The Turtle Dove Pilgrimage
By BEL JACOBS
In 1903, composer and folk song scholar Vaughan Williams was visiting the Plough Inn, in the Sussex village of Rusper, to listen to the landlord’s rendition of traditional folk songs. One in particular, an 18th century folk ballad called The True Lover’s Farewell, caught his imagination. A local melody of love and parting, True Lover’s Farewell was based on the story of the turtle dove, whose call often heralded the arrival of summer in the area.
Vaughan Williams transformed that simple melody into The Turtle Dove, exporting it to the concert halls of London and beyond. The song has been recorded, notably by Nic Jones as "Ten Thousand Miles", as well as by Joan Baez, Marianne Faithfull and Marcus Mumford. Now, later this month, award-winning British traditional singer Sam Lee and Will Parsons, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust and pioneer of Britain’ pilgrimage revival, embark upon a three night journey to ‘re-wild’ one of Britain’s ancient traditional songs and bring it back to the very birds it was inspired by.
For a bird that looks like a small pigeon, the bird enjoys legendary status. Turtle doves were sacred to Demeter in ancient Greece. In the Bible, when Jesus is first presented to the Temple, Mary and Joseph offer two turtle doves as a sacrifice. The little birds form enduring love bonds, staying with their partners forever, rare within the natural world - and their song, a gentle “turr-turr coo”, is inextricably linked to the English countryside in summer. “It’s not so different from the lilting burr of the old Sussex singers you still might find hereabouts, perhaps singing songs of turtle doves,” says Lee.
Today, the turtle dove’s distinctive coo is rarely heard. Like so many other British species, the birds have fallen victims to habitat destruction, hunting, industrialised practices and ecological collapse. England has witnessed a 95% reduction in numbers since the 1970s, with very few breeding pairs remaining. These sweet, once-ubiquitous birds now sit at the top of the British Trust for Ornithology’s Red List and are predicted to be extinct from Britain within the next 25 years.
Tracing the songlines of Sussex, the Turtle Dove Pilgrimage will carry the song to one of the last remaining populations of turtle doves. ‘People today rarely sing together,” says Lee, who pioneered the modern renaissance of songs in nature and community, on the The Nest Collective website. “The new methods of music sharing employed by Vaughan Williams became part of the change of the public role as consumers of popular song, rather than lineage sharers of local tradition.”
The aim of the Walk is to highlight the plight of so many natives species. The pilgrimage starts in Rusper, in the pub where the song was re-discovered, before heading south to the Knepp Caste Estate, an ambitious, 3,500 re-wilding project that aims to undo the devastating effects of modern agricultural management and is home to a thriving population of turtle doves; it is Knepp that could provide new breeding sites for remaining birds.
Between the starting and end points, the pilgrimage will encompass the source of two great South English rivers, Arun and Mole, and the ancient forest of St Leonard. These birds may soon leave the land but the pilgrimage, offered with love and reverence, dreams of their return.
The Turtle Dove Pilgrimage takes place between June 7 and 9th. For tickets, please visit http://thenestcollective.co.uk