Traditional Carols in London: no room at the inn but the singing will continue

Carol singers in the Royal Oak in Borough
Carol singers in the Royal Oak in Borough

Many Folk London readers regularly attend the Traditional Carols in London sessions, but for those who don’t, here’s a little detail.

The sessions started about 11 years ago with a small group of friends singing Sheffield carols in the Royal Oak in Borough. The sessions really took off in their current form in 2011 and there are now afternoon sessions on the last two Sundays before Christmas, in the Royal Oak and the Bricklayer’s Arms in Putney respectively. There is also a smaller evening session on the Thursday in between at the Victoria Inn on Richmond Hill Rise.

The sessions concentrate on communal singing of mainly those carols known as Sheffield carols plus a few of the standards and some from other sources.

I must stress that we are not a choir and we do not teach parts. These are communal singing events and although we do encourage people to sing in parts, they will have learnt these maybe from the well-known Worrall “blue book” or by listening and joining in with a part that suits them. We have a 44-page booklet containing all the words but not music. For the last three years we’ve held a collection for Crisis at Christmas and have donated more than £1,440 to this worthy cause.

This is the time of year when I really start planning the Traditional Carols in London sessions. This year is, of course, rather different to previous years and planning is not as straightforward as normal.

It’s not just the uncertainty over the Covid-19 pandemic but also that the Brick­layer’s Arms, the venue for the final “big sing” for the past 11 years, is closed for a major rebuild and it also has new tenants to run the pub after Becky Newman decided to quit as the resident publican.

While Becky still owns the pub and is a great fan of the carol sessions, we don’t know whether the new tenants would welcome the event. It has been nigh impossible to get any answers to queries about the pub since March.

That aside, the big issue remains ­Covid-19 and the restrictions that may or may not be in place come December. As things stand it seems highly unlikely that we will be allowed to fill a pub with merry singers for a two-hour session of belting out our favourite carols. So what to do?

I am determined that December will not pass without some kind of event and my favoured option, assuming we can’t meet in a pub, is to try to organise an outdoor sing in a park, ideally close to the normal venues.

Failing that then I wonder if people would prefer a Zoom sing to no sing at all. If we have to fall back on Zoom then I would propose using recordings of previous carol sessions as the “lead” for the singing rather than having one voice leading the carols, with the exception of the solos where I think we could have the solo­ists leading. As with the various singing sessions currently happening on Zoom, all other singers would have to be muted.

Please check our website for details of what is going to happen. In the meantime I will be working to try to make sure we can all come together in some way to sing out this strange old year.

For more information on Traditional Carols in London, see This article appeared in Folk London 309, October-November 2020