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).
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.