Folk music from around West Cumbria being given a welcome boost

Ed Heslam: guitarist and folk enthusiast. Photo by Alan Cleaver

Ed Heslam: guitarist and folk enthusiast.
Photo by Alan Cleaver

by Alan Cleaver

FOLK music from Eskdale, Drigg and elsewhere around West Cumbria is being given a welcome boost by an enthusiast who is hoping to revive both old and new folk music from Cumberland.

Old tunes are being rescued from the county’s archives and new ones – such as All The Way To Lamplugh and Boot Mill Hornpipe – are being published by Ed Heslam.

Folk music is rooted in, celebrates and helps record local history and the people who once inhabited an area.

We may not know who Cumberland Nelly was – but the piece of music composed about her (Lass of Cumberland) still survives over 300 years after it was first written down.

We do know a bit more about Mrs Greenup. She was a widow living in Elterwater 200 years ago and Keswick-born fiddle player William Irwin took a bit of a shine to her.

He composed “Mrs Greenup’s Strathspey” – a strathspey is a type of dance – and also a reel in her honour. It worked.

She eventually married him.

The Whitehaven Hornpipe and Whitehaven Volunteers celebrate the naval and military connections with the once prestigious West Cumbrian port while songs such as New Road to Alston marked the building of a vital road link to this Cumbrian village.

They are catchy tunes that have survived hundreds of years – yet the tunes and the people who wrote them are now much neglected.

Bridgefoot musician Ed Heslam is hoping to change all that.

He grew up in Cumbria – at Red Dial near Carlisle – but has spent much of his teaching career down south. Now he’s back – and he’s a man on a mission.

Ed is an accomplished guitar player. He and wife Fiona have been trawling through the archives of Cumbria rescuing and reviving many of the tunes.

Ed, 57, explained how his project began: “I started going to local music singarounds and instrumental session evenings but realised they were not singing any English music.
“Some Geordie songs were included but it was mostly Irish and a little Scottish. I suggested we play some English tunes and then thought about performing local music. I liaised with Sue Allan and started researching in archives such as the Armitt Museum at Ambleside.”

He studied old manuscripts in the county archives and at Cecil Sharp House in London and, using his musical expertise to decipher some of the numerous errors and other problems posed by the hand-written music scores, Ed worked the music into an anthology of local tunes.

These have now been published in a book called ‘The Music of Cumberland and Westmorland’. There is also a CD available of Ed playing some of the music.

It gave Ed and Fiona a glimpse into the life of Cumberland and Westmorland in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ed said: “I came across the Brown manuscript at Armitt Museum and a man called James Lishman.  He was a dance teacher and probably taught the children of William Wordsworth to dance.”

The Oughterside Rant, for example, gains its name from the former coal-mining village near Maryport, while the Whitehaven Volunteers Hornpipe alludes to the local militia, set up to counter the threat from Napoleon Bonaparte.

They’re not all about the local militia or the county’s industrial past.

They include such delights as Kiss Me Fast, My Mother’s Coming, and Lassies Keep Your Legs Together.

Now who doesn’t want to see them revived and performed on Top of the Pops!

Ed added: “The music was often played by just an unaccompanied fiddle. This is a difficult instrument to play in tune, which is why other instruments, such as melodeons and accordions ultimately supplanted it. William Irwin is perhaps the best-known fiddle player. He was born in Keswick but lived most of his life in Elterwater where he was a barrel maker at the gunpowder factory. He also played in a church band consisting of three violins and a cello. Apart from William Irwin, you don’t find out much about these people. Most are just names on a manuscript.”

One rich source of material has been Whitehaven which for much of the 18th and 19th Centuries was a nationally important port.

The sailors provided their own shanties, and militia based in the town also had musicians within the ranks.

Whitehaven included the Howgill dynasty – a father and son, both called William. William Jnr. composed a number of pieces that have survived.

Ed said: “The music of Whitehaven was completely different to that of the Lake District. The middle class of Whitehaven went to classical concerts of chamber and symphonic music and danced to minuets and gavottes.”
Unbelievably, the Howgills once arranged for a church organ to be brought up to Whitehaven from London’s Covent Garden just so they could play it in a concert.

Since publishing the book of sheet music, Ed and Fiona have found around 100 more examples of local music from days gone by and are hoping others will contact them if they have anything hidden in the attic.