Four minutes of light lost each day

Abbot's Bromley Horn Dancers
Abbot's Bromley Horn Dancers

by Heather Elvidge

Have you noticed how the sun seems to hurry to bed, earlier and earlier each evening? Alas, it’s no illusion — as we approach the equinox on September 22, we lose four minutes of light every day.

In our gardens, birds are preparing for autumn. After keeping a low profile during the moult, some are thinking about winter territories.

Our friend the robin is starting to sing again, a ripple of notes to announce that he’s back on form.

The redbreast’s song sounds achingly sweet to us, although others of his species will hear it very differently. Both male and female robins hold a winter territory that they defend vigorously against other robins, including their own offspring.

If you’ve been feeding goldfinches, you may be feeling a little neglected at the moment. They’ve been lured away by the fluffy seed heads of thistles; these are a favourite of goldfinches, along with teasel and burdock.

When wild seeds are in short supply, goldfinches will be queuing as usual for your sunflower or nyjer seeds. In the party there’ll be young birds with grey heads, looking rather sober next to their parents’ exotic black, white and red heads.

In the fields the harvest continues, and on pylons high above the stubble, starlings gather to murmur and click. Their new feathers are not the sleek black of summer, but have light-coloured tips, giving the birds a spotty appearance. Young starlings are brown above and spotty below. At twilight they all fly off to roost with other starlings in woods or reed beds.

Dances with deer

September 9 is an important date in the Staffordshire village of Abbot’s Bromley, home of England’s oldest surviving custom.

At 7.30am on September 9, the Horn Dancers will collect six sets of reindeer antlers from the parish church of St Nicholas and set off on a 10-mile tour of houses, pubs and farms.

Each Deer Man dances with a set of antlers, the heaviest weighing 25lbs, and the smallest 16lbs. Also in the team are a Fool, a Hobby-horse, a Bowman, and Maid Marian, a man in a medieval-style frock.

Musicians cheer them on: today there’s a melodeon player, a century ago it was a fiddler, and earlier still 
a man playing pipe and 
tabor.

The custom is unique in Europe, but just how old is it? There are claims for 1226, although the earliest record is from 1532 when the dance was performed at Christmas. The Horn Dance lapsed during the Civil War, but a good description published in1686 aided its restoration in the early eighteenth century.

As remarkable as the survival of the dance, is the age of the antlers. Tests have confirmed that they came from domesticated reindeer sometime in the eleventh century, when parts of Staffordshire were still under Danish rule.

From seventeenth-century Iceland we have a mention of men dancing with reindeer antlers, suggesting a possible Scandinavian link for the custom.

But exactly when those reindeer antlers came to Abbot’s Bromley, and who brought them, remains a mystery.