James Burchill’s Blog


Having read a few years ago that, while church attendance in England had declined considerably, in Cathedrals it had increased, I was happy to do my bit for these statistics again this Christmas. I had originally planned that this would start off in Lichfield but when it turned out that there was no room in any of the inns that I contacted in that city, being able to be more flexible in my plans than some others in this situation I instead spent my first two weeks in St. Albans. The excellent music in this reputedly well-off Cathedral was heard by capacity congregations: about 3,000 total for the two identical services of Lessons and Carols and a similar total for the six services of Carols on the Hour sung by some of the various Cathedral choirs on the previous Saturday (on Sunday it was announced that Gloucester had only 2,000!). In the pleasant 600 year old hotel across the street from the Cathedral where I stayed, various of the friendly staff tried to persuade me to enjoy their Christmas dinner at £89 per person (about $160 with tip); this was put into perspective when I saw an advert for another hotel’s New Year’s dinner at £125 per person! On Boxing Day the St. Albans’ mummers performed in various parts of the city and I was treated to an excellent view from my second floor hotel room window, where I happened to be resting after a long walk, of their noon-hour performance of St. George and the Dragon etc. in the courtyard below.

Next, visits to two of my favourites: Hereford and Worcester. Neither of these had replied to my earlier emails asking if this was a good time to hear their choirs so I arrived at the former, after a four-train trip, to discover that their choir would not return until half-way through my ten-day stay, their volunteer choir, chamber choir and a sixth-form choir singing a few services in the interim. The Hereford Cathedral choir was well-disciplined, musical and alive, and my enjoyment of their sensible psalm singing was enhanced by the fact that they sang all the psalms for the day and Friday’s Evensong was without organ. In a later sermon at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, the preacher, while extolling the virtues of the choral service, mentioned that one judged the expertise of a choir not by their singing of a complex Palestrina motet but by their psalm singing which is much more difficult to do well. It was interesting to hear about the recent organist at Tewkesbury Abbey who in his will left £1,000,000 for the Abbey music.

I then travelled from the intimate charm of Hereford Cathedral to the spacious magnificence of Worcester Cathedral where the choir’s Sunday Evensong was a highlight of the week. In spite of the fine new Nicholson Organ in the Choir one could observe a Rogers in the Nave. My arrival in Worcester coincided with a drop in the temperature to freezing and this was reflected in the heat in my hotel room which took two days of radiator-turned-up-full to become bearable and longer for comfort. Other inconveniences, like no hot water for an evening, no room service for two days, and a false fire alarm were less of a problem but I wasn’t surprised to hear that this hotel chain is in receivership.

Windsor for St. George’s Chapel followed and here the choir was rather better than I had been led to expect and the organ was what I imagine a 19th century instrument to sound like though it was rebuilt in the 60s; one service was a well-attended memorial Choral Evensong for a woman of exactly my years. As a tourist I spent several hours in Windsor Castle, took a couple of bus tours, visited a museum, observed the low-flying planes for Heathrow, and I can now say that I went to Eton College.

Situated in a city like St. John’s or San Francisco where one always seems to be walking uphill, never downhill, Guildford Cathedral is situated on the highest point for miles around so has a marvellous vista in all directions. On one day the Cathedral was the venue for a very well-run valuation of antiques with a short mid-day concert by the boys of the Cathedral Choir. I spent some time there in good sight of the BBCTV cameras – I haven’t been seen on TV since the aftermath of Halifax’s hurricane a few years ago when I just happened to walk across the screen behind a gentleman who was being interviewed. The members of the girls’ choir are somewhat older than those in the boys’ choir and this was reflected in their singing; the altos were, I thought, as good as any I had heard anywhere and my week finished with an impressive service for Candlemas.

My final week in London gave me the opportunity of hearing choral services at Southwark Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Cathedral, bringing my total on this trip to 62 services [I figure I don’t have to go to church for a year], as well as six organ recitals including an excellent one by Anne Page at St. John’s, Smith Square.

James Burchill 17 February 2013