Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Canterbury → Bristol → Bath → Avebury → Canterbury

The annual solstice trip... This time I started by putting my bike on a train to Bristol so I could catch the end of Laurie and Alice's latest exhibition, Dowsing For Water. These are Sondryfolk friends exhibiting in collaboration with a couple of other artists on a watery theme, in a reclaimed space that used to be a hairdressers, not too far from Temple Meads station — one of these being Azusa, who installed a beautiful sculptural piece in the 'Sondryfolk Forest' at last summer's Smugglers festival.

Kirby, once part of Canterbury's Furthur collective, now doing a woodcraft apprenticeship at an amazing place near Bath, also turned up to catch the end of the exhibition, as did Sondryfolk's Sophie, so we all ended up having dinner together, listening to the most recent online mix by our pal Adam Dawson (also once part of Furthur), a little Canterbury cultural outpost in the middle of Bristol. Dawson's mix had one particular standout moment, something I didn't know but Kirby which instantly recognised, "You Know, You Know" from Mahavishnu Orchestra's debut album The Inner Mounting Flame, one I've since checked out in detail.

You Know, You Know by Mahavishnu Orchestra on Grooveshark

The next day, after a communal breakfast and a quick look at the postcard art exhibition at Spike Island, Sophie gave Kirby and I a lift out to his woods, and he then gave us a tour of the place, a real privilege. He's completely in his element there, learning a huge amount (coppicing, charcoal burning, green woodworking, and a lot more). No time to play guitar or make conceptual art though! Back in Bristol, Laurie had arranged to get me in to the play that night at The Tobacco Factory (the theatre where she and Alice work). This was Dancing at Lughnasa, written by the Irish playwright Brian Friel in 1990, set in County Donegal in 1936, performed by students from the Bristol Old Vic. An excellent play, and a pretty good performance overall, held my attention for 2.75 hours. Laurie would have preferred to have had me see some of the more experimental work that gets performed there, this being one recent example, devised by the experimental New York composer John Moran:

The next day I was cycling the luxurious bike path along the old railway line from Bristol to Bath, to catch up with Rosie and Percy at the Widcombe Rising street festival, an event which happens every two years. I had lunch up at Rosie's first (after cycling around Bath lost for a while) and we wandered down to catch a variety of street theatre and music, including Bath's most in-demand cellist, Beth Porter and the Availables, and Hodmadoddery (two folky blokes with guitars and harmonies who've clearly been playing a lot together over the years). Upstairs at the Natural Theatre premises, done up in Victorian colonial lounge style, men in white suits were playing crazy klezmer on unlikely instruments while we sipped tea. Back outside, the Jaipur Kawa Brass Band from Rajasthan were standing in a circle playing incongruous Rajasthani brass band music in between various players performing circus/contortionist-type tricks.

We found Percy and ended up in Widcome Social club awaiting an eight-piece ska band called 'Obnoxious Toddlers' who never showed up, although we saw a lively set from The Refusal (thrashy stuff with an energetic trumpet-playing singer).

We ran into Rosie's friend Su Hart (from Baka Beyond), so I got to enthuse to her about the old days when she and her partner Martin Craddick (who appeared later) used to play on the Rinky Dink bicycle-powered sound system at the old Big Green Gatherings, joining up with Bath-Stonehenge bikeride in 2001 en route from Exeter to Avebury, etc.

The next morning I cycled off down the Kennet and Avon canal with Percy towards the boat he's currently looking after. I was sleeping up on Golden Ball Hill, overlooking the Vale of Pewsey, that night, having had a chance to play saz on Knapp Hill and Adams Grave (swathes of orchids up there this year), having stopped off at The Barge Inn, the 1700-year-old yew tree and Broad Well ('laughing spring') near the church at Alton Priors, etc.

The next day, after another visit down to Alton Priors, I cycled to Fyfield Down via The Ridgeway, stopping off at the extraordinary Furze Hill beech trees, more tea and saz explorations. I wasn't feeling particularly musically inspired for some reason, but I was recording that...

Listen Here

Up on Fyfield I met up with Paul-who-I-only-ever-see-at-midsummer and spent the evening chatting by a little fire in a hawthorn grove. The next day we walked in to Avebury in a roundabout way, visiting the newly liberated Devil's Den (the dolmen that was once engulfed in a wheatfield is now surrounded by wildflower meadow, we were happy to see), passing through the various villages in the Kennet valley, checking out the churches (and the "Who'd 'a Thought It" pub) before stopping off at Swallowhead Spring to wash and paddle in some cool water. Someone's put a living willow arch in near the spring and built a new stone well thing where water sometimes accumulates down near the Kennet, nice effort (and the gnarly old willow is as colourfully dressed as ever).

The Devil's Den, newly liberated — photo by Nexus49

We got up to our favoured solstice eve gathering location up on a wooded hill, set up before the very heavy rain came in. A small group of us spent the night up there huddled around a fire under a tarp Stef had had the good sense to bring with him from Wales to rig up in the trees. So everyone stayed warm and dry (just about — the rain was so intense we were getting splashed from behind) and we even managed to play a bit of music, but as someone said the next day it was like surviving the night with a load of people in a little boat in a storm at sea.

Penni was able to come from Wales with Stef this year, so I had the pleasure of playing music with both of them (they continually switching instruments, Penni with pipes and shawm, Stef with pipes, (new) mandolin and concertina). I also got to hear the latest from West Wales — their last bass player has taken work on cruise ships, so they've decided to give The Mordekkers a rest and work on other projects. So they're not having such a hectic summer rushing around to do festival gigs, just enjoying themselves for a change. Not as much music as usual around the solstice this year though — after a while, rain like that just gets to you. But there were a few properly magickal minutes with Stef on mandolin, Dave P on darbouka and me on saz, flowing freely in a way that music only ever seems to do up on that hill at midsummer.

It seemed like a small miracle when the rain stopped an hour before sunrise! As is often the case, we saw no sun rising, but we were there, atop the barrow, looking east at 4:44a.m. (we got some riotous skylark song, and some interesting patches of mist and variegated grey — sunless mornings have their own kind of beauty).

The rest of that day, the solstice itself, was spent in the usual way, sleeping, philosophising with Stef by a little fire, noodling on my saz and playing endless cups of tea. I even managed to catch a bit of sunshine for a few minutes up on the hilltop that afternoon. And in the evening I made my over for a quick visit to West Kennet long barrow, ended up bumping into Pok in the village, having been doing his bardic duties at Stonehenge and Avebury, looking extremely well and happy for a change.

The next day it was a bike ride back to the canal, then along the towpath to Newbury, and a train home.

* * *

Midsummers Eve (traditionally June 23rd) was a Saturday night and I was invited to a gathering at Bramble Hall, the farmhouse near Boughton where Syd Arthur, Boot Lagoon, et al. rehearse. I had my saz with me, and found myself jamming with Tom Tucker, a friend of the Furthur crew who I'd met when working on the LOTF site a couple of summers ago. He spends part of each year out in Canada and has been teaching himself to play American old-time stuff on guitar and banjo. Someone had asked me to play my saz by the fire, and he'd then gone and got his guitar. He knows a lot of the same stuff as my friends in Wisconsin, so it was mostly quite easy to follow, worked quite well. I rememember a version of the murder ballad "Little Sadie". At one point I forgot which country I was in. I also remember talking to another Tom, the artist Tom Langley, about relational aesthetics, social sculpture and public art and architecture. Nicely made Kentish cider, the Grateful Dead's American Beauty and some Jefferson Airplane playing in the dining room, sampling pickled rose petals in the kitchen, drunken games of skittles on uneven ground going on in the garden, a good night...


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