Following the successful Golden Morpeth Gathering in 2017, and despite the temptation to pause for breath and take a gap year, the volunteer organisers were thrilled at the response to the celebration of its first half-century and have laid on all sorts of treats for people of all ages this year.
The festival, which will take place between April 6 and 8, invites musicians, artists and a wealth of entertainers and experts to the town to share their enjoyment of the treasures of local music, craft and heritage.
While outdoor events have been scaled down to a degree – partly because of finances and partly because of the likely weather during the earlier Easter break – the numerous indoor concerts, workshops, displays and other activities will follow a Back to the Roots theme, concentrating on the hardcore cultural traditions of Northumberland which inspired the festival.
Many of the audiences for the numerous free street performances and the showcase Saturday morning procession may not know that the Gathering began as a one-day festival of musical competitions.
These are still going strong. They are being held across several venues on the Saturday afternoon.
To celebrate this year of partial female emancipation, a new women’s singing competition has been launched. The winner will be awarded the Emily Inspires! Trophy.
Other competitions for dance, dialect and writing will also be taking place and the crafts competitions for anything from cross-stitch to shepherd’s sticks are the basis of the three-day crafts exhibition in the Town Hall, the hub of the Gathering.
Last year, a family art exhibition was staged in the leisure centre café and this welcome addition will be repeated, giving space for more family craft activities, model railway displays and, at times, a storyteller.
Across the town, other storytelling events will take place both at the library and in the Old Bakehouse Millennium Green, while for older spoken word fans there’s an evening of Northumbrian-themed poetry from the Morpeth Poetry Group.
Many of these events have free entry, or require only a nominal charge at the door to help with costs, and the ticketed events are deliberately kept at a low cost to encourage everyone to come along.
Musical performers will include ceilidh band The Hedgehog’s Skin, with caller David Oliver, that will provide the music for dancing on the Saturday night, local singing and instrumental group Lowp, pictured above, featuring demon Border piper Iain Gelston, the young supergroup Folkestra, and solo singer and concertina maestro Steve Turner, national treasure of the folk scene and an honorary Northumbrian after his earlier time in the group Canny Fettle.
There will be events celebrating the songs of Tyneside songster Joe Wilson of Keep Yor Feet Still, Geordie, Hinny fame, pictured far right,who had family connections with Morpeth, with the gala Friday night concert devoted to his songs.
They will be performed by the legendary Johnny Handle, Benny Graham, Bob Bolam (also delivering his modern take on the music hall patter of Wilson) and two of the stars of the forthcoming play on Joe’s life, Micky Cochrane and Phil Corbitt.
The writer of that play, Ed Waugh, will give a talk on Saturday about the production and has agreed to help judge the story and hoafy telling competitions, while beforehand folklore historian Dave Harker will examine the life of another early music hall performer, Ned Corvan.
From further back in time, the life and music of the great 18th century composer William Shield will be presented by music historian Amélie Addison.
Shield was born in Swalwell, now in Gateshead, and rose to become the Master of the King’s Music. He is also believed to have been the original composer of the tune now known as Auld Lang Syne.
Amélie’s talk, in the Chantry Bagpipe Museum, features singer Poppy Holden and violin player Niles Krieger.
For those who fancy trying their hand at playing the area’s own instrument, the Chantry is the host venue for another very Northumbrian event.
The Play in a Day workshop is an intensive but fun session for novices to get to grips, literally, with the Northumbrian smallpipes.
Sets of pipes are provided by expert pipemaker Dave Shaw, who ably guides those taking part into producing a few notes by the end of the day.
There are places still available, but these must be pre-booked through the Gathering – email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The Saturday parade, known as the Border Cavalcade and Pageant, is a central event of the Gathering’s programme.
A procession of performers and costumed groups is led by Lord and Lady Greystoke, recreating the return of the Lord of the Manor after the Battle of Otterburn in 1388.
The pageant is greeted at the Town Hall by civic VIPs and a speech of welcome by The Morpeth Gadgy, Alex Swailes.
Among the many Gathering performers and local dance teams, this year’s procession will include fiddler Jim Eldonpictured left, and his dancing doll Gerald, the Sheffield City Giants, two giant figures depicting War and Peace, and the de Merlay Dynasty.
This group of characters from Morpeth’s history will feature on the Friday in a series of mini-dramas at a special book launch for Bridget Gubbins’ latest publication on the history of the early Barons of Morpeth.
A free vintage bus park and ride will operate on the Saturday from the County Hall front car park from 10.30am to 11.45am.
While the road closure operates from 10.30am to 11.45am, there will be diversions around the main streets so that the traffic will still flow.
Other outdoor events include the usual Gathering entertainer performances and stalls in the Market Place on all three days, incorporating on the Saturday the monthly farmers’ market.
Some of the regular weekend artists will sadly be missing through illness, including Sedayne and Rapunzel who featured in earlier publicity, but storyteller David Silk and Victorian music duo the Ran Tanners are kindly stepping in.
Professor Grunermensch’s Punch and Judy will be there for the youngsters and Friday’s living history displays and activities from Archaeosoup and Rent a Peasant will move to the William Turner Herb Garden in Carlisle Park on both the Saturday and Sunday – presenting interactive displays including costume and food with family-friendly archaeology activities.
It is worth noting that Morpeth Castle, overlooking Carlisle Park, is not holding its open days during the Gathering this year, but will welcome members of the public on the later weekend of April 21 and 22, with the Gathering providing entertainers there on the Sunday.
Across the park near the paddling pool and bandstand on the Saturday and Sunday, Time Bandits will be presenting displays on the First World War era.
People can join in a First World War recruitment and arms drill re-enactment at 3pm on both days.
Performances by dance teams and Stuart Terry of Astral Circus will entertain throughout the Saturday and although there is no actual circus tent this year, organisers are delighted that Stuart will be joined by Sally from Astral for the evening fire-breathing show on the Market Place at 8.30pm.
Other traditional skills can be tried out at drop-in workshops over the weekend, with family craft activities, music and dance sessions, an advanced concertina workshop and a join-in session during the Bedlington Ukelele Band appearance at the Saturday Family Show.
There is even a chance to sample hand-bell ringing at the historic Clock Tower on the Sunday morning.
The day before the Clock Tower, after a rousing ring of bells for the start of the Cavalcade, will be open for guided tours, and on Sunday the civic rooms of the Town Hall will be opened for visitors to see the wonderful array of town silver, medieval artefacts and portraits of famous Morpethians.
The final events of the weekend include the Family Concert on the Sunday afternoon, bringing the dynamic young regional folk ensemble Folkestra to the stage of the historic Town Hall Ballroom, followed by a fascinating presentation on an important part of Morpeth’s heritage – the leatherwork of the Tanners, who were members of the medieval craft guild connected strongly with the development of the town’s cattle market.
The start time for the talk by national leather expert Andy Bates, who is now a resident of Morpeth, has been brought forward to 3.30pm, a change to earlier publicity.
The festival can only take place with a huge effort from the voluntary Gathering committee and a large number of supporters and partners.
Special funding support has been granted towards the continuation of the Gathering by the Morpeth Boundary Ride Trustees, Morpeth Town Council, Northumberland County Council Community Chest and Chairman’s Fund and many other generous organisations, patrons and individuals.
If you want to help keep the event going, please come along, join in, buy a mug or T-shirt and above all enjoy the wealth of local traditions that enables our area to be such a lively and interesting place.