Leah Gordon

Invictus: A Hooden Horse of Kent

In British Traditions on December 31, 2010 at 7:16 pm

There are a few of us, slightly cranky folks with cameras who seem to be chasing folk traditions around the country. Doc Rowe is the king of us all! An Italian woman who I have met on a couple of occasions emailed to say that the Mari Lwyd makes an outing on New Years Day and that if I spend New Years Eve in a motel on a trading estate in a remote village in South Wales I could get a chance to see it. It is a horse figure whose head is made from a horse skull. Seductive as that offer may have been I declined perferring the company of friends in Shropshire.

The Mari Lwyd led me to discover the Hooden Horses of Kent, of which there are a veritable harras (yes I have been googling collective nouns for animals). In fact there are a harras of horses in British traditions. In ‘ The English Year’ by Steve Roud he identifies two main types: the tourney horse and the mast horse. Although the scary, sexy, dark and dangerous Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss falls well outside of these typographies. The hobby horse with the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers is a tourney and is characterised my the man appearing to ride the horse. The Hooden Horses of Kent are mast horses which are more primitive and formless, leaving reality low on the list of priorities, and therefore wonderfully disturbing.

© Leah Gordon

The Horn Dancers of Abbots Bromley

In British Traditions on December 29, 2010 at 6:11 pm

© Leah Gordon

On the first Sunday after the fourth of September I was in a taxi from Rugeley station to Lea Hall Farm B&B when the folk accordon riddled euro-pop song that has already haunted me in Venice and South Queensferry came on the radio. I asked the driver if she could listen for the name of the artist. But it wasn’t the radio but a CD that her daughter had made for her and she had no idea who had recorded the song. I felt it was an auspicious sign.

On the Monday morning I made my way to St Nicholas Church in Abbots Bromley where there is a service before the horns are collected. There are twelve men in the group including six guys carrying the reindeer antlers on their shoulders, a Hobby Horse (whose seemed to be channelling Margaret Rutherford in equine form), a Jester, a young boy with a bow and arrow, a cross-dressed Maid Marian, a younger boy playing the triangle and an accordion player. The horns are much bigger, or more obviously heavier, than they appear in photographs. It was soon apparent that this was another massive endurance test to dance in twelve locations along a route of ten miles wearing a set of horns which individually weigh from 16lb to 25lb. I was told that the horns have been carbon dated and are nearly 1000 years old and are from a species of deer that are not native to the British Isles.

I’ve never watched Morris Dancing particularly closely before and definitely never found it to be sexy. But after watching the same six men dance so many times certain dancers start to impinge upon your consciousness. There was one extremely cool guy who moved with a certain sexy panache with a very big set of horns on his shoulders. I think I left with a deeper understanding of  how fertility rites can work.

The Blues Brothers of the folklore world…

© Leah Gordon

The Hobby Horse channelling the spirit of Margaret Rutherford playing Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple…

© Leah Gordon

The glorious Margaret herself…a childhood sweetheart of mine (in my dreams that is).

Although I was a tad keen on Alastair Sim in drag too.

The Future of Things Past: Dark Into Light

In British Traditions on December 25, 2010 at 7:47 pm

The first time I was aware of the Burry Man was watching  a Channel  4 documentary ‘The Future of Things Past:  Dark Into Light’ (1986) directed by Elizabeth Wood. The Burry Man was featured along with many other luminaries of British folklore traditions. I was entranced by the vision of the Burry Man and vowed to photograph him one day.

Twenty four years later I check into the Staghead Hotel, South Queensferry, with a great view of the two bridges spanning the Firth of Forth, where the Burry Man will get into costume (and character) the next morning at 7am in the back bar.

You can read about the Burry Man on the Ferry Fair website

Over 11,000 burrs, the seed pods of the burdock plant, have to be collected in the preceeding week for the costume. Encroaching urbanisation and the use of insecticides are making the annual harvesting of the burrs for this tradition increasingly difficult. Which I guess can show how traditions can act like monitor fish for nature, the land and the environment. The tradition is over 900 years old and the current Burry Man, John Nicol, has been walking out for twelve consecutive years.

The Burry Man in costume is an amazing sight but I wasn’t really expecting how affecting the  tradition itself, the eleven hour walk around the Burgh of South Queensferry, would be. On one level it is so surreal, a mythical man/plant hybrid walking through typical British 1960’s council estates flanked by his two smartly dressed pole bearers, trailed by a small band of followers  and announced by a young bell ringing boy crying ‘Make way, make way, it’s the Burry Man’s day’.

© Leah Gordon

The Burry Man was deeply profound in an oddly prosaic, underwhelming way. Ten minutes into his route we encountered an elderly lady sitting on a dining table chair placed on the pavement with a small table by her side. On the doily covered table there was a tray upon which sat three glasses of whiskey, the centre glass with a short straw. ‘Good morning to you Burry Man’, she said, and her patience, politeness and attention to detail moved me.

The Burry Man seemed to know everyone on the route and accepted a whiskey off everyone that offered. I heard mothers explaining to crying children, ‘don’t worry I was scared of the Burry Man when I was your age’. I sensed that the Burry Man cements this community, binding together history, family, ancestors, nature and myth in this one act of mask, psycho-geography and endurance.

Euro Techo Pop Aside

This story starts with a folk instrument, an accordion, an accordion riff sampled inside a Euro techno pop track heard floating from a high window in a backstreet on Giudecca Island, Venice. The song then haunted me, choosing odd portals into my consciousness, from the Waltzers at a fairground in South Queensferry, the night before I met the Burry Man, to a taxi from the station to my isolated B&B in Abbotts Bromley, whilst I started making journeys around Britain to document the people who take part in traditions. Somehow it meant something to me. I finally found it by googling techno and accordion and after going through a list of six to eight possibles found it. It is now irretrievably bound up with this project.

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