Everyone needs community nowadays. We crave it because we’re all isolated and marooned by our relationships to our screens. We spend half our lives looking at what other people are doing, always through a heavily-filtered lens. As a nation we swapped our extended families and our in-built empathy (the fine art of looking after each other) for individualism. We fell for Thatcher’s dream of ‘there is no such thing as society’ and ended up with me, me, me. That’s the depressing introduction; it’s all smiles from now on, honestly.
The golf club south of the busy A66 outside Threlkeld in the Lake District is humming with the buzz of community. A bunch of people from all over Britain are meeting on a Thursday evening in this brightly-lit, disinfectant-clean clubhouse for the sheer joy of meeting. There’s a focus to the gathering – a band, some music – but essentially this is about people getting together. I walk in late, after a strange drive up from Yorkshire; a journey full of frequent stops, lights on the dashboard and worrying about which coolant you’re supposed to use in a Mazda. As I open the doors to the Function Room (every golf club has a Function Room, with its silver cups and its photograph of the Ladies’ Captain) there are smiles everywhere, across every table, smiles and chatter and the natural joy of people meeting up again.
John Jones – lead singer with Oysterband and Meltham’s answer to Robert Plant – had an idea, a decade ago, to combine his obsession with walking with his love of music. He’d create an on/off band, set up gigs that were in walking distance from each other, and sing about walking. He put word out and waited to see who would turn up, joined by his walking mate Colin, formerly mayor of Presteigne on the Welsh Borders, check-shirted and with route maps spilling out of every pocket. That first tour – billed as John Jones and the Reluctant Ramblers – set a pattern that grew by the year, with at first just the band doing the walking and then, quite quickly, the audiences joining in. Before long this was a gathering of folk from all over who loved the music, but who saw in the walking something special and unique.
The audience not only joined the walks between concerts, but more or less took them over – by the time of the South Downs tour, there were upwards of 50 people setting off for a 15-mile walk to the next venue. This wasn’t just about music, or walking – this was about people jumping at the chance to create a community, a real-life, physical, nattering, chattering community.
That opening Thursday night at Threlkeld Golf Club is more a Ramblers’ refresher course than a concert – there’s nothing like long walks through the hills to discover the quirks and anomalies of someone’s character. So here we are, to a background of fiddle-and-melodion tunes, remembering how one Rambler has a reputation for falling into large puddles, that another can switch from twinkly-eyed optimist to grumbling nay-sayer (and back again) at the drop of a walking stick, that such-and-such always gets lost, and that whatsisname spends half of each walk obsessively studying plants, trees and wild mushrooms. It’s a mixed bunch (as bunches invariably are), and it typifies a spirit of generosity among people that we often forget.
We’re in the middle of the Brexit debacle, seemingly jumping off a big cliff behind a scatter-brained public school megalomaniac, so this walking-and-singing lark is a welcome break from the madness – there’s a rule that for three days we won’t talk about Brexit. It pretty much works. At the Golf Club, a morris dancer with glorious hair and clean white handkerchiefs does his thing as John accompanies him. Assorted Ramblers get up and play along on flute, mandolin, melodion and acapella voice as John is joined for the main body of songs by Al Scott, Tim Cotterell, Rowan Godel and myself – with Lindsey Oliver sadly sitting the weekend out and Benji Kirkpatrick turning up on the Friday. There’s pie and peas, a cheap bar and, outside, a thunderous downpour. The forecast for the weekend is heavy non-stop rain. The motley ramblers pull on their waterproofs and head off into the night, looking forward to tomorrow’s walk into the unknown.
It’s at this point that a narrative like this can turn into a travelogue – a step-by-step account of each walk with all its highs and lows. (For the record, river crossings, a stroppy goat, sunshine and storms, abandonments, bird-spotting, slips and trips and the occasional minor panic). Alternatively, this could end up as a little string of gig reviews pretending to be a Tour Diary, with pictures of set-lists and details about what kind of bazouki Benji plays (I’ve no idea). John’s set-lists are as reliable and permanent as Colin’s daily route maps – full of spidery penlines that are liable to be altered, changed or completely ignored.
But detouring away from travelogue and tour diary, boiling it all down to its essence – every day is a moving caravan of nattering, meeting, wondering and asking; plus the occasional wide-eyed look around at the cloud-shrouded lower fells or the sodden clag in each bootstep. And it’s always followed by an evening of the same nattering and chattering along to John’s songs about walking. The atmosphere that permeates the walking is there in the music; it’s a shared stage where great playing can be balanced by laughter and improvisation.
On the Friday evening, after the concert finishes and round the post-gig table at Vanya and Graham’s house, we chase the same conversation for an hour – should the Saturday walk, on which we planned to tackle Grizedale Pike, a long, tough mountain climb up to an exposed ridge, be substituted for a lower-level walk taking in High Rigg and St John’s In The Vale..? We check the weather forecast on our three different weather apps, all of which predict something different. One thing they all agree on, though, is rain. Is it irresponsible to lead fifty people up onto the notorious Grizedale ridge in bad weather? Should we wait until morning to make a decision? Do we have enough seasoned walkers among us? Do we have a clue what we’re doing?
And the thing is (and the conclusion is) that it doesn’t really matter. We’ll take the low-level route and we’ll look from our summit on High Rigg over towards the towering Grizedale – which, by Saturday lunchtime, is cloudless and bathed in sun – and we won’t care, because this whole thing is about sharing an experience, meeting up, taking time out of the Brexit-riddled media bombardment and the relentless onslaught of smiling Facebook Friends to be with actual friends who are actually smiling even when they’re not having their photographs taken.
At Saturday night’s sold-out concert in the beautiful Threlkeld Village Hall those fifty or so smiling faces are joined by locals and not-so-locals who’ve come to see a gig, who’ve come to hear the songs and the singing, come to hear Benji, Tim and Al playing sets of tunes, come to hear Rowan’s gorgeous melodies and John’s between-song ramblings across metaphorical rivers, oceans and seas (and his lyrical insight into the correct vegetable-based feed for horses). What they possibly don’t expect is a spirit of community that is visceral and practically tangible. It isn’t the community spirit conjured up by politicians to remind us that “we’re British”. It isn’t a communality created by social media algorithms. It’s something that grew from the simplicity of a bunch of like-minded people getting together and getting out… with an original soundtrack. Community – that’s all.
Boff, October 2019
With many thanks to Graham, Vanya, Colin, Tom, Fran, John Hayley, Barbara and the volunteers from the TAA.