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Blakeney sea shanties echo maritime heritage and raise thousands for charity

The Blakeney Old Wild Rovers at the bar taking a break between songs
The Blakeney Old Wild Rovers take a break between songs

A group of Norfolk men are helping to keep the seafaring traditions of Blakeney’s old harbour alive and thriving.

Despite huge personal sacrifices - mainly to their waistlines - members of the Blakeney Old Wild Rovers have shown huge devotion to drinking ale to ensure their vocal chords are fully lubricated for singing traditional sea shanties.

And by keeping the traditional rhythmic singing tradition alive they have raised more than £250,000 so far for North Norfolk charities.

Blakeney’s Old Wild Rovers was formed in 1999 at The Anchor public house in nearby Morston village where a group of five started running raffles to raise money for charity followed by a sing song in the bar.

From such small beginnings it grew to a Saturday shanty crawl - singing four or five shanties in each of up to seven pubs in the evening. Now, in a calendar year, the group of eight including a fiddler and guitarist, perform up to 60 gigs in local pubs and festivals. The festivals, stretching from Ireland, Mevagissey in Cornwall, Weston-super-Mare, Someret, Liverpool and Harwich to more local events in Holkham Hall, King‘s Lynn, Norwich and Cromer, have also included a world tour – of Norfolk.

The Blakeney Old Wild Rovers Shanty Band sing for residents at the Legion's Halsey House Care Home in Cromer
The Blakeney Old Wild Rovers shanty band sing for residents at the RNLI's Halsey House Care Home in Cromer

Norfolk charities such as the Blakeney Neigbourhood Housing Society, Wells-next-the-Sea and Cromer branches of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the East Anglian Air Ambulance, and Glaven Caring’s day care facilities in Blakeney and many, many others have benefitted from the money raised. The Wild Rovers nominate a charity each year and over 22 years have raised more than £250,000.

The group of Wild Rovers have also cut five CDs which are on sale at Blakeney Garage, Blakeney Harbour Room, and at their gigs. All proceeds go to charity.

The Harbour Room in Blakeney’s High Street, said to be North Norfolk’s premier live music venue for gigs, is at the very heart of all the Wild Rovers do. The group’s unofficial leader Gary Mears has run the Harbour Room for 20 years where weekly rehearsals take place.

Blakeney’s Harbour Room is now only open three nights a week, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, since the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic.

But Covid 19, while cutting appearances for Blakeney’s Wild Rovers, has had a remarkably stimulating effect on the singing of sea shanties. Millions of people worldwide have created a new viral trend on the social media platform TikTok sharing their videos of them singing sea shanties.

It is thought the trend took off because the songs do not require any musical training to be sung well yet it is a way people can connect and share with others when they have been isolated during the coronavirus pandemic.

The shanties seem to have brought people together when they have been stuck at home and isolated. The idea of being a sailor on adventures across the world is the opposite of what many experienced during the pandemic.

A sea shanty, also called a chantey or chanty, is a type of traditional folk song sung by sailors as a working song. The word shanty may originate from the French word to sing ‘chanter’, but others suggest it comes from the English ‘chant’, synonymous with those religious Gregorian chants.

Shanties were used to ensure everyone involved in heavy manual tasks such as hoisting the sails or tramping round the capstan to lift the anchor on large merchant sailing ships did their work in unison. They made sailors pull together and synchronise their effort to the rhythm of the song.

Blakeney was one of England’s largest harbours in the Middle Ages and would have had many large sailing ships using its quay with many sailors joining in the shanties as they worked.

Sea shanties originate from British and other European ships and can be traced back to the 14th century. They faded out when steamships replaced sail and by the turn of the 20th century these sailors’ working songs were seldom heard.

Groups of shantymen, such as Blakeney’s Old Wild Rovers, performing in seafaring ports and pubs around the country have managed to preserve some 200 shanties as part of our maritime heritage.

Certainly Blakeney Old Wild Rovers have won the hearts of people in North Norfolk with comments on their Facebook page calling them ‘utterly brilliant’ and ‘great fun and great singing’.

The videos of the Wild Rovers in action is on their Facebook Page

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