EVEN on a sunny June evening, the waves crash against Portland Bill, the wind whistles along Chesil Beach and the white horses dance and race in the blue-green sea. The seas on the night that the Earl of Abergavenny, an East Indiaman out of Portsmouth, foundered and sank off Portland in 1805 were huge and the weather was wild – 263 of the 402 crew and passengers were lost in the wreck. Among those who drowned were the captain, John Wordsworth, brother of the famous poet, and his first mate Mr Baggott.
The drama of the Earl of Abergavenny is told in The Percy Anecdotes – Shipwreck, dated 1821, and read by three of the Ridgeway Singers at St George’s Church, Reforne, part of the East to West and West to East entertainment organised by Artsreach when Dorset’s rural arts organisation returned to the beautiful 18th century church.
The previous visit with the Ridgeway Singers and Band was on a cold and wet winter’s evening, when the fog clung to the causeway from Weymouth to Portland and the audience rushed from the warmth of their cars to the stunning interior of this important and historic church which is now owned and cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust.
Three choir members, Anne Eveleigh, Jan Griffiths and Furse Swann, read the two extracts from the Shipwreck stories, bracketing the choir and band performing William Knapp’s New Poole, a majestic setting of Psalm 107. William Knapp, who is believed to have been born in 1698, was a glover who became parish clerk at St James Church, Poole, and wrote many hymns, naming his settings after Dorset towns and villages.
The concert began with To Portsmouth, a four-part round that dates from 1609, one of the pieces collected and published by Thomas Ravenscroft, who made the first collection of folk music. Ravenscroft also collected We Be Three Poor Mariners, a four-part sea-song.
Several of the pieces came from the collection of the Hammond brothers, who toured Dorset by bicycle in the early years of the 20th century, often visiting workhouses to collect songs – the oral traditions sometimes survived best among the poorest members of the community.
The Astrologer was one of about 80 songs the Hammonds collected from Mrs Marina Russell of Upwey.It was a saucy song given a lively arrangement by musician Phil Humphries, who co-directs the Ridgeway project with historian, musician, actor and story-teller Tim Laycock. The pair gave a wonderful reading of William Barnes’ delightful poem, The Vearies, a conversation in verse between two old Dorset countrymen looking at a “fairy ring” on the ground. Tim also gave a spirited retelling of the circular folk tale of the Portland Quarryman.
Tim Laycock and another Dorset musician Colin Thompson have published the songs and tunes collected in the early 19th century by Benjamin Rose of Belchalwell on Bulbarrow. Two of these pieces, Lady Elizabeth’s Hornpipe and The Mariners’ Hornpipe, were played by the Ridgeway Band and had toes tapping in all the box pews and the three galleries in the church.
The Ridgeway music project is part of Rooting Round the Ridgeway, a collaboration between the Ridgeway partnership, which includes the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Artsreach, local councils and organisations. Part of the project involves new work – visual arts, stories and songs – and the Reforne concert included The Netbraider’s Son, a song written by choir-member Anne Eveleigh, based on the story of her great-grandfather, who went from his native West Dorset to work on the railways during the days of steam. It was sung by Anne with Jan Griffiths and Lizzie Lucas.
The concert also included two West Gallery-style carols, While Shepherds Watched, collected by the Hammonds from William Scott of Pulham in 1906, and Tim Laycock’s Carol of the Ridgeway (from which the Reforne concert took its name).
The final piece was Rolling Home, a splendid sea shanty which was the homeward bound song of the crews of the tea clippers and the Royal Navy in the 19th century. One verse counts off the major headlands along the English Channel, Lizard Lights, the Nore, Eddystone, the Start and grey Portland.
If you enjoyed this concert as much as we did – or if you missed it – there will be more Ridgeway music this coming Christmas and singers and musicians are welcome to join. Contact Artsreach for more information on 01305 269512 or visit www.artsreach.co.uk
Pictured are members of the Ridgeway Singers, Tim Laycock in the recitation of The Vearies and a view of the interior of St George’s Church, Reforne, retaining its original box pews, and with unusually two pulpits and three galleries.