The Dorset Appreciation Society
From evil crows to Pythonesque battles: acclaimed folk duo Ninebarrow say there’s no inspiration like walking in their home countryside…
WE WERE WALKING over Ballard Down in the Purbeck Hills and we saw a line of seven crows sitting in a hawthorn tree,” says Jon Whitley.
“And in our heads they became seven witches who’d committed some foul murder and had turned themselves into crows so they could watch the hysteria. That’s kind of how we see things. Folk music: never misses a chance to turn miserable.”
Happily, Jon and his partner Jay LaBouchardiere are far from miserable. As Ninebarrow, they have been nominated for the Radio 2 Folk Awards and have a devoted following that includes Kate Rusby, Seth Lakeman and Mark Radcliffe. It’s all down to mellifluous close-harmony vocals, prodigious musicianship, a mischievous sense of fun – and a passion for the landscapes of their home county.
“We didn’t set out to be the Dorset Appreciation Society, but it’s kind of what’s happened,” says Jon.
“I guess you can’t help being inspired by what’s around you, particularly if you’re from Dorset and you like walking.”
Jon and Jay met at school, and both say their interests in music and walking developed in tandem from an early age.
“We’ve spent most of our lives walking in the Dorset countryside,” says Jon.
“I remember when I was in my early teens walking with my dad and sister humming folk tunes because my dad Bob was (and still is) a popular folk musician. It was places like the Purbeck Hills and Badbury Rings…”
“For me it was Cranborne Chase and Martin Down,” says Jay.
“And I think we just became aware that these were special landscapes, full of stories and song.”
The duo’s name comes from Nine Barrow Down in the Purbeck Hills, and most of their original songs take inspiration from Dorset’s landscape.
Siege relates the siege of Corfe Castle during the Civil War, when Royalist Lady Mary Bankes held out against a Parliamentarian force for months before being betrayed by one of her own officers.
“I picture it as a slightly Monty Python affair, with Lady B shouting rude things from the battlements,” says Jon. “And the Roundheads obviously respected her, because at the end they let her walk out with her dignity intact. Until they demolished her castle, of course.”
Halsewell tells of Dorset’s worst ever shipping disaster. In January 1786, the trading vessel Halsewell was wrecked on the rocks near Worth Matravers, with locals braving the freezing storm to haul 74 survivors up the jagged cliffs.
“Someone told us that story at a gig, so we went for a walk to find the place,” says Jay.
“When you see the cliffs, you realise what an ordeal it must have been for the sailors trying to climb up to safety, and the villagers trying desperately to help them.”
Blood on the Hillside is the saga of the witchcrows of Ballard Down, while Thirteen Turns tells of a skilled medical healer who was hanged as a witch at Gallows Hill in Dorchester. Overthrown had a slightly different genesis. “We got a call from Dorset Artsreach, who said they’d like to commission a song from us,” says Jon.
“Wow, we said – what kind of song? And they said, ‘one that will raise awareness of the archaeological heritage of the South Dorset Ridgeway’.
“Well, that was a bit of a challenge, but we like a challenge. We went walking to some of the hill-forts that have been excavated along the ridgeway, and what struck us was how nature had overcome them.
“The chieftains probably thought these mighty forts would last for aeons against all comers – but in fact they’ve been ‘overthrown’ by nothing more than grass and flowers. That sounded like a good way to connect to the archaeology of the place.”
They have just released their latest album The Waters and the Wild, and Jon is planning an even more practical link between their two passions.
“I’d love to do a book of walks that go to the locations of our songs,” he says.
“I’ve been a CW reader for years so I’m pretty good with routes. If anyone knows a good publisher, give us a shout!”