Thirty Years of Storytelling!

This autumn marks 30 years of the storytelling club, ‘Tales at the Edge’.

Until I was invited to the party on Tuesday, the significant date had completely passed me by.  I told my first story at the first meeting of the club and so this is also my 30th anniversary of telling stories!

‘Tales at the Edge’ was the first regular storyround of its type.  Obviously, people have always told stories, but it was the first in the modern model of a monthly, advertised, ‘come all ye and bring a shortish story to tell’ session.  To begin with, the rules were rather strict – no poetry, no readings, no songs or music!  But we needed those rules, we were trying to establish storytelling in its own right and without those rules it could have easily slipped into another folk club with an occasional sprinkling of stories.

The first club night at Wenlock Edge Inn was busy, packed full of well-wishers.  In those days, you needed to be 14 to be allowed into the bar, so I scraped in by a couple of months.  I was nervous.  I’d always loved traditional stories and authors like Alan Garner, C.S. Lewis and Susan Cooper.  I loved the idea of storytellers, but until I met Taffy Thomas at ‘All Folk Around the Wrekin’, I didn’t think there were any left.  Taffy introduced me to Mike Rust, the possibility of a storytelling club and a door opened.  That summer, I went to more folk festivals and spent an entire weekend at ‘Towersey Festival’, trailing round after Pat Ryan and Terry Mann, listening to every story they told. It was a story from Pat Ryan that I told that first night and Taffy Thomas came to kick off the club

Although the first night was busy, after that it was much quieter.  Particular on cold dark winter nights, it was sometimes just the core regulars – Mike Rust and Richard Walker (Mogsy), my long-suffering Dad and me.  I would bring one new story each month and listen to Mike and Richard trade seemingly endless stores of stories back and forth.  The word got out and storytellers travelled once a month to a pub in the middle of nowhere, often from an hour or two away – Worcestor Jerry, Wilson Boardman, Jim Hatfield, Tony Addison, Judith Barasel, Dennis Crowther, Terry Tandler….  Some of the best stories came from the Steve the landlord – there’s plenty of ghosts along Wenlock Edge and over winter nights and pints, he’d been told all of them at some point!

At that point, the only other storytelling club in England was ‘The Crick Crack Club’ – older than us, but more performance based.  Ben Haggarty came to visit us on a club swap and we went on a road trip – my first visit to London – to do some floor spots there.

It was an exciting time. Most people still didn’t really have any idea what storytelling was – ‘Do you mean you do that for children?’ ‘What, do you, like, read from books to each other?’.  However, it seemed there was a desperate need for it – storytelling was growing at a huge rate, with clubs springing up all over the country.

We went on more TATE road trips, supporting new clubs on their first nights as Taffy had supported us.  We were having so much fun, we even decided to run a whole weekend festival of storytelling and only two years later in 1991, the first ‘Festival at the Edge’ took place at Stokes Barn on Wenlock Edge.  That was also the year we started ‘The Biggest Liar in Shropshire Competition’ in aid of Comic Relief.  I was judged far too honest, but I did win ‘Young Storyteller of the Year’ at Sidmouth Folk Festival.  In all the years of the lying competition, I only won once…and that was the year of the snow.  Mike Rust cancelled the competition, but only Judge Michael Manders believed him.  Everyone else turned up and we held the competition without them!

We were very lucky in those early days to have the incredibly enthusiastic and supportive West Midlands Arts Literature Officer, David Hart.  David was delighted at the success of TATE, supported and advised us with FATE and then came up with the brilliant idea of a ‘West Midlands Arts Storytelling Apprenticeship’.  I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me without David’s scheme and winning the award was a tremendous opportunity and experience.

After my year long apprenticeship, I went to Leeds University – and managed to get permission to move into Halls a day early so that I could hop on a train to Hebden Bridge for their first storyclub.  It wasn’t too long before I started my own spoken word club at The Grove in Leeds.  By then, I was telling stories with Shonaleigh as ‘Chalk and Cheese’ and with Shonaleigh and Simon Heywood as ‘Moving Stories’.  The three of us regularly drove back to Shropshire for TATE in Simon’s battered white van, pulling in at the old A5 greasy spoon on the way home for midnight mugs of tea.

Throughout the past 30 years, ‘Tales at the Edge’ has been an anchor point in my life.  This blog is officially to chart the journey of my ACE bid to work with Duncan’s tapes, but it was through ‘Tales at the Edge’ and ‘Festival at the Edge’ that I first met Duncan and on my WMA Apprenticeship that I first went to stay with him.  There have been changes: moving venue from Wenlock Edge to the White Lion in Bridgnorth; changing the date from the second Monday of the month to the second Tuesday and founder Richard Walker as well as many of the early stalwarts are no longer with us.  But the heart of the club is the same.  It is a warm, welcoming space to all – beginners and professionals, storytellers and storylisteners and now even lets musicians and poets join in sometimes!   It has provided an introduction to storytelling, a practise ground and a listening space for many new and young storytellers – many of whom are now old hands!  Without Tales at the Edge, I have no idea what I would be doing now, but I doubt very much I would be a professional storyteller.

I am so grateful for the all the support and opportunities I was given as a young storyteller – through ‘Tales at the Edge’, ‘Young Storyteller of the Year’ and the ‘West Midland Arts Storytelling Apprenticeship’.  The storytelling landscape in Britain has changed drastically over the last 30 years. It is fantastic to see the huge growth in both storyrounds and performance clubs.  I am delighted to see that the ‘Young Storyteller of the Year’ is going to return at the ‘Get a Word in Edgeways Festival’ and the success of ‘The Young Storyteller of Wales’

The ‘Tales at the Edge’ 30th birthday party on Tuesday was a very fitting celebration.  A room full of friends gathered, club regulars of all ages.  Taffy and Chrissie Thomas returned so that he, Mike and I could all tell stories together 30 years on.  There were THREE birthday cakes – well, it is a storytelling club after all!  The youngest teller was Ceri, 11 years old, just beginning her storytelling adventure and benefitting from the same support, encouragement and listening to such a wide array of storytelling styles, as I did.  May the club continue and support her for the next 30 years – and watch this space, one amazing storyteller growing up here!


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