I visited Gloucester Cathedral while taking a rest from the bustle of the crowds around the docks, and from the raucous choruses in the pubs. I entered it towards the end of evensong, just as the choir were concluding their anthem. Ethereal sound (two words that do not come quickly to mind when you encounter shantymen) filled the almost deserted nave between the massive Norman columns of the old Abbey - which is how the building started its life when still within the Worcester diocese. The sermon that followed, it being the week of the Manchester bombings, turned on suffering and forgiveness. There was little new to be said, even in the beautiful tones of the lady bishop, but the organist managed to thunder both anger and fulfilment as the congregation left the chancel. They no doubt felt better for it, as I did for a while.
The great body of the Cathedral is English in its pearl-grey light and dusty corners. But just as lovely, I think, is the adjoining cloister, where the interleaved fanwork of the vaulting turns back on itself four times. It is a mandala of interconnectedness around a green garden, the work of Vaughan Williams and Finzi in stone.
The Docks are a different England - a monument to Victorian graft and enterprise, and now repurposed for a modern age of internet and coffee and waterside lifestyle. There were not too many tall ships at the festival, no girt fourmasters or elegant brigantines. But there were enough tall masts from France and Poland and England too so as to justify the name, and seen from the right angle in front of the warehouses a goodly tangle of spars and rigging allowed your imagination to recreate the scene in its heyday. Meanwhile, wakeboarders bounced over the water and a gig full of Nelson's sailors rowed smoothly up and down. Among the marlin spikes and ratlines of the Lady of Avenal, a trio of redcoats went through the drill manual of 1745. A lot of hamburgers and ice-cream was consumed.
The heyday of the tall ships of course was the heyday of the shanty too, before steam and the diesel engine removed the need for concerted muscular rhythm. So the Festivals are an unsurprising pairing, filling the pubs and the street corners too with infinite variations on South Australia and Haul Away the Bowline. This year Paddy Lay Back (and I pride myself on my version) seems to be the favourite flavour. As with gatherings of Morris Men, of which shantying is the vocal equivalent, the aim seems to be to impress the competition as least as much as the general and less discerning public. The crew wins who can find a new shanty that the others have not yet discovered. The Old Gaffers may lack some subtlety, but on the latter score we may be just ahead. The Albany Immigrant anyone?