A new book!

If you enjoyed ‘Seasons of Change’ then you might like to know I’m now Kickstarting to raise funds to self-publish another book, ‘B-Sides, EPs, and Rarities’, documenting some 18 years of travel. Writing this has been my lockdown project, working through a cupboard full of old notebooks and files of photographs. It’s been a joy.

You can pre-order copies here;

 B-Sides, EPs, and Rarities 

The centrepiece is an account of my five journeys to China in the 2000s, ostensibly to see the last working steam railways in the world, but really to see a nation of well over a billion people undergoing a colossal industrial revolution at breakneck speed, with all the societal and environmental pressures that entails.

It’s only really by going back through the notes and photographs of these journeys that I’ve realised what a singular moment in time I was lucky enough to capture.

Some of the anecdotes have become well worn through the telling, others I’d forgotten until I went back through my archive. All told, they were some of the best and most meaningful moments of my life, and re-living them was hugely emotional and exciting.

From attending a battle of the bands in a scungy rock club in Beijing, to exploding birthday cakes in Uighur Xinjiang, via steelworks that employed over 100,000 people, and inadvertently introducing Inner Mongolia to Magical Trevor, I doubt I’ll see times like it again.

There are also lengthy sections set in South and Central America, trips to Eritrea, Romania, Cyprus, as well as chapters much closer to home, such as Knoydart, the Welsh valleys, and the Bridgewater canal.

It would be wonderful to get this made, and this Kickstarter is to raise the funds to pay it to be printed. I hope you enjoy it.


Jalai Nur coal mine in the far North of Inner Mongolia.

The Bridgewater Canal – 2: Trafford Park to Piccadilly

Part two of my mid lockdown walk from Worsley to Manchester. Probably best to read episode 1 first if you haven’t. 🙂

Back on the towpath and marching towards the Kellogg’s factory, I slowly and sadly came to the dissapointing conclusion that I wasn’t following an enthusiastic but careless oil painter along the route after all, but that the abandoned tubes I was seeing were discarded cyclists’ energy gels. The last working boats finished here in 1974, bringing grain from Salford docks to this factory. Recent enough that I know two people who worked on the traffic.

Towards Old Trafford, the canal becomes an inconvenient division between container depots, and the football ground looms over it all, feeling hemmed in by the disruption at the edge of the city proper. It has survived its context, and like the Trafford centre, seems a little shabby round the edges these days.

Such warehouses as survive are becoming painfully trendy now, sustained in this otherwise aging hinterland by the footballing powerhouse in much the same way that a hydrothermal vent at the bottom of the sea will sustain a vast array of unlikely and disconcerting life. Amongst the containers and industrial units were red brick venues, bars, night clubs, and ‘Hotel Football’, where young ladies, out of school, sat on the outside benches with portable speakers and smoked.

“Do you have a cig?” shouted one, and when I replied that I didn’t I faded from her view entirely as an ancient irrelevance.

Under the stilts of the tramline at Pomona, two barely teenage boys with partially broken voices were arguing tearfully over their fishing equipment. One threw the other’s kit into the canal shouting “Don’t fucking laugh at me!”, and the other wailed in a voice that see-sawed between youth and adolescence.

These children could have belonged to almost any generation, making a day of it amongst the dust and rubbish beneath the arteries of the city. Two stands down, a graffiti artist in a pork pie hat sprayed away generically whilst a bored looking girlfriend watched on. For an alternative culture, graffiti artists do look so very alike to me.

The city starts to stack up, developments piling on top of one another as you near the centre and the value of the land goes up. Behind a tall and bulging retaining wall at Cornbrook, a machine eats Manchester’s spent cars. You can see it from the tram, but down beneath on the towpath I could only hear it, bellowing away like a perplexed minotaur following a suspicious string, made real by the morsels that had spattered out of the nest and over the fence, a wing mirror, a front headlight unit, some tattered bodywork.

This is where Manchester begins.

The city fits around the railway and grudgingly accommodates the canal because it must. This generation of Manchester’s development came rolling in on graceful cast iron spans a level above the slow and grubby world of the canal, still needed if no longer the wonder it had once been. Mills loom over where the railways don’t span, although each year there’s fewer as they collapse and burn down. The chimneys are gone now, and the vast, emasculated red brick mills and warehouses either fail and die or become remade for Manchester’s future as flats and offices.

Here, Egerton’s vision became complete. His coals, floated out of his mine on the unique M boats, or starvationers as they later became known, owing to their ribby look, were sold to market, unleashing an unquenchable potential. Egerton died incredibly rich, his canal already branching off to Runcorn, connecting with the newly built Trent and Mersey, soon to join the Leeds and Liverpool at Wigan, and ultimately become the first part of a network that transformed the country in a way no country had ever been transformed before. There was no turning back the clock once the Bridgewater canal was built. The onset of industry now inevitable, the scaling up of ambition, volume, density, profit, exploitation, innovation. The city before me now was built up and over this first maternal artery.

It was probably inevitable, as materials improved, technologies became possible, and agricultural mechanisation produced a large workforce searching for something new other than tending fields, but it might have happened elsewhere, far away, and Manchester might have remained a little village by a vast peat bog full of ancient, forgotten stories. Perhaps the startling technological improvements in cotton spinning and weaving would not have happened here in the North West. Perhaps that in turn wouldn’t have driven the exponential growth of the cotton industry in America, and the growth of the slave population to work it. Perhaps it would just have happened a little differently.

This ribbon of dirty water, running into the heart of the city, below what followed, effectively a filter and a drain for what runs down through the layers of later city above it, a cleansing system that carries the filth of the day away. This modest little canal, so small by later European standards, just as big as a two-horse barge needed it to be, couldn’t possibly really have been the fuse that lit the world, could it? The blueprint for the processes that generated wealth on an unprecedented scale and commenced consuming resources so furiously that we still haven’t begun to face up to our addiction.

Here a new canal begins, the transpennine Rochdale canal, built some 40 years later into a country that had already transformed beyond recognition. The first few miles creep through the city to Piccadilly, almost buried, a world within a world, confined, restricted, damp. A sump for its own dingy folklore.

This is the lowest level of Manchester still in use, where once it would have been the top. Goodness knows what lies beneath it. In ‘Men at Arms’ by Terry Pratchett, Samuel Vimes descends into the bowels of the city in pursuit of the villain and realises that what Ankh-Morpork is built on is largely an older iteration of Ankh-Morpork.

“rooms had become cellars, cellars had become foundations.“

As the canal ascends alongside Whitworth street, it’s virtually a tunnel. Trendy bars open out onto balconies far above and routes off the towpath are hard to find. Above this, the tram is on another level again, each new development forced up above the others like trees fighting to get into the canopy. The canal is bottom of the stack, awkwardly refusing to be entirely entombed, and the walker feels like a potholer, staring up at little patches of light, their world one of water cascading over gates and stalagmites of whatever waste material has filtered down this far.

At the Bridgewater hall, a basin on the left leads to a forgotten canal tunnel that once ran through to the river Irwell, and still exists in large part, having been converted to air raid shelters. On the right, the ghost of the Haçienda, another type of underground world, the legendary nightclub that for a period defined Manchester’s remarkable cultural contribution when the city was in every other regard on its arse.

What then is Manchester? It’s a city that has worn so many coats over the decades, finding unexpected renewals and bold new directions every time it seems down and out. Perhaps its whatever it seemed to you to be when you came of age and strode out under the permanently leaden sky to find yourself. The Haçienda for some, Rusholme and curry mile for others, for today’s bright young things perhaps the bohemian transformation of Ancoats, scarcely believable to me to see it. For others its concerts at the much lamented Free Trade Hall, where at least 3 different people all claim to have shouted ‘Judas’ at Bob Dylan, a defining moment in musical history now half as far back in time as the riots following The Rite of Spring. Oh to be at another such moment, or even better cause one! Free Trade Hall where my own parents both attended a Planxty concert without meeting, several years before they were introduced elsewhere, built on the site of the Peterloo massacre, that defining piece of Manchester history and folklore that has resisted and survived its total lack of official recognition, living on within the Mancunian as something definitive to be remembered.

My own Manchester touchstone is probably some combination of the Academy 3 music venue where I encountered such bands as Raging Speedhorn and Will Haven at the age of 18. That and Holts pubs, all of them, that chain of shabby, hard wearing brewery owned pubs that exemplify everything I hold Manchester to be and probably completely alien to today’s youthful bearers of the city’s latest mantel.

At Tib Lock, grey concrete limbs stretch up cadaverously for a dozen stories on three sides, allowing a single channel of progression. Men on cradles drilled holes in 60s low budget concrete constructions far above, and a young family cruising the Cheshire ring worked their hire boat through the lock with the pallid unspoken determination of people who know that they have no choice but to continue.

Then you’re beneath the celebrated Canal Street, home to Manchester’s LGBQT+ community, where every bar spills out into the road with tables and umbrellas. A friend of mine dropped their windlass (lock key) in here once, and we attracted a large and jovial crowd as we attempted to recover it with a magnet. I remember a cheer going up as I pulled up a chain-mail handbag.

It’s rumoured that a serial killer operates here, ‘The Pusher’ as they’ve been titled. People fall in and not all can get out again. The combination of such a thriving night-life centre and a canal deep in a ravine of brick and stone makes a terrible combination, and plenty would rather it was not there at all. Endless safety barriers have been thrown up, making using the canal even more detached and challenging. One lock is virtually inaccessible now, without towpath and locked behind safety barriers.

Yet the myth of the serial killer remains, despite police assurances that no such person exists. Perhaps a city with such a dark streak of dirty water running through it isn’t complete without such a myth. Perhaps we need to populate the shadows and fill in the spaces beneath us.

Above canal street, the canal vanishes into further darkness under the approaches to Piccadilly, and enters a section known as the Undercroft, which is now gated and locked overnight in an attempt to stymy its reputation as Manchester’s leading cruising location. There were several men there today, and I found it a powerful place, with large notices from the police warning against ‘Lewd behaviour’. The roar of water flooding down off the Pennines, over the gates and away, an intensity of dark and sound.

My Father had been part of the volunteer group that restored these waterways, very much against official wishes at the time. One of the locked doors off this strange place into the foundations of the interlocking developments that make up the cellars of Piccadily was once the setting for illicit navvy parties, with electricity jerry-rigged off some random passing mains wire. Known as the ‘Cold Hole’ it has a particular place in the folklore of this group, some 50 years hence. I’ve never been able to work out which door it was.

Above this is Piccadilly basin and you’ve emerged from the Undercroft. Here, the canal splits again, different routes to Yorkshire and beyond. Two basins almost meet a little further up but the final link wasn’t made owing to the presence of Manchester’s main fibre optic cable running down the middle.

I turned and began walking back down the canal so I could catch a tram. A man beckoned me into a dark corner and I realised that by doubling back, I had inadvertently given a signal of interest. Embarrassed, I had to explain my error. It’s not my world and perhaps I had no place to be there. If you’re not on a boat, there’s only one other reason to be in the Undercroft, and I’d stepped into another community without learning the rules. It was all rather embarrassing.

And it’s a fairly awful place for it, but perhaps that’s where you have to go if you’ve been marginalised out of anywhere better. I pushed on.

Masked up, I caught the tram back. Two lads sat down across from me, unmasked, making eye contact, willing me to have something to say about it. One stuck his tongue out at me, and they both proceeded to perform pull-ups on the roof rails. As we passed the Imperial War Museum at Salford Quays, where the ships once came in from the great lakes, they noticed a tank parked among the otherwise empty and broad space outside the building.

“Fuck OFF!”

“Check That!”

“It’s a fucking tank”

“Why’s it there?”

“Don’t know.”

If you’ve enjoyed this writing, you may enjoy ‘Seasons of Change’, my book and album about my 18 months spent busking around England. You can order both of them here. I also have a PayPal tip jar via tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive of my previous writing and everything is tremendously welcome, more so now than ever!

The Bridgewater Canal – 1: Worsley to the Trafford Centre

Introductory note – This was written last summer during a slight relaxation of the lockdown. It’s quite hard to be a travel writer when you can’t leave your desk! There’ll be a part 2 in the next few days.

Worsley green. Serene and studded with mature trees, it slopes gently down to a row of handsome houses, bedded neatly into the landscape, for all the world an ancient village green, common land unspoiled by the unfortunate intrusion of commoners, the jewel that confirms this to be the crowning postcode for middle-class Mancunian success. Each tree had a fuse-box nestled among the boughs, to make the Christmas lights an easier installation. The notice board was delaminating and hadn’t been updated for a while. Yoga classes were off or gone online. Professional dog walkers seemingly unnecessary in a time of furlough and work from home.

At the end of the green, the road bends over the bridge, and there’s Worsley Delph, a square hole in the landscape where a sandstone quarry had provided the starting point for a drainage channel that eventually grew into a mine entrance and 46 miles of underground canals. I was standing on the viewing platform, looking at the sunken arches of the twin tunnels running into the hill. It was quiet, my only companions a young mother with two ginger boys who were gleefully using the platform to aggressively pelt Canada geese with hard lumps of bread.

And yet, this exact spot had attracted before me; King Christian VII of Denmark with fifty courtiers, Grand Duke Nicholas, soon to be Czar of Russia, the Duchess of Oldenburg, and so many others.[1] They’d come to stare and ponder this feat of engineering that had showed how to change the world and gone home with awesome new dreams of mechanisation and industrialisation that would sculpt Europe into a series of global and economic superpowers.

The observation platform, a recent replacement for a much older one, had quaint metal sculptures of mining equipment, tubs, picks, lanterns, shovels. You could that tell this is a good neighbourhood because nobody has turned up with a Transit and weighed it in for scrap yet. The coal tub had script on the big logs of coal within, telling tales of life for the children who worked the air doors in the mines. As young as six some of them, it claimed.

The boys were not out of ammunition yet, and the pelting continued as a kingfisher cut across the water, a flare of neon blue, across the face of the sandstone and onto a railing.

“They go to school up in the wood.” The mother told me. “It’s lovely.”

Back on the green, an elegant arched bridge leads to the towpath to Manchester. Three dog walkers had reached a Mexican standoff, each unable to make progress without entering another animal’s exclusion zone. Across from the towpath are the dry docks, the first of their type in the country, listed buildings now, and somewhere I’ve spent a great deal of time replacing planks on an old wooden boat.

The residents of Worsley live in a modern dreamland, unaware perhaps that their idyllic village green is the void left behind by the demolition of the great workshops that serviced the coal mines and the canal, the dry dock the only bit still standing. They don’t care for the banging and sawing of boatbuilding and like to complain when anyone tries to mend a boat, much like those people who move next door to an established music venue and immediately complain to the council about the noise.

One of our group had reacted forecefully against this grumbling, years ago, and drove her Landrover in doughnuts around the green in the middle of the night repeatedly bellowing “THIS IS A MIDDLE CLASS RESIDENTIAL AREA” out of the open window. She later painted a hammer and sickle on the boat’s rudder which we faithfully renew every year. Above the scene, the village clock still strikes 13 at 1pm, an adjustment made so that workers couldn’t pretend they hadn’t heard it when their lunch break was over.

Steep roofed new-builds line the canal side, imaginatively named things like ‘The moorings’, where the upmarket cars of the comfortable rest at safe harbour on weedless bricked drives. It’s an odd disconnect between modern village and history. Some histories bring pride in their telling, others end up capped in concrete and sealed away, grassed over, expunged from the record. A 1575 lease note talks of coal mining in poetic terms;[2]

“To dygg and carry away all suche colles as shalbe found growin with the demesnes of the Peele of Hulton”

Growin. I liked that. Sealed away again now and dropping out of folklore, perhaps they’re regathering, breeding, growing strong in number and strength again beneath the hill.

I followed the path the coal had taken. Francis Egerton, the Duke of Bridgewater, had quickly realised that the drainage tunnel for his coal mines further up the escarpment could solve several problems at once. The region’s biggest problem in 1759 was the difficulty of getting from one bit to another. The roads were virtually impassable, as was the vast expanse of Chat Moss standing between the mines and their market, a wilderness into which the Iron age residents had merrily planted the severed heads of ritual victims, some of which had periodically turned up on the peat cutters’ conveyor belts as the great bog was slowly drained and used up, perhaps the entirely intended end result of a splendid 2000-year practical joke.

A canal solved all Egerton’s problems. Running right into the hill, the coal could be floated out by boat, and then towed by horse all the way to Manchester. Drainage, transport, and a steady supply of water for the canal. It has been speculated that Egerton was impressed by French canal building on a grand tour of Europe. In my view, it is much more likely he made some sandwiches and went on a day trip to St Helens and saw the Sankey canal, an improved river and just took it one step further, but that’s not so romantic. An act of parliament was obtained in 1759, John Gilbert having made the initial plans, and James Brindley hired as engineer soon after.

Manchester is such a patchwork of radically different communities, and your view changes quickly, even on foot. A burnt-out motorbike made a suitable boundary marker as the towpath took me towards Monton and I felt the social class shift perceptibly in the space of a few strides. Through a screen of supple silver birch, I saw my final field of the day, and through the leaves, the mottled complexion of cattle flanks, unresolved but unmistakable. A man screamed for his dog “Rex” to “Fucking well come here”. Perhaps the services of the professional dog walkers had been too easily let go. On the right, a long row of houses sulked below, thick with the brooding presence of mossing trampolines and alive with the shrill call of the builder’s radio. Dense paneled oblongs of garden, terraced at one end with high screening fences running towards the tall embankment of the canal where the view across the field had been lost to all but the most enthusiastic loft conversions as the land had subsided.

Miners had stripped out the coal like sheets of lasagna being surgically removed from a bake, but the canal’s level must be maintained, embankments thrown up and the bottom filled in as the land went down. These houses had sunk into a gloomy hollow through no fault of their own. Perhaps their first tenants had gone out each day to work to hew and pick and sink their house a little further into darkness. A German Shepherd noticed me stopped in thought and howled up at me like it was all my fault.

For sale signs promised ‘Zero Arrears!’, or ‘0% commission on sale!’ instead of the agent’s name. Cheap flats extruded rusting, empty balconies. At Monton turn, someone has built a lighthouse in their garden. The vast mill that faced it is gone without trace.

Here the canal heads under the encased motorway and through a strange twilight land, where even in my short life I’ve watched as factories became abandoned shells, to demolition, to open plains of rubble stretching to vanishing points, to scraggy brownfield where the summer cats toyed with careless mammals in the buddleia, to identikit housing where perfect lawns overlay the fragments of the past. And behind the headlines of physical change, there’s the redundancies, the ways of life ended, the way it finally looks like it had never truly been there at all and all you’ve got to trust to is your own memory of it.  The world changes a damn sight faster than we do.

Slightly dated signs along the path point the traveler at buildings that may or may not still stand and direct to pubs that may be closed and gone. A modest railway bridge comes over at Patricroft, and it would be easy to miss that it’s the first example of a railway crossing a canal in the world.

George Stephenson crossed Brindley here, with the Liverpool and Manchester line, a railway whose catastrophic first day included an MP being run over and killed by a train, and the inaugural service being driven back out of Manchester by a stone-throwing mob without managing to arrive at the station. It nevertheless led to a revolution every bit as profound as the one ignited by Egerton and Brindley’s canal.

Along the run down to Barton, evidence of a mellowing, as the moored boats no longer need Perspex window protection from pot shots taken by enthusiastic members of the Patricroft public. In the channel, a semi submerged sofa cheerily sailed by towards Liverpool on the wind. Little mounds of rice and worms dotted the path, anglers’ spoil tips, the waste product of a day’s fishing. Only one angler was in attendance today and he’d just caught a fish no more than three inches in length. He held it in one meaty hand, eye to eye, lingering over it like it might prove to be the highlight of his day. I watched, and he became aware of me, replacing the fish in the water, suddenly embarrassed to be caught by a stranger in such an intimate moment with his little fish.

At Barton, the canal has faced a variety of obstacles during its history. In 1760, Brindley had to work out how to cross the Irwell river. The original plan had been to head along the North bank following the contour line, but partly due to landowners in Salford proving difficult, and partly with one eye on where else his canal might later be profitably extended to, Egerton and Brindley returned to Parliament to request a change of route and sought to prove that such an aqueduct could be built by carving a model out of cheese in front of astonished MPs.

This stunt proved deservedly successful and Brindley’s original aqueduct was considered so graceful that ladies were encouraged to visit it on aesthetic grounds. The coming of the Manchester ship canal over a hundred years later, that huge sea lane into Salford, necessitated a rethink, and the even more impressive Barton Swing Aqueduct, designed by Edward Leader Williams was created to take its place, a sealable tank of water that can swing out of the way to allow ocean liners access to the inland port.

These days its all a bit sad. The port of Salford is no more, and maintenance of the bridge limited to essentials. The other parallel swing bridge on the road is no better, and they form a greying pair of rusting hulks, just about functional, lost in a jungle of brambles, ragwort, nettles, and buddleia. A house is collapsing by the southern end, chipboarded windows covering breeze blocks, but at least there’s an observation platform with interpretation board to better provide views of the decay.

The South bank is the start of Trafford park, Europe’s largest industrial estate, another strange kind of wasteland. Industry is still going on here, but it hardly needs anyone to run it these days, factories and plants humming and steaming and clicking away without much in the way of people. The de-manning of industrial work has left these places much like a country graveyard, attended with just enough gentle affection to prevent the bindweed engulfing the gravestones. At the end, a diesel power station has appeared, ready to spring to attention and plug any holes in the UK’s electricity production, no doubt at vast expense, the natural end-product of our failure to have a coherent energy policy for the last three decades.

And then you reach the Trafford Centre. Crown jewel, its curse to be mortgaged again and again, a giant shopping centre so audacious and profitable it has been used to leverage many other projects, ultimately leaving it saddled with debt and teetering on the edge. A very personal statement of intent by John Whittaker, chairman of the Peel group, the Trafford centre was the culmination of his domination of West Manchester, having already taken over the Manchester ship canal, which itself had taken over the Bridgewater canal with the building of the ship canal. There is a continuous thread that links Egerton’s revolutionary expansion to this cathedral of shopping, each step made possible by the success of the last. Part of the building’s electricity comes from hydroelectric at Irlam locks on the ship canal.

I masked up and walked in. There was a sign by Home Sense.

“We regret that we can only allow 78 customers in at any one time.”

A staff member stood by, optimistically, ready to enforce this limit, but the trickle of customers all slid past the door and I allowed myself to be swept along.

The floor had stickers on dictating a one-way system and attendants at the doors directed us into the lanes. Unfortunately, it became clear that the teams who’d been sent out to lay down the signage had failed to first agree which side should be which. One team had gone with the left, another with the right, leading to a complex diffusion zone where everyone mingles through by negotiation.

The central fountain in Barton Square remains our Northern lodestar of bad taste. Robed white male Romanesque statuary surrounds a fountain of entirely golden and naked women. Further along, some women are made of black stone, but their faces remain European, making them achingly tokenistic. The 21 years this place has stood are telling now, and some statues have lost their extremities. Perhaps the Venus de Milo also stood in some ancient shopping centre for a little too long.

I watched a man struggling with a mop and concluded that you haven’t lived until you’ve seen someone attempt to disinfect his way up a down escalator. Burger King told us that “We were sanitising before it was cool”. Victoria’s secret was shut, which only added to the mystery.

Hardly anyone was wearing a mask unless they were in a shop that demanded it, in which case one was produced from a back pocket and popped on. People will be people. Changes to how we live our lives find it hard to take root without force. It took the legal insistence upon seatbelts to get people to use them, regardless of the statistics. Same with masks. Until we’re told we must, we won’t. It’s something to do with what Aleks Krotoski describes in her wonderful Digital Human podcast as wanting to go back to the old normal. Even when presented with information that a change in behaviour is statistically beneficial for you and others, or when the world simply changes, we seek ways to revert to what made us comfortable even if we know it’s no longer the right way to do things.

In 1900, the citizens of this area started falling ill in great numbers, displaying pallid skin and sickness. Doctors initially assumed some massive surge in alcoholism, but over time it became apparent that Arsenic had found its way into the brewing process. This became a huge scandal, with long lasting consequences, the birthrate in Salford remaining low for several years afterwards, but even when the problem was exposed, people kept going to the pub and drinking the poisoned beer because that’s what they did and they weren’t about to stop.

It’s too much to ask people to gravitate to such changes. If it’s not mandated by authority, it won’t happen. I can’t be critical of the people I saw, after all, why was I there myself? A need to get back to work in some way, be myself again. It’s a fine line between observer and culprit.

A sign for the aquarium said, “Discover over 5000 amazing creatures”. I decided I already had.

To be continued…

If you’ve enjoyed this writing, you may enjoy ‘Seasons of Change’, my book and album about my 18 months spent busking around England. You can order both of them here. I also have a PayPal tip jar via tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive of my previous writing and everything is tremendously welcome, more so now than ever!

[1] Journeys on the Underground Canal – City of Salford Education and Leisure Directorate 1999

[2] The Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal – Frank Mullineux – Eccles and District History Society 1959

Happy bees buzz in the key of C

Last Autumn, as part of my Kickstarter to raise money to produce the book and album for the Busk England project, I offered to write essays on the subject of the backer’s choice. Here is the first of them, commissioned by JoAnne Hughes, and she tells me that the title was inspired by the work of The World Bee Project. I hope you enjoy it.

The book and the album have now been completed, titled ‘Seasons of Change’, and you can get them here.


The phrase, perhaps, comes from an ‘Audio Visual Installation’ by the splendidly named ‘Wolfgang Buttruss’ called ‘The Hive’, where 170,000 connected pieces of aluminium contain a soundscape of cello, human vocal, and bees buzzing, as they apparently have been scientifically proven to when happy, in the key of ‘C’.

This though, is in Kew gardens, in London, and has probably been reviewed by people who presumably know what they’re talking about when it comes to art. As for scientifically proven? Well skin cream is scientifically proven to fight the six signs of aging, and yet we grow wrinkly and sag in surprising places. In my case, sign number five is that I much more frequently inadvertently trigger the hand dryer with my arse in motorway service station toilets. Explain that, science.

And what defines a happy bee anyway? Contentedness and euphoria could both be described as happiness, and yet they are almost opposite, quite irreconcilable. I would not want to be in a room with euphoric bees, no matter what key they were in.

I went down into my garden to see if there were any bees passing through. Spring was bursting out, unrestrained, erotic, from every bud, and the sun warmed the insects of the air and the tadpoles of the pond, working away to a froth in the shallow edges. Life is defined in this new season purely by its shameless vitality. By the apple tree I stood, for a remarkable hour. Fiddle in my hand, matching the note of the passing insects. ‘A’. ‘G’. ‘B flat’. In the dry soil by the vegetable bed, a solitary bee was making a nest for itself. ‘A’ again. It paused, and looked over its shoulder, a little aggrieved at my collaboration without consent. “Really?” Neighbours peeked over the hedge. This was not normal behaviour on the Merseybank council estate, where my neighbours change every year or so, another family locked into a spiral of issues made to use next door as a staging post onto who knows where.

‘A’ suddenly broke into A flat as a wasp took a hoverfly down to dismember, hitting the soil with the tiniest thud I’d have missed if I wasn’t tuned in and infused with the expressions of life and death around me. Above and below were beginnings and brutal endings, and although I’m not the first writer to see it, the sudden awareness that I was surrounded by a visceral, endless fight for survival was astonishing. It’s just too small usually, we are too preoccupied, and entire generational wars can be ended by an unknowing boot striding down to the compost.


I allowed myself to meditate further among the outwellings of spring. A big bumble bee climbed into a rosemary blossom several sizes too small, and the entire flower dropped off with bee inside down onto the floor with a scarcely audible ‘floomph’. After a moment, where I swear the bee looked both up and down in accusation, it carried on, and I followed it around from blossom to blossom, like the world’s most ludicrously obvious spy tailing his target.

The bee seemed unconcerned by the giant lumberer, safely armed with its sting, like an advocate of the Second Amendment whose weapon is believed to keep them from trouble. But then, a bee is a little less likely to spend time on internet forums, absorbing deep-hive conspiracies and anti-hoverfly paranoia, before heading out on a senseless stinging spree. Mindless violence is the realm of wasps in the Autumn, drunk on windfalls and convinced that you’re looking at their bird. I wrote a tune for them once, the bastards.

Spring has none of this, just a vibrant urgency. An opportunity to be grasped as the world comes back to life and food returns as the plant kingdom descends into sexual frenzy, each delicate bloom a blunt proposition, a gartered leg stretched out by the main road at 1am.

But no ‘C’ in the air.

I have friends who keep bees. I’d asked one about their hives;

“How do you know they’re happy?”

He’d thought for a minute, and replied;

“I know when they’re angry.”

I’d planned to go round, stand by the hives and play them music by the Smiths, see if the note changed. “I was looking for a hive and then I found a hive…” Would they attack me, or just sink into gloom and descend through the keys?

But then, music and mood have strange interplay. Perhaps the most depressing band I have ever heard are ‘My Dying Bride’, legends of the doom metal scene, a genre that had no choice but to emerge in Bradford around 1990. Their all-consuming misery does not have the effect you would expect on their audience. One walks out of a concert uplifted, cleansed, and quite ready to take on the next day with a new optimism. Even when absorbed in their music, I encounter an extraordinary happiness, floating in the sound-world,  it is a euphoria, (Incidentally, euphoria was a name my friend wanted to give his folk trio, but nobody got it) and in deepest misery we find happiness. No true and richly savoured mood is possible without a profound understanding of the counterpoint. (Album recommendation ‘A Line of Deathless Kings’ by the way) Sad songs and minor keys are as sure a way to meaningful happiness as a jolly tune can be, as Nigel Tufnel puts it so succinctly in ‘This Is Spinal Tap’

“It’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I’m working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don’t know why.”
“What do you call this?”
“Well, this piece is called “Lick My Love Pump””

But such a mood is more than a single, contained feeling, at such a concert. It is about the shared experience. It’s no good asking one bee what key they feel like buzzing in today. The hypothesis concerns bees, plural.

Why do bees buzz? The main reason for a buzz is wingbeat, and quite simply, the larger the bee, the lower the tone, as a larger wing flaps more slowly. A hive of bees then, where they are all broadly of the same stock, can achieve a collective tone, if they’re all feeling of a mood. You hear of the hive itself changing key, a warning before the launch. A last chance to get away.

So, like the mood of a concert hall, the bees are as one in their opinion. A great performer picks up an audience and plays their mood collectively, a web of social cues compelling the room to behave as one, a school of fish darting to the performer’s waved hand. In my case it can be just as easily demonstrated with the example of when I lost an entire room of paying audience members with a single ill-timed knob-joke. It is the same phenomenon in reverse, and it cannot be undone, for they are many and you are one and your power is gone.

I could not answer this question here, in this garden, where a single, easily suggestible bee might pop by every few minutes. I needed to hear the packed hall in concert, the song of thousands whose mood was a cumulative effort.

I rang my other bee-keeping friend. It was a well-timed call, for in another world I’d have been playing at her folk club that evening. She naturally assumed this was the purpose of my call.

“I’m actually interested in your beehives.”


“I want to know what key they buzz in, depending on their mood.”

“Well ok.” She seemed unsurprised with my request. I am a known nutter, after all. “They’re pretty happy right now, the sun is out, its warm, and there’s plenty of flowers.”

She agreed to send me audio files of her hive inspections. Each of her four hives had survived the winter, and one was looking flighty. The files rolled in. I sat with my mandolin and jangled along. Mostly ‘B’. I passed over my findings. The next day, she sent me more files. She’d disturbed a queen, and the bees were cross. Suddenly they’d raised the tone to C.

It’s not looking good for the theory here. Perhaps there are regional variations? Do Southern bees buzz higher, owing to their middle-class upbringing? Yorkshire bees might be as low as the ‘G’ in ‘Grit’. It’s true with songbirds and cows, regional accents abound in the animal kingdom it turns out, so why not with bees? There’s a PhD in there for someone.

But there’s a second reason that a bee might buzz, and that’s when deep in a flower, surrounded by the ecstasy of golden dust, it will hit a new note and agitate for more. And here, it’s middle C that works, a note to draw more and more from the flower.

Our honey, and far more importantly, the pollination of our crops depends upon this central note, the heart of our Western system of music, and all its inherent tuning problems. Coincidence? Maybe, I’m not going to promulgate a romantic but probably deeply flawed theory about C being the fundamental note of all nature, but it’s a nice coincidence if nothing else and the Anglo concertina sounds loveliest in ‘C’.

But does it make them happy? The happiest bees I’ve heard are those at rest, back in the hive after a long day’s work, surrounded by their colleagues, and these hum in a steady ‘B’. ‘C’ is for a state of raised awareness, be that excitement or warning, a higher state of agitation. ‘C’ is ready to ride the zipwire. ‘B’ is the hygge, the evening in front of the fire with a bottle of wine and a good film.

And I understand it. Crowds can be fearful and troubling. Crowd mentality is one of the strange features of human life. Fear and worry transmitting through a crowd can be terrifying. But to be lost in a room of laughter and joy is as uplifting as it gets, and to share with 5000 others the winning try that puts your side in the final is to be part of a collective emotional experience that stays with you for life, an ‘I was there’ moment, and perhaps for me takes a little of the emotional place of religion. It’s not that I ‘believe’, it’s that I love the joy of the hive’s success and I’ll also drink my glass of a collective failure. We all buzz together, when we buzz. Unlike bees, the collective voice of the Salford faithful rarely finds a single tuneful note. Maybe that’s why we so rarely win.

“What’s the C for, you say? Sailing ships in, I reply, but that’s only jokes, only the laffles. It’s Colin.”

Barry C Homeowner, Athletico Mince

The finished product,

..and what’s next.

A big thank you to everyone who has followed the Busk England blog and supported me as I’ve gone around the country, meeting people, making friends, learning, watching, playing music.

This has finally all coalesced into a book and an album. I chose ‘Seasons of Change’ as my title, a suggestion from my writing guru, Paul Sullivan. I could not have known how prescient the title would prove to be. Perhaps I caught the very end of an era that will now pass into history.

The book has been published by Scratching Shed, a publisher based in Leeds who specialise in Rugby League and travel writing, a match made in heaven!

The album was written and arranged in London at Cecil Sharp House, as part of a residential bursary awarded by the EFDSS. It was a wonderful creative week. We recorded it in splendid isolation at Dane Bridge Chapel in the Staffordshire peaks in December. It’s a duo album between myself and Marit Fält. Brilliantly recorded by Jon Loomes of Talking Cat studios, it captures the perfect ring of the room and the glorious acoustics I’ve been enjoying in our high streets.

You can listen to it here.

Seasons of Change

You can order the book and CD here.

There was to be a fairly substantial tour to support this. We are currently cancelling or postponing dates further and further into the future. I hope to reschedule as many as possible, but the outlook for live performance is so bleak I have not attempted to do so yet.

If you have enjoyed this project and can afford to do so, please consider a book and a CD. I will be splitting what we make between myself and Marit, who has lost her income too.

If money is tight, all these blogs will still be here, and I’ll be putting the album on streaming services soon. I hope to start a free ‘Book at Bedtime’ live video cast reading a chapter each evening in a week or so. I have other plans afoot too, including a podcast of the successful Autumn show at Guide Bridge theatre.

I intend to continue to blog, although the lockdown means I will be searching for new subjects. Feel free to suggest!

Thanks again for the support, and check back for new blogs soon.



Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project has been funded by what I made as I traveled round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I carry my writing work on, please consider making a paypal tip to tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

Blog archive

Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. 🙂

Project Update

I’m delighted to announce that I have been awarded an Arts Council National Lottery Project Grant to take this all forward. This will mean I can bring Marit Fält along with me on the tour next year, as well as supporting the costs of publicising the project, and engaging noted writer Paul Sullivan as a consultant towards structuring the book. In short, delivering this is now my full time work, and I have no distractions. I’m in a tremendously fortuitous position.

My aim is to sort an 18 date tour for the album in May/June, with a few summer festivals thereafter. I’ve booked around a dozen dates already. I’ve got a few solo dates coming in too for other parts of the year, and have also now arranged an album/book launch for April. Details of these shows will be put up here in the forthcoming weeks.

If you have any ideas of places you’d like to see the tour come through, please get in touch. I’ve already booked the show into venues ranging through house concerts, folk clubs, village halls, arts centres, and festivals. It really can work anywhere.

The book is well on the way now, and has come together really nicely. I’ve spent the week working with Paul Sullivan to structure the text and create a continuity that previously felt somewhat lacking. I’ve really benefitted from his experience and ability to oversee the whole text, and it’s been a lot of fun too. I’m not used to working from home! Surely I’m supposed to drive 150 miles before I do any work?

The album is roughly planned out, and following further rehearsals with Marit next week, will be recorded in early December. I have booked a chapel in the Peak District to do this. It’s a beautiful space with the sort of acoustic I’ve been enjoying working with whilst busking.

A big thank you to everyone who supported the Kickstarter too. It handsomely exceeded its target, and the sale of the Hastings fiddle means I can donate a decent sum of money to ‘Surviving the Streets’, a Hastings based homelessness charity. I intend to use the success of this project to support further such causes as it goes forward.

I’ll also be out and about making field recordings in the next few weeks. If anybody is in Redcar next Wednesday afternoon, I intend to be staking out the level crossing for a recording of the once-daily steel train leaving Skinningrove, feel free to join me.

Everything seems to be going very well. I’m convinced there must be some massive obstacle just around the corner that I haven’t spotted.. I’ll now spend the rest of the weekend trying to figure out how to add the Arts Council logo to my website.




Hull was to be my last destination. I’d chosen it for two reasons. First, this was where I learnt to busk, 16 years ago when I was dating a young lady at university here. I really had no money at all, and always busked for my train fare home. The people of Hull never let me down, and so there seemed a pleasing circularity in bringing it all to an end in this splendid Yorkshire city.

But there was a second reason for coming here. My paternal grandparents had grown up here, on opposite sides of the city, surviving the Second World War as teenagers, un-evacuated and exposed to the blitz that hit Hull so hard. There would be bits of my family history scattered all around to find.

I re-acquainted myself with my former busking pitch. I think it was a Woolworths when I’d last been here, but was now three smaller shops, so I picked the disused entrance to a closed down Marks and Spencers opposite and picked up where’d I’d left off those years before.

Hull (8)

Whitefriargate has lost its sheen now, with so many closed shops. It’s half empty, and much of what remains is popup or cheap remainders. People head through on their way, rather than being engaged in the act of shopping. A lady came past and shouted something derogatory. I ignored it, but another shopper found a coin for me and apologised on Hull’s behalf.

“I think she might have a few issues. Don’t worry about it.” She said. “Hey all those notes, if it was a guitar I’d called you a fretwanker!”

“But I don’t have any frets, so I guess that makes me a…” I continued,

“A wanker!” she concluded for me gleefully, “Yes, but it’s good stuff. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

I made a respectable £25 in a couple of hours and wandered around towards the river Hull, the dividing line between East and West Hull, a navigable trench, sweeping in ancient arcs under so many lift colourful bridges. The Manchester arms had a sandwich board outside that proudly announced that this pub was ‘The home of ‘Shit on the Grass”, without making it clear if this was a band or a cocktail, or something else altogether. I didn’t go in to enquire further.

A bedraggled man barked “What time is it?” at me as I walked along the riverside walk.

“3.45pm.” I answered.

“Fuck me, wasn’t sure if it was morning or afternoon.”

I met my host for the trip, Steve, in HOME, a dinery and bar he runs on the Beverley road. After a bite of dinner, we decided to take a walk through the industrial fringe of the Hull river and possibly visit a couple of bars along the way.

Veering off the Beverley road, you pass a number of tanneries as you head towards the river. They stink, big old brick buildings where huge drums tumble slowly, over and over, and a tangible white mist of stench sits in the hollows between the walls. At the end of the street is a Jewish graveyard, disappearing into the brambles, gravestones hidden in trees. A sign, rising from the thicket gives the name of the road, ‘Air Street’.

The Hull is still fringed by industry all along. With tall concrete slabbed walls and fences, the area is known as the bankside gallery, and graffiti artists have coloured every suitable surface. It’s a semi formal arrangement now, and certain buildings have signs on saying things like ‘Listed building, no art please!’. Banksy left a picture here, on a disused and raised drawbridge, now covered in a stiff and see-through plastic sheet to protect it from the elements and the jealous.

Hull (2)

We made it to the Whalebone, a pub on the verge of surviving its context. I love pubs like this, where the world that spawned them has gone, demolished, redundant, redeveloped, and suddenly they’re the only remnant of a time past, decontextualised and strange, surrounded by modernity. The Baltic Fleet in Liverpool is a fine example, a sailor’s pub left architecturally lost amongst the contemporary urban accommodation that sprouted with such vigour when the warehouses came down. Or the Peveril of the Peak in Manchester, all green glazed tiles, a two story city pub from another age, base out of alignment with the feet of the huge new buildings all around, a subtle clue to the shifting flow of the city streets.

The Whalebone is half way there. Industry is on the way out here, but the Whalebone persists, and perhaps even thrives, a rare bright light in this dusk, a glowing beacon of life amidst the lifeless brick and graffiti sprawl of post-war industrial Hull, bombed out and rebuilt on the cheap to get the place going again. Development is coming. Further down towards the Humber, warehouses and industry have become flats and museums, quirky bars, and the wave is slowly lifting itself upstream. There’s an outlier, a single warehouse already flats, developed ahead of time by some forward thinking Hull resident with the cash to do it and finger to the pulse of the city, surrounded by factories and garages, recycling centres and scrapyards. The air smells of processes, and the views are of rubble and the gentle end of eras, but when the wave reaches this street, somebody stands ready to cash in.

“My mate bought an old mill and rented it out to artists for a while.” Said Steve.

“They bloody love a mill, artists.”

“They do.”

“It’s like catnip to them, they just can’t resist one.”

The garages and scrapyards will turn into popup bars, little kitchens, galleries, squats, then houses, then flats and trendy bars, and finally the artists and free spirits that arrived as the first colonisers will be economically and socially displaced and move further upriver and the area will become boring again, as achingly dull people evict the cultural life that drew them here, wanting to feed off the vibe without the slog of being one themselves. The next fifty years were already determined for this street. And the Whalebone would sit there right through it, an unbroken link to a past that will seem so far away and mysterious.

The Whalebone is a homely place, good beer, clean and considerately lit, tidy but busy with sporting mementoes and history, including framed photographs of Clive Sullivan, Hull’s most famous adopted son, the rugby league player who led Great Britain to victory over Australia in the 1972 world cup. He played for both the city’s clubs, bridging the divide that rugby league represents, and was the first black man to captain any British sporting side. It says a great deal about Hull’s openness that their greatest sporting hero was a black Welshman who moved to the city to try his hand at the northern code. He died of cancer aged just 42.

We tried another pint a couple of streets on, at a big, lonely sort of place called ‘The County’.  It was 9pm and already the landlady was closing the curtains, peach and lilac patterns than matched her clothing so well that when she stood in front of them, she entirely disappeared from sight. There were two darts boards at opposite ends of the bar, suggesting at least the historical existence of both an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ team. Such numbers seemed hard to believe on a night like this, and we took our pints of Chestnut Mild (“Tastes of nowt!”) to the back of the room, and watched as the landlady flitted between following the 80s crime drama on the TV over the bar, and feeding pounds into the fruit machine during the adverts. All around the deep picture rail were huge vintage chocolate tins, a reminder of how large ‘Roses’ and ‘Quality Street’ used to be before the era of austerity shrank them to their current tragic sizes, a sort of economic island-dwarfism effect.

It was too melancholic to stay here for long, so we found the old White Hart instead, which had rather more life about it, including a man having a loud phone conversation about the history of Formula one. He continued without break during our time in this pub, and I started to entertain the suspicion that the person on the other end of the line didn’t quite hold the same interest level. The pub was ancient and wood panelled and somewhat worn out. The door to the toilets suddenly took you into a long white panelled corridor lit by fluorescent tubes and so out of keeping with the rest of the establishment that I wondered if I’d been abducted by aliens.

We concluded our adventure in ‘Dive’, a bar a little out of town, set up by a couple of young lads who’d wanted a bit of autonomy in the pub business. So many of the pubcos have exploitative models of tenancy that any smart youngster looking to run one has generally concluded it’s better to set up as an independent, and unable to buy out the larger houses, there’s been an explosion of little bars all over the country. They probably don’t make any more money here, but at least its theirs to do as they please, without the pubco accountants working out exactly how much rent to chisel them for this year. It’s a microcosm of the wider economy, really. Without the same career progression and security of the old jobs market, if you’re in the service sector and have a bit of youthful ambition, you might as well do your own thing, be that coffee shops, hairdressers, bars.

Dive is run by a couple of young lads, and Steve was doing what all good landlords do, keeping a polite eye on the competition. It was a dive too, but that made sense. Nail a bar together out of chipboard and paint it, get a smattering of mismatched furniture off freecycle and just get the place going. Make a point of getting to know your customers, build it up as time and money allow, but just get trading. You can’t afford perfection.

The lad behind the bar was controlling the music through a tablet and I asked him if the system took requests.

“No.” He answered, having clearly weighed me up as the sort of person who would probably ask for something daft or unsuitable.

There were two young ladies at the bar next to me, towards the end of a good night out.

“I’d better go home, I have to lead a yoga session 8am tomorrow morning.” Said one, somewhat worse for wear, and stumbling out.

“Good luck with that!” I said, and I meant it.

They were replaced by a skinny and heavily bearded man who ordered a Guinness. He was full of opinions, but very hard to follow.

Later on Steve said;

“He was a musician you know.”

“What did he play?”


“Of course.”

The next morning I walked back down the bank of the Hull. The tanneries were still at it, firedoors open for ventilation. Dereliction was being torn down, machines with claws reducing the spent parts of the city to rubble and scrap. Buddleia is the flower of Hull. It lives in every crack in the brickwork, grows through crumbled brick and concrete. Pushes out of stock left fallow for too long in yards. It finds a way high up in unwashed gutters on careworn warehouse and mill, and even in the Autumn of the year, the scent is in the air, mixing with the many other smells of the city.

Hull is a city of smells. It doesn’t stink, that’s too easy a denigration. It smells of processes, natural and industrial. Chemicals, solvents, pollen, and a fresh layer of mud dropped on the ebb tide. Once it smelled of fish as well, but that industry is long gone, never to return, the trawlers no longer passing right across the face of the city to the Hessle road, returning from what was regarded as the most dangerous job in the world. It produced outspoken, clear headed people, like Lillian Bilocca who in 1968 led a successful campaign for mandatory safety improvements on trawlers. Her actions saved many lives and she was rewarded by being blacklisted from the industry, never working with fish again, being in some sense perhaps scapegoated for the rapid decline in the trawling trade in the decade that followed.

Outsiders still perceive Hull as a city of fishing, even though that’s now long gone. It’s changed hugely since I was a regular visitor, becoming far more bohemian and cultural. Being city of culture certainly helped, although it’s proving hard to keep that momentum up.

Hull has a bit of everything. The road followed the ancient curve of the river, and I came upon a nest of skips, arranged like occasional tables, like a Feng Shui expert had fulfilled a brief and left.

In town I chose to busk on King Edward street, wide and spacious. After a slow start, I began to do ok. I was then interrupted by a street sweeping machine. He’d passed me by yesterday as well, a once round Whitefriargate, but it seemed the centre of town was his focus. Up and down he went, the rowdy drive-on hoover, sometimes on the far side of the street, sometimes coming right at me and veering round my case at the last second. ‘They must pay him by the ton’ I thought to myself as he came by yet again, spoiling a good tune.

As he went round the corner for a while, I resumed my playing. Two heavily armed policemen came by, with large guns slung across their fronts, pacing slowly, a little distance apart.

“You having a good morning?” Said one to me, with measured professional politeness. I didn’t know how to answer, their weaponised presence disconcerting, so I just blanked him. Not out of rudeness but I found I couldn’t hold a conversation like that with a man carrying an automatic weapon. Why were they here? Did they know something I didn’t, or is this just how things are now? Far from reassure me, they troubled me a great deal. The sweeper returned again, roaring past the other way. Hull must have the most diligently swept streets in England.

I bought some lunch and allowed myself to gently meander towards the old fruitmarket part of town. This had been a ghost town 15 years ago, recently abandoned, but empty at night, frontages of a different age and uncertain future. Now it had been redeveloped, and I looked forward to seeing it brought back to life. It was a disappointment. Like a film set it looked great from certain angles, but entirely false when you knew where the joins were. It was stiff and inorganic, a vision foist upon a street full of history, as insincere as the highbrow shops that filled it, empty and over-priced. The only one that looked like any fun was called ‘Dinosaur experience’ but it was closed, intriguingly, for ‘Staff training’.

Hull (7)

At least the Minerva was still there, the last pub before the Humber. It had been an outpost of welcome sanctuary, beyond the forgotten town, warm, almost cramped, but homely. It hadn’t changed at all, and looked out over the estuary, its back to all the nonsense behind. On the pavement outside was a worn brass plaque with the single word ‘Haddock’ on it. I couldn’t find any others.

Back into the city, I stumbled upon the minster, somehow hidden away in an old part of town, squat and tucked under the wind. A lady was leaving and finding herself walking alongside me asked about my fiddle. I said I was a busker.

“You should try outside the minster in a bit, there’s a lovely concert on later, lots of people going.”

I said I’d consider it.

“It’d be good to hear. Now why don’t the homeless play something like you do?”

I flashed white hot. I am rarely an angry man, but a year of pent up frustration suddenly boiled over. Several times previously I’d been given this ludicrous equivalence between my busking and the plight of a rough sleeper, and on each occasion I’d been so surprised and shocked I’d not had the words to explain the difference, playing what I should have said over and over in my head after the event and wishing I’d been erudite at the time. This time, then, I was ready and angry, I stopped dead in the street and fired back;

“The homeless? Where are they going to get an instrument from? How are they going to get the years of tuition? How are they going to find the energy when they’re sleeping out in this weather? When their fingers are cold and sore?”

“Well, they could bang a drum or something.” She replied, surprised I’d not taken the initial intended compliment as expected.

“They’re starving and dying on the streets and you want them to bang a drum before they’re worth your charity? What a complete an utter lack of empathy. Disgusting.”

“There’s no need to be like that.” She finished, heading into a shop she didn’t need to go in to get out of my way.

But there was. There exists a large group of people for whom it could seemingly never happen. They have good friends, families, second chances, safety nets, strong networks of support and care. And some of them draw the mistaken conclusion that therefore rough sleeping could only occur to someone who deserved it. They must be lazy, taking the piss, irredeemable.

They’ve made mistakes, the people I’ve met on the street, often big ones. They have problems that are hard to solve. But then I think of the times in my life when a relative or a friend has held out a hand and stopped me making a mistake, or where the support of those around me allowed me a second chance, a recovery, and I count my lucky stars it’s not me there. I came from the right sort of family, had the sort of background that meant that mistakes are learning opportunities rather than insurmountable failings that follow you for the rest of your life. Had this woman ever sat down and talked to them? I doubted it. Given her route through my day had come from inside the church, I couldn’t help but feel that certain important teachings had fallen on deaf ears.

I was still furious as I set up for another play. I was soon cheered by a skateboarder who dropped off a bag of cheese quavers as he raced past. The street sweeper was still at it. Such devotion to duty. Maybe he was just incredibly passionate. Perhaps his mates had to find him at 5.30 and say “Come on Dave, that’s enough for one day, let’s go for a pint now.”

A rough sleeper came by, smiled, and dropped off a smattering of copper coins. It was enough to break your heart. He’d never be able to save up for a drum to bang if he carried on like this.

Rain ended it. It had been coming for a while, you could taste it, hurrying across the plain of East Yorkshire,  a freshness driving dust and tiredness before it. Fat drops came all in a hurry and I packed down. I’d made £40 across the day, enough, perhaps. I handed dollops of it to the needy as I headed out again, back up the Buddleia road, past the gravel warehouse and back to my accommodation.

Hull (4)

That night I played a concert for Steve in HOME. It was a strange sort of thing, as the place was sold out with diners who regarded the entertainment as a nice extra. “When’s the singer on?” I heard, more than once, thinking ‘They’ll be disappointed!’. But it worked, people bought into it, questions were asked.

A few of us ended up back at Steve’s later. He’s been putting on gigs in the city for decades, and has had dozens of artists pass through.

“You’ll be sleeping in a bed that once had Mr Methane in it.” He told me.

“Something to live up to.” I replied.

On my third day, I headed out for other parts of Hull.

Bransholme was the vast new estate built after the war to replace the housing that had been demolished in the bombing. The shopping centre was busy and basic, and I bought a very old fashioned heavy woollen jacket for £3 from a charity shop. There were no modern shops at all, no fancy coffee shops or eateries. It was a shopping street from the 1990s, still thriving. I was on my way to visit the estate my grandmother had grown up in, back in the 1930s and through the war. We’d visited it together a few years ago, me driving her over the M62 in my knackered green Ibiza with flame decals down the side, an unlikely pair of fellow travellers. She’d made a packed lunch and we set out to see the world of her youth. The estate had been tired and run down, but we found her old house, and the fellow had let us see the back garden which still contained her air-raid shelter, a sturdy brick built unit. I found it an emotional artefact to encounter, to think that my grandmother as a child had sat in there so many nights, waiting for the all clear. It’d brought back memories for her too and she told me a great story.

“One night the siren went off, so we went to the shelter. My grandparents lived next door so they shared the shelter with us. Dad was at sea. Then an incendiary bomb landed in the back garden, so my granddad ran out and buried it with his spade. In the morning, it turned out it had landed in the potato patch and cooked them all! I remember carrying a basket of hot potatoes down the road to see who wanted one.”

It was a remarkable story that blended the horrors of war with the mundanity of life carrying on. I arrived on the estate to find it missing. The whole lot had been demolished, save a small number of single houses boarded up and graffitied. The streets, the lights, the speed bumps, the signs were still there, but the plots were flattened and grassing over, an open expanse.

It’d been a smart new estate in the 1920s, built for the growing population of Hull, better homes for working families, but time and expectations had changed and it had grown tired and too worn out, and the council had ultimately demolished the lot. A few had resisted, refusing to leave. It must have been strange and fearful to see every house around yours torn down and the closed world of the estate opening up into a new urban parkland. Most had given up now, and only two showed signs of life, the other half dozen or so gutted and boarded and awaiting the final blow.

A bus wended through the silent streets, following a ghost route. Small children and their teachers were collecting conkers from the mature trees that lined the edge of the estate.

“Yeah, they demolished them this year, in waves.” One teacher told me. “Started in about March, most recent just a couple of months ago.”

Elsewhere in the desolation, two lads from the demolition contractor were repairing the pavement.

“Council are making us mend it after the demolition. No idea why. It’s fucking shit.”

“Will they be redeveloping it?” I asked.

“Don’t know, probably. They’re waiting for the ground to settle down.”

Leaving the lads to their Sisyphian labours, I walked all round it again, taking far more photos than I normally do. It was compelling, bizarre, uncanny. I wondered how my grandma would feel to know her road had been demolished and erased. How would I break it to her? Eventually I rang up.

“Oh yes, it was knocked down earlier this year wasn’t it?” Even at 89, she doesn’t miss much.

Our trip here those years before had finished at the chapel at Marfleet where she’d married, and never returned to until that day. The church is surrounded by gently humming industrial estates, an island of an older Hull where the beeping of reversing lorries carries gently through the foliage of the graveyard. I took one more look here, with the gravestones of ancestors in the mosses, and quietly declared my trip a done deal. There would always be another town and city to visit. There was so much more I could have done, but it felt like time to stop, here before the front of the church, with the warden keeping a worried eye on me through his window across the road. Confusing and unwelcome, I’d finished as I’d begun.

This is the end of a year and a half of busking around England. I could easily do it all again and find another 50 towns and cities with completely different stories to tell. But at some point I have to stop and write the book and the album that follow on so naturally from this process. That time is now. That isn’t to say I won’t add further blogs in the future. In fact, I’ve enjoyed this so much I would very much like to keep adding the odd one as time allows.

But for now, other work has to be done. If you’d like to support me, please have a look at this Kickstarter campaign, and perhaps pre-order the book and the album.

Thank you for following Busk England. It’s been the most extraordinary 18 months of my life.

Here’s the archive of blogs as well.

Watchet and the Quantocks

I busked in Watchet on the edge of the harbour, looking out over the Severn estuary towards Cardiff and up the Bristol Channel. A small boy of about 5 years of age ran down the quayside and stood right in front of me as I played, staring right at me with a frown on his face and index finger jammed firmly up his right nostril, a pose he held for over a minute. ‘A bright future ahead as a critic for this one.’ I thought to myself. Another child chased a seagull round and round a nearby bench until his mother gave him 20p to drop in my case. The child simply weaponised it and threw the coin at the gull instead, and we all watched as it rolled over the harbour edge into the mud below. I imagined some future archaeologist uncovering it from the sediment, remarking at the placement and declaring it ‘ritual’.

A lady came by with two boxer dogs, one ancient, gnarled, and stoic that calmly lay down near me, and another, barely full grown, nervous and agitated with the music.

“She’s not heard a violin before.” said the owner, encouraging the young dog to calm down. I stopped playing, and it crept out from behind her legs. I plucked a note, and the dog howled.

“She’s got to learn.”

I played a few bars, and the poor animal produced a full-on river of piss. It seemed best to let it on its way before trying again.

Once the dog was suitably clear, I played on. A customer at the bar along the quay arrived with a pint of beer for me.  A young lad watched for a while and produced a fiver. It was a good session.

I’d picked a spot quite close to the statue of the Ancient Mariner, the fictional lead in Coleridge’s epic poem, inspired by this very spot. Further along, another statue was seated looking out over the harbour, that of Yankee Jack, a noted mariner who definitely had existed. He was life-size and weathered, blending in with the landscape of the harbour. Another fiver came my way, this time from a lady who introduced herself as Margaret and said I should check out a pub called ‘Pebbles’ as it often had live music on. I said I knew of it, as I was booked to play a concert there this evening.

“Oh.” Said Margaret. “I suppose I’d better go then.”

Pebbles is a cider pub, snug and homely, and I’d been invited to play a few tunes and tell some stories from my trip so far. There was a PA system, but I found I didn’t need it, as the audience comprising a mix of regulars and people who’d come down specially for the concert sat in perfect silence, and we had a great night. Ben, the landlord, insisted on showering me with hospitality, and when he saw I couldn’t drink all the free cider, owing to needing to drive, chose a selection of his favourite bottled ciders for me to take away. It’d been a long day but a great start.

A man at the bar was keen for a word.

“You need to understand when you write about us, this is a town by the sea, not a seaside town. Understand? No fruit machines, no ‘kiss me quick’ hats.”

“Sounds like there’s a gap in the market.” I mused. He was scandalised.

I arrived at Watchet station bright and early the next morning. The bearded volunteer was just unlocking the building, and was concerned to see me parking in the station car-park.

“Are you travelling with us today?” He asked with scepticism.

“Yes, mid morning if that’s ok.”

“You’ll need to buy a ticket.”

Clearly in my heavy metal hoodie, he did not take me in good faith as a real railway enthusiast, so I decided to raise the stakes a little.

“Do you still have the 7F?” This was one of a class of heavy freight locomotives built for the Somerset and Dorset railway, one of which I knew to be owned by the S&D Railway Trust, who are based at Washford, the next station along.

“I’m not sure, I think so.” It was enough and he left me alone. I went for an early morning wander around town before my train. The atmosphere was different with the tide reaching the top. The tidal range is huge here, the second largest in the world, and the sea that had been distant and meek was full and menacing, slurping restlessly at the harbour walls in opaque muddy thrusts.

Along the pier, evenly spaced, was a row of fishermen with long and expensive rods cast out into the brown and chopping water of the estuary. One recognised me.

“Saw you in Pebbles last night. It was good. Sticking around today?”

“Reckon I’ll catch the train to Dunster and then back here late afternoon.”

“Good plan. You’ll do well in Dunster.”

“Fishing any good today?”

“Not really, too choppy. Don’t expect we’ll catch anything.”

“So why bother?”

“Gets you out of the house and near the sea. On a good day you can catch dogfish, conger eels.” His view never left the estuary as we spoke.

Further along, three lads had rave music on loud from a portable speaker, and were working through a crate of Strongbow. They hadn’t caught anything either, but were clearly enjoying the early morning, boogying away, rods set. They hollered at me as I went past with my fiddle case, but I gave them a breezy ‘Good Morning’ and they ignored me as no fun. Each fisherman along the length had a small pile of seaweed that’d been reeled in instead of fish.

I admired the determination to keep going, even though conditions were all wrong. The activity more important than the prospect of success. I’d had more than a few busking sessions that way. Back on the quay, the fishing rave was carrying clearly across the harbour, so I abandoned any ideas of a warm-up busk and bought my train ticket to Dunster. In the coffee shop I was recognised again.

“Nice gig last night. Took some pictures, let me know where to tag them.”

I was small-town famous.

On the platform, a family were struggling to come down to the Somerset pace of life, still being stuck at London speeds. I overheard their frantic flow of words.

“I wanted the restaurant for 6:30 but they only had 5:30 or 7:30. What shall we do? Shall I try somewhere else or should we go tomorrow instead?”

I realised how I’d already slowed down. There’s no hurry to be anywhere round here, and all times are approximate. If this sounds like I’m accusing the Somerset native of laziness, then you are mistaken. All the work gets done, just steadily and cumulatively, when the time is right, rather than to an arbitrary timetable. The family near me hadn’t found the pace yet, and were still frantically tearing through life.

I was reading Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’, a semi-fictional account of a little girl and her grandmother spending time together on an island in the Gulf of Finland. The pacing was perfect for my setting and I enjoyed the gentleness of the writing and didn’t care how long it took for the train to arrive.

“They picked out the stones that hadn’t been worn completely round and threw them out into the water to make them rounder.”

Somerset is a good place to find time to read again.

Slowly, the platform came to life with expectation. Small boys still love steam trains. Why? Nostalgia can’t account for it. Even their parents can’t remember when steam trains were in regular use. One hard to reach child was within himself, not responding to anything his mum said to him. When the distant whistle of the train came over the hill, he sat upright and beamed. “A train!” His mum beamed too.

Perhaps it’s just that they are living, breathing things. An event upon arrival, an expression of effort upon departure, the smell of steam oil, nutty and sweet, and the shower of black bits that get in your eyes when you try to look out of the window. A cumulative, society wide belief that they are important and somehow quintessential. I’m smitten, for sure, and have largely resisted the temptation to turn the whole project into a train-spotting session. But this one was going where I needed to go, so why not?

“The funniest thing,” said the station master to me, as the train came into the platform, all shining brasses and action, “is watching people look for the push buttons on the carriage doors.”

Increasingly, station staff have to go up and down the platform, helping people deal with slam door coaches. Nobody knows now how to lift the window up and out of its socket and reach out to the turn handle.

“They’d be stuck on all week if we didn’t help.”

At Dunster, we all dutifully watched the train on its way like good tourists, before starting the walk into the village. At the station, the staff have adopted a robin, and it lives amongst the period suitcases with a bowl of food and a bowl of water, hopping between perches. It looked rough, with bald patches and scars, like a boxer who should have retired ten fights ago. Sometimes other robins come to fight it and the station master chases the invaders away with a broom.

Dunster itself is pretty and it knows it. A broad main street leads up to the castle driveway. I busked outside knick-knack shop that was closed for the day. A concerned shopkeeper from down the road came to see me.

“You can’t do that, you’ll be in awful trouble.”

“Really, why?”

“Well, it’s not allowed, is it?”

“Busking? Unless there’s a specific bylaw, then surely it’s ok?”

“You could go in there, that’d be ok.” She said, pointing at the Yarn Market, a beautiful covered building, owned by the National Trust, and the one place where I knew I couldn’t legally busk.

“I prefer it here. Seriously, it’ll be ok. Look, if the problem is that you’d rather I wasn’t busking, but you’re too polite to say so, then I’ll just move on. I don’t want to annoy anyone.”

“Oh no, it’s fine, I just don’t want you getting in trouble.”

I assured her that I knew the busking laws pretty well and I continued. Sometimes the street was silent and the sound rang all up and down, and sometimes rows of cars came along and the sound of exhausts and tyre noise dominated instead. A long line of motorbikes came by, parking up at the top of the village. The black-leather clad drivers gathered in front of the yarn market for a team photograph before dispersing into the many tearooms for lunch.

I made £20 in the first hour, but it died right down during the next half hour as the sun reached its zenith and the flow of people stagnated, so I went for lunch. Round the corner of the castle hill is another street with a few shops, a sort of overflow town. Right at the bottom was a rough looking pub, quite out of keeping with the picture postcard loveliness of the rest of it. The landlord had a world weary approach, and lunch was rough-hewn baguettes and catering chips served by an awkward youth. The next table was taken by a family from Birmingham who couldn’t get over how long a drive it had been to get down here for their holiday.

I could hear a parrot, so pretending to go to the loo, I sought it out in the back yard and taught it a funny noise.

Dunster had used up its appeal to me. All very pretty but not much life to it. If you like a Ye Olde Teashop or buying original oil paintings, then you could get a morning out of it but that’s it. It’s a place that trades on how it looks. Watchet was a place that traded on who it was, and that was more interesting to me. In Dunster, I’d been met by bemusement when I’d busked. It just wasn’t the done thing. It’s always the same with these slightly faux places. There’s nothing wrong with the people who are here, but they’re all so similar, drawn for identical reasons, and the town is consequently lacking the variety of more worldly places. The residents, all alike, forget about the great variety of life, and can’t cope when something different comes by, becoming concerned and agitated at the disturbance in their ideal world. All morning I’d felt like I was winding them all up but that they were too polite to ask me to go away.

As I walked back to the station, a man stopped his car across the road from me and wound down the window.

“Are you heading to Minehead?”

I recognised him as another one of my audience from last night’s gig.

“No, back to Watchet.”

“Want a lift?”

This was a kind offer, but I had a return ticket for the steam train, so I said I’d rather catch that.

“I’ll see you back in Watchet then!”


Back in Watchet, I busked again on the quay. The ancient mariner looked down at me like I was making a bad day worse. My fan arrived. It was a bit odd to find busking turning into a little concert, so I tried to pretend he wasn’t there and just played as normal. After a while he bought me a coffee.

A small ginger girl with freckles and stacks of confidence sat on the wall next to me and told me I was better than her music teacher.

At 5pm, I took my loot to Pebbles and swapped it out for bank notes.

I was staying as a guest of Halsway Manor, National Centre For Folk Arts, who’d invited me down for a few days. Rachel showed me round. I was drawn to the apple tree, a local variety, the Quarrenden, down at the bottom of the lawn. It was speckled with hundreds of ripening red apples.

“It’s probably the most wassailed apple tree in England.” Rachel told me. “No wonder it does so well.”

I helped myself to a windfall, warm from the sun, and looked back at the manor, framed by trees against the sheer sides of the Quantock hills. It’s a place that wears its seasons well, now in the deep greens of late summer. Soon the autumn golds and reds will flush the landscape and garland the manor, before falling to bare branches and exposing the jet black bodies of rooks who lived within.

About two miles down the road is the small village of Crowcombe, and I headed out of the evening to see if I could meet the locals. The footpath was clear and easy in the fading light, and I noted the fallen tree for my journey back. The Carew arms is at the far end of this slender village, the pub long and lanky too, with a skittle ally and a dining room stretching away from the bar. The door to the bar wouldn’t open, so I gave it a beefy shove and sent a young fellow on the other side flying. It was his sister’s birthday and he was barring the door whilst the cake was brought and she was outside, not expecting a strapping lad like me to suddenly stride in from the darkening wilderness, full of determined, thirsty purpose.

The rest of the pub was quiet. It’s the dining trade that keeps the lamps burning these days, and most diners were fed and leaving, so I sat at the empty bar with Rachel’s copy of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and read it, trying not to look too much like a twat reading poetry at the bar. Not having much of a classical education, I’m mostly familiar with this work from Iron Maiden’s version on ‘Powerslave’, their fifth studio album. It’s quite a work, full of emptiness and endless misery. I admit I struggled with the meter,  which was relentless and unchanging, forcing some pretty desperate rhymes to make it fit. I couldn’t help but feel it would have made a better story than a strict tempo poem. But I hardly know enough about poetry to be a critic. I think I’ll stick with Iron Maiden.

Without a great deal else to do in an emptying pub, the landlord struck up conversation with me, asking me why I was in town. He was from Georgia in the US, having ended up running a rural Somerset pub by a series of events and coincidences. I explained my journey and interest in the English character. A regular, perhaps my age, had joined me along the bar with a pint of lager, and the landlord threw the point over to him, asking;

“What do you think of yourself as an Englishman?”

This was heavy philosophy for a bloke who’d come out for a quiet pint and his eyes bulged in fear at the enormity of the question. Before he could answer, his phone suddenly rang in his hand.

“Thank fuck for that!” He said, answering it.

The landlord had some stories to tell. He’d worked with horses in the states.

“It costs a lot to dispose of a dead horse. We knew a man with a ranch who’d allow you to bury them on his land for half what the professionals charged. You turned up with the dead horse, took the mechanical excavator into the land and picked a spot. He’d got so many buried you usually had to dig four or five holes before you found a spot without one in already. There were thousands buried out the back there. Imagine the trouble if they develop the land one day.”

He was a passionate supporter of gun rights.

“Hey, I carry in the states. It’s saved my life. Ran out of gas in a bad part of town. I was filling up, and this man was walking round my truck, saying ‘So you’re pretty rich then?’ I was like, ‘no, not me.’ and he pulled a knife on me anyway. Well I had my gun and I held him there till the police came. He’s in jail now and I’m alive. Problem is they just want to take the guns off people without involving us in the decision.”

“The thing we see though,” I asked, seeing if there were limits to his position.  “Are those really big guns, the semi-automatic stuff. Do you really need to have all those?”

“Aw yeah, I don’t see why anybody needs to carry more than say 12 rounds. But they need to talk to the NRA and groups like that. If they just try to take the guns, there’ll be violence. You can’t do it by just banning them. Everyone needs to be involved”

If anything summed up my journey around England, it was perhaps this scene. You think you’re going for a pint of cider with West Country folk, and you end up in a discussion about the second amendment with an American. Everything is so jumbled up, people from all over searching for the spot in England that suits them best. Quintessence can be bought into for a little while. England still the same hills, villages, towns, as a complex river of life flows through. Every time you think you’re within reach of the ‘real’ England, something totally left-field happens that reminds you of how cosmopolitan and international we are. And yet, England bubbles along beneath, quite unreadable and aloof.

I made my way home in darkness, leaving the last house of the village behind and along the footpath in the trees. Truly dark now, I enjoyed letting my eyes find the rough shapes of the land round me. We forget how good we are at the dark, and how even a sliver of moon becomes enough to paint the world anew when we’ve truly let our eyes adjust. My frame cast a broad shadow on the hedges. Crickets sang, and the night became friendly and welcoming, a new space to share.

As I carefully made my way up the track, I startled a horse at a gate, who had clearly not been expecting anyone at this time. It humphed and reared and circled the field in protest, before standing in front of a distant gate on the brow of a small mound, staring back at me, silhouetted and impossible to scale against the star filled sky and between two walls of foliage. I said hello, hoping to reassure it I was friendly. It watched me, and I watched the horse, a colossus against a secret sky, and time passed without measure. A shooting star came through, right above the mound and the moment was complete, watchful horse and skyline just shapes, but more powerful for being reduced so.

The thing about shooting stars is how common they are. But we forget to look, smearing the urban skies with the marmalade orange of sodium and staying indoors. The night has become a place avoided and reduced, where the imaginary bad things happen. Those few moments when we see the shooting stars, lain on our backs among the vines and turf with someone we love, or on a solo adventure through the night, it proves it’s not the stars that are rare, but our taking of time to see them. It’s the most beautiful show of all, almost unwatched.

The moment lingered, and I became aware of the warm and physical presence of second horse much nearer me, and lost to my eyes in a hollow that kept the darkness rich. It had its arse to me and was untroubled by my arrival. It let off small farts from time to time. The moment had lost its magic and I finished the walk back to the manor, cursing the security light that ruined my night vision, robbing me of the safety and connection to the land it had brought.

In the morning, I’d planned to walk the Quantock Hills, where Coleridge and Wordsworth had walked as they overdosed their way to the birth of romantic poetry. Rachel, as ever my guide for the area, had sorted me a map and drove me to Nether Stowey, across the hills, as a starting point. As we arrived, she had a moment of concern, and double checked that I knew how to read a map. Clearly she had suddenly had visions of me wandering off into the woods, falling into the fairy kingdom and passing into legend, before bursting from the leafy verges decades later, entirely covered in hair and shouting something almost unintelligible about pastry.

I assured her I’d be alright, and piled off into the countryside, round the castle mound and into the woods. Wordsworth and Coleridge had been full of opium on their wanderings. I was full of sausages. I’d have to do my best. The gentle hills came and went and added to something greater. The thick summer air balanced dragonflies on the wing, common darters, southern hawkers, common hawkers. Lambs came to gates and pressed their faces through in expectation of remembered bottles. Higher up, the trees rose and met above and the world became mottled light falling on a pick and mix ground of twigs and decomposition. A tractor stormed through, towing a grain holder, and I had to step back from the track.

I left the track and took the path up further, surrounded by a gentle wildness. A single and momentary ray of light, permitted by the movement of a single leaf far above, picked out a floating jewel before me. It was a glimpse of a web, strung from two trees ten feet apart, and built by a spider the size of my little finger nail. How this creature had conceived such a magnificent plan I couldn’t work out, let alone the logistics. I tried to photograph this spider, hung across my path and so far from the solidity of the land and the trees, but it wouldn’t focus, only seeing the distance. A gentle reminder that a special moment shouldn’t be carried home like some cheap trinket. Alerted to the net across my way, and being prey too big to stick, I crashed my way around the outside on the rough ground instead and wished the spider well with its day. The web told me I must be the first through.

Every day the world is born anew, and each traveller will find their own unique story to share, if they look carefully enough. The glittering citrines of woodland predators, disguised in dappled shade. I caught the stench of a stinkhorn mushroom and found it, dishevelled and declining behind a mound, phallic and foul. Ground dwelling spiders dug into a bank, lining nests with cones of silk, funnelling lunch inwards for minimum effort.


The top of the hill was still under tree and sky, and the banks of the ancient hill-fort were harder to spot, smoothed by the loam of millennia. But the shapes do resolve , the walls taking the logical rim of the summit. It’s a strange slice of life, between the earth and under the canopy, where the twisted and narrow trunks reach up from poor soil to grab what light they can, the lower part of the tree barren and wasted, and each view a spaghetti of greying wood, where the modern mind, grown in cities and used to regular shapes and good order tries to find a symmetry that cannot ever quite resolve.

Clouds of flies rose from puddles as I came through, and unsure what to do next, they sank down again to wait for the next disturbance. I crossed through the valley to the next ridge. Here, cars were parked, and people of all sorts were making brief excursions from the safety of the vehicle to the worrisome edge of the wild.

One family were on bikes and I heard the father speak with that voice that tries to exude control of the situation but manages instead to sound petulant;

“I’m simply trying to resolve the issue.”

Another family, Asian, had gone far enough.

“I’m not walking another step away from the car. The ground is no good and I’m tired.” said the frustrated patriarch, sitting down.

Clearly the ridgeway was not the calming outdoor space it might have been. It’s only the great escape if you don’t bring your problems right along with you for the ride. Up here, beyond the rounded tops of the Quantocks was the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, an inexhaustible outcropping of jumbled cranes and grey concrete, as hard to scale as the horse had been in the blackness of the night. I wondered what the great poets might have made. Perhaps Wordsworth would have turned his back and drawn inspiration instead from Exmoor, still mostly untouched, whilst Coleridge would have said nothing of it, but let it return as a nightmarish visitation, feeding off the discord.

Wild horses stood in groups of two or three, and I was able to walk right up to them. Clouds of flies thrived on their juices, rushing for the eyes, stacking up over each other to drink where the liquid pools up in the corner. The horse has no defence and must suffer them in thousands every midsummer, wretched and countless.

The ridgeway continued, and at Halsway post it splits. I ate my lunch beneath a kestrel. It’s a landscape that encourages an interest in smallest details, where you get on your hands and knees to look a spider in the eye inside a burrow, and the widest vistas, from nuclear seaside to Exmoor tops, where you yourself are the little detail being boggled at by buzzards and kites. The Lake District is only about the big. The small is gone, industrially farmed out of existence. It is a big, beautiful, broken landscape. The Quantocks marry the infinite with the microscopic and everything between. A painter with a giant canvass couldn’t catch it all, and the finest magnifying glass would always leave some passionate and essential detail undiscovered. It is a world of infinite perspective, where each can find their own moment.

I scrambled down the steep bank to Halsway and returned the map, before visiting the lucky Quarrenden tree for supplies for my route north. In Watchet, I tried one more busk with it being market day. The town crier recognised me, having, almost inevitably been to my gig at Pebbles, and announced me with gusto to a public who didn’t care. It failed as a spot, too busy, the melancholy magic of the quiet harbour gone, the anonymity shattered. Yankee Jack was marooned between a fudge stall and a wood carver, oddly decontextualised and clearly bemused with his situation. I left Watchet and the Quantocks for the long drive home.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. My travels round so far have been entirely funded by what I make as I go. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

Blog archive

Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!

West Cumbria

I got up to West Cumbria early enough that I had time for a busk in Workington, a town I thought I knew well from over a decade ago, when as a naive young musician I’d headed up with Gren Bartley to make our first professional album with Fellside records. It had been hard work, and nervous and inexperienced I’d struggled with the recording sessions. Paul Adams, running the show, had seen it all before, and seeing me flustered had pressed a respectably high value bank note into our hands and ordered us to go and get a pint. We’d set off into a gloomy and depressed former coal and steel town, where what few pubs survived were populated by a handful of unemployed and introspective men in string vests.  Workington was going through hard times, and had an empty, haunted sort of feel about it.

13 years later and a lot had changed. I parked my car in the canyon between the two sports stadia, Borough Park and Derwent Park, home to Workington Reds football club and Workington Town rugby league club respectively, twin examples of glorious lower league dilapidation. Plans for a new and modern ground for the clubs to share had recently fallen through yet again, and these venerable old heaps of corrugated iron would continue to be pressed into service, fighting back against the salt sprays that blow in from the harbour and corrode the steel pillars.

So far, so familiar. My favourite building in Workington has always been the oversize bus station, a towering shape made more impressive by the open space before it afforded by the demolition of neighbouring buildings. With a clear sight line at it from the junction, it looked like a slaughtered whale dragged up a ramp. It has a blue plaque that proudly notes that it was the first purpose built covered bus station in the UK, opened 1926. You get your civic pride where you can.

Workington town centre had changed massively, though.  Where a smattering of shops had done their best to hold it together on dingy streets, now a smart new shopping zone had been built, airy and spacious and with a good vibe about it. A child in a buggy emerged howling from a cafe through the net of dangling chains like a big reveal on a makeover programme. I picked a spot on a pedestrianised T-junction and played. The sun shone and I did well. One young boy even gave me a fiver, which astonished me. Things had certainly improved in Workington if a schoolboy could spare that kind of cash.

I was facing the ‘Lookout’, a strange combination of clock and sculpture. Shaped something like a crane on top of a big stainless steel ball, the long arm rotates once per hour and gives the time against a series of markings on the floor, before periscoping on the hour to project images onto boards. It was running 13 minutes slow, which troubled me. I’m all in favour of public art, but if you’re going to make one with a practical element it should work properly. It looked to me like something of an overextension of ambition. I imagined it was probably hard to correct and it had just become simpler to let it run to its own timetable. Perhaps this dysfunction was intended, a disguised satire on West Cumbria, a place living in its own time. More likely there just hadn’t been quite enough thought put into the time-keeping part of the design, which would have required both engineering skills and a sophisticated understanding of how a minor public body might be likely to maintain it after the installation.

If I lived in Workington, I know for sure I’d be that guy who measured it every week, and wrote letters to the paper when it wasn’t right, until everyone on the council hated me. Such objects bring out my obsessive side. At 4pm, or 3.47pm Workington time, I packed up and headed out.

Wonky timekeeping aside, the town centre redevelopment had been a success and Workington had the feel of a town getting back to its feet. My previous visits had coincided with the final end of the steel works and the lowest ebb of the economic decline. With a more diversified economy, things now seem to be improving.

But this was just a short visit, as I’d been invited to a really special event, the Cumbria – Rungwe Community Link Ceilidh.

Since 1987, there has been an exchange programme between West Cumbria and Rungwe, a rural district in South Western Tanzania. My friend Mary has been deeply involved in this for many years, and had invited me to the final night’s celebrations at Calderdale village hall. This invitation wasn’t just for my benefit, as she’d organised a ceilidh and was short of a tune player to lead the music, a role I was glad to accept.

The exchange works on a two-year cycle, this year being the turn of a group of Tanzanians to come to West Cumbria for three weeks. The planning had been extremely difficult. Getting visas for the group had been a particular challenge. Mary told me that the application forms effectively acted as filters to prevent poor people visiting the UK, as many of their demands were not easily achievable if you don’t lead a rich, Westernised sort of life. Obligatory boxes like having a personal postal address were tricky to sort. But sort it they had, after the burning of much midnight oil.

Even having got the visas, the group had been questioned at great length and with some hostility at the airport. Valentino, one of the Tanzanian group leaders told me later;

“They had so many questions, why are you here, when will you leave, even though they knew the answers.”

The youngsters had certainly never made a journey like this before, a day across land before the flight, and tired and overwhelmed, were genuinely upset by their treatment.

“Then at last they let us through, we came round the final corner and Mary and everyone were waving Tanzanian flags and we were so happy.”

The ceilidh was a great success. We did a couple of British dances, then the Tanzanians would lead a couple of their traditional dances, in this case step dances, singing the music as they went with the kind of freedom that comes from being unafraid of a few imperfections. In our highly media saturated world, we’re constantly surrounded by flawless, autotuned music and song, and the sound of voices raw and confident, just going for it, is now a rare one. In Tanzania, it seems, music is just what you make with your friends and family and there’s no sense of judgement, perhaps as we might once have gathered round the piano. People here are often afraid to stick their head above the parapet and just play, fearful of falling short of an impossibly high standard. Music retreats from the commonplace and belongs to the specialist, its broad social function lost.

The Tanzanian group sang beautifully, full of passion and rhythm, and it was infectious. Everyone joined in, except the local teenage lads, who stood outside the circle with beers they were just learning to drink.

“Too cool to join in.” I’ve heard it said of lads like this. The opposite is true. It’s a very awkward and judgemental period, being a teenager, and most of these lads would have loved to join in and dance with freedom, but felt unable to. Not cool enough is the sadder truth.

Half time brought another highlight, as Mary introduced a gurning competition. Gurning is a big deal round here, with the world championships taking place in Egremont each September as part of the Crab Fair, an event that has been happening for at least 800 years. The gurning itself takes place through a horse-collar, or “Braffin”, and points are awarded not for the ugliest face, but for the biggest difference between faces before and during. Being naturally ugly is something of a disadvantage then, as the room for improvement is not so large.

We were lucky enough to have borrowed the genuine Egremont braffin for the evening and I felt a little buzz of excitement at being able to hold such a significant piece of English folk culture in my hands, and staring down at the aperture I allowed myself to imagine the countless appalling faces that must have peered back out of it over the years.

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I rang my sister for advice. She’d entered the world gurning championships several years previously, and although an also-ran, she’d asked the judges for feedback on how to improve.

“Make a performance of it. Look the judges in the eye with your normal, smiling face, then turn away, compose yourself, and put your whole body into it. The best gurners use their body and the shoulders, arms.”

The judging panel was four teenage girls, two from Tanzania and two from the local area. There was no shortage of entrants. My turn arrived about half way through, and I gave it everything I’d got, using a lopsided face that years of petulantly spoiling family photographs had allowed me to perfect. I fell to my knees before the panel, and was awarded 4.5/5 and a provisional share of first place with one of the Tanzanian lads. Competitors came and went and nobody could beat that score, and I began to wonder if the prize might be mine, a 75cl bottle of Konyagi, the sweet gin-like spirit the Tanzanians like to pep their beer up with. Finally as the entrants dwindled, a young local lad called Jack was persuaded to put down his beer and show us how it should be done. With flowing blond hair and an easy smile, he looked a little like the young Robert Plant. He turned away and composed himself. There was a moment of pregnant anticipation before he violently turned back and advanced with menace upon the judging panel, a distressing figure of pure malice. Quite how anybody could suddenly have so many nostrils I am not sure, but this warped and disfigured horror lurched forward and the judges scattered whilst awarding perfect 5s.

I had a chat with him later on, outside for a spot of fresh air.

“They say it’s a cultural exchange but really it’s just an excuse for a piss-up.”

‘Same difference’, I thought to myself.

Jack was from Cleator Moor, where I’d intended to go the next day.

“The best pies are from Wilsons.” We agreed that whoever’s pies you grew up eating were forever after the benchmark against which other pies are judged. For me it had been Tittertons pies on Mill street in Macclesfield, even though the butchers had been gone well over 20 years. I promised Jack I’d try one from Wilsons.

“What’s the employment like round here?” I asked,

“It’s either Sellafield or drugs to be honest.”

“Will you stay?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

I mentioned I’d be busking in Cleator Moor.

“Take your stab jacket.” Jack replied casually, before heading off to a secret supply of beer for a refill.

The hall was a perfectly normal village hall, except for the wall of big red posters, detailing exactly what to do in all circumstances if the nuclear sirens go off. Just two miles away is Sellafield, a gigantic nuclear waste reprocessing plant, West Cumbria’s kill or cure, forcing locals to accept the choice between the distasteful idea of processing and storing half of the world’s nuclear waste, and mass unemployment. The plant provides thousands of well paid jobs and the area needs it. But as well as the safety concerns it’s also an economic time bomb, and closure would hit West Cumbria with a fresh wave of depression just as it looks like overcoming the last. It’s a tough balancing act, an industry that few would want, but that keeps the area alive.

From inside the hall the African voices cut through, a powerful nasal singing tone. The ringleader of the music seemed to be a young Lady called Martha. She knew the dances and had an energy that took the whole dance floor with her. I wanted to ask her more about it, but neither of us really had enough common language to make it work and in the end, she just offered me a fist bump, delivered with total commitment, a heavyweight blow from a 4ft9 woman.

I later learned that she’d lost her mother young, and was fighting tooth and nail to get an education when much of her family would much rather she was married off as quick as possible.

The night went on. Many cans were consumed. The bar was being run by 18 year olds for whom this was their first attempt at such activity. I went to see what they had and found that all they had was lager and gin. I asked if they had any bitter, which caused some head scratching. Later they found me and told me they’d got a crate of John Smiths in specially, which I then felt obliged to drink.

West Cumbria is a little known place. Tucked right round the corner of the Lake District, far off the beaten track, not on the way to anywhere, the decline of industry has rendered this a forgotten corner of England. Yet it’s one I feel I know very well. Many of my best friends are Cumbrians from this very part of the world, drawn to Manchester for work and excitement, and into my world by the music we have in common. I have friends from Whitehaven, St Bees, Cleator, Egremont.

The importance of exchanges like the Cumbria-Rungwe Community Link example is huge. Mary tells me that in many of the impoverished towns and villages, the kids have never seen a black person, and consider they could never go to London for fear of meeting one. Exchanges like this break that prejudice down in the nicest possible way, without criticising or excluding, but by creating gentle opportunity for people to explore and learn.

Too many of our English interactions with the world, and especially former colonial countries are patronising, and measured in terms of what we can do to ‘help’ or make things better. In this exchange, it is a meeting of equals, where both sides grow and benefit without cost to the other.

The midsummer sun finally set and both sides had danced enough. Things drew to an end. I took my can of John Smiths back into the building which was now deeply fragrant with the smell of teenage BO and allowed myself to watch the scene. Clusters of people were forming and re-forming, full of hugs, selfies, and the knowledge of a precious time come to an end. People young enough to still need to learn about that special kind of grief that comes from knowing that someone you’ve grown to love may be someone you never meet again. Tears happened outside, in private, a little later.

Cleator Moor

I’d had it in my mind I was going to busk in Cleator Moor, right from the start of this. It’s just not like anywhere else I’ve been. A town few have even heard of, flung up in a few years to supply the iron industry and consequently not really between any two other places. You’d never end up here by chance, and few would choose to go. Disused railway lines converge on the town, viaducts lost under forests, embankments crumbling, sudden bridges, built to carry mineral trains now long scrapped. One line has become a cycleway, a lycra motorway that misses the town by a few hundred yards, and from which not one cyclist ever diverts to see Cleator Moor.

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It feels like something of a ghost town now, like the gunslinger has come to town and everyone else is hidden. The rows of handsome shop buildings round the main square are largely empty and hollow, save for the odd hairdresser.  The two beautiful civic buildings in the square itself are being refurbished, and the library has temporarily moved out, leaving it even quieter than usual.

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“You don’t want to busk there. Try Whitehaven instead, you’ll do much better.” was a common warning. I didn’t care, and wasn’t in it for the money today. I just wanted to get to know this fascinating little town better. My hosts, Bob and Mary had supplied me with a couple of nuggets of information before I’d left that morning. The first was that Cleator Moor had been the scene of mainland Britain’s last sectarian murder. The second was that in the ten minute walk from the old village of Wath Brow along the high street to the 19th century town of Cleator Moor the accent would change considerably.

This seemed unlikely to me, perhaps it might have been true in the 1850s when the Irish community moved to Cleator Moor and built their town on the edge of Wath Brow, but surely not now, or if it did, a subtle inflection here and there, only noticeable to the locals. I parked at Wath Brow and walked the few hundred yards to Cleator Moor, all one continuous urbanisation now, any border indistinguishable on sight. The accents at Wath Brow were as I expected, broad Cumbrian, a touch like the more famous Geordie accent to the untutored ear, but softer and more rounded.

Along the way you pass by the first of several chip shops. A colony of seagulls lined the roof, waiting for opening time. Chip shops in West Cumbria open for just one hour at lunch time. Miss that and you’ll go hungry. The birds knew this well and were alert and ready, like runners waiting for the starting gun.

I made it to Wilson’s for my pie, which was excellent, and was addressed in a clear Irish twang by the butcher, who was tickled by the idea of someone busking in his town, and made me a free cup of coffee. Outside, I was harassed by a small white dog, whose elderly female owner told it to “Behave yer’sel”. Mary was right. In 2019, the town is still so static there’s a considerable accent difference over the course of 500 yards.

I busked in the main square by the bus stop. There was virtually nobody about, and what few people did come all got on buses for the bright lights of Whitehaven and Maryport. It didn’t matter, I played for the fun of it, and slowly a few coins did come, from old men who crossed the road specially, from children passing by. It was enough to buy lunch at least.

Across the way was a Chinese restaurant which proudly displayed an enthusiastic but cringingly patronising review in the window. “Tommy (he has an unpronounceable Chinese name!) does the cooking.” “I know it doesn’t sound too exciting but it was surprisingly good!” I wondered what possible sequence of events could have brought a family from China to Cleator Moor. Alas, the restaurant was closed for staff holidays.

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I headed back down to Wath Brow, past Sproaty’s chippy, in search of my afternoon’s entertainment.

Where the town finally finishes, butting up against Dent Fell, the last flat piece of land belongs to Wath Brow Hornets ARLFC (Amateur Rugby League Football Club). Normally thought of as a game for Lancashire and Yorkshire, Cumbria’s deep love of rugby league has often gone unreported, with professional sides in Whitehaven, Workington, and Barrow, and numerous strong amateur clubs. Wath Brow are one of the best sides in the country, and were today entertaining Yorkshire rivals Siddal.

I’ll put my cards on the table. I’m a passionate follower of Rugby League, and have been since a very young age, when my father took me to games all over the North-West, starting at the age of six. I carried my own milk crate through the turnstiles so as to be tall enough to see what was going on. My passion for the game has only increased with age, as I’ve come to appreciate the significance that so many of the clubs hold for their communities. Played almost exclusively in Northern, working class communities, rugby league is frequently the one thing that these communities still have to feel proud of when so much else has been lost to the decline of industry.

I was joined by Bob, who’d cycled over from St Bees, normally a rugby union fan, but willing to give this other code a try for the day. We found a shady spot by the opposition dugout on the far side of the pitch and waited for the start of play. The feeling of community was strong around the ground, as a crowd of a few hundred assembled in the sunshine to enjoy the entertainment. Young girls in club shirts practised their tactical kicking in front of the goal posts. Older lads got a couple of pints ahead so they wouldn’t run out during the first half. All generations were represented, bringing family and community together, and a minute of silence was held for a departed friend.

Siddal started terribly, conceding a try within seconds. From the kickoff, they contributed to the wholesome family atmosphere by loudly shouting “Smash the cunt!” as they charged after the ball. It seemed like a predetermined tactic to intimidate the opposition, but sadly for them, they didn’t seem to have a plan ‘B’, and having failed to ‘Smash’ the ‘cunt’, looked somewhat bewildered and uncertain what else to do. Wath Brow were just too good, with flowing set moves, tough defence, and superior discipline.

It became a procession, and the Siddal dugout became an increasingly agitated place.

“You’re all fucking bent, you three!” yelled the substitute to the referee and both his touch judges, leading me to wonder if a player can be sent off if he’s not on yet.

Behind us, Ennerdale opened up into the West Cumbrian plain, wild open hillsides cascading down to this little impoverished but stunning corner of England, locked away behind the mountains and so rarely visited by the tourists who overwhelm Grasmere and Ambleside. Their loss.

I went for a wee at half time. A cancer awareness poster in the gents suggested that I ‘Check my balls monthly’, in the quaint belief there’s a bloke out there who, if left to his own devices, doesn’t check them hourly.

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The second half continued much as the first, and I got chatting to an older lad who told me he’d had a professional trial with Workington Town many years ago.

“We played Salford, back when they were the best. Got stuffed! Loved it though.”

“How much were you on for a match back then?”

“£6 a game. Not much even then! But here’s the thing, they never paid me, so when my trial was up and I wasn’t signed, I went round to the director’s house to get my money. Turned out he’d passed away two weeks prior. Never saw a penny!”

He saw the funny side now, 40 years later.

“Look at them.” He said, pointing to the gaggle of tanked up lads who were ribbing the opposition players for every mistake, winding them up.

“At full time, you watch, they’ll fuck off instantly. They act hard, but they’re cowards!  They’ll be gone as quick as they can in case any of those players decide to take it up with them after the whistle.”

The whistle went and he was right, off they ran to the bar. Rugby League is the toughest of games, played by the bravest men and women. There’s a reason why I’ve always preferred to stay in the crowd. With the win, Wath Brow went top, the highest ranked amateur side in the UK, every player a local lad drawn from this little rugby playing village that hangs off the edge of a small and otherwise broken landscape in the ruins of an industry fled, in a forgotten corner of England. It means everything to them and I can see why.

Usually at this point I hawk my tip jar in the hope of a little extra income, but this time, any tips sent in over the next two weeks (21/07/19 – 4/08/19) will go towards the Cumbria-Rungwe Community Link project. I’ll add them up and transfer them over at the end of that period.

Tip jar is in the Blog archive

Accounts available upon request.

Book announcement

I’m really pleased to announce that I’ve agreed a deal to publish the book part of #BuskEngland with Leeds publisher ‘Scratching Shed’, who specialise in travel writing with a Northern voice, and rugby league. A match made in heaven! We met for a pint at the Leeds brewery tap a few weeks ago and immediately got on. I signed and returned the contract this morning with the same mixture of excitement and nervousness I remember from when Gren Bartley and I got our first record contract from Fellside in 2006. It’s the first time in this project I have a genuine deadline to meet, and it’s amazing just how much gardening one can get done when there’s writing that suddenly needs to be finished.

It’s a long way from here to a finished book, but I’m already starting the process of turning over 40 lengthy blogs into something more substantial and over-arching, as well as still intending to visit a few more places round the country. When it comes to taking time out to complete the manuscript and the album in the Autumn, I’ll open up a pre-sales option so that I have some sort of income while I do the work. I remain enormously grateful for and humbled by the support I’ve received doing this. It’s not just kept me going, but has really made the whole thing tremendously enjoyable and rewarding. Thank you all, again.

The book and album will be released in the spring, with a tour to promote them taking place from mid May. I’ve already booked a dozen gigs in, so if you’d like to see this performed anywhere, please contact me. All venue types are suitable from arts centres to living rooms. It’s an infinitely flexible show.

One thing I am struggling with is a title for the book. If you can think of anything witty and suitable, but preferably not pun-based, let me know. A free copy to you if I choose it!

There will be another announcement about the album in a week or so when a couple of things are finalised.

I’ll be performing selections from this work in progress at these two gigs this summer;

Near Ashby, Leicestershire. Friday August 2nd.


And; Pebbles, Watchet, Monday August 19th.

Plus, my big podcast recording show in Manchester on Friday September 27th is a quarter of the way to selling out, so please do come along and support me if you can. I really could do with a good showing for this one!

Event details;


More on Scratching Shed;

“We are an independent publishing company founded over a pint in Blackburn in May 2008, now based in Leeds. Our primary aim is to produce high-quality books inspired by aspects of northern English culture, though in recent years that brief has widened considerably to include several national and international titles and the monthly rugby league magazine Forty20. The company was founded by its current co-directors Phil Caplan and Tony Hannan, a couple of Yorkshire-based authors, journalists and occasional broadcasters. Among our titles is Dave Hadfield’s acclaimed folk book All the Wrong Notes – Adventures in Unpopular Music, with an introduction by Bernard Wrigley.”



Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

Blog archive

Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!