I was 5 when I first heard Walter Pardon sing in the local Folk Club, at the Orchard Gardens, in North Walsham, just a few hundred yards down the road from us. I was taken to the club by my parents after kicking up a fuss with the babysitter. I have no idea whether I appreciated it at the time and was probably more interested in the pop and crisps than Walter’s singing, but it was the catalyst that inspired my love of traditional folk music and song.
The folk club was in the back room of the pub and I don’t suppose I was really meant to be there. I always seemed to be hushed through the back door, onto one of the benches, and told not to go near the drink’s hatch. I did see through it once though.
Folk Clubs in the mid-1970s weren’t the happy go lucky places we have today, they were serious events, and an untethered 5 year old, armed with a packet of crisps, could do a lot of damage if left unchecked. I was a quick learner though and began sucking crisps from an early age. I can still make a packet of Walkers last a good half hour when required.
The back room of the Orchard Gardens was humble, filled with long songs and comfortable silences, not one of the raucous, beer fuelled, sessions that became my staple, throughout my teens in the city. It was one of calm, old-fashioned, turn taking, with the venerable Cliff Godbold at the helm.
At least that’s the way I remember it, I was usually asleep under the bench just after the sandwiches came out in the interval. I suspect Walter was partly responsible for this as his demeanour was generally one of modesty and respect, along with a healthy dollop of eye glinting. I don’t ever remember him losing his composure, but I did hear a story once about the time some ‘mericans visited the club. Apparently, they’d got the there early and inadvertently sat in Walter’s seat (the top left of the room (looking from the hatch) if I remember rightly). When Walter arrived, he looked round the still empty room, puffed out his cheeks and said ‘well, where on earth am I goin’ to sit?!’.
I began to play the melodeon at the age of 7 and began to accompany my father at the club soon after, thereby becoming a fully committed member of the club. Christmas was the best time, fewer ballads, more food and drink, and an extended visit by the local Salvation Army girl, but these heady days were short lived for me, as we moved to the Isle of Arran, Scotland, not long after. We came back to Norfolk a few years later but the club had closed by then, although there was a small revival in the mid-80s, which Walter attended on occasion.
In 1987 we moved to Swafield Nr Trunch, just a few miles from Knapton and Walter’s home. I visited him with my father several times, sometimes playing my melodeon for him, but generally just sitting and drinking tea. He used to cycle past our house every week on his way to collect his pension. Sometimes he didn’t materialise, and dad would become concerned. When interrogated as to why he was so inconsistent with his pension peregrinations we discovered that he had two routes, each dependant on which way the wind was blowing.
Damien Barber, June 2021
Written for the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust