Pilgrim Song from the Way to Walsingham


A 2015 Song Pilgrimage


 

Day 1: Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging (in St Mary’s Church Willesden)

We began at St Mary’s Willesden, a church with a Black Madonna statue and a holy well. We launched our pilgrimage to Walsingham amid the bustle of the church food bank.

This is a German carol, taught to Will during Christmas in a stranger’s home while he was walking to Cornwall from Canterbury. His teacher’s family were kept alive from this song (and others) in the Polish ghettoes of WW2, when all their possessions were taken, and only their music, wisdom and hope survived.

The song tells of Mary carrying Jesus ‘under her heart’ (in her womb), and how as they walk together through the woods, the thorns all bloom as roses. To us, it is a manifesto of how walking with holiness (pilgrimage) can actually transform Nature and the land through which you walk.

Lyrics:
Was trug Maria unter ihrem Herzen,
Kyrie Eleison.
Ein kleines Kindlein ohne Schmerzen,
das trug Maria unter ihrem herzen,
Jesus und Maria.

Die Rosen haben dornen getragen,
Kyrie Eleison,
als das Kindlein durch den Wald getragen,
die Rosen haben Dornen getragen,
Jesus und Maria.

For full song, see here.

Day 2: Daddy Fox (on the Griffin Hole Holy Well)

Pilgrimage is not just for people. This song tells of Daddy Fox and his long journey to the holy place of his family’s supper. Like all good pilgrims, Daddy Fox finds the blessing he seeks, and despite the distance and obstacles, returns home to share the goodness. Every pilgrimage ultimately culminates back at home. The apparent destination is only half-way…

We recorded this song while stood on top of Griffin Hole Holy Well, Hertfordshire, during our second day of pilgrimage. The well was pilgrim-proofed by a heavy iron grille, so though we couldn’t drink from it or bathe in it, we were sort-of walking on water…

The Griffin is a mythic double king – both lion and eagle – with a reputation for guarding great treasure. And Daddy Fox is the rogue pilgrim prince of the British hedgerows.

Lyrics:
Daddy Fox he went out on a chilly chilly night,
And he prayed to the moon for to give him light.
For he had many many miles to go that night,
before he came to his den-o.

Den-o, den-o…for he had many many miles to go that night,
before he came to his den-o.

For full song, see here.

Day 3: To Be A Pilgrim (in Little Munden Church)

We sang this in All Saints Church, Little Munden, whose church and school stand on the crest of a holy hill, while the rest of the village sits half a mile away.

With lyrics from John Bunyan, and a melody found by Vaughan Williams in deep Sussex, this is perhaps Britain’s most well known song of pilgrimage. Bunyan wrote this poem in the post-pilgrimage British landscape. But his portrayal of the pilgrim’s challenges – and rewards – still ring true today.

Come wind or weather, a pilgrim stays constant to his purpose. Discouragement from others, often telling undermining stories about pilgrimage, will spur the pilgrim onward with ever greater determination. A pilgrim cultivates fearlessness, refusing to be daunted by lions, giants, hobgoblins and foul fiends. And the labours of walking, living outside and travelling slowly, allows you to inherit life, to truly claim your birthright as a living human. It’s all here.

Lyrics:
No hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit.
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day
To be a Pilgrim.

For full song, see here.

Day 4: What Wondrous Love (in Royston Caves)

At the meeting point of two ancient paths, the Icknield Way and Ermine Street, stands a rock called the Rosy Stone, and around it a town: Royston.

We arrived here on day four of our pilgrimage, and after a quest to find the ultra-rare Pasque flowers (one hillside in the whole county!) we took breakfast by the Rosy Stone, the heart of the town. But to our disgust the stone’s hollow – its font – was full of chicken bones and cigarette butts, in foul gloopy water. So using our perfect toolkit of a milk carton (to scoop out the liquids), a plastic cereal inner packet (a glove to remove debris) and a cardboard cereal box (a bin for the foulness) – we were able to clean the Rosy Stone, and refill it with fresh clean spring water.

Immediately, all around us, nothing really changed.

“What the f**k are you doing” one chap asked. We explained thoroughly. I think he understood.

 

Royston is an ancient place of people passing through. And hidden deep under its main road lies a secret chamber, a chalk cave carved with images of Gods and legends. Popular local tradition claims it an initiation chamber for the Knights Templar. It is also allegedly a meeting point for two great ley-lines (lie-lanes?) – the Michael and Mary line. Whatever the details, it is clearly a holy place, deserving of song. Singing here was unsettlingly vast and awesome. We could feel the song more than we could hear it.

‘What Wondrous Love’ is from the American Southern harmony traditions, but like a true pilgrim song it adapts to fit wherever it goes…

Lyrics:
When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down.
When I was sinking down, beneath God’s mighty frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul.

For full song, see here.

Day 5: Bold Fisherman (at the Nine Wells)

We recorded this song near Cambridge, at the Nine Wells, a small ancient Beech grove with nine chalk springheads that feed Hobson’s Conduit, the old drinking water source for Cambridge. This was perhaps the only patch of ancient growth woodland we encountered in two weeks walking. It stands beside the newly sprawling Addenbrookes bio-medical complex, which approaches ever closer.

We dipped in the cold clear water, filled our bottles with the chalky goodness and recorded this song.

It is the song of a fisherman. Some see this as a common tale of a Lord meeting and proposing to a fair maid – though others claim it as a higher tale of The Lord offering guidance and safe crossing.

Lyrics:
As I roved out one May morning
Down by the riverside,
There I beheld a bold fisherman
Come rowing by the tide,

Come rowing by the tide;
There I beheld a bold fisherman
Come rowing by the tide.

For full song, see here.

Day 6: The Turtle Dove (in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge)

Turtle Doves have been symbols of monogamy and loving faithfulness for thousands of years. Like pilgrims, they often leave their lovers behind – but while they have life, they always return.

This is one of the most popular British folk songs. We recorded it under the marbled ears of intellectual giants – Newton, Tennyson, Bacon etc. – in the sumptuous acoustic of Trinity College Cambridge Antechapel, a vast room of pure marble. Recording this song here was a homecoming for Guy, because he first got to know ‘The Turtle Dove’ by singing the solo in Vaughan Williams’ choral arrangement of the melody as a choral scholar of Trinity College Chapel Choir.

For Will, singing here was somewhat ironic, but in the best healing way, for Trinity College was built by Henry VIII out of money he took from the monasteries at Reformation, when British pilgrimage was banned. Nevertheless, releasing a song into such a holy place as this soon undoes such thoughtful wranglings.


Lyrics:
The sea will never run dry, my dear,
Nor the rocks melt with the sun,
And I never will prove false to the bonny lass I love,
Till all these things be done, my dear,
Till all these things be done.

For full song, see here.

 

Day 7: My Boy Jack (At Lode War Memorial)

Rudyard Kipling sent his son ‘Jack’ away to World War One, using his Establishment connections to overturn the miiltary medical board’s decision that his son’s eyesight was too limited for front-line combat.

When his (only) son died, in the mud, gas and industrial trench warfare of the Battle of Loos, Kipling struggled to reconcile his ideas of Empire, Just War and Sacrifice with his feelings of horror and loss. This poem was part of his effort to come to terms with it all. Many other bereaved parents likely took comfort in it too.

We sing this at most war memorials we pass on pilgrimage. In this recording at the village of Lode in Cambridgeshire, we found the memorial built in a semi-circular niche, which happily provided great natural amplification. Whether this was the builders’ intention, we are not sure.

 

Lyrics:
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide, Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide, and every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

For full song, see here.

Day 8: The Skewbald (Under Moulton Pack Horse Bridge, near Newmarket)

This is the tale of a racehorse called Skewbald brought to Ireland to compete in a long-distance race. The locals mocked the horse and rider, but soon lost their grins – and their purses – when the Skewbald became a great champion.

As well as beneath the arches of Moulton’s ancient pack-horse bridge (near the famous horse-racing town of Newmarket), we also sang this at the grave of the Goldolphin Arabian at Wandlebury, near Cambridge. All British thoroughbreds descend from this magnificent horse, who was brought over from a far-off land (probably Syria), and who was also initially viewed as inferior, just like Skewbald…

Lyrics:
You gallant sportsmen all, come listen to my story
Of the bold Skewbald, that noble racing pony.
Arthur Marvel was the man, who brought the Skewbald over,
He’s a diamond in the land and he rolls around in clover.

Trumpet it did sound, they shot off like an arrow,
Scarcely touched the ground where the going it was narrow.
Then Griselda passed him by as the gentlemen did holler,
“Oh, the grey will win the day and the Skewbald he will follow.”

For full song, see here.

Day 9: The Green Blade Rises (In Bury St Edmunds Cathedral)

This is a nature-inspired Easter song. It was taught to us by the TV pilgrim Peter Owen-Jones, on top of Firle Beacon in Sussex.

In many holy ruins around Britain, the unstoppable force of life still pushes green blades through the soil amongst the broken stone structures. A little shoot of grass is growing up out of Bury right now: the East Anglia Pilgrimage Network – and we wish them well. And, of course, the new beautiful stone tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, under which we made this recording, found its way pushing out into the sky only ten years ago!

The track ends with our pilgrim staffs, cut from blackthorn and hazel, tapping the stone floors of the Cathedral cloisters – a sound that the monks of old would have known well – and that shall soon be heard again…

 

Lyrics:
Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love will come again, like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts, that dead and bare have been:
Love will come again, like wheat that springeth green.

For full song, see here.

 

Day 10: The Life of Man (at Wordwell Church)

The passing of seasons is a natural part of human life, just like it is for the leaves on a tree.
The Temples of Britain, our little parish churches, are places of death as well as life – indeed, we know this intimately by sleeping in various churchyards along the way (the pilgrim’s last refuge).

At Wordwell church, where we made this recording, we sang ‘The Life of Man’ for a group of local people gathered from the few surrounding houses. The villagers’ landlord had recently died, and our audience were ill and facing their own mortality, so the performance had particular poignancy. Later, the church caretaker Bob showed us where he would eventually be buried in the churchyard.

We also sang ‘The Life of Man’ at the centre of Saffron turf maze, having walked the 1.5km labyrinth, a microcosm of our pilgrimage and life itself.

The bell tolling at the end of the track was recorded from our sleeping bags in West Stow’s church porch.

Lyrics:
If you’d seen the leaves just a few days ago
They were all in full motion and appearing to grow.
The frost came upon them and withered them all,
The rain came upon them and down they did fall.

For full song, see here.

Day 11: All Things Are Quite Silent (in Santon Downham Church)

A traditional song about the impact of the Press Gangs – men who roamed the country capturing men and sending them off to sea. The song is not sung from the point of view of the unwilling sailors sent to sea, but tells the tale of their wives and sweethearts left behind, who often did not even have a chance to say goodbye, yet had to generate optimism amid the terrible uncertainty of ever seeing their lover again.

From 1644 to 1814, the Royal Navy had the authority to force any man with nautical experience (back then most people) to go to sea. It was their main fall-back recruitment strategy.

We recorded this at the small church of Santon Downham on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk, the county where Admiral Nelson was born, under whom many would have suffered this fate. We recorded this during the lunch break of a BBC1 filming day…).

This verse isolated reminds me of Rumi poems about God.

Lyrics:
Now though I’m forsaken I won’t be cast down.
Who knows but my true love may one day return?
And he’ll make me amends for my trouble and strife,
And me and my jewel will be happy for life.

For full song, see here.

 

Day 12: Scarborough Fair (at the top of Swaffham’s Ecotricity Wind Turbine)

We recorded this song at the top of the only wind turbine in the world you can climb up. The viewing room is 67 metres up, right behind the spinning rotor. We treated this as a holy place, because it represents technology attempting to make the world ‘whole’ again.

The Green Britain Centre in Swaffham that runs the turbine shared a connection with the song in that saving our environment is potentially an impossible task, at least politically speaking, yet the power of love strives nonetheless.

We learnt ‘Scarborough Fair’ in its original land, carrying it on pilgrimage from Whitby to Scarborough over four days for a BBC Radio 4 documentary. On this journey, we drank tea made from the four herbs – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – all given to us by Martin Carthy’s gardener (Martin is the singer who taught this song to Simon and Garfunkel back in the 60s).

The sounds at the beginning and end are from the grinding millstones of Swaffham Prior – a very traditional windmill. The two Swaffham windmills (two counties apart), old and new, both have their place in the modern world, like the merging of traditional aspects of pilgrimage – wooden staves – with the modern – smartphone navigation.

Lyrics:
Will you find me an acre of land?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Between the sea foam and the sea sand,
Or never be a true love of mine.

Will you plough it with a ram’s horn?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
And sow it all over with one peppercorn,
Or never be a true love of mine.

For full song, see here.

 

Day 13: Spring is Come (in Castle Acre Motte and Bailey ruins)

We made this pilgrimage in glorious weather, when the seed of summer had truly awakened.

We sang this spring carol of renewal on the hillfort of Castle Acre. It’s from the “Piae Cantiones”, a collection of late mediaeval songs.

 

Lyrics:
Now the spring has come again,
Joy and warmth will follow;
Cold and wet are quite forgot,
Northward flies the swallow;
Over sea and land and air
Spring’s soft touch is everywhere
And the world looks cleaner;
All our sinews feel new strung,
Hearts are light that once were wrung,
Youthful zests are keener.
For full song, see here.

 

Day 14: Smugglers’ Song (in Sculthorpe Church Porch)

We smuggled this song onto the album at the stroke of midnight, past a rightfully vigilant villager who confronted us at Sculthorpe Church Porch, only a few miles from Walsingham. It’s good getting caught sometimes – it proves the holy places are being looked after. Especially when you get the guardian’s approval, and can really relax.

We sang this in honour of Peter Bellamy, who was a Norfolk folk singer of great repute and national importance who went to grammar school in the next door town of Fakenham.

With words by Rudyard Kipling, this song captures the atmosphere of the smuggling tradition of Sussex. It provides a cold warning to a child not to let the side down. It portrays smuggling as a gallant community rebellion – though often the truth was far bleaker.

Lyrics:
If you see a stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat, all cut about and tore;
If the lining’s wet and warm—don’t you ask no more!

If you see King George’s men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you “pretty maid”, and chuck you ‘neath the chin,
Don’t you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one’s been!

For full song, see here.

 

Day 15: The Wracks of Walsingham (in Walsingham Abbey Crypt)

The shrine of Walsingham was built in 1061. Before the Reformation, this Norfolk village was the second most popular pilgrimage destination in Britain (after Canterbury).

This ballad is both a lament for the loss of the shrine, after the forces of Reformation banned pilgrimage and destroyed the monasteries, and also a song of praise to Mary, “the Queen of Walsingham”.

We recorded this ballad in the Crypt of the wracked Walsingham Abbey, after it accompanied us mantra-like for every footstep of our final 5 miles through sleepy Norfolk lanes to Walsingham.

Lyrics:
Where were gates are no gates now,
The ways unknown
Where the press of peers did pass
While her fame was blown.

In the wracks of Walsingham
Whom should I choose
But the Queen of Walsingham
to be my guide and muse.

For full song, see here.

 

 

 


2 Comments

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  1. Jennie Guthrie-Stevens

    Having been to Walsingham recently and promoting an old route through Colchester, I found this article very touching.

    Reply
  2. janice mottram

    wonderful;I know many of the places you passed through and wish I were younger to do the pilgrimage myself. I hope this inspires many others to follow in your footsteps.

    Reply