Friday, 16 September 2016

The Horn Dance of Abbots Bromley 2016: a Personal Reflection by Suzanne Read - Breaca Aranwen the Maid of the Hearth of Albion

An early start and a long drive preceded an amazing day spent in companie with a friend while attending what can only be described as perhaps the premier Traditional Event of the British Calendar! Traffic unfortunately delayed our arrival until after the Horns had already been gathered from the Church, blessings given and the first dance of the day completed, but parking up we quickly joined the procession of about 60 folks at one for the first stops on the route. The weather was good, blue skies in the morning, warm temperature that quickly rose and was then mitigated with a light breeze, light cloud later in the day that kept the temperature comfortable rather than it getting too hot. We followed the procession for about 2 miles, then returned to the village itself for a look around and some lunch before heading off to Blithfield Hall – where we arrived too late to see the Dance for the Lady, courtesy of sat-nav and roadworks, then we returned to the village to see the Dance enter the village from the Rugeley Turn, meeting up with another friend along the way….

My first impressions were based upon the Dancers, the Horns, costume, the ‘characters,’ ‘Maid’ Marion, Robin, the Jester, the Oss, the minstrels and of course the two teams of Horn Dancers with their impressive Horns – which varied in weight up to 26lb – a fair weight to carry for a few miles, and certainly not an easy weight to hoist above head height when going ‘through’ during the dancing! Visually it is a spectacle in itself, their matching clothing, with britches of an oak embroidered fabric and shirts and waistcoats of opposing colours, the two ‘teams’ of Horn Dancers with their ‘light’ and ‘dark’ horns wore opposite colours on shirt and waistcoats, symbolism aplenty and all looked fantastic in their garb. Something ‘ancient’ in form, yet timeless, the uniform did not look anachronistic, it looked and felt right.

Looking next to the troupe itself, made up of locals whose families have been traditionally involved for many, many years, ages varied, some young and strong, some older and more experienced, one family had 3 generations present, and one person was celebrating 50 years of being involved! The dancers were well versed in their moves, they moved as one, the smaller ‘steps’ being woven into an ever evolving and changing pattern as the lead dancer called out instruction or led them into a wheel. It was obvious to those of us watching that the Horn Dance was something valued greatly by all involved, the troupe had an easy familiarity with one another, mutual respect, friendship and camaraderie were self-evident, an easy humour pervading the day. It felt akin to the brotherhood of absolute trust that is often felt in close knit units of the armed forces, kith and kin, that each would do anything for the others, including lay down their lives – which several did during the great war – overall it appeared that they were a true ‘companie’ in the traditional sense of the word.

Not only was the respect between the troupe itself, but also to those whose homes they visited to ‘beat out the bounds’ and to offer the blessing of their presence. The householders received the dancers with joy, providing refreshments, cakes, sausage rolls, and cups of tea, coffee, beer, juice, and the occasional tot of whisky to keep the dancers going until their next stop. A warm welcome and genuine friendship and a sense of community pervaded the atmosphere, those of us who were visiting were as welcomed as the dancers, each of us blessed by their hospitality.

Next the dance itself, the music provided by the 2 accordion players and their assistant with his triangle, who kept the music going all day long, tunes from modern to medieval contributed greatly to the feel of the whole, the music lifted the heart and when combined with the rest of the spectacle it put a huge grin on my face, from ear to ear. The moves of the Dance were of several types, with the light and dark teams challenging one another with mock ‘rutting’ moves before going ‘through’ with one tem raising their horns above the others as the teams moved between each other, plenty of potential for mistakes, but none were made, no horns set a clashing! Next would be the spiralling of the Horns as a whole, with either light or dark leading they would all process around a figure eight or circle, snaking this way and that, and then there were the opposed and synchronous double circle, where light would be encircled by dark, moving either in the same direction, or in opposite ways, a call from the leader or the fool would then change the form of the dance, onwards ever onwards.

To myself it appeared that there is much symbolism within the dancer’s movements and the Horn Dance itself, from the ‘beating of the bounds’ – which sets the village boundaries and brings together the outlying folks into the community as a whole, to the Dance for the Lady of the Manor, from the dancing of light and dark together to the opposition of the ‘through’, life and death in harmony, the Oss dying from an arrow and coming back to life again with a chop of his jaw! All in all it is challenging, living, loving, blessings given and received, kinship restated and accepted, brotherhood and companie, living Traditional and Culture alive, Fate acknowledged and position understood, there is much that can be seen, but ultimately the symbolism depends upon your own point of view, your own frame of reference and your own personal ‘truth’, if you share my viewpoint then I would hope you will see much beyond the spectacle of a unique Tradition that is kept alive by the Dancers and their families.

All in all the day brought joy to me, the celebration of the harvest, the festival atmosphere, the unassuming nature of keeping a tradition alive, a day that revealed much and yet has more to give, a day that I will treasure as long as I live. This to me is our culture, the British, it is alive, vibrant, visceral and to be treasured, it is not full of bureaucracy, rules and regulations, it is not pandering to political correctness, to do-gooders who don’t understand its history, it is what it is, and it is worthwhile, necessary and needed. Long may it continue and to grow, and long may I return yearly to enjoy and partake of a day of festivities that are what you make of them, perhaps next year we will be better prepared and will walk the full 10 miles of the ‘bounds’, if at all possible then this will be our intent!

As it was this year we stayed around until 4.30pm, when the dancers were well into the village and the number of spectators was getting larger, then with a convalescing friend to visit on the way home we said our goodbye to both the Horn Dance, the village and one of our companions for the day and headed off, to tea, laughter, love and friendship with one dear to us all.

Home was reached for 8pm, and then the three of us sat and talked of the day’s experiences for an hour or so, and agreed that we will all return next year. If you have yet to visit the Horn Dance, then I would urge you to do so, and go early in the morning, to get the full feel for the day, the atmosphere changes as more folks arrive, and become slightly less intimate, it may be a trek, and an early start, but to me it is something totally worthwhile.

Suzanne Read - Breaca Aranwen the Maid of the Hearth of Albion


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