Vic Mars, Inner Roads and Outer Paths, and Alfred Watkins’ Old Straight Track

Thanks to a meticulously-kept childhood diary, I can pinpoint exactly the moment when my friend Doug Simpson and I became convinced that dark forces were leading us to a hitherto undiscovered magical realm, in a secluded corner of our small, North-Eastern home town. It was Sunday 15th April 1984, we were eleven years old, and an aimless, post-beans-on-toast bicycle ride through the rural, cobbled streets of Yarm had led to the discovery of a winding, muddy track, meandering away from the pavement opposite the doctor’s surgery. It ambled beneath a canopy of rustling trees and into a small, deserted childrens’ playpark… complete with slide, roundabout and swings, as well as the ubiqituous DIY rope swing, tied to the branch of an overhanging tree, and known universally to all on Teesside as a “tarzie”.

By this stage, I’d lived in Yarm for seven years, and Doug had spent two lengthy spells in the town, but neither us had ever previously been aware of the existence of this mysterious, secluded idyll. With imaginations fuelled by the magical childrens’ novels and supernatural TV shows that provided us with a staple diet of early 1980s weirdness, we swayed gently on the swings, and jumped to the only rational conclusion available to us: that the track had never previously been there; that it had magically materialised from some no-place, and led us through a time portal into a liminal, Arthur Macken-esque parallel Yarm that clearly couldn’t exist amidst the ordinary, everyday mundanity of our familiar home town.

Similar childhood adventures through the undiscovered “edgelands” of his home town – and their accompanying, imaginative flights of fancy – provide the inspiration for Vic Mars‘ beautiful new album Inner Roads and Outer Paths, his third recording for the exquisitely-curated Clay Pipe Music label. Vic grew up in 1970s and 1980s Hereford, then spent many years teaching in Japan before moving back to the UK. The record – as the publicity notes evocatively state – “harks back to a period in Vic’s youth spent exploring the abandoned houses and factories on the fringes of his home town; the in-between places where nature either takes back, or loses its grip… it is a record of trails, roads and holloways, that lead you out along the river, through ruined arches and over railway lines, past crumbling stately homes and back into the centre of town.”

As such, it builds on the similarly nostalgic and bucolic themes that informed Vic’s 2015 album The Land and the Garden, also released on Clay Pipe…

Like its predecessor, Inner Roads and Outer Paths is a beautiful, elegant piece of work, with gently-plucked guitars, shimmering strings and woozy, old-school synths reinforcing a strong, emotional connection to the Herefordshire countryside. I asked Vic a little more about his childhood experiences and explorations, and the specific locations that inspired the album…

Bob: The album is such a rich encapsulation of that spirit of childhood adventure. Can you paint a picture of where exactly you grew up?

Vic: Hereford is a city that sits right on the border of England and Wales. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, and easily accessible… just a five or ten minute cycle ride from where my parents live. The River Wye runs through the city too, and on a good day it’s quite picturesque. Growing up, there were always abandoned houses, ruined barns, bunkers, woods for camping and weird local legends.

Bulmers Cider comes from Hereford, and there was a cider festival, which was a big thing… not sure how often it took place though!

My memories of being a kid in the 1970s and 80s are of towns being a little more wild and ramshackle than they are now… I grew up in a rural town as well, and it was full of overgrown wasteland and abandoned buildings. And my and my friends all played in them, without anyone ever questioning it! Was it the same for you?

Definitely. CCTV was probably still quite expensive in those days, and the lack of security signs made exploring easy. Of course, the Public Information Films sometimes put us off the more dangerous pursuits… like climbing into electric substations for frisbees! I remember being more cautious of stray dogs, farmers, white dog poo and glue sniffers than anything else.

Any memories of specific buildings or areas that were particularly special for you?

The munitions factory was the big one for us. A huge hangar, blast walls, bunkers, all sorts of stuff. And overgrown paths, so it was easy to get a bit lost in there… it covered a big area. There’s also a church nearby, and we were told they took the hands off the clock to stop the Devil visiting at midnight. Weird stuff.

And when I moved to Japan, I started exploring abandoned theme parks. Kind of carrying on the hobby.

Was part of the fun of being a child discovering new areas of your home town? I remember, aged 11, finding a new trackway into a tiny park with a slide, and I’d never seen either before. And I’d lived in the same small town for seven years at that point! It felt like magical forces were at work…

Yes… usually out of town though, like an abandoned house, a lake or a rumour of something like an old factory. Although there was a short time when I had the fear of going into woods, due to The Bells of Astercote and the Black Death.

(NB… I’d forgotten all about The Bells of Astercote, but it was essentially a childrens’ version of the BBC’s traditional Ghost Story For Christmas, broadcast on BBC1 on 23rd December 1980. Based on a 1970 novel by Penelope Lively, it sees two modern children encountering what appears to be a 600-year-old plague victim in their local woods. Archive TV enthusiast Tim Worthington writes about it here, and the whole programme is on Youtube…)

I assume you no longer live in your childhood town – is there, therefore, an element of longing to the album? Both for your childhood, and – I assume – for places that no longer exist, as they’ve been built on or knocked down?

It’s not really a longing, more a fond memory. The Muppet Show and Doctor Who on a Saturday, and that low feeling when you heard the theme tune to Last Of the Summer Wine… when you knew you had school the next day. Although I left a quite a while ago, it was the real end of an era when my parents moved out of the house where I’d grown up. Quite a weird feeling.

Hereford looked like a great place years before I was born, but it seems the council allowed some beautiful architecture to be knocked down.

Can I ask specifically about some of the places namechecked in the song titles? There’s ‘Evacuees at Arrow House’, for a start…

Arrow House was a house my Dad lived in as a child, in a small town called Kington, outside of Hereford. Hergest Ridge is just up the road, Mike Oldfield fans! They took in evacuees during the War, and my Nan kept in touch with the evacuated children for a long time afterwards. Only recently, I saw some great photos of them enjoying “country life” in Kington, and some old letters too.

(NB For those keen to explore further, the BBC”s Peoples War archive has memories from Kington evacuees here…)

You’ve got to tell me about the “Bric-A-Brac Shop” as well, as referenced in the opening track! Was it real?

It’s not one shop in particular. My grandma was an antiques dealer, and she had a stall in a creaky old shop along with other sellers, where she claimed to have witnessed the ghost of a butcher walking past her. I think that’s partly the inspiration for the track.

There’s “The Last Days of the Great House”, too… was this inspired by any particular building?

There were two or three empty stately homes… not really in ruin, but they could well have gone that way. I was reading about England’s lost houses, and how many were knocked down due to cost, or used by the army, or destroyed, sold off or burnt down. A favorite, Witley Court, was destroyed by fire, sadly. It’s a massive place in Worcestershire, the neighbouring county.

I love “The Fair Arrives” as well… the arrival of the travelling funfair was – and still is – an annual event of huge importance in my home town. Any specific memories of your own childhood experiences at this particular fair?

The fair was – and still is – a big occasion in Hereford. It happens in the centre of the city, and the roads are closed off. I can vaguely remember one of the attractions… basically a man in a monster suit, in a cage. This must have been the mid-to-late 1970s. Then, along with the Mexican or Witch’s Hat, the bumper cars, and the ghost train, there was a freakshow tent that had various mutations in jars. This was right up until the 1990s! Legend has it that someone stole the two-headed cow, and put it on the bonnet of their car.

Musically, it’s a beautiful album – and there are hints of the school music room in there, recorders and glockenspiels! Was that a deliberate attempt to evoke the sounds of music lessons?

Thank you! Yes, I find that sort of sound appealing… slightly out of sync, and wobbly. Sadly, music lessons at my school were uninteresting and lacking in any available instruments. I wanted a drum kit, but they were too expensive. When I was teaching in a Japanese junior high school, I was amazed at the amount and variety of musical kit they had, which anyone could use, any time.

The album has an epic feel, too… passages reminded me of the great pastoral British composers, of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Were they in your mind at all when you were making this?

I would say always Vaughan Williams, but equally Gustav Holst. There is a statue of Elgar next to the cathedral in Hereford, and the Three Choirs Festival is not far away. I’ve read that Vaughan Williams and Holst went on walks around the area a bit, which kind of ties in… because when I see the Herefordshire countryside, I hear those two.

I wanted to ask about Alfred Watkins as well, who I know from his book The Old Straight Track, and his writings on ley-lines. And you mention him in the album’s publicity. Is he an important figure when it comes to documenting Herefordshire’s past? When – and how – did you become of his work?

Alfred Watkins is probably not as celebrated as he should be in Herefordshire. The Old Straight Track is a great book, and one that my Dad had for years. I came across that, and another book called The Folklore of Herefordshire by Mary Leather, at the same time. There’s some crazy stuff in the folklore book about local witchcraft and omens, and the author helped Vaughan Williams collect folk songs from the area.

Are you much of a ley-line believer yourself?

Ha! I want to believe.

This is your third release on Clay Pipe, and you and label owner Frances Castle seem to work really well together – her artwork compliments your music beautifully. Do you swap notes during the creative process?

Whatever Frances creates is always amazing, and it’s exciting when she sends over the artwork for the first time. Not sure how, but she seems to be able to capture the feel of the music every time. Not just the images, but the colour palette too. I know the artwork is in very safe hands, so I’ve more often asked about the music and what needs changing!

Inner Roads and Outer Paths is released on 4th October, but the limited vinyl edition is available for pre-order now, from…

http://www.claypipemusic.co.uk/2019/09/vic-mars-inner-roads-and-outer-paths.html

Thanks to Vic for his time and memories
, and his extensive back catalogue is available here…

https://vicmars.bandcamp.com

…meanwhile, please forward any sightings of a car with a two-headed cow mounted on the bonnet to the contact e-mail address here.

The Art of Clay Pipe Music

It’s a hot, humid, bad-tempered Friday afternoon, and I’m drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, hopelessly lost in Leeds city centre. Quarry House car park is hemmed in by roadworks, there are queues of rush-hour traffic backed up on every sliproad, and a rumbling undercurrent of hay fever has turned my eyes into quagmires.

Thankfully, an oasis of calm is nearby. The Colours May Vary bookshop and event space is hosting an exhibition of artwork by Frances Castle, all created for releases on her beautiful, bespoke record label, Clay Pipe Music. For the last few years, Clay Pipe’s releases have frequently provided me with a respite from the hurly-burly of frenetic, 21st century life; a beautifully coherent body of work with its roots in a very firm sense of place, offering musical evocations of both gentle pastoralism and urban stillness alike. I discovered the label via Jon Brooks’ 2012 album Shapwick, a haunting musical account of an unexpected, nocturnal car journey through the Somerset countryside, and have been transfixed by Clay Pipe’s releases ever since: from Sharron Kraus’ Friends and Enemies, Lovers and Strangers – a folk interpretion of the Mabinogion myth cycle – to Gilroy Mere’s The Green Line, an ambient requiem for the bus services that once linked central London to the distant countryside; from the anonymous Tyneham House album, a wistful paen to the MOD-requisitioned Dorset village, frozen in time since 1943, to Retep Folo’s Galactic Sounds, a Farfisa-drenched evocation of its composer Peter Olof Fransson’s childhood, spent gazing longingly into the Swedish night skies and detuning his AM radio in the hope of receiving alien transmissions.

Every release arrives immaculately packaged in Frances’ own distinctive artwork, and it’s a genuinely touching sight to see them arranged together in this tasteful, white-walled exhibition space. As I arrive, Frances and her partner John are chatting genially with shop-owners Andy and Becky, dishing out chilled beers to allcomers, and faithful shop dog Stevie is wandering excitedly from visitor to visitor. It’s an idyllic scene, and Frances and I retire to a quiet corner for a chat about Clay Pipe’s history and ethos…

Bob: This is a lovely exhibition! How did the whole thing come about?

Frances: It came about because Andy, who runs the shop, was basically buying Clay Pipe records, and he asked me if I wanted to do it… they have quite a lot of exhibitions here. This was probably about a year ago, so we’ve planned ahead a bit.

Is it nice to see so much of your artwork in one place? It gives a lovely overview of the whole feel of the label, and the body of music you’ve released.

It is actually, because usually it’s all spread around… in drawers, and all the records are in boxes, and the prints are all in portfolios. And it’s such a really nice room, with tasteful furniture and white walls… it’s really good.

Can I ask a little about your background? Your grandfather Frank Sherwin was quite a renowned artist, wasn’t he?

Yeah… I wasn’t aware of it as a child, and I don’t think he was renowned then. But because he did a lot of work on railway posters, and because I think they’ve become more popular now than when he was alive, I’ve recently been trying to promote his work. I’ve set up an Instagram account. A lot of the stuff that he did for the railways is owned by the Railway Museum, and gets used on books and all types of things, but he never gets credited.

Was he alive when you were a kid?

Yeah, he died when I was a teenager. He did a lot of watercolours then, he was a very good watercolour artist, but I didn’t know anything about his commercial work. He was selling watercolours to printmakers, and they were selling them as prints, but by that time I think he’d semi-retired, really. I didn’t really know about his more commercial stuff, and his posters, until later on.

Has his style been an influence on you? I can certainly see a lineage…

When I look at my work, I can see his hand in it… which is really strange, and I don’t know whether it’s just because I grew up with him, looking at his work, or whether it’s some sort of genetic thing about the way we draw. I don’t know! But definitely… there is something.

So as a kid, did becoming an artist always feel like a calling for you?

I was encouraged, because of my grandfather. And apparently I was quite good at drawing when I was a kid. And I was absolutely useless at anything else… I couldn’t spell, I couldn’t do maths… I was useless at school, so I was pushed in that direction, yeah.

Are your parents arty at all?


My Mum is a good painter, yeah. But she’s never pursued it as a career.

So it was very much the art that came before the music? 

Pretty much actually, yeah. I always loved music, even when I was quite a small child, and I did have clarinet lessons… but I wasn’t very good! Although I could play the recorder quite well as a kid. But as soon as I found I could make music on a computer in the late 1990s, it was like… this is brilliant, I can sample and loop stuff. And that’s when I started making music myself. As a child I actually had two tape recorders, and I recorded my recorder, playing along with myself… I multi-tracked! I wish I still had that. So that interest was always there, but I don’t think the technology was.

You were telling me earlier, to my surprise, that you actually worked on graphics for computer games for a while…

Yeah, I’d started doing illustration, but it didn’t really work out. So I went back to college and studied computer graphics, 3D graphics. This would be the late 1990s. And I ended up getting a job doing 3D graphics for computer games… I worked for a company called Probe, in Edgware. I worked on the Die Hard game!

Did you make a computerised Bruce Willis?

I didn’t, actually… I was doing a bit of animation for the beginning of the game, a few fancy bits. I can’t remember what I did, actually! And then I got made redundant from that job, and worked for another company called Argonaut. And I worked on the first Harry Potter game for the Playstation!

Did you make a computerised Daniel Radcliffe?


I drew all the faces for the children! So if you zoom right into that game, those are my faces.

Did you have any interest in computer gaming yourself?

Not really. I didn’t really grow up playing them…  

So how did that lead back into the kind of illustration work that you do now?

Well, I got made redundant again. The industry had completely changed from when I started out, and by this stage the Playstation 3 was coming out. And artists were just doing tiny bits. When we worked on Harry Potter, not only did we work on the  characters, but each artist was given a level to do. So you had quite a lot of input. But as the games become more complex, you ended up doing the smaller bits, so you’d just do props, or bombs, or guns.

And as you say, did I love games? No, I didn’t really love games. And the amount of hours you were asked to work was crazy. So I thought… I’m not doing this any more. The company went under, and I had to think about what I wanted to do, and that’s when I went back to illustration. 

Clay Pipe’s music seems to have a very distinct aesthetic… can you put it into words?  

(Laughs) I always kind of wing it, I think… it’s just instinctively choosing the right music. And I don’t want it to be stagnant and keep doing the same things. But I guess… I love folk music, and I love electronic music, and Clay Pipe straddles those things, I think.

Do you try to give the artwork a consistent feel at all?  

Actually… I try hard not to, because I don’t want to repeat myself, I want to keep pushing a bit. So I’ve done more abstract stuff recently… I want to try new things.

One that that always intrigues me… as far as I know, you’ve always lived in London, and have a completely urban background. And yet your pastoral artwork, the scenes depicting the English countryside, or just so evocative. Are you a country person at heart? 

Well, my Mum and Dad live in the country now, they’ve retired. And I always visited my grandparents, who lived in the country when I was a kid. So it wasn’t like I didn’t ever go… but I love London, I just love it, and I’d find it very hard to leave, if I’m honest.

Is there a particular piece of Clay Pipe artwork that you’re especially proud of, or that you think complements the music especially well? 

There are bits that I don’t like…

Oh, which ones?


(Laughs) I’m not telling you! There are ones that I’m not so happy with, but I’m not so sure about the ones that I am really happy with, Put it that way. It’s really hard.

Come on, which album sleeves have you got on your wall at home?

(At this point, Frances looks over to her partner John for suggestions) Have we got any at home? I don’t think we have, have we? I’ve got a poster I did for a Sharron Kraus gig… that’s about it, isn’t it? (John points out a framed print of artwork from The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath, an album by Frances’s musical alter-ego, The Hardy Tree) Oh, we have got that one! Yes, The Hardy Tree… I forgot about that.

Is the creation of the album artwork a collaborative process with the musicians themselves?  

It really depends on the artist. The stuff that I’ve done with Jon Brooks, he’s been… not saying what he wants as such, but he’s had ideas. He’s even done a mood board for me, stuff like that. For Autres Directions, he gave me photographs that he’d taken on holiday in France, and there were a lot of road signs, and telephone signs… so that telephone (Frances points out an abstract telephone design on a nearby copy of the album) came from that. That was really helpful.

But a lot of the time… with David Rothon, he was very keen that the artwork for Nightscapes should be night-time, but it shouldn’t be spooky. And the first one that I did came out too spooky! And, actually… the finished cover works much better.

When I was a teenager, I used to get a feeling of odd reassurance, walking home through a dark, deserted town after a night out, and seeing the occasional bedroom light still on… it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only person still awake. The artwork for Nightscapes always reminds me of that feeling, it’s lovely.

I remember Jim Jupp from Ghost Box once telling me that – in a nice way – they rely on the artists they work with on to surrender a little to the Ghost Box ethos, and let Jim and Julian House be part of the creative process, too. I guess the same applies with Clay Pipe as well?

Yeah, I think so. You kind of have to become a part of my brand a little bit! And so far, everyone’s been fine about it.

We spoke a little while ago about your debut graphic novel Stagdale, which seems to have been a success for you…  

It has… and I’ve got to do some more now! The second book is something I have to get my head around for the next few months, really. That’s actually all going to be set in Nazi Germany, so it’s going to be completely different to the first book.  

Do you have the whole story mapped out?


Yes, it’s just doing it! And because it’s set in Nazi Germany, I need to do quite a lot of research, so that’s going to be time consuming as well. I have to get everything right.

Is the village of Stagdale based on anywhere in particular, or does it exist completely in your head?

It’s not based on anywhere in particular really, but it has bits of certain places! It’s a mish-mash of different places.

And what have you got lined up for future musical releases?  

The next record well be… well, it’s a toss-up between Alison Cotton’s record, which is hopefully coming out for Halloween. Alison is in the band The Left Outsides, and she plays viola. She’s had a couple of solo records out recently, but this is something she did for Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music last Christmas… they got an actress to read a ghost story by Muriel Spark, and Alison did the soundtrack to it. So we’ve taken the soundtrack, and put it on 10″ vinyl, and she’s done another track for the other side… another Muriel Spark ghost story. So we’re hoping to bring that out for Halloween.

And then Vic Mars has just done his second record for Clay Pipe, which we’re hoping to put out before Halloween, but we’ll just have to see how it goes with pressing times. The artwork for both of them is nearly finished… but not quite!

Is there a theme to Vic’s album?

The theme is kind of… where the country meets the town. Or the town meets the country!

Oooh, the Edgelands!

The Edgelands, yeah!

That’s not the album title that I’ve stumbled upon, is it?

No, he’s told me that he’ll have a title for me when I get back! So that’s another problem, we don’t have a title yet. But I’ll tell him Edgelands is a possibility!

The Art of Clay Pipe Music exhibition runs at the Colours May Vary shop in Leeds until 1st August, and a selection of otherwise unavailable Clay Pipe rarities are for sale through the shop’s website. Thanks to Frances, John, Andy, Becky and Stevie for their time and hospitality.