Friday 15 April 2016

Along the Ridgeway and Salisbury Giant

Along the Ridgeway and Salisbury Giant are the third and fourth tracks on the album Folklore by Big Big Train which will be released on 27th May 2016

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.


Unknown said...

I can immediately identify with The Ridgeway... For a few years in the '70's I resided in Chinnor, Oxfordshire, and my address was ** Lower Icknield Way... I kept a few dogs and daily took them up to the UPPER Icknield Way for exercise... At that point, the Way is quite heavily wooded, and on dark evenings with winds blowing, all sorts of imagery would flash through my mind!! Scary indeed!
Wonderful that this album will reference a part of my personal history!!! Great!

Tobbe said...

Thanks, Greg! This is really whetting the appetite! All those ancient's fascinating to see that they somehow come from the same roots and in a way are branches on the same beautiful tree... It's wonderful having you writing songs about those things. ☺

Claus said...

Very interesting. Can't wait to hear the respective songs. Great...
Wasn't Wayland featured in "Blacksmithing" from "Bard"? (One of my favourite tracks on that particular album).

Unknown said...

Trips out as a child were often to the countryside, Banbury, Oxen, Watership Down, walks up to Pangbourne or down to Sonning, and up on to the Ridgeway, all the days of memory bathed in sunshine. And the reference of Alan Garner who books The Owl Service, the weirdstone of brisingamen, and the final book of tat set I have yet to read Boneland. Happy days as the Ford Anglia struggled to cope with the rise in the land annd oft familial cry of "are we there yet?" (Only worse journey was the 5.5 hours on the A303 then A30 to Newquay, passing through the village I now live in). And to cap it, songs about the folklore and mythology I read as a child. :)I look forward, we are who we are. Not long now.

Tony Honour said...

Thank you Greg (and David) for taking the time to write these pieces. Calling them blogs doesn't do them justice at all. Looking forward to the next one.

Unknown said...

Indeed the Riidgeway is a corner of England which is rich in history, folklore and superstition, crisscrosses by ley lines and home to many UFO sightings. I can't think of a more righteous contender to have a song written about it