Northumberland Fun with the Unthanks

Dunstanburgh Castle
For the last few years Januaries have seen me travel to Northumberland for a singing weekend organised by popular folk group The Unthanks. I am always a bit wary of writing about it publicly online, as the event is meant to be a private one. I have steered clear here of either reviewing the mini-concert the Unthanks treat attendees to on the Saturday or writing identifiably or critically about any of the attendees, but if any of my Unthanks singing weekend pals think I have crossed a line, contact me privately.

For those who are unaware of who The Unthanks are, they are a folk music group from Northumberland based around sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. Every year in the depths of winter they host weekends on a farmhouse holiday camp at which a few dozen people get to hang out with them and learn songs from Rachel and Becky. I started going to these as my beloved’s plus one some years ago and have kept going even after reasons stopped her from going, which is ironic as she sings all the time while the Northumberland weekend is almost the only singing I do all year. A lot of the other attendees are people who keep coming back each year, making the event feel like a reunion of old friends, but there is always a bit of a rollover, which keeps it fresh and stops it getting too car keys.

The weekends revolve around music and food. On arriving I consumed a copious quantity of cake and then the singing workshops began. A gentle commencement was a round from Bagpuss about porcupines, which we had to first sing as ourselves and then as the mice who sing it in the programme. More serious fare followed with ‘Three Ships’, an angry tune by Mike Waterson about how lax safety standards in the British fishing fleet led to the loss of three trawlers from Hull in a short period in early 1968. An odd feature of this tune was that the lows lead the melody, with the middles and tops doing the harmony parts; this was an unusually common feature of the songs this weekend. ‘Ah Cud Hew’, a song about a wrecked coal miner whose lungs are now full of dust provided more folkie sadness. Yet again I am struck by how mining folk songs are all either “Mining is shit” or “Oh fuck, they’ve closed down the mine”.

I did not cane it on the first night in Northumberland but an advancing cold meant that on waking in the morning I had almost lost my voice. Thus it was a struggle for me to participate in the Saturday workshops, but I did my best, with green tea and vocal exercise leading to something of an improvement. The big tunes in this session were ‘The Grey Funnel Line’ and ‘Bright Phoebus’. The former is by Cyril Tawney (composer of Unthanks weekend classic ‘Chicken on a Raft‘) and tells of a sailor who has fallen out of love with the sea after his heart has been captured by a woman back at home; Maddie Prior and June Tabor recorded it on their first album. ‘Bright Phoebus’ meanwhile is by Mike and Lal Waterson and was the title track on their album of 1971. Not having heard this song previously I was struck by how little it resembled what I think of as folk music, sounding like the kind of big tune that would boast massed backing vocals and big production when recorded. It is a great song, with lyrics about how great it is when your affections are returned. It is a great big brash good time tune – I love it.

Another key feature of the weekend is always going for a walk to see first a castle and then a pub. This time the castle was Dunstanburgh, now a cyclopean ruin that was apparently destroyed by cannon during the Wars of the Roses (its Wikipedia page is somewhat vague on this point). We sang some songs beside it and walked on to a beach, there to sing some more, and then made our way to The Ship Inn in the village of Craster where we drank hearty ales and delighted the locals. As well as group singing there were some individual turns. I was struck by the odd coincidence of hearing ‘Biddy Mulligan, the Pride of the Coombe’ and ‘T Stands for Thomas’ only a few days after hearing the same tunes performed by Rue, particularly as the latter song is much better known as ‘P Stands for Paddy’. The big hit of the pub sing-a-long was however ‘The Citizen Chanty’, led by a chap who sings with the Commoners’ Choir. This takes the tune of ‘A Drop of Nelson’s Blood’ but changes the lyrics to be a riposte to Theresa May’s bullshit comments about rootless cosmopolitans and I really enjoyed blasting out the chorus about being citizens of the world.


Singing in pubs however provides opportunities for members of the public to join in the action. Some rugger buggers were in the pub, downing beers to make up for a match being cancelled. One of them came forward to lead a song, which did cause my pulse to race given the reputation for sexism and racism of rugby songs. Instead though he led a call and response thing that was like some kind of haka thing; we thanked our lucky stars. I was talking afterwards to a woman who found herself surrounded by the other rugger buggers during the haka thing; the swirling waves of testosterone had given her the vapours.

The evening saw the traditional dining event known as the stuffing of the faces before a mini-concert by the Unthanks. Things were discussed. A couple of us went outside to look at the clear skies of Northumberland, seeing such delights as the bow of Orion, Betelgeuse glowing scarlet, six of the Pleiades, and two passing satellites (or the same one passing by twice?).

Singing outside around a fire seemed less apocalyptic than last year, when the accession of Trump made it feel like we were at the brink of a new age of darkness. But as dreadful as that dipshit’s presidency has been, he has not yet either destroyed the world in a nuclear war or initiated a functioning dictatorship in the USA, so to me as we gathered round the fire it did not feel like we were desperately trying to banish the horrors of the wider world.


Inside there was a round of random sing song stuff, with people doing party pieces. To some extent this has become a greatest hits event for recurring Unthanks attendees but two exciting new renditions were ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin’, a song featuring on the forthcoming compilation And Then We Bate The Shite Out Of Them, and’The Jeremy Hunt Rhyming Song’, which gets great mileage out of rhyming Hunt with every word possible except the one that first springs to mind [/spoiler]. Sadly I had not learned a song to perform myself and in any case my throat might not have been up for it, but I have already formed some ideas for next year.

One tune that turned out to work surprisingly well in this kind of jolly sing-a-long environment was Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’, which can be belted out with hand claps and foot stomps covering for the lack of synthesiser accompaniment. Try it in the comfort of your home.

As always, I came away from Northumberland thinking that singing is great and that I should do more of it. The problem is that I come away from Northumberland thinking this every year and then do nothing about it.

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