Inspire Me

Songs of England

In collaboration with the Nest Collective, we bring you exclusive new recordings of 12 traditional folk songs, paired with England's most iconic historic places.

Featuring Mercury nominee Sam Lee and Bellowhead's Jon Boden among the artists, Songs of England weaves together new original performances with evocative stories from the nation's historic landmarks, from Dover Castle to Whitby Abbey, Hadrian's Wall to Stonehenge. 

Dive into the video series below or on the interactive Voices of England map to learn about the stories behind these remarkable places. 

"History and Spirit"

The Songs of England collection is curated by English Heritage and The Nest Collective. Featuring original performances by singers including Mercury Music Prize nominee Sam Lee, folk scholar and singer Fay Hield and Bellowhead's Jon Boden, these 12 short films weave together traditional folk music with tales both real and imagined associated with England's most iconic historic places. 

"It has been a great privilege to create this collection, taking inspiration from the epic historic sites English Heritage looks after. We hope these songs inspire a fresh connection with the history and spirit of these remarkable places, and engage people everywhere with tradition, stories of the land around them and the folk history of our ancestors."

— Sam Lee, Founder of The Nest Collective

Mapping the Songs of England

The 12 traditional songs selected for the Songs of England collection have connections to historic places all across the nation. 

From Hadrian's Wall in the north to Pendennis Castle in the south, explore our interactive map — designed by renowned typographer Alan Kitching — to discover the connections these songs hold with England's geography. 

Explore the map

The Films

12 short films exploring the songs and their connections to historic places

  • The Whitby Lad

    Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire

    The imposing gothic ruins of this North Yorkshire monastery are linked to stories that span the centuries, from the legend of St Hild to Bram Stoker's Dracula. The traditional song The Whitby Lad adds another tale to Whitby's folkloric roster. The lyrics tell of a wayward boy, a thief, sentenced to life in a penal colony in Australia. Cast away to sea from the town's eastern shores, the towering arches of Whitby Abbey against the darkening sky might have been his last glimpse of English shores. 

    Whitby Lad performed by Fay Hield, with additional performances from Ellie Wilson (violin)

  • Sweet Nightingale

    Tintagel Castle, Cornwall 

    The song Sweet Nightingale is thought to have been imported from Germany by Cornish tin miners in the 1800s. This international provenance stands as a symbol of the nature of Tintagel Castle, on the county's wild west coast, as a place of trade and cultural melding across the sea. Fragments of pottery and glass found here show that Tintagel was a major hub for sea freight. Local people here were enjoying luxuries including wine, olive oil and tablewares from Europe, North Africa and even the Middle East. 

    Sweet Nightingale performed by Lisa Knapp

  • When Fortune Turns the Wheel

    Hadrian's Wall, North of England 

    The wall that marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire in Britain was built by men from across what is now Europe, Iraq and even the Sahara Desert. These were people transported thousands of miles from their homes to a new and unfamiliar world. When Fortune Turns the Wheel is a traditional parting song that speaks of friends saying goodbye before going their own ways, and of the hope that one day their paths will cross once more.

    When Fortune Turns the Wheel performed by The Brothers Gillespie, with additional performances from Ellie Wilson (violin)

  • The Old Garden Gate

    Audley End House and Gardens, Essex 

    This impressive Jacobean mansion was dramatically transformed over the centuries. From lords and ladies to servants and cooks, Audley End House holds within its walls human stories that transcend the boundaries of the strict social hierarchies of Victorian England. The Old Garden Gate tells the mournful tale of a young woman, forced to reject the approaches of the man she loves as he has been unfaithful. 

    The Old Garden Gate performed by Bea Hankey

  • The Four Loom Weaver

    Iron Bridge, Shropshire

    The Iron Bridge was erected in the late 18th century, crossing the gorge of the same name which is often credited as the 'cradle of the industrial revolution.' Here, in the 1700s, iron foundries produced the metal that powered decades of dramatic transformation in transport and industry in Britain and around the world. The Four Loom Weaver is a traditional song that reflects this age of labour through the struggles of the people who worked in hard and unforgiving jobs.

    Four Loom Weaver performed by Abel Selaocoe

  • John Barleycorn

    Stonehenge, Wiltshire

    On the surface, John Barleycorn is about the killing and burial of the man whose name the song takes. But listen more closely and you find that Barleycorn himself is an allegory for the barley crop harvested each autumn across England. As a place set in a landscape dotted with countless prehistoric burial mounds, and in the heart of one of England's largest farming regions, Stonehenge is a fitting match for this sombre tale of demise and rebirth. 

    John Barleycorn performed by Sam Lee, with additional performances from Ellie Wilson (violin)

  • High Germany

    Pendennis Castle, Cornwall

    Journey west to Falmouth on Cornwall's southern coast and you will find the twin Tudor castles of Pendennis and St Mawes. Built under the command Henry VIII to defend the Carrick Roads estuary, these squat circular forts gave 360-degree views over the waters and any approaching danger. High Germany, performed for us by Jon Boden, evokes the many partings that have taken place at Pendennis over the centuries. 

    High Germany performed by Jon Boden

  • The Bedfordshire May Carol

    Wrest Park, Bedfordshire

    Wrest Park in Bedfordshire: a grand mansion that was home to several generations of the De Grey family. But the house also played a role in the First World War, as a hospital for the recovery and rehabilitation of convalescent soldiers. Pairing with this aspect of Wrest Park's story — and with the county of Bedfordshire — is a traditional May carol, performed in days gone by on the doorsteps of homes by 'mayers' seeking food, drink or silver coins. 

    Bedfordshire May Carol performed by Dila Vardar, with additional performances from Ellie Wilson (violin), Christopher Schlechte-Bond and Thom Ashworth

  • A Ship to Old England Came

    Dover Castle, Kent

    We've paired this song, whose lyrics speak of a long history of naval friction on the English Channel, with Dover Castle, or as one 19th century writer called it, "historic, cliff-guarded, castle-crowned Dover." This majestic fortress is one of the country's grandest and best-preserved and represents a broad cross-section of England's varied history. From the Roman lighthouse to the tunnels utilised by British forces during the dramatic evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940, Dover has stood sentinel over centuries of change and many a battle.

    A Ship To Old England Came performed by Mara Carlyle

  • Salisbury Plain

    Old Sarum, Wiltshire 

    Collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1904, the traditional song Salisbury Plain is set on the vast spacious landscape of the same name in England's South West. A defining feature of the plain is Old Sarum, the remains of an ancient city atop the steep slopes of an Iron Age hillfort, looking across to modern Salisbury. This was once a bustling metropolis and was the place where William the Conqueror secured the loyalty of England's barons and landowners.

    Salisbury Plain performed by Alice Zawadzki

  • The Lady of Carlisle

    Carlisle Castle, Cumbria

    Situated just ten miles from the Anglo-Scottish border, Carlisle Castle has changed hands many times and boasts the title of England's most besieged castle. Paired with this witness to 900 years of Carlisle's tumultuous history is a song that carries the city's name. The Lady of Carlisle tells the tale of a woman courted by two men, who tests her suitors with a dangerous trial of courage in a den of beasts. 

    The Lady of Carlisle performed by Lucy Farrell, with additional performances from Ellie Wilson (violin)

  • Peat Bog Soldiers

    Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire

    On sunny days, the high tower of Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire casts its long shadow over the town below. But there is more to this Norman keep than meets the eye. During the First World War, the castle — with walls 11 feet thick — was used as a prison. Sixteen men, conscientious objectors against the war, were held here in 1916. The walls of the small cells are covered with graffiti left behind by the prisoners who came to be known as the Richmond Sixteen. 

    Peat Bog Soldiers performed by Jimmy Aldridge & Sid Goldsmith

Stream the playlist

Enjoy the short films above to explore the connections these 12 folk songs hold to England's historic places, with historian Matt Thompson and folk singer Sam Lee. 

Then, enjoy the collection at your leisure with our specially curated playlist featuring all 12 songs in full. Listen on Spotify or Soundcloud.

Open the Playlist

Alan Kitching

Our interactive map of the Songs of England and the title graphics of the video series were designed by Alan Kitching, one of the world’s foremost practitioners of letterpress typographic design and printmaking, with assistance from Joana Paranhos. 

Visit our online shop for a range of collectables, gifts and accessories designed by Alan exclusively for English Heritage.

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