Tuesday, 14 August 2018
There is a small and picturesque village in Staffordshire, apparently no different from many other villages in the area or even the rest of England. Yet it is a village famous, world famous within the folklore environment. Here a folkdance that has taken place for centuries almost without a gap, still takes place.
I have written about this wonderful event and the experience before, links to those relevant blogs are below. So I will not bore the reader with a repeat of the history or the itinerary of the day. I shall endeavour to keep this report short.
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance used to take place over the course of three days but today, it is a single day annual event. The dance takes place on the Monday following the first Sunday after the 4th of September. If the 4th of September is a Monday, the dance is held a week later. In 2017 the dance took place on Monday the 11th of September and I was fortunate to attend.
I travelled with a friend from Nottingham and parking near Admaston, we caught up with the gathering in a country lane. It was a rainy start to the day but that wasn’t going to dampen the enthusiasm of the dancers or the audience following the event. As always the horndancers, the associated characters, and the musicians, maintained an energetic performance. Including as per tradition today, a few performances with members of the public taking part. A memorable part of the experience for those who do join in.
Our next stop was Blithfield Park and Hall, the home of the Baron Bagot. The hall has been the home of the Bagot family since the fourteenth century but is today, primarily of Elizabethan design. The hall and park has been sold and repurchased by the Bagot family more than once. Today the residence is divided into four separate apartments. The main part of the building that includes the Great Hall, is held in trust by the family.
Here on the lawn in front of the hall and raised high above the ha-ha, the assembled dancers perform for the family and their guests, with the dance followers gathered in the adjacent field. The rain had stopped and the sun was out. So enabling us to truly appreciate fully, the colourful performance. Quite spectacular views of the dance with the picturesque hall as a back drop are afforded here and can make for wonderful photographic opportunities.
At the end of this performance the dancers are presented to Lord Bagot before going inside for lunch. This naturally presents the assembled crowd with an opportunity of a break. We had at this point in time met up with friends, so we decided to travel back to the village of Abbots Bromley and take lunch at one of the wonderful pubs.
The arms of the Bagot family features as two supporters and as a crest, a goat. This goat is of a particular breed now taking its name from the family. Throughout the area the Bagot goat is featured on signs, pictures and house decorations. There is a pub in the village called the Bagot arms and another named the Goat’s Head. Both feature this goat breed on their pub signs.
It was in one of these pubs that we enjoyed a fine meal and a fine pint, as we discussed the dance. Before we took our seats one of our number, Levi, presented me with a fine gift. Levi is a smith and had created unknown to me, three hand forged nails. Each nail is approximately two and a half centimetres (almost three inches) in length and of the farrier style, suitable for shoeing a large horse. It was a surprise present and very much appreciated. Today the nails when not being handled, rest behind glass in a locked cabinet.
The connection and inspiration for the gift was Levi previously seeing me (as a member of the Hearth of the Turning Wheel), wearing a pendant made of three crossed horseshoe nails. The three nails symbol is a relatively uncommon sign, primarily found only within particular streams of Traditional Witchcraft. We the Hearth of the Turning Wheel; adopted the symbol which we call the Sixways, from an existing Traditional Craft stream.
I will not distract the reader any further from my report concerning the horndance by exploring the Sixways in any depth but it is important to note, that differing groups may place a different emphasis upon meanings associated with this runic sigil. Within the Hearth of the Turning Wheel, the Sixways represents the four points of the compass plus three other paths. Therefore the symbol represents seven directions. The three nails sign is a reoccurring Christian motif, once common in churches prior to the Reformation. An exploration of the symbolism of the Sixways can be found in one of my monographs, currently available via my Etsy page.
The dance itself and the collective troop, are obviously replete with symbolism. Far more learned writers have explored this in depth but especial mention should be made of the accompanying characters to the horns, these include a jester, a Hobby Oss, a Robin and a Marian. The latter character is of particular note and importance, as ‘she’ remains significantly a man crossdressing as a woman.
This interpretation in the best custom of a Pantomime Dame is rare today, as many similar mummers have replaced the male performer with a female. Although this change is understandable from the perspective of equality, it fails to acknowledge the symbolism of crossdressing and the presence of the ‘other’ in folk tradition.
Post our lunch we explored the village, passing several quaint and attractive cottages on our walk. The parish church of Saint Nicholas, which we visited while waiting for the dance to return to the village; is attractive and spacious. It is in this church that the horns and the Oss ‘sleep’ when not in use, placed high on brackets on the east wall of the north transept.
Carved into the outer wall close to the northern entrance, is a cross. No doubt a votive sign from before the reformation, it is however of an unusual design. The base the cross rather than being the usual single stroke, forks to form three lines. One of our number commented that if turned upside down, the symbol was similar in layout to a little known Craft sign.
As always my visit to this attractive and welcoming village had been pleasurable, made all the more so and not for the first time, by the company I enjoyed. The Horn Dance is a unique yet also quintessential English custom. There is a history to the event, there is folklore, and there is a dynamic symbolism. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is a not a museum piece but a living tradition. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance of 2018 will take place on Monday the 10th of September. Perhaps I will see you there?
Saturday, 11 August 2018
On Saturday the 28th of July I made one my infrequent, if increasingly regular trips to London for an event. Once again I was travelling down at the gracious invitation of Eamonn Loughran of Hell Fire Club Books to attend a book launch. This book launch unlike the last one I attended (Paean to Hekate – 6th October 2017 and link below), was part of a much larger one night only art exhibition. The author Sean Woodward; whose work ‘Keys to the Hoodoo Kingdom’ is published by HFC Books, was one of the eight exhibiting artists.
I arrived in London before 3pm having made remarkable good time from the Midlands, on a fast and direct train. Wandering out on to the Euston Road, I was in a rather unusual situation as a provincial; I knew exactly where I was going. I don’t know my way around the capital at all well but I can at least find my way around the area between Saint Pancras train station and the British Museum. The exhibition was being held in the crypt of that remarkable building, Saint Pancras New Church on Euston Road itself. Only a short walk from the British Library, even I with my poor sense of direction couldn’t miss it. I have walked past it often enough on the way to the heart of Bloomsbury.
It was a bright sunny day, if slightly less warm than the Midlands. I was very early and this was planned. I made my way to Mabel’s Tavern on Mabledon Place for a late lunch, texting my few London friends with news of my safe arrival. I was soon joined by my group from the Crypt, artists not zombies, only one of whom I knew via social media. They had only just finished setting up the exhibits.
After the usual introductions and this was my first meeting with Sean Woodward, we sat for a meal and a few drinks. Chatting away the hours until the exhibition officially opened, before taking a slow and leisurely stroll to Saint Pancras New Church. As we stood outside of the hostelry, I felt a strong breeze and I realised that for the first time in weeks, I was actually cold. Britain was and still is, experiencing an unusual heatwave.
One of our number required a cash dispenser, so we went on something of a hunt through the quieter streets of Bloomsbury. I stopped to take a few snaps of the surroundings as we walked, including shots those marvellous blue plaques so common in central London.
Arriving at the church we descended a flight of steps into the crypt and I found myself face to face with several acquaintances also waiting to enter. A most pleasant and welcome surprise to see so many familiar faces, a true delight. The crypt itself is a moderately dark series of connecting tunnels, well-lit for the exhibition but not so well-lit as to spoil the unique atmosphere.
The main tunnel of the crypt runs the full length of Saint Pancras New Church below ground level and is remarkably dry. There are various alcoves and smaller side tunnels that run off the main thoroughfare. The exhibitors had with the expected imagination, taken full advantage of the unusual space afforded them. Paintings hung in rows, while some hung singularly in the smaller alcoves, lit by a spot. Sculptures were presented along the side of the main tunnel, others set back into a larger alcove. There were ‘room’s or gallery spaces made of only three walls, open to the walkway on the fourth side and other smaller rooms, dark and secluded.
For one brief moment and it was only for a moment, I remembered a story by Poe. A story of murder, a wine cellar and a body being bricked up there. Obviously the crypt did once house bodies. The majority have gone leaving only plasterboard memorials stacked to one side. I feel a certain sadness about this and I acknowledge a sense of irony. It is sad that people are disturbed in their repose and not left to sleep for eternity. The irony is that the wealthy who had paid to lie here in this prestigious plot, have now (I assume) been moved to a mass grave that houses many of the poor from the East End of London.
The list of exhibitors was an impressive one, I had even heard of a couple before my attendance and besides Sean Woodward, there was Sasha Chaltow, Jason Atomic, Savage Pencil, Zoetica Ebb, Alberto Bona, Amodali Zain and Madeleine LeDespncer.
The exhibits on display were as varied as their creators and as one would expect, utilised a multitude of mediums in their creation. Some were perhaps rather ‘modern’ for my traditionalist taste but all were executed with skill and style. The professionalism of the artists was of especial note, all took their time to engage with the attendees, and all made an effort to answer questions, to be involved fully in the event. The artists were as much an exhibit as their remarkable creations.
As one would expect from such a team of talented artists and exhibitors, many of the works on display displayed elements of esoteric symbolism, not usually found in the mainstream. Amongst the studies of form and texture, many works touched upon themes of poetry and the subconscious. Many held hidden symbols and glyphs, signs or were influenced by mythology. A walk around the exhibition was a journey of contemplation.
Since this was a book launch party organised between Atlantis Bookshop and Hell Fire Club Books, I naturally perused the Atlantis stall. I was surprised to realise that I owned several of the tomes on display but not of course, the new work. So buying my own copy of ‘Keys to the Hoodoo Kingdom’ I set off pen in hand, to search for the man of hour Sean Woodward.
Time waits for no man and neither do trains. I circulated once more, saying my farewells. As I was outside preparing to leave, an acquaintance from Stratford was just arriving. Samantha called to me from across the lawn outside of the church and mistook me once again for Eamonn Loughran. I swear I am better looking but from a distance, we probably do look like billiard balls. This mistaken identity is becoming a running joke, something Eamonn and I will no doubt laugh about at every party we attend for years to come.
My own departure could be delayed no longer and with a sad heart, I hastily finished my farewells. A brisk but easy walk took me back to the station, boarding a far slower train to the Midlands than the one I came down one. As I sat I could reflect on a pleasant, highly stimulating but exhausting day. I had experienced the great pleasure of a truly remarkable exhibition and met some remarkably talented people.
My journey home was uneventful but I fell asleep. I awoke to a female attendant nudging me. We had reached my stop and fortunately the train terminated there. If it had not, I would have been much further north and very far from home. I have friends in Leeds but I wasn’t planning a visit. So ended my day and it was a day of delight; spent in a dark crypt with people whose ideas, shed light in a world of shadows.
Hell Fire Club Books (esoteric publishers)
Paean to Hekate – 6th October 2017