Strethall is the only Thankful Village in my home county of Essex. This time I took a group of friends with me, David, Emma and Donal. It was a cold and golden day. We were lit by a winter sun.
I had gained permission to record in a thousand year old church. We hung microphones from the rafters. We threaded leads around the altar.
St Mary the Virgin Church can be dated back over 1000 years and for this song I found a story from the parish records from 1607.
Robert Parker and Agnes Ewens had committed adultery and were to have a child out of wedlock. The cost of raising the child would fall upon the parish unless responsibility could be laid elsewhere. Robert’s father John was called to account. Many babies were lost in childbirth at the time and an illegitimate child could ruin lives and reputations. This was time without a welfare state.
I thought about the possibility of a village secretly wishing a baby out of existence.
A black dog came and visited us. We all sang with full voices between the pews. The low sun made the chapel yellow.
On the evening of Remembrance Sunday 2014, I arrived in Stocklinch in a cheap suit with a crumpled poppy in the lapel. It was later in the same day that I had visited Aisholt. I sat in St Mary Magdalen Church or the ‘lower’ church as it is known.
Stocklinch has two churches, one is dead, one is alive. A folk tale tells of two sisters who are both in love with the vicar and have churches built for him. The ‘upper’ church is St Mary of Ottersey. Ottersey and Stocklinch were once two villages but they gradually merged to become one. The upper church fell out of use in 1973.
I sat on a pew with a blank mind, doodling with sounds on an ipad, feeling out of place and lonely. I was exhausted and possibly having my first doubts about the project. Ros Harding walked into the church and looked me up and down. She had a cloud of white hair and bright, wide eyes. I was thinking about how to best explain myself when Ros said, ‘Would you like to come round my house and have a cheese sandwich?’
They were the most beautiful opening words I’d heard from a stranger and right then there was nothing I wanted more than a cheese sandwich. Ros was another Church Warden. I helped her turn on the gas heaters for the evening service before walking back to her home.
On the walk Ros pointed out various buildings; who lived there and had lived there before. She knocked on a few doors and completed some small errands for people. We walked past a red telephone box that had been turned into a book library.
Ros’ house was beautifully cluttered and I looked through books on folk medicine and local history as Ros made tea and sandwiches. She seemed unconcerned about my reasons for being there and just nodded a head in affirmation at my request to record her talking.
Ros talked about the upper church and the lower church and a painting that travelled from one to the other. She talked about her grandchildren, who she loved but had now moved away. She talked about her career in teaching.
We get ready to leave for the evening Remembrance service. ‘Where did I put those keys,’ she says. ‘I just had them, oh well, never mind, one of life’s little mysteries.’ I want that patience. I want this pace of life.
Ros turns on the lights in the church and rings the bells whilst I chat with the organist. There are eight of us in the congregation, five of whom come up to talk to me at the end. Strangers are enthusiastically welcomed in Stocklinch.
The following day I painted two pictures of the phone box and sent one to Ros. She sent a postcard back of the upper church. I sorted through the recording of her words and looked at her postcard. I realised for the first time that I had missed something in this Thankful Village. I had found Ros and the lower church but I hadn’t visited the upper church. I picked up the postcard, got in my car and drove back to Stocklinch.
Aisholt is hidden in the folds of the Quantock hills in North Somerset. A tiny knot of buildings clustered behind incredibly narrow lanes. Tim Whittingham reads at humanist and non-religious funerals; he is also the Chair of the Friends of Aisholt. He raises money for the maintenance of the church even though he doesn’t go to church himself. The church, as in many of these places, is the heart of the village. It has a purpose outside that of religion. It binds the community together.
We met him the day before Remembrance Sunday and he read a poem for us by Dollie Radford about the Quantock hills.
Dollie Radford was a contemporary of William Morris and Tim knew that my previous project had been based on his words. I love it when these connections throw themselves up, when the songs seem to write themselves.
Peter is a church warden of Church of All Saints who invited us to his house for soup and tea. We sat and spoke with his wife and then he took us up the clock tower. Peter showed us the clock mechanism and I recorded it slowly clicking and whirring. We stood on top of the church tower and saw the hills surround and look down on us.
Peter asked if we would return the next day to record the village singing on Remembrance Day. The next day the sun shone and the church was full. I recorded the bells ringing and choir singing. I wove them in time with the clock mechanism and Tim’s soft patience voice.
I wrapped them around themselves just like the green rolling fields envelope the village. Aisholt is all warmth.
Imogen Griffiths took the photos and did the filming.
We arrived in Holywell Lake during the heaviest rain. It was Remembrance Sunday and nothing was open. We found a crumpled paper poppy in the gutter. We found a crumpled paper poppy in the guitar. Torrents of water ran down the hill. The car windows misted up and we kept the windscreen wipers and heaters on. I was reminded of doomed childhood holidays and waiting for the rain to clear.
We started to film and collect sounds, the rain falling down the drain, the water splashing on corrugated plastic roofs, a cheap set of wind chimes clinking in the wind. I was thinking of repetition again and the type of downpour that never stops.
I thought of home and the days when you are happy that you never have to go outside, but we weren’t home, we were just passing through. I tried to make something warm amongst the cold. I sheltered in a covered part of the pub garden. Holywell Lake tinkled and pulsed in the background.
Rodney Stoke is dominated by St. Leonard’s church. It stands tall and proud on a small rising by a sharp bend.
The village is partially named after the Rodney family and many of them are buried in the church. A small room to the side of the alter houses tombs and statues of the Rodneys. Some of them are beautiful and macabre. Others are unintentionally comical.
Arthur Mee describes them in detail in his Somerset guide book: part of his series, The King’s England, from which the name Thankful Villages derives. I follow the directions from nearly a hundred years ago and hunt for hidden carvings behind pews and altars.
A man arrives to read the electricity meter. We search for the meter together but it cannot be found. Just strange, stone ghosts.
The words spoken on this piece are from Arthur Mee’s entry for Rodney Stoke in The King’s England.
It was blowing up a storm as I entered Little Sodbury. It’s very hard to record in wind that strong. I recorded the wind in any case. The wind made a distorted sound as it entered the microphone; a harsh white noise.
The church door was unlocked, and during my travels for this project I found that many of them were.
I sat on a pew and tried to get my clumsy hands to master my new concertina. A local called Steve entered the church and asked if he could watch. Talk turned from concertinas to synthesisers. Steve used to make music for computer games.
Steve said he didn’t like how churches were often made to be the natural place of remembrance for war. He didn’t think churches – with their lists of the dead and the graves of victims and survivors alike – and war belonged together.
When I got home I added a synthesiser to the song for Steve.
Unlike most of the villages Stoke Hammond has a huge sign as you enter saying ‘Stoke Hammond – A Thankful Village’
It is also one of the biggest villages I have visited, almost a town. I struggled to find somewhere I could hide away. I was drawn to the outskirts. At the end of a dusty lane I happened upon a stretch of the Grand Union Canal. Everything was still and the sun was slowly setting.
I tried to clear my mind and thought of the endless movement of a river or canal. I thought of a musical scale I sometimes taught beginner musicians, a simple scale in C, but going from F to F. I recorded it on the portable recorder I had. I recorded it again and again and again. The flies fluttered over the canal and the water rippled so gently it almost looked like glass.
I tried to make the music ripple and flutter too. This was the first piece in this project where it took me some months to come back and finish it. When I came back to the canal recordings I was filled with regret and wanted to be back there with the low sun. I had stones I wanted to bury beside the river.
Blessed with another warm Autumn day I drove out to Puttenham in Hertfordshire, (I very nearly went to the wrong Puttenham). The Church of Saint Mary in Puttenham is at the top of a dead end, at a truncated spur at the top of the village.
At the beginning of this road is a slate plaque stating the village’s ‘thankful’ status.
Nearly all the villages have these, which were presented by bikers taking part in a tour of the Thankful Villages in aid of the British Legion in 2014.
Some villages have their plaque secreted away, other have it displayed boldly.
The plaques unintentionally taunt me. Someone’s done this before you know? It’s often the first thing villagers want to tell me too, do you know about the bikers? But anyway, they only did 51, I’ve counted 55.
I’m there to meet Christine, another church warden. This project would be nothing without the church wardens. They are to churches what secretaries are to business. If you really want something done, don’t speak to the boss, speak to the church warden. This time I have been given permission to play the church organ.
I arrive early as I always do and walk around the graveyard and everything is green and gold. The light pierces through crucifixes hand carved into the wooden gates. The green paint flakes away from small fences wrapped around big trees. Cows push up hard against the barbed wire to say hello to me. A forgotten wedding decoration sits high in the apex of the church porch gathering dust and bat droppings. A pretty layer of green moss covers the old wooden grave stones.
Christine lets me in. I tease notes out of the organ. I wonder for how far it can be heard. A walker comes in, ‘I heard someone play, can you play?’ No, I said.
Christine looks through the list of those returned alive from the War. ‘None of these names are in the village any more,’ she says.
After Culpho, I drove north to St Michael, South Elmham, Suffolk to meet Dolly. Richard Ivin and I had tracked Dolly down by means of a local newspaper article.
Dolly opened the door. I introduced myself and proffered my Sainsbury’s cake. ‘Oh I but I made one for you!’ Of course you did, Dolly.
Dolly is 84 years old and I’m keen to impress her. Who needs some fool from London with a satchel full of microphones and cameras? I took cake.
Dolly may be old but she is strong, definite and precise. Her voice is lively and young; her recall is excellent. At one point, a fair way into our conversation, she reveals that she had just had a bereavement within her close family but she remained stoic and restrained. I imagine Dolly still being her family’s rock, a person people go to for solace or advice. And cake.
She led me to her conservatory, which looked out onto a small, neat garden. She’s always lived within a few miles of St Michael, South Elmham. She saw no reason to move away and after an hour in her company I saw no reason for her to either. Her tea was good but her cake was better. The microphone didn’t phase her. She loved to talk and was a good storyteller. My eyes kept being drawn to the copy of ‘50 Shades of Grey’. I’m sure yours would have been too.
I wanted to talk to her about her father Jack; a survivor of the First World War, a charmer of horses and a player of the melodeon. ‘Thankful Villages’ will not be about the Great War and so that wasn’t really what we talked about on this day either.
We talked about songs, unusual local dialects and visits from the BBC. She was proud to show me a book that featured Jack
entitled ‘Where Beards Wag All’ and also his medals. She was a generous interviewee, which was just as well because I was a clumsy, novice interviewer.
‘Would you like to see the church, would you like to play on the organ?’ she asked me. She wrapped the cake so that I could take it home. I followed her shiny red Ford Fiesta to the church.
Dolly made herself useful around the church, as I’m sure she always has needed to be. I recorded a low drone on the church organ and went home and spent a few weeks learning how to play ‘Farmer’s Boy’ on the melodeon.
In September 2014 I drove north out of London to visit my second and third Thankful Villages. I had plans for the third village but I had no idea what I was going to do in Culpho.
I wanted some of the trips to be researched beforehand, but I also wanted to visit others blind and react immediately to landscape and location. Culpho, in Suffolk, was where I started to realise that my previous conception of what a village was, might be wrong. I’d visited places that I thought of as villages but I guess they were always on some kind of tourist route. I was now visiting the in-between places, handfuls of buildings that had seemingly fallen out of God’s pocket onto green and yellow lawns. These scattered homes seemed to have nothing connecting them except a meandering lane. There were large gaps between the houses and no high street. Where was the centre? Where was the focus?
It made me consider the challenge ahead, to find a narrative or idea in every village. It wasn’t going to be enough just to wander through these places with a camera and notebook; wikipedia wasn’t going to tell me all I needed to know. I needed to engage with these communities, I had to stop hiding.
So there I was, in St Botolph’s Culpho graveyard, perched precariously on a £5 camping stool with a harmonium and a baritone ukulele, trying to figure out what Culpho sounded like. I thought it sounded minor key, with soft repeated arpeggios. It had long melodic phrases that descended then turned up at the end in a question mark. That’s what Culpho was, a question mark. It was asking me what I was doing there.
Someone tapped me on my shoulder and I jumped out of my skin. The church warden had seen my car and was worried about theft from the church. I was now literally being asked what I was doing.
I would find that in the Thankful Villages people are occasionally suspicious of a man with a camera and a microphone but never unfriendly. They are also rarely that impressed by the project itself, but they do love a good chinwag. The warden took me inside the church and showed me of what she was most proud, the church windows which her husband had slowly and lovingly restored.
I had thought that this dispersal of buildings had no centre but it did, the centre was the church. I also realised that church wardens weren’t there to keep you out, they were there to let you in as well.
I drove further north to St Michael, South Elmham to talk to another warden.