The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

Grubby Mitts Cecil Sharp House

There was something so perfect about The Grubby Mitts playing Cecil Sharp House. Bedford’s art rockers at the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society nestled in the well-heeled streets of Primrose Hill. London’s village hall. In my mind they belong in large spaces, I’d first seen them at Bob and Roberta Smith’s Art Party Conference at the Spa in Scarborough, an even more cavernous venue.

When I arrived Andy Holden was on the stage holding up ceramic cats to a camera under a table lamp as the band played and the close-up cat images were projected on the big screen while Holden narrated. This wasn’t the main gig, but a performance piece called Catharsis. The cats had belonged to Holden’s Grandmother who left them to him in a series of large cardboard boxes after her death – his performance taking the form of a peculiar ‘unboxing video’.

The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

The main hall at Cecil Sharp House is huge, with echoes of folk heroes and grand dances. The Grubby Mitts crowd stuck mostly to the bank of seating around the wall leaving the ballroom floor clear aside from a handfull of die-hards forming a line across the middle of the space. It worked – seemed to fit the mood, the awkward school disco kids, let the sounds fill the void. The show was apparently linked to Andy Holden’s current Art angel show with his father Peter Holden, Natural Selection.

The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

I only lasted half a song before taking the floor and joining the ranks of the standing, barely dancing line. The band worked through most (if not all) of their album What The World Needs Now Is along with what I presume were newer tunes. A three-piece brass section joined some numbers swelling the sound into the high vaulted ceiling euphorically. Holden twisted knobs hunched over at a table of electronics, played the guitar, and gesticulated at the drummer. It was a majestic performance from the whole band.

It ended with a stunning rendition of To A Friend’s House the Way is Never Long. The band departed the stage and then stood in the hall with the rest of us as the lights came back on and the audience dribbled out into the Primrose Hill night. I rarely go to gigs these days aside from local nights in Leytonstone, this was perfect. Wandering down into Camden Town, freezing cold, I fancied a pint but turns out Camden Council have rigid licencing laws with no booze sold after 10.30pm on a Sunday. Rather than pissing me off it just added to the quirky vibe of a magical event.

Along the Loughton Brook through Kate’s Cellar – Epping Forest

Loughton Brook

Out on Sunday for one of those late afternoon/early evening wanders in Epping Forest – that time of the day and the weekend when ventures further afield have been ruled out by domestic dithering. My son is feeling lethargic but still up for a stroll and we’re keen to find a new route that doesn’t take us back to the unlimited soft drink refills in the Royal Forest at Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge. Following the Loughton Brook seems like a good place to start.

Loughton Brook Epping Forest

The Loughton Brook meanders through this lower portion of Epping Forest before making its way through the suburban streets of Loughton to its confluence with the River Roding. The steep sandy banks and gentle curves of the brook are beguiling and we criss-cross our way over the wooden bridges and hopping across narrower sections. According to the Essex Field Club, “the sinuous curves may be the result of the balance between energy and friction when a low energy river moves fine sediments down a shallow gradient.”

From looking at the paper Ordnance Survey map the source of the Loughton Brook appears unclear – it could either emerge in Wake Valley or perhaps percolates through pebbles, gravels, and bagshot beds in Great Monk Wood. From there it flows down through the Forest feeding Baldwin’s Pond to the spot where we stand south west of Loughton Camp.

 

a prospect of loughton brook

Searching online for a definitive answer to the source of the Loughton Brook takes me to a series of GCSE teaching resources where the Loughton Brook apparently features in the GCSE Geography paper. My inquiries also lead me to Spaceship’s hypnotic and richly evocative new album ‘a prospect of loughton brook’.

The album traces the course of the brook “from source to mouth” and in the sleeve notes Mark Williamson of Spaceship gives a precise description of the location of the source, “rising just over the Epping New Road from Wake Valley Pond. On the opposite side of the highly embanked road Lower Wake Pond is drained by a clay culvert from which springs a trickle of water.” Added serendipity to this glorious discovery is given by the fact that the binaural and hydrophone recordings of the forest and the watercourse that blend beautifully with the instruments on the album, were recorded over a January weekend when I too was walking in the forest around Loughton Camp.

 

Debden Slade Epping Forest

Spotting a narrow footpath leading alongside another rivulet running downhill to the Loughton Brook, we change course heading uphill through Debden Slade, said to be a corruption of ‘Deadman’s Slade’, and Kate’s Cellar. This area of the forest was apparently named after a hermit named Kate and Google Maps seems to attribute Kate’s Cellar as the name of the stream that we walk beside. Oddly neither Debden Slade nor Kate’s Cellar are marked on the Ordnance Survey Explorer 174 Map.

Debden's Slade Epping Forest

We rest on a tree root just the other side of Epping New Road and I reflect back on the event I hosted last Tuesday evening with Will Ashon at the Wanstead Tap discussing Will’s new book Strange Labyrinth – Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London’s Great Forest. Will Ashon was a great person to chat about Epping Forest with in front of a packed room, and now I imagined him walking with us in the forest. I kept seeing him clambering up trees and answering my stream of questions about pollarding, the enclosures, and a whole host of things we didn’t get to on that great evening at The Wanstead Tap.

Strange Labyrinth takes you on a ramble through Forest lore not unlike a good schlepp in Epping Forest. It presents many facets of our beloved woodland – as a place of solace and reflection, a place of fear, and a landscape of magic. The persistent theme for me was of the forest as a last resort of the Outsider – from the Elizabethan playwright Mary Wroth through Dick Turpin, TE Lawrence, actor Ken Campbell, and anarcho punk guru Penny Rimbaud.

I visited Penny at the legendary Dial House near Ongar, as it happened a few days after one of Will Ashon’s visits there, in 2015. I asked Penny why he thought there was an increased interest in Epping Forest. He said he thought it marked “a form of return, a return to enchantment”. And Strange Labyrinth captures that “enchantment” perfectly.

Kate's Cellar Epping Forest

Aware that it was approaching the last hour of daylight we started to make our way back down Broom Hill and through Loughton Camp. The wonderful Dave Binns had mentioned in the Q&A at the Strange Labyrinth event how he had stumbled upon a set of low mounds and trenches outside the main boundary of Loughton Camp. Now with my son I thought that we had accidentally ambled into the same location – perhaps a secondary enclosure beyond the wooden palisade that would have topped the exterior of the Iron Age earthwork. We looked at it from various angles and checked our positioning on the Ordnance Survery app but it was inconclusive. Epping Forest, this ‘Strange Labyrinth’, still retains its mysteries. Perhaps that is part of the enchantment that keeps drawing us back.

Return to Tin Pan Alley

It was just over a year ago that I visited Denmark Street with Tim Arnold of the Save Soho campaign. Tim was giving me a tour of venues under threat and those that still give live music a home in the West End. We decided to start outside the 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street – a venue Tim had played many times. As I started filming we noticed crates and boxes leaving the building in a steady stream – the 12 Bar Club had hosted its final gig in Tin Pan Alley, forced out by the Crossrail sponsored destruction of this corner of Central London.

When I met Henry Scott-Irvine of the Save Denmark Street campaign outside the boarded up venue last month, news had just filtered through that the 12 Bar had just closed its doors again at its new home on Holloway Road. As Henry put it – music needs a hub, Denmark Street/ Tin Pan Alley was the beating heart of London’s live music community and when that heart is damaged you can’t expect things to survive out along the arteries (I’m paraphrasing but Henry explains it more eloquently in the video above).

Save Tin Pan Alley

Superficially for now Denmark Street retains the guitar shops and a couple of venues. This is undoubtedly a good thing, particularly when you consider the way that the iconic Astoria was brutally erased from the map with a few swings of a wrecking ball (I couldn’t think of a Miley Cyrus gag there but insert your own).

Andre in Hanks Guitar Shop was upbeat about the situation – thinking that the surrounding developments could bring new trade to the street and lead to a revival of the shops and venues. Although he did sound a note of caution that the developers – who are also the landlords – needed to keep the rents at realistic levels for the traders in Tin Pan Alley. The various music industry offices occupying the upper floors of this historic 17th Century street have already been forced out – gone are the music publishers and agents who brought the music to Denmark Street in the early 20th Century – who invented the music press and the pop charts, then the pop stars and punk rock.

Good news arrived this week that the house where the Sex Pistols lived and daubed graffiti on the walls has been given a Grade II listing. Finally official heritage recognition for at least one chapter of this richly storied thoroughfare. Henry would like to see the London Borough of Camden give it the same protected status for music that Hatton Garden has for its jewelry trade.

Without dogged campaigning the developers could already have destroyed this vital part of London’s heritage – thankfully people such as Henry and Andre are keeping the music alive in Denmark Street and long may Tin Pan Alley rock on.

Save Soho and the Battle for Tin Pan Alley

It was when I was walking round Soho with Geoff Lloyd recording for his Absolute Radio show that I noticed the closure of Madame JoJo’s, that great icon of Soho nightlife to the extent that closing it could be as catastrophic as releasing the ravens from the Tower of London.

I later connected with Soho resident and musician, Tim Arnold, one of the co-ordinators of the Save Soho campaign that includes local residents, small businesses and luminaries such as Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch. Tim offered to take me round some of the venues under threat and also the ones needing to be preserved if the Spirit of Soho was to survive.

Although not actually in Soho we decided to start outside the 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street and were there the day it closed. Almost immediately afterwards it was squatted and occupied by the Soho Bohemians so again I went along with a camera to capture the moment.

Denmark Street (known as Tin Pan Alley) is the historic heart of the music industry in London (and indeed Britain). It was where the early sheet music publishers were based, the music press, management companies – it gave us rock’n’roll and pop music, the Top 40 and the Sex Pistols. It’s probably more famous now for the guitar shops. Many of the buildings date from the 18th Century with the street plan being older still.

But this all now risks being swept away by development, driven by the destructive force of Crossrail and that fact that it sits in the heart of a parcel of land worth around £980million.

If action isn’t taken now a precious ancient district of London will be erased from the map and replaced with a characterless complex of steel and glass blocks. The soul of Central London is being squeezed in the talons of rapacious development.

Sign the petition to Save Tin Pan Alley