Fools & Hobby Horses

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance takes place each year on Wakes Monday (the first Monday following the first Sunday after 4th September), which means that this year it will be on 10th September.

As far as I can gather, the horn dance is one of those traditions where no-one is quite sure what it’s all about. There are six dancers carrying reindeer antlers, a fool, a hobby horse, Maid Marian, a boy with a bow and arrow, an accordion player & a triangle player. The horns are collected from the church of St Nicholas at 8am and are returned 12 hours later after the participants have danced around the village and out to Blithfield Hall. According to the horn dance of Abbots Bromley website, when one of the horns was damaged in 1976, a piece was sent to be carbon dated. It was found to date back to 1065 (plus or minus 80 years) although the general consensus is that this doesn’t really help to date the dance itself.

I’m ashamed to say that every year I’ve planned to go and watch the dance, but haven’t made it for one reason or another. I have been to the village on several non-horn dance occasions though and it is a lovely place.  However, Mr J Carver, in his 1779 book ‘The Universal Traveller’ wasn’t impressed , saying,

It stands at the distance of a hundred and twenty eight miles from London but contains nothing worthy of note

(Lichfield fares a little better. In Mr Carver’s opinion, ‘It is a long, straggling place but has some handsome houses’).

Walking through the village, to my 21st century eyes, practically every building looks worthy of note. Amongst many others, there’s the Butter Cross (or Burger Cross as a practical joker would have it in 2002), the Goat’s Head Inn (which is thought to date back to the early 1600s, with possibly even older cellars and of course, a secret passage story!) and Almshouses (above the doors are the Bagot family arms and the inscription Deo et Igenis DDD Lamberius Bagot Arm Anno 1705).

The Butter Cross, The Goats Head Inn & St Nicholas Church

View of St Nicholas, where the horns are displayed throughout the year.

Church of St Nicholas, from the High St

Almshouses

A couple of years ago the BBC made a programme about folk dancing in England and you can see the clip about the horn dance here. There are also some photographs of the tradition taking place in the 1930s here on the Staffordshire Past Track website.

I believe that the horns never leave the parish boundary (when not in use they are stored in the church of St Nicholas) although the dance can be performed elsewhere (another set of antlers is used on these occasions). I’ve also just discovered that this year the third annual Abbots Bromliad will take place in California, where they are hoping to beat their own record for most people dancing the horn dance at once (144 in 2010). You can even order your own set of acrylic antlers for $20 to help you feel the part! Hmmm, I wonder what the postage & packaging would be to get a pair sent to Lichfield….and would they get here in time to wear on the 10th September?

Seriously, we’re lucky to live so near to a place where one of the country’s best known (and possibly one of the oldest) traditions takes place and I really must make an effort to go this year to see it for myself.

 

Hospitality in Lichfield

One of the places I really wanted to see during the Lichfield Heritage weekend was St John’s Hospital. On my way I bumped into someone I know. ‘I’m just off to St John’s Hospital’, I said ’Oh where’s that?’, was the reply. As soon as I told her it was the place with all the chimneys, she of course knew exactly where I meant!

Looking back through the entrance from the courtyard. I'm normally peeping through in the other direction!

Beyond the entrance is a lovely courtyard, where we were met by one of the residents who told us about the history of the hospital, which you can read more about on the St John’s website.  The Master’s house is now a Georgian building and you can see a drawing of it circa 1833 on Staffordshire Pasttrack. We were told today that some of the wooden beams inside came from galleons. I wonder if that’s true or just a story? I have done a quick search and it seems like quite a few old buildings claim to have beams reclaimed from ships.

Side of St John's with Masters House in the background

From the courtyard, we went to have a look around the chapel, which is the oldest of all of the buildings here.The most striking feature is the stained glass window by John Piper. I think I was suprised that this was so modern (it was created in 1984).

Clockwise from top left, the four corners represent the Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke & John

 

There are stones embedded in the top of the altar, collected by a former Master whilst in Jerusalem & the surrounding area.

After leaving the chapel we visited the accomodation of one of the residents, which was lovely & incredibly peaceful bearing in mind the windows are looking out onto St John St!  On the tour, I overheard someone say that the chimneys were the oldest domestic chimneys in the country. They are blocked off from the rooms now and I wonder when they were last used? Why do you always think of questions after the event?!

Finally, we were invited to have tea & cake. And then some more cake! One of the residents told us, ‘ We’re keeping up the tradition of hospitality!’. It’s true - on our visit we were made to feel incredibly welcome. As you can see I forgot to take any photos of the courtyard or indeed the aforementioned chimneys (I may have been distracted by the cake…). However, the grounds are open to the public, so you can go and have a look for yourself!

Edit 2/10/2011:
I came across a bit of an interesting snippet about Tudor nepotism relating to St John’s. In his book, ‘Note on a History of the Hospital of St John’s', Harry Baylis says that the hospital lost none of its possessions in the reformation, as the Master at the time was the brother of Rowland Lee who officiated at the marriage of Henry VIII & Ann Boleyn, and later became the Bishop of Coventry & Lichfield. Wonder if this is true or not?