Category Archives: David Harley

Wrekin (The Welsh Marches Line)

I’ve linked to this song before elsewhere, but as I’ve added quite a lot of background info this time, I thought it was worth a post of its own. And it suddenly struck me that if it was worth posting on my Cornish blog, it probably merited a post on my Shropshire blogs.

Wrekin (The Marches Line) (words & music by David Harley)

The Abbey watches my train crawling Southwards
Thoughts of Cadfael kneeling in his cell
All along the Marches line, myth and history
Prose and rhyme
But these are tales I won’t be here to tell

The hill is crouching like a cat at play
Its beacon flashing red across the plain
Once we were all friends around the Wrekin
But some will never pass this way again

Lawley and Caradoc fill my window
Facing down the Long Mynd, lost in rain
But I’m weighed down with the creaks and groans
Of all the years I’ve known
And I don’t think I’ll walk these hills again

Stokesay dreams its humble glories
Stories that will never come again
Across the Shropshire hills
The rain is blowing still
But the Marcher Lords won’t ride this way again

The royal ghosts of Catherine and Arthur
May walk the paths of Whitcliffe now and then
Housman’s ashes grace
The Cathedral of the Marches
He will not walk Ludlow’s streets again

The hill is crouching like a cat at play
Its beacon flashing red across the plain
Once we were all friends around the Wrekin
But some will never pass this way again
And I may never pass this way again

‘The Abbey’ is actually Shrewsbury’s Abbey Church: not much else of the Abbey survived the Dissolution and Telford’s roadbuilding in 1836. Cadfael is the fictional monk/detective whose home was the Abbey around 1135-45, according to the novels by ‘Ellis Peters’ (Edith Pargeter).

The Welsh Marches Line runs from Newport (the one in Gwent) to Shrewsbury. Or, arguably, up as far as Crewe, since it follows the March of Wales from which it takes its name, the buffer zone between the Welsh principalities and the English monarchy which extended well into present-day Cheshire.

‘The hill’ is the Wrekin, which, though at a little over 400 metres high is smaller than many of the other Shropshire Hills, is isolated enough from the others to dominate the Shropshire Plain. The beacon is at the top of the Wrekin Transmitting Station mast, though a beacon was first erected there during WWII. The Shropshire toast ‘All friends around the Wrekin’ seems to have been recorded first in the dedication of George Farquar’s 1706 play ‘The Recruiting Officer’, set in Shrewsbury.

‘Lawley’ refers to the hill rather than the township in Telford. The Lawley and Caer Caradoc do indeed dominate the landscape on the East side of the Stretton Gap coming towards Church Stretton from the North via the Marches Line or the A49, while the Long Mynd (‘Long Mountain’) pretty much owns the Western side of the Gap.

Stokesay Castle, near Craven Arms, is technically a fortified manor house rather than a true castle. It was built in the late 13th century by the wool merchant Laurence of Ludlow, and has been extensively restored in recent years by English Heritage, who suggest that the lightness of its fortification might actually have been intentional, to avoid presenting any threat to the established Marcher Lords.

Prince Arthur, elder brother of Henry VIII, was sent with his bride Catherine of Aragon to Ludlow administer the Council of Wales and the Marches, and died there after only a few months. Catherine went on to marry and be divorced by Henry VIII, and died about 30 years later at Kimbolton Castle. Catherine is reputed to haunt Kimbolton, so it’s unlikely that she also haunts Whitcliffe, the other side of the Teme from Ludlow Castle. (As far as I know, no-one at all is claimed to haunt Whitcliffe. Consider it poetic licence…)

For some time it has puzzled me that in ‘A Ballad for Catherine of Aragon’, Charles Causley refers to her as “…a Queen of 24…” until I realized he was probably referring not to her age, but to the length of time that she was acknowledged to be Queen of England.

The ashes of A.E. Housman are indeed buried in the grounds of St. Laurence’s church, Ludlow, which is not in fact a cathedral, but is often referred to as ‘the Cathedral of the Marches’. It is indeed a church with many fine features (I have about a zillion photographs of its misericords) and its tower is visible from a considerable distance (and plays a major part in Housman’s poem ‘The Recruit’).

The song was actually mostly written on a train between Shrewsbury and Newport at a time when I was frequently commuting between Shropshire and Cornwall to visit my frail 94-year-old mother, who died a few months after, so it has particular resonance for me. It originally included a couple of extra verses about Hereford and the Vale of Usk, but after the ‘Wrekin’ chorus forced its way into the song, I decided to restrict it to the Shropshire-related verses. Maybe they’ll turn up sometime as another song.

David Harley

Ballad of the Arbor Tree [rough demo]

First (unaccompanied) demo.

Backup:

 

This is the second demo version: still rough, but now with some basic guitar. Relates to Shropshire rather than Cornwall: you can take the boy out of Shropshire, but you can’t take Shropshire….

Backup:

 

I came across this set of words in a discussion on the Memories of Shropshire Facebook group, and somehow found myself putting a tune to it as I read. This version of the tune is one of my ‘make it up as you go along’ recordings: it may well change significantly over time, and is not in any case consistent between all the verses.

By W.B.H. and apparently dated 29th May 1786, though that may have referred to the wedding that took place on that date rather than the date of printing. It seems that the modern Arbor Day celebration is held on the last Sunday in May rather than strictly on the 29th. The Aston Clun celebration is closely linked with Oak Apple Day as well as with the wedding of 1786. I don’t know exactly when this was published, but the somewhat random initcapping and the use of a ‘thin space’ before colons and question marks is characteristic of an earlier school of typography, perhaps as far back as the late 18th century.

In Aston Clun I stand, a tree,
A Poplar dressed, like a ship at sea.
Lonely link with an age long past :
Of Arbor Trees, I am the last.

Since seventeen-eighty-six, My Day
Is writ, the twenty 9th of May.
When new flags fly and we rejoice,
New life has stilled harsh Winter’s voice.

To greet a Squire’s lovely bride
Did tenants dress my boughs with pride ?
But Old Wives say, my flags are worn
To mark the day an heir was born.

Wise men, mellow o’er evening ale,
Old feuds and wicked deeds retail.
Thanksgiving dressed my arms, they say
For Peace, when blood feuds died away.

Did here ! my father mark the rite
Of Shepherd’s, gone with world’s first light ?
Was England merrie neath his shade
Till crop-Haired Cromwell joy forbade ?

In sixteen-sixty with the Spring
Came Merry Charles the exiled king.
Did he proclaim May twenty-nine
“Arbor Day” for revelry and wine ?

And Shepherds, plagued with pox and chills
Turn to the old ways of the hills,
To “Mystic Poplar”, to renew
Fertility in field and ewe ?

Stand I, for Ancient ways, for Birth,
For Love, for Peace, for Joy and Mirth?
Riddle my riddle as you will
I stand for good and not for ill.

And if my dress your fancy please
Help my flags to ride the breeze
That you with me, will in the Sun,
Welcome all, to the Vale of Clun.

A Research Article from April, 2003, by John Box gives some very useful information. It’s available from a number of places including here.

Here’s the Abstract:

The custom of dressing the black poplar growing in Aston-on-Clun in south Shropshire – known as the Arbor Tree – with flags on flagpoles every 29 May is unique in Britain. New flags are attached to wooden flagpoles on the tree that remain throughout the year. Written records of the Arbor Tree only extend back to 1898, but the tradition of dressing the tree is reputed to date back to a local wedding in 1786. The article attempts to establish the history and context of the tradition and shows how the custom has developed and acquired new meanings, particularly since 1955 when a pageant was devised. The pageant and the celebrations associated with the tree dressing are evolving in response to those living in the local community as well as to the external recognition now accorded to this unique tradition.

David Harley

Maypolar Express (or Dancing in the Street)

A recent mention in a Facebook group of Iona Opie reminded me that in one of her books with Peter Opie they mention children Maypole dancing in Monkmoor. I don’t have immediate access to the book, and indeed I’m not sure which one it was, though I suspect that it was either The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren or Children’s Games in Street and Playground . It was, after all, in the 70s that I read it. I believe they were writing about the late 50s and possibly very early 60s.

The recollection has stuck with me – though I can’t say how accurately – because I lived in Monkmoor in the 1950s and remember seeing older children on at least one Mayday dancing in the street. My admittedly faded memory is in accordance with Roy Palmer’s description in ‘The Folklore of Shropshire’. As he includes The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren or Children’s Games in Street and Playground in his list of references, I suspect that’s the book I read back in the 70s.

He describes how in Monkmoor (and indeed in Ditherington) children set up maypoles ‘consisting of a pram wheel  decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper and streamers, and set on the top of broomstick so that it could revolve. The May queen sat on a stool and held the pole while other girls danced round and sang…’

What did they sing, you may wonder?

The first verses of the song as printed by Palmer closely resembles other songs known at least in the West and East Midlands, and very possibly further afield.

Round and round the Maypole merrily we go,
Tripping, tripping lightly, swinging to and fro.
[or ‘Singing hip-a-cherry, dancing as we go]
All the happy pastimes [or ‘children’] on the village green,
Hurrah ! Hurrah! Hurrah! May queen
[Or ‘Sitting in the sunshine, hurrah for the queen!’ or ‘Sporting in the sunshine with our flowery queen]

The queen would sing something like:

I’m the queen don’t you see
I’ve just come down to the village green
[or ‘I have come from a far country’]
and if you wait a little while
I will dance a may pole style.

A version from the East Midlands then goes into a pair of couplets reminiscent of the ‘Oh you New York girls, can’t you dance the polka’ chorus from a well-known sea song. Palmer, however, shows a lyric vaguely related to ‘three cheers for the red, white and blue’ words often associated with Souza’s march ‘The Stars and Stripes for ever’, immediately followed by a snatch of ‘Rule Britannia’. Perhaps these patriotic sentiments were related to the still fresh memories of World War II?

While the maypole seems to have had something of a revival in English schools in recent years, I don’t remember any of these activities being encouraged at the nearby Crowmoor school, where I got nearly all my own pre-secondary schooling. My own turn around the maypole came in the very early 1960s, when I spent my last term as a junior at the recently-established Harlescott Grange Junior School. Astonishingly, I can still remember the tune to ‘Come Lasses and Lads’ to which we sang a set of words very similar to the lyric here. Here’s an extract from a slightly different version, as quoted in Spring in a Shropshire Abbey, by Lady Catherine Henrietta Wallop Milnes Gaskell

 “Come lasses and lads, take leave of your dads,
And away to the May-pole hie;
For every he has got him a she,
And a minstrel standing by.
For Willy has gotten his Jill,
And Johnny has got his Joan
To jig, to jig it, jig it up and down.”

There’s a demo version of the first verse here:

And that was pretty much it for me and Mayday. At any rate, until learned the splendid tune ‘Staines Morris’ (or ‘Stanes Morris’) a few years later.  Staines is quite a long way from Shropshire, though, so maybe I’ll come back to that in another article.

Roy Palmer’s ‘The Folklore of Shropshire’ is published by Logaston Press,

David Harley

Housmania

If you’ve looked through this site, you may have noticed that I’m quite fond of the poetical works of A.E. Housman, whose remains can be found in St. Laurence’s churchyard in Ludlow, not five minutes walk from where I’m sitting right now.

Which explains why I have a short-ish article in the January-February issue of Ludlow Ledger entitled While Ludlow Tower Shall Stand, about my personal voyage into the Housman’s world. The title of the article comes from A Shropshire Lad III (The Recruit) and while it’s quite suitable for the content of the article, I hadn’t realized at the time I wrote it that Clive Richardson had used a very similar line from the same poem for his book Till Ludlow Tower Shall Fall, or else I’d have used a different title. Sorry, Clive! Still, I don’t suppose my little article is going to affect the sales of your book adversely. 🙂

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World

Book Review: Pauline Fisk book on Shrewsbury

Title: Behind Closed Doors in an English County Town
Author: Pauline Fisk
Publisher: Merlin Unwin Books Ltd.
Published: September 2014
Price: £9.99

You might, seeing the title, expect this book to be an exposé of the sordid secrets of the residents of some dark corner of the English psyche with a made-up name like Mudchester. If Mudchester is what you’re looking for, there’s a long tradition of novels ranging from Trollope and Dickens to Jilly Cooper and beyond.

This is something a little different. On January 1st 2013 Pauline Fisk started blogging about her home town (nowadays) of Shrewsbury: more specifically, “things that have interested me, that have caught my attention, made me smile, made me angry, joyful, happy or sad; buildings that I love; people who fascinate me; events that have taken place, or extraordinary incidences of natural phenomena…”

The result is a well-written mixture of informal interviews, historical snippets and anecdotes. This is, in brief, a thoroughly nice (in the best sense of the word) book by a thoroughly nice person – or so I was told by the thoroughly nice lady who sold me a book. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for one of those well-meaning but slightly amateur publications that can sometimes be found on the ‘local’ shelves in small town bookshops. (Not that there’s anything wrong with encouraging local talent that hasn’t attracted blockbuster publishing budgets.) Pauline Fisk is an award-winning author with a track record of novels for the likes of Bodley Head and Faber & Faber, and she has a novelist’s eye for detail and people-watching, albeit with more empathy than some, and an eye for the interesting aspects of story that might, in other hands, seem mundane. And Merlin Unwin, though a relatively little-known regional press, has a reputation for publishing some very classy books such as their edition of Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ with photographs by Gareth B. Thomas.

She points out more than once in that she’s no historian, but there are historical snapshots here that will appeal to anyone with an interest in local history. But this isn’t a ‘period’ piece. For every insight into Shrewsbury’s more-than-usual-absorbing history [example], there are several pieces on more contemporary issues, interviews and so forth. Non-Salopians may not be personally outraged by the encroachment of the aggressively modernist Princess House into the 13th Century charm of the Market Square, but they may well recognize the tone of the discussions

The spirits of Henry Bolingbroke, the young Princess Victoria, Darwin and Coleridge sometimes walk these pages, along with more contemporary names such as two recent leaders of the Labour Party, Robert Plant, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury. However, the interview pieces are not usually with top-ranking ‘celebrities’ (which is fine by me…) They do include notable writers (Peter MurphyMichael Morpurgo); musicians like Dan Cassidy (brother of Eva and a fine fiddler in his own right) and gypsy jazzer Robin Nolan (George Harrison was a fan) and Chris Quinn; artists (Aidan Hart , Svetlana Elantseva; ‘Legendary Shropshire Tweeter’ Shroppie Mon; and people who don’t look for fame beyond the community in which they live, but whose stories turn out to be just as interesting: market traders, booksellers, florists…

Not everyone will be interested in the minutiae of living in a not-very-large town in a large but not heavily populated county – I am, but then I used to live there and still write about the area – but if you think you might be, you won’t be disappointed by the quality of the content and writing here.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World

Bear Steps

This is a bit of an outlier. It’s a watercolour of mine based on a photograph but has subsequently been the subject of some experimentation in Photoshop, so currently exists in this form purely as a virtual artifact. Very Zen.

In any case, it’s very different to the drawings by my uncle Eddy Parker that I’ve previously put up on this blog. As anyone who has seen the cartoons I sometimes put up on WeLiveSecurity or Dataholics will (hopefully) notice, I put a lot more effort into this than I do into those (example below), but I’m not the draughtsman he was.

bearsteps mono lite

I can’t at this moment lay hands on the photograph this was based on, but here’s one taken at about the same time. Note the resemblance in the timber framing on the South-facing end of the building to the building shown in Eddy’s drawing of St. Alkmond’s Place, which leads me to believe that his drawing shows the same house. There’s a certain poignancy to this: it’s the house where my grandmother lived when she was first married, and where Eddy himself was born.

bearsteps house lite

So here’s one of the cartoons I mentioned, just to prove I have no artistic pretensions. 😉

munch

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow

 

St. Alkmond’s Place

This, I think, is the last drawing by uncle, Eddie Parker, that’s in my possession. It clearly doesn’t correspond to a contemporary view of St Alkmond’s Place (named after St Alkmund’s church – while the different spellings are a little confusing, I’m guessing the Place was named at a time when the spelling wasn’t entirely regularized).

My best guess is that the picture shows the housing around the Bear Steps, including the Gallery, before the houses were restored to show the original timber framing.

st_alkmunds_place lite

 

There are, however, other houses in the Place that have a somewhat similar construction. Again, I don’t know Eddy’s original source. Anyway, it’s an attractive drawing.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World