The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of many customs and traditional gatherings. Some, like the solstice celebrations at Stonehenge, have been cancelled two years running but a few have reappeared this summer in various town squares and village greens. For some others, their long term survival remains in doubt.
A number of our customs may be ancient, most are not but probably all have adapted and metamorphosed over the years as plague, war, suppression and oppression and, not least, economics and industrialisation have impacted upon them. Many have not survived and others have endured the changes and continue to adapt and prevail.
The ability to adjust accordingly to social and economic changes has ensured the natural survival of many traditions. Others, such as harvest festivals and Whitsuntide wakes, are today less common. Significantly a number have been reinvented such as the Mari Lwyd and other animal head traditions perhaps demonstrating their own unique versatility. Is it the need for us to gather and communicate in ways that are inclusive, relevant and, importantly, accessible, that ensures this survival ? The importance of custom survival and revival became clear very recently during the early days of autumn when I encountered two very different, very English traditional gatherings: the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and that great bastion of British tradition, the Annual Flower Show.
The Flower Show
The flower shows of my childhood revealed previously unseen levels of rivalry and tension. There was a grim competitiveness amongst the gardeners, jam makers, bakers and pumpkin growers. On the big day a ‘special guest’ would cut a ribbon to formally ‘open’ the fete. Then the tractors would roll round the field, pulling the floats and the carnival queen on her wobbly chair. Slade and Neil Diamond would crackle out from Butch Barham’s disco as the fancy dress parade went by with yours truly, red faced and hideously mortified, lingering at the back dressed up as a Dalek or something.
Time moves on and today we are visiting elderly relatives ‘down south’ in a tidy flint village near the River Thames. I feel some trepidation as we make our way across a field of stubble towards white bright tents playing Glen Miller music. Where some recall fetes and flower shows as bygone days of ‘peaches and cream and sack races’ others, including my good self, regard them as representations of the parochial and negative attitudes of ‘the good old days’, of class systems, social hierarchies, competitiveness and the pettiness of Little England.
But not today. The sun comes out and for just a few hours all seems mercifully right in the world. The music flows and news exchanged over cups of tea and Victoria sponge. Growing children are admired, news exchanged, dogs bark, get tangled in their leads and hoover up left over food. We win a can of cherry cola at the hoopla stall but lose on the coconuts. To compensate we drink a glass of cider and listen to the live brass band playing Barry Manilow.
All very ‘peaches and cream’ I hear you say…?
The fresh produce tent takes me straight back to those childhood days: the colour, the smell, the proud rosettes, folk trying not to appear too interested in the results. It doesn’t matter. People look happy, funds are raised for next year’s event and the show declared a success! As the shadows lengthen we shuffle down the lane for a glass of rose in the garden. It is not far and we can hear the loudspeakers announcing half price beer and the start of the harvest auction. The kites call to each other overhead in the sunshine.
There were no sack races.
The Horn Dance
A couple of weeks later we change pace and drive up to Staffordshire for the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. (You can read more about this wonderful event in a earlier blog post. https://myblog.moonbrookcottagehandspun.co.uk/2019/06/17/abbots-bromley-horn-dance-4/ )
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is one of the oldest of its kind in Europe. Pandemics and plagues, war and religion have halted and altered it but it has always revived. A dance was recorded here at the Berthelmy Fair in 1226 and although the famous ‘horns’ (actually castrated reindeer antlers) date from around the 11th century they are not recorded until the 16th century. However, as historian Ronald Hutton points out, this does not mean they were not previously being used in the dance.
This year there is a display in the church including old photographs and mementos of the tradition. One photo is a poignant reminder of suddenly changing times. It is of four brothers, taken at their parents farm. They look straight at the camera laughing, full of humour and youth. Each wears a World War I uniform and each has either a cat, a kitten or parrot on his shoulder. Two ever came home from France.
Last year’s dance was cancelled and today the dancers are mourning the loss of one of their members. It is a bittersweet occasion. It’s Wakes Monday today when the ‘horns’ are blessed and taken from the church for their annual perambulation around the village and neighbouring farms. Its a long way and the familiarity of the tight schedule is a reassuring part of the day.
The music begins and the dancers move off. Some of us follow on foot, up and out of the village to wonderful views across the reservoir. The day is full of sunshine, companionship and congeniality as people meet old friends and make new ones. Occasionally onlookers are invited to join in and they do, bravely raising the horns to march in time to lively jigs and morris tunes. Many farms and houses serve drinks, mainly alcoholic and there are sausage rolls, chocolate biscuits and water for the dogs. The dancers push on in the heat until they reach Bagot Hall where they cross the bridge to dance for the guests at the ‘big house’. We watch them from the other side of the ‘ha – ha’, reminding us that our English class system is still alive and kicking. Its time for lunch and the temperature is pushing 27c.
It is now really too hot to follow on foot and we are offered a lift by a lovely soul who tells us her family has danced the Horn Dance for at least 500 years! Both her father and grandfather danced for seventy years a piece and now her niece has taken to the tradition. Her great pride and passion for the occasion are matched by her hospitality and soon we are drinking cold pop and eating cobs (bread rolls) at a lovely old farm down a shady lane. Back in the village we take refuge in a cold cider and an ice cream for Dan before visiting in the WI’s book stall on the village green.
As the sun goes down the horns will be returned during the ancient service of compline to hang for another year on the stone wall in St Nicholas’s church.
Maybe it was the relief of being back outside in companionship with others. Somehow both occasions felt fresh and more relevant this year. There was a connection between the players and the people, a feeling of inclusion that is sometimes absent at many traditional gatherings and ‘events’. Maybe the relevance of a tradition ultimately drives its reception and acceptance. Yet some communities are not interested and the survival of many folk traditions has fallen to ‘outsiders’ to record and save from obscurity.
Once I would have derided the Flower Show as a bold representation of ‘Middle England’ and maybe it often is. On this occasion it was great fun and reassuring in its familiarity. And that is why I like Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. There is room for everyone: neo pagans with their staffs and stars, old dogs, young children, Morris Dancers, the WI and the vicar.
After all, our customs, dances and traditions are a legacy from our ancestors and should be celebrated and shared amongst us, all of us ideally and that’s what its about. Isn’t it?