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The Blaxhall Ship: exploring a tradfolk treasure trove

The legendary Blaxhall Ship may be known for its extraordinary legacy, but there are songs in the old sheep yet. We pay the UK's most famous traditional singers' pub a visit.

“Time is a circle and it has passed through here many times,” says Jim Moray in a clip we filmed back in August, 2022. He perfectly articulates the sense you get when you arrive at The Ship Inn, a rural, unassuming pub in Blaxhall, Suffolk, that boasts significant cultural history. Karl Dallas, the producer of The Larks They Sang Melodious, an album of traditional singing recorded on the premises, interviewed the licensee during the session. “Mr Jack Saunders tells me there has been singing at The Ship as long as his wife’s people can recall,” he subsequently wrote, “and they have been tennants for more than a hundred years ago.” That was in 1973. If Mr Saunders was correct, we can safely say that there have been singing sessions at the Blaxhall Ship for over 150 years. They continue to this day.

From the outside, the pub looks like any other countryside drinking spot. A simple building – two rooms with a bar connecting them – stepping through the door is like entering a time capsule. The stark interior is much the same as it was when Peter Kennedy and Alan Lomax brought cameras to film a folk singing and dancing session in 1955 (Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow, DVD available from the BFI), with tall pews against the outer walls and a cold, stone floor. The obvious change is the addition of truckloads of memorabilia – the decor is a collage of the record sleeves associated with the Blaxhall Ship. Shelves bulge with books, and photos abound, mainly of the “source singers” and “chairmen” that have called “lovely order” over the last century-and-a-half.

According to a local history website, The Blaxhall Ship is thought to have been built circa 1700. Originally called The Sheep, it was a shepherd’s pub and is known to have been a gathering spot for the Blaxhall Company of Sheepshearers. According to folklore, its origins as a singers’ pub have to do with a history of smuggling. “Menfolk would suddenly commence loud singing while sitting indoors at night,” explains the Blaxhall website, “a habit allegedly driven by the desire to hide the noise of passing illicit wagons from their womenfolk.” Its reputation grew considerably following the visit of Kennedy and Lomax, and again on the release of the Karl Dallas album, but, as Jim Moray points out, it’s not a dusty old museum in thrall to its own past. The Ship continues to host weekly traditional sessions, as well as a larger session on the third Wednesday of every month.

Fay Hield, Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron at the Blaxhall Sessions, 2023.

John Marshall-Potter, who co-founded the FolkEast festival with his wife, Becky, moved to Blaxhall a decade ago. The Ship Inn has since become a big part of their lives, as they run the popular Blaxhall Sessions in the months that festival isn’t taking up their attention. “We wanted to get involved in the local community, because I think there’s nothing worse than somebody from outside your area coming in and putting a festival in your backyard and then buggering off again afterwards,” he laughs.

“I’d heard of the Blaxhall Ship and I was aware of its past, but not that much. It was bought in something like 2006 by the current owner, Terry, who is an amateur box player and folk singer. He used to love going down there to the Monday sessions and at that point in time the then-owner was trying very hard to get the pub shut so he could turn it into a house. Terry bought the pub so that he could continue going there on Mondays, but he had no intention of running a pub himself. So he’s had a succession of managers ever since, some of whom have been really into its heritage and the folk history and folk music and others who weren’t even vaguely interested. The current guy, Sean, he’s making a good go of it. I don’t think he’s that interested in folk music, but he understands the heritage of the place. The pub’s open, it’s clean, it’s tidy, it’s got good beer, it’s got good food and it has music in there again.”

Becky and John Marshall-Potter, founders of FolkEast and the Blaxhall Sessions

A keen amateur historian, Marshall-Potter explains that it was his chance discovery of ‘The Blaxhall Box’ that really peaked his interest. “In about 2015, I bought a one-row, turn-of-the-last-century German melodeon at the local car boot sale for £25. It was in really nice condition and usually they aren’t. I brought it home and had a mess around with it a bit. I took it down to one of the Monday sessions at the Ship and Terry had a little go with it, but it had a stuck read and he said, ‘Well, the best thing to do that is stick it on the shelf like some of the others in here’. So it came home and it stayed on the shelf until 2020, when, during COVID, we did a small two-day event here at Lime Tree Farm for 200 people each day with an open-air stage.

Ruth Askew’s melodeon, ‘The Blaxhall Box’

John Spiers was there and, on the Sunday morning, he was out in the back garden with one of his melodeons in bits, doing some cleaning. I mentioned this box and he said, ‘Well, go and get it and I’ll have a look.’ He opened it up and gasped. ‘You’ve probably have never heard of her, but there’s a bit of pencil writing in this box and it says, Ruth Askew, 1980, for the Blaxhall Ship.’ He was absolutely right. I hadn’t heard of Ruth Askew at that point. And I became absolutely intrigued to find out as much as I could. How had this box, that I bought in a car boot sale, been at the Ship at one point in its life? And I just went off on a quest to find it. Part of this quest introduced me to this chap, Simon Saunders, who was brought up in the Ship.”

Simon’s parents were in fact, the landlord and lady during the early 1980s. They were there when the original The Larks They Sang Melodious album was recorded and an ITV documentary about George Ewart Evans was partly filmed in the Ship. “Simon got really intrigued and passionate and wanted to get more involved in discovering this history,” continues Marshall-Potter, “because, as a teenager, it didn’t mean a lot to him. He also had quite a big archive in his loft that he was largely unaware of – stuff from the ship; photographs and things. So that set us off on a slightly different path, which was trying to gather together more information about the pub.”

There used to be a pile of old melodeons for people who were either too drunk to take them home and left them, or they’d arrived without one. Under that was where the guns were kept.

John Marshall-Potter

The pair are now aiming to produce an online, free-to-view archive of Blaxhall Ship stories and memorabilia (keep an eye on the FolKEast news page for coming info). “The stories we’re hearing are incredible”, laughs Marshall-Potter. “Simon was showing me bits and pieces around the pub. He pointed to a corner and said, ‘That’s where there used to be a pile of old melodeons for people who were either too drunk to take them home and left them, or they’d arrived without one. Under that was where the guns were kept.’ Guns!? He told me that the American servicemen used to come off base and forget to hand their firearms in. When they were on the base they were in America, but when they drove out the gates, they were in the UK. And they get to the pub and they go, ‘Oh, shit, Jack, I still got my gun on me. Can you stick it under the bar? I’ll pick it up tomorrow.’ As a kid, Simon remembers there were always half a dozen handguns in a box under the bar!”

The archive they are pulling together is intended to show the Blaxhall Ship in all its glory, as both a folk landmark and a straightforward, traditional boozer. “If you go online and look at the history, you see these black and white photographs of these guys in flat caps in the 1950s. People forget that we also went into color at some point! There was a pool table in the middle, there was a jukebox, there was a one-armed bandit. And there’s a younger generation, which is Simon’s generation, who were teenagers in there when singers like Cyril Poacher and Wicketts Richardson were still in there doing it, but a lot older. There’s a guy called Biller who used to live in the village. Simon was always very close with him and keeps in contact with still. He saw him about three weeks ago. Biller is a brilliant double-handed bones and spoons player, but he won’t play in public – he’s too shy. But he was brought up around the Ship watching these guys, and he obviously sat in his bedroom and learned to do this himself. There are all sorts of stories of being uncovered as we go along with this. It’s an ongoing project.”

Another of the projects Marshall-Potter is involved in is the recording of The Larks They Sang Melodious, Part 2, marking 50 years since the last field recording was made and released in the early 70s. “What we’re going to do is a basic field recording of one of these once-a-month sessions, but we’re going to implant a few people into it. Tony Hall, who sang on the original album, is coming down and he’s going to sing two songs and he’s going to play a tune. The only other person still alive from the 1973 recording is Vic Harrop, who is too frail now to sing, but he wants to be there and he also wants to say a few words.” The event will take place on November 15th, the nearest Wednesday session to the 50th anniversary of the recording of The Larks They Sang Melodious. The resulting document will be released at some point in 2024.

“Time is a circle and it has passed through here many times.”

Jim Moray

The legacy of the Blaxhall Ship is assured, but what of its future? John Marshall-Potter believes it to be in good hands and is determined to ensure that people continue to visit from far and wide. If you’re passing through, drop in for a drink and peruse the mini-museum-cum-bar. Or perhaps check in for a night – it is an inn, after all – and grab a pew at one of the sessions. It seems a safe bet that they’ll be singing at the ship for some time to come.

Find out more about the Blaxhall Ship at: blaxhallshipinn.co.uk. Do you have a story to tell about another building associated with folk history? Drop us a note in the comments below.