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Set Sail for St Mary’s

This week on my blog, I’m looking forward to a jolly local event at my parish church, St Mary’s Hawkesbury. The active community life in my home village of Hawkesbury Upton provides me with an endless supply of story ideas for my light-hearted, humorous fiction set in the Cotswolds.  

When Colin Dixon told me he’d booked the Port of Bristol Shanty Crew to sing at Church Farm House on Sunday 23rd July as part of the Friends of St Mary’s Summer Weekend, my first thought was, “But Hawkesbury is landlocked”.

My second thought was, “What exactly is a sea shanty anyway?”

The sea has inspired music for as long as man has been able to sing.

Perhaps in recent times the most popular song about the sea has been “La Mer”. First recorded by its composer Charles Trenet in 1946, it’s since been covered over 4,000 times, often in other languages, such as “Das Meer” (German), “De Zee” (Dutch), “Bla Hav” (Swedish), “Laulu merelle” (Finnish), and “Волна” (Russian).

The sea shanty gets its name from French word chanter (to sing), but unlike Trenet’s chanson, this musical form originally had a far more serious purpose than mere entertainment. Sea shanties were workmen’s songs, developed in the golden age of sail. They helped coordinate the sailors’ rhythmic, vigorous movements required to keep the ships under control – hoisting sails, hauling ropes, lifting anchor, and so on.

Sea shanties came in many forms, each to direct a specific kind of action, such as:

  • short drag
  • long haul
  • heaving
  • pump

The songs often comprised a call led by a shanty man who dictated the speed of the action, followed by a response from his team. Sea shanties were always sung a cappella, because no crew member could be spared to play an instrumental accompaniment for aesthetic effect. These songs were primarily functional.

Like marching songs for soldiers, sea shanties would keep sailors going in even the most challenging circumstances. They might also unite a team that had never worked together before, especially ramshackle crews assembled from harbourside pubs just before a ship sailed.

In time, sail gave way to steam. (Anyone else over a certain age humming “The Onedin Line” theme tune now? It’s Khachaturian’s “Adagio from Spartacus”, if you want to find it on Spotify).

As the nature of sailors’ work evolved, sea shanties ceased to be an essential soundtrack to their daily chores, and the songs passed into history and the archives of folk music collectors.

But recently they’ve been enjoying a revival via a surprising source. In 2020, a young Scottish postman, Nathan Evans, began sharing on Tiktok videos of himself singing sea shanties, starting with “Leave Her, Johnny”. His videos went viral and spawned a dedicated community of 21st century enthusiasts, #shantytok. They also earned Nathan Evans a recording contract with Polydor.

The Port of Bristol Shanty Crew was formed in February 2022 as part of this wave of revivalism. Its members may look like seasoned sea dogs, but their purpose, unlike their predecessors’, is purely to entertain. Nor do they only sing on board ship. Which is just as well, as it would be tricky to manoeuvre a tea clipper onto the lawn of Church Farm House.

View of St mary's and Church Farm house
A seagull’s eye view of St Mary’s Hawkesbury and Church Farm House, from the top of Hawkesbury Knoll

Come and join us there  (no booking required – just turn up) on Sunday 23rd July between 2pm and 5pm. Free admission, and everyone welcome. Bring a picnic.

Sailor suits and grog optional.

(I originally wrote this post the July issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News – another great source of ideas for my fiction!)


The St Mary’s Summer Weekend event is just one of many things keeping me busy just now. I’m also:

Fortunately, I’ve just finished teaching my third Simply Self-Publish course for Jericho Writers, which gives me a little more writing time – but they’re already taking bookings for the next course which runs October-December. If you’re an aspiring indie author who’d like to know more about how the course can help you, click here.

Finally, if you’d like to join my Readers’ Club to receive a monthly enewsletter and a link to download my free novelette The Pride of Peacocks, you can sign up here.

And if you’d like my publisher Boldwood Books to send you an occasional enewsletter with news of new books and special offers, click here.

Phew! Now I’m off for a restorative cup of tea! 




English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

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