Cycling route - Derby to Abbots Bromley
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
This Leap Year why not take a jaunt from the heart of Derby to the charming village of Abbots Bromley, where the most famous ‘stag night’ in the world takes place: the annual Horn Dance. Great art, picturesque villages and cosy pubs await!
The 29th February comes only every four years - fearful bachelors wary of unexpected proposals (it is the day when, according to custom, women are allowed to propose to men), or those simply wishing to take the spring air, could do worse than putting on those plus-fours, pumping up those tyres, and pushing westwards 'in pursuit of Spring', alluding to the classic book by First World War poet and critic Edward Thomas, who in 1913 (21st-28th March) recorded his literary pilgrimage from Clapham to the Quantocks - the home of Coleridge - in In Pursuit of Spring. Thomas had gone in search of the first daffodils.
In our changing climate, daffodils are seen earlier and earlier - in recent years even before New Year. The snowdrops will certainly be out, although you may spot crocuses and even those famous yellow flowers. Cold snaps still happen, of course, and the young bulbs may be seen emerging from the frosty sward - although knees may get an airing. Last year was the warmest February on record, with Kew Gardens recording an incredible 21.2°C, and even Abbots Bromley reached 19°C on 26th February - so you could be in for a pleasant day out, but of course it could be foul too: this is England, after all!
Before you set off, do spend some time appreciating the remarkable work of a famous local artist in the City Museum and Art Gallery: Joseph Wright of Derby. Born in the city in 1734, Wright is an internationally renowned artist, whose paintings and works on paper adorn the walls of major galleries the world over. Famed as a 'painter of light' and for his association with key members of the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, he is now considered to be one of Britain's most interesting and wide-ranging painters. The Joseph Wright Gallery is a permanent space dedicated to showcasing the full range of his spectacular paintings alongside small, temporary displays of drawings and prints from the museum's collection. Wright's 1766 masterpiece, pithily titled: 'A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun,' was on temporary loan to the Science Museum until late January, but if you're in luck it will be back on display if you're passing through in early spring.
Leaving the madding crowds of Derby, we head westwards along an old railway route, now the Great Northern Greenway cycle path. The country soon opens up and you end up coasting through villages with names like Draycott in the Clay - just to let you know you're in potters' country - for perhaps without realising it you have slipped over the border into Staffordshire! Be not affeared for the locals are friendly and a warm welcome awaits you in the hostelries of Abbots Bromley. After riding nearly a marathon you may well be in need of some thirst-slaking before (or after) a visit to the church to see the famous antlers!
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, first recorded as being performed at the Barthelmy Fair in August 1226, is thought to be the only survivor of its type in Western Europe, a bona fide ancient ritual rural custom. Probably danced in celebration of deer hunting rights given to villagers in the then nearby Needwood Forest, today the Horn Dance, which takes place annually on Wakes Monday, offers a fascinating day out attracting visitors from all over the world. After collecting the horns (the oldest of which are about 900 years old and are Scandinavian in origin) from the church at eight o'clock in the morning, the Horn Dancers comprising six Deer-men, a Fool, Hobby Horse, Bowman and Maid Marian, perform their dance to music provided by a melodion player at locations throughout the village and its surrounding farms and pubs - a walk of about 10 miles (or 16 kilometres). At the end of a long and exhausting day, the horns (some of which weigh up to 40 pounds) are returned to the church in the evening.
While supping your well-earned refreshment, you may want to contemplate the history of the village. More than 60 years before the arrival of the Normans, Wulfric, Earl of Mercia, founded the Abbey of Burton. 'Bromleag' was one of 72 manors which were endowed to the Abbey. From this time on, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII, the Abbots appointed priests to look after the spiritual needs of the village, which soon became known as Abbots Bromley. The church here, which was founded in 1002 AD, was in all probability a small shrine of wood and plaster. The Normans then rebuilt in stone, though there is no visible evidence of this structure left today in a church which dates from c.1300.
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The ancient antlers hang in the Hurst Chapel area all year and are only brought out for the village fête and Horn Dance Day, which is in September on the first Monday after the first Sunday after the 4th September. But spring-heeled cyclists need not wait that long to behold them! Fortune favours the bold!
Kevan Manwaring is an author and creative writing lecturer. His books include Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels; and Pen Mine: itinerant thoughts of a Pennine Wayfarer. He is a keen walker and cyclist.