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The Way Through the Woods
[words Rudyard Kipling, music Peter Bellamy; notes on The Way Through the Woods at the Kipling Society]
The Way Through the Woods is a poem from Rudyard Kipling’s book Rewards and Fairies. Peter Bellamy sang it on his second album of songs set to Kipling’s poems, Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye. He noted:
The Way Through the Woods is a short descriptive song about a haunted wood, and is the companion piece to The Brookland Road. Both come from the (apparently) supernatural story Marklake Witches. I thought the tune was original, but it has been pointed out that it is suspiciously similar to the Lancashire song Poverty Knock!
As the original album wasn’t available anymore, Peter Bellamy re-recorded this and other songs with the help of Nigel Schofield, probably in the mid-1980s. The new version was finally included on the Fellside compilation Mr Bellamy, Mr Kipling & the Tradition. Another recording from a 1986 session for Pennine Radio, Bradford, was included on Peter Bellamy’s Free Reed anthology Wake the Vaulted Echoes.
This is a video of Elle Osborne singing Peter Bellamy’s setting of The Way Through the Woods at the Proud Ballroom, Brighton, on 22 February 2011. Ella also sang this song on Folk Police’s Peter Bellamy tribute album Oak, Ash & Thorn which was released in January 2011.
Jon Boden sang The Way Through the Woods as the 21 June 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He commented in the blog:
I learnt this to sing at Rudyard Kipling’s house Batemans last year—we recorded a couple of songs onto wax cylinder in Kipling’s living room. Visitors can now play the wax cylinders back as part of the exhibition, which is nice. It’s a lovely song this, despite the odd dodgy line (“badgers roll at ease” is pushing it a bit I think).
David Gibb and Elly Lucas sang The Way Through the Woods in 2013 on their CD Up Through the Woods.
Mossy Christian sang The Way Through the Woods on his 2020 CD Come Nobles and Heroes.
Nancy Kerr sang The Way Through the Woods in 2023 on Ben Walker’s CD on his 2020 CD Banish Air From Air. Ben Walker noted:
It turns out that this is a favourite poem of Nancy’s too and it’s an honour to have her sing and play fiddle on it. A lot of the arrangements for Kipling’s peaceful ghost story seem based around the tune to Poverty Knock, however this one has a lot more to do with a lockdown interest in clawhammer banjo! Having said that, the cantering rhythm suits the rhyme sequences of the poem and it could as easily be about the Appalachian woods as the English ones, they do have otters too, after all.
The Way Through the Woods
They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and the heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
That there was once a road through the woods.
Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate
(They fear not the men in the woods
Because they see so few),
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods…
But there is no road through the woods!