Lakes of Cold Fen – a gay retelling of a folk song

January 28th, 2019

For a few years now I’ve been singing in the wonderful Timeline Choir, run by the multi-talented Stef Conner, who is a composer as well as a choir director. Much of the music we sing is new arrangements of old tunes, including many folk songs. I didn’t have much of a background in folk music until joining the choir, and I’ve enjoyed discovering many lovely pieces that I wouldn’t otherwise have heard.

For our concert in 2017, Stef produced a really beautiful arrangement of “Lakes of Cold Fen” for three female voices, which was genuinely one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. The tune and lyrics were taken from Mary Humphreys’ album “Cold Fen” – you can listen to a clip here  – and I became fascinated by the song and read up on it. It turns out to be quite an enigma – there are a lot of different versions, and the name of the lake varies from Shilin to Colfin to Cold Flynn to Cool Finn and eventually became “Cold Fen” in the Cambridgeshire version, despite the fact that there’s no such place. Nobody really knows where the song came from, though the best guess seems to be that it’s Irish and possibly based on a true story of a young man drowning in a lake whilst swimming. There are many different versions listed here on the Mainly Norfolk site.

Anyway, as I read several versions of the lyrics, I became struck by the recurrent details in the first verse in every version:

It was early one morning young William arose
And away to his comrade’s bedchamber did go,
Saying, “Arise, oh my comrade and let no-one know,
For it’s a bright summer morning and a-bathing we’ll go.

Our protagonist – variously Billy, Willie, William – rises early and goes straight to the bedroom of his (male) comrade, bidding him to get up and come swimming with him, but to “let no-one know”. Why are two young men going swimming secretly early in the morning? Well, it wasn’t much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that they might have a secret tryst, and so I wondered if I could re-tell the story of the song but giving more details of what Willie and his comrade got up to. In the traditional versions, we never know “dear comrade”‘s name, and he disappears off the scene as soon as Willie dies, with the rest of the song focusing on the reactions of his family and the details of his funeral.

So, I’ve told the story of what really happened at the lakes of Cold Fen. You may need a hankie by the end!

The score for the tune is available here

T’was early one morning Willie Leonard arose
Straight to his comrade’s bedchamber he goes
“Arise my dear comrade and let no-one know –
Tis a fine summer’s morning, and a-bathing we’ll go”

Willie and Aidan they walked down the lane
And there they did pass by a keeper of game
He said to the boys, “don’t go venturin’ in –
There is deep and false water in the lakes of Cold Fen”

So Willie stripped off and he swam the lake round
He came back to Aidan, his feet on the ground
“Oh it’s safe as houses, ignore the old men”
“Enjoy the sun and the swimming in the lakes of Cold Fen”

They swam to an island and when they were done
Without a stitch on they both lay in the sun
Willie saw Aidan’s fine shoulders and chest
He looked and he knew that he loved him the best

Their eyes met each other’s and then they both knew
That Aidan loved Willie, and Willie him too
They kissed on the shoreline and decided right then
They’d be true loves forever at the lakes of Cold Fen

“But what of my father?” our Aidan did say
“He wants me to marry a woman one day
Run the farm and have children, he wants me to wed
A nice local girl and take her to my bed”

Willie replied that he’d thought of a plan
They’d fly the country, move to fair Amsterdam
“there we’ll be happy, us two in one bed
we must go quite soon or else you’ll be wed”

And so they decided they’d leave at full moon
They’d take ship to Holland in the fair month of June
They swam back to shore their minds full of their scheme
Excited and happy to share in their dream

But Willie had strayed into lilies and reeds
His feet became tangled in the thick water-weeds
“Oh Aidan, my love, please don’t venture in”
“There is deep and false water in the lakes of Cold Fen”

Aidan turned back and just then saw him drown
As his head dipped down into the lake water brown
He cried as he lost him, his beloved young man
He swam to the shore and to the village he ran

And it’s down came his mother like one in despair,
All a-wringing her hands and a-tearing her hair,
Crying, “Oh Willie dear Willie, why did you go in
To the deep and false water of the lakes of Cold Fen”

Our Aidan he ran to the Hollander hoy
He left Willie’s family to bury their boy
They wrapped him in white and they laid him in clay
And the village all cried on the funeral day

But every midsummer our Aidan returns
He sits by the lake in the grasses and ferns
“Oh Willie my lover, why did you go in
To the deep and false water of the lakes of Cold Fen?”

This is my copyright (2019) but if anyone would like to perform or arrange it, please let me know! I’m grateful to Mike Lee for his idea for the plot of the song.

A couple of notes: I’ve tried to reuse some of the traditional verses and imagery from other versions. The idea of the two of them running off to Amsterdam and being happy perhaps seems a bit fanciful in a period setting, but the Netherlands are not far from Cambridgeshire by sea, so would have been a realistic place to travel to in order to escape, and homosexuality was decriminalised there in 1811, which is around the time the original song appears to have been written. A “hoy” is a small coastal ship, obviously used here to rhyme with boy…

2 Responses to “Lakes of Cold Fen – a gay retelling of a folk song”

  1. Invisibules Says:

    Welcome back to writing randomly!
    What a sad tale :(

  2. The Lakes of Cold Fen – A Gay Retelling of a Folksong | Timeline Songs Says:

    […] (Republished from […]

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