Thankful Villages

Alice Spawls

The story of a village is inscribed on its tombstones. Families are listed by names and dates, their marriages, births and declines, the work done and the long struggle; how someone was shot accidentally, walking across a field, or succumbed to illness, or simply fell asleep. The village’s history is in its street signs and buildings, the etymology of its name and what might be left of a mill or forge, and the church, with its one good stained glass window, its few marks of distinction, coats of arms and hassocks embroidered with local signifiers. In the church or by the roadside, the names of another set of the dead are inscribed: those whose bodies never returned to their parish; the war dead. But 53 villages in England and Wales have no First World War memorial because all their men returned. In his King’s England guidebooks of the 1930s, Arthur Mee calls them the Thankful Villages. Fifty-three doesn’t seem like very many. Only 14 are ‘doubly thankful’, and lost no men in the Second World War either.

The musician Darren Hayman is visiting all the Thankful Villages and making recordings and videos. He’s done 33 so far – the first 18 have been released as volume one, and the first 11 videos are online. He layers field recordings and interviews with poetry and song, composing on the spot. His previous musical projects have often investigated history and place: he's written an Essex opera, Pram Town, set William Morris’s poetry to music, updated 17th-century folk songs with new lyrics, and imagined the story behind a fold-away ship’s piano. Lido is an instrumental album of music and field recordings of British lidos past and present.

Thankful Villages Vol. 1 travels from Herodsfoot in Cornwall to Welbury in North Yorkshire, from Suffolk to the Vale of Glamorgan and back. The Thankful Villages are unevenly distributed: none in Norfolk or Devon, Hampshire or Cheshire, but nine in Somerset. In his song for Knowlton in Kent, which won the accolade of bravest village – it sent the greatest proportion of men to war, 12 from a population of 39 – Hayman considers the ‘harmless half-truths’ that sustain small communities: the village was accused by its neighbours of counting men from the manor house who didn’t live in the village proper. Hayman has recorded local stories, interviews with church wardens and relatives of the returned soldiers. 'Strethall' takes its cue from the parish register, and the story of a baby born out of wedlock in 1605: ‘I thought about the possibility of a village secretly wishing a baby out of existence.’ 'Rodney Stoke' has a reading from Mee’s guide to Somerset, describing the effigies of deceased Rodneys.

The backdrop to song and speech is the soundscape of the village – rain, wind, wind chimes, birds, sometimes a car – and the videos show street signs, noticeboards and other details. In some pieces Hayman tries to capture his first impressions of a place. Culpho is invoked in a strange hypnotic instrumental on harmonium and baritone ukulele; the long melodic phrases descend before switching up, questioningly, at the end. Maybe the village doesn't want him to be there? 'Stoke Hammond' is built around a simple scale which repeats lightly over and over again, inspired by the movement of the canal. The pieces are gentle but not twee, and there's a nice tension between the directed listening and the passive: sometimes Hayman seems more interested in making us notice the birdsong than the person speaking or the recorder playing, and the repetitive elements take on a life of their own. Performing at Café Oto in Dalston last weekend, Hayman and his band focused on the more traditional folk songs, but the recordings are much more than that. They don't try to be definitive, or suggest they are capturing something that's timeless or about to disappear. Most take on a single aspect or impression, on a single day. Hayman doesn't reject the pastoral, but it's balanced by the geekiness of his documenting.

Many of the pieces were recorded in the village church, sometimes on the organ. 'Aisholt' uses the church clock’s mechanism as its measure, and also brings in the choir and bells. In 'Strethall', Hayman describes the low sun turning the chapel yellow; in many churches the east window was built especially long – down to the altar – to let in as much sun as possible. Most English village churches have pre-conquest foundations, and their permanence often inspires a nostalgia that has less to do with the fate of villages and more to do with our own lives. In A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr writes: 'We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face.' The church does remain in the fields, but not for us.

That they remain and are maintained isn't thanks to providence. There are church charities but much of the work of fundraising and care is done by villagers – the 40 residents of Culpho raised £60,000 a few years ago for emergency repairs to St Botolph’s. You don’t have to go as far as W.R. Inge, who called village churches ‘our priceless legacy of beauty’, to acknowledge their public, aesthetic and historic value. No two are entirely alike, and every county has its peculiarities: the early stave church at Greensted-juxta-Ongar (possibly the oldest wooden building in the world), the round flint towers of Norfolk, the curvilinear windows of Lincolnshire. 'Recording Britain' projects are usually occasioned by the threat of loss, but Hayman seems more interested in what's survived; what's living and thriving and doesn't need to be patronised or romanticised.

Read more in the London Review of Books

A.J.P. Taylor: War in Our Time · 5 August 1982

Thomas Laqueur: How Europe Went to War in 1914 · 5 December 2013

Margaret MacMillan: The Great War and After · 5 February 2015