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As I arrive in church the warden is pottering about lighting candles. A glass of water is placed beside the priest’s stall. From the vestry comes the gentle hum of the choir finding robes, hymnbooks, space. The church is lit but the side aisle lights are off and it feels like the edges of the church are blurring into the darkness outside.

The congregation arrive quietly in ones and twos. Some need help getting to their seats, others help them without prompting. This is a well rehearsed routine. The timelessness of this night is palpable, even before we begin.

The choir begins to assemble under the west gallery. Many years ago they would have been up above, heard but not seen, now they gather beneath, ready for their procession. The microphone clicks, subtly relocating us into the modern era, as the priest, hidden amidst the choir, welcomes the scattered congregation and introduces the opening hymn.

The first few chords on the organ fill the previously still air with life as the congregation, huddled in their coats, haul themselves to their feet. As the first verse begins the crucifer leads the choir down the aisle, deftly swerving to avoid knocking the chandelier with the cross – one Sunday, so the story goes, he hit it on the way up and on the way back. The choir, resplendent in their robes and academic hoods, file into their stalls as the hymn reaches its climax. The priest turns to face the congregation and begins those familiar words.

Dearly beloved brethren, the scripture moveth us in sundry places…”


As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end.

By now the service is well underway with a minimum of fuss.

The Psalm for the day has been chanted by a perfectly synchronous choir, the congregation joining in as best they can. Monk, Turle, Stanford. For some these are old friends, for others they are passing acquaintances, colleagues in the search for truth, hope, solace.

Someone slips out of their pew and takes their place behind the large wooden eagle which dwarfs its passenger and seems to speak the words from the Old Testament itself.

Then the much loved Magnificat.

He hath scatter’d the próud, • in the imagi- | nation | of their | hearts.

A reading from the New Testament leads us into the Nunc Dimittis and eyes are filled with tears as minds are filled with memories of a much loved chorister.

Turning in unison to face the altar gives time for eyes to dry. The apostles creed offers its own comfort in the promise of the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

The clear, calm voice of the priest calls the people to prayer. Some kneel, some know they would not make it back up if they tried.

Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.

These words, this service, flows like water down a granite stream-bed, carved deep by centuries of gentle repetition.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end.


In Quires and Places where they sing here followeth the Anthem”

As the music floats upwards eyes wander, pausing on a familiar image in the stained glass, or a flick of smoke from a candle, or a vase of flowers, always new yet always there. In this moment it seems as if the whole earth is holding its breath, waiting to see what God will do. In the half-light, the stillness, the deep, deep peace, this is where God is to be found for those who wish to seek him.

And here, as if it knows it has played its part, the prayer book fades away and our eyes are turned upwards and outwards in intercession.

As the names resound through the near empty church, it does not seem so empty. The shadows of those who have passed through in the week, those who have left names of loved ones, those who remain silent, they join with us as we pray.

And then the organ, silent for so long, calls us back to earth.

As we sing the candles are extinguished, marking the close of the prayer book’s work and setting us up to hear God speak in new words once more.

After the sermon, preached almost in the round, the plate is passed from pew to pew as we sing once more and the priest follows the centre line up to the altar to receive the gifts and to bless the people.

One final hymn, accompanied by the receding swish of choir robes and the day is done. Some depart in silence, some stay to talk, or pray, or listen to the organist as he plays on.

Then we fade away into the night with a song on our lips and peace in our hearts.

Folk Song – Oor Hamlet

Hamlet in under 3 minutes? Why not!

Lyrics: from memory
Takes: 1

Download: Oor Hamlet

Folk Song – New York Girls

Another sea shanty, this one learned from Stan Hugill’s material book “shanties from the seven seas”. Hugill was one of the last true shantymen, singing work songs on some of the last sailing ships and this book contains some 400 songs that he learned on ships around the world.

The more commonly known words to this, as sung by Bellowhead (, tell of a sailor on shore leave getting scammed by a prostitute. I prefer this version which has some brilliant wordplay.


Lyrics: from memory
Takes: 2

Download: New York Girls

Folk Song – Hey John barleycorn

A cracking drinking song this and something of a sequel to the more well known John Barleycorn song.


Lyrics: from memory
Takes: 1

Download: Hey John Barleycorn

Folk Song – Boston Harbour

A short and sweet sea shanty. I’m not a big fan of ‘tow row row’ type songs, I always feel a bit silly singing them but it’s worth getting over it for this one.


Download: Boston Harbour

Folk Song – Big Steamers

Yet another Kipling poem set to music by Peter Bellamy – I make no apologies for this one, it’s brilliant!

Kipling wrote this around the first world war as a way of helping children understand the importance of the shipping trade. It is written as a back and forth between a child and the ‘big steamers’ of the title. (more info)


Lyrics: from memory
Takes: 1

Download: Big Steamers

P.S. The best version of this song is by The Wilsons – the harmonies are sublime!

Folk Song – Cholera Camp

I haven’t particularly been trying to learn Peter Bellamy/Rudyard Kipling songs but I’ve lost track of the number of times a song has caught my ear and I’ve later found out it was Bellamy/Kipling.

This is one such song (and I’m in the middle of learning another), written about Kipling’s experience of ‘cholera camps’ in India in the late 19th century.

Before it was understood to be caused by contaminated water, when a cholera epidemic struck an army camp they would strike camp and basically march around in circles until it ended (often taking the contaminated water with them!)

Anyway, as Jon Boden from Bellowhead says, this is the finest song ever written about people dying of cholera – enjoy!

lyrics: from memory
Takes: 1

Download: Cholera Camp


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