From the town of Bacup with blackened faces and unusual costumes comes a unique folk dance troup. The team dances several garland dances once common as part of rushbearing festivals around the area, but also a “nut dance” of which they now seem to be the sole surviving example.
Photo by Kezka Dantza Taldea Eibar
Whilst the clogs shirt and britches are traditional Lancashire, the white and red hooped skirt and white hat/turban seem more exotic in origin.
While Morris Dancing is rumoured to have been derived from the dances of the Moors, the African tribe that conquered large parts of Spain, Portugal and Southern France. The tradition danced by the Britannia dancers seems to have a more definite link. It is rumoured to have been taught to Cornish tin miners by Moors who came to this country and found employment in the mines. When the work in Cornwall became scarce during the 18th & 19th centuries some of the Cornish miners came to the North-West to work in the mines and quarries and brought the tradition with them.
Tunstead Mill Nutters 1907
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The practice of strewing rushes in church as a primitive carpet has long since passed into history but the rush-bearing tradition is still upheld in a few towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Many of our old customs are fading away into the dim mists of antiquity, and all but the name will soon be forgotten. This is much to be regretted, because they were attended with a great deal of pure enjoyment, and were looked forward to by the people for weeks before the event.
One of these is the old custom of strewing rushes, and its attendant ceremony of the rush-bearing, with its quaint rush-cart and fantastic morris-dancers.
Once common to the whole country, it now lingers only in a few isolated places, principally in the hill districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
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The Uppermill Rush-Cart 1880
During the middle-ages it was common for the floors of buildings to be no more than compacted earth. To stop the floor getting muddy in wet weather and to insulate the rooms, rushes or hay were put down (sometimes mixed with herbs and flowers to freshen the air). This floor-covering was known as thresh and a piece of wood or stone put across the bottom of a doorway to keep the thresh inside was known as a threshold.
Seats were not provided in church until the 15th century and even if the floors were flagged the excessive cold after long standing and the kneeling required during devotions necessitated the floor being covered.
The renewal of the rushes at the church commonly coincided with the Saint’s Day to which the church was dedicated and the corresponding “Wake,” the custom quickly developed into a part of the religious festival.
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On Wakes Monday (the first Monday between the 6th and 12th of September) the small village of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire is host to a unique Horn Dance. (Details of the event can be found here)
The dancers start the procession at St. Nicholas Church.
The”horns” are six sets of antlers attacked to wooden skulls, three black and three white (although it is notable that Cecil Sharp referred to the black horns as being painted blue and an account from 1686 says they are red.) The horns themselves have been carbon dated to the early 11th century. These horns are on display in St Nicholas Church for the rest of the year, a replica set being used any other time the dance is performed.
The six “Deer-men” are accompanied by a musician playing an accordion, Maid Marian (played by a man), the hobby-horse, a jester or fool, a child with a bow and arrow and another with a triangle. Until the end of the 19th century the dancers were all members of the Bentley family, before the dance was passed to the related Fowell family.
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