Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

My Year of Abbot's Bromley

Oh, right, you might want to know what the Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance is. It is a ritual dance, performed once a year in the village of Abbot's Bromley in Staffordshire. The dance is performed with reindeer antlers, for which ancient origin is claimed. The antlers that are used in Abbot's Bromley have been carbon-dated, and they do seem to be over a thousand years old. The common description of the dance as a "prehistoric fertility rite" is not inconceivable to me, although a direct line from Neolithic to Now requires a bit of faith.

The dancers parade through the village one day a year, carrying the horns, dancing at the village square at the beginning and end of the day and at various homes in between. Besides the antlered dancers, there are assorted other characters: A bowman (always a boy), a fool, a hobby, musicians, and a man-woman in the guise of Maid Marian (according to this year's man-woman, this is a recent addition, added to the dance because of the local popularity of the Robin Hood stories -- although by "recent" he could have meant several hundred years).

It isn't strictly Morris, but some US Morris Teams -- particularly those that consider themselves tuned in to the Pagan aspects of Morris -- have taken up dancing the Horn Dance, with eerie trappings and minor music. Deer Creek Morris Men of Palo Alto, on their MayDay web site, note that "Deer Creek starts the morning out with the Abbot's Bromley horn dance. The magical state that the Bromley creates in everyone present cannot be described, but it will echo softly in your bones and awaken your senses." That about sums up what the US teams go for. Minnesota Traditional Morris dances the Horn Dance one day a year, at dusk, dressed only in white (without their baldrics). White Rat's Morris does the Horn Dance at Pagan and leather events in the Bay area.

To get ahead of my story: This isn't what it's like in England where they have a jolly old time, drink beer and whiskey, and travel their longest distances by van.

My story begins in August, when I was with Jeffrey in the basement of a used bookstore in the basement of the Old South Church in Boston. I found a copy of a book published in England in 1941 called "English Custom and Use" by Christina Hole. It opened up to a photo of the Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance which, together with the inexpensive price, was enough for me to purchase the book, without looking further. I know some folks who would be quite interested in this, I figured.

Later that same day Jeffrey and I met up with Beth at Tower Records where I looked through their British/Celtic import section. (You never know where you will find British traditional music. In Folk? In Celtic Music? In World Music?) I found a CD of British ritual music and song (that turns out to be a re-issue of a mid-50s LP, amazing for a variety of what I find to be heart-stopping reasons) with a photo of the Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance on the sleeve, this one in color. Of course I purchased it; it's a long drive back from Boston to Minneapolis, and I needed to stock up for my new in-dash CD player.

I needed to return to Minnesota in time to dance Labor Day Weekend at the Renaissance Festival, and the following Tuesday I was to get on a plane to visit London for a week. Well, those were the plans, but after making those plans I found out that the UK Shape Note convention was to be held in Nottingham over the weekend that I would be in England so I changed my plans, to my ultimate delight, but that's another story. (Why do they sing shape-note in England? They didn't until recently, but it stems from the revivalist interest in West Gallery Music.)

At the RenFest I told a prominent local Morris maven that I was heading off to England and he said, "Hey, you might be there for the Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance! You should check that out!" This was beginning to seem like a Twilight Zone episode, but I went and checked my new old book which said that the Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance is performed on the first Monday after September fourth. Since September fourth was a Monday this year, I couldn't be sure what the actual date was. (Answer: Technically, the formula is "the first Monday after the first Sunday after September 4".)

You know, you can go your whole life and barely hear the words "Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance" and then suddenly, wham!, you can't open a book or look in a music store or have a simple conversation without it coming up.

So I sneaked into work where I have Net access (even when I am taking six weeks off) and sent email to my Morris friend Bob who who is living in England temporarily and I asked him if he could find out when Abbot's Bromley was being danced this year, noting that I wouldn't see his email response but I would call him when I got to London. So I did and he verified that it was to take place on the 11th, the day after the shape note convention.

I had no idea where Staffordshire was. Bob on the phone said that I could probably get a train from Nottingham to Birmingham, where I might be able to get a bus to Abbot's Bromley. I had a vision of myself wheeling my suitcases down country lanes, asking strangers if they'd seen a bunch of men carrying antlers go dancing by. I pretty much gave up on the possibility.

I arrived at the shape note convention and told one of the organizers my story of just missing seeing the Horn Dance, and she pointed out that Nottingham was only about thirty miles from Abbot's Bromley, and that if I could find out the details she would drive me there on Monday! "Finding out the details" turned out to be something of a task that required enlisting the aid of a few obliging locals (one of whom managed to find out the home phone number(!) of the head of the Abbot's Bromley visitor's bureau). It wasn't until Sunday night at 11pm that the trip became a surety. For the trip, I was joined by two locals and three other visiting Americans and an overpowering sense of having given myself over to Fate.

Gosh, did we have a beautiful day. We went chasing down the dancers, and found them in the nearby village of Admaston, overlooking the Blithfield reservoir, where they were dancing for a family who provided them drinks and food in return. ("The beer and whiskey is really our payment" explained one of the dancers as he was begging money.) The feel was nothing like in the US. Broad daylight. Happy music. No oppressive sense of mystery. They certainly take the ritual seriously, but anybody can join in the dance (with the permission of the dancers) -- in fact, at each home at which we saw them dance, the owners of the home were led through the dance. These were dancers, not shamans.

A photo of the actual Abbot's Bromley Horn Dancers hard by the Blithfield reservoir, creating an entirely different mood than their American followers:

You can't tell in that picture, where the dancers are simply processing to their next gig, but they dance perhaps twice as fast as their US counterparts. They dance to peppy music; I'm told they have even danced to Yankee Doodle, although I didn't see this.

The dance was fun and festive, but even so. when I caught my first glimpse of the reindeer antlers bouncing in the distance my chest seemed to fill up with a sense of awe and significance and yes, I'm sorry to say, tears came to my eyes. This dance has been done here for hundreds of years, pretty much like this. That's the sort of thing that gets to me, that and the fact that here I was, without planning, getting to observe this ritual in its original location, a ritual that has taken on such significance to many folks I know.

We followed the dancers through several danceouts. I kept thinking that it shouldn't be me who was there, but my friends Denise or Michael or Stephen or Derek, somebody who had spent many years immersed in this tradition. I'm a Morris-come-lately. All I could do was hope to report back, without even the background knowledge to report back what folks wanted to know.

The most amazing part of the day was the dancing for Lady Bagot at Blithfield Hall, the central part of the day's dancing and something about which I had heard or read absolutely nothing. Some folks watching the dancers had printed schedules listing some of the places where the dancers would be. On this list it announced that by "kind permission of Lady Bagot" we could come watch the dancers at Blithfield Hall. Having just the previous week attended a Renaissance Fair, it took me a minute to realize that this was not play-acting, but for real.

We followed the dancers down a long road through rolling hills sprinkled with grazing animals. At this point many automobiles joined the procession, which led to an enormous castle of a building, Blithfield Hall. Blithfield Hall is on a slight rise, with a large grassy front area. Gathered on the grassy area was a party of folks who, at first glance, seemed to be in turn-of-the-century period dress (men in blue blazers and boaters, women in straw hats and floral dresses) but on closer inspection were simply upper class. This, I found out, was the luncheon party Lady Bagot hosts every other year on the day of the Horn Dance. We, the peons, were not permitted onto the lawn area.

At that point I finally understood in a core sense something I had known intellectually: the Morris and Mumming traditions are traditions of peasants performing for the upper class, who on these rare occasions allow them into their homes and feed them. As when I saw the "kind permission of Lady Bagot" description, it hit me again that this was not play-acting.

Fortunately, while watching the dancers I met a gentleman who worked for Lady Bagot (he showed me the bill for the liquor he had ordered that morning) who was also something of an expert on the Horn Dance. He told me much about the Hall, and about the dance. He would have talked to me for the entirety of the afternoon (and I would have listened eagerly) except that my companions needed to leave about that point. His name was Dick Brown and he says he's writing a book. He also says that he is the "Father of Staffordshire Morris" (which I've never heard of) -- he really opened up to me when one of my fellow Americans told him that I was a Morris dancer.

Dick Brown also said that he is the only living man who has danced all the different adult roles in the Horn Dance.

At Blithfield hall, the dancers dance, then socialize with the gentry -- kissing the ladies and flirting outrageously, more things that seem at odds with the mood that American horn dancers encourage. Then, presumably, they dance again along with some of the folks at the luncheon party -- I didn't stay long enough to see this. What Dick Brown told me is that after the dancers finish they are led off to an enclosed courtyard and are fed a luncheon, courtesy of Lady Bagot. Lady Bagot's actual guests, on the other hand, are led off in a different direction, through the building, into the Hall itself (which is in the center of the building, additions having grown up around it since its construction in the early 17th century from beams hauled across the reservoir from an older builder -- Dick Brown had done some repair work and seen the ancient beams).

My companions and I went back into Abbot's Bromley and had lunch at the Bagot Arms. Fish and chips for me, and a still-vivid sense of good fortune.

-Steven Levine
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