Monday, 10 January 2011

Driven up the Wall by ancient curse


A specially commissioned, star-studded song-and-poetry show celebrating one of the Roman Empire’s most incredible engineering feats will finally receive its first major performance this month when All Along The Wall heads to Scotland (Wednesday, January 26) - but will it take a 485 year old curse back to Glasgow?

The 75-minute show saluting Hadrian’s Wall – featuring seven musicians and artists including Scottish poet Elvis McGonagall - will be a key attraction at Glasgow’s famous Celtic Connections - the world’s largest winter music festival. It is a show that has triumphed despite being thwarted several times in 2010, with the artists wondering if they were jinxed!

Last summer’s performances at Cumbria’s commissioning festival Brampton Live and then a second festival near Gateshead were cancelled when both festivals folded and flash floods in Northumberland threatened an accompanying CD launch. Could it be that one of the songs written for the project - Cursing Stone - is responsible?

The Curse Stone of Carlisle
Penned by BBC award-winning Cumbria-based singer songwriter Julie Matthews, the superstitious song tells of events that have happened in and around Carlisle since an art installation came to the city in 2001 – a huge stone inscribed with a 1525 curse made on the pillaging Border Reivers by the Archbishop of Glasgow.

The stone was commissioned by Carlisle City Council for the Millennium and is displayed at Tullie House Museum.

Says Julie: “The curse is over a thousand words long and quite brutal. Since its installation a string of tragedies seem to have befallen Carlisle and Cumbria - foot and mouth, floods and fires and even Carlisle United being relegated! There’s a growing superstition that the cursing stone set these events in motion.”

Certainly when Julie appeared recently on BBC Radio Cumbria, wary listeners voted against the song being played on air!

Originally commissioned by the north of England’s biggest roots festival – Cumbria’s Brampton Live – All Along The Wall is the result of banishing five of the UK’s top songwriters and two of the country’s best poets to a remote midwinter hideaway in Northumberland, Big Brother style. Left there with only their musical instruments and laptops for company, they brainstormed ideas for this melting pot work which celebrates the past and present of the 80-mile long wall which became an historic frontier between England and Scotland.

After just five days of intense collaboration the artists took to the stage of The Wave in Maryport, Cumbria, prompting a standing ovation with their impromptu performance. A CD, capturing all the spontaneity of that performance was recorded and has received widespread acclaim. Now the show is heading over the border where it will be performed at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s Strathclyde Suite.

The star-studded line-up features the diverse songwriting talents of Durham’s Jez Lowe; Cumbria-based Julie Matthews of the duo While and Matthews; and Orkney-based travelling troubadour Rory McLeod, together with Cambridgeshire’s Boo Hewerdine and Nottinghamshire’s young Ruth Notman. Bringing a twist to the mix are poets Kate Fox, from Tyneside and Scotland’s Elvis McGonagall.

Whilst some songs were inspired by ancient stories and legends (Notman’s Lizzie Batey is based on the story of The Good Witch of Brampton for example) others were mint new. Through the songs and poems, audiences can step into history and see what the Wall meant to a shepherd, a Roman centurion, North African legionnaire, the daughter of a Roman soldier and even Hadrian himself.

Originally due to have been the centrepiece of the 16th Brampton Live Festival last July, organisers were forced to cancel the event due to disappointing ticket sales and decreased funding and sponsorship. It was then “adopted” by the new Green Phoenix Festival at a National Trust’s estate near Gateshead ... but that festival also fell victim to the recession.

But now the project seems to have triumphed with several performances lined up following the Glasgow show. The following evening Brampton Live directors Sue and Ken Bradburn will fittingly bring the show home to their festival venue of the William Howard School, Carlisle and there will also be three September 2011 performances – at the Bury Met (23rd); Biddulph Town Hall, Staffordshire (24th) and The Sage, Gateshead on the 25th.

Says Ken Bradburn: “We were hugely disappointed that we had to cancel Brampton Live after 15 years of wonderful festivals but we were all determined that this special commission should have an ongoing life. Thanks to our funders that has been made possible and we are delighted that it will travel over the border to Celtic Connections this month before returning to its roots in Carlisle.”

Tickets for the 8pm Glasgow show, price £12.50 are available from Celtic Connections box office on 0141 353 8000 or online at

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