Little Sodbury, South Gloucestershire – Thankful Villages #06

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.

Stoke Hammond, Buckinghamshire – Thankful Villages #05

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.



Puttenham, Hertfordshire – Thankful Villages #04

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.

I play gently and leave early.

St Michael South Elmham, Suffolk – Thankful Villages #3

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.

ShJohn Page 1e 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, Where Beards Wag Allwhich 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.

Culpho, Suffolk – Thankful Villages #2

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.

Knowlton, Kent – Thankful Villages #1

It all starts with a title. The cogs in my brain only start to whir when I see the title. Then I go backwards and try and work out how to get there.

My friend Ian Button lives in Sidcup with his Dad, Ken. I’m jealous of their life. Ian often tells me of their food and drink routine, their film marathons and their journeys down bottomless wells on the internet.

Ken is 94 and has an insatiable appetite for learning. He watches Al Jazeera and Russian news channels to get both sides of the story.

Ian was driving me through Kent backlines when he asked me, ‘Do you know what a Thankful Village’ is?’

A Thankful Village is a village where every soldier returned alive from the first World War. Ken had told Ian about them. A doubly Thankful Village is a village where they returned alive from both World Wars. Thierville in France, Ian told me, was triply thankful having survived two world wars and the Franco-Prussian War.

Thankful or ‘Blessed’ Villages were first identified and named by Arthur Mee in 1936 in his series of guide 57-Arthur-Mee-Gettybooks, The King’s England. He originally found 32 such villages. (My current list stands at 54 though some are disputed.)

Me and Ian joked about it being a band name and thought of song titles like ‘Blank Memorial’ and ‘Zeppelin Guilt’.

I was being serious however, Thankful Villages is such a beautiful and strange title. It is full of soft consonants that want to wrap you up in a woollen blanket. Who doesn’t want to be thankful? It implies worship and religion but not explicitly. We can be thankful to many things other than god. We can of course just be thankful.

And the word ‘village’. To some of us it’s an almost mythical, the cornerstone of the imaginary English idyl. Does our minds eye version of this paradise exist or has it been smothered by it’s own blankets made from pages of the Daily Telegraph?

My recent records have all been concerned with place and location. I’m agoraphobic and hate leaving my home but I always write better music when I’m in transit. I’m particularly interested in the idea that music created in a certain place takes something of that place with it. I don’t mean this in a mystical way, merely that location and circumstance must affect creation. We can make albums on our phones now and there’s no reason to work in windowless bunkers anymore.

I knew what I had to do. I had to visit every one of Britain’s 54 Thankful Villages. It was not going to be a project about war. Arthur Mee’s definition was really just a starting point; a random device to point me to small places. That’s what I love and that’s the one certainty I had about Thankful Villages, that it would be about small things, small things that matter.

Other than that a random scattering of map pins on a British road map was going to slowly reveal to me what this project was. I knew that it would have to change and grow as I progressed. I knew 54 pieces could not be identical, yet I also knew that common themes would reveal themselves.

I went into this project unknowing and wide open.

01 Knowlton Painting WEBKnowlton was the first Thankful Village I visited. Barely even a village, more a collection of houses. It also has the title of Britain’s bravest village after winning a competition in the Times by having the largest proportion of volunteers going to World War One. The prize for the competition was a large stone monument.

This title was disputed by nearby villages who claimed Knowlton cheated by counting employees of Knowlton Manor who didn’t live there.

Indeed it is barely a village. I drove down a small lane and saw a marquee being set up for a wedding but other then that, no life and few houses. I would soon come to realise that the one common site that many Thankful Villages wouldn’t have is a war memorial. It’s interesting that a fair few of the Villages erected one none the less. Despite their good fortune there seemed to be a need to be a part of a communal sense of gratefulness and grief.

This monument is an odd one though, bigger than many war monuments it not only dominates Knowlton, it almost IS Knowlton. What’s more it is a monument to a lie or at best a disputable fact.

The monument in Knowlton is really a piece of war propaganda, an exaggeration of both the village’s status and it’s title of ‘bravest’.

The monument is good looking though and surrounded by a neat fenced garden. To me, it felt like it was loved and made from love.

I wrote a lyric about the kind of love that might be buried amongst harmless half truths.

(Tenor Horn over dubbed later by Kent resident Rob Halcrow).