I’ve spent the autumn visiting Weston-super-Mare, being inspired by singing with the people here, listening to songs and stories and delving into the past at the Weston Museum.
On a beautiful day at the end of September, I arrived at Uphill and was stunned by a new perspective on the town that I’ve previously only known by coming to the seaside from Bristol with my children.
The sun shining, I climbed up to St Nicholas’ church and looked out over Brean Down and the mouth of the river. Taking in the beautiful view, the ancient history of the place struck me powerfully – the church was built in 1080 on the site of a Roman Temple. As a singer and musician, the layers of rock seemed to me like a chord – each layer with a story of its own that you can see in the fossils and geology at the museum.
This was Weston before civilisation, before its 18th century mining history, its 19th century pier and the railway that brought people from far and wide for holidays by the sea.
My second visit took me to a more recognisable Weston-super-Mare – along the seafront on another spectacular day (who knew it could be so sunny here?!). The Weekend of Wonders (organised by Theatre Orchard) had asked me to walk and sing around Weston – using my own version of a one-women-band: my looper-guitar, which lets me record my voice, invite people to join me and create layers of sound together.
I started by singing to the donkeys on the beach and chatting with the people who run the donkey rides (and have done for generations). I sang with a gentlemen there whose son runs the nearby cafe and has a voice to rival any of the current X Factor winners.
I was inspired by the travelling minstrels that you see in the Museum who greeted holiday makers off the trains to Weston in the 1950’s. Sun, sea and music seem to go hand in hand. And when the sun’s out beside the sea, everyone seems to be smiling.
Lots of friendly people were eager to sing with me on the Promenade and in the Winter Gardens, including Kenny from Gloucestershire who grabbed the microphone and almost wouldn’t let go! People recalled the old days of big bands in the Winter Gardens, ballroom dancing and the beginnings of rock and roll.
But of course, the sun isn’t always shining here on the bay. Luckily for me, though, the autumn rain chose to come only during my indoor visits to Weston Museum. The vaulted ceiling is enough to lift the spirits on a grey day, and they were lifted further by my musical encounters with all the people there – including a number of the home-schooled community of children who visit the Museum regularly for their learning.
Children tend to be less shy about singing and I had some fantastic lessons in modern singalongs, with music from the Greatest Showman and Linkin Park. I asked them to choose their favourite songs, and their choices clearly had real meaning for them. I loved hearing stories of how singing had helped these young singers with their wellbeing.
I was also moved by the Museum’s memories of a time when singing served this purpose more than ever, as I moved through into the exhibition of Alfred Leete and his cartoons during World War One.
Singalongs were at the heart of morale boosting during wartime. Many of the older visitors that I spoke to recalled these songs – particular favourites were Vera Lynn and Irving Berlin. This music still resounds with the nostalgia, hope and longing of a generation who had to experience levels of destruction and fear that we later generations cannot imagine.
I had another taste of this singalong spirit when, for the fourth strand of my Weston journey, I joined the Bourneville Community Choir in South Ward, Healthy Living Centre. Run by the brilliant musical director Kevin. The group meet every Monday morning at 10.30 – and many of them told me that singing together here is the highlight of their week.
We talked about how it’s become harder to sing together because we no longer have a shared songbook. So I asked them to find some songs in common, amongst themselves, across generations. And we did, amongst others : “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Twist and Shout” and “Show me the Way to Go Home”.
Everyone in the Wellbeing choir already knows how good it can feel to sing, but I think we were all surprised by how much fun we had finding and singing these songs together. We finished the project with a performance at Weston Museum on 8th December where we performed together : songs inspired by the past and the present and one song that I wrote specifically for Weston.
I often say, “Anyone can sing – it’s just humming with your mouth open!” We sang before we could talk. It’s very life-affirming to know that as history moves on, in the good times and the bad, singing always gives us something truly our own.
Photo by Paul Blakemore