TELEVISION brought millions of people to Lark Rise To Candleford, Flora Thompson’s stories of growing up in a remote rural village at the turn of the 19th century. In 1978-9 a previous generation of theatre-goers had enjoyed an inventive adaptation with music at the National Theatre, followed by a production at the Almeida Theatre at which the music was led by Ashley Hutchings of Albion Band fame and one of the musicians was the Dorset actor, historian and singer Tim Laycock.
Move on a few more years, and in Dorset a production of Lark Rise was staged at Sturminster High School, where Tim met another local musician, recorder-player Nick Crump – and a unique Dorset musical venture was born. Together, with Tim’s musician wife Angela and friends John and Kath Singleton, they founded the Hambledon Hopstep Ceilidh Band, taking the name from a well-known country dance and the famous Iron Age hillfort which they could all see from their homes. Other early members of the band were fiddler John Holman and Sid Percy who played the bass and the portable harmonium.
In 2015, Hambledon Hopstep celebrates its 30th anniversary, with the three founder members still actively involved, including Nick as administrator and regular composer, and Angela as caller.
Ceilidh bands often play familiar country dance and folk tunes, but Hambledon Hopstep has established a unique reputation for playing original music, most of it composed by Nick, who often wears a colourful ribbon costume and top hat – a reminder of his years as principal musician with the Dorset Triumph morris side – and who is also well-known locally for his unusual instruments made from plumbing items, including the Bog Horn and the Bath Harp. He says: “It has been great to have a band that will try my compositions.”
As well as playing original songs and tunes, Hambledon Hopstep differs from many ceilidh bands by including other seasonal items, “playlets” and using unusual or new instruments. The band has produced two cassettes – Clear Blue Skies in 1988 and Old Green Stour in 1992 – and a CD, Sun From the East, in 2007.
Preparing for the anniversary, Nick looked back over his records and found that the band has had about 600 bookings over the years, many now long forgotten, but some still fresh in their minds from mishaps such as amplifiers blowing up. One such is the gig that is known as “the cake incident,” when someone put a birthday cake on a strawbale near the strawbale stage where the band was playing. Caller Angela stepped straight on to it – but a bit of hasty first aid and smoothing the icing repaired the damage and no harm was done!
There have been a number of different players over the years, but the current line-up, which has been together for nine years, is Tim, Angela, Nick, and Martine Hardy, the youngest and newest member, on fiddle, Pete Burley on bass and Paul Sampson on guitar. Nick says: “It is definitely a team effort to create good music and an atmosphere for others to enjoy themselves and is dependent on us getting on with each other, enjoying playing together, being tolerant and accepting of our differences, respecting individual strengths, appreciating the part each plays and not having big egos. That would be my summary of a successful band, plus the fact we keep getting more bookings so we must be doing something right.”
Angela agrees: “We genuinely have fun. We have been having fun for years and we really like seeing people enjoying themselves.”
One of the lasting influences on music in North Dorset was the Confluence project created by Common Ground*. This was a three year programme of new music inspired by the river Stour from its spring-head on the Stourhead estate down to Christchurch harbour where it meets the sea. Through Confluence, which ran from 1998 to 2001, local people who had never sung or played before, as well as amateur and professional musicians, met a young composer and wind player with a national reputation – Karen Wimhurst – and composer, singer and animateur, Helen Porter. Both women helped to create community choirs, inspired local people to take up instruments – even to make instruments as Nick Crump and the members of the Cowley family plumbing business famously did at Sturminster Newton. (Many readers will know Karen and Helen from their post-Confluence jazz quartet Misbehavin’ which recently played gigs at Shaftesbury, Castle Cary and Salisbury.)
In this 30th anniversary year, the Hambledon Hopstep Band is as busy as ever. “Bookings still keep coming in and while we still can, we will play for many more fun and happy weddings, private parties and community events,” says Nick.
If you would like to hear them play or book them for an event, check out their website www.hambledonhopstepband.co.uk
*Common Ground, the national environmental arts charity, was founded by Sue Clifford and Angela King, who live near Shaftesbury. Among their many lasting achievements, they created Apple Day, were instrumental in the campaign to save and replant English orchards, coined the phrase “local distinctiveness” and published England In Particular, an encyclopaedia of local distinctiveness.
Pictured: An early line-up, photographed at The Chantry, Mere, with (from left), Angela Laycock, John and Kath Singleton, Tim Laycock, Nick Crump and John Holman.
Another picture from the early years – the band rehearsing at Grove Farm, with Angela, Tim, Nick, John, and guitarist Andy Stevens and Sid Percy on bass guitar.
The lineup in recent years, with Pete Burley, Nick, Paul Sampson, Tim and Angela.
The founding trio – Tim, Angela and Nick.