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.