“The horn, the horn, the lusty horn”

This post for my other site ‘Memoirs of a Husk’ took so long to write (I was jetlagged too) that I have cheated and simply re-published it here rather than writing a purpose-made post for Maid in Britain.

Do persevere till you get to the singing dog 😉

There was rain and wind and troubled sleep.

There were tired eyes and weary limbs.

But it was worth it. For the thrill of a new and strange experience.

An experience unique in all the world.

Unique to … Staffordshire.

Yes, Staffordshire.

You may not have heard of it if you live outside Britain.

It’s one of those counties that veils itself in an aura.

‘Nothing worth seeing’ it whispers.  The call of its lush landscapes and secret treasures drowned out by lorries on teeming roads bearing heavy industrial wares.

Treasures like ancient reindeer antlers.

The six pairs of antlers that usually hang in St Nicholas’ Church, in the village of Abbots Bromley, on the edge of the Forest of Needford.

The hexagonal Buttercross,, probably 17thC; the old Goat’s Head Inn possibly late 16thC; rising in the background the tower – replaced in 1688 – of St Nicholas’ church (and that annoying white car in the middle isn’t ours btw). Dates according to Pevsner

Once a year they’re taken down and carried around the local area in an exhausting, 12 hour romp called the Horn Dance.

It wends around modern housing developments and visits old farms. Tramps along ancient, tree-lined routes to a grand old house. Stops at the many pubs the area boasts.

But what, you might ask, is the provenance of the title’s quotation?

Well, Staffordshire adjoins Warwickshire.  And Warwickshire’s most famous son is the bard himself, Will Shakespeare.

And as I delved*, I came upon this verse from As You Like It, written in 1599-1600:

“What shall he have that killed the deer?

His leather skin and horns to wear.

Then sing him home; the rest shall bear this burden.

Take thou no scorn to wear the horn;

It was a crest ere thou wast born.

Thy father’s father wore it,

And thy father bore it.

The horn, the horn, the lusty horn

Is not a thing to laugh to scorn.”

A key figure in Abbots Bromley’s Horn Dance is a ‘hobby-horse’. Not the head-on-a -stick kind that children of yore rode in the nursery, but a mock steed with a clacking jaw and frisking tail.

There are hobby-horse and skin-wearing traditions in various parts of Britain, but this is the only one in the whole nation, nay (groan) the whole world, that combines hobby-horse with reindeer antlers.

Anyway. The bardic connection, then, could be based on personal knowledge.

But a more intriguing mystery lingers around the antlers.

We know the dance is probably at least 500 years old. The earliest recorded mention is from 1532 and it was described fully, in the Natural History of Staffordshire written by naturalist and antiquary Robert Plot, in 1686.

In the 1970s, radio-carbon dating of one of the antlers produced a date of 1065 (plus or minus 80 years).

This pair of antlers (with carrying handle and wooden head) was radio-carbon dated by Birmingham university in the 1970s to 1065 +/- 80 yrs

So we know they date from the eleventh century and they’ve been in use since at least the sixteenth century.  But enigma still shrouds the horns’ origins.

There were no wild reindeer in the British Isles by the eleventh century. And while  ‘scientific tests’  have reputedly revealed that the horns came from domesticated – castrated – herds,  there were no domesticated herds at the time.

Which suggests that the horns came from elsewhere, probably Scandinavia. But who knows when, or why, or for what purpose?

Well, much as I love a mystery, it’s time to bring on the dancing.

It’s not an event for lie-abeds. Like me. We had 10 miles to travel and decided to miss the church service at seven. But even so.  Jet-lagged, I slept badly knowing we had to be up and out by 7.30 am.

Somehow, despite the ample breakfast and fascinations of our b&b we arrived in the nick of time.

Parked our horseless-carriage by the white and black-timbered Goat’s Head pub. Emerged to the strains of music and laughter.

And there they came, from the church. The hobby-horse, Harley-the bow-carrier (the only one whose name I asked) and six men carrying antlers. Three sets painted black, three white.

The hobby horse in the foreground – head and tail visible if you look closely.It weighs over 21 lb

Harley with the bow and ‘arrow’ that he ‘shoots’ at the horse as they dance opposite each other in what is believed by some to be a metaphor for the fight between good and evil

The troupe included wandering musicians, a jester with pig’s bladder on a stick and Maid Marian – a man in drag.

The musicians – the only female performer in the troupe is the little girl with the triangle

Here’s a little snippet of the music:

The jester’s pig’s bladder. Supposedly a fertility symbol, tradition has it that if a woman is hit by the bladder one year she’ll be pregnant by the next

The Jester and Maid Marian watching the dance

The horse… minus performer!

At each stage along the way they performed the same dance involving a line, a circle and parallel lines interacting in a type of ‘hey’ or ‘hay’ dance. (Here’s a link about hey dancing if you’re interested.)

Men and one woman with collecting tins accompanied the dancers, hoping for more than pennies, I’d guess. But pennies were traditionally solicited, for the poor of the parish. One reason why it was originally held in winter, when resources were scarce, around Christmas time.

The current dance date is set to a somewhat complicated formula: the first Monday after the first Sunday after the 4th of September. It used to be St Bartholomew’s feastday, before all the confusing religious shenanigans and calendar changes of this country’s past.

It’s a community-rooted event and despite the age of the tradition the troupe visited new housing developments as well as old venues.

After several dances (and cloudbursts) around the village, the performers had a chance to ‘down horns’ for a welcome break with hot drinks.

And we had our chance to pick up the antlers- which are heavy! The heaviest weighs over 24 pounds – quite something to carry.

One member of the troupe has been dancing with the horns for over 50 years – I was awed by his stamina.

A rather tired prof (jetlag plus early start) hoisting the 2nd heaviest antlers (they range from 25.4 lb to 16.5 lb) carried by the man beside him who has been performing the Horn Dance for over 50 years

Scary face

Police community support officers accompanied us as we tromped uphill, out of the village towards the first rural stop at a farm.

As the skies opened (again) we had another enforced rest, sheltering beneath large trees.

On reaching the farm, we were surprised – and delighted – to be offered beer, mulled wine and cakes. Also an old tradition – very welcome after 2 hours’ walking.

I had a coconut macaroon (the horn-like ones at the back!)

A dog in a waterproof jacket sang along as the dancing recommenced:

And there, I’m afraid, we chickened out.

A fruitless diversion back to the village for cash (to buy a t-shirt) meant we’d already walked twice the distance everyone else had covered.

We were cold, wet and tired. If exhilarated.

So as the dancers (in vans) and followers (on foot) set out for the stop beyond the reservoir – arguably the most spectacular venue (a stately home, but with plebs’ viewing confined to the ha-ha) – we left.

We lasted 2.5 hours in the end and had mulled wine and cake at Yeatsall

Back in the village, scrounging together our last £4, we fortified ourselves with tea (£1 a cup) and courgette cake (£1 a slab).

All made and served by volunteers in Church House, a fine timbered building with the date 1619 in its door lintel.

Church House Bagot Street Abbots Bromley

And I felt a little emotional.

We’d just experienced history. But also history in the making.

The families that carry on the tradition. The folks who, like the ones at Hall’s Farm Yeatsall, serve strangers cake and ale.

The musicians who play through wind and rain. The men who don strange clothes and dance for miles and miles, carrying heavy antlers.

The gentlefolk who served us tea and made us cake.

I almost felt proud to be English.

No, be honest. I did.

* The Seasons A Celebration of the English Year by Nick Groome (Atlantic); The Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton (OUP); Staffordshire by Nikolaus Pevsner (Penguin 1974) (ironically considering what I said about the enigmatic county, this was the last of Pevsner’s renowned county volumes to be completed and published)


6 thoughts on ““The horn, the horn, the lusty horn”

    1. Ha! Sorry, Helen, I quite understand!
      And just to say, thank you for commenting – twice!
      (I resorted to putting this up here instead of writing a more nerdy version because as well a me being a bit tired it gained the fewest likes, comments and views of anything I have written in ages despite taking me forever to put together. There must be a lesson in that!)
      No more singing dogs, promise 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A pity it did not attract more attention…it was a super post, full of interest and information…
        I’ll let you off the dog…in a way it was funny watching mine hunting for it while joining in!

        Liked by 1 person

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