The QT

Friday 19 July 2024

The wonderful world of Kathryn Tickell

David Whetstone meets champ of the Northumbrian small pipes and star of the What a Wonderful World festival in her natural habitat
Kathryn with the treasured fiddle

A busy summer lies ahead for Kathryn Tickell including a clutch of gigs in Canada and one in France. First, though, there’s her appearance with Amy Thatcher at What A Wonderful World Festival in Alnwick.

And what a wonderful name for a festival.

Established in 2022, it brings together luminaries from science and the arts in a bid to raise climate awareness and convey the message that lots of people doing a little can make a big difference.

The concert by Kathryn and Amy at Alnwick Playhouse has been titled My Northumberland and it was always going to be a big attraction. People know a good night out when they see it. 

It’s this gig that brings me — eventually — to Kathryn’s own personal bit of Northumberland, tucked away in a place so deeply green and rural that I’m inclined to think it would be the perfect hideaway for someone on the run.

Ignore the sat nav, she’d advised, because it’ll take you where you don’t want to be. Choosing to follow my nose, I also end up where I don’t want to be. Phoning in from what appears to be the rutted track to Brigadoon, Kathryn guides me in.

This beautiful spot in the North Tyne Valley, she insists, is a city compared with some of the places she’s lived in.

She moved in a year ago with her daughter; and also three cats whose undignified efforts to negotiate their first catflap punctuate our conversation.

And by way of a soundtrack, from somewhere in the house comes fabulous fiddle playing as Jem Quilley, a young family friend from Canada, practises one of Kathryn’s tunes.

I’d checked availability for the Alnwick gig before setting out and according to the website there was just one ticket left. Whoever gets it is in for a treat (please stampede in an orderly manner).

The view from Kathryn’s own bit of Northumberland

As Kathryn says: “Pretty much everything I play is influenced by some part of Northumberland or the people of Northumberland.

“But I’ll focus on things which have a definite story so people can understand how those influences work.”

Many of the people who’d influenced her as a girl had lived around Alnwick, she explains. They were shepherds and farmers but also musicians in the finest folk tradition, learning by ear and passing on tunes from generation to generation.

I’m delighted to be playing at the festival. Obviously the environmental aspect of it, being aware of the land and nature, is important to me. In the tunes I play, that thread is strong anyway.

Kathryn Tickell

She’d been introduced to them by her Grandad Robson who’d been at school with some of them.

But trust was hard won. Kathryn says a collector of folk songs had recorded some of them back in the 1950s, having urged them to play tunes they remembered from their youth.

He then put them on an album, causing disgruntlement among the musicians who hadn’t realised their off-the-cuff efforts were for posterity. Considering themselves capable of so much better, their pride was hurt.

“There was one man from Bellingham who I never would have got to see if my grandad hadn’t taken me,” says Kathryn.

“I was in my teens and he was probably in his eighties.

Kathryn off duty with her pipes

“The first time I went to see him he wouldn’t even get the fiddle out. The second time he’d only play a tune he knew I knew already.

“He wasn’t going to be giving me anything.

“But we became friends and by the end he was sitting at home recording everything he could think of with a little cassette machine and sending me the tapes.”

She pauses, remembering the late Dick Moscrop.

“This is making me feel a bit tearful because his fiddle, the same fiddle he played as I sat opposite him, has just made its way back to me.”

It nearly ended up in the bin, battered after many decades of use by Dick and his father before him. But someone realised Kathryn would treasure it, got it spruced up and presented it to her, complete with the ribbons that have decorated it for more than 80 years.

She can still get a good tune out of it.

Like the best old songs, the best old instruments are passed down the line, complete with the tales they might tell. Kathryn agrees to a photo first with the fiddle and then with the set of Northumbrian pipes she was given when she turned 21.

No-one can have done quite so much to popularise Northumberland’s special sound than Kathryn Tickell, nor been such an influential ambassador for traditional music.

Kathryn Tickell and the Darkening

She tells me she first met Amy when she visited a primary school in Stockport where a remarkable teacher ran a clog dancing team and gave pupils the option of learning fiddle or accordion.

“Amy stood out — great accordion player, great dancer.”

In due course Amy arrived on the folk music degree course at Newcastle University where Kathryn taught for more than 20 years — and which Alistair Anderson, driving force behind What a Wonderful World along with wife Liz, helped get off the ground.

Alistair, as renowned for the concertina as Kathryn is for the pipes, helped her enormously in the early days, she says.

“I’m delighted to be playing at the festival. Obviously the environmental aspect of it, being aware of the land and nature, is important to me. In the tunes I play, that thread is strong anyway.

“But also there’s the connection with Alistair who’s so incredibly generous of spirit. He has done so much to encourage musicians, and not just young musicians, in the North East and beyond.”

So Kathryn and Amy will take the stage at Alistair’s festival with Kathryn playing and chatting and Amy showing how clogs on nifty feet can set pulses racing.

Amy Thatcher will be performing with Kathryn at the What A Wonderful World Festival

Introducing instrumental compositions is important, says Kathryn.

“I could play a tune about Sycamore Gap, for example, but unless I tell you that, you’re not going to know because there are no words.”

Ah… Sycamore Gap. As someone rooted in Hadrian’s Wall country, did she feel deeply about that?

“Yeah,” she says emphatically. “I remember waking that morning and my phone was dinging with notifications coming in left, right and centre.

“A few people I know work in forestry and they’d already been analysing the photos, assessing the level of expertise in the chain-sawing and all of that. 

“If you live round here you’re aware of that tree but I hadn’t quite anticipated how much. When I’ve said to audiences, ‘Do you know Sycamore Gap?’ it’s as if they’re affronted that I think they might not.

Sycamore Gap earlier in September 2023 during a stunning Aurora display. Credit: Wil Cheung

“It was so iconic, that image. I went on national radio to talk about it and I have written a tune for it now.

“But it’s a strange one because I didn’t know if I should write a lament or something more positive about the regenerative possibilities of the sycamore.

“I was waiting to see which one wanted to come. The lament was the one that happened but it’s still not quite right. It’s as if it doesn’t want to be defined or finished… but I’ll play it in Alnwick.”

Only after the notorious felling did she notice what she had long since ceased to notice — her screensaver photo showing the tree and two tiny figures, her daughter and her friend, beneath it.

“I was like, ‘Oh!’ That was a bit of a moment.”

The pipes Kathryn received for her 21st birthday

After Alnwick it’s off to Vancouver and the round of summer festivals for Kathryn and Amy with Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening, the band formed not long before Covid whose second album, Cloud Horizons, was released late last year.

It’s the first, says Kathryn, not to include any traditional songs or tunes which was never the intention but just happened.

She certainly hasn’t cut loose from her roots as another new project illustrates.

Someone pointed out that it’s 40 years since the release of her first album, On Kielder Side, when she was just 16.

“I don’t own that album so they said, ‘Why don’t you just record it all again?’ 

“I’ve decided not to do that but I’m kind of revisiting it, including some of the same tunes but with different arrangements along with tunes I’ve written in response to those on the original album.”

As if suddenly realising the year’s half done and she’s soon to hit the road again, she adds: “I wish I’d thought of this last year. I’m not very good at planning in advance.”

Better than I am, probably, at navigating the byways of Kathryn Tickell’s Northumberland.

As another cat squirms feebly through the catflap and the fiddle soars, I too hit what passes for a road.

Kathryn Tickell: My Northumberland is at Alnwick Playhouse on Saturday, June 29 at 7.30pm. For the full What a Wonderful World programme, which runs from June 27 to 30, go to the festival website.


Leave a Comment


We want to hear what you think of The QT – especially if it’s good!


Is there something you think we should know or investigate?


It’s all you need to know.

Sign up for our free Newsletter

Scroll to Top