set out to some sur­round­ing farms. Later they re­turn to the vil­lage mov­ing slowly be­tween four vil­lage pubs, the High Street and fin­ish the danc­ing ac­tiv­i­ties at the Mar­ket Place, with its an­cient But­ter Cross, be­fore re­turn­ing to the church around 8pm. Some peo­ple have cal­cu­lated the dis­tance cov­ered as 10 miles, but Terry feels it’s closer to 15. “Some do more than oth­ers,” he points out, “and there are nor­mally three or four that can stand in when nec­es­sary.” This is just as well as the dance is phys­i­cally de­mand­ing, with the antlers rang­ing from 29 to 39 inches across and weigh­ing be­tween 16 ¼ lbs and 25 ¼ lbs in to­tal.

Two prom­i­nent fam­i­lies, the Fow­ell and Bent­ley fam­i­lies have en­sured the sur­vival of the dance since at least 1800, with the two fam­i­lies in­ter- mar­ry­ing in 1858. For these fam­i­lies it was not only a his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion, but also a proud fam­ily tra­di­tion to up­hold. Son fol­lowed fa­ther and grand­fa­ther. In 1915, four of the seven Fow­ell broth­ers, Al­fred, Arthur, David and John were given dis­pen­sa­tion from the Lin­colnshire Reg­i­ment to par­tic­i­pate in the dance be­fore their de­par­ture to the Western Front. They per­formed the dance in their uni­forms and then de­parted for France. Within a month Arthur and David were dead. Us­ing replica uni­forms, this event was com­mem­o­rated in 2015.

Up to 1979, only three dancers were not mem­bers of the Fow­ell fam­ily. This was when Terry Bai­ley

joined by accident. He was at­tend­ing a fete in Stone, a Stafford­shire vil­lage, with a friend of his who hap­pened to be one of the Deer­men, when they dis­cov­ered the Jester hadn’t turned up. Terry was sud­denly co- opted in and has been par­tic­i­pat­ing ever since, for the last 38 years.

Smaller fam­i­lies, more daugh­ters than sons in the Fow­ell fam­ily has led to to a wider re­cruit­ment from the lo­cal com­mu­nity. Terry’s two sons have be­come part of it. “Then there’s Jeff Bradbury whose lad and grand­son is in it,” Terry tells me. Ac­cess has widened and nowa­days girls can join, pro­vided they’re re­lated to the Fow­ell fam­ily. “Our main con­cern is to en­sure the dance keeps go­ing and there are enough young peo­ple com­ing in to take the place of the older ones.” This doesn’t seem to be a prob­lem, as there’s a grow­ing wait­ing list of those want­ing to join.

Terry is al­ways stag­gered by the re­sponse to the event, which has grown over the year from a few hun­dred vis­i­tors to up­wards of 2,000. Last year there were vis­i­tors from the USA, Canada and Aus­tralia. One cou­ple Terry spoke to, had even fac­tored the Ab­bots Brom­ley Horn Dance into their six- week sched­ule be­fore they left Aus­tralia. “I’m al­ways amazed by the num­ber of peo­ple who come to see us now.” Amongst them are a grow­ing num­ber of en­thu­si­asts who want to ob­serve old tra­di­tions and who have made it part of their book­ing list.

For Terry, be­long­ing still means be­ing a part of the old­est tra­di­tional dance group in the coun­try. “I’m not as fit as I used to be,” he tells me. “I don’t dance as much as the oth­ers. It’s more about en­sur­ing these days that the vis­i­tors are en­ter­tained and let­ting peo­ple know what’s hap­pen­ing.” The group does get in­vited out to dance at other venues, but they try not to do too many as they want to pre­serve tra­di­tion and avoid the ob­vi­ous taint of com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion.

Main page: The Deer­men col­lect­ing the horns from the church. GE­ORGINA HINE Left: Dancers in 1900.

GE­ORGINA HINE GE­ORGINA HINE

Right: A strik­ing black- and­white pic­ture of the dancers in the Mar­ket Place. Far right: The troupe at Blith­field Hall.

GE­ORGINA HINE

Above: Jester and mu­si­cian.

GE­ORGINA HINE

In­tri­cate moves are all part of the dance.

GE­ORGINA HINE

The dancers at Blith­field Reservoir.

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