Doc Rowe: Whitby folklore archive saved for posterity after fundraising appeal by Rob Curry and Game of Thrones' Tim Plester
On the eve of Ascension Day, going back hundreds of years, men in Whitby have built the Penny Hedge in the harbour’s silt. This small assemblage of sticks has to withstand three tides and was originally made, according to legend, as a penance for the killing of a hermit.
An obscure ceremony, perhaps, but David ‘Doc’ Rowe is no stranger to such festivities, having dedicated his life to documenting the British Isles’ folklore traditions for the last half a century.
His recordings could just as easily capture carnival standards such as crowds cheering on straw bears, dancers parading under the weight of antlers or burning barrels.
The folklorist's interest in these events started when he was a teenager growing up in Torquay, Devon. “I used to listen to the wireless, as it was then,” says Doc, now 78.
“It seemed that the BBC were always telling me that the regional dialect, the song and speech and so on, had all died out. But my experience down in native Devon, where I come from, was quite otherwise. I realised that just over on the moor, there were various people that step danced and sang and played music.”
His first real taste was the Padstow’s 'Obby 'Oss festival on May Day, 1963 - when he was astonished by the way the Cornish community was “celebrating itself” during the event, where visitors enjoy processions of the eponymous hobby horse - and has been taking photographs and video footage of these experiences ever since.
Over five decades, he has amassed a treasured archive – hundreds of thousands of pictures, videos and more – now stored in a former pharmaceutical unit in Whitby, where he has forged links through events such as its folk music festival.
He wants to save this for posterity but there is simply too much of it for places such as the British Library, for example, to give it a home. Now comes a solution: the documentarian has himself become the subject, after filmmakers Rob Curry and Tim Plester spent a year with Doc from May Day 2021 to 2022, showing him at work but also allowing them start a funding campaign to digitise all his photographic and video footage related to folk traditions.
That campaign has reached its initial target of £25,000 - after donations by supporters around the world and endorsements from folk aficionados including Eliza Carthy, Alan Moore, Bridget Christie and Billy Bragg - and the increased ask of £39,000, which would allow them to additionally digitise his footage of folk singers and storytellers, has also been met.
For Doc, a mentee of late radio producer Charles Parker, these traditions are not twee customs of the past but organic community celebrations which are very much alive - and using modern technology to record them is important.
“I suppose you could say I almost felt like an explorer, you know?,” says Doc of the early days. “Nobody else was around and I was beginning to realise that much of the books and the writings that had been done in the past were observing these things as kind of quaint, as still happens.”
The events are exciting, he says, because they are the result of “people who at some stage in the history have got off their backsides and created something which became communal and they did it year after year after year. And I think it's more to do with that than to believe it's to do with gods up there or down below.”
What he saw in Padstow as a young man led to him visiting other events such as the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, a folk celebration dating back centuries in which participants parade the Staffordshire village with antlers on their backs.
He says: “When I went there I was the only outsider, that was the weird thing. In the late 60s, early 70s, the local people wondered why this person was actually interested. Was I writing a book, was I a student? When I said I was just interested, I became accepted and they became my friends.”
In the late 70s, he adds, “I suddenly realised or I was told by other people that I have this extraordinary documentation - the progress and development of these various events. So it then became a responsibility, to make sure this stuff was kept.”
Doc has never been a driver – his father was in the Navy for many years so had little use for a car, and his son followed suit – and often spent time hitch-hiking, particularly when lived in Sheffield, having worked voluntarily at the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition in the 1980s.
There is no specific release date for the film just yet. But Rob and Tim - also an actor who played a pivotal role in The Rains of Castamere, a famous episode of Game of Thrones known as the ‘Red Wedding’ - have worked together on documentaries including Way of the Morris and The Ballad of Shirley Collins, themselves exploring figures of the folk world.
“In a way we come at it from completely opposite angles because Tim is from a working class, rural Oxfordshire village where they maintain traditions” – but returned to it, having rejected it for the indie music scene, says Rob – “and I'm from inner-London, both my parents are immigrants, grew up without any connection to the English landscape really at all, and so I guess I was on a search for it.”
The film has a “solid Yorkshire core, and Whitby itself is at the heart of that,” says Rob, having filmed at the Penny Hedge ceremony and the Krampus Run, a costumed street parade which is a newer tradition in the town.
Doc’s archive - film from the 1960s and 70s, VHS material from the 80s and 90s, and mini DV material from the 2000s - will be digitised to British Film Institute specifications and then housed in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in Cecil Sharp House, London, and the Fifth Column Films campaign is being run with the support of the Museum of British Folklore.
After meeting their initial target, Rob said: “It all goes to show what an appetite there is for this stuff, and underlines how important his work has been.”
Visit the page for the campaign, which finishes on Friday (November 19), at www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/docrowe