WHEN the Hammond brothers, Henry and Robert, set off on their bikes around the lanes of West Dorset in 1905 to 1907, gathering traditional songs and carols from people who were already old, they captured many of the tunes and words that Thomas Hardy knew as a boy.
They had long been overtaken by the innovations of organ and harmonium, and the musicians who played the fiddle, the cello and the serpent in the West Gallery above the congregation in the nave might have been no more than a minor footnote in history, if it hadn’t been for Hardy, his love of the traditional music he knew as a boy, and the wonderful stories and poems in which he evoked the musicians who played it.
That music is once again brought vividly to life by West Dorset singers and musicians in the second year of the Artsreach project to collect and perform West Gallery carols from the South Dorset Ridgeway area.
The inaugural Ridgeway carols project was one of the delights of Christmas 2013, with a series of workshops, culminating in two concerts with carols collected from the villages along the South Dorset Ridgeway. It brought together local musicians and singers under the leadership of historian and musician Tim Laycock and musician Phil Humphries.
For the 2014 continuation of the programme, Tim and Phil moved a few miles east, concentrating on the Piddle valley and surrounding villages, and also working with local musicians to create two new West Gallery carols, which had their premiere at a sell-out concert at the ancient and beautiful St Mary’s Church at Puddletown.
Looking out over the crowded 400 year old box pews and wooden balcony, Tim Laycock said that 200 years ago, the musicians would have been in the gallery, where Hardy’s father and grandfather had played the fiddle and cello in the early 1800s.
The concert began with Awake and Join the Cheerful Choir, from Puddletown and Burton Bradstock, followed by Shepherds Keeping Watch by Night, from the Piddle Valley.
The first of two new Ridgeway carols was Rejoice Good Christian Folk and Sing, written by Pip Bowell and arranged by Phil Humphries. The second was One Bright Star, by Tim Laycock, which picks up on some of the historic and landscape features of the Ridgeway – the Five Marys (prehistoric barrows), the Admiral (Captain Hardy of Nelson and Hardy Monument fame), the White King (King George carved in the chalk downs), and three ships (in Weymouth harbour). The new songs fitted effortlessly into the programme of traditional carols, reflecting the infectious rhythmic energy and deep connection to the land and the people.
Other local carols included a version of the well-known folk song, The Unquiet Grave, collected from Jane Hann of Stoke Abbott, and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night, one of several collected by the Hammond brothers from 80 year-old William Scott of Pulham. This carol, said Tim Laycock, has more tunes than any other, probably hundreds, and the Pulham tune was a particularly ancient one.
Rejoice, Ye Tenants of the Earth is a classic West Gallery from the Puddletown repertoire, and the final carol was Hail Happy Morn, from the carol book of James Saunders of Puddletown.
Instrumental pieces included two fiddle tunes from the manuscript of Benjamin Rose of Belchalwell in north Dorset and Enrico, a melody which was Thomas Hardy’s favourite fiddle tune.
The readings included several from Hardy’s Under The Greenwood Tree and from his evocative poem The Paphian Ball, one of his many tales of the Mellstock carollers.
There is a wonderful line in one of the readings from Under The Greenwood Tree, as the disgruntled musicians complain to each other, playing around the village late one night near Christmas, about the superiority of the fiddle and the serpent over the newfangled organ and harmonium. These are, they agree, “miserable dumbledores.”
This concert was a joy from start to finish – if you missed it, there is another chance to hear these wonderful old carols, tunes and readings, and the lovely new ones, at St Swithuns Church at North Allington, Bridport, on Sunday, 14th December, at 3.30pm.