Bella Hardy make folk’s aristocracy party like it’s 1599 in country retreat

Bella Hardy organises country retreat to create music inspired by the Elizabethan age

Arts Correspondent

Bella Hardy is one of the hottest properties in folk music, winning the industry’s top solo award last month. But her next project is eccentric even by the genre’s standards: repairing to a country idyll for a week with seven other musicians to create music inspired by the Elizabethan era.

The folk retreat will draw on everything from history, myth and culture to controversies and rumours from the 16th century – with help from a noted historian – to come up with a series of new songs. It all culminates in a performance at a folk festival in the shadow of an oak tree under which Elizabeth I is believed to have been sitting when she was informed she would be queen.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Hardy said. “I love studying ancient stories and folklore and rewriting that, so this project jumped right out at me. I have a general knowledge of the Elizabethans, partly through Shakespeare, television and, of course, Blackadder. But not much more than that.”

The music will be modern, rather than Elizabethan. “It’s not about writing early music,” Hardy said. “It’s using that period as a starting point. Write a madrigal if you want, but it can be anything inspired by the period.”

The week-long retreat, dubbed the Elizabethan Session, was the brainchild of Adam Slough, the director of the Folk by the Oak festival, in collaboration with the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). He hopes that between 14 and 20 songs will be written. Folk by the Oak has been running at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire since 2008, and this year artists include Richard Thompson and Beth Orton. The Elizabethan Session musicians will also play their last gig together at the festival in July.

“It’s held in such a beautiful location, called the Queen Elizabeth Oak Field,” Mr Slough said. “The place is so linked with history and folk music is so interwoven with history that this project seemed a great idea.”.

The week-long retreat, dubbed the Elizabethan Session, will be taking place at Hatfield House where Elizabeth I found out she was going to be queen The week-long retreat, dubbed the Elizabethan Session, will be taking place at Hatfield House where Elizabeth I found out she was going to be queen (Getty Images)
The EFDSS also ran a project with music inspired by Cecil Sharp, the father of the folklore revival in England, while the Shrewsbury Folk Festival celebrated its most famous son with the Darwin Song Project in 2009. Mr Slough said the Elizabethan Session involved “eight musicians who have been carefully selected, and hopefully that can produce some magic”.

The “who’s who” of the British folk scene includes folk royalty Martin Simpson, described as “one of the finest acoustic and slide-guitar players in the world”, and Nancy Kerr.

Hardy said: “I have no idea what it’ll be like spending a week doing this. I don’t know if there will be a cooking  rota or what. It’s hard to tell until we sit down and get chatting. I do know everyone individually, and they’re lovely. I don’t anticipate any dramas.”

Other performers include Jim Moray, who burst on to the scene a decade ago at the age of 21 with an album recorded in his student  bedroom, as well as accordionist Hannah James and Emily Askew, who plays instruments including the vielle, a medieval fiddle. They will be advised by the historian Ian Mortimer, who wrote The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England.

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