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.
Too much time on my own. Too many empty streets. I want to find the community.
We drove to the East Norton Fete on a beautiful August day. We drank cloudy lemonade and ate sandwiches on a bench in the churchyard. We went bell ringing and found a stain glass window dedicated to the safe return of the men in the Great War.
East Norton Fete is held in the grounds of East Norton Hall. There were only a few stalls, but they served a beautiful cream tea and my cup came with a tiny apostle spoon.
On the ordinance survey map there were traces of a railway line that used to serve East Norton. We followed the Eye Brook river and spent ages looking for the old railway line but only found a culvert where I recorded the echo. The East Norton viaduct was demolished in 2001.
East Norton is full of ghosts. The school, the police office and the railway station are all houses now, but their names are written in stone. Things used to be more permanent. To live in a village now you need a car to get to the nearest town.
As we drove home we got a phone call to tell us we’d won the raffle. We’d won two pizza plates. We didn’t drive back.
During World War 2 Wigsley was home to an RAF airfield. It was nicknamed the ‘Cemetery of Lights’ due to its terrible luck.
On 11th June 1943, a Lancaster bomber was on a training mission when it’s wing tip clipped a telegraph pole and crashed into number 25 Highfield Avenue in nearby Lincoln. Five civilians died and all but one of the seven crew.
The airfield and control tower are still there. The control tower is forlorn and broken and covered in spray paint. What was the runway is now the main road into Wigsley.
A nearby wind turbine thrums gently and makes me think of propellers. I imagine someone in the tower with binoculars counting the planes out and then counting them back in again.
It’s been more than half a century since the building was in use. I wondered what else it’s walls had seen since then.
A subtitle for these songs might be ‘could I live here?’ It’s usually what I think as I drive away from the villages back to London.
About a year later I found the derelict control tower for sale. I could probably have afforded it at a stretch, though probably not the money to make it habitable.
It was a long chain of people that lead us to Dennis’ door. I know Judith Pudden and Marjorie Goss guided me in the right direction.
Dennis was very pleased to see us. Dennis loved company. It was a struggle to set up for recording quick enough. Dennis knew the value of a story. It was a social currency like cake or tea. He spoke and made us warm.
Dennis had worked on the rivers all of his life. I could have picked as many as five of Dennis’ stories but the one I chose was this tale about death on the weir.
Dennis was always known as Bill on the river.
Marjorie said it was his ‘river name’, Emma said there was no such thing. I wish there was such a thing as a ‘river name’.
When we left, Dennis said, come again, please come again, drop by. He had stories left to tell.
We went further into Cromwell. The church was decommissioned; the dolls museum was closed too.
‘I think you can phone and make an appointment,’ said a neighbour with little conviction.
The River Trent and the weir are tricky to find from the main street. We drive down a winding lane that becomes almost too narrow for a car. The landscape opens up to reveal the magnificent weir.
The village is limping on but the weir thunders with life.
Woolley sits underneath a flight path, but other than that it’s description matches perfectly of that written by Arthur Mee in 1936. Even the water taps are in place outside the houses.
The strange dome-roofed church has its own walled garden, the gate whistled as we opened it. We shook the blossom from the tree. We saw a villager walk a tiny horse up the hill.
I plucked the nylon strings of ‘Pyewacket’ on the bench and used her back as a drum. The sky threatened but never delivered. I feel we should let Arthur Mee’s words guide us every now and then on these journeys. His lines are musical and easy to drape over music. Woolley, in fact, was the first Thankful Village Mee found.
The tune still lacked a chorus and a few months later a friend bought me a book of Somerset folk songs. ‘Rosebud in June’ was collected by Cecil Sharp from a farmer, William King, of West Hastree, Somerset. Versions of the song can be dated back to the early 18th Century.
One of the ideas of Thankful Villages is to allow randomness to help me create. Arthur Mee and the luck of World War 1 chose where I would go and fate handed me this song. I laid the words and tune of ‘Rosebud’ over the chords of my half finished chorus and in between Arthur’s words.
Everything seemed to be where it was supposed to be.