The Deer-Men Dance

Earl Wulfric’s writ ran in Mercia
when Deer-Men first danced
through Bromleighe manor
deep in Needwood’s shade
saluting the turning of the leaves.

Men in costume, green, russet
as the rustling forest carpet
bearing bleached antlers, culled
under gloomy boreal firs
ferried on the east wind
by the raiding Northman.

Six spreading ivory crowns
their velvet shed long ago
abandoned shreds festooning
ash branches, veiled in myth
immortalised in epic prose.

Wakes Monday is an infant
as the inheritors of the Dance
lift the antlers down
for the nine-hundredth time
from the age-smoothed sandstone
of Saint Nicholas’ nave.

Assembly is at Buttercross
and once more the Dance begins
another waymark on the journey
from deep memory to far horizon.

A melodeon strikes up; jaunty
Wheelwright Robinson’s Tune.
Triangle chimes mark the tempo.

Down Goose Lane the Fool leads the Dance
squealing children dart, delighted, dodging
playful blows from a pig’s bladder.

A hobby horse follows, dogged at each step
by a boy archer, shooting make-believe arrows
from a stunted bow, chipping paint
from a dumb wooden muzzle.

Two facing lines advance
meeting, retreating, weaving
invisible warp and weft
into terpsichorean tangles.

On they dance, to hunkered Admaston
(a homely huddle) and Baron Bagot’s Tudor seat
beyond drowned Yeatsall Hollow and the mill
where stone no longer grinds corn
and the wheel is stilled, the racing Blithe
now a fading blue thread on an old map
a dream gathering attic dust.

Then back by Rugeley Turn to the village
where, inn by inn, revellers and dancers alike
grow merry, then drowsy with ale
and Marian, robed in blue, crowned
by yellow circlet, virgin’s veil and wimple
reveals an undelicate thirst for the brew.

As shadows lengthen
four times the column halts
increasingly composed of stragglers
until, at the Coach and Horses
the landlord calls time on the merriment
and, for another year, the Dance.

Footnote:

The Staffordshire village of Abbots Bromley first appears in written history in Saxon times as the Manor of Bromleighe. It was the property of Wulfric Spot, Earl of Mercia.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, England’s oldest folk dance, has carried on continuously every Wake’s Monday (the first Monday after September 4th) since at least the thirteenth century and quite possibly the eleventh, as the six reindeer antlers used in the dance have been carbon dated to that period.

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