Given a lousy headache and dodgy vision from the over-inflated flesh, I was glad to come across this old post. With the fallout from COVID keeping churches closed to visitors, and preventing many of our most ancient and mysterious traditions from taking place over the past year, it felt good to revisit, if only virtually, a thousand-year-old place of worship that houses the relics of a tradition that may go back even further, all the way into prehistory…
Not even I would gate-crash a funeral and this one, with a good fifteen vintage Porsches outside looked like it would have security of the type provided by very large men in dark glasses. I satisfied myself with a shot of the lych-gate and one exterior carving and rapidly moved on. It was bad timing, but the name of the village had attracted me, seeming to ring bells somewhere in memory. However, it was very obviously a ‘modern’ church, being no more than about a hundred and fifty years old, and rather grand. Not really our style.
On the other hand, the signpost at the end of the village pointed to Abbots Bromley… and that really had to be worth a visit. Especially as the first thing I saw in the village was a random llama… I have a thing about llamas these days, ever since the encounter in the Yorkshire Dales that had featured in Heart of Albion.The road north had been attended by an odd mix of brilliant sunshine and showers all the way up so far, but as soon as I parked the car the heaven’s opened. Sheltering under a big old yew tree I managed to snap the lych-gate before making a dash for the church stopping only to note the Ordnance Survey mark on the tower, one of the many that recorded elevation above sea level before GPS made them redundant.
The present church dates back to the thirteenth century, and it is thought a Saxon church stood there centuries earlier. As with all such places, the ensuing years have added their own signature to the structure. It is a peaceful place with some lovely stained glass and was, for a while, a welcome refuge from the torrents of rain.
A modern silver-metalled sculpture dominates the nave, mounted high on the west wall, celebrating a thousand years of worship on the site. Two figures representing the human and the Divine walk hand in hand, ‘in non-metallic candour’ says the inscription. It should look out of place on the ancient stone, but somehow it fits beautifully.
However, there is something else in the church that would have made it worth the visit even without the rest, for here are kept the horns of the famous Abbots Bromley Horndance. Hung on the walls of the north transept they seem both completely in keeping and very, very odd.
The Horndance takes place in September every year and has done so for at least half a thousand years. The dancers themselves place the date of its beginnings at 1226, but, given the nature of the dance and the resemblance to the horned dancers portrayed in prehistoric cave paintings, it is possible that it is much, much older. Its history is lost in the mists of time… it may have begun as an act of sympathetic magic, perhaps, to ensure the health and survival of the herds of reindeer with which our ancestors themselves survived.
There is a record in the sixteenth century of the Hobby Horse, a central figure to the modern dance, that has inevitably changed over the centuries. Today the dancers and musicians include a Fool, Maid Marian and other characters along with the six horned dancers. The horns themselves, black and white, have been carbon-dated back to the eleventh century, a time when reindeer no longer survived in Britain and that, in itself, is a mystery. Were they imported to replace an even older set? Where did they come from…. Why? And when? But it certainly means that the horns are even older than the date given by the dancers…
All we know is that on Wakes Monday*, the village will see once again an ancient ritual drama danced in its streets. But on one rainy Thursday, I was lucky… I had the church… and the horns with their strange carved heads… all to myself and came eye to eye with the ancient, living history of my land.