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?