When I was growing up in Blackpool, my mum had two of the downstairs internal walls of our house removed. She did so because it was getting impossible to fit everyone in for the afterhours sessions, which took place at least twice a week in our living room after we all finished playing in the local pub. The house nearly fell down, because a supporting wall got demolished. But after a real builder came to sort out the mess, we were soon playing and singing again until the early hours, except now with more elbow room.
If it was a school night, I had to get up and out of the house the next morning regardless. And I might not get much sleep the next night either, because by the age of fourteen I was playing gigs at least four or five nights a week with my folk band, Thistledown. It was a wild and unusual childhood, for sure, with both its good and not-so-good moments. But at least it wasn’t, in any sense, boring!
The music at those wild sessions in my mother’s house was thoroughly eclectic. Jigs and reels, country songs, bluegrass, soft rock and folk songs of every kind; the repertoire depended entirely on who turned up. And turn up they did, in their dozens. My mum had a plaque put up beside the front door, proclaiming to the world what we were all about (as if the constant music blasting out of the windows wasn’t already a clue): ‘Musicians’ Homestead’. The sign is still there and my mum Dottie, bless her heart, still goes out to play at more gigs and sessions than I do, despite her lack of mobility.
I think, perhaps, that my unusual upbringing is one reason I feel so very much at home at the Langdale Charity Folk Festival, which my sons and I (as well as other members of my family and many old friends) attended last weekend. Langdale is every bit as eclectic as those wild all-nighters in Dottie’s front room, and every bit as much ribald fun, especially during the early hours in the resident’s bar. It even has some of the same people who used to stagger back over the road from The Rag to the Homestead in the good old days, which sort of gives the impression that Blackpool has taken over the Lake District, saucy jokes and all.
One of the most wonderful things about the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where the festival is held, is that it never changes. I was a regular visitor at the ODG for several years in the eighties until I moved away, and I didn’t go back to Langdale for more than twenty years. When I did, for the 20th anniversary festival (oddly my first ever Langdale Festival, despite my long-ago association with the place), I was delighted to see that the ODG looked exactly the same as it had on my last visit. Same decor, same fantastic fiddle-playing landlord, some of the same staff and patrons, and definitely the same sense of fun. It was like going through a time warp.
Langdale Festival is held twice a year (in May and September), and since 2008 I have not missed a single festival. Every time I go, nostalgia juxtaposes itself uncannily with the present, to create a little oasis out of time, defined by music, fun, friendship and family. It’s the place in the universe where I feel most at ease, both musically and socially; like coming home.
I also feel like I’ve come full-circle. My older boy Eoin, who is thirteen, performed at Langdale in concert on his harp last weekend, and really enjoyed playing guitar in the late-night residents’ bar sessions. Needless to say, I can’t help but see the parallels with a wee lass all those years ago, who did something similar on the flute.
Here’s a clip of Eoin playing harp last weekend, along with me on flute, Ross Campbell on concertina, and Mike Allen on fiddle: