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.
There are two Buttertons in Staffordshire. I had to be careful to find the right one.
I arrived as light was falling. There were some small patches of melted snow still on the ground. I was tired and heart broken. I shuffled around in my dirty green coat and filmed the amber glow of the streetlights.
I found a plastic lamb in the graveyard and a small group of goats behind some barbed wire. I thought at one point I heard a howl or a cry of the animal.
A dog walker asked what I was doing and as always I reply with the truth. “I thought you might be a journalist”, she said. “About the abattoir.”
The landlady at my guesthouse filled me in further, “It was a local scandal, a few weeks ago a film was leaked of the animals being treated horribly.’
I walked several yards to the village pub and had dinner and beer on my own. I couldn’t sleep at all that night. For reasons outside of the project I was emotionally fraught, although the tales of the abattoir didn’t help.
I rigged up a studio in the guesthouse bedroom. I had recorded loops of gates shutting and metal creaking. I thought about the last days of snow. I thought about all of the blood in the abattoir.
The road plummets down into Herodsfoot. We drive past the church and the houses until we reach a small green by the stream. I’m here with Johny Lamb who lives close by.
Herodsfoot is ‘doubly’ thankful which means that all the soldiers returned alive from the Second World War as well as the first. It also has a war memorial.
Me and Johny walked around the village. We found a small chapel that had been converted into a house. The first floor could be seen bisecting the long tall arch windows. All Saints Church overlooks Herodsfoot from a steep hill. It shares a rector with three other villages. A leaflet in the church said, ‘Herodsfoot, fortunate in more ways than one.’ We started to talk about things that were split in two or shared. Herodsfoot itself is cut in two by the Looe River.
We returned to the green and sat under a chandelier of burnt out candles and a row of broken fairy lights. We sang about safety and what things used to be. A gunshot rang out in perfect time.
No-one hears us. No-one stops us.
Johny and Emma Easy added soft brass and harmonies later.
Langton Herring is the only Thankful Village in Dorset and sits up high on a perch over looking Chesil Beach and the English Channel.
Chesil Beach is a natural, swooping arc of shingle that looks like it must be man made. It provides shelter from prevailing winds and rain and often pulls away completely from the coast to form a neat line through the sea.
Langton Herring stays hidden above it amongst small lanes and signs that beg you to go elsewhere; ‘No parking’, ‘Private Land’ and ‘No Access to the Beach.’ The pub was closed and so was the church so I took the signs’ advice and walked out of the village along a high windy lane towards the sea.
The sky was grey and the wind was fierce, almost blowing me from my feet. The trees and hedgerows were contorted from years of this onslaught.
I tried to shelter amongst some bushes and paint the weather with my shaking fingers.
The only instrument I had with me was my little concertina. Recording in the wind is notoriously difficult. The wind makes hardly any desirable sounds as it hits the microphone. I pumped on the bellows and added more noise and wind to the scene.
After I left Langton Herring I contacted my friend Mark Brend who lived not too far away. I said, go to Langton Herring and see what you can find.
Mark went down a few weeks later and found a story on a gravestone about four children who died whilst playing near a lime-kiln in 1830. The fumes overcame the four young boys and they quickly perished.
Mark found out about the funeral where 18 children dressed in white led the procession.
Mark took the wheezing bellows of my concertina and made them represent poisonous gasses. The first half of the music symbolises the fumes smothering the children. The second half is a funeral march. I wrote a nursery rhyme and Mark’s children read it for us.
I arrived and parked at what used to be the Chelwood Primary School. The ‘C’ had eroded from the stone.
I kept taking pictures of the sky with just small parts of the village intruding the composition. I photographed the edge of roofs, the tips of trees and the tops of gravestones.
There was a stream of well dressed people walking from their shiny cars to a function of some kind. There was a magnificent horse who kept coming closer to me whilst it’s owner hollered and shrieked a field away.
Chelwood was a village where I had arrived with no plan or strategy. My mind was blank. I let the sky lead me.
I was drawn to the crooked gravestones and then thought of the clouds in the sky. I considered how the clouds made the rain, that made the ground wet, which made the graves lean away from the heavens. I considered that every grave is destined to be untended eventually.
The church door was locked, so I sat in the porch of the church.
I wrote about death and the sky and the ground.
It was recorded on a cassette dictaphone. It’s supposed to sound like this.
I had been visiting an ill relative in the north. I should have driven straight home but Scruton called out to me. It was an unusually sunny autumn evening and the village was a stone’s throw from the A1. I promised myself the briefest of stays in Scruton. I would catch the last of the light and hang on tight to whatever idea came to me.
Scruton is neatly kept and the houses are surrounded by neat hedges and flowers. I find red berries and pink houses. Dog walkers take their last opportunities before dusk. Huge four by fours purr as they crawl on to the loose gravelled driveways. People are coming home after Sunday errands and visits.
There is a pretty heritage railway station on the edge of the village. It was closed to passengers in 1954 and re-opened by rail enthusiasts in 2014. This is the first village I’ve come to that sometimes reverberates to the sound of steam trains.
In the middle of the village is a triangular green covered with golden, fallen leaves. Bare trees are scattered across it and cast long, dark shadows. A lone swing stands in the centre and I find a bench at one side next to the vicarage.
For once I leave the church be and decide that this might be my last chance of the year to record outside.
I tap out a rhythm on the bench and strum out lazy major chords on a Spanish guitar. I start to sing but the only word that comes out is ‘oh’.
Welbury is the first village I stayed in overnight. I wanted to capture the villages at every time of the year, in all weather and at different times of the day.
I was also starting to think about my interaction with the villages and the villagers themselves. Sometimes, like with Aisholt and Stocklinch I want to be welcomed in; I want to sit and talk, listen and learn.
With Welbury I wanted to move about like a ghost, silent and unseen. For a few years now I’ve been interested in the idea of wordless music describing a sense of place. This idea is at the heart of the Thankful Villages project, that the location should inform the music in some way.
I wandered through the village in the dead of night. Interior lights glowed red and orange through thick curtains. A few houses had modest Christmas lights wrapped around trees even though it was October. I thought about the idea of ‘home’ and ‘warmth’. I remembered my first job as a paperboy and doing the same thing, staring at the house lights and being jealous of those on the inside.
I imagined how different all those living rooms would be to each other but all representing safety and security to someone. I went back to my room and set up a small studio with a Moog synthesiser and a nylon-strung guitar. These machines make me feel at home. I tried to make comforting music. I wanted repeated refrains that were all similar, yet slightly different.
I recorded the phrase over and over at incrementally slowly speeds so the melodies gently collide and overlap.
In Welbury I was on the outside, dreaming of the inside.
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.