Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us

Ellie Gowers: Morris dancing, Saddleworth Rushcart, and the Dwelling by the Weir

Jon Wilks chats to folk singer and Morris dancer, Ellie Gowers, about her close encounters with history in the making.

Ellie Gowers is, quite literally, an all-singing, all-dancing folk polymath. While it’s true that her debut album (Dwelling by the Weir, out on September 30th via her Bandcamp page) is not a collection of traditional songs, there’s no way we could ignore it here on Tradfolk. It is a magical mix of folklore, trad-inspired melodies, and tales of the Warwickshire lives that shaped the county she calls home.

Not content with writing songs on folk history, however, she’s also making folk history, too. Ellie, as she explains in this interview, is part of Chinewrde Morris, the first female side to be invited to dance at the esteemed Saddleworth Rushcart, which they attended earlier this year. If there was ever a walking advert for young people joining Morris sides and getting their bell-jangling groove on, Ellie may well be it.

You can’t really go wrong with bells. Everybody looks good in bells.

Ellie Gowers

Tell me where your interest in tradition came from.

I came to the traditional folk world quite late on. I’ve always had an interest in music, mainly from my mum’s side. They did a lot of theatre and I was taught Golden Age show tunes. I think my way into the folk and traditional world came through Morris dancing. I originally started because I wanted to play fiddle for Morris sides, but I haven’t actually done any of that yet because I’ve enjoyed the dancing so much. I think, through the Morris, I’ve come to learn about traditions and started going to tune sessions and song sessions and things like that.

What attracted you to Morris dancing? What caught your interest?

I love the sense of community that it brought. I had a really lovely childhood growing up, and community was always such a massive part of it. I think, with tradition, I’ve just sort of found another family in another community through that. I find it a very comfortable space, connecting with people through dancing and through tunes, folk songs, and singing together. And with it comes all the festivals where you meet up with people and share that experience with them. I love the connection with people, I guess, and the connection with the past that comes with it.

You’re quite young to be a Morris dancer, aren’t you?

Debatable! [Laughs]

How did you start? When did that happen?

When my dad retired in 2018, he started Morris dancing. I don’t know how or why or what pushed him to do that. I think he was just looking for something to try and so he started dancing, and I went to a couple of the dance-outs and I just really enjoyed the social elements of it and the music. I thought I’d quite like to get involved with it myself, and as I said, at the time I was learning to play violin and really wanted to play fiddle for the Morris. And I knew a couple of people already on a Morris side in a town near where I live called Kenilworth.

Morris dancing is such an amazing part of my life now. It has enriched it in some really, really great ways.

Ellie Gowers

What’s the side called?

Chinewrde Morris. It’s the old spelling of Kenilworth. So, I went along with my violin and they basically said to me, “Have a go at dancing first, just to get the feel of it and the feel of the music.” And I haven’t really played violin for it since because I’ve loved the dancing of it so much.

You took to it immediately, then?

The idea of dancing at all made me squirm [laughs]. I do sometimes find it hard to believe that I’ve arrived at this point. But yeah, it’s just such an amazing part of my life now. It has enriched it in some really, really great ways.

Weren’t you part of Saddleworth Rushcart this year, the first women’s side ever to be invited to take part?

Yeah, we had an amazing experience. Saddleworth Rushcart is run by the Saddleworth Morris Men, a Northwest team up in Saddleworth, which is a beautiful place. They load up this rushcart so it’s full of rushes that have been harvested and are all piled up, and then they elect a jockey to sit on top of it all. There must have been seven or eight different Morris sides from all over. Earlsdon Morris was there as well, who are kind of our brother team. It is a two-day event, and on the Saturday you spend the whole day pushing and pulling this cart around Saddleworth and the surrounding villages. I think it’s about 10 miles you do. And this is all in clogs as well [laughs]. So you’re treading up lots and lots and lots of steep hills, kind of pushing and pulling this cart, and it’s really, really heavy and you definitely felt it in your arms and your back the next day. But it was an absolutely incredible event to be part of.

And, yes, it was the first year they’d ever let women pull the cart and dance out at this event. We were the first women side to have done so, which is really cool. You start off by pulling this cart to one of these villages and then you do a dance spot, so everybody has two or three dances there and then you move on. And we were the first side to dance, which is really special and, yeah, quite historic, really. It was very emotional. There was quite a bit of crying [laughs]. It was really special. It was just an amazing experience and everybody was really welcoming to us and very appreciative. It was a tiring experience, but it was very lovely.

Ellie Gowers and Chinewrde Morris at the Saddleworth Rushcart event, 2022. Photo credit: Saddleworth Independent
Ellie and Chinewrde Morris at Saddleworth Rushcart, 2022. Photo credit: Saddleworth Independent

What’s the age range in the Chinewrde side?

There’s a really healthy mixture. There are people on the side who have been involved since it began, which was 40 years ago this year, actually. So you’ve got your wise Morris dancers [laughs], and then I think our youngest is 16. I’m nearly 26 and there are a lot of us who are kind of in that 25-35 age range as well. It’s just a really nice thing, to be part of a woman’s side. It’s very supportive, a really nice atmosphere, and really nice to be part of something so intergenerational. And then you meet other people from different branches of life and it’s just one big, massive mycelium network where everything kind of leads to something else. It’s really special.

Sometimes I have a moment where I look around and think, how did I get here?

Ellie Gowers

Do you find that the non-Morris dancers amongst your friends are interested in what you’re doing?

I think a lot of the time people don’t really understand and it can go one of two ways: they either just brush it off and don’t really ask, or they’re really fascinated by it. There have been occasions on dance-outs when young people, usually teenagers, kind of take the piss, but you’re there with all your friends and everybody else there is a Morris dancer, so you don’t really take too much notice of it. I kind of forget now that there are people who aren’t involved in the folk world, so it’s really weird to meet somebody who isn’t. But sometimes I have a moment, like at Saddleworth Rushcart when we were pulling this massive cart up the hill, where I sort of look around and think, how did I get here?

I think Morris dancing is kinda cool these days, isnt it?

You can’t really go wrong with bells. Everybody looks good in bells [laughs]. Actually, I’m secretly a bit of a Boss Morris nerd. They’re so cool. I really want to join them, but I’m too scared to go up to any of them because they’re just all so cool.

You’ll have to move to Stroud to join Boss Morris.

Well, it’s not too far. It’s about an hour and a half from here and I’d definitely do it. We saw the late-night ceilidh spot they did at Sidmouth and it was just absolutely incredible. It was so good. I think they did three dances. For the first one and the last one, they had musicians – I think Sam Lee and Rob Harbron were playing – but for the middle one they had created this really cool soundscape to dance to it, and it was just amazing. So brash and so modern.

Turning to your music, for the most part you’re not a traditional singer, are you? But you’re clearly influenced by the tradition.

Yeah, I’m largely a songwriter and I write all my own stuff, but it is heavily influenced by traditional song. I always love going to the tune sessions and singarounds and singing traditional stuff.

You can hear the influence of the tunes on your record, Dwelling by the Weir, in terms of the instrumentation. It’s got a very folky feel.

It definitely turned out folkier than I was planning [laughs]. It has infiltrated my life!

You’re also part of a bigger traditional folk ensemble, Filkin’s Ensemble.

Yeah. There are usually around 14 or 15 of us, so it’s a big thing. Seth and Chris from Filkin’s Drift are the creators of this project. We just do a load of traditional songs – ‘John Barleycorn’, ‘Arthur McBride’, ‘Shallow Brown’ – and it’s just so much fun. The group is made up of a load of Birmingham Conservatoire people who did Joe Broughton’s Folk Ensemble. I think our aim is just to take some of these well-known traditional tunes and put a new spin on them; put a more modern spin on them. We had our first gig at Gate to Southwell Festival this year. It’s similar to what I was saying earlier about the community – sharing all these songs and these stories with lots of other people on stage. It’s a really amazing shared experience.

Let’s talk about Dwelling by the Weir, which is out on September 30th. While it’s not necessarily traditional, there are a lot of songs on there that are quite ballad-like, in the traditional sense of the term. Long, in-depth narratives such as, ‘A Letter to the Dead Husband of Mary Ball’, for example, or, ‘The Last Warwickshire Miner’.

Yeah, definitely. The project was written over lockdown, just after I moved back home from Bristol. I returned home for a bit and it was really nice to reconnect with where I’d grown up and kind of tread the footpaths that I used to walk, and tread the footpaths that people for thousands of years had walked before me. It’s not so much an ancestral connection, because I don’t really have any ancestors around the Warwick area, but I just loved feeling that connection to the people and the stories who had shaped Warwickshire into what it is today. I had so much fun reading and researching stories and speaking to historians and, as I say, just sort of finding out about the people and their lives.

For me, folk is a lot to do with the people who have maybe created this folklore and these stories.

Ellie Gowers

I think, originally, when I started the album, I wanted to delve into the folklore of Warwick, so things like Guy of Warwick and the Dun Cow over in Dunchurch and other mysterious, spooky folk stories. But actually, I think for me, folk is a lot to do with the people who have maybe created this folklore and these stories and who are sort of the pinnacle characters in this town’s history. So, yeah, it is largely about the people of Warwickshire, some from hundreds of years ago and some a bit more present.

Where did you go to find their stories?

When I started off, I went on to World of Books in the very early stages of lockdown, and I think I ordered about 15 books on Warwick’s history and folklore and stories, which was fine, but I found it a little bit overwhelming because there was just so much. I think that’s what led me to looking at the people as opposed to the stories. I wanted to find these stories by myself, really, and not just write songs based on stories I had read in books. I wanted to do my own research, so I started off doing that.

At the time, I was staying at my dad’s a lot in Warwick, and there’s this beautiful old mill on the outskirts which I did a lot of kind of walking and running around, and there’s a beautiful place to go swimming there along the River Avon. It was that place, really, that inspired this whole album. Kind of what I was saying earlier about all the ancient footpaths and people that have walked before me, because this area used to be the main road that led from Coventry to Warwick. Elizabeth I would have travelled that road. Oliver Cromwell was said to have sat on top of the hill next to this old mill and watched his troops attack Warwick Castle. So it led me to thinking about the people who had walked that path before, and what their journey was, and what their place in the world was.

Which of the stories really grabbed you? As you just said, you’re not actually writing about Elizabeth I or Cromwell. You’re writing about “the folk”.

Yeah. I actually realised a couple of weeks ago – I don’t know why it took me this long to realise – but a lot of the songs are about women and the connection that they have to this land and how they’ve helped it. Songs like ‘Woman of the Waterways’, for example. There were so many women who worked on the canals, shifting coal from Warwick out to the industrial hot spots like Birmingham and down to London. These women would have worked on those coal boats, but they also had a family to look after and to cook for and to clean for. And I just found that incredibly inspiring.

Coming back to one of my favourite stories, there was a couple called Joe and Rose Skinner who lived on their canal boats. They were number one boaters, which meant that they had their own boats that they lived on and that they worked from. They were amongst the last working coal boaters to have used horsepower as well. They had a little donkey called Dolly that used to pull their boat up and down the towpath. When they were older, they retired to a house and every night they would go down and sleep in their canal boats because they just couldn’t face sleeping within four, very still walls. I think they needed the current of the water to send them to sleep. I just found that story so beautiful; the fact that they are just kind of a part of this canal. And then there’s ‘A Letter to the Dead Husband of Mary Ball’, which is a very sad story, but definitely one of my favourites.

Yes, I was chatting with Michelle from Bonfire Radicals yesterday, and she was talking about the similarities between that song and the broadside ballad, ‘Mary Ashford’s Tragedy‘.

Yes, it’s so weird that we both ended up working on songs about victims of violence called Mary at the same time. I find that very bizarre, but it just goes to show how common it was and still is, and how important it is that we sing about these issues.

Tell me a little about ‘The Last Warwickshire Miner’. Where does that come from?

Pete Grassby actually wrote that one. He is a melodeon player from Coventry, and a brilliant, brilliant singer-songwriter. ‘The Last Warwickshire Miner’ is about the last miner to have come out of Daw Mill Colliery, which was a working mine in North Warwickshire until 2013. It closed because a fire broke out in one of the shafts and I think it took about 10 days, maybe more, to put this fire out, because it was absolutely huge. Lots of people lost their jobs from it. That’s always going to have an impact on the economy in the surrounding towns.

Before this project, though, I never even realised we had a coal field in Warwickshire. We were never taught that at school. I always associated mining with the North, Billy Elliott, that sort of stuff. [Laughs] That’s the uneducated side of me. So, it was really fascinating to find out about this coal field up in North Warwickshire, and the fact that it had still been working as recently as 2013 was incredible. Coventry is obviously a massively industrial city and a lot still goes on there, but it felt like the end of industrialised Coventry, I guess, once this mine closed down. You can still go and see the old colliery. It’s really creepy and really quite sinister-looking. It’s like an old abandoned theme park. It’s well worth going and having a look.

Sam Bennett of the Ilmington Morris Men. Photo via the Ilmington Morris website.
Sam Bennett of the Ilmington Morris Men. Photo via the Ilmington Morris website.

Tell me about ‘Poor Old Horse’, because that started life as a traditional song, didn’t it. It even has a Roud number. (It’s Roud 513, if anyone’s checking.)

Yeah, I love ‘Poor Old Horse’. It has a very special place in my heart. I went and sat in a pub garden in Ilmington with a couple of the Ilmington Morris Men. And we started chatting about all things Morris, and we got talking about a guy called Sam Bennett who was the fiddle player for the Ilmington Morris Men back in the 1890s. From what I could gather, he was like this pinnacle character in the village of Ilmington. He did a lot for the village people. He was a handyman. He fixed people’s fences and he did a lot of fruit growing and fruit picking as well.

He also did a lot to keep alive the tradition of folk singing and dancing within the younger communities alive. He had a song collected by Cecil Sharp called ‘Poor Old Horse’, which has been done by Shirley Collins and John Kirkpatrick and loads of people. Kate Rusby did a version a Christmassy version, as well. There are quite a few versions hanging around. But I really came to love it because, for the past 10 or 11 years now, I’ve been helping look after a couple of horses and one of them is called Tom. He’s 39 this year, which is very impressive. He’s very cheeky and very stubborn and very grumpy, like a typical grumpy old man. And this song, ‘Poor Old Horse’, is about equine self-pity, old age and fragility, and it made me think of Tom straight away. I was very naughty and I changed the words to this traditional song, which I know a couple of people might argue against, but I did it, so there [laughs]. We move on.

Ellie Gowers of Kenilworth, Warwickshire, with Tom, the Poor Old Horse of the song from her album.
Ellie and Tom, the Poor Old Horse

How did you alter the words?

I kind of thought about what Tom, in his 39 years of living, may have been through before he came to his current owners. I don’t think he was treated very well. It’s a bit of a Black Beauty story. But yeah, I took this song and I changed the words to it and ended up with a song about this 39-year-old horse. I love it very much. I love singing it. It’s always fun getting people to sing along to it as well.

Do you feel like you’ve attached yourself any further to Warwickshire by doing this album?

I think so, yeah. It’s definitely put things in a different perspective for me. I think, when I was growing up, it was just a place that I lived in. I wasn’t that interested in it. I was so eager to get away to university and kind of go out into the big wide world, which I still absolutely love doing. It was just nice to be back, to reconnect with family and friends and the beautiful place that I come from.

I had exactly the same thing growing up. I desperately wanted to get away from Solihull and the areas around Solihull, where I grew up. I ended up going as far away as Japan for 10 years – I must’ve wanted to get as far away as possible! But making albums of traditional Midlands songs has attached me to that area in far more ways than I expected it to. The songs become like a beacon to other Midlanders. When you go and play these songs elsewhere, do you find that people from Warwickshire come up to you for a chat afterwards?

Yeah, loads of people. Most of the time people want to tell me that they used to live in Leamington, which is a lovely town just next door to me. Or they’ll say, “Oh, I worked at this place in Warwick”, or, “I worked there and there”, and it’s so nice just bridging those connections with people.

Obviously it’s an album about Warwickshire stories, so it could be quite a hard thing to promote if people aren’t from Warwickshire. But that’s not the case. It has been really interesting to see the parallels between other counties. Even if I’m singing about the last Warwickshire miner, there are still going to be last miners of some sort in a different county. Or, for example, the title track, ‘Dwelling by the Weir’, is a song very much about home and connecting to the people who have been there before you. There’s always going to be parallels there in every place you go, not just Warwickshire. People have come up to me and said that they really related to this song or really found meaning in that song. That has been really nice. And it encourages people to come to Warwickshire as well, which is exciting.

So you’re a one-woman Warwickshire tourist board?

I am. I feel like a bit of a Warwickshire nerd at this point, but there are worse things to be… like a Morris dancer, for instance [laughs].

Dwelling by the Weir by Ellie Gowers is released on September 30th and can be ordered from her Bandcamp page. For more info on Ellie and her forthcoming tour, head to elliegowersmusic.com.