Category Archives: Shropshire laddishness

On Bredon Hill

A Shropshire Lad XXI (Bredon Hill)

Words by A.E. Housman, set to a tune by David Harley. All rights reserved. 

Probably the first of my settings of Housman’s verse, from the 1970s, though the recording is much more recent. This is from ‘A Shropshire Lad’.

Backup:

Different master:

Backup:

Not to be picky, but though this is from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, Bredon Hill is actually in Worcestershire. Housman himself was from that county, so was no doubt fully aware of that fact.You can find the words to this one on the Housman Society’s page, but this version of the words here is from Martin Hardcastle’s site Continue reading

Wrekin

Words & music by David Harley. All rights reserved. Vocal, acoustic guitar and Nashville-strung guitar are also me!

Backup version/copy:

There’s a video here.

Here are the words again, and more info below.

The Abbey watches my train crawling Southwards
Thoughts of Cadfael kneeling in his cell
All along the Marches line, myth and history
Prose and rhyme
But these are tales I won’t be here to tell

The hill is crouching like a cat at play
Its beacon flashing red across the plain
Once we were all friends around the Wrekin
But some will never pass this way again

Lawley and Caradoc fill my window
Facing down the Long Mynd, lost in rain
But I’m weighed down with the creaks and groans
Of all the years I’ve known
And I don’t think I’ll walk these hills again

Stokesay dreams its humble glories
Stories that will never come again
Across the Shropshire hills
The rain is blowing still
But the Marcher Lords won’t ride this way again

The royal ghosts of Catherine and Arthur
May walk the paths of Whitcliffe now and then
Housman’s ashes grace
The Cathedral of the Marches
He will not walk Ludlow’s streets again

The hill is crouching like a cat at play
Its beacon flashing red across the plain
Once we were all friends around the Wrekin
But some will never pass this way again
And I may never pass this way again

‘The Abbey’ is actually Shrewsbury’s Abbey Church: not much else of the Abbey survived the Dissolution and Telford’s roadbuilding in 1836. Cadfael is the fictional monk/detective whose home was the Abbey around 1135-45, according to the novels by ‘Ellis Peters’ (Edith Pargeter).

The Welsh Marches Line runs from Newport (the one in Gwent) to Shrewsbury. Or, arguably, up as far as Crewe, since it follows the March of Wales from which it takes its name, the buffer zone between the Welsh principalities and the English monarchy which extended well into present-day Cheshire.

‘The hill’ is the Wrekin, which, though at a little over 400 metres high is smaller than many of the other Shropshire Hills, is isolated enough from the others to dominate the Shropshire Plain. The beacon is at the top of the Wrekin Transmitting Station mast, though a beacon was first erected there during WWII. The Shropshire toast ‘All friends around the Wrekin’ seems to have been recorded first in the dedication of George Farquar’s 1706 play ‘The Recruiting Officer’, set in Shrewsbury.

‘Lawley’ refers to the hill rather than the township in Telford. The Lawley and Caer Caradoc do indeed dominate the landscape on the East side of the Stretton Gap coming towards Church Stretton from the North via the Marches Line or the A49, while the Long Mynd (‘Long Mountain’) pretty much owns the Western side of the Gap.

Stokesay Castle, near Craven Arms, is technically a fortified manor house rather than a true castle. It was built in the late 13th century by the wool merchant Laurence of Ludlow, and has been extensively restored in recent years by English Heritage, who suggest that the lightness of its fortification might actually have been intentional, to avoid presenting any threat to the established Marcher Lords.

Prince Arthur, elder brother of Henry VIII, was sent with his bride Catherine of Aragon to Ludlow administer the Council of Wales and the Marches, and died there after only a few months. Catherine went on to marry and be divorced by Henry VIII, and died about 30 years later at Kimbolton Castle. Catherine is reputed to haunt both Kimbolton and Ludlow Castle lodge, so it’s unlikely that she also haunts Whitcliffe, the other side of the Teme from Ludlow Castle. (As far as I know, no-one is claimed to haunt Whitcliffe. Poetic licence…) The town itself does have more than its share of ghosts, though. 

For some time it has puzzled me that in ‘A Ballad for Catherine of Aragon’, Charles Causley refers to her as “…a Queen of 24…” until I realized he was probably referring not to her age, but to the length of time (June 1509 until May 1533)  that she was acknowledged to be Queen of England.

The ashes of A.E. Housman are indeed buried in the grounds of St. Laurence’s church, Ludlow, which is not in fact a cathedral, but is often referred to as ‘the Cathedral of the Marches’. It is indeed a church with many fine features (I have about a zillion photographs of its misericords) and its tower is visible from a considerable distance (and plays a major part in Housman’s poem ‘The Recruit’).

The song was actually mostly written on a train between Shrewsbury and Newport at a time when I was frequently commuting between Shropshire and Cornwall to visit my frail 94-year-old mother, who died a few months after, so it has particular resonance for me. It originally included a couple of extra verses about Hereford and the Vale of Usk, but after the ‘Wrekin’ chorus forced its way into the song, I decided to restrict it to the Shropshire-related verses. Maybe they’ll turn up sometime as another song.

David Harley

Liongate/Castles and Kings [demo]

NB there’s a more polished version on the Tears of Morning album

Words and Music by David Harley, copyright 1974

Yet another update: on my Cornish music site, but still working towards a decent version of the song. This time with resonator guitar instead of mandolin.

Update: a version with guitar and mandolin, but no harmonies. The harmonies may be back, but I think I prefer it with instruments. On the other hand, I think I may drop the instrumental that should follow it.

 

When I was a kid in a country town
and I’d nothing better to do:
I’d detour round by the railway bridge
on my way home from school.

Leaning over the bridge with my chin in my hands,
too young to be wondering why,
I’d wait what seemed hours for the signal to change:
wait for a train to go by

The lure of the footplate, the churn of the rods
straining to places unknown;
fog in November, smoke in the cold air
the faraway steam-whistle moan; 

bathing my eyes in the warmth of the lights
as up the track she would fly.
I’d get home late: they’d ask ‘Where have you been?’
I’d say ‘watching the trains go by’…

Saturday lunchtime some days in the spring
with the sky an implacable blue,
collecting the numbers of Castles and Kings:
it’s all we’d want to do.

Perspective of steel cut through frostbitten green,
just went on to a faraway end,
and I always felt sad at the Cambrian’s tail-light
as she’d disappear round the bend. 

Now trains mean timetables, luggage and waiting rooms,
leaving the people I love;
the pounding of diesels, the A to B run
– perspective has subtly moved.

Tonight I am free and the rails are still endless
(if I had the fare to ride)
but I stand on a footbridge in the heart of the city
watching the tube trains go by.

This is a (probably inaccurate) memory of my early school years, when we lived in Shrewsbury. The railway bridge in question is a composite: there were actually two that were (very loosely) on my way home, and another – my favourite – that meant walking in the wrong direction from Crowmoor school. The Cambrian is the Cambrian Coast Express, which at that time ran from Paddington to Wales. Castles and Kings are classic Great Western steam locomotives: I changed that line after being reminded of them in a post to Remember When In Shrewsbury’s Facebook page. The original title has something to do with the fact that I wrote the song while I was staying with my friend Sally Goddard somewhere near Kew Gardens. Not really ‘the heart of the city’, but there is a footbridge there somewhere that crosses the District line.  I know… way, way too much information. Strictly speaking, Liongate was the guitar instrumental I used to play straight after singing the song unaccompanied, but it sort of attached itself to the song. Though since I changed that line, maybe Castles and Kings is a better title.

Sally now lives in Newfoundland, where she sings with a band called Atlantic Union

Poem Settings

With one exception, all the settings here right now are of verses from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, by A.E. Housman. Housman can’t really be described as a Shropshire lad himself: he was born near Bromsgrove in 1859, and died in Cambridge in 1936, and it’s often said that he hadn’t actually visited the Shropshire countryside of which he presented his own vision until after he had published the collection (though that doesn’t seem to be the case, although most of the poems were written while living in Highgate, London.) However, his ashes are buried near St. Lawrence’s church, Ludlow, five minutes walk from where I live at the time of writing. Although I lived for the first 19 years of my life in Shrewsbury, none of these settings was composed in Shropshire either. I was living in Berkshire at that time, though the setting to Bredon Hill was composed while I was visiting my parents in Manchester, I think.)

These MP3s are all first-take demo versions, not studio quality. I’ll maybe come back to them properly when the size of my back-catalogue looks a little less daunting. Some day, I might even set some more of Housman’s verse. While much of his work has a somewhat depressive nature that’s often been parodied (there are a couple of good examples quoted here), many of his verse cry out to be sung.

I wouldn’t want to discourage you from reading or even buying the whole cycle, though. The whole of ‘A Shropshire Lad’ is viewable from bartleby.com. There are countless hard-copy volumes of Housman’s verse, of course, but my favourite is the 2009 edition published by Merlin Unwin with local photographs by Gareth B. Thomas (and a handful from the Shropshire Regimental Museum), an introduction by Prof. Christopher Ricks, and a brief biography of Housman by Dr. David Lloyd, a well-known name in Ludlow historical circles.

Here are the links to the MP3s:

Other Housman settings have been composed by real composers like:

Oddly enough, I’m not aware of any other folkies who’ve set any of these, but it’s unlikely that I’m the only one. 🙂

I’ve also set these Yeats poems (there may be more…)

And there’s this instrumental version of the well-known tune to a song indelibly associated with Yeats: Down by the Salley Gardens [demo]

I also set a couple of Causley poems to music, but there may be copyright/IP issues with that. The late Alex Atterson did some excellent settings of Causley, which I believe were/are available on CD. You could try Musicstack, if you’re interested in those.