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.
Could I live there?
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.
There’s a few Shapwicks. I got myself into a muddle. I was nearly booked to play the Shapwick village fete before realising it was the wrong Shapwick.
There’s more than a few Mistletoe Brides as well. It’s a folk tale that travels around and a few places lay claim to the story.
Folk tales float like leaves on a breeze. They land wherever they find plausibility.
There is a manor in Shapwick at least, as there was in the story.
We found leaves pinned onto truncated trees with different coloured drawing pins. Why would someone pin leaves to a tree trunk? What would they be doing?
I wrote a song at the top of some stairs leading to a back entrance to the church. It was summer; Christmas was a long way away. I was a long way from home.
I floated into Shapwick on a breeze. I pinned a story to it. I drifted out again.
(video shot by Imogen Griffiths)
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.
Photographs by Imogen Griffiths
Tellisford falls sharply into a valley. On a sunny day like this you have to stop yourself breaking into a run down to the River Frome. There is a spot famed for wild swimming by the weir in Tellisford. It is a bright sunny day and we only have to follow the bathers down past the mill and over the bridge.
Rolling fields of buttercup speckled green run down to the weir. A large picnic crowd have put up blue and white bunting. Dogs run freely off lead and dandelions, dragonfly and frisbees fill the air.
It’s the largest group of people I’ve been amongst in a thankful village and the youngest too. The sound of laughter and splashing fills the valley and no-one is scared of the water.
A World War 2 pill box sits by the weir and two boys make it their castle. Their towels become flags and they are kings of the weir.
Back to solo travelling for my visit to Chantry. Ok, just one last church. It is Easter after all.
Sometimes the songs are reflections of the villages. Other times the villages reflect my own troubles back at me. In Chantry I was glad to find the church open so just sat down and sung this into my iphone. I wrote the lyrics in the visitor book.
They have made an effigy of the crucified Christ, from pieces of B and Q battening and used barbed wire as his crown of thorns.
In fact I do not recognize it as Christ at all immediately. The church itself is as intricately carved and crafted as I have now come to expect Somerset churches to be.
Sometimes I look into the villages, sometimes they stare hard back at me. Sometimes I just look hard at myself. Sometimes I could be anywhere. The journeys are long and lonely and I am prone to introspection. I am selfish; I probably let you down Chantry.
I shrank into myself.
This is song about turning back time, but you can’t. Then you try and persuade people to make everything like before, but it’s impossible.
Flixborough has an extra reason to be thankful. It is strangely sited, perched on a hill high above a tired looking industrial park. There are wind turbines surrounding the village in every direction.
In 1974 a chemical plant on the industrial site exploded leaving 28 people dead. It was one of britain’s largest ever non-nuclear explosions. Every roof in Flixborough was lifted or set ablaze, yet no villagers were killed. Barely a window remained in tact.
On my first visit to Flixborough I left with only a pocket full of music and pictures. The disaster proved hard to pin down in song.
The people of Flixborough and those that remembered the explosion were reluctant to speak to me. The media descended on the village in 1974 and local press often mark the anniversaries.
I returned a year later to speak to Derek Green and his son Andrew. Derek has lived as a farmer both before and ever since the Nypro disaster.
I arrive early as I do everywhere and circle the village, trying to understand the relationship between the slightly broken settlement and it’s equally crumbling industrial half sibling.
The pub is dead, the building is on offer to the community to make something of it. I find a small gauge railway track with a cat skeleton by it’s side. The disused line takes me to the industrial site, much of it padlocked and rusted, though some of it still working. Everything is 1980. I record the rain on a Coke can. I have mud on my shoes and I worry about the first impressions I will give Derek.
We talk of nothing other than thankfulness and gratitude. Their world exploded and they survived by chance.
The day after Cundall, me and Emma drove to Norton Le Clay. The church was decommissioned, there was a sharp bend in the road and almost as soon as you entered the village you were driving out of it.
I was thankful to be there though. I didn’t want to be at home anymore and Emma was being an exceptional friend. We found a huge greenhouse with shattered, glass and shards hanging from it. It was sitting there right in the middle of the village like a broken temple.
During this project I have often felt it important that you hear that I am outside and therefore included the random sounds that bleed into the microphones, birdsong, wind rumble and the chance meetings with people. However it’s still easy to make music that sounds close and near even when you are outside. We laid out a blanket and plugged iPads into our recorder. It was raining so we cocooned ourselves in blue plastic ponchos. With our heads encased in headphones and hoods, we felt incubated from the weather.
We made an odd hiccupy tune in a perculiar key.
Then I let it lie there on my hard drive for almost a year. I knew I wanted to write something about a Belgian refugee who had ended up in the village during the war. She became accepted in this place and stayed here until she died. Her name is on a bench.
A year later the EU referendum was taking place and it is on the eve of that referendum that this is being written. I finally wrote a lyric and twisted the chords into a more conventional sense. I wrote a song about opening doors and letting people in. Helping those that need help.
It’s what we used to do. It’s what Norton Le Clay did.
The sun is already low as we approach Cundal but that’s ok, we’re staying over. Sleeping overnight in a Thankful Village is a special treat as so few have guest houses. We are staying on a farm. Me and Emma are given tea in the living room and clearly thought of as couple. That’s ok, we only need the double bed to lay out our synthesisers and make them hum whilst the village sleeps.
Emma catches the last of the sunlight on her Diana camera, judging the exposure with her finger on a small plastic lever. It’s as random and fault laden as any other part of the Thankful Village project and luck has stayed with us so far. We double expose. We shoot ourselves in domed safety mirrors.
We eat in the next village in a pub and continue to not correct people who assume we are a couple. It’s a pointless and rubbish deception. We go to our room and decorate the divan with keyboards and patch leads. We wear headphones and no one knows the noise we make.
We make the oscillators sound like trees and leaves and incongruous new builds. We make music by accident, just like the accident of us even being here.
(photos in video by Emma Winston)
I drove to Bradbourne the day after Butterton. It took me half an hour. I wound my way through the narrow lanes. It was raining heavily.
Bradbourne is a lop-sided village. Many of the buildings are on one side of the main single road and overlook a beautiful view of rolling green fields. In the church yard there is a rare Saxon Cross dating back over a thousand years. The church door was unlocked and I sat inside.
A neighbour noticed the lights were on and looked in and asked if I was all right. I said ‘yes’ but I wasn’t. I was unshaven, I had egg on my chin, I was crying. I was all over the place and didn’t really understand what I was doing in these villages.
I tapped out a rhythm on the pew in front of me. There are many things that a church can be in these small places, but the one thing it has almost consistently been for me through the first phase of Thankful Villages is a refuge.
I’m not religious and never have been but I’ve felt safe in every church in every Thankful Village and I don’t feel safe very often. I sang selfishly for, and about, myself. When will my heart be still.