RAM-bling through Derby

Derby is obsessed with rams. The city centre boasts at least three statues featuring rams. The local professional soccer team (Derby County) are nicknamed “The Rams” and have a mascot called Rammie. Derby’s annual half-marathon event was for many years known as the Ramathon. Even the city’s library service, when first introducing public internet computers in the late 1990s, called its new service Cyber-RAM.

Michael Pegler’s millstone sculpture has been a Derby landmark since 1995

This infatuation with rams (male sheep, also known as tups) is captured in a folk song known as The Derby Ram, or alternatively As I was Going to Derby. The story it tells can be traced back at least to the early 18th century. It’s a far-fetched and humorous, if somewhat gory, account of a huge ram taken to Derby market and the challenges townsfolk encountered when processing it for meat.

The song is well known in folk-singing circles in many parts of the English-speaking world. Even George Washington is reputed to have taken time off from thrashing the Brits to belt out his own rendition, although I’m not sure how we know this story is true. Links to a couple of recordings of the song are given at the end of this post.

How this tall tale came to be associated with Derby is unclear. More widely, however, during the Middle Ages rams were regarded as symbols of physical strength and sexual potency. It therefore takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why Derby folk might have been pleased to encourage a legend that linked them with such a feisty and formidable beast.

This statue by Tim Roper dates from 2019, and stands at one of the entrances to the main Derby shopping centre (mall)

The link continues to this day, and is being celebrated during summer 2021 by an arts project called The Derby Ram Trail. Organised by the local Museums Trust, this is a free public art trail comprising 30 ram sculptures vibrantly decorated by a range of artists.

The sculptures are made of lightweight, fire-resistant fibreglass and are based on Michael Pegler’s millstone ram, which has been a Derby landmark for around a quarter of a century. The trail weaves its way through the city centre, and its organisers hope it will “[encourage] local people to explore and enjoy their city from an exciting new perspective.”

Rameses by Judith Berrill

The Derby Ram Trail website explains how the project has been organised:

Businesses across the area were invited to sponsor a blank ram sculpture – the 3D canvas! New and established artists were then invited to submit designs to transform the blank rams with individual artworks. Design ideas were presented to sponsors in January 2020 who each selected their favourite. Successful artists were then commissioned to apply their designs to the sculptures in a wide range of media, both traditional and new, including fine art, illustration, graffiti and mosaic amongst others.

Forming a trail of discovery, the sculptures provide an exceptional, creative opportunity to engage people in important topics – from health and well-being to history and culture, to name a few.

Source: Derby Ram Trail website, retrieved 13 July 2021

For those with good local knowledge, the subject matter of some of the designs has an obvious connection with Derby or the surrounding county of Derbyshire. For example, decorating a ram to reflect artistic fashions current at the time the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses the Great, over 3,000 years ago, isn’t an obvious choice. However, once you understand that generations of local children have been inspired by two ancient Egyptian mummies displayed at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, all becomes clear. Rameses is one of my favourite rams, and the pun’s pretty good, too!

Another striking design with local connections is Royal Ram, inspired by one of Royal Crown Derby’s decorative animal paperweights. Royal Crown Derby pottery is made about a mile south of the city centre, and is sold to appreciative collectors across the world. Local heritage is also recognised in Nurse Nightingale, which honours the life and achievements of pioneering 19th century nurse Florence Nightingale, who was born just a few miles north of Derby. And standing outside the new Museum of Making, housed in the historic Silk Mill building, Derby Industries celebrates the city’s remarkable achievements in science and manufacturing.

Royal Ram by Donna Newman

The significance of For Those About to Rock initially escaped me, until I read on the trail’s website that the piece was inspired by music festivals held annually in Derbyshire, particularly Download and Bloodstock. The website explains that “in the Heavy Metal tradition of battle jackets, the ram is wearing a denim jacket covered in patches which, along with his tattoos, represent significant events and Derbyshire-related subjects.” By way of contrast, Woolly Rammy (a ram in sheep’s clothing) has a more obvious local connection, depicting a ram wearing a Derby-inspired woolly jumper which proudly displays a recognisably local street scene.

For Those about to Rock by Sue Hetfield

Doodle Derby is a bit more whimsical, being “based on all of the awesome things about our city from architecture, culture and outdoor spaces to real ale and how Derby first invented the hotdog! ‘Doodle Derby’ takes you on a tour of all the brilliant things you can do in the city and celebrates a diverse, colourful place of happiness and positivity – an inspiring Derby!” Hmm, hyperbole is alive and well, and living on the Derby Ram Trail website…but what the heck, it raises a smile, and don’t we all need that with Covid infections soaring yet again.

In some cases the connection between Derby and the ram’s design is distinctly tenuous. For example, Derby has no obvious links with pirates (some people claim it to be further from the sea than just about any other English city), but nevertheless Pirate Sheepmate seems to have made himself at home there. I love the parrot on his shoulder. Meanwhile the fierce-looking Rambo seems to be little more than an excuse for fond memories of “Sly” Stallone….and, of course, another groan-inducing pun!

Rambo by Joy Pirkle

Some of the rams are intended to convey a message that has universal relevance, rather than being specific to Derby. Memories Fade but Warmth Remains is perhaps the most obvious and poignant of these. The website explains that the artist “has combined the symbolism of the forget-me-not flower – a flower often associated with dementia – with that of the sunflower, symbolising warmth, deep loyalty and hope. Lynne wanted to create a message about the power of enduring love: that memories can fade but the warmth of the human spirit continues to shine.”

Walking the trail, which at a leisurely pace took us about half a day and included plenty of photo stops (Mrs P took over 400 pictures!), encouraged us to explore parts of the city centre that we’ve never seen before. It also took us past recent developments that are seeking to breathe new life into the place. Plenty of other people were also seeking out the rams, and I suspect were also discovering parts of Derby that were new to them.

Derby Industries by Sanita Gnaniah, with the historic Silk Mill behind

The organisers set out to create a feel-good project, and from my point of view they definitely succeeded. Derby is not an especially attractive city, and has little to recommend it in either architectural or artistic terms. The decorated rams are therefore a welcome – albeit temporary – addition to the urban landscape, and certainly brighten up those parts of the city centre in which they are located.

Doodle Derby by Carla Dee

With one exception – an old guy complaining (wrongly) that the cost of the project would result in his taxes going up – everyone we spoke with seemed to be enjoying the Derby Ram Trail, and found at least some of the artworks to be inspiring and uplifting. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the whole experience was the way the trail encouraged total strangers to talk to each other, and, even more remarkably, got them talking about art! That’s an achievement in which the organisers should take pride.

Memories Fade but Warmth Remains by Lynne Hollingsworth

The sculpture trail will grace the city until 22 August 2021, after which the rams will all be herded together and sold by auction. The proceeds will go to Derby Museums Trust to support the delivery and development of their services, which seems like an appropriate reward for the organisation that was the brains behind the Derby Ram Trail. Moreover, Derby is planning an application to be the UK’s next city of culture, so its heritage and arts organisations need all the funds they can raise. Watch this space!

Mrs P’s collage of rams!

* * * * * * *

Links to recordings of The Derby Ram. The following link is to a version credited to Keith Kendrick, Pete Castle, Roy Harris and Derrick Hale. I’m not familiar with them, but must be from hereabouts as they’re singing it in a Derby/Derbyshire accent, which although quite distinctive is barely recognised outside the area. You don’t hear the accent so much these days, so it’s good to have fragments of it preserved here.

The YouTube video includes the lyrics. As with all folksongs the words to The Derby Ram have mutated over the generations, and this version is a case in point. The mention of the Baseball Ground (at around two-and-a-half minutes into the song) references Derby County’s home soccer ground between 1895 and 1997. It could never have appeared in the original, traditional (18th century) version of this song, and doesn’t belong in 21st century versions either.

While Keith Kendrick et al sing The Derby Ram unaccompanied, most recorded versions feature instruments as well as voices. If a capella and the Derby/Derbyshire accent are not your thing, the following version by Barry Dransfield may suit you better. Dransfield, who hails from Yorkshire, sings somewhat different lyrics, and plays a mean, mean fiddle! Enjoy!

15 comments

  1. blhphotoblog · July 21

    There’s going to be a T-Rex trail in Norwich. You would have thought Canaries would be more appropriate!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · July 22

      I read your comment and thought to myself, “I wonder what connection Marc Bolan had with Norwich?” But I checked the BBC Norfolk website and it turns out they’re just dinosaurs! 🙂 Great for kids, though. But seriously, we’ve been meaning to visit Norwich for ages, and so we might try to go next year when the T-Rex will be back, accompanied by woolly mammoths!
      PS It occurs to me that you might not be old enough to remember March Bolan? If so, I apologise. You see, I’m also a bit of a dinosaur!

      Liked by 1 person

      • blhphotoblog · July 22

        Er, I’m 64 as well (though I don’t act my age!) Norwich has a lot to offer that’s why it’s called ‘A fine City’! Come and give it a look.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. tanjabrittonwriter · July 21

    Another wonderful collaboration by Mrs. and Mr. P! I enjoyed reading about the history and significance of rams in Derby and looking at the amazing photos of this fun and beautiful exhibit. As we have discussed before, these public displays are a great way to allow everybody to enjoy and ponder art.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · July 22

      Thank you, Tanja. The Ram Trail’s not “high art” but it’s a lot of fun, and a great way to get people thinking and talking about art. And it gave us a reason to visit Derby again, not having been there for nearly two years as a result of Covid.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The June Journal · July 22

    What beautiful these ram sculptures!!! Mrs. P has a fabulous collection of rams too. Love these artistic ram decorations! We also have collected some cat’s figurines😉 It is very interesting to read about Derby and the rams. Thank you👏

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · July 22

      Thank you, June, pleased you enjoyed this insight into one of the more interesting initiatives our local city has come up with in recent years. Your cat figurines also sound like a lot of fun!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. magarisa · July 25

    Really enjoyed reading this and seeing your pictures of the rams along the trail. Sounds like you and Mrs P had a nice day out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · July 26

      Thank you 🙂. It was a nice treat, and all the better as it was the first time we’d felt safe enough to return to Derby since the pandemic started. We got a little bit of our old life back, if only for a few hours!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Jet Eliot · July 26

    Wonderful to see all the rams and the festival of art, each one so clever. I enjoyed the collage of rams too. Interesting post with thanks to both of you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · July 29

      Thank you for your feedback, Jet 🙂. The last 18 months have been tough and the Derby Ram Trail definitely lifted spirits, encouraging people to look beyond the pain of the pandemic and focus – albeit briefly – on some of life’s positives.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Adele Brand · July 28

    Nice to see some art and colour. I ended up in Cirencester a few weeks ago and was surprised to find brightly coloured hares in random locations, which I later learned were the remnants of a hare trail, along very similar lines to Derby’s rams. A fine Roman tapestry featuring hares has been found in Cirencester which seems to have started the association.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · July 29

      The Derby Ram Trail definitely isn’t a trailblazer. There have been similar projects in various parts of the country in recent years, including “Hoodwinked” in Nottingham, which combined themes of Robin Hood and ornithological robins (sounds a bit contrived, but worked very well in practice). But even if they’re derivative rather than innovative, in my book the rams have been a big success: they got people talking about art, and have brightened the place up a bit (and believe me, Derby really does needs all the help it can get in that department!). The hares sound great, though I suspect Cirencester needs brightening up rather less than “dear old Derby!”

      Liked by 1 person

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