A Lovely Man

A tribute from Alan Helsdon

I was at Teachers’ Training College in Doncaster in 1974 when Walter was ‘discovered’ by Roger Dixon and Peter Bellamy, but returning home for holidays and keeping involved with the Norwich folk music scene.  I therefore knew of Walter and eventually of the Orchard Gardens sessions in North Walsham on Saturday evenings, run by Cliff and Pauline Godbold when Di and Alan Young brought Walter to sing.  I was determined to get to some of them but committed to gigs in South Yorkshire at weekends.  I finally returned to Norwich in 1976 and then borrowed my mum’s moped on November 6th to go and listen to Walter and the rest of the Orchard Gardens session.  The evening was very enjoyable until the moped got a puncture on the way home resulting in me hiding it in a ditch between Sco Ruston and Coltishall, hitching to Norwich and collecting it in dad’s car next day.

I travelled to (and successfully from) North Walsham 9 more times in 1976 and 1977 and heard, as well as Walter’s marvellously understated yet totally convincing songs and the regular singers and players, a very young, but obviously talented, Damien Barber on his dad’s melodeon.  There were tune sets from the Godbold family band with Cliff on concertina and sons David and Nicholas on fiddle and bodhran respectively.  They were very good and provided a break in an otherwise evening of song.

Another regular spot was the arrival of the young Salvation Army lady with copies of The War Cry for sale.  I seem to remember she would put her head round the door to make sure Cliff knew she was there and duck out again quickly in case one of the more explicit songs was being sung.  We dutifully then had an inoffensive tune led by Cliff, paid our 6d to salve our consciences and then carried on boozing and bawdying.

Walter’s 65th birthday was celebrated at Suffield on March 2nd 1979 and the North Walsham people were guests at the York Tavern Folk Club in Norwich on February 11th 1983.  Walter may or may have been among them, but he was definitely Guest Artist, along with Godsbottom on July 11th 1987.  The latter were Cliff and Pauline Godbold and Mike Rowbottom.

As organiser of the York Tavern Folk Club I decided on a traditional evening for August 31st 1984 and booked both Walter and Billy Bennington, explaining to both before we started that I’d like them to alternate, both for variety and to give Walter a rest between songs.  Billy went first, but before the applause had died down he started on a second tune!  When he repeated this trick Walter and I started to worry that he was about to take over the whole evening – which may well have been the case!  I then made myself infamous for a while as the man who told Billy Bennington to shut up!

I loved to hear Walter sing and was very impressed with his quiet, committed delivery and my admiration blossomed once when I sang Strike the Bell, Second Mate about merchant sailors wanting to start their Watch below after a 4 hour shift.  Walter came up to me and quietly asked if I knew Ring the Bell, Watchman, about spreading the news of the victory over Napoleon.  I said, ‘No’, and next week he presented me with a hand-written copy of the words!  A lovely man.

Alan on accordion with David Reeves in 2014

Alan Helsdon, Norwich, May 2021