Monthly Archives: May 2012

Molly Leigh, the witch of Burslem

Dave Collins, playing a guitar and standing a box decorated to look like a jukebox. He's got a scarf round his neck. He says it was freezing.

Dad as the Human Jukebox at Lady Bay Festival, Nottingham

A couple of weeks ago Dad started writing a song about Molly Leigh, a legend from the Trent. This while insisting Tales from the River will all be too difficult and he doesn’t want to come. I reckon ignore what people say a lot of the time, I took the sudden interest in Trent-related folklore as a good sign.

Molly Leigh was born in what is now Stoke on Trent in 1685. Her only crime seems to have been her ugliness, and to live in an age of vindictive churchmen. Both heinous, I’m sure we can agree. Dad always roots for the underdog.

Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh, sitting with a blackbird on your knee

Run to the cowshed, run to the tree

Run where you like but you can’t catch me

Molly Leigh, chorus

He wrote most of the song in a few hours, but that’s a kind of rough draft. He then he has to fiddle with it until he’s happy. It’s now reached that exalted state, and he’s put it up on soundcloud. If you’re a Soundcloud member, and you wanted to add a comment about how the singer really should tour the pubs of the Trent with that song, it would all help the great persuading…

Also, if someone could try to tactfully explain to him why putting the © symbol in the title (or indeed, using it at all) makes him look like a dick. I’ve tried, but I give up now. No he’s not reading this blog.

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The Coy Father

Dad loves performing. He’s great with an audience, always makes them laugh. But he’ll go all faux humble about it and pretend he doesn’t love it and it’s not exciting. I think miserable Granddad didn’t approve of anything deemed ‘showing off’.

So Dad’s now being all coy about whether he wants to do the Tales from the River. Mum said yes straightaway when I asked if she wanted to come on an adventure. Dad’s been umming and arring, like he needs to be persuaded. But then he says things.

Like, on my recent visit, he wondered in while I was watching telly and asked if I knew about Molly Leigh, the witch of Burslem. I did not, so he proceeded to tell me. She was an old woman who lived in Burslem. Burslem is part of Stoke-on-Trent.

I thought, ‘Ay up, Dad pretends not to be interested in Tales from the River, but he just happens to be googling Trent legends?’

A few hours later he wandered into the kitchen, ‘Let me sing you my new song!’ He’s three verses into a song about Molly Leigh. Now if that isn’t preparation for accompanying your daughter on a mad folk and stories tour of the Trent, then I don’t know what is.

So, here’s Dad’s Molly Leigh song, as a very, very rough work in progress, ineptly recorded on my phone. Dad didn’t want me to put it up ‘cos of the bits where he goes wrong and stuff, but I said it’s authentic.

Now he’s got one song written. I reckon he’ll come round to the whole thing.


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In which we begin…

I once had to be rescued by the Lebanese Red Cross, off the side of a mountain. As you do.

It was entirely my own fault. In the four hours I spent, alone and in the dark, waiting for the rescue team and listening to wolves howling in the hills around me, I had ample time to list all the ways it was entirely my own fault, and just how stupid I had been.

These days, I NEVER go walking without plenty of water, food and a survival blanket. Just in case.

Now I knew the rules of safe hillwalking before, but there’s nothing like spending four hours in the dark picturing your own death to fix something in your memory. Experience is how we make wisdom our own.

And there’s something else to be said for experiences you wouldn’t choose to repeat – you see that the things you fear are not as bad as you think, and you find ways to get through them. I’ve found that a reassuring thought in life.

It’s that idea that animates the following teasingly paradoxical story, one I was told many years ago, by Tim Sheppard, of Bristol. And it’s this idea that decided me when I was in two minds about doing the Tales from the River. So I’d like to tell this story along the Trent, to explain why I’m doing something so foolish, and I thought it should be the first story we feature on the site.

(See earlier blogpost for an explanation of what the project’s about, and the rest of this website for more details –  such as they are in this early stage. This site will include stories, history, plans for the project, and once we are underway, all sorts of media we capture the journey with.)

Story: The Wise Woman and the good life

Many years ago, a young woman was looking ahead to her life, and wondering how it would be.  She saw all the old people in her village and saw that some were happy, and some were sad and bitter. 

She wondered, ‘How can I live a good and happy life? How do I know what my options are, and to make the right decisions?’ She found herself worrying away at this question, until one day, she could stand it no more. She threw down her apron and swore to travel to the far mountain, to consult the old wise woman who lived there.

She toiled up the mountain, to the wise woman’s hut. And there she presented her question:

‘Oh most venerated and wise of women, please honour my unworthy question with an answer, for it preoccupies and torments me. How do I live a good and happy life?’

The wise old woman puffed on her pipe, gazed into the middle distance and nodded.

 ‘A fair question at your age, I will answer. Good judgement. That’s the secret of a good and happy life. Acting with good judgement.’

Pleased to have her answer, the young woman headed off down the hill. But when she got home and told her mother what the old woman had said, she said,

‘But hang on, I don’t understand. How do you magically live your life with good judgement? If it was that easy, wouldn’t we be doing it already?’

The young woman realised her answer only led to more questions. She cursed to think she’d have to take her aching feet back up the mountain the next day, to ask this new question: ‘How do you get good judgement?’

So she clambered back up the mountain, and put a second question:

‘Oh wise woman, on my earlier visit you recommended the path of good judgement. How does a humble girl like myself, with much to learn, get good judgement?’

The wise old woman puffed on her pipe, and gazed into the fire. She sighed to herself, and nodded. 

‘Experience, my dear, that’s only the way to get good judgement. ‘

Experience, righto, that made sense. The young woman set off down the mountain again, but before she even got to the bottom, she’d realised there was another question. How do you get experience?

She turned her weary feet around and headed back to the Wise Woman’s hut.

‘Old crone, I have another question and I’d quite like this to be the last one. I need to act with good judgement. To get good judgement I need experience. HOW, for pity’s sake, HOW do I get experience?’

The wise old woman puffed on her pipe, once more. She gazed as if she could see other times, and smiled a secret smile. She nodded.

‘I’m afraid the best way to get experience my dear, is bad judgement.’

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Tales from the River, the background

Photo of the Trent, through tree branches, showing reflections of clouds

This introductory and explicatory post cross-posted from my blog.

The Trent is a river with stories. It’s seen Celts, Romans and Saxons settle along its banks. When the Vikings invaded, they came in boats along the Trent. It, and its tributaries, powered the mills, and drained the factories, of the industrial revolution.

It’s the river that flows through the town I grew up in.

Rivers are mythic actors in a landscape. They bring things. They take things away. They float boats, and drown children. They can divide two settlements a mile apart, and they can connect two settlements counties away.

It’s just water, flowing along (different water all the time) and yet the river has been there for thousands – maybe millions – of years. Rivers remind me of stories.

I love storytelling as an art form. You create whole worlds using nothing but words and the sound of your voice. It’s the oldest human form of entertainment*. Our ancestors were probably doing it round campfires, in the Lower Pleistocene.

So here’s my crazy idea. I was once interviewing a man from the Environment Agency about leisure facilities along rivers. He told me there are footpaths all the way along the Trent. He said, ‘So now you can walk all the way along the river, from the source to the sea.’

I’ve absolutely no idea what he said in the rest of the conversation. Those words were glowing in my mind.

“…walk all the way along the river, from the source to the sea…”

My mind added the words, ‘telling stories’ at the end. And me looking mythic on a hilltop, with a wizard’s staff and some flowing robes.

The more I’ve thought about it since, the more bones I’ve put on the idea. It would be called Tales from the River. And we all know, a project with a great name can’t lose. It would be about bringing stories to people, bringing people together and bringing a bit of magic to life.

Each stop would bring people together to talk about their river. I’d tell some stories (with a river theme). Then the audience would become just people, they’d tell their own stories. About the river, or other rivers, or about the area. They’d discuss, draw parallels, perhaps learn from each other. They’d experience being heard. We could record stories, and collect a folk history of the Trent.

Scientists studying the river could talk to people who’d lived alongside it their whole lives. Conservation planners could talk to pre-Roman archeaologists. Estate agents talk to art historians. Agriculturists to pub landlords. Who knows what interesting things get started when people from different groups start talking? The key thing is to get people together, fire their imaginations and give them something to do together.

The idea was first just a crazy adventure I wanted to have. Doing something useful and possibly a bit magical at the same time would a bonus. It would be such a fantastic experience, and such an honour to do, that I’m not bothered about getting paid to do it.

But there would be accommodation each night, and food. I’m wondering though if it could be a money-free project? Inns, B+Bs, hotels, or just ordinary people, offer us food and board for the night. In exchange, we do a story session in a place of their choosing.

When I say us, I’ve decided the ideal team would be my long-suffering boyfriend and endearingly quarrelsome parents. Ross is a sound engineer and would do live sound design for storytelling performances. Dad’s a singer-songwriter,Mum’s a person who gets stuff done and both of them are ex-teachers. This gives us a lot of flexibility in what we can do, and would also be hilarious.

I think bed and board in exchange for a performance is nice and traditional, and also simple. I can see it working for a lot of people. A folky type of pub may want to have a storytelling night in their bar. A hotel might want to donate their performance to the local primary school. An ordinary person might want some unusual birthday party entertainment.

I reckon we can be pretty flexible, as long as people have realistic expectations of how polished it’s going to be (not very). There’s got to be at least a few people out there who go, ‘That sounds like a crazy idea, let’s sign up.’

So what do you think? Is it a crazy idea? Good crazy or bad crazy? Have you got ideas of what we could do, people I should contact, stories I should consider? Get in touch and let’s see what happens.

*please don’t write in and argue, sex or music fans, I concede you have a point.

-photo credit, Nathan Collins, Nottingham

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