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About 7 or 8 years ago, as Corwen and I were preparing to leave on our long walk to Spain, I was visiting the Abbey Community in Sutton Courtenay. Before I headed out to the shed, to carry on with my handcart construction project, someone told me not to worry about two strange Americans wearing funny costumes in the garden. They’re harmless and really lovely.

And that was how I met Ethan Hughes and his (now) wife Sarah. They were travelling Europe visiting off-grid communities, with a view to setting up something similar back in the US. You might be forgiven for thinking this is nothing spectacular, but the thing is, they were possibly the two most amazing people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

At the time, Ethan hadn’t got into a car for over five years, or used a computer, or a mobile phone…All their travel was conducted on foot, bicycle or for long journeys, train. They didn’t fly from the States, they used yachting agencies to find wind powered passage, or took places in cargo ships, where their proportional use of fossil fuels would be absolutely minimal. They always sought out home grown food over bought, and local food over imported food, they didn’t listen to or own any recorded music, and they dressed in superhero capes sometimes, “just because”, they told me…During their stay, I remember Ethan doing a 3 day long meditation and fast in the dovecot. He said he did it every year, when spring was starting, and we talked about ethics (Ghandi had most of it nailed, he said), ecology and environmentalism (keep it simple, he said) and creativity (tell stories, sing songs, make music and be alive, he said), and to be honest, I have to agree!

I went over to the Abbey several times while they were staying, and one night we threw a party by candlelight with 6 people, a feast from the garden and a live entertainment line up second to none. Ethan told a bonkers creation story, leaping from chair to chair, being a whale or something, Sarah (a trained opera singer) blew us away with her singing, and I sang and played too. It was magical. When they moved on to the next community they were visiting, I met up with them again, and we spent a day learning how to gut fish and hearing how to make a bow from scratch (first, find your dead deer and a yew tree…). And then we went our separate ways – Sarah, back to the States on a ship carrying organic lentils (you couldn’t make it up and one day I hope I will visit them by similar methods), Ethan, to one last community in Scotland, and me? Well, me and Corwen set off on our life-changing pilgrimage on foot to the end of the world.

On the brink of such an amazing journey of my own, to meet them at such a pivotal time in my life did two things: It made me feel braver, and it gave me a life-long reminder that there is more, always more you can do to minimise your impact without minimising your life experience or accomplishment.

I have never forgotten that encounter. In fact, I looked up more about them a while ago, keen to find an address if I could, because I lost the red scrap of paper it was scribbled on hastily when we parted. I managed to find out that they did indeed get married, set up a community and are still off-grid, off-line, and in the world like no-one else I know.

And then I began to see just how amazing they are. Ethan started the Superhero Bike Ride when he discovered that no-one would help him clean up the beach until he dressed in a superhero cape. It mobilises people to dress as Superheroes and go out on bicycles and do ‘service’ (ie help people in any way necessary) in the community. For the sake of it. And the Possibility Alliance, the community they have built, is thriving, and welcoming people who want to know how to be that alive. They call it ‘Radical Simplicity’ and if you look them up you will find blogs (including mine, now), articles and videos about them by others whose lives have been touched. None of these are by Ethan and Sarah, they don’t even have a computer.

They have five simple principles:

  • Simplicity
  • Service
  • Social engagement and Activism
  • Inner-work
  • Silliness, celebration, gratitude.

  But despite not flying, driving, emailing, blogging or even texting, they are sending ripples around the world. And one of them rocked me. And this week I hope I passed that ripple on.

The Ancient Technology Centre is doing a fortnight long project with a school over the next couple of weeks which will be carried out in Iron Age costume.

I guess most of the staff and me (I’m volunteering for a few days during the next fortnight) have pretty good Viking age kit, but none of us really have 1st century Iron Age, so Friday saw us making Iron Age shoes and Kate has been sewing peplums and tunics this weekend.

Iron Age shoes are made from a single piece of leather cleverly cut so that it can be laced around the foot. After making them I tried out mine and boy were they cold, especially on the cold ground, even with inauthentic socks on. This didn’t bode well for two weeks of roundhouse building… So I’ve been researching Iron Age foot insulation, and there is actually, contrary to common belief, a couple of finds of shoes containing woolen cloth or wool fibres, although most are stuffed with dry grass. So to be authentic we bought some meadow hay for pet bunnies from the supermarket and actually it really works, it is a little scratchy but it is certainly warm, far warmer than even two pairs of socks. I’ll let you know how it works out after a day of working in grassy shoes, and I’ll try to post some pictures of the full kit at some point.

In other news we’ve decided to grow some wheat, maybe a row here to see how it handles the soil conditions and some more at the ATC where they have grown it before and we know it can work. If you fancy doing the same here are a few helpful links:

Click to access plant_wheat_teachers.pdf

Between the three websites above there is enough information to have a go. Apparently the average family (whatever that is) needs 60 lbs of grain per year which can be grown on a 20 foot by 50 foot plot. Seems like a lot of space but then again its not impossible.

I’d like to try oats too, but wheat is kind of iconic so we’ll try that first. Here’s an oaty page in case you are interested!


There was something doing the rounds on Facebook this week that got me thinking. Well first it got me annoyed and then it got me thinking. Enough, in fact, to write the blog (or should that be rant) myself this week!

It started with a copy of the London Underground map, only it’s titled a ‘Map of English Folk Music’ and the coloured lines are labelled Songwriting, First Folk Revival, Bands, Squeezeboxes, Fiddle, Guitar etc. It sounds like it could be quite funny and clever, but in fact, I didn’t think so, and nor did some of the people whose names appeared on it.

So I got to thinking, what precisely was it about this image that bothered me so much? And after a while, I realised that it was precisely the same thing that bothered me last week when I heard Howard Goodall being interviewed on Radio 4 about his Story of Music programme on BBC TV.

What riled me with Howard was his presentation of music as a linear progression from something primitive and simple in the past, to something grand and sophisticated. This seems to stem from the belief that classical music is somehow the culmination of hundreds of years of effort, and that other traditional and ethnic musics are somehow less important. I was also frustrated to hear him write off exploring music of other cultures as not relevant enough to include in a six part series, even though the UK has had links with the Indian sub-continent for centuries and trade along the silk road goes back millennia, bringing music, instruments and folklore with it. Surely the early arrival of the bow in Northern Europe deserved a mention!

So back to the Map. Is the attempt to classify and pigeon-hole folk music and folk musicians to this degree is to be barking up the wrong tree? I can see what they were trying to do – make a simple guide to the main aspects of English Folk Music. But does that really achieve anything?

I think I might be getting to the nub of my irritation here. For a start, there are so many folk instruments, it would necessitate the expansion of the underground throughout the UK to accommodate all the possible contenders And yet, not a whiff of a hammered dulcimer, whistle, crowd or harp, all of which have been played in England at least as long as the guitar and the fiddle. And what about ‘found’ objects – spoons, bones, tables, washboards, saws…? There are so many instruments that make up ‘folk music’ that it would be impossible to categorise every last one of them and still have a coherent map. Not to mention how you can represent amateur and professional folk musicians who excel at playing more than one and should therefore appear on several tube lines in the diagram.

And then, the revivals, of which there have been 2 according to the map. Isn’t every rediscovery of traditional song a little revival? There are always articles popping up in the Guardian about the new fashion for folk music – this week I was pleased to see that it was the Child Ballads that made it into the Review section. There have been revivals on and off since people started collecting songs back in the Victorian era. Revivals do not necessarily require electricity and record studios. Even the fashion for collecting wasn’t new then – Shakespeare, Rabbie Burns, Ravenscroft etc were all collectors in their day.

And what of the tireless amateur musicians? Would they not need a whole underground system of their own? It’s all very well listing all the people who have sold records, but they are but one tiny part of the English Folk Music scene. There are many people who week in, week out, sing the songs of their fathers and mothers, and make new ones of their own. And they are the ones who buy the records of the people that made it onto the map. There are few songwriters in the folk world who haven’t steeped themselves in traditional material or other people’s songs, or, like me, have started out as a song writer but then turned to other older wells for inspiration. Where do you put those people?

So my point here? Are not both these representations of music – the TV show and the Map – attempting to distil something undistillable. It seems we are looking at 2 different definitions of Music here, one which requitres clear genres of music for sale that the staff in HMV would know where to put a new CD on the shelves, and one which is about people making music. What I’m saying, is that music doesn’t boil down to a few linear progressions. It’s a web of relationships, cross-fertilisation, experimentation. It can’t be frozen in time, because careers and hobbies take lifetimes, and people change, and so do audiences. People look to field recordings made in the early 20th Century, as well as modern technology. I might listen to some 60’s folk revival recordings to inspire my songwriting and versions of traditional material, but my version of English Folk music can also be informed by Arvo Part, Danish field recordings, Sigur Ros, and Delibes, not to mention our loop station. And you can’t really show that on a map.

And so I was immensely relieved to see someone’s answer to the Map. It was a colourful scribble, with no stations at all, just all the colours messed up and random. Like Music.

posted by Kate



Red_AppleIt’s wassailing time again. And it’s been lovely to see so many reports of hobby-horsing and wassailing on-line this year.

It seems it is finally fashionable again to embrace these native traditions, and we’ve enjoyed seeing film and photos of people doing them over the winter season. It’s especially satisfying to see folk who’ve come to our workshops over the years actually doing the things we were prattling on about! There is nothing more wonderful than seeing mummers, wassailers and hobbyhorses return to communities where they had been lost, and people re-discovering that the real depth of these rituals is not in knowing about them, but in doing them.

On the surface wassailing would seem to be a ritual to make our fruit trees bear well in the coming year, even though you could say that this is quite irrational given our modern understanding of how growing food really works from a scientific point of view. Of course it also serves to bring communities together at the darkest time of year, and give them an excuse to eat, drink and sing together, all activities which provide social ‘glue’ that bind people together in a common purpose. It cements the interdependence of the people and the trees and recognises our dependence on the trees for food and shelter. We promise to be thankful for what they have provided, that we’ll give back to the trees what we can, and we’ll endeavour to protect them from harm.

So how do you actually ‘wassail’ a tree? Well, the consistent features seem to be the following: you process to the trees, singing together, you drink alcohol from a common cup (often a three sided Wassail Bowl) and toast the trees, you talk to your tree using one of several techniques (poetry, flattery,threat and pleading all seem to be quite traditional), you show your appreciation to the tree by decorating it, hanging toast in the branches or libating its roots. You make some loud noises perhaps using pots and pans before shooting through the branches (or maybe letting off a firework or thunderflash) to drive away any lingering evil spirits. There may be a Master of Ceremonies (usually called a Butler) with symbolic items on a tray, perhaps yew for everlasting life, bread, wine and salt. There may be a Wassail King and Queen. The details vary but there is lots of beauty and power left in the old ways.

All this has raised some questions too, in the Kate&Corwen household, about the very nature of ritual, in both folky and pagan communities. Rituals are by definition, repeated acts, and when something is repeated often enough, the reason and origins sometimes cease to be important, simply the fact of doing reigns supreme. Ritual needs purpose, but does the purpose need to be made explicit? Is it better to write our own wassail, or adhere to some traditional form, or maybe combine these two things in some way? Is it still a wassail, if it fulfils the purpose of a wassail, even if it has none of the traditional features or words?

So questions for you- do you have to have Pagan sympathies to carry out an ancient folk tradition, or an understanding of heritage to conduct a Pagan ritual? How do you know when such a ritual has been successful? Can we even distinguish between a Pagan ritual and a folk custom if carried out well by those conducting it?

Helpful Links:
or search Mudcat’s Lyrics and Knowledge Search for ‘Wassail’

Further Reading:
Everything you need to know about a Wassail by A.Butler

In the meantime if you’re looking for us we’ll be in the Orchard with some cider and a pop gun 🙂

We love ballads, and we don’t mean Everything I Do I Do it For You type ballads.

Ballads are folk songs that tell a story. They are often quite long. Actually, they are often very very very very very very long! The longest one Corwen knows to sing is Sir Orfeo which has twenty some verses and takes around 6 minutes to sing, Kate wins over him with The Raven (33 verses), but we are learning one at the moment that is 93 verses long (which will be on Fish or Fowle)! Takes about 40 minutes to sing. Maybe it feels even longer if you are listening…

They aren’t boring though, that’s the thing about ballads. They are often oddly concise, almost haiku like, for their length. They don’t waste any time on character development, characters are fairly two dimensional, often social stereotypes, but character isn’t the point. The ballad is all about plot. They cram lots of incident into their verses, they are often like mini Greek Tragedies (or Shakespearean tragedies come to that). And they are old, did we mention that? Not only are individual ballads often quite old (a few hundred years) but the stories they tell are old, and the worldviews they express are positively ancient. Magic is a reality in the ballads, but not the miraculous Christian magic of the lives of saints, no, its the deep Pagan magic. To quote Steenstrup:

“Concerning all others the rule holds good that however many remarkable and marvelous things happen, miracles never take place. It is not by prayers and petitions to the saints that metamorphosed Knights and maidens get their shapes back again, nor is it by making the sign of the cross nor by reading the Scriptures that evil is bested. The intervention of the Virgin Mary or of holy men is un-necessary; that which heals or reshapes, that which draws the frigid lover to longing is mysterious remedies, the various instruments of superstition, the token and the mystic word. Runes have a wonderful alluring power, a man’s life is bound up in his name as if with a mathematical power, and with or against this one can work as though it were the man himself. In a kiss lies witchcraft which releases that which is bewitched, and drinking of a man’s warm blood and tasting of his flesh leads to metamorphosis.

They really are remarkable pieces of art, of real interest to folklore fans, musicians, and Pagans. And great stories too. You can even dance to them. Dance is an almost lost aspect of ballad singing, but for those who have been reintroducing it, it is a powerful way of a whole community to immerse themselves in a shared and ancient common culture.

Many folk fans will have heard Raggle Taggle Gypsies, The Silkie or Matty Groves but few will have heard of Sir Aldingar, Hind Etin, Earl Brand, Lamkin, Gil Brenton or Young Waters. Some folk musicians put a token ballad (often heavily abridged) on a recording, yet the recognition of these songs seems low among folkies and extremely rare among the general public. But these are some of the great works of British native culture. So why don’t we hear more of them?

There are obstacles to their performance. Firstly the language. Many ballads were first collected in the Scottish borders and the musician must decide whether to sing them in a dialect few will understand or whether to rewrite them partly or fully in modern English. Many ballads are lacking their tunes and were recorded as texts alone. Some versions are incomplete or corrupted. It does sometimes take a bit of detective work to come up with a singable piece, tracking down a tune, compiling verses from several collected versions and where necessary altering dialect words. No wonder many people who do sing ballads often trot out familiar versions from Fairport Convention or Martyn Carthy. It’s well worth the work to perform a lesser known ballad in my opinion though, and this sort of creative work puts the musicians personal stamp on the song

Also it comes down to audience demand I suspect. Most folk musicians shy away from performing anything more than 6 verses/4 minutes long, and many ballads can’t convincingly be cut down to this length without losing much that makes them special. People have increasingly short attention spans and find it hard to follow a story unless it has pictures to go with it, let alone if it is sung rather than spoken. Ballads are all about the story, and ballad singing all about telling it. The skill of ballad listening needs to be developed too.

With that in mind it is worth reading some ballads and listening to some to get familiar with their conventions, style and language. You’ll find all the texts of the most well known collection (the so called Child Ballads, collected by Francis Child) online here. Googling the title of any of them will bring up articles with explanatory notes, and searching for many on Youtube or Amazon’s MP3s will find you performances to hear. Take some time if you aren’t used to ballads, think of it as educating your palette, you will be rewarded.

If you are a singer and don’t know any ballads, why not learn one? Mudcat will furnish you with many tunes. If you are serious about it then Loomis Press have reprinted both the Child Ballads and Bronson’s invaluable work The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. For style I recommend listening to field recordings, and to Chris Foster, who is the best ballad singer I’ve come across. Sadly only a few of his albums are currently available.

In 2012 Kate was lucky enough to go to the annual gathering in Denmark of the small but mighty group of people who have brought Ballad Dance back to life in that country. She spent a weekend dancing and singing burdens in Danish, and generally immersing herself in this ancient form of ballad performance. The songs get into the core of a community when they are remembered and celebrated in the feet as well as the voicebox. We hope to run an event like this in the UK, at the end of 2013, so watch this space.

Good luck with your ballad mission if you choose to accept it, and when we see you next, we want you to sing us a song, and it had better be very very very very long! 

So the first blog, what to write, um, er, um…

No point in introducing us as you probably already know us. If not then click on the About link above. So I guess we could start by saying what we hope to do with this blog, that we don’t already do with our Facebook, Twitter or Youtube thingies.

Corwen: I mainly want somewhere to ramble on about philosophical and political ideas that aren’t appropriate elsewhere. I’m hoping that this will be somewhat more considered and intelligent than the stuff I put on Facebook. I also hope that this blog prompts me to do some regular writing, albeit on a small scale. We’re going to try to post at least once a week, most likely on Sunday, so you’ll know when to expect a blogwise expression of the deluge of strangeness that swirls around in my head.

Kate: I mainly want somewhere to ramble on, and post pictures of my knitting…

So see you soon, maybe tomorrow!

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