I am writing about two songs this week, as the two tunes in question form a single piece on the album.
When David and I decided that folklore would be the main theme of the album, we both felt that we should write some more songs specifically referencing folklore tales. I decided to set one of my songs on the Ridgeway and to explore some of the old stories associated with this ancient path.
The Royal Society published some research recently with the catchy title of: ‘Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales’. The research showed that a number of folklore tales have roots in the Bronze Age. One tale, The Smith and the Devil was estimated to have its origin as far back as 6000 years ago. These tales were told and retold many times before they were first written down.
The Ridgeway is an ancient pathway (itself perhaps 5000 years old) which runs from Wiltshire to the Thames. It used to be part of a longer path called The Icknield Way which ran from Salisbury to the Fens. The Ridgeway is associated with many folklore and historical tales including that of the Anglo-Saxon smith-god, Wayland (which clearly has shades of The Smith and the Devil.) The Wayland legend is pretty gruesome and, in the song, I have him smelting iron and blood to make wings to fly home.
Another story is that the Uffington Horse, on moonlit nights, comes to life and leaves the hillside to drink from the nearby wells. And it is told that St George slayed the dragon on a flat-topped hill just below the Uffington Horse. No grass ever grows on the hill because of the dragon's blood.
|Painting by Eric Ravilious|
One of my favourite Ridgeway tales concerns King Alfred, one of the great heroes of English history who fought a battle on the Ridgeway and defeated the Vikings there. Legend has it that you can hear him blowing the sounding stone which can be found near the Ridgeway (on Blowingstone Hill) to summon his men. Alfred's stone can be heard at the start of the song. The sample for the blowing stone was provided by Simon Chadwick who is an expert on the early music and instruments of the British Isles. Simon has posted an interesting article on his website here which includes video of him sounding the blowing stone.
The song itself is told from the perspective of a child with his head full of Alan Garner stories who can see magic and mystery all around him. I imagined him racing up to the Ridgeway and letting his imagination run away so that all of the old legends come back to life.
At the end of the song, the Salisbury Giant lumbers into view.
The Giant is an astonishing survivor from folklore processions in medieval England. Alongside his hobby-horse, he would have led processions from the late 15th century onwards.
We visited the Victoria and Albert museum recently and found a stained glass panel from the 16th century depicting ‘A Mery May’ which includes folklore figures who would have taken place in these processions, including a hobby horse.
One final thing to mention about Along the Ridgeway is that the Uffington Horse is, of course, closely associated with Dave Gregory's former band, XTC. Dave's choice of instrument on Along the Ridgeway was his 1976 Rickenbacker 360/12, a guitar he played on the English Settlement album and one he hasn't recorded with since 1992. She is a beautiful looking guitar, but not an easy one to play: 'an instrument of torture if ever there was one' says Dave.