It’s not every night you can say, “right, I’m off to an evening of Northumbrian pipes and clog dancing”. Well, apart from last Monday, that is.

Kathryn Tickell has recorded more than a dozen albums, collaborated with Sting and played all over the world. But it’s unlikely you’ll have come across her if you’re not a fan of folk or traditional music and have never listened to Radio 2. If you don’t know who she is, you’re missing out.

As someone born into a Geordie family, I’ve known about Tickell for some years. I first saw her in 2010 at Manchester’s Band on the Wall. I’d been dragged there under duress by my dad, a long-time fan of Northumbrian music. I was expecting caterwauling, tedium and a lot of old folk with beards and fairisle jumpers. That last part turned out to be true but I was wrong about everything else. Tickell is mistress of the Northumbrian pipes and an astonishingly talented musician. Imagine Gina McKee playing a dinky, distant cousin of the Scottish bagpipes and you’ll have some idea of Tickell doing her thing.

In the past, Tickell has talked of her love for the Northumbrian smallpipes. She picked them up aged nine or ten and they “just seemed to be my instrument”. Her teachers have numbered the official piper to the Duke of Northumberland and, at the age of 16, she was named the official piper for the Lord Mayor of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Later on, she recorded with the Penguin Cafe OrchestraThe ChieftainsLinda Thompson and many, many others. Ten years ago she was presented with The Queen’s Medal for Music and, in 2013, she won the prestigious Musician of the Year at BBC Radio 2’s Folk Awards.

Her latest incarnation is Kathryn Tickell & The Side, a four-part folk-classical ensemble comprised of Tickell, Louisa Tuck (cello), Ruth Wall (harp) and Amy Thatcher (accordion, clog dancing). Yes, that’s right, clog dancing. And clog dancing from a lass born in Stockport. It was going to be a crazy night.

So off I trooped to a Northumbrian pipes-clog dancing gig. With my dad. I’d barely had time to get ready so, as I sat in the car with no make-up, a jumper emblazoned with ‘Crazy Cat Lady’ and sweatpants, I prayed to all that is holy not to see anyone I knew. The gods were smiling on me. I remained anonymous and had a bluddy good evening.

Tickell is one of those artists who is completely at ease with her audience. In a virtually sold out Royal Northern College of Music auditorium, she had many supporters and it was a pleasure to hear tunes both old and new from herself and her new collaborators. Tickell makes the Northumbrian pipes look easy but it must take some considerable talent to tease out such haunting melodies and fast-paced numbers. One moment we were sitting in silent awe, the next everyone was tapping their feet and clapping their hands. Tickell and her fellow musicians painted pictures of squally Northumbrian skies in ways I never thought possible.

The clog dancing was a surprising highlight. Both mesmerising and hugely entertaining, I would pay cash money to see that again. As I would for Tickell and her musical pals. And so can you – Tickell & The Side are back on tour next May. Book your seats now (clogs optional).

Review by Helen Nugent


Kathryn TickellWhat: Kathryn Tickell & The Side

When: December 2014

Where: RNCM, Manchester

More info: for tour dates next year click here: