Singing for their supper

Essays Published April 16, 2009 in Published in the Daily Telegraph, 16 April 2009

It’s a Saturday afternoon in Petersfield, a small Hampshire market town.

The sun is struggling to compete with a sharp March wind, and the streets are full of people in a hurry: mothers with pushchairs, pensioners leaning on sticks, shoppers with Superdrug carrier bags. In the market square, traders are rolling up their awnings outside a boarded up pub and a branch of a global coffee chain. So far, so normal.

But in the High Street, in the doorway of an abandoned branch of Woolworths, something unusual is unfolding. Three young men arrive and set down their packs and wooden walking sticks. They are bearded and dishevelled, in hats and open boots, their clothes earthy greens and browns. Compared to the shoppers and the passers-by, they seem out-of-place, like medieval wanderers or travelling tinkers. People give them sideways glances, and unspoken questions hang in the air: who are these people? What are they doing here? Are they beggars? What do they want from us?

And then, having set out an empty hat and a small, hand-drawn cardboard sign that reads ‘Walking to Wales &emdash; singing for our supper’, the three men break into song. It’s a beautiful, close-harmony rendition of a traditional folk song; a bawdy harvest chant about rattling wagons, farmers’ daughters and strong beer. And as the song goes on, peoples’ reactions change. Passers-by slow down to listen. Mothers stop to show their children. Tattooed men in tracksuits tap their feet to the rhythm. Smiles break out on faces that were previously indifferent. The hat on the pavement fills up with coins and notes. A small but noticeable magic has been spun.

‘That happens a lot’, says Will, one of the singers, afterwards. ‘At the beginning, you always get the looks. And that’s when you’ve got to smile and tell people what you’re doing &emdash; and just sing.’

’It’s nice to dispel preconceptions with a song or two’ says his friend Ed. ‘Because we could be seen as kind of vagabonds, gypsies, all the stereotypes. It’s the kind of society we live in right now &emdash; there’s a lot of suspicion, a lot of fear. Singing really helps. It completely changes things. It breaks down barriers.’

Ed, Will and Ginger are three men in their mid-twenties who have embarked on a journey both remarkable and ordinary. They are walking the length and breadth of Britain , singing as they go. As they walk they are picking up more songs &emdash; the traditional songs of this island &emdash; from people they meet, and passing them on to others. They are also collecting local knowledge: what grows in the hedgerows, what is custom and tradition in particular places, the history of the land and its people.

They don’t know where this journey will take them, or how long it will last. Though their sign says they are walking to Wales , Ed admits that ‘we just wrote that because we needed a sign.’ They are walking to Wales , but when they get there they will probably keep going. They have been walking for two months already, and may keep going for years. They have no political or charitable purpose, no-one is sponsoring them and there are no support crews or back-up vehicles. They are sleeping in woods and fields and in the houses of anyone who offers them hospitality. When they wake up in the morning they don’t know where they’ll be in the evening. There is, they say, a glorious freedom to it.

The trio have invited me to spend a day and a night accompanying them on their journey, and at times, it has been tempting not to go home again. Our day started at the Three Horseshoes pub in the Sussex village of Elsted , where the three had spent the night before, singing to the regulars and then sleeping under the stars in the pub garden. From there we ambled down a green lane, past old farms and steepled Sussex churches, stopping to pick wild garlic and young hawthorn leaves, then up through an old chestnut wood onto the South Downs .

Bathed in spring sunlight, the Downs offer a distant view of the sea. By the trig point on Harting Down, Ed, Will and Ginger break into a song about ‘rambling in the new mown hay’, much to the delight of some passing walkers in cagoules and gaiters. ‘We didn’t know we’d be getting a performance as well as a hike’, says one of them. Will smiles, tells him what they’re doing and gives him a card with their website on. ‘What a lovely idea’, says the walker.

Later, by a copse at the side of the path, we eat rolls filled with bantam eggs and wild garlic leaves, and Ed, Will and Ginger tell me that this kind of meeting is part of the point of what they are doing.

‘We want to show that it’s still possible to do things like this, says Ed, ‘and the only way to show that is by example. We’re sowing seeds, I suppose, and the longer we carry on for, the longer we’ll be able to notice those seeds growing.’

Ed and Ginger are brothers. They met Will at school in Canterbury , where their families live, and formed a band together. Later, Will went to university and Ed to art college, but walking, singing and connecting with the land was always part of each of their lives. A few years ago they got together to walk the Pilgrims’ Way, to Canterbury . ‘And we thought’, says Ed ‘what would happen if we started walking and just didn’t stop?’ After a few more walks, they decided to do just that, and this February they began their walk around Britain . It has already gained a curious momentum.

‘We learn about what we’re doing from everyone we meet’, says Will. ‘People have their own ideas about what we represent. We’ll be saying “no, that’s not what it’s about”, and they’ll say, “oh but it is &emdash; this is Robin Hood all over again!” It’s developed a life of its own.’

The trio like the fact that what they are doing is constantly evolving. Their walk, they say, is not a project or a mission or any kind of grand statement. It is simply three men walking and singing and enjoying it. But this is not always an easy thing to explain.

’It’s always “why?”‘, says Will. ’That’s the question people always ask: “why?” And we don’t really know how to answer.’

‘People like to put labels on us’, explains Ginger. ‘Troubadour, minstrel … the fact is, we’re just walking and singing, because we like it. It’s a coincidence that it also happens to be ancient tradition, but that’s what we’ve stumbled on.’

‘It should be a perfectly normal thing to do,’ says Ed. ‘There shouldn’t be any razzmatazz about it. Walking, singing … these are very simple human activities, but as a society we have somehow managed to lose contact with them at the most basic level.’

Contact, and connections, are the key to Ed, Will and Ginger’s journey. As they walk the downs and the streets, as they sing in pubs and in market squares, they connect both themselves and those they meet to each other and to the landscape they are part of.

‘Throughout this journey we’ve experienced intense hospitality from all sorts of people, as well as beautiful communities that are completely isolated from each other,’ says Ed. ‘I think people have no idea of their connectedness. There’s a forgetfulness that we all rely upon each other. I see what we’re doing as reconnecting with a cultural landscape from which we’ve been disconnected.’

Our day ends in the Harrow Inn in the village of Street . The Harrow is a tiny, ancient two-room pub whose landlady proudly boasts that little has changed under her roof for at least a century. We dine on pea soup, chunks of bread and mugs of beer, and Ed, Will and Ginger regale the delighted locals with songs in front of the great, blackened fireplace.

Three men singing in a pub of an evening ought to be, and used to be, as common as daylight, but it’s hard to remember the last time I saw something like this. In fact, thanks to recent government legislation, this simple act is now illegal unless the pub’s owners have applied for a licence beforehand. It’s another example, according to the three travellers, of how the contemporary world cuts us off from many of the simple things that make life worthwhile.

‘Recently we were in a pub singing while a pub quiz was going on’, recalls Ed. ‘Every ten questions we’d give them a song. And at the end this old Irish gentleman on the other side of the bar piped up with a song his mother taught him. He’d sing one and then say “alright lads, your turn!” and this went on and everyone just loved it. Nights like that &emdash; you just don’t really see them anymore in pubs, but they should be the most natural thing in the world.

‘Humans are repositories’, says Will. ‘You learn a song, you’re going to have that song for sixty or seventy years, and you’re going to sing it an awful lot and you’re going to spread it in all sorts of strange ways, and you’re going to change it.’

‘What would be a nice thing to start off,’ says Ed, enthusiastically, ‘would be lots of people knowing three or four of the same songs; one for each season, perhaps … it would be great if we could help that to happen. What we’re doing is hard, in some ways because you don’t get taught any of this as a kid. No-one takes you out and shows you what grows in the hedgerows or what plants to eat, or how to make a fire. We should be taught that from a young age.’

‘And singing’, adds Will. ‘There aren’t songs that everyone knows anymore. Maybe “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?”, but there’s no national repertoire is there?’

Ed, Will and Ginger have experienced many evenings like this, and they will experience many more. And what strikes me, looking around the pub, is that every single person in the room will take this unusual, uplifting yet very simple experience away with them and, in a small way, will be changed by it. As their journey continues, the trio are creating experiences like this for people all over the land.

’There’s such an appetite for this kind of thing’, says Will, keenly. ’We’re finding that everyone wants it. So many people say to us “If I had no mortgage, if I had no kids, I’d be right out there with you.”’

‘Immersion in the landscape and the land,’, says Ed, thoughtfully, ‘getting to know the plants that grow in your country and the songs that are sung, the skills that can be learned … these things do attach you to some deeply embedded thing which represents your landmass, your place of birth and living. One of the things we want to get across is that it’s much easier than it might seem to do this, and much more enjoyable as well. It’s a great life. It’s not hard to be out in the wintertime, for example. If you wake up in frost you actually feel invigorated, not depressed.’

’We’ve learned so much on our journey’, says Will. ‘We have a rising sense of self-sufficiency; a growing feeling of independence. We’ve learned there are structures everywhere that we’ve grown up in that are not necessarily essential for everyday life. It’s only in the last few generations we’ve been able to touch a button and get everything we want. But other things have got lost.’

Come closing time, we stagger across a couple of fields to the pub’s cowshed, where we’ll be sleeping for the night. We lay out our sleeping bags on the hay bales and zip them up against the oncoming frost. The day, I realise, has made me feel more alive than I have felt in a long time. Others have obviously felt the same &emdash; Ed, Will and Ginger have already inspired people all across Britain to go out walking, to get to know their own land, to sing.

‘I really believe,’ Will had told me back in the pub, ‘that songs have their own lives. They know what they need. They’re working towards some place where they can do their work. We are just helping them get there.’

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