Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Angel by William Blake

I dreamt a dream! What can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe was ne'er beguiled!

And I wept both night and day,
And he wiped my tears away;
And I wept both day and night,
And hid from him my heart's delight.

So he took his wings, and fled;
Then the morn blushed rosy red.
I dried my tears, and armed my fears
With ten-thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again;
I was armed, he came in vain;
For the time of youth was fled,
And grey hairs were on my head.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016



I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come and see!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest. (Revelation 6:1-2).


When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come and see!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword. (Revelation 6:3-4).


When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come and see!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!” (Revelation 6:5-6).


When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come and see!” I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:7-8)

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


Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Khaki Dance: Abbots Bromley Staffordshire England (Monday the 7th of September 2015)

“Mythic symbolism will speak to us via our subconscious, there finding a deep resonance within on a primeval level. The intuitive recognition that the Hunted is one with the Hunter, being a manifestation of one facet of the Divine Masculine as the Antlered God, is a philosophical concept of such great complexity that many, including myself, will struggle continually to fully understand. That is the nature of the Mysteries; a lifelong quest for personal gnosis that may prove ultimately, to be beyond our reach this side of the river.”

A quote from Chattering Magpie (D.B.Griffith) (2013) The stag as a totemic manifestation of the divine masculine. Deosil Dance. Issue 58 Yule 2013. Reprinted in Billinghurst F. (Ed.) (2015) The Call of the God. Temple of the Dark Moon, Australia.

On Monday the 7th of September 2015 I travelled with friends, to meet other friends and to experience once more, one of the most important and ancient folk traditions of England. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is a spectacle encompassing elements of mythic symbolism that truly resonate within our primeval natures. It is a dance replete with symbolism, hidden in layers and motifs that are difficult to fully appreciate on a single visit or from hearsay. The dance like all such events is best experienced first-hand, tasted in the moment and that moment savoured.

The 2015 Horn Dance was something of a special event, bearing in mind that each year is a special event. It was a centenary marker to commemorate certain happenings from the early twentieth century. In September 1915, when the conflagration of war had been burning across Europe for little over a year, the Horn Dance was itself under threat. Many people from Abbots Bromley, including members of the participating Fowell and Bentley families, had joined the armed forces. This left few if any available to keep this venerable custom alive and it should be observed that many traditions postponed during those war years, sadly never were reborn during peacetime.

Remarkably three brothers of the Fowell family; David, Arthur and Alfred, were granted special leave and travelled home to participate. These three brothers performed in their army uniform, giving the Horn Dance of 1915 its popular name of ‘the Khaki Dance’ and so helped preserved custom for future generations.

On that day in September 1915 the participants gathered outside the church of Saint Nicholas; after the usual early morning blessing of the horns, to pose for a now famous photograph. One hundred years later the Abbots Bromley Nostalgia Group, in conjunction with the organisers of the Horn Dance itself; had arranged that four of the Horn Dancers should participate whilst wearing the uniform of the Men's Army Regiment, so recreating both the photograph and elements of the wartime event.

The recreation of that famous picture and a day spent in uniform, was both a commemoration of the event itself and a homage to those that had died in that human catastrophe, that tragedy of wasted life, the Great War. A thought to ponder if we take a moment to appreciate, that the four dancers of 2015, are decedents of the two brothers that survived the war.

The day’s activities start early, usually at 7am with the collection from the church of the horns, other items and the service mentioned above. Arriving a little before lunchtime we were not present for that early start but this still left plenty for us to see and do. Abbots Bromley is blessed with several pubs, each of which serving good wholesome fare. The local church and Women’s Institute uses Church House, an old timber framed building on Bagot Street, to serve tea, coffee and cake to visitors at a very reasonable cost to the tourist.

Meeting up with our friends we explored the village centre, the shops, the annual Horn Dance Market on the village green itself and the stalls around the Butter Cross. We had our lunch in one of the nearby pubs, explored the church and took our refreshments at Church House. This year being a commemorative event, a special temporary museum had been created in the back rooms of the Crown Pub opposite the village green.

On display were a variety of old photographs and other documents relating to the history of the dance, together with the retired examples of costume. Most of the artefacts were of late nineteenth century provenance. I noted that there was an old a photograph of the older Hobby Oss, shown hanging in situ in the church. Although this Oss is no longer used, having been replaced in the dance by a late twentieth century example; it still hangs on that same bracket in the church and can be seen to this day.

The museum had on display one of the reserve horn pairs. By tradition the horns used in the annual dance are never allowed to leave the parish, being of great age and significance. For public appearances outside the parish boundary and for practice, a reserve set is used as a replacement. Unlike the horns used in the annual dance this reserve set uses the antlers of the red deer and not those of the reindeer. It is to this day one of the greatest puzzles, as to how antlers of a species long extinct in England, should find themselves at the centre of this wonderful tradition.

In the late afternoon we gathered with many others, joining the swelling crowds to watch the dancers enter the village in full procession. At each pub and at other traditional stopping points, they halt to perform and display their prowess. The day is one requiring stamina and determination on the part of the participants, their day started from the church early, the horns will not be returned to the church and ‘put to bed’ until dark.

The Horn Dance itself consists a set piece performance that incorporates both weaving and circular processional elements. Central to the dance however, is the depiction of the annual rut. Here the six dancers face each other in pairs, one team opposite the other and mimic the contest between stags. Peripheral to the dance but of no less importance, are other symbolic elements that offer a supporting motif to the main theme.

The tripartite elements of the mythic symbolism that lie outside of the actual rutting dance; are the Hobby Horse, the Robin Hood and Maid Marion. That latter character is at Abbots Bromley, refreshingly portrayed in the traditional English manner by a cross dressing man.

Many folklorists and scholars view these three characters as being of great importance, for although they may appear separate from the main dance elements, they remain a fundamental part of the experience. The Hobby Horse is a representative of Sleipnir (Oates 2005), that eight legged steed of the God Woden, whilst the boy playing Robin Hood is said to be Woden himself.

The Maid Marion is dressed in blue, which is both the colour of the sky and of the flax flower. We can postulate that this character is Frigg the consort of Woden. This Goddess spins the clouds and can be linked at least to a degree with the Norns, those wondrous Fates of Northern Mythology. Frigg here at Abbots Bromley even carries a ladle and it is from the Ladle, that each man or woman shall receive their allotted measure.

To focus on these three elements does rather detract from a fourth character; the Fool but truthfully that mysterious figure deserves a blog in his own right. An enigmatic and puzzling figure found in mummer’s plays and performances across Europe, it should be no surprise to see him here at Abbots Bromley.

Here in Staffordshire the Fool is a rather traditional Punch style figure, complete with colourful costume, bells and a pig’s bladder on a stick. Somewhat more rustic and primeval than those associated with Cotswold Morris, here there are hints of his origins as Lord of Misrule and he maintains that important element of otherworldly separateness or detachment from the dance proper.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance remains today a spectacle but not one as defined by the modern, rather mundane standards of our secular society; where a spectacle is a cheap, gaudy show lacking both depth and meaning. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is much more than that and goes far beyond mere street entertainment.

The Horn Dance is a tradition of complexity and vigour, which is still able to leave a lasting mark upon both participant and spectator. The Horn Dance has value, meaning and relevance, for both the local society and the wider English culture. The Horn Dance is a unique expression of the cultural milieu, blended and expressed mythically.

Relevant blogs:

Reference for further reading.

Oates S. (2005) Abbots Bromley, the Wild Hunt and Saint Nick. In The Wytches’ Standard. Issue # 2 Litha. Reprinted in Oates S. (2011) Tubelo’s Green Fire. Mandrake of Oxford.