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Walking Britain: Singing, Foraging and Romancing the Past

December 7, 2009

If you revel in the romance of the land (and enjoy the musky smell of a man who lives off it), I have three new heartthrobs for you: The late-20s troubadors undertaking A Walk Around Britain. Two brothers and a friend who identifying themselves simply as Ed, Will and Ginger, are melding hippie idealism with Renaissance Faire survivalism as they literally walk, fulltime, around the British Isles, singing for their suppers.

As they explain on their attractive, distinctly post-Renaissance, multimedia website:

This is a full time expedition, in which we travel on foot, and live outside. We don’t advance our journey in cars, trains or buses, and we don’t much shop in supermarkets; but these are not rules, rather guidelines for a better time… We carry everything we need on our backs, and stout staffs in our hands… We shall walk this ancient land of song and story, right up to the top, then head toward Yorkshire and the Lakes.

Chaucer as a pilgrim from an early version of the Canterbury Tales.

If they sound just this side of Chaucer, they also look the part. “They are bearded and dishevelled, in hats and open boots, their clothes earthy greens and browns,” a Telegraph reporter described them in April. Carrying cloth packs and walking sticks, they pad into high streets thronged with the busy and cellularly connected, put out a cup for contributions, and open up with songs of crops and horses and lusty lasses in the hay. (Scroll down at this link to listen, clicking on the audio insert after “for this is what they made.” More tunes are at the Telegraph link.)

In addition to audio files, their site offers tips on edible plants and the natural history of hedgerows, along with travel notes expressed in a sort of quaint, medieval-ish patois that relies on verbs like “shall” and “let” and considers every staff a “stout” one. Woven throughout, a strain of dreamy idealism leads to statements like, “this project, which is also not a project, has decided to happen. And we are lucky enough to be expressing its will.”

Occasionally, a note of academic-sounding theoro-babble slips in, too, as in this description of their quixotic endeavor’s underlying philosophy: “This is not a re-creation of theoretical nomadism, but a modern attempt to merge the tenets of historical sustainability, with the possibilities afforded by our present world’s state of development.”

Yes, they can sound like Canterbury pilgrims after a few too many mugs of mead, but unlike most beery philosophers, they are actually living out their back-to-the-land ideals. In fact, it was the the original Canterbury pilgrims who inspired the first expedition of Ed, Will and Ginger’s non-project project. Begun as diversions from settled, post-university lives in which they worked as artists, gardeners and booksellers, among other pursuits, their limited excursions soon led to a fulltime avocation.

Now, burrowing down in Wales, the walkers sound less like pilgrims and more like Brambly Hedge mice as they write:

… we’re now making various winter preparations. Stockpiles of wool, dried fruit, and tools, are piling up slowly. We have been dyeing clothes with walknut husks, making chutneys and syrups from plums, pears and rosehips. We’ve dried many apples, and gathered pig-weed seeds, nettles, fat-hen seeds, acorns, sea-beet, and other bits. We are trying to be winter-ready.

Our winter plan is to stay in one place, in woodlands, beneath temporary straw shelters to evade the worst of the cold wet.

To the troubadors’ credit, there is more, at bottom, to their quixotic wandering and than a smug or self-indulgent migration off the grid. Blessed with clear, fine voices well suited to the simple agrarian folk tunes they sing, the walkers are also respectable amateur ethno-musicographers and recently issued an album (downloadable online) from recordings made in a studio earlier this year. (As a proud alumna of the Yale Slavic Chorus, I hold a special place in my heart for ethnomusicographers, like my fellow low-alto, Regina D’Amico, who is rescuing Bulgarian folk melodies from impending extinction.)

Of course, in keeping with its producers’ “way of the walk” mysticism, timing of the CD’s release was up in the air as recently as this summer: “We still haven’t released the CD,” they wrote in July. “But that is fine, and it will come out when it is best suited.

“Soon would be better. We are broke, and need shiny pennies to re-sole boots, to buy girls red wine, to keep ourselves in bread and cheese.”

So buy the album, turn off your phone, and break out a loaf and jug of your own.

The Ellesmere Manuscript Chaucer image is from the Huntington Library, San Marino, California
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