Fantasts in Focus: The London Dreamtime Family

Nigel Hoyle and Vanessa Woolf are the power couple behind several London folk acts. In her role as a raconteur and cultural educator, Vanessa is the presiding spirit of London Dreamtime. She speaks and performs in classrooms, collaborates with artists and historians, and resurrects folktales under the shadow of the night; taking her audience to London’s riversides, woodlands, and graveyards. As Nigel of Bermondsey, Nigel Hoyle is a multi-intstrumentalist musician, founding member of a folk band and club (Cunning Folk, Gentle Folk) and the head of the South East London Folklore SocietyMuch like Vanessa’s stories, Nigel’s music is inspired by London’s history as well as the ancient mythologies of the British Isles.

Vanessa Woolf


Nigel of Bermondsey

The Custodian: When did you realise that you had a talent for music?

Nigel of Bermondsey: I played violin from a very early age. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it though. Then the Stone Roses album came out. I got myself a guitar and just started playing. Guitar is something I love doing, but the bass was easy for me.

C: [Laughs] It’s the soul! You were actually the bassist in the pop band Gay Dad right?

N: Yeah that was the turn of the century, now. I love saying that. That was a good fun time. That was how I got into music. We were signed to a label called London. We did fairly well, the name was difficult for people to get their head around. It could be very polarising. In the States, people would either get it or not. After Gay Dad, I became a songwriter for a while and wrote pop songs. Then I formed a dance act called Cage and Aviary.

Nigel, far left in his band, Gentle Folk

C: It seems like your whole entire life you’ve been hard at work: you’ve toured around the world, you’ve done musical projects with UCL, and you’re a promoter of the mysterious aspects of folk culture as the head of the South East Folklore Society. On your website you call yourself a ‘musician, composer, and a teller of stories’. Can I call you a bard?

N: I suppose you could say that. It was funny about twelve years ago I did a gig in Liverpool. Someone came up to me and said, ‘You’re a folk singer’. And I thought, ‘Yeah I guess I am’. That’s when I made the switch to playing folk clubs. It’s an interesting one. A lot of English folk singing is traditional. Most of my songs are based on English folk practice or folk tales.

18th Century Jack-in-the-Green, often thought of as a variant of Green Man in British folklore

18th Century Jack-in-the-Green, often thought of as a variant of the Green Man in British folklore

C: How did u first start SELFS?

N: It originally started in Greenwich twenty years ago. There was an old paganism scare, and pagans wanted to meet so they convened officially under the name of a folklore society. Back in the ’90s, a friend of mine named Scott Wood took it over and made it into an actual folklore society. A few years afterwards I took over from Scott and kept a lot of the folklore side of things but also tried and get as much London history as possible. For example, this year we’ve got Tom Bolton talking about forgotten neighbourhoods of London. As a special treat to myself, once a year I give a talk. Last year I gave a talk on Christmas. This year I’ll be talking about folklore of cats. Cats are always half in half out, halfway between two worlds. I’ll also be releasing an album called, Into the Greenwood. The title is a term for the forests of England which used to be very dense and wild. In the songs, I’m following Herne the Hunter around the south of England.

C: When are you looking to release?

N: We’re going to record it in March, under Cunning Folk records, with a plan for a September release.

C: The name London Dreamtime hints at certain aspects of shamanic culture. How do those traditions tie into your work?

N: We were really inspired by a friend of ours named John Constable as well as loads and loads of books. John came up with this mystery play called the Southwark Mysteries. He believes that that work was channelled from a spirit called the ‘Goose’. It’s so immersive. Then there was From Hell by Alan Moore. In the book he talks about different layers of the city. In any city, there were people before us, whose footsteps we constantly walk in. Their worlds were entirely different to ours. There was also another great idea in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. The idea of cities having a consciousness; of cities being able to dream. When you think about it that way you start to imagine a kind of intelligence to these circuits or pathways in every city. Why people congregate in certain areas—that kind of stuff.

C: When you think in that manner, it makes everything matter a lot more. It’s amazing to consider the fact that a city has all of these layers.

N: The old London Bridge is kind of like that. There are stories about actual souls holding a bridge together. I’ve heard that some legends say that during a bridge’s construction, people would encase an animal, or even a human into one of the footings of the bridge.

Vanessa: It would have the purpose of appeasing the water spirits.

C: Reminds me of the Wicker ManAnother thing that I love about you guys is that you bring things back into the public memory. Have any of your storytelling projects  helped to  save particular buildings or organisations?

N: I think Crossbones Burial ground.  In the 12th century it was a burial ground for prostitutes and other outcasts.

V: Although prostitution was legal, they weren’t allowed to be buried on consecrated grounds.

N: They closed it because they couldn’t fit bodies there, and Resurrection Men were just going crazy with all the corpses. TFL was seeking to build a station on the land but John Constable was like, ‘You just can’t do this. There are 16,000 names [buried there]’.

V: They weren’t respected in their life so the least we could do was respect them now.

N: So there’s a monthly vigil on the twenty-third of each month. I go eight or nine times a year We’ve also been involved with King’s Stair gardens.

Vanessa Woolf

C: How did you first get into storytelling and folklore Vanessa?

V: After leaving my first job, I got born again and got a job at a local baptist church. I had this vision and it was so real.

C: Really, a vision?

V: I can swear to you on my life I heard a voice. After that I got really involved in the church. Then I became disillusioned. The more I tried to make sense of it, the less sense it made. One day, before a big Christian conference I was attending, I had another amazing experience. I was praying all morning and all night to hear from God, and I heard from God, but in such a way that proved to me beyond any doubt that the voice I heard was my own consciousness somewhere speaking to me.

C: So you had to leave the church then?

V: Yeah, and think about what I really wanted to do with my life.  My mom, who is a journalist, said I should do something immediate with my writing. I’d been writing all along, but there wasn’t really any money coming in. Then I had another moment when I was walking on Woolwich Docks and I thought about this Caribbean folktale I’d read; about a demon who steals all the paths in the island. He’s found by these twins on a pile of bones of all the people that went lookng for the paths. Then I just realised I could tell the story right here. It felt so right. After some researching, I decided to try storytelling and I’ve been doing that ever since.

Vanessa in Woolwich

C: So that must have been that ‘third-eye’ experience, the mystic moment of the burgeoning shaman.

V: Yeah I mean the city is so inspirational. I used to go for these long walks around London as a girl, and I would feel these deep connections to nature. The landscape naturally tells stories.

N: There’s just so much history. You’ve got the old temples of Mithras, things like that. I think they even found a stone age statue of Cernunnos underneath Southwark Cathedral.

London Dreamtime’s first event of 2015 takes place in a ‘ruin in Peckham’. In April, Nigel and the Cunning Folk are due to appear at Sutton House. You can find more of Nigel’s music here.

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