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The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

If you were to ever visit the church of St Nicholas in the small Staffordshire village of Abbots Bromley, at any time other than the first Monday after the first Sunday, after the 4th September, you may well come across a group of very ancient artifacts. Arrayed along the wall at the rear of the church, like a row of silent sentinels awaiting their big day, are the horns used in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. Six sets of reindeer antlers, dating from around 1065, are mounted on individually carved, wooden deer heads, each with their own character. Three sets of antlers are painted in dark tones whilst the other three are light.

On Monday September 9th this year, a group composed of six male dancers, a Maid Marian (played by a man), a Fool, a Hobby Horse, a Bowman (usually a child), a triangle player and a musician or two, gathered for the short service at the church at just after 7am. By the time they all emerged, along with well wishers and the curious, a small group were assembled outside. And so starts this magical annual performance. The day is spent meandering through the parish, stopping at local farms and houses for refreshments and performing their dance.

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As is often the way with long standing customs, little is known of the exact origins of the event. It is likely to have been a Hobby-horse dance and is mentioned as such in an account from 1532, which omits the horns although they could have been present but ignored for some reason. An account from 1686 gives a fair description of the event as it is performed today, mentioning the main players, although not Maid Marian, who came later, and that three sets of horns are painted white and the other red. The day was a way of raising funds for the local poor and the upkeep of the church. A chip from one of the antlers has been submitted to chemical dating, hence the estimate of early eleventh century. Of course reindeer were extinct in the UK by this time, so it is likely they arrived from Scandinavia. As to who brought them and when exactly they were mounted onto the carved heads, nothing is known. There is mention that the custom was originally performed during the Christmas season and then after a period of time it died out only to be revived in the early eighteenth century after a gap of almost a hundred years and also moving to its current September time.

In the 1880's, the local vicar's wife decided that the team needed a set of specially designed costumes. Prior to this they merely attached ribbons and rosettes to their everyday clothes. Victorians at this time were quite taken with all things medieval, with a revival of styles from that period being applied to architecture and design. It is no surprise then that Mrs Lowe chose something which echoed garments worn in the middle ages, with knee-breeches, jerkins and caps. A postcard in the MoBF archive, dated 1904, shows the group in their 'new costumes' and they were once again slightly updated in 1951, but remain largely the same today. The current woven oak leaf design on the breeches, was created by some tapestry students from Derby University, gleaned from the famous Benjamin Stone photographs.

To attend the day is to settle into the rhythm and pace of the dance, to watch the figures as they weave in and out, keeping time with the triangle and to witness something steeped in history but vital and very much alive.

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