It’s happened to me now three times, and until the first time, I had no idea how magical it would be.
You see it in films: the train pulling in or pulling out of the station, with one character on the train and another on the platform, waiting to welcome or waving goodbye. There’s a romance in it that’s impossible to deny. Part of it is the train itself. Part is how a train can take you to another place, another life (Platform 9 3/4, anyone?) Another part is all about the human connection.
I live in a virtually passenger-train-free place. If I wanted to ride a train, I could go two hours south to get the Amtrak Downeaster, and it would take me through to North Station in Boston. This is why, perhaps, that I never pass up an opportunity to take a train when I visit the UK. In my heart of hearts, I am a romantic, and trains appeal to the part of my nature that wants adventure–the part that wants to see myself as a character in a wonderful story. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Back to that first time. Take the train from Fareham to Bristol Temple Meads and change for Worcester Shrub Hill, Roger instructed, because he’s a transportation guru and knows these sorts of things. I almost missed the connection in Bristol, because I got off one train and the Worcester train left from an entirely different platform on an entirely different level–so I was in full Easily-Frightened-Person mode by the time I found my seat. Perhaps that’s why, as the conductor voice on the train announced Next station Worcester Shrub Hill, and as I stood to retrieve my bag and make my way to the door I was relieved to see, on the platform scanning the cars–my friends Julia and Roger. I saw them in the briefest of seconds before they saw me, and in that tiny bit of time came the full-scale realization: they were looking through the windows for me, me, not anyone else. Then they saw me, and the two of them smiled. I’m sure I did, too, and that single moment was ours. In it, we were the only people in the universe who mattered.
It happened again at Worcester Shrub this spring,
when I came in from Banbury (missed the connection at Oxford, had to take the next train an hour later)–and there was Julia. This time I was looking for her, because I knew what that single moment of belonging felt like. And I got to experience it again a few days later, when my train pulled into London Paddington, and there, sidling up as he does, was John-from-Islington. It’s a miraculous feeling, to know that, of all the people in the station, of all the people on the train, of all the people, you’re the one: there’s someone on that platform who enjoys your company enough to come collect you, and to make you feel wanted.
Three times. I’m the luckiest person in the world.
Apropos of nothing, John was wearing the most wonderful blue wing-tipped shoes when he met me–an absolute symphony of blue, my favorite color, he was. I followed him all over London Paddington to our tube platform and could not keep my envious eyes from his shoes. I still can’t get over them.
“We could,” Julia said, “stop in at the pub on the Common.”
If hearts really leap, mine did. The first time I visited Julia, she instructed Roger to stop off on the road from Oxford, at The Live and Let Live on Bringsty Common–she did not want us to arrive at her house and interrupt that day’s episode of “The Archers.” On that day it was raining and cold, and Roger and I were virtual strangers who had been locked up
together in a car all afternoon; then we were virtual strangers sitting in a pub down a dirt road, looking up at the underside of the thatched roof which was badly in need of repair. The drips formed the entirety of our conversational subject matter.
I had not been back since.
Today was sunny, one of the first reasonably warm afternoons of the spring (or so I’d been told). We took our drinks out to the rough-hewn picnic tables in the pub garden, where the breeze was light, the clouds scudding overhead, and the birds in the common raucous in their song. From the hill, we could look about and see the occasional rooftop, the occasional chimney. Roger told me (and I had vague memories of his telling me this before) that, back in the day, if a family could build an entire house overnight and have a fire burning on the hearth in the morning, they were allowed to remain living on the Common–and that explained the houses being so far apart and hidden among the trees: to avoid discovery during building.
Since our first visit, a few years before, much work had been done on the pub. The thatch was beautifully and artfully redone. Where there had been construction on the side opposite the garden back then, there was a finished extension on the building. The picnic tables, though, remained the same, as did the pub sign swinging over the car park. The inside of the pub was still low-beamed and dark and atmospheric. If someone were to ask you to describe the stereotypical old English country pub, this would be the one the words would convey.
Julia, as the driver, wasn’t drinking. Where Roger and I had had perry–the pear cider native to the border country–the previous time, this afternoon we both opted for a pint of Otter Bitter. It was a medium amber, and was in fact slightly bitter on the tongue, but rather lovely. And after a day of visiting ruinous things with Julia–Harvington Hall, and Croome Court–while we passed the time before meeting Roger’s train, the pint was more than welcome. One of the reasons why I keep going back, I thought. One of them.
On our way back to the car, we met a cat. This was appropriate, as the pub sign features one–surprisingly not killing things: letting them live. This cat just wanted to hang out on the stone walkway.
The pub building dates from around 1700. It’s been open in its most recent incarnation since 2007. Find it here:
We came out of Hampstead Heath, Stephen Benatar and I, that afternoon several years ago, and there was The Spaniards Inn. I admit that, for me, it was love at first sight. The whitewashed inn itself, and the tiny tollbooth that squeezed Spaniards Road to one lane, the date of construction (1585) which was painted between the windows in the upper story: it struck the romantic imagination.
I wanted, desperately, to go there.
On my final night in London, during last month’s adventure, my friend John-from-Islington offered to take me to The Spaniards for dinner in exchange for an autographed copy of The Book of the Mandolin Player. “I hope,” he said, “the restaurant lives up to expectations.” I knew what he meant. I’d dreamed a romantic dream of this particular establishment for several years–what if I was disappointed?
To get there, we rode buses–making one change–in the rain on Friday night. John had us sit on the top level, at the front, so I could see out as we rode through neighborhood after neighborhood; but the windows fogged up, and we kept having to wipe wet circles into the mist. The ride took the better part of an hour, and I saw parts of London I’d never seen before. Eventually we clambered out into the wet on the leafy green Spaniards Road, and there, ahead of us in the cold damp, were the glowing windows in the whitewash.
When we entered the front door, the bar was straight ahead, a dining room to our left. It wasn’t too crowded yet, though it became so the longer we stayed. John’s partner Trevor joined us: finally I got to meet the man, whom I’d missed on my last London adventure two summers previous (he’d been working on a rush-rush-hush-hush totally top secret job costuming Kate Bush’s comeback tour then). By then I was happily into a double G & T at John’s suggestion, staring around at the black beams in the white ceilings, the heavy tables, the streaming small-pained windows. Staring at the menu, too, of course: and it was difficult for me to choose among the offerings. I finally followed Trevor’s lead and had mushrooms in cream sauce on toast for starters; John had a Scotch egg in HP sauce. For the main, Trevor had a salad, John had some sort of pie special, and I had sausages with spring onion mash and red wine gravy, which was divine. Then came dessert, and I can’t remember what the others chose–as a food critic, I would be a loser, and I blame that double gin and tonic, quite frankly. I had cheesecake, because I cannot ever pass up cheesecake. Trevor and John? Who knows.
It surely didn’t help, though, that we finished with coffee, and again, I followed Trevor’s lead and ordered the café Americano. When that arrived with a little jug of milk on the side, I found that jug too hot to pick up. I wrapped my napkin around it, but it slipped as I was pouring, and I dropped the jug into the cup. Yep. Coffee everywhere. An entire jug of milk in my cup: instead of café Americano, vaguely coffee-colored (and flavored) milk. My first time meeting Trevor, out for dinner with the ever-dapper John, and I have a coffee eruption all over the table. Can you say mortified?
It was the G & T, too, I’m sure, that made me, once we’d gone back out into the early evening rain, with the trees dripping over Spaniards Road, and the lights just beginning to come on, twirl my umbrella over my head as I followed John and Trevor down the pavement. I might have been imagining myself as Mary Poppins. There’s something inherently weird and wonderful about the euphoria of a dream successfully fulfilled: me, the Easily Frightened Person, following some lovely men along a London street after a magnificent dinner in an ancient pub, dancing a little bit under an umbrella as the rainy night sifts down under the trees. Is this really my life?
And the answer is: yes. Yes, it is. Because I am the luckiest person in the world.
Want to go? Get to London, then get to Spaniards Road, Hampstead, London, Greater London, NW3 7JJ. You won’t be disappointed.
The reason why Croome Court, a magnificent neo-Palladian mansion in Croome d’Abitot, Worcestershire, qualifies as one of the ruinous places Julia decided to show me, is that it’s been used (abused?) as many things by many people over the past several years. For a while it housed the Hare Krishnas. For a while it was a restaurant. For a while it was a luxury hotel and golf course. None of these things, however, proved fruitful, and after pouring money into the estate for a while, each of these users abandoned it to the next efforts. Now it’s being slowly and painstakingly restored by the National Trust, and though it’s open for visits, only some of the rooms can be viewed.
Unless you’re with my friend Julia, of course. Julia has done many things in her life, and she talks to everyone. Which is why, after we’d ridden the golf cart from the visitor center to the house, we entered and she immediately began chatting up the steward. This led
to someone finding the house manager, which led eventually to our being shown some of the rooms upstairs, closed to the public still while work progresses. How did this transpire? Julia, when she was in her early 20s, worked in the house in its hotel incarnation. One of her jobs in that position was to open and close the heavy window shutters first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Because we were there at the end of the afternoon, the manager found the maintenance man who carried the shutter key and brought him–and the key–to Julia, to let her close the shutters.
The mansion, as I’ve said, is in the midst of refurbishing. Designed by Capability Brown, with ceilings and fireplaces by Robert Adam, it has been
systematically stripped over the years of architectural elements its owners felt they could sell when they needed money. One entire room, in fact, had its features–ceiling, walls, fireplace surround, floor–removed to the Metropolitan Museum in New York; Julia wanted to know if I’d ever seen it (I haven’t, but next time I go I’ll know enough to look for it). Some of the features–the walls in the dining room, for example–were all tarted up during the tenure of the Hare Krishnas, who apparently enjoyed jarringly brilliant colors. Upstairs, where the hotel guest rooms and owners’ quarters were, there were weird modern additions: a room with several toilets against a wall, for instance, and one room with an enormous hot tub smack in the center, facing a bastardized fireplace. Julia told several of the stewards we met about the room at the top of the house with the giant window for viewing the ritual conjoining of members in the next room (“Lalalalalalalalala,” said one of the stewards, jamming his fingers into his ears); but the top floor was closed off, thank God, so I didn’t have to go look.
One of the great sadnesses we found in our wandering was in the long gallery, which still contains some Adam elements, as well as a gorgeous caryatid fireplace designed by J. Wilton (Julia also tells a story of saving many of the fireplaces, including this one, from being stripped and sold by a previous owner by telling him how much it would cost in reparations should he do so, because the property by then was listed). What made the room so sad was its magnificence, and how the cornices, for displaying sculptures, were being used to display some of the most unattractive modern art we’d ever seen. One piece in particular looked like a giant fountain of fuchsia vomit, pouring from the cornice. With the neo-classical proportions and decorations of the room, the choice of display was garish and jarring.
After we’d been given the opportunity to close the
shutters in the saloon on the south side of the house, someone radioed up to the visitor center for the golf cart, but it never came. Julia and I eschewed the road, and climbed the long hill to the churchyard. We paused to look into St. Mary Magdalene Church at the top of the park, beautiful in and of itself…but then it was time to head into Worcester to find Roger, Julia’s partner in crime, who had taken some days off to visit more ruinous things with us.
Walking up the park towards the church in the late afternoon light, with the grass tall and green around us–I felt as though I were meandering through a Jane Austen novel. Sadly, I was dressed all wrong for the part, and there was no ha-ha.
Jon Boden said at one point during the Bristol Bellowhead show that there might be live music happening at the Old Vic, with some people. Which explains the huge line at the theatre door around 11–a line which stretched down King Street toward the still-noisy pubs, around a corner. Lesley, Louise and I joined it, but not for long–as soon as Louise saw John Spiers with his melodeon case slung over his back, she latched onto him (with his consent), and the three of us formed a train, trailing behind. I, of course, was the caboose.
That’s how we managed to find floor space close to the single table in the bar, the table around which the musicians seated themselves as they appeared. Not just John Spiers, but Jon Boden, Paul Sartin, Sam Sweeney, and Benji Kirkpatrick (all direct from their stage turn with Bellowhead), and then Nick Cooke and David Delarre (of Mawkin), as well as various and sundry musical friends and admirers of the band members. We sat, the better to enable the people behind us to see; but that was short-lived: first Lesley got to
her feet, then Louise, and when I realized I could no longer feel my feet, it was too late, and I staggered up like a drunkard.
But I was fascinated. I had never been to an after-show session. This might have something to do with the company I tend to keep here at home: musical acts here just don’t have them. At least not for the most part. Time after a show where the musicians we’ve paid scads of money to see in concert sit around a table in a bar and play and sing with us, the adoring fans? For free? Playing folk songs many, if not all, in attendance know? That, too, could be the other reason why this doesn’t happen here: there simply isn’t the thriving tradition of old songs everyone knows. (When “old songs” means songs from the 70’s and 80’s–the 1970’s and 80’s–you know there’s a bit of a difference.)
So here were the musical geniuses I’d traveled 3600 miles to see, seated within touching distance of me, spinning out reels and jigs they all seemed to know; and gloriously, if the players didn’t know a tune someone had started, they stared at that someone’s hands, to read the fingerings and the chord progressions, and so figured the tunes out. I got to witness magnificent musicianship firsthand. Breathtaking. When someone would break into song, it would invariably be a folk song with the kind of refrain people could pick up at once, and so I was able to join in quickly. Yes, kids, I was singing with Bellowhead.
At one point, Paul Sartin, at the table to my left, spotted a woman he knew and semaphored: Do you have your instrument? She didn’t, so he stood, leaned over the table, and handed her his fiddle and bow. Immediately, Jon Boden, seated at the table to my right, stood, leaned across, and handed Paul Sartin his fiddle and bow. Everyone laughed, and laughed again as Jon Boden, once again seated, pulled a second fiddle from beneath the table and resumed his playing.
And there were many such laughs, as at the point where, after the drink had been flowing
for quite some time and the crowds had thinned out somewhat, Nick Cooke leapt up, black kerchiefs in hand, and proceeded to Morris dance around the table. The musicians, of course, kept up the tune until he could no longer dance…because Morris dancing itself requires much bounce and leap, and Morris dancing in a large, well-oiled crowd is downright exhausting.
The musicians kept it up for hours; as the next night’s show was in Cardiff, only a bit more than an hour away by tour bus, the members of Bellowhead and Mawkin didn’t have to rush away. I don’t know the titles of any of the pieces they played, so I can’t recommend people look them up. Oh, except one. Midway through the late night, when the musicians had momentarily run out of ideas for the next piece, John Spiers lifted his melodeon and launched into “Take on Me” by a-ha. That, ladies and gentlemen, was the evening for me: Disco-folk on the melodeon. And everyone knew the words.
My friend Julia knows how I love ruinous things. Every time I visit her in Herefordshire, she has a plan, and this time, when she picked me up at Worcester Shrub Hill Station, she had decided that I needed to see Harvington Hall. The house is part medieval, part Elizabethan, a wandering brick construction of wings and ells surrounded by a moat and reached by crossing a drawbridge. We parked in the lot in front of St. Mary’s Church and its attendant graveyard, and approached the bridge along a path guarded by carefully sculpted trees. When we paused on the bridge so I could play a bit with my new camera, a woman was working on the garden below, next to the water. Pulling up the brambles, she told Julia, who asked (Julia asks about everything). They’re taking over. They were, too, beneath the drawbridge–I could see them. A horrid job; but the afternoon was beautiful, sunny and warm, a good day for it. When we left her to pass through the gate into the hall’s courtyard, I found a black and white cat twining around my ankles.
It was a good day for tea, too. Harvington Hall has a lovely tearoom, and it was about the time when Julia was thinking about cake (Julia always thinks ahead about cake; she keeps emergency cake in her car). We ordered sustenance, and the tea lady carried our tray out into the yard where we settled at a rough-hewn picnic table. The cat appeared and rubbed against my shins, but apparently, not caring for scones and tea, decided to meander away toward the sun.
Harvington Hall was built at a time when the Pakington family, who were recusants, had to hide their religious practices from agents of the Elizabethan government. The house, Julia told me, is famous for its cleverly hidden priest holes. Because she’s so familiar with the place, we did not wait around for the tour, but wandered on our own. We started with the chapel at the far end of the yard, but then entered the main house, visiting the kitchen–full of small schoolchildren donning aprons, cloaks, and hats–before heading up into Lady Yate’s private chambers. Here the cat reappeared; despite the signage warning visitors away from the garderobe unless accompanied by a member of staff, he found a perch at the edge of the deep hole and spent quite a bit of time studying its darkness intently. Julia and I were more interested in the bed hangings and embroidered coverlet. When we passed through the great chamber where the children were being introduced to Elizabethan dress and manners by a re-enactor (What do you think? Is my dress that of a higher or lower class person?), the cat was summarily shooed away: the steward obviously did not recognize the superior nature of our feline tour guide.
Julia, with her background in architecture, was intent upon showing me the clever priest hide in the library. When we entered the narrow room, there was a raised area to the right of the door, shoulder height, which would have housed an enclosed cabinet (it’s open now), where one of the great beams in the wall wasn’t a supporting beam at all: it swiveled out and up on an iron bar. In an emergency, the priest might pull himself into the cabinet, close the doors behind, and have time to flip the beam up, shelter in the space behind it, and pull it into place after him. Further along the hallway, in what’s called the Marble room, there’s a fireplace with a false chimney where the priest could pull himself up and hide. Finally we made our way to the very top of the house where a tiny chapel bore the original wall paintings of drops of water and blood, and where a panel hid a place to stow the paraphernalia of Mass, should an inspection by government agents appear imminent. Throughout the house, the floors were uneven, the walls skewed by time; photo exhibits showed before and after pictures–the rooms derelict when the house had been abandoned for years; the rooms restored once the Birmingham Diocese assumed ownership and recognized the house’s historical importance. One shocking picture showed the collapse of a wing when, in the process of restoration, the clinging ivy was removed: the ivy itself had become such an integral part of the structure that the wing could not stand without it. Wow.
Once we’d made our way back along the house at the end of our self-tour, we came down a magnificent grand central staircase. According to the exhibits, the original staircase was built around 1600; it too hid a priest hole, where two attached stairs lifted on a hinge. Since during a search by agents, guards would stand on the steps to prevent escapes, this might have been the safest hide of all. The staircase we came down was a replica, the original having been removed to nearby Coughton Court at some point. On the walls surrounding the staircase, though, were magnificent shadow paintings of the rails–the way the enormous chandelier would have cast those shadows when it was lit.
It was surprisingly warm outside when we finally left the house. We’d lost our guide cat at some point, but there he was, sunning himself on the cobbles. He did not deign to look up when we left.
On our arrival at Harvington, we had the added pleasure of watching a driver park his coach in a really tight spot. “Be careful,” he warned us when he alighted to have a smoke. “Place is full of schoolkids.” In conversation with Julia, who speaks to everyone, he told us he was 19, and that his bosses at NN Cresswell were the best people to work for. He also explained all the testing he had to get through to be licensed to drive that coach in the EU. He was really quite proud of his work: his bosses, he informed us, never had to check his rig at the end of the day–he kept it clean. “They make you guys young these days,” Julia said. The tour cat liked him.
In the Bellowhead world, this is the day everyone is “feeling fragile,” to quote my friend Lesley.
Last night, this glorious band sold out their final show at the Oxford Town Hall, the same venue that hosted their first show, 12 years ago. They ended with “Prickle-Eye Bush,” the first song they did in that long-ago show. Many of my friends were there. I was not. But I still could not bring myself to write this yesterday, because it’s like writing an obituary. The demise of Bellowhead is a sad blow. I wore
my Bellowhead Farewell Tour shirt all weekend in homage.
I’ve only been to four Bellowhead gigs–three in one week last month, the other a couple of years ago at the Wickham Festival. My friend Lesley thinks she might have been to 50, but she’s lost count; another woman, Maureen, whom I met on our peregrinations following the tour bus, has been to 84. While I’m distressed about the end of the band, I imagine to them it must be like a divorce, or an amputation. I can’t begin to imagine what it means to the band members themselves.
When Bellowhead announced they were coming to an end last year, it was Lesley who got the gig ball rolling for me. She bought us tickets to the Bristol show on April 16th, the Cardiff show on April 17th, and the Brighton show on April 18th. Louise, a friend of Lesley’s, shared her hotel room in Bristol; I made reservations in Cardiff and at the YHA in Brighton. We hit the road.
Bristol was a standing gig. We got to Colston Hall an hour before the doors opened, but there was still a fair-sized line. Even so, we ended up close to the rail–I was just behind a girl who was madly in love with Sam Sweeney (fiddle, bagpipes) and whose reactions would not have been amiss in a newsreel about the Beatles. After Mawkin had worked everyone’s blood to a boil, Bellowhead took the stage in a haze of blue light for “Amsterdam.” From there, the night became a blur of singing, leaping, laughing. My memories of Wickham might have faded, but I was reminded forcefully of the electricity of Bellowhead live. While on their studio albums the sheer musicianship becomes obvious (listening to Andy Mellon would make any half-way decent trumpeter die with envy, for example), in person, the energy makes for an entirely different reaction. Who can watch Sam Sweeney leap from the raised platform at the back of the
stage while fiddling savagely and not feel the charge? Who can watch the horns jig while belting out a brass line (not an easy thing: I can attest to the pain of the mouthpiece to the teeth for the unpracticed) and not dance, too? The audience at Bristol fed off the energy–“Fine Sally,” “Roll Alabama,” “Roll the Woodpile Down“–singing the lyrics until they were hoarse and returning that energy to the stage. The dancing on the floor was the same kind people do in Times Square for New Year’s Eve: straight up and down, because the floor was packed. Did any of us care? Pffft. Bellowhead can rip out a reel or a jig like “Parson’s Farewell” or “Frog’s Legs and Dragon’s Teeth” and we rabid fans in the pit will leap for an hour or two or three without flagging.
St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, was, in contrast, a stuffy sort of venue. Seated. Seated at Bellowhead? What the hell kind of idea is that? Tickets with assigned seats: Lesley, Maureen, Louise and I didn’t have to rush to line up this time. Our seats were pretty good, center stage, a few rows back (Maureen’s ticket was front row), but they were seats. Fortunately, between the stalls and the balcony, where the sound board was set up, there was space for standing and dancing: Lesley, Louise and I, with the sound guy’s blessing, set up camp there. The setlist was the same as the previous night’s, and we stripped off our shoes and danced like wild women. Every once in a while, especially on the dance tunes, Jon Boden (fiddle, vocals) would encourage the audience to stand and dance, but that was awkward for the people who were unable (the spaces for patrons in wheelchairs were up back, and there was much jockeying to enable those folks to see). We were in no one’s way. We knew all the words. We had plenty of room to reel about, and we did. While the energy level of the audience, compared to Bristol, was somewhat subdued, Lesley, Louise and I were on fire back there. I’m a bit hazy thanks to Louise’s suggestion of Malibu and cranberry at dinner, but I particularly recall a bit of craziness to Rachael McShane’s mad cello in “Trip to Bucharest/The Flight of the Folk Mutants Pt 1 & 2.” I kept waiting for the officious
usher with the flashlight to come berate us (Girl-in-foreign-country-having-just-witnessed-her-first-police-intervention Syndrome), but I think our wild jigging to “March Past” might have frightened him off.
I might have been mildly depressed at Brighton, because it would be my last Bellowhead show ever (okay, damn it, I’ll sniffle here a little bit, nothing to see, just move on). But no one could be depressed at a Bellowhead gig. By now, the blue lighting for “Amsterdam” elicited heavy breathing from me: I’d been trained. The show was on. The eleven were on the stage. Brighton was a standing gig, and we had been second in line at the door of the Dome, and were first on the rail, right there at the stage for the show. By now I probably resembled the girl from the first night, screaming, reaching, though not fainting like the Beatles girls of fifty years ago–because to faint would mean I’d miss part of the gig. And there was singing and dancing to be done! And I was doing it! Loudly! With Lesley and Alison and Louise and Susan and Maureen and thousands of other wild and crazy fans. Every single tune on that playlist was now my favorite. Every clever bit of repartee between songs–especially the slightly naughty intro to “Fine Sally,”
which this night included a sly dig at Paul Sartin (fiddle, oboe)–made me laugh hysterically, though the punch lines were all familiar (for “Cold Blows the Wind“–a love song about a girl who doesn’t recognize boundaries, won’t leave her man alone, always nagging him, even though he’s dead…). Then: the sudden dread when they left the stage, though I knew they’d be back for two encores. Only three songs left. Only three. Imagine my surprise–ecstasy?–when, for the first encore, Paul Sartin dedicated “London Town” to me, as it was my last gig. Me. A song about a prostitute, dedicated to me.
And now Bellowhead are done. I still have the CDs and I can admire the musicianship all I want. But the live energy–the thing which won them “best live act” from the BBC folk awards, repeatedly–is over. I’m so grateful that I was able to swing the trip to see those three shows. I’m so grateful for the synchronicity that placed me on a ramble several years ago with John Jones, in which Benji Kirkpatrick participated…so I had to find out more. I’m so grateful my friend Roger had Bellowhead CDs and left me to listen to them while he mowed his lawn all that time ago. I might not have seen 84 gigs, as Maureen has, but I found Bellowhead in time to see them live. I am so grateful for that. I will miss them.
Lesley picked me up at the train station in Banbury once she got off work. We threw my stuff in the boot of her car. I slid into the front seat, and immediately sat on a banana.
“Oh,” she said, “I think you’ve sat on my banana.”
And so for five days, the banana, none the worse for having been sat on, became our mascot, our talisman, our guide: sitting on the dash next to the CD player and the sat-nav. Because we were road-tripping, Thelma and Louise style, though without shooting people and driving off cliffs.
When our beloved Bellowhead announced, late last year, they were disbanding on May 1st after a farewell tour, I wished to see one of their last gigs (some of their last gigs?). Lesley suggested we do some together. And you know how it is: if someone suggests a possibility, the wheels start turning until that possibility becomes a likelihood, and then a done deal. Lesley bought the tickets. I reserved hotel and hostel rooms. I bought a plane ticket, a train ticket from Heathrow to Paddington to Marylebone to Banbury…and then we hit the road.
Appropriately, the accompaniment was the new Bellowhead Farewell live 2-CD set: loud. Our first leg, with the banana pointing the way, was from Banbury to Biddulph, a small town outside Stoke-On-Trent, where we were to meet with Steve and other Lesley, Anne and Paul, Lauren, and David, friends from previous adventures in walking and music and beer. On the way, we did a bit of lunch at Frankie & Bennie’s (Review: so-so). We did dinner at Roti in Biddulph for Lauren’s birthday, and then we had the Merry Hell experience. Afterward, it was to a bed in New Mills at Liz’s house (thanks, Liz!): this involved much twisty and turny roads through hilly terrain in rain and snow and dark, past farms, through woods with trees I was unable to identify because I’m a tree failure (and it was the middle of the night). Every so often Lesley would say, “I know exactly where I am now!” I, of course, had no clue. The banana remained mute, but somehow reassuring, and I would every so often reach out a surreptitious hand to pet it. At one point I saw a sign that read “rock kennel,” and I was vaguely frightened of rocks that required caging. But we got to Liz’s house, and there were waiting Liz and her daughter Kate (busily writing a story set in Ancient Rome–a girl after my own heart), and Steve and other Lesley. Warmth! Safety! Friends!
In the morning Liz led us out on a chilly sunny walk into the ruins of the mills down by the river, with her lovely dog. The water was high and loud and breathtaking. The mills were ruinous–the perfect morning food for the imagination. I could have spent the entire day wandering and looking–and Liz’s dog Bud could have, too; we would have been perfect companions –but there was a Co-op to visit for bacon and wonderful breads, which we ate at Liz’s table in the cozy kitchen built into the cellar in her wonderful house. Then Lesley and I hit the road again for Bristol. Liz instructed Lesley to drive along through Buxton, where I could see the Opera House, because the Big Session Festival would be taking place there at the end of the month, and it was beautiful besides…so we meandered along that way .
I hadn’t been to Bristol for five years, and then I came into the city on a coach with a busload of cranky high-school-age kids. This time it was in Lesley’s car, hopped up on motorway services coffee, guided by a banana, but the city was still the one I remembered. The hotel where we were to meet Louise was even close to the place we’d stayed back then. When we’d checked in and ventured out in search of an early dinner before queueing up for Bellowhead, I even looked up my old friend Cary Grant, so I could send a picture of him to his erstwhile date, my friend Karen. So here he is, obviously lonely without her:
A word of advice: if you want to have an early dinner on Saturday night in Bristol, so you can get in the queue for the rail at a gig, make reservations. I cannot tell you how many restaurants we checked with who could not seat us. We finally found a place on the waterfront, No. 1 Harborside, where we could get a burger (Review: good and big) and sit outside, in the cold. Don’t be like us.
We got a lazy start in the morning, because Cardiff was only a bit more than an hour away from Bristol. The banana was well-rested after its night in the parking garage; I felt a bit awful, because of the sinus infection that had been plaguing me. This meant that, once we got to Cardiff and drove around in circles a bit because we had trouble figuring out where to park for the Premier Inn, I was on a desperate quest for tissues.
And it was Sunday afternoon, so Boots was closed. We ditched the car finally, dropped our stuff off, and hiked out in the general direction of the castle. There was no time to visit, alas. We meandered in the direction of the courts–and found a corner shop with tissues! Saved! Hellelujah! Then, on the way back, we walked past a police van at the entrance to the pedestrian shopping area, and I checked myself, as one does, to be sure I wasn’t looking suspicious. I wasn’t, as it turned out, the droid they were looking for, for as we approached a church, a catfight broke out: two girls, a guy trying to intervene, one wriggled away from him, chased the other around a tree, and roundhoused her with a closed fist. Bam. The police van was on scene immediately. We walked away quickly, but not before I got to see the policewoman take down the puncher. Woo.
Dinner that night was at Jamie’s Italian Kitchen, where, at Louise’s urging, I had my first ever Malibu and cranberry. (Review: nice.) After the gig and the session, we walked back to the Premier Inn around 2 in the morning. The city was quiet, and rather pretty, and deserted once we got away from the pubs and clubs. I liked the walk. It was rather strange, though, to feel as though the police were watching us on their CCTV–all the more reason why our version of Thelma and Louise was a bit tame.
From Cardiff to the Brighton is something like a four-hour drive. We left early and cranked it back across the bridge into England, then headed south as our trusty banana and sat-nav directed. The banana, in case you’re interested, was holding up well.
Somewhere along the motorway we stopped at Costa’s for coffee and a toastie (Review: yum). I hadn’t been to Brighton in 15 years, but as we cruised past the Pavilion, I realized that the place had not lost any of its gaudy romance for me. The hostel where we had reservations was in a tall Georgian house just down from the Pavilion; our window looked out over the green. We shared the room with two other guests, who were not there when we dumped our things. Lesley and I met up with yet another of her friends, Alison, and rambled about the lanes until we were to find Louise and her friend Susan, and Maureen, who was going to her 80th Bellowhead gig. (The last time I was here, 15 years ago, we were in the company of another gaggle of teenagers, which meant we spent all our free time on the Pier.) This time the bunch of us opted to go to Wahaca for dinner, and we wanted it early, so we could get to the queue at the Dome in good time (third in line this time–perfect for the prime spot on the rail). I had the cauliflower cheese and the chorizo and potato quesadilla, and was a happy camper. (Review: yum.) There was no session after the Brighton show, but nearly everyone who was anyone ended up at the pub across the street from the Dome. Lesley, Alison and I sat at a picnic table on the pavement and watched people come and go. Band members, strangers, a van with no headlights which stopped in the middle of the street, apparently to ask directions to a shop selling bulbs, forcing all other traffic to drive up onto the pavement next to us. Drinks gone, Alison and I wandered away–Lesley stayed out later–and back through the lanes to the hostel.
Tuesday was my birthday. We had no gig tickets. Lesley had to get back to her room in Banbury to be to work Wednesday morning. While having breakfast in the hostel dining room, we examined her National Trust guidebook and decided, as Hughendon Manor outside of High Wyckham was on the route from Brighton to Banbury, it might make a nice stop. The home of Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, the house’s original Georgian stonework had been refaced with Victorian brick, giving it a vaguely gothic and sinister look; display materials called it a “hideous monstrosity.” Who wouldn’t want to visit a hideous monstrosity? It transpired that my birthday was also the anniversary of Disraeli’s death, and the National Trust steward manning the upstairs bedrooms and sitting rooms was so taken with that bit of synchronicity that she came around with us and pointed things out, rather than remaining at her post.
The library, though containing only one fifth the original books, was wildly exciting (even with the books screened off). I managed to set off an alarm in the dining room, and cringed at the noise and under the glare of the enormous portrait of the queen. The gardens, even this early in the season, were stunning. The tea shop was pretty good, too: with my tea I had a fruit scone with butter and jam (Review: yum). We were, all told, in the Manor grounds for perhaps three hours, but imagine our horror when, returning to the car, we found that in that brief space of time, our trusty banana, which had held on valiantly for so long, had turned brown. Not spotty brown. Entirely brown. The inside of the car suddenly smelled like a slightly overdone loaf of banana bread. Our guide–dare I say it? our friend–had given up the ghost in honor of Benjamin Disraeli’s death day. How could we possibly go on?
So–we didn’t. Not really. Lesley and I returned to Banbury, our starting point, tired, saddened, unprepared to face reality. With one last stop, of course: at the Fox at Farthinghoe for my birthday dinner, where I finally had fish and chips. (Review: all right). Then it was back to Banbury, where, after a night with her friend Kathleen’s cats, Lesley pitched me off once more at the train station. Road trip over.
For this time, anyway.
“Essentially, this album’s [The Ties That Bind] only preconceived purpose was to simply let you have fun while trying your damnedest to find some deeper meaning. We’re not making a statement apart from don’t hurt yourself while you’re dancing in the kitchen.” –David Delarre, in an interview quoted on the Mawkin website.
Because I have never run across Mawkin here in the land of commercial music, finding them as the support on the Bellowhead farewell tour was a gift. The band is made up of
the Delarre brothers, David (singer, guitarist) and James (fiddler); Nick Cooke (on melodeon); Danny Crump (bassist); and Lee Richardson (drummer). Their newest album, The Ties That Bind (which David refers to above) provided the material for their 45-minute set, which I had the privilege to see three times in three days. The first night, in Bristol’s Colton Hall, as an added bonus, featured guest Eliza Carthy (even in the land of commercial music, I know Eliza Carthy), as James Delarre had a separate engagement.
Each time I saw Mawkin–at Bristol, at Cardiff, and at Brighton–
they opened with “I Can Hew.” What a choice! If they intended to draw the audience in to get them up and dancing, this was the way to start. They won me with the first song. It helps that there’s a depth to David Delarre’s voice which is particularly attractive. At Bristol, with Eliza Carthy, she and Nick Cooke played the stomping tune off one another, and their eye contact made it clear that they were more than familiar with the way they played, and the way they fit together. The energy in the music was
inviting. Of course, once James Delarre returned for the other two shows, the energy was both the same and different–and equally captivating. I came away each time with this as an earworm.
The other earworm was the “love song” David Delarre claimed they had stolen from Eliza Carthy: “Love Farewell.” A week later, and that is the Mawkin tune still running through my head. Again, it is the combination of David’s singing, and the way Nick and James
mesh fiddle and melodeon that stay with me. The driving nature of both pieces is built on the rhythm foundation of bass and drums; even now that I’m home, I’m dancing in my kitchen as predicted. My one mistake was not buying the CD at the merch table at any of the gigs (proverbially penny-wise and pound-foolish, me); but I will be buying The Ties That Bind now, because it’s become a musical necessity.
When I parted from Louise, one of the women I’d been touring Bellowhead with, she suggested that next time I’m over, we tour Mawkin. This is not out of the realm of possibility, I think. I’m glad to have found them so serendipitously; I’m a fan now.
Postscript: On the Mawkin homepage, there’s a link to download their bootleg Bath show recording from last November. DO IT.
Originally the plan on this adventure was to road-trip Bellowhead: four shows in four days with my friend Lesley. Then Merry Hell announced this show, on my first day in the UK–and the only gig they’d be doing while I was there. No-brainer, that. As it was Lauren’s birthday, we arranged to meet beforehand for dinner: Lauren wanted a curry, so to Roti Restaurant we went.
As a sad aside: I can’t eat rice, because of a strange sensitivity; and the last time I went to an Indian restaurant was with my ex-husband, in Whitechapel in 1989, and the results were disastrous. But it was Lauren’s birthday, and I hadn’t seen her in several years, and I figured there would be something on the menu that would work. Naan, for example. In the end I went for the Nimbo chicken, which was lightly spiced and cooked in lemon–bits of lemon slice, as I found out. It was quite nice. Lesley had a Peshwari naan, which was flavored with coconut; I found that a bit too sweet, but the plain naan was rather nice.
The town hall was just down the street. We were plenty early, but the front row was behind tables, and people in the know where there first to claim them. We ended up a bit back from the stage, and we were a fairly large contingent, with Lesley, me, other Lesley and Steve, Lauren and her boyfriend and some other friends, Anne and Paul, and David: a wild and crazy group. Wilcox:Hulse opened. They put on a great show–notably, for me since I was unfamiliar with them, the song “Upon,” about one of the six towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent. Ostensibly it was a a seated gig, but there was a bit of space off to either side of the stage, and Lesley and I didn’t sit, because that makes it hard to dance. Other people chose to dance: some couples, and over in under the balcony near the merch table, the family and friends of the Kettles and company, including, eventually, us.
out on the road on my bicycle. Hard-driving songs. The band opened with “Summer is A-Comin‘”. Lesley and I hit the floor. I was a bit hesitant at first, because I’m The Easily Frightened Person, and I didn’t want to be in anyone’s way, or maybe have anyone notice I was there–you know how that works. But by the time they launched into “Drunken Serenade,” it really didn’t matter anymore, because I’d lost it entirely. I don’t see how anyone could hold back at a Merry Hell gig.
Lesley was disappointed that they didn’t play “Crooked Man.” I have to say that I was so busy enjoying what they did include on the playlist (which they gave to me after the gig), that I didn’t notice. I was excited for “The Ghost in Our House,” a wonderful slightly creepy stomper (watch the video, seriously, just watch it). And for the encore, Andrew Kettle announced a song for friendship, dedicated to me, the song I wrote that would complete my life, should anyone ever sing it to me: “Rosanna’s Song.” Well, I guess my life is complete, then.
Then we went backstage. I got to talk about the passion of creation with Bob Kettle, who is the mandolin player, though not the one in my book. I got to have the requisite groupie pictures. Quite frankly, it was a fantastic show and experience–and only the first full day of the adventure. Virginia Kettle said she was honored we’d ditched Bellowhead for them, but going to this gig was something I just couldn’t pass up. Serendipity, I call it, that they would be doing a show when I was there.
Damian, the manager of Merry Hell, very kindly gave to me a red umbrella from the merch table–a Merry Hell inside-joke-umbrella, which you’d get if you’d seen the cover of their CD Head Full of Magic, Shoes Full of Rain. And wouldn’t you know? I forgot it in the boot of Lesley’s car at the end of our adventures together. (This is a picture of me crying, in a broken-hearted way.) I was horrified when I realized it. So this is my broken-hearted plea to Lesley: can you send it to me? I’ll pay you postage! Pleeeeeaaaaaassssse?