Category Archives: Boundary

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.”

Custom demised: St. Andrew’s Day squirrel Hunt

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St. Andrew’s Day is more regularly associated with parties associated with Scotland’s patron saint. but in parts of England, it was also a traditional day for hunting squirrels. Now days, the grey squirrel divides opinion, vermin or established interloper, but these accounts involve its more well thought of Red Squirrel. Now in decline and one wonders why. Hasted in his work on Kent records that  in the parish of Eastling on St Andrew’s Day:

” there is yearly a diversion called squirrel-hunting in this and the neighbouring parishes, when the labourers and lower kind of people, assembling together, form a lawless rabble, and being accoutred with guns, poles, clubs, and other such weapons, spend the greatest part of the day in parading through the woods and grounds, with loud shoutings.”,

It is clear that the custom was an excuse for bad behaviour, as the author notes and the squirrels perhaps need not worry much:

“under the pretence of demolishing the squirrels, some few of which they kill, they destroy numbers of hares, pheasants, partridges, and in short whatever comes in their way, breaking down the hedges, and doing much other mischief, and in the evening betaking themselves to the alehouses.”

Perhaps, the custom was more about making mischief than hunting squirrels after all why choose this date. In 1852 the Journal of the Archaeological Association noted the same custom in Derbyshire.

“At Duffield, a curious remnant of the right of hunting wild animals is still observed—this is called the ” squirrel hunt.” The young men of the village assemble together on the Wakes Monday, each provided with a horn, a pan, or something capable of making a noise, and proceed to Keddleston Park, where, with shouting and the discordant noise of the instruments, they frighten the poor little squirrels, until they drop from the trees. Several having been thus captured the hunters return to Duffield, and having released the squirrels amongst some trees, recommence the hunt.”

Again the custom appeared to be part of an older tradition associated with preparing for Christmas perhaps as it notes:

“At Duffield, the right of collecting wood in the forest is also singularly observed. The young men in considerable numbers collect together, and having taken possession of any cart they can find, yoke themselves to it, and preceded by horns, remove any trees or other wood from the various lanes and hedge-rows; this is done almost nightly, between Sep­tember and the Wakes, in the first week in November, when a bonfire is made of the wood collected on the Wakes Monday.”

Both these customs associated with the same activity and month suggests it was more widespread than it recorded. St. Andrew’s Day, passes by without any worrying wildlife….and that’s a good thing for those poor squirrels I imagine!

Custom survived: Redcliffe Pipe Walk

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“For the health of the soul of Robert Berkeley, who gave to God and the church of St. Mary Redcliffe and its ministers the Rugewell and conduit. AD 1190 Erected.”

So reads the tap head beside that ‘most beautiful church in England’ (according to Elizabeth I and who’s to argue?) and when Robert Berkeley gave this gift, back in 1190, one wonders if he would have been amazed that some 800 years on, those same church ministers, several generations on of course, would ensure that the supply was still available by this annual custom. I wonder whether he would have been impressed that some 800 years, that his direct descendent would be joining the annual walk to reinforce the ownership of that water, as for the first time possibly ever a member of the Berkley family attended the walk, a Mr. Charles Berkeley from the impressive Berkeley Castle (although it was his father who lived there!). A point I was quickly aware would be a good bargaining point for any naughty children on the walk. Behave! This man has a castle and dungeon he could throw you in. It worked!

Well meaning!

I lived for many years in this crown of the South West, but surprisingly never joined the party which have continued this fine if perhaps defunct tradition. Bristol weather is not always the best and any custom taking place outside at the end of October looks like one which might be prone to the vagaries of the weather! However, I checked the weather it suggested overcast with sunshine, fine by me.

A lot of water under the bridge

The Redcliffe pipe walk is the oldest observed custom of its kind. It survived the Reformation, a time when many church related endowments would be lost or transferred. However, at some point the inspection appears to have fallen into abeyance and was revived in 1928s as a report in a newspaper records as ‘after a lapse of some time’. One assumes it died out at the First World War, a common time for such ceremonies to die out a result of the loss of men in that terrible conflict. A similar custom was established to check the more substantial Temple Conduit which died out in 1835. Why is unclear, but around this time the Corporation would be establishing their water works. If the Redcliffe custom died out then, it seems strange that it would be re-established almost 100 years later, unless there was some need to re-emphasise some other endowment or right associated with the original gift. We really don’t know. Even when a bomb hit through the pipe line, the custom never ceased. Even when the flow became a trickle or ceased filling the tap head the custom never ceased. So it seems likely that a big event, the War being most likely. Since the late 1920s it has continued unbroken and as I have accepted the World Wars as being acceptable gaps in an over 100 year tradition I shall with this one.

The pipe walkers

The pipe walkers are ready!

Well met

I arrived early and headed for St. Barnabus Church, Knowle where the walkers would traditionally in recent times gather for refreshments and soon was made very welcome. As soon as ten o’clock arrived we all congregated in an area behind the church. The group, 24 in, made up the surveyor, the vicar, churchwardens, and large number of curious bystanders. Here the leader of the group, the aforemention church’s surveyor introduced himself and gleefully asked who was new to the walk..I wasn’t the only ones there was quite a few! We would  find out why later. He also introduced the vicar of St. Mary Redcliffe who led us in a prayer for the provision of water and in memory of the vicar of St Barnabus’s church who was presently ill.

Well thought of

From the vantage point we made our way into the allotments where the spring, called the Huge Well, still arises. We were shown the possible actual site of the well and a part of a conduit which had recently collapsed and revealed the channel beneath. As we stood surveying this site: it began to rain!! Very typical Bristol. However, as soon as we walked a few places to the well head chamber: it stopped! This was especially opened by the surveyor and we all peered in to this considerable stone lined chamber. One wonders what went through the mind of Mr. Berkeley’s descendent as he peered 800 years of reflecting on the everflowing gift. It was a good photo opportunity I thought to mark the event.

Mr Charles Berkeley, the descendent f the original benefactor.

Mr Charles Berkeley, the descendent of the original benefactor.

Here though I was asked to say a few words myself. Why? I by virtue of my other main interest (and blog) I was the well expert! I said a few words. I hope they were okay, although I did rather put my foot in it with my discussion of St. Anne’s well nearby…but that’s for another blog.

Inspecting the huge well

Inspecting the huge well

Walking on water

From this well head, a pipe line was laid travelling about two miles to a tap conduit head near the church of St. Mary Redcliffe. And of course we were there to survey it, the check at regular points that the pipe was still there and that access was still present. A two mile walk over the pipe, which was fortunately it was all downhill! For the next few 100 yards we travelled without any indication of a pipe, indeed the talk was more like a mass trespass through gardens and allotments, pass chickens and chard, raspberries and radishes…it wasn’t until we reached a garden on Raymend Walk that we saw our first real pipe laying under a metal manhole cover and flows through a Victorian metal pipe, replacing the lead and probably even wooden one of old. The family who owned the garden were very accommodating and offered the group apples from the tree. I asked them if they knew they’d be a yearly congregation of pipe walkers each year when they bought it! Fortunately they did. From here we had a bit of a detour as the surveyor worried that a wall on the route might be too prone to collapse to allow 20 odd people to pass it…but did this detour invalidate the claim I wondered! We still checked the stone, labelled SMP, which obviously reasserted the claim!

Through the allotments we go!

Through the allotments we go!

A bumping journey

Soon we arrived at Victoria Park, here the water filled a maze based on a labyrinth in St. Marys. It looked fairly clean and small shrimps disported themselves within it…but not sure I would drink it. At this point it was revealed why it was important to know who the newcomers were. At a larger pipe boundary stone the surveyor called forward newcomers to be bumped on the stone. This is probably the most traditionally part of the walk, often done of course at beating of the bounds, when mainly children were done. At first he said there were too many of us and he’d only do the children…however, this caused a bit of a ripple of indignation and so he offered anyone that wanted to be bumped would be done. I of course offered myself up. Followers of this blog will know that I’ve had a vicar on my chest being shoed at Hungerford Hocktide and this was much gentler. So I was lifted one…two…three. The vicar carrying me this time didn’t inflict any bruises. Also bumped was Mr. Berkeley. I am not sure his predecessor would have approved of the commoners manhandling him but of course this Berkeley thoroughly enjoyed it..and no-one would be sent to that castle dungeon.

The pipe inspected.

The pipe inspected.

All ages bumped!

All ages bumped!

The descendent gets bus bumps!

The descendent gets the bumps!

Pipe down we’re nearly there!

after the bumping, we examined another pipe. This one being much deeper, being reached by a ladder, and apparently had a tap where previous surveyors would take a sip. I noticed no-one appeared to volunteer this time. Then we regrouped and went under the railway, in the early 20th century we would go over the railway and the group had the power to stop the trains! Fortunately, we didn’t risk it. We were close to the final tap head and deep into the buzzy thrall of Bristol a big change from these peaceful allotments. Crossing the Avon, and two major roads, one could be forgiven in forgetting we were following a pipe, but soon at the church we saw the tap head.   Charles Berkeley was impressed by this tap head with its fine Lion mouth. Another good photo opportunity, as this descendent peered into the source of water which was of great benefit to the people of Bristol.  Nothing flowed from this tap, but above it the final manhole cover revealed oily irony water. I jokingly offered Mr. Berkeley a sip. He politely refused.  The arrival at the church was very welcome as was the spread of sandwiches, cakes and very refreshing tea topped off by a nice choir, welcoming us in song!

A custom which involves a long walk might not be everyones cup of tea but the Redcliffe Pipe Walk is an enjoyable experience coupled with some friendly folk. And perhaps it’s this sense of camaraderie which despite there being a lack of water and purpose the walk continues.

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– images copyright Pixyled Publications

 
Mr Charles Berkeley inspects the tap.