When we moved into our run-down and delapidated 200 year-old stone cottage we had restrictions placed upon us by both the mortgage company and the local Council.
The mortgage company demanded that we replace all the old, wide, floorboards with narrow modern ones, and also replace the old plank doors which had latches, with modern panelled doors with doorhandles. The Council demanded that we fill in with concrete all the drains in our back yard. I refused point blank the former requests (being a cussed young woman even then) and covered the drain holes with stone flags so that they looked as if placed out of use, but were in fact just concealed.
We moved at the beginning of January, and were immediately faced with heavy snow:
since we were living in one upstairs room with no heating other than an open bedroom coal fire, and one cold water tap downstairs hanging from the ceiling by baler twine, this was grim. However, that is another story, and we just about survived.
But come the thaw and Spring, came the rains.
And 20 minutes after the first heavy shower began the kitchen began to flood. When we were up to four inches and rising rapidly I went down the lane to our middle-aged neighbours (they were locals born and bred) to ask for help, my husband being unavailable. The neighbour’s husband said we should not be flooding because the drains in the yard were built to avoid that very occurrence. He came straight up to our cottage, helped me lift the stone flags off the drains and immediately the water began to vanish away; in the 40 years since we have been here we have never filled in or covered those drains again, or been flooded. The drains run from the back yard, which is built into the hillside, under the cottage, and then release their burden 20 yards further on, into the lane in front of our house.
Thus began my relationship with these neighbours of ours who were to prove good friends indeed. All through that first winter the wife invited me down to sit by their roaring fire, get warm, and have tea and scones with them each day at 4.0 pm, tea time. One day she went to her old upright piano and began to play. Tunes I had never heard before. She gave me a dog-eared booklet full of songs, words which were equally new to me. They were the Stannington Carols. The original, old, country carols which still linger on here, although they have vanished in the rest of the UK. They are named after local pubs, farms, cottages, cross roads and lanes. And I love them.
Titles such as, Sweet Chiming Bells, Spout Cottage, Back Lane, Malin Bridge, T’owd Virgin ( The Old Virgin!), Stannington (our local village). Later, when I joined a local choir, I had the opportunity to learn the alto part and sing these carols around the area. But they are not the province of choirs alone: each year the local pubs are full of people who all know these carols, and there is standing room only for several hours of carol singing, robustly accompanied by alcohol.
They are quite distinct in style, repertoire and performance from the conception of carolling which arose in Victorian times. These village carols predate the more well known carols by at least a hundred years, being composed by working people in the 1700s and 1800s. In fact, this singing of these carols in the pubs is the norm.
The tradition was explained to me thus: when England had her Civil War, Christmas was banned by Cromwell and consequently the singing of carols in church was also forbidden. The country folk refused to give up their customs and took to singing in local houses and hostelries. Later on as the Church relented these carols were allowed back into Church services. However, in Victorian times they were often considered to be too rowdy or lacking theological accuracy and were spurned once more. Thus for centuries the pubs have been the refuge of our local carols, and still are today, although sensible churches also give them ‘house-room’ now if they wish to please their congregations. Musical accompaniment was not always available and thus the performance of unaccompanied part-singing has continued to this day.
Hearing the robust country voices, often with no music or words, just belting out these old carols in harmony, red-faced and enthusiastic makes one feel one is living, for a few hours, in a Thomas Hardy novel. This is no conscious keeping-up of some outdated social practice, but living, breathing local history, which is lived and loved.
Sometimes the local silver or brass bands also come along to provide some accompaniment, and if there is a portable organ, that is wheeled out too.
The following Youtube clip contains 16 of our carols sung locally and I do hope you will take the time to dip into them, they are unique, and I love them. As each ends, the next will begin automatically.
The Guardian newspaper has written about the singing in my valley at :
So, whatever your tradition, your culture or your celebration at this time of year, from mine to yours, I send you the very best of wishes for a Happy time from this village in the South Pennines of Yorkshire.
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