The Bar Man, by Jeff Hoyle, October 12, 2018
I wrote recently about how I ended up at a church service in All Saints at Blackheath.
When I was at school, my favourite hymn was Hills of the North, Rejoice, so I had a leaf through the New English Hymnal to see if it was still on the approved list.
I was satisfied to find it there, though like much of the service, the words had been slightly changed from those I remembered from my youth. While searching, I was surprised to come across a tune in the Hymnal called King’s Lynn (three pages after the National Anthem) which it said was an arrangement based on a traditional melody.
It accompanied a hymn written by GK Chesterton, of Father Brown fame, called Oh God of Earth and Altar, Bow Down and Hear Our Cry.
I must admit that I had never heard of the tune or the hymn, so a bit of delving seemed to be required.
It transpired that the volume which contained it was a 1986 edition of the English Hymnal that was first published in 1906, and that the joint editor was Ralph Vaughan Williams.
This was around the time when he was on his travels through England on the lookout for folk songs.
He famously came to Lynn and collected a number of songs in the Tilden Smith in 1905, in the fishing community of the North End. Sadly, the Tilden Smith, later renamed the Retreat, was closed several years ago, but the building still remains where Pilot Street was cruelly sliced apart by the building of John Kennedy Way.
Mostly the 70 or so songs from 20 singers that he collected are seen as folk songs, though some of the melodies were reworked for his classical compositions such as ‘Norfolk Rhapsodies’, but one of them did indeed become the hymn tune King’s Lynn.
A number of other hymns in the volume are also named after places and I wonder if these are also the results of Vaughan Williams’ discoveries on his travels.
It is pleasing to note that there is a green plaque on the building that once was the Tilden Smith recording his visit, but although it notes details of the songs collected, it does not mention the Hymn.
I have no idea how well known the tune is, though it is featured in at least 53 hymnals.
Is it regularly played in the town? Perhaps when we have special civic celebrations, this should be a feature of the proceedings.
There is a hymn tune called ‘Norwich’, but it is only in three hymnals, and it was composed by Carolyn Jennings, an American, who as far as I can tell has no links with Norfolk, so for once, we are one up on our nearby rival.
While we rightly celebrate Vaughan Williams’ links with Norfolk, and particularly the Tilden Smith, I am not so sure about Chesterton. He came to here on his honeymoon, but stopped off on the way to buy a handgun ‘with a general notion of protecting my wife from the pirates doubtless infesting the Norfolk Broads, to which we were bound; where, after all, there are still a suspiciously large number of families with Danish names’.
It is probably a bit harsh picking out this quote, as Chesterton was a prolific writer who made a lot of sense on many issues. His hymn expresses sentiments that are very relevant to the modern world which sit well alongside the tune ‘King’s Lynn’.