Monday, 17 May 2010

Folk on a Train. 10th April, 2010

Tear up your formulas. Don a feather'd cap and a 16-25 railcard. No, not the Nazi trainspotting club - that's Volk Trains - this is Folk Trains (Hathersage).

The idea is simple, and wonderfully sweet-tasting. The musicians, accompanied by an excited rabble of folk enthusiasts, day trippers and confused-looking ramblers take the 11:52 from [Manchester] Piccadilly to New Mills Newtown, alight, and retire to the Queen's Arms - for light refreshment and pub food (Gammon & Chips, £3.50 luv) - before hopping back on the 14:50 to Piccadilly. All the time playing, singing and reviving a sparkling array of folk, roots, blues and bluegrass music from a variety of guest singers as they all, albeit proverbially, steam to and from the Peak District.

Today is Geoff Higginbottom and his beardy mate in the terrible shirt on the electric mandolin. As the train wheezes east and upwards past the post-war urban sprawl of Levenshulme, Woodford, Heaton Chapel, and Hazel Grove, they belt out a rousing mixture of local folk songs, 60s protest music and jokes about Mexicans. The hills rise, beginning to frame the music in its right context; tight valleys with old mills turned now to more Satanic purposes. Loft living, anyone?
The visual mixture of timeless moorland and fading industrial legacy make the music seem as relevant as ever, and without a single song about meeting a sweet babe on Facebook.

Pulling up in New Mills, a stroll down the hill past the Swizzels Matlow factory, the home of the Flump, journeys the congregation to the pub. Here we meet another best friend of folk music – a pint of Mild. Accompanying sing-along choruses of 'Midnight Special', stories abound about local folk heroes like Bouncing Billy Barker, who, it is claimed, jumped across the canal in one giant leap.

On the train home, the good feeling continues as the sun beats down, only a bunch of surly-looking teenagers are clearly unimpressed when seventy folk music fans board their train and proceed to sing a chorus of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' (as performed by The Band, post-Dylan).

Folk Trains engages people not just in music they would normally ignore, the functional a-to-b becomes a moment of pleasure, perhaps. The fact that I bloody love trains, and hills, and men with little pony tails called Geoff is simply a reaffirmation that Local Stopping Service plus Fairport Convention songs equals a perfect afternoon. And all for £3.45 (with railcard, of course).

If ever there was a reminder that the great joy of Manchester (and Sheffield too) is not just in the city itself, but in its location at the doorstep of some of England's finest wilderness, and that there is more to the music scene than supping Weissbeir in the Northern Quarter listening to some cacky new band, then this is it.

Folk Trains run out of Manchester (to New Mills/Hathersage and Glossop) and Sheffield (to Edale). Check out for dates and times.

Words: Andy Rees

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