The Unthanks: Magpie

Every now and then I hear a song for the first time and it becomes an instant earworm. ‘Magpie’, by the English folk band The Unthanks, is just such a song. I don’t often listen to folk music, so this song would probably have passed me by, had it not featured at the end of the first episode of the third series of the BBC comedy, Detectorists.

The series centres around two metal detectorists and is filmed in the bucolic Suffolk countryside. It is a lovely, gentle series, in which not a lot happens. As an archaeologist I’m no fan of metal dectectorists and the damage they can (and so often do) wreak on archaeological sites, but the ending of this particular episode summed up in a beautiful montage what I often wonder about the finds I dig up: who they belonged to, the lives lived, and how the pieces ended up where they ended up. So many stories.

Dectectorists is written, directed by and stars the talented Mackenzie Crook, and co-stars Toby Jones. It is currently midway through its third series, broadcast on BBC4, and can be viewed on catch-up on the BBC iPlayer.

‘Magpie’ is a track on The Unthanks’ 2015 album Mount the Air, and uses the traditional English nursery rhyme about the magpie to wonderful effect, with additional lyrics emphasising a pagan theme and music by Dave Dodds. Here’s the full version of the song, with a fan-made video:

Here are The Unthanks performing the song live on Later with Jools Holland:

The magpie (Pica pica) is a beautiful black and white corvid, a familiar bird in the English countryside and one with a rich tradition of symbolism and folk history attached to it.

Magpie (Pica pica). Photo by Andreas Eichler.

I invariably automatically count out the number according to the rhyme when I see a group of magpies (or rarely a singleton: they are gregarious birds). Apparently Crook was inspired by The Unthanks’ song, and certainly the magpie theme has carried on into the second episode, with magpies being featured at the start and finish. I wonder if they will prove to be more significant or symbolic as the series progresses.

Sunday stroll: By Brook near Box

Yesterday was glorious – a brilliant, sunshiney spring day when all’s right with the world. We headed north for our day out, first to Great Chalfield Manor near Melksham in Wiltshire, an amazing Tudor manor house owned by the National Trust and most recently seen in the BBC’s wonderful Wolf Hall, doubling as Sir Thomas Cromwell’s home, Austin Friars. I’ll write about this in more detail another time; we went on from Great Chalfield for a walk around the By Brook in Box, Wiltshire. It turned out to be quite a special walk, for quite a few reasons.

Detail from OS 1:25,000 Explorer Map 156 for Chippenham and Bradford-on-Avon. The squares are 1 km x 1 km.

Google Earth view with our path marked out in a rather wobbly white line. We travelled in a clockwise direction. The red dot marks the western portal of the Box Tunnel.

We parked up near the railway bridge and walked past some old mill buildings with a funky lead-clad modern extension which only today (Monday) I have found out were Peter Gabriel‘s Real World Studios, where such luminaries as Gabriel himself, Beyoncé, Björk, Pixies, Kanye West, Robert Plant, Amy Winehouse, Brian Eno, Jay-Z, Coldplay, Deep Purple and New Order have recorded. Had I realised at the time I would have taken some photos! Anyhow, no celebs were spotted, just a lad with a skateboard and other locals. We followed the footpath heading north-east along the western side of the brook, which in places was quite wide and deep: deep enough for skateboard lad and his friend to be swimming in it. Brave for this time of year, despite the sunshine.

Swan on the By Brook, Box, Wiltshire. The brook had narrowed by this point: further south it was wider and deep enough for swimming.

Fogleigh House, a Victorian pile above the brook.

Unexpected moment number one came when Chap saw what he thought was a cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) perched in the windy tops of a tree over the brook. Not the sort of bird you expect to encounter on a country walk through pasture land. But sure enough, a cormorant it was.

That dark speck at the top of the trees is a cormorant. Chap has decidedly better eyesight (and bird recognition skills) than me.

Closing in on the cormorant.

He or she didn’t seem at all bothered as we passed by.

Holstein cows.

Dandelions ahoy.

A swan nesting on an island.

Beautiful orchard in blossom.

In the distance is the village of Colerne with its prominent church tower.

Unexpected moment number two: a fairy circle of St George’s mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa). These are traditionally found round about St George’s Day (23 April), hence the name: mine are a bit early, I guess brought on by the wonderful weather. I picked some (Chap’s sandwich bag made a handy receptacle). They are good to eat, fried with butter and garlic.

St George’s mushrooms. Yummy fried with butter and garlic.

Unexpected moment number three: Box Tunnel. I knew of Isambard Kindom Brunel‘s magnificent engineering endeavour, but had never seen it. Our footpath and then a small road led us out on to the main road, the A4, and there it was! Built between 1838 and 1841 for the Great Western Railway (GWR), it was a considerable engineering feat, at 2.95 km (1.83 miles) long, and dug through difficult and challenging strata. It’s sobering to learn that around 100 labourers died during the tunnel’s construction.

The west portal of Box Tunnel.

Commemorative plaque for the restoration of the portal in 1986. The tunnel was constructed between 1838 and 1841; surveying (including the sinking of eight shafts to ascertain the geology) took place in 1836 and 1837.

The west portal of Box Tunnel: I don’t think many civil engineering projects nowadays would decorate their structures with carved stone balustrading.

Unexpected moment number four: as we walked back in to Box we passed a B&B with a blue plaque on the wall: the author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books, Reverend W V Awdry, had lived here as a child.

Blue plaque at Lorne House B&B for Reverend W V Awdry, of Thomas the Tank Engine books fame.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his time in the house, then known as Lorne Villa, and its influence on his future career as an author:

“[Awdry’s house] was only 200 yards (180 m) from the western end of Box Tunnel. There the Great Western Railway main line climbs at a gradient of 1 in 100 for two miles. A banking engine was kept there to assist freight trains up the hill. These trains usually ran at night and the young Awdry could hear them from his bed, listening to the coded whistle signals between the train engine and the banker as well as the sharp bark from the locomotive exhausts as they fought their way up the incline. Awdry related: “There was no doubt in my mind that steam engines all had definite personalities. I would hear them snorting up the grade and little imagination was needed to hear in the puffings and pantings of the two engines the conversation they were having with one another. Here was the inspiration for the story of Edward helping Gordon‘s train up the hill, a story that Awdry first told his son Christopher some 25 years later, and which appeared in the first of the Railway Series books.”

Now I have a small but particular connection to Rev. Awdry. He was born in 1911 in Ampfield Vicarage near Romsey in Hampshire, and lived there until 1917. My mother lived in Ampfield Vicarage from September 1942 until some time in 1946: the vicar and his wife were the legal guardians of my mother and her brother while my grandparents were living in Borneo (and later held in a Japanese internment camp there). So this little blue plaque brought up all sorts of memories.

And then, across the road from Lorne Villa, came unexpected moment number five: a ruddy great steam thingamybob parked in someone’s front garden:

A bit of poking around on the web, and a gentleman on a forum tells that it is

“the boiler for a portable steam engine of the type used for powering belt-driven machinery, typically threshing machines used in separating grain from straw and chaff. The wheels indicate that it was pulled from place to place by horses, and not self-propelled. The engine is gone, too; all that remains is the boiler that generated steam to drive the engine.”

So something like this in its heydey:

A threshing machine demonstration at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, August 2008. Photo by Thomas Weise.

So a wonderful day full of wonderful moments.

Blackbirds in pop music

Blackbirds (Turdus merula) are one of my favourite birds. So any time they are celebrated, I’m happy. Here’s a brief look at three very different groups of musicians from the UK who have been inspired by one of our loveliest native songbirds.

A male blackbird, Turdus merula. Photo by Sannse.

A male blackbird, Turdus merula. Photo by Sannse.

In early May this year Radiohead released ‘Burn the Witch‘, the much-anticipated first single off their first album in five years, A Moon Shaped Pool. The song was teased by the band with a short, enigmatic snippet of footage, of a stop-motion bird singing to the sound of a blackbird’s song.

A post shared by Radiohead (@radiohead) on

When ‘Burn the Witch’ was released, we could hear that the blackbird’s song was the introduction and the coda to the song, and that the lyrics  ‘Sing a song on the jukebox that goes / Burn the witch’ and ‘Sing the song of sixpence that goes / Burn the witch’ referenced the traditional British children’s rhyme, ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence‘, a rhyme that refers to four and twenty blackbirds being baked in a pie, and later to a blackbird pecking off a maid’s nose. Jolly stuff, these traditional rhymes, but aptly fitting with the grim subject matter of Radiohead’s song.

Just the other day I discovered that what I had long-thought to be an image of a range of evening sunlit limestone peaks reflected in still waters of the Thai coast on the cover of Kate Bush‘s double album Aerial is in fact a waveform of a blackbird’s song. (Observation was never my strong point).

The cover of Aerial by Kate bush, featuring the waveform of a blackbird's song.

The cover of Aerial by Kate bush, featuring the waveform of a blackbird’s song.

And birdsong, predominantly blackbird song, is featured throughout the album. ‘Prelude’, the first track of A Sky of Honey, the second disc of the album, starts with a male blackbird singing, followed by a wood pigeon‘s call which Bush then mimics; the track ‘Sunset’ refers to blackbirds singing at dusk, and features the song of a blackbird at the very end of the track and merging into the next track, ‘Aerial Tal’, where Bush mimics the call of one in the style of an Indian taal; and the final track, ‘Aerial’ features more blackbird song (and a blackbird alarm call) while Bush laughs.

And of course the most famous use of a blackbird’s song in modern music is in ‘Blackbird‘ by the Beatles: in the latter part of the song a male blackbird can be heard singing.

Here they are, without accompaniment. In all cases, this is the spring song of the blackbird. They do sing later on in the year, but the spring song is the best.

Just magical.

Gravitational waves – wooo!

Congratulations to the scientists at LIGO who just now have announced they have detected gravitational waves, from the merging of a pair of black holes. This is the first time we have had the evidence of what up to now was theorised but not observed. A huge day for science. And Albert was right!


Pretty in pink

I was never a girly girl and so pink isn’t my top colour (give me orange any day). But I have a couple of pieces of rose quartz jewellery in my Etsy shop at the moment that I really, really like: the colour is so delicate and light, and the crystal so clear that I find both immensely appealing.

Skonvirke rose quartz and silver ring. For sale in my Etsy shop:

Skonvirke rose quartz and silver ring. For sale in my Etsy shop: click on photo for details. (NOW SOLD).

I love this Skønvirke ring, which dates from dates from c. 19101920. Skønvirke (often anglicised to Skonvirke, and meaning ‘beautiful work’) was a Nordic offshoot of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements, with its artistic centre in Denmark. Georg Jensen and Evald Nielsen were perhaps its most famous proponents. This ring isn’t signed, but is unmistakably Skønvirke in style, with the free-form globular and organic silver designs on the shoulders of the ring, and the beautiful split collet. Even though it is almost 100 years old, it looks amazingly modern and funky. The natural striations within the quartz add interest and life.

Rose quartz Arts and Crafts pendant necklace, probably German. For sale in my Etsy shop: click on photo for details.

Rose quartz Arts and Crafts pendant necklace, probably German. For sale in my Etsy shop: click on photo for details. (NOW SOLD).

The second piece is an Arts and Crafts pendant necklace, probably made in Germany and dating from just a little earlier than the ring, ie from between 1900 and 1910. It seems likely that originally the necklace had two of the dangling teardrop shaped pendants below the circular cabochon, on single chains of differing lengths, giving an asymmetrical appearance. At some point in the past one of the teardrops was lost, and the necklace reconfigured so that the remaining teardrop hung centrally below the cabochon.  There is some damage on one side of the circular cabochon, with fractures, and a crack and chip in the teardrop, but these aren’t too noticeable given the overall striated appearance of the quartz crystal. It is still a very pretty and delicate piece of jewellery, and perfect for someone who loves a piece with a hundred years’-worth of story.

Lovely as they are, I’m not a Barbie Girl just yet. This is as close to pretty in pink as I am likely to get:

The Psychedelic Furs’ 1981 album Talk Talk Talk was one of the soundtracks to my early ’80s …

Lost sheep, icy murders, and an immortal

Every now and then I hear a piece of music that is so distinctive that whenever I hear it subsequently I know it immediately. One of these earworms for me for a Norwegian folk song called ‘Den Bortkomne Sauen’‘The Lost Sheep’.

I first heard this melody while watching the marvellous Coen Brothers film Fargo, which was released in 1996. The main theme of the film is an adaptation by Carter Burwell of ‘Den Bortkomne Sauen’.

Such a distinctive melody, which seemed to echo so well the icy landscapes of northern Minnesotaa wintery land populated by people of Scandinavian extraction where horrible murders happen, wood chippers optional, and heavily-pregnant police chiefs doggedly pursue their man. The music stuck with me, a lovely earworm I didn’t expect to hear again.

Fast forward a few years. I listen to a lot of BBC Radio 4 while I work, and I particularly enjoy the afternoon dramas. One set of plays that grabbed me right from the start was the Pilgrim series by Sebastian Baczkiewicz, the first episode broadcast in 2008 and now five series in. The stories involve William Palmer, a 12th century immortal cursed to wander the modern British countryside, encountering faeries and demons as well as hoodies and housewives. And lo! Used in Pilgrim was ‘Den Bortkomne Sauen’, a version played by Norwegian musician Annbjørg Lien on her Hardanger fiddle, accompanied by a church organ:

The later Fargo version, with its syrupy harp at first and rather overblown orchestration after the fiddle part, has wonderfully slow tempo, full of foreboding. Annbjørg’s 1994 version is plaintive and stripped-down, but at a slightly faster tempo, and I could really sense the lost sheep in the icy Nordic snowdrifts as she played. It also fitted perfectly with the theme of Pilgrim, with Palmer the lost soul condemned to wander forever.

A Hardanger fiddle, made by Knut Gunnarsson Helland. Photo by Kjetil r.

A Hardanger fiddle, made by Knut Gunnarsson Helland. Photo by Frode Inge Helland.

Annbjørg’s version is available on her album Felefeber (‘Fiddle fever’), released in 1994, and available on Amazon. Series 3 of Pilgrim was awarded the Silver Medal for the Best European Radio Drama of the Year at the Prix Europa in Berlin, and nominated for the Prix Italia Best Original Radio Drama award. It’s a great listen if you get the chance. As one other listener described it so well: ‘I love the way one world settles seamlessly in-between the cracks of another’, and in that same post Sebastian has confirmed that Series 6 and 7 have been commissioned, hurrah!

And then earlier this year, I was delighted to see/hear that the title track of the 2014 television series adaptation of Fargo, which I hugely enjoyed, had nods to ‘Den Bortkomne Sauen’ and its use in the original film:

I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently ‘Den Bortkomne Sauen’ also crops up in the Norwegian tv series Lilyhammer (and no, that’s not a typo). I am definitely going to catch up on this one as it is a Norway-set mash-up of The Sopranos (my all-time favourite tv series) and Scandinoir, with a good dash of comedy thrown in, and stars Steven Van Zandt as Frank, an Italian-American mafioso relocated by the Federal Witness Protection Program to Lillehammer. Frank even picks up a lost sheep in the very first episode, so I read.

Update 22 December 2014: A new series of Pilgrim has just started this afternoon on Radio 4. The Beeb hasn’t exactly gone overboard with publicising it, as the first I heard about it was when I was listening to the radio and it started! But hurrah, more, new Pilgrim!

‘Ay up lad’ or ‘Ooh aaar m’dear’?

Watching the first stage of the Tour de France travelling through Yorkshire today reminded me of what I had always thought of as one of the most ‘Yorkshire’ television ads of all time: a young lad pushes his bike up a cobbled hill, on his way to deliver a basket full of Hovis bread loaves, while a brass band plays Dvořák’s New World Symphony (Symphony No. 9)The advert was directed by Ridley Scott in 1973. A few years later he went on to start his movie directing career with The Duellists and then Alien. The advert was voted the nation’s favourite in a poll a few years ago (albeit in a poll of just 1,000 people!).

However, my memory has failed me—I had always remembered it as being voiced by a man with a Yorkshire accent. I think the brass band would certainly have added to the general impression of ‘Northern-ness’. On re-watching it the voiceover is by a man with a West Country accent, and so is perfectly fitting for the location: Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, Dorset.

We live in the south-west corner of Wiltshire, so we spend a lot of time in the neighbouring counties of Somerset and Dorset. One of our nearest shopping towns is the Saxon hilltop town of Shaftesbury. 41 years on, Gold Hill is still known as ‘where they filmed that Hovis ad’, and a giant Hovis loaf stands outside the Town Hall, a collecting box for money to go towards the restoration of the Hill. Many of the older buildings in Shaftesbury are built with the green-coloured and well-named greensand stone.

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury. 15 June 2014.

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, overlooking the Blackmore Vale. 15 June 2014.

The Hovis bread loaf collecting box, outside Shaftesbury Town Hall near the top of Gold Hill.

The Hovis bread loaf collecting box, outside Shaftesbury Town Hall near the top of Gold Hill.

Shaftesbury Town Hall (right) and St Peter's Church (left), on Shaftesbury High Street.

Shaftesbury Town Hall (right) and St Peter’s Church (left), on Shaftesbury High Street.

There were two other Hovis ads using the same music and a Yorkshireman doing the voiceover, which might help to explain my confusion:

and the first one in this sequence, with a boy walking up a cobbled hill (with his Mum):

Hovis do a nice line in ‘nostalgia’ advertising, and in 2008 they made a fantastic and very moving ad, celebrating 122 years of Hovis and British history:

They get an extra ‘yay’ from me for including the fight for Women’s Suffrage and the miner’s strike, as well as the brave men and women of both World Wars.  Four years later Danny Boyle did something similar, but on a far grander scale—but that’s for another blog post!

The Crazy Dorset World of Arthur Brown

Do you ever have those moments when you start poking about on the internet to find out one thing, and end up learning something completely different, and new, and unexpected? Chap and I had one of those moments the other day. It all started with a car advert on the telly (Toyota Auris Hybrid, fact fans). The music playing was ‘A Horse With No Name‘, written by Dewey Bunnell of the band America, and released in the UK and parts of Europe in late 1971, and in January 1972 in the US. I loved that song so much when it was released, and still do. I wanted to know more about it, and a quick google told me that although the band members were American, the song was written and demoed while they were staying at Arthur Brown‘s recording studio at Puddletown in Dorset.

What? What? Puddletown? Puddletown? Double take, re-read to check, then scratch head in incredulity at the incongruity: a song that is about as all-American as can be, and conjuring up a harsh, arid, desert world, was written in bucolic, lush, green and very English Dorset. Puddletown is a village 8 km to the east of Dorchester. It’s grown a lot with housing developments in recent years, but in the early 1970s was a small, out-of-the-way place.

At this point Chap (who lived in Dorchester for much of his youth) got very excited. He’d heard an urban legend that Arthur Brown (he of ‘Fire‘ and flaming headgear fame) had lived there, but had never had confirmation. More internet snooping was in order.

Details came. Arthur Brown and his Crazy World lived in a farmhouse in or near Puddletown, and had a recording studio there called Jabberwocky Studios. Various musicians pitched up and stayed, and as people came and went bands were formed and evolved into others, including Puddletown Express, Brown’s backing band. By 1970 Brown had left, and Puddletown Express developed into another short-lived band called Rustic Hinge and the Provincial Swimmers (May—August 1970). John Peel visited Jabberwocky Studios, to talk to Rustic Hinge about signing them to his record label. In August 1970 a BBC camera crew arrived, to film the farmhouse for a documentary on Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy—apparently the farmhouse was Hardy’s model for one in which Tess stayed. The programme was produced by documentary maker Michael Croucher. He was amused by the musical anarchy going on around him, and filmed a performance of ‘Lychee’ by Rustic Hinge for the programme.

But no name given for the farmhouse. Where was it? we wondered. Cue more googling. And then we hit paydirt: a thread on a board about Rustic Hinge. With the very footage of ‘Lychee’ shot by the BBC, with the house in the background.

And someone in the thread identified the farmhouse as Ilsington Farmhouse, near Tincleton. Here was another ‘what?’ moment—we know Ilsington Farm as both Chap and I worked quite a few years ago in one of the offices in the converted farm outbuildings there. Small world!

Tincleton Farmhouse.

Ilsington Farmhouse.

Tincleton is a small village about 2.5 km south of Puddletown, and Ilsington Farmhouse is a Grade II listed building dating from the 17th century. Yet more internet truffling and we learned that you too can rent the seven-bedroom farmhouse from a mere £2,000—£2,950 a week, and have a go at recreating those crazy days of 40 years ago. We also learned that Ilsington Farm has had a swallow hole incident (also known as a sink hole) a few years back. I’m fascinated by sink holes, so all this was too much excitement for one evening!

Caveat: a lot of the details here about Arthur Brown and his fellow musicians might well be wrong, as the various sites I’ve looked at seem to have accounts with conflicting details, chronology, etc. Considering the amount of drugs that were no doubt consumed back in the late 60s and early 70s there, it’s not surprising—I wonder that anyone could remember anything at all from back then in much detail!

September 2015 update: Nick Churchill has commented with a link to an article he wrote for Dorset Life in June this year, with masses of detail about the house and the recording studio – apparently Led Zeppelin recorded there too! Do give it a look – it’s a great read with fascinating information.