I visit Ousby whilst playing live shows for the first Thankful Villages album with British Sea Power. It’s odd to be moving into the last phase of the project whilst unveiling it’s beginning to people.
I stay just outside the village and visit it twice. There’s an open caravan park and a closed pub called the Fox. I find a small wooden shelter with a weather vane on top and fight against the wind.
A horse stares at me, a dog barks at me, another horse draws a carriage across the top of the green. The pub, church and community hall all look a little forlorn but the green is clean and neat with new playground equipment.
I shouldn’t play with my phone in these remote places but the garbled news gradually reaches me of a tragedy. It is the day that Jo Cox was murdered, Brexit was looming.
It’s nearly spring but there are still the tiniest scraps of snow in Bigby. I arrive in the evening just as night started to fall. I return again at 5:30 am the next day to be there for the break of dawn.
I only see Bigby in the half-light. I only see Bigby when my eyes are heavy with tiredness.
I wrote a tune in between my two visits in a nearby bed and breakfast. I think of light snow and black night.
I record Bigby with the oldest and newest technology. I leave an iPad in the graveyard taking time-lapse photos of the sun rising behind the church whilst I fumble with 120 film in an old plastic Diana camera. The film pops out and I lose photographs.
Bigby is old and new too with trim new-builds hidden behind the old houses. My photos are muted and ghostly when developed.
Coln Rogers is another village on a river. The river Coln, in fact runs into the Thames. I could build a raft and let it carry me home. I was heading home in any case.
It was early spring and Coln Rogers fluttered glowed in the sunlight. There were daffodils everywhere. It was late afternoon, when the sunlight changes quickly. I set up cameras on time lapse to capture the moving shadows. I used a sample app and set up random looped lengths so the stringed instruments fluttered and collided in random ways.
I painted the tree line. I painted a telegraph pole. Volume 2 has seen me meet far more people than Volume 1, but here I was, alone again. A villager walked up and down the main street and called on neighbours. She said hello and looked at my paintings, then left me alone again.
(Yes we have gone slightly out of order on this one, we will pick up where we left off on the next one)
Three planes crashed above Woodend in World War 2. Two came down but one still flew. I’m trying to imagine how three planes can crash in the air. In 2010 archaeologists found one of the pilots’ bracelets. A simple shrine and information panel over looks an empty field.
Woodend is all gables and gravel drives. The Methodist Chapel is a now a house as they so often are. There is a neat row of green recycle bins outside a line of post war houses. One has a huge ‘Help for Heroes’ flag in its garden.
Spring has just come to Woodend and Snowdrops, Daffodils and Hyacinths decorate the grass verges. I hide in a concrete bus shelter and collected together all the notes I had for Woodend. I strung them together and a made a list song.
I love Fairport Convention. I love all of the different line ups of Fairport Convention. I love their strange and compelling first album with Judy Dyble singing. I love Judy Dyble and her following albums with Giles, Giles and Fripp and Trader Horne. I always wish she’d made more albums.
Judy agreed to go with me to Upper Slaughter, not far from where she lived. We took Molly, her greyhound, with us. It was a pleasure to have someone else to break the ice in the village. Judy understood the project immediately. We had only been in the village five minutes before Judy had started talking to a stranger and got us invited to the village soup afternoon.
We ate delicious soup underneath group pictures of the village. Judy and Molly charmed the locals. Talk was of the plight of the village. Upper Slaughter has an older population and a high proportion of holiday homes. We left a donation and sat by the River Eye.
I recorded Judy strumming chords on her auto-harp and drew a picture of Molly.
Later when I got home I constructed Judy’s chords into a tune whilst Judy wrote lyrics at hers.
If the accidental theme of Thankful Villages Vol 1 was the church then the theme of Volume 2 has been the river. The river has slowly woven its way through the songs and it snaked its way into Judy’s beautiful lyrics too.
Every New Year’s Day, the village of Colwinston plays the game of Collyball, a sport where swedes are rolled down the hill. The furthest wins. The scant information to be found online might mislead you into thinking it was a centuries-old tradition, but it was in fact made up in recent years for something to do, Alun Austin tells me. Swedes are used in place of the more name-appropriate cauliflowers.
Alun has a booming baritone voice and seems to be the guiding hand of the village. In the morning at the annual football match he distributes sherry. He leads the villagers from the field to the Sycamore Tree pub for lunch, he gathers them for the game of Collyball and then organises the ‘decorate the swede’ competition.
I’m not sure that I’ve visited a closer-knit community than Colwinston. The pub is crowded and laughing for the whole day. They seem to share a genuinely funny and offbeat sense of humour. The silly events raise money for charity and I am shown certificates and plaques. Colwinston has arranged it’s own cinema night in the village hall and has a philosophical society that meets regularly in the Sycamore.
During the game of Collyball one man grabs my arm and stares at me intently and says ‘We are very, very, very thankful!’ before bursting into laughter.
A new housing development is being built on what locals believe to be flood plain and they fight the development fiercely.
We leave before the Swede decorating competition and I record a colourful set of chimes in a playground next to a friendship bench.
Colwinston is the happiest of the blessed villages.
The vicar in Arkholme seemed a little over protective. He said he didn’t think the villagers would want to talk to me.
I looked elsewhere and found a folk song about the death of eight men on the river Lune. It seemed to echo the story in Cromwell. Rivers are powerful beasts.
I meet Gerald Lees in the Bay Horse, we talk by a crackling fire. Gerry has written a book about the Lancashire Thankful Villages called ‘Thankful and not so Thankful.’ He is full of details about the wars and we find a connection between my folk song and two soldiers who lived in the Ferryman’s cottage. You can hear him at the end of this recording.
That evening I went to the village bonfire night. Despite the vicar’s reservations the villagers were warm and friendly. I filmed the community at play and made a short film for their website.
I thought about the warmth of home fires and the coldness of rivers and rain. A finished a song of two halves back in the B and B.
I saw Rob St John do a talk on underwater sound recording and his beautiful album ‘Surface Tension’.
I invited him to come with me to Nether Kellet in Lancashire. The rain was pouring down. We meet at the edge of the large green triangle in the village’s centre. A peace stone in the middle of the green marks the end of the Second World War.
Rob records with binaural microphones. They sit in his ears. As he records he looks like he is concentrating very hard. It continues to rain hard, but Rob likes the sound.
We climb muddy banks and stone walls. We record amongst farm machinery and and wind turbines. Rob is drawn to water. He records drains and gutters.
The clouds part and the sun comes out. We heard the sound of the village change, birds twittered, cattle moaned, doors opened and people came out. We recorded the twang of barbed wire fences and the outflow pipe at a nearby quarry. Then we went for soup.
I went off to Arkholme but returned to Nether Kellet that night. The Limeburners Arms was open. It was a small, antiquated pub and amongst the pictures on the wall was a photo of the woman’s football team during the war. I drank and listened to the locals talking and laughing.
Me and Rob batted the recordings between Lancashire and London. We arranged the sounds of a village waking up.
I’d been researching songs at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University and the Vaughan Williams library at Cecil Sharp House.
‘A Dark Girl Dressed in Blue’ seems to have it’s root in Leicestershire though not specifically the area of Stretton En Le Field. I was drawn to the song because it dealt with a journey from Leicestershire to London whereas I was doing the opposite.
Often on my Thankful Villages project I write and record the basic song in situ but add parts later at home. In Stretton En Le Field I recorded the entire song and made the video on an app on my ipad.
You can watch each track being recorded in each window of the video.
I crouched by the side of the road and played a toy piano in the light rain. I stared at sad looking pumpkins and watched removal trucks taking a family out of the village.
I have visited Maplebeck four times now. It has become a centre piece of the project for me and the village where I know the most people and have possibly made friends.
On the first visit we visited Claudine in the Beehive pub and her 15 year old cat. We talked for a long time about the history of the pub and the old landlord who used to let his pig drink the last of the beer barrels at the end of the night.
Claudine was a great interviewee but she declined to have her voice on this project. I like that. It’s a pleasant surprise to find people who want to remain private. Claudine doesn’t even have an email address and got her Dad to send me old photos of the pub and it’s owner.
We also met Judith in the graveyard. She had a plan of all the graves and was cleaning them with a toothbrush. Trying to match the fading names to the church records.
I went back to the village about 10 months later to talk to Judith some more. Judith bought along her friend Rachel who had researched the history of Maplebeck and uncovered many photos in the process.
We talked about children’s graves, the people who had left the village and the usefulness of history to people.
My third visit to Maplebeck was with my band and we played the Thankful Villages project thus far to the villagers in their hall. It was so important to me to be able to play the project inside one of the villages. I was so grateful.
Derek is a cornerstone of the community and helped gain the funding for the new hall and works tirelessly to book films, plays and acts into the hall. After the show, we went to the Beehive and Claudine remembered my name.
A little after that, Claudine phoned me to say that her cat had died and did I still have photos of her. Maplebeck gave me photos and I gave them photos back.
My fourth visit was a year later again. Me and Dan played a show in the Beehive and slept on the pub floor.
Thank you Claudine, Judith, Rachel and Derek. Thank you Maplebeck.
Photos courtesy of Rachel Gardner.
Rob Halcrow plays Tenor Horn. Dan Mayfield plays Violin.