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Antics with Antlers: Abbots Bromley, 2000

In which BANBURY BILL roams around the Staffordshire countryside, and is confronted by strange figures with outsized horns

TO ABBOTS BROMLEY for the annual horn dance - on the Monday after the first Sunday after September 4, if you want to put it in your diary for next year. Apparently another annual spectacle in Abbotts Bromley is that of people standing around looking miffed because they've got the wrong day.

After an hour's drive through the unremitting dreariness of the once-industrial Midlands, a pleasant relief as we drive past the sign at the edge of the village, which features a set of antlers over the name. Abbots Bromley is attractive, with two pubs fronting on to the village green, and a churchyard looking over a gentle valley.

This was my first visit, and because I had to rush back to Oxfordshire to pick up my daughter after school, I can't report on the jovial spirit that doubtlessly fills the air for the dancing around the green in the evening, after the performers have returned from their 12-hour slog round the surrounding countryside.

I'd actually heard a plug for the dance on Radio 2 a couple of days beforehand, with a description of the characters involved: men carrying ancient horns, a Maid Marian, a boy with a bow and arrow, a hobby horse and a fool - "Just the one, mind."

The presenter then mentioned the 12-hour perambulation, and you could see what he meant about foolishness. Imagine, if you can, the likely result of someone standing up in the pub today and saying, "Let's all dress up in strange costume and carry these massive great reindeer antlers around the countryside for 12 hours." Forget marvelling at the fact that the traditional has continued so long; wonder instead that it started in the first place.

The Monday after the first Sunday after 4 September, 2000, turns out hot. Faces glisten.

Catching up with the dancers at a farm a couple of miles out of Abbots Bromley, I run into the omnipresent Doc Rowe, who's been following the horns since 1970. He's spending this year revisited many of the events he's recorded over the past thirty years, seeing how they've endured or changed.

As we chat, he suddenly springs into action with the video camera as a local barn dance band start up a medley of tunes in best EFDSS style (the electric bass guitar apart). This is new, says Doc, as it all gets added to the myriad miles of footage he's shot over the years. While the dancers stand around on the farmhouse lawn, enjoying the punch served up by our host, the horns are left resting on their tips on the grass, facing each other in two rows. They make a striking picture.

Then it's time for the company to perform for the umpteenth time of the day. The farmer and another local have been invited in to shoulder the horns as the dancers go through the winding ritual. It's a simple dance - lots of forward-and-backing-and-crossing over - with an intriguing flow to it all. At one point the snaking line of dancers (walkers, really) splits, so the front four describe a tight circle while the others pass around them in the counter direction. The line is re-formed effortlessly; with equal ease, it breaks into two columns.

Involving honoured guests is a part of the custom. Doc tells me he's had a couple of dances himself during the morning.

Then it's time to go, and for me, there's a disappointment. I'd pictured the dancers, in their theatrical finery, plodding methodically down the lanes through empty countryside, startling any motorist who happened to come upon them unexpectedly. Following them out of the garden, a minute behind, I wonder how they can have disappeared so quickly, but then a couple of vans pass by and there they are, waving out of the back of one of them. Well, it is a very hot day.

There is a mitigating circumstance. Doc tells that their famously elaborate costumes, bought many years back by a local worthy, had reached the point of needing replacement. A theatrical costumier was engaged, at very great expense. Too late - only the night before a recent horn dance day - the men had discovered that the resulting outfits looked beautiful, but weren't too practical. Every pair of the breeches has a 40 inch waist, with a drawstring, which doesn't help matters. It seems the costumier hadn't grasped that sidling magnificently on and off a stage is a very different matter from putting in a 12-hour slog around country lanes.

By three-thirty in the afternoon, a fair number of people are standing around in the street leading into the village, waiting for the arrival of the dancers.... who seem in no hurry about the thing. For me, though, it's time to turn for home, having just traipsed behind the horns, up a private driveway on the edge of the village for a performance in yet another garden. All followers welcome, just as at Bampton on the Whitsun holiday. I wonder that more dance teams don't follow this traditional practice - it makes the event more significant, somehow; more a part of the fabric of the place.

I take home a smart pamphlet about the dance, bought for a pound at the newsagent. The horns, it tells me, have been carbon-dated to the 11th century. They didn't mention that on Radio 2.

Doc Rowe Support Group

2000 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew

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