Travelling from London to Sheffield by train is always a thought-provoking experience. The first part of the journey finds the train hurtling through a host of towns and landscapes associated with my childhood. It passes the enormous aircraft hangers at Cardington which are impressive enough against the flat Bedfordshire landscape, but as a child I found them almost mystical. I don’t think I’d ever seen buildings so large. I think a huge white zeppelin-shaped balloon used to fly above them which always seemed rather exciting. I always wanted to see it up close, but am not sure we ever did. My mother once told me that there was a haunted wood nearby, which had a dark, peculiar atmosphere. I imagined that the hangers were filled with witches, and that the air balloon flying in the sky above it was some kind of UFO.
From Bedford, the train heads into Northamptonshire, and my memories move from the 1970s into the 80s. There’s a glimpse of the spire of Rushden church as the train passes above the badly-flooded meadows surrounding the river Nene at Wellingborough. And then for a five-minute period, every factory, every road, every field and every railway bridge holds a different distant memory. Even the colours of the bricks on the Victorian buildings seem somehow unique. This could only be east Northamptonshire. These are the colours and shapes of my teenage years. The train passes the Weetabix factory at Barton Seagrave, before charging through Kettering, and on up to Corby, and then, just like that, the landscape is unfamiliar again. The fields are simply fields; the buildings are just buildings. I peer along a country lane and have no idea where it’s heading. I no longer know the names of the villages I see nestling between the folds in the land, and barely recognise the words I see written on the road signs which flicker past.
There’s a station called East Midlands Parkway, which seems to be bang, slap in the middle of a power station, which is a curious concept. The grey concrete cooling towers hang above the platforms menacingly. I think I would not enjoy living there.
I’ve spent the day in a lonely cottage in the hills above Sheffield with a lovely lad called Andy, who is recording the 100 Faces project. Andy is a central figure in the British folk music scene, which seems to be entirely centred on Sheffield. We’d periodically find ourselves staring out across the rugged moors, and he’d point at a little cottage clinging to another hillside, and say “the violinist from Bellowhead lives there”, “that’s the pub where they perform the Sheffield carols,” “Kate Rusby lives in the village just over that ridge of hills...” It’s a pretty major scene, and they all seem to support one another, and share their expertise. They’re all pro musicians, but their attitude towards music-making is not money-centred, which is deeply refreshing. Sometimes I wish I were surrounded by people who could afford to make music for the sake of making music.
Andy has a very delightful dog, whom he rescued, and suspects was badly treated by its former owners. The dog had a terrible case of kennel cough last year, which nearly killed him, and now, every time he hears a person coughing, he rushes over and raises his paw; genuinely looking like he wants to help – or at least sympathise. Dogs are such curious and wonderful creatures.
I’m heading now to Newcastle for the next part of my adventure. Tomorrow evening, we’re recording the English Philharmonic Orchestra in a church in Jesmond. I have formed many ensembles from scratch, and built up many orchestras by layering individual players or groups of players, but it’s not often I get an opportunity to have a full orchestra, in front of me, playing one of my compositions. It’s the sort of thing I realise I should have asked my Dad to come and watch. I think he might have enjoyed the experience.