Autumn days are rolling in

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers

There’s more than a hint of autumn in the air, though when the sun comes out it can feel like summer for a while.

September brings autumn flowers, chilly mornings and, yes, shortening days. How quickly the nights are drawing in. Daylight decreases by four minutes each day as we approach the autumn equinox on September 22.

The full moon nearest to the equinox is the Harvest Moon, so called because its light allowed workers to continue harvesting into the night. This is still done if bad weather threatens, though nowadays headlights illuminate the fields rather than the moon.

After the crop’s been cut and the straw baled, there’s only stubble left behind. Among the birds looking for spilt grain and insects are pheasants, in the process of growing their fine new feathers. They can relax for now — pheasant shooting doesn’t start until October. But if conditions are right these stubble fields will be ploughed soon, to turn the plant material into the soil.

On roadside verges and waste ground, tall bunches of daisy-like flowers are shining like suns. These are the flowers of ragwort, a native plant so called because its divided leaves give it a tattered appearance.

When crushed, ragwort releases a strong, bitter smell. The plant yields dyes of bronze, green and orange, used to colour cloth, and its stems are tough enough to make baskets and ropes. In folk medicine, ragwort poultices were applied to boils, cuts, sores and ulcers to combat infection.

While the yellow flowers are cheery, farmers and horse owners hate ragwort because it is toxic when eaten by animals. For this reason, great efforts are made to eradicate the plant from pasture.

There does seem to be more ragwort about this year, which is good news for the one creature that can eat it. This is the caterpillar of the cinnabar moth, whose striking black and yellow body is well camouflaged among the stems.

Horn Dance

On September 10, one of Britain’s oldest customs takes place in Staffordshire. Cheered on by a melodeon player and the odd glass of liquid refreshment, the Horn Dancers set off early on a ten mile route around the parish of Abbots Bromley.

In the team are six Deermen, each carrying a set of reindeer antlers. There’s a Fool, with a bladder on a stick; a lad carrying bow and arrows; a Hobby Horse; and Maid Marian, a man in a dress. At certain locations they stop to perform their dignified dance.

The origin of the Horn Dance is unknown. A 17th-century writer saw it before the Civil War, when it was performed at Christmas to raise money for church repairs. Later the custom was moved to September to become part of the village Wakes.

What we do know is that at some time, someone went to the trouble of importing six sets of reindeer antlers. They are very old — radiocarbon dating has shown that one set parted from the reindeer around 1065AD. But who brought the antlers to the village, and when, remains a mystery.