Monthly Archives: September 2014

Custom survived: The Abbot Bromley Horn Dance 100th Post!

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An obvious choice for the 100th post but there is something mesmerising about this perhaps the oldest dance ritual in Europe. Many have said this was the first custom which made them fascinated in our strange customs, such as Averil of the excellent Calendar Customs website.  My first experience is back in the 1990s and I travelled from Bristol to see it! It is perhaps one of the most instantly recognisable and iconic, with its olde world dress and impressive reindeer antlers- the horns- which are danced with.

A horny subject?

How old is it? This is a moot subject and depends on whether you need hard evidence. The earliest reference is in Plots 1686 Natural History of Staffordshire, but there reference of a hobby horse being used in 1532 with ‘six men carrying rain deer heads’ but that does not necessary mean the dance is that old. More convincing is the evidence of the Carbon dating of the Horns, which dates them to the 11th century, 1056 more accurately, suggesting an Anglo-Saxon origin perhaps. It has been suggested that it may have pagan origins, certainly it is significant that reindeer would have been extinct by the 11th century. Does this suggest the custom had a Norse origin, as reindeer are still extant there? Did the horns come later if so why? Some authorities had related the custom to privileges from the time when hunting was undertaken in the nearby Cannock Chase. Interestingly, the appointment of a forester continued until the 16th century and that they were called the Forester of Bentylee and it is the name of Bentley which continued organising the events until 1914. Coincidental perhaps?

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Keeping on dancing

The horn dance as Plot noted is on Wakes Monday which is after the first Sunday after the fourth of September. It’s a long day…the antlers are removed from the wall location early at 8 am after a blessing at the church, where they lay for 364 days a year and the dancing begins. Already there is a sizeable crowd ready to watch as they weave in and out of themselves on the green as the six dancers face each other and try to avoid the heavy horns, weighing around 25lbs, clashing. Interestingly, red deer antlers are used when the team perform outside of the village making witnessing the custom in situ more special.

The dancers have a quaint dress which might suggest evidence for an early origin but sadly these have a fairly recent origin, 1880s by the vicar’s wife, and before then they would wear normal clothing.

Clashing horns

Then off they went around the Parish, stopping in back lanes and open spaces to hypnotically play their tune and do their dance. One of the notable locations is Blithfield Hall. Here one can get a view of the dancers without the throng of observers and often photographers and get a real feeling of its ancient mesmeric nature.

There are twelve dancers, which consist of six horn carriers, an accordion player and unusually two children one with a bow and arrow and the other a triangle. There is also a Fool, Maid Marian character and Hobby Horse, features of Morris teams across the country

Then at eight in the evening the horns are returned back to the church a service is undertaken and its over for another year.  What is splendid about the dance is its simplicity and authenticity, as the author of a piece in the Times from 7th September 1936 wrote:

“The whole thing is done unassumably and with a quite purposefulness which is the keynote of the whole proceedings. One feels they are not dancing for joy or self-expression, but going quietly about a task which must be accomplished with necessary fuss.”

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Custom revived: St. Edith’s Day, Kemsing

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DSC_0135I say revived, for although the celebrations of this local saint were apparently established in the 1920s there does not appear to be any evidence of what form of celebration, if any existed, before this. This 1920s custom may have itself been short lived and indeed the 1951 revival of this may as we shall read not be related. One could easily say this is a contrived custom for although it likely that the parish commemorated a patronal day, what is undertaken today is pure supposition.

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Despite living not far away and having an interest in holy wells, it has took me a long time to find out and visit this custom. A number of reasons appear to have compounded this – firstly bad weather (more of that later) and secondly the lack of any information about it. Indeed as regards the later, I once rang up and they said they did an event in November…clearly they were confusing it with Armistice Day…thankfully the internet has been more helpful, supported by an improvement to the event which arose in 2011 the 1050th anniversary of her birth – a well dressing.

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Well met

Weather was not a problem when I arrived in the morning of 2013. Sun shone majestically over the delightful village and I turned in Kemsing just as the well dressing board was being wheel barrowed down to the holy well. I naturally helped lift it and put it into place. The well dressing was a fine attempt. The artists being two local ladies, one of which would appear to have the tradition running through her veins coming from Elmton in Derbyshire, a village with a well dressing tradition, albeit a modern one. Subsequently, the frame is soaked in a paddling pool each year and taken to the village hall where on a table the two worked away using templates to create their art over the week finally finishing on the Saturday before. In the last three years, since the 2011 festival, a well dressing has been undertaken place, last year’s was the Olympics, 2011’s was a picture of the village. This year’s was the harvest and delightfully it was rendered too with a good use of rhubarb seeds for a field and gravel for the signage. Next year’s is planned to be the First World War.

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The small group admired their handiwork and then it was covered for the arrival of the church and its congregation.

Well they have arrived

A few minutes later this congregation, following their cross, but sadly no banner, and holding their posies, arrived. The service with the prayer which begins:

“Father each St. Edith’s day, we bring flowers to this well….”

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Then the posies were placed upon the walls of the well, the service continuing with a reading of St. Edith’s hymn:

“At this well with great thanksgiving, blessed Edith we record, her short years of holy living, chaste handmaiden of the Lord, May we in her Lord believing, be like her his living sword.”

A thanks giving was given for the water and then the well dressing was revealed to the delight of the congregation. It was great to see that the well continues to be celebrated and the well dressing is a more than welcome innovation. The ceremony ends with prayers of intercession and a collect for St. Edith’s Day, Lord’s Prayer, hymn and blessing. It was a bit disappointing I felt that the support from the village was quite small, especially as everyone here seemed so inviting, but as the service was at 9.45, perhaps it was too early. I recommend moving the service an hour forward and more visitors may be attracted.

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Well meet again

However, although the congregation now dispersed to their church hall for tea and cakes..this is not the end of the observation. For in the afternoon, a Catholic pilgrimage occurs from the nearest Catholic Church based in Sevenoaks. In 2013 they planned to meet at 3.00 with the Holy Rosary, prayers and St. Edith’s hymn, followed by the Benediction of the blessed sacrament in a nearby garden about 200 yards from the well.

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Interestingly, Christopher Bells’ Centenary History of the Catholic Church of St Thomas of Canterbury states that Father Phillips, Sevenoaks parish priest from 1916 to 1946, probably revived it around the 1920s.  An elderly parishioner told Mr Taylor that the pilgrimage was going in the 1930s, but this was actually on the 16th, not the nearest Sunday as of recent. It is possible that as the village was home of Catholic convert Monsignor Robert Benson, son of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1890s the observation may be older. I was told that now parishioners come from all part of the parish which covers the villages of Kemsing, Otford, Weald, Borough Green and West Kingsdown as well as Sevenoaks, some walking 8 miles as well journeying by car from London.

But the weather delightful in morning closed in and a note wrapped in plastic was affixed to the well read…moved to Otford Catholic church..that weather again…hopefully the weather will be more favourable next year and they will return.

Custom demised: Chalk Back Day

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In an account in Notes and Queries in 1851 it reads:

“It is customary for the juvenile populace on the Thursday before the third Friday in September to mark and disfigure each other’s dress with white chalk, pleading a prescriptive right to be mischievous on ‘chalk-back day’.”

So reads this unusual custom described in the town of Diss, Norfolk. It continues being mentioned until 1900 suggesting an established custom. Roud (2008) suggests that the custom was associated with a fair which iswas held at the same time. This is hinted at Bridlington when:

 “the boys used to assemble on the church green, where the fair was held, each armed with a lump of chalk and each intent on chalking the backs as many of the other boys as possible. This often led to quarrels as the boys then had on their Sunday clothes.”

Similarly, in Ireland was Chalk Sunday which was a name for the first Sunday in Lent when local youths from the nineteenth century to the 1930s would chalk people’s backs, often people who were unmarried so that jibes could be made. Today chalk is not as readily available to children…many schools have gone to whiteboard markers or even interactive white boards..and interactive whiteboard day does not seem as easy!