‘Welcome to the Hathersage Folk Train,’ the woman with a clipboard called out as we pulled away from Manchester Piccadilly. ‘Is there anyone with us who hasn’t been on the Folk Train before?’ A few hands went up. ‘The Full Circle Folk Club are going to play for us all the way to Hathersage and then we’ll all go down to the pub and –’ Someone interrupted to ask if we’d be stopping at Dore. ‘Nobody panic, this is a normal train to Sheffield!’ The band started playing.
The train shuffled out into the low autumn sunshine and picked up speed past the scrapyards and warehouses, branching off the main line at Ardwick beside a stack of shipping containers. The band – guitar, mandolin, flute, voice – felt their way into the songs, especially at first, and there was something pleasingly shambolic about the way they picked out the tunes and took turns with the lead vocals. Some of the audience joined in with the choruses, staring absent-mindedly at the M60 as they murmured: ‘It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.’
The Folk Train has been going for about 15 years, run by volunteers as part of a partnership between Derbyshire County Council and Northern Rail. It happens once a month or so. There’s a whip-round for the band at the end, but apart from that it costs nothing more than the price of a return train ticket.
The repertoire is mostly familiar: Maggie May, The Belle of Belfast City, To the Begging I Will Go; but there are some tunes I don’t know too. The oldest band member performed an a capella version of a Matt Armour song called Generations of Change. ‘I knew Matt,’ he explained, ‘but I first heard this performed by a fellow called George Balinski who used to play at the Crumpsall Folk Club. That might have been 1968. Actually Matt didn’t perform it the way I do…’ On the way back into Manchester the band played Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town. Everybody joined in with the refrain.