War and Peace with a lively touch of music hall at the Gathering

The Sheffield City Giants who can be seen at the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering.
The Sheffield City Giants who can be seen at the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering.

Over three days on the weekend after Easter, the town of Morpeth will once again showcase just what it is that makes Northumberland special as visitors and townsfolk mingle for the lively annual festival of the area’s traditional music and culture, the 48th Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering.

Here you can learn to play a tune on the mouth organ, raise a cheer for Judy when she gets the better of Mr Punch, be moved by tales of heroes from legends or genuine conflicts, or have a knees-up to the chorus of a Geordie music hall song.

Addison dancers who will perform at the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering.

Addison dancers who will perform at the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering.

The programme includes concerts, the Border Cavalcade and Pageant and other street events, a barn dance, crafts demonstrations, dialect poetry, storytelling – including a prize for the most convincing teller of tall tales – and even orienteering and bellringing.

The spotlight this year is on the theme of War and Peace. Everything starts on Friday,April 10, with market stalls, have-a-go workshops, a crafts exhibition, and music and stories from the First World War era.

Popular music duo Hautbois, dressed in the fashions of the time, will play music of the First World War and the music hall era from their covered cart on the Market Place.

The large Yurt tent, loaned by charity Barnabas Safe and Sound, is the venue for Friday’s family art workshops.

In the morning artist Elaine Porter will help youngsters make doves or mini War Horse puppets, while in the afternoon local group SNAP! will help folk make flags on an international theme. It’s hoped that the makers will wish to carry the finished items in Saturday morning’s spectacular parade during the Border Cavalcade and Commnity Pageant.

More art will be on view in the Town Hall Corn Exchange, which will be transformed into something resembling a village show. Here the Crafts Exhibition features stalls and demonstrations of needlecrafts, feather painting, lacemaking, weaving, proggy mat-making, smallpipes making and other skills, along with a huge variety of pieces entered for the Gathering’s crafts competitions, including paintings, photos, items of needlework, decorated Easter eggs and shepherd’s sticks. Anyone interested in taking part can bring their entries to the Town Hall on the evening of Thursday, April 9. Full details are on the Gathering website.

One special display will give background information to the names on the town’s war memorials, and is a taster for Morpeth Antiquarian Society’s Heritage Lottery-funded summer exhibition.

Upstairs in the Town Hall Ballroom on Friday expert tutors will guide workshops in circle dance, maypole and clogging, for anyone to try their hand, or foot, at these fascinating traditional danceforms. Meanwhile, the Chantry Bagpipe Museum will host workshops for mouthie (mouth organ, or harmonica) and songs of the music halls.

Also at the Chantry, during the afternoon, acclaimed storyteller Simon Heywood will be arriving from his home town of Sheffield to present, for adults and children aged 12 and over, his evocative show Out of the Silence.

This story of the conscientious objectors, based on first-hand accounts, letters and diaries of the Great War, includes original songs composed and sung by an old friend of the Gathering, Shonaleigh. Making a welcome return to Morpeth, Shonaleigh was the town’s Storyteller in Residence some years back. Parents will be thrilled to know she will be appearing at the library later in the afternoon to tell some tales for children.

Storytelling is always a strong element of the Gathering, and one of the best local exponents, Jim Grant, will not only be performing around the town during the day, but will also lead an early evening meeting at the White Swan, of anyone interested in a new storytelling group for the area – all are welcome to listen or join in.

Friday’s activities end with a friendly pub musicians’ session in the Tap and Spile and a gala concert at the Methodist Church, Leuk at the Sowljor. The evening will bring together leading local choirs and solo singers, with songs reflecting the themes of this year’s Gathering.

Compere Alex Swailes MBE will introduce modern peace songs and old music hall melodies, along with a dance spot by Hexhamshire Lasses, to recall the origin of women’s morris groups.

These sprang up after so many traditionally male morris teams were wiped out by the Great War when the men volunteered to fight.

Dance teams, musicians, artists, poets and First World War re-enactment soldiers will throng the streets, indoor halls and park to bring a buzz to Morpeth on the Gathering’s busiest day, Saturday, April 11 – the Muckle Day.

A free park and ride will operate from the County Hall front car park from 9.30am, operated by vintage buses.

Even before the traffic comes to a halt for the grand procession at 11am, there’ll be plenty going on across the town with puppets, miners’ rapper dancing and market stalls, plus indoor storytelling, dance and music workshops.

Ernie Gordon’s 9.45am mouth organ workshop in the Town Hall needs a special mention as it didn’t appear in some of the earlier publicity. At this, beginners or more experienced players can learn one or two of the popular tunes that would have been played on this handy pocket instrument in the wartime trenches.

After a celebratory ringing of bells from the historic Clock Tower, the Border Cavalcade and Community Pageant will set off from St James’s Church archways and parade down Newgate Street. (While the road closure operates for a little over an hour, there will be diversions around the main streets so that the traffic will still flow.)

At the Market Place, the parade will be greeted by civic VIPs and a speech of welcome by The Morpeth Gadgy, the indefatigable Alex Swales MBE, pictured inset left. The Gadgy, dressed in the 18th century costume seen on the two stone figures on the Clock Tower, represents the people of Morpeth; the word gadgy is simply the term for man used by the Romany community long associated with the town. Alex will invite the performers and crowds to ‘hoist the hippin on a muckle fligarishon’ (raise the curtain on a huge celebration).

Heading the parade will be Gathering Vice-Chairman the Rev Ron Forster as Lord Greystoke, one of the medieval barons of Morpeth, accompanied by local Army Cadets and Scouts dressed as medieval soldiers and monks carrying banners and flags. Lady Greystoke, alias Shirley Forster, will later take on a different role at a lunchtime performance alongside the other Morpeth Waites early music group.

Among the bands, dance teams and entertainers in the procession will be the magnificent Sheffield City Giants, figures portraying War and Peace, who will perform a special dance sequence in theMarket Place after the procession has ended, and again in the same place on Sunday morning.

In the Park, Sanderson Arcade, Millennium Green and Market Place, there will be a full programme of street entertainment during Saturday, ending in a World War I re-enactment in the park, near the paddling pool and bandstand.

For this year’s heritage event it was decided it would be unwise to dig a First World War trench in Carlisle Park so Time Bandits and friends will be staging a Soldier Recruitment and Battle Drill event – recruits are welcome to come forward to be put through their paces.

As well as outdoor activities, indoor events will take place in the town’s central halls and a number of pubs and cafes, with instrument workshops, competitions for musicians, writers, reciters and dancers, a family music hall and story concert and music sessions, with this year two aimed specifically at young people.

At the Methodist Church there’s a second chance to hear the Out of the Silence story presentation, while the Chantry Bagpipe Museum New Gathering hosts various piping-related events. These include a lecture on the bagpipers who went to war through history, including Northumbrian smallpipers from the Napoleonic era and the famous Piper Laidlaw, who survived the Battle of Loos and who had links with Morpeth Highland Pipe Band, itself founded just over 100 years ago. This is followed by a concert of songs and tunes from the time of the Border Reivers, with nationally-acclaimed local performers singer Carolyn Robson and smallpiper Andy May.

During the writing and dialect reciting afternoon at St Robert’s Hall, there’s an opportunity for those who like to spin a yarn to turn their skills to good use and compete for the cherished Hoafy Trophy. A hoafy is a tall tale, or half-truth, and the trophy was presented a couple of years ago in memory of the late storyteller and poet Terry Common, for many years a stalwart of the Gathering and its sister organisation the Northumbrian Language Society.

The current Northumbrian dialect speaking champion is Raymond Reed, who many will be glad to hear is aiming to appear after a recent illness, along with many of last year’s open class winners, in the Gathering Saturday early evening concert at the Town Hall.

This much-anticipated concert is headlined by a special guest, who for this year is North East singer Bob Fox. Bob has one of the finest voices in the folk firmament and has been well known for a long time to folk fans, but recently he has been hailed by a wider audience through his appearances in the National Theatre’s original musical play, WarHorse, both on the London stage and during national tours. As Song Man, Bob had to learn to play the melodeon as well as sing; he will share his experiences earlier in the day when he speaks and sings at the Meet Bob Fox session at noon.

Another visitor appearing at special events over the weekend is Jim Bainbridge, one of the original Marsden Rattlers who attended the very first Gathering in 1968. Now living in Ireland, Jim will take part in various concerts and workshops, featuring music hall and Irish songs, and is bringing to Morpeth his fellow singer Jackie Boyce, an experienced bagpipe bag maker, to run a series of sessions on the craft of making bags for Northumbrian pipes.

After the Saturday concert there’s a Northumbrian Barn Dance across the town at St George’s Church Hall with popular Hexham-based band The Hedgehog’s Skin led by David Oliver, who also runs the teatime music session for under 25-year-olds. Earlier in the day, just before noon, Tristan Selden, himself in that age bracket, will run a similar session at the Black and Grey.

The organisers are delighted that over the Gathering’s 48 years many performers have returned time and time again because they receive such a warm welcome from the people of Morpeth, while new generations are able to experience and eventually join in with the wealth of wonderful music, crafts, dance, drama and poetry to be found in the area’s traditional culture.

One keen supporter of the Gathering is Rachael Hales, originally from the Midlands but now resident in Newcastle. A traditional and classical musician, Rachael is also making a name for herself as a digital sound composer. Her newest composition, entitled Sing and Dance for King and Country, is an audio-visual installation exploring the experiences of the people of Tyneside during the First World War, through the lens of local folk traditions and practices.

With a focus on rapper dancing, clog dancing, and children’s songs and rhymes it uncovers forgotten and untold stories of how the ordinary people of Tyneside danced and sang their way through the First World War. You can find the installation in the main gallery of the Bagpipe Museum on Friday and Saturday, and then at the Town Hall during Sunday.

The Council Chamber and Mayor’s Parlour will open to the public on Sunday afternoon, a rare chance to see some of the civic silver and historic artefacts which reflect the 300 years of the Town Hall’s history. These include a German truncheon and gold War Heroes cigarette case from the First World War.

Sunday also sees the last day of the Crafts Exhibition and a Family Concert by performers including singer Ann Wilkinson, storyteller Jim Grant with the Whistling Sheep, clog dancer Meg Wilson, and Tristan Selden with the Norcumbrians.

The Market Place will house market stalls, Professor Grunermensch’s Punch and Judy, maypole dance displays and Roman military displays by Maximus the centurion.

Over in the park all ages can take part in an orienteering event with its own awards ceremony, and a second Soldiers’ Drill and Recruitment Re-enactment will be staged in the afternoon by Time Bandits and the 68th DLI Society among others.

To round off the festivities, Sunday evening sees Ray Stephenson with Geordies on Wax, a presentation of early local sound recordings. Ray promises to play a recently-discovered recording of a military march composed in honour of the Northumberland Fusiliers by one of the Geordie music hall stars from around a hundred years ago.

Full details of the programme will be available from leaflets and noticeboards around the town during the weekend, or at www.northumbriana.org.uk