We found it quite easy to get our bearings in Southwell, England’s smallest cathedral town: one cross roads, a hotel, an excellent baker’s shop and the Minster, which has watched over the town for 900 years. Oh, and “the best preserved Victorian workhouse in England”. Life seems to have got more comfortable in the last century though – forced labour giving way to Ferraris and tweed.
With luggage safely stowed in the hotel and some huge sandwiches from the bakers, we sat on the grass outside the Minster and gazed at the splendour of the ancient building. Groups of Harlequins gathered after their various journeys and a choir formed on the green. In glorious sunshine, with wedding bells ringing out and the sound of the organ in the air, it was idyllic.
Within minutes of finishing lunch, a ‘welcome tea’ was served to us in a beautiful garden near the Minster. Oh dear. Here begins the first lesson: if you eat a large lunch and then go straight onto tea and cake, it will be very difficult to sing.
We rehearsed in the Great Hall in a mixture of excitement and nerves before filing into the Minster for Evensong. Once we were singing, everything seemed to fall into place. We sailed through the introit, processed in without anyone tripping over and even remembered to bow in the right place. The Purcell Magnificat was tricky, and perhaps the kindest thing that can be said is that we all finished at the same time!
We gathered for a meal in the refectory in the evening. Various friends, families and well wishers joined us for good food and great company. Now as a choir member of almost 20 years, I think I’m allowed to say that I noticed a considerable number of “young people” at the meal – yes, really – a new generation of Harlequins has emerged. It is great to see and strengthens our choir, but it also marks the passage of time! Back in the hotel bar, we discovered the magic potion that allows our trusty organist to reach his peak performance: port! We accompanied him dutifully….
Sunday dawned with sleepy Harlequins embarking on a full cooked breakfast before our practice in the Minster. And here begins the second lesson: it is hard enough for a tenor to sing top G on a good day, but after bacon, egg and sausage the task is quite impossible.
We sat in the centre of the Minster for the Eucharist, looking down the nave past the massive stone columns and Norman arches to the magnificent new Angel Window at the west end. We watched our conductor intently throughout the service, never taking our eyes off him, smiling at all the joyful bits in the music and engaging our audience (Peter must have been so pleased). The Hummel mass and the communion motet were the musical highlights. Feedback from listeners afterwards depended on where they had been sitting. Those at the front thought it sounded great. Those further back said they couldn’t hear us at all – but added that this was the case with all choirs! (Why don’t they sit further forward?)
After a leisurely lunch in the Saracen’s Head hotel there was time for a practice before our final Evensong, sung in the Quire. Peter M led us in great style as Cantor through Peter W’s responses before the part we’d been waiting for, Charles Wood’s canticles. Written for double choir, the music ranged from the exquisite opening of the Nunc Dimittis through to the majesty of the Glorias. We sang well, and with the choir and organ in full voice it was thrilling. A blast of Handel followed and before we knew it, we had finished.
Tired, happy and ready for a sit down, we bade our farewells and headed for home. Our sincere thanks go to
Peter W for choosing and leading us in such inspiring music and to Peter M without whose meticulous planning the weekend could not have happened. We are truly fortunate to have sung together as a choir and as friends in such a beautiful place. In 2011, our 20th year, we’re going to do it all over again – in Winchester Cathedral. It’s got a lot to live up to.