3. St Michael, South Elmham
5. Stoke Hammond
6. Little Sodbury
7. Rodney Stoke
8. Holywell Lake
6. Langton Herring
A Thankful Village is a village where every soldier returned alive from World War I. The writer, journalist and educator Arthur Mee coined the term ‘Thankful Village’ in his series of guidebooks, The King’s England in the 1930s. Darren Hayman visited each of the 54 Thankful Villages and, focussing on village life, made a piece of music and a short film for every one. Some take the form of instrumentals inspired by the location, some are interviews with village residents set to music, others are new songs with lyrics or found local traditional songs.
Knowlton is barely a village, more a collection of houses. It gained the title of Britain’s bravest village after winning a competition in The Times. It was the village that sent the largest proportion of volunteers to the Great War. 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.
The monument in Knowlton is really a piece of war propaganda, an exaggeration of both the village’s status and its 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.
I was sitting in St. Botolph’s church 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, a handful of buildings that had fallen out of God’s pocket with no apparent sense or design. 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 there.
I told her about my project and she invited me into the church. She showed me the church windows that her husband had restored.
I drove further north to find another church warden.
St Michael, South Elmham, Suffolk
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. Dolly had made some excellent cake for my visit.
I wanted to talk to her about her father Jack; a survivor of the Great War, a charmer of horses and a player of the melodeon.
We talked about songs, unusual local dialects and visits from the BBC. She showed me old photos and his war medals.
“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.
Blessed with another warm Autumn day, I drove out to Puttenham in Hertfordshire. The Church of St. Mary in Puttenham is at the top of a dead end, at a truncated spur at the highest point of the village.
I arrived early (as I always do) and walked around the graveyard; everything was green and gold. The light pierced through crucifixes, hand carved into the wooden gates. Green paint flaked away from small fences wrapped around big trees. Cows pushed up hard against the barbed wire as if to say hello. A forgotten wedding decoration sat high in the apex of the church porch gathering dust and bat droppings. A pretty layer of green moss covered the old wooden gravestones.
I teased notes out of the organ and wondered how far away it could be heard from. A walker came in. “I heard someone play,” they said. “Can you play?” “No,” I said.
I played gently and left early.
Stoke Hammond, Buckinghamshire
I struggled to find somewhere I could hide in Stoke Hammond. 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 simple musical scale in C. I recorded it on the portable recorder I had. I recorded it again and again and again. The flies over the canal fluttered and the water rippled so gently it almost looked like glass.
I tried to make the music ripple and flutter too. 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.
Little Sodbury, South Gloucestershire
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.
Rodney Stoke, Somerset
Rodney Stoke is dominated by St. Leonard’s church. It stands tall and proud on a small rising by a sharp bend.
The village is partially named after the Rodney family and many of them are buried in the church. A small room to the side of the altar houses the tombs and statues of the Rodney family. Some of them are beautiful, some macabre, some both. Others are unintentionally comical.
Arthur Mee describes them in detail in his Somerset guide book. Part of his series of guide books, The King’s England, from which the name Thankful Villages derives. I followed the directions from nearly 100 years ago and hunted for hidden carvings behind pews and altars.
A man arrived to read the electricity meter. We searched for the meter together but it could not be found, just strange, stone ghosts.
The words spoken on this piece are from Arthur Mee’s entry for Rodney Stoke in The King’s England.
Holywell Lake, Somerset
We arrived in Holywell Lake during the heaviest rain.
It was Remembrance Sunday and nothing was open. We found a crumpled paper poppy in the gutter. Torrents of water ran down the hill. The car windows misted up and we kept the windscreen wipers and heaters on. I was reminded of doomed childhood holidays and waiting for the rain to clear.
We started to film and collect sounds: the rain falling down the drain, the water splashing on corrugated plastic roofs, a cheap set of wind chimes clinking in the wind. I was thinking of repetition again and the type of downpour that never stops.
I thought of home and the days when you are happy that you never have to venture outside, but we weren’t home, we were just passing through. I tried to make something warm sounding in amongst the cold. I sheltered in a covered part of the pub garden. Holywell Lake tinkled and pulsed in the background.
Aisholt is hidden in the folds of the Quantock hills in North Somerset. A tiny knot of buildings clustered behind incredibly narrow lanes. Tim Whittingham reads at humanist and non religious funerals and he is also the Chair of the Friends of Aisholt. He raises money for the maintenance of the church even though he doesn’t go to church himself. The church, as in many of these places, is the heart of the village. It has a purpose outside that of religion. It binds the community together.
We met him the day before Remembrance Sunday and he read a poem for us by Dollie Radford about the Quantock hills.
The next day we were shown the church clock mechanism and stood on top of the tower. I recorded the bells ringing and choir singing. I wove them in time with the clock mechanism and Tim’s soft patient voice.
I wrapped them around themselves just like the green rolling fields envelop the village. Aisholt is all warmth.
I sat on a pew with a blank mind, doodling with sounds on an iPad, feeling out of place and lonely. I was exhausted and possibly having my first doubts about the project. Ros Harding walked into the church and looked me up and down. She had a cloud of white hair and bright, wide eyes. I was thinking about how to best explain myself when Ros said, “Would you like to come round my house and have a cheese sandwich?”
They were the most beautiful opening words I’d heard from a stranger and right then there was nothing I wanted more than a cheese sandwich. Ros was another Church Warden. I helped her turn on the gas heaters for the evening service before walking back to her home.
Ros told me a story about the upper and lower church and a painting that travelled between them.
Strethall is the only Thankful Village in my home county of Essex. This time I took a group of friends with me: David, Emma and Donal. It was a cold and golden day. We were lit by a winter sun.
I had gained permission to record in the church. We hung microphones from the rafters. We threaded leads around the altar.
St. Mary the Virgin Church is more than 1000 years old and for this song I found a story from the parish records from 1607. The story concerns an attempt by the parish to make a father accountable for a child born out of wedlock.
I thought about the possibility of a village secretly wishing a baby out of existence.
A black dog came and visited us. We all sang with full voices between the pews. The low sun made the chapel yellow.
Welbury, North Yorkshire
I wandered through the village in the dead of night. Interior lights glowed red and orange through thick curtains. A few houses had modest Christmas lights wrapped around trees even though it was October. I thought about the idea of ‘home’ and ‘warmth’. I remembered my first job as a paperboy and doing the same thing, staring at the house lights and being jealous of those warm and safe inside.
I imagined how different all those living rooms would be to each other but all representing safety and security to someone. I went back to my room and set up a small studio with a Moog synthesiser and a nylon-strung guitar. These machines make me feel at home. I tried to make comforting music. I wanted repeated refrains that were all similar, yet slightly different.
In Welbury I was on the outside, dreaming of the inside.
Scruton, North Yorkshire
Scruton is neatly kept and the houses are surrounded by neat hedges and flowers. I found red berries and pink houses. Dog walkers took their last opportunities before dusk. Huge 4x4s purred as they crawled on to the loose gravelled driveways. People are coming home after Sunday errands and visits.
In the middle of the village is a triangular green covered with golden, fallen leaves. Bare trees are scattered across it and cast long, dark shadows. A lone swing stands in the centre and I find a bench at one side next to the vicarage.
For once I leave the church be and decide that this might be my last chance of the year to record outside.
I tap out a rhythm on the bench and strum out lazy major chords on a Spanish guitar. I start to sing but the only word that comes out is “Oh”.
I arrived and parked at what used to be the Chelwood Primary School. The ‘C’ had eroded from the stone.
I kept taking pictures of the sky letting just small parts of the village intrude into the compositions. I photographed the edge of roofs, the tips of trees and the tops of gravestones.
I was drawn to the crooked gravestones and the thought of the clouds in the sky. I considered how the clouds made the rain, which made the ground wet and that made the graves lean away from the heavens. I considered that every grave is destined to be untended eventually.
The church door was locked, so I sat in the porch of the church.
I wrote about death and the sky and the ground.
It was recorded on a cassette dictaphone. It’s supposed to sound like this.
Langton Herring, Dorset
Chesil Beach is a natural, swooping arc of shingle that looks like it must be man made. It provides shelter from prevailing winds and rain and often pulls away completely from the coast to form a neat line through the sea.
Langton Herring stays hidden above it amongst small lanes and signs that beg you to go elsewhere; ‘No parking’, ‘Private Land’ and ‘No Access to the Beach.’ The pub was closed and so was the church so I took the sign’s advice and walked out of the village along a high windy lane towards the sea.
My friend Mark found a story on a gravestone about four children who died whilst playing near a lime-kiln in 1830. The fumes overcame the four young boys and they quickly perished.
We made a song in two parts, one for the accident and one for the funeral procession of 18 children in white.
The road plummets down into Herodsfoot. We drive past the church and the houses until we reach a small green by the stream. I’m here with Johny Lamb who lives close by.
Me and Johny walked around the village. We found a small chapel that had been converted into a house. The first floor could be seen bisecting the long tall arch windows. All Saints church overlooks Herodsfoot from a steep hill. It shares a rector with three other villages. A leaflet in the church said “Herodsfoot, fortunate in more ways than one.” We started to talk about things that were split in two or shared. Herodsfoot itself is cut in two by the River Looe.
We returned to the green and sat under a chandelier of burnt out candles and a row of broken fairy lights. We sang about safety and how and what things used to be. A gunshot rang out in perfect time.
No-one hears us. No-one stops us.
I arrived as light was falling. There were some small patches of melted snow still on the ground. I was tired and heartbroken. I shuffled around in my dirty green coat and filmed the amber glow of the streetlights.
I found a plastic lamb in the graveyard and a small group of goats behind some barbed wire. I thought at one point I heard a howl or the cry of an animal.
A dog walker asked what I was doing and as always I replied with the truth. “I thought you might be a journalist,” she said. “About the abattoir.”
The landlady at my guesthouse filled me in further, “It was a local scandal, a few weeks ago a film was leaked of the animals being treated horribly.”
I thought about the last days of snow. I thought about all of the blood in the abattoir.
I tried to make a slow, uneasy, dissonant melody.
Bradbourne is a lop-sided village. Many of the buildings are on one side of the main single road and overlook a beautiful view of rolling green fields. The church door, again, was unlocked and I sat inside.
A neighbour noticed the lights were on and looked in and asked if I was all right. I said “Yes” but I wasn’t. I was unshaven, I had egg on my chin, I was crying. I was all over the place and didn’t really understand what I was doing in these villages.
There are many things that a church can be in these small places, but the one thing it has almost consistently been for me through the first phase of Thankful Villages is a refuge.
I’m not religious and never have been but I’ve felt safe in every church in every Thankful Village and I don’t feel safe very often. I sang selfishly for, and about, myself. When will my heart be still?
Bruce Springsteen tribute compilation featuring 39 acts. Darren covers Rosilita (Come Out Tonight) and the Wave Pictures cover 'Racing in the Streets' which Darren also plays and sings on. Darren Hayman