Minster moments that brought culture from the pub to pulpit

Concerted effort: the Minster has been at the musical heart of Croydon for over a thousand years, but has largely been bypassed by the council-run Borough of Culture

It had little to do with Croydon, apart from providing a venue for its latest stop on a national tour, but veteran arts reviewer BELLA BARTOCK’s first encounter with an event tacked on to the Borough of Culture left her most impressed, especially by the nyckelharpa

Pub to Pulpit: less of a slogan, more of a warning – ‘This, treacle, is Croydon’

When my nephew Kenny dropped us just outside the Reeves furniture store (he blamed me for forgetting to book a parking space for the Rolls, of all things!), Claudia and I had a short walk along Minster Green for our concert in the church.

Although the weather was rather warm, and I knew very well I was not having a hot flush (those days are far behind me, thank heavens!), we were pleased to feel it much cooler inside the old stone building. Claudia de Boozy, my oldest friend from our school days together, and I were looking forward to our first night out in a while.

Claudia tells me she’s not so good on her feet as she used to be, so she put her arm through mine as we walked.

“I feel a bit guilty,” she said, “that we’re halfway through 2023, and I haven’t been able to support the Croydon Year of Culture yet.

“Have you been to any of the events so far?” Claudia asked me, as we took our seats in the pews, a discreet four rows back.

I had to admit that I had not.

It didn’t seem easy to find out what events were planned and I had to confess to Claudia that it was only through a singing friend of mine that I had even found out about this “From Pub to Pulpit” concert at the Minster.

They had told me all about Coracle and Broomdasher, the music groups performing at the concert, and how Pub to Pulpit was a national tour of cathedrals and Minsters, involving hundreds of singers, turning folk songs into hymns to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The concerts had been on the road since Chester last September, and are due to finish in Gloucester this July.

Nyckelharpa: Coracle’s performance included rarely seen instruments, and bright pink platform shoes

So nothing to do with Croydon’s Borough of Culture, really.

“But it is culture,” I assured Claudia, “and it most definitely is in Croydon.”

The programmes for the event carried the foreboding, threatening 2023 Borough of Culture logo, which looked like it had been knocked up in half an hour by someone in the ad department of a small circulation local paper.

“This,” the slogan tells us, “is Croydon”, I assume delivered in the menacing tone of some tough-guy fictional character such as a nine-bob EastEnders pub landlord, who might add the endearment “treacle” to somehow sweeten their passive-aggressive warning.

It seemed so out of place as I looked about the Minster’s classy and cultured Gothic-style architecture.

Claudia perked up when I told her there were two folk groups, as well as the Minster’s acclaimed choir, and that the organ would be blasting out at some point. Claudia has always had a liking for a nice, big organ.

From our pew, we were able to watch some of the audience arriving. Claudia is a real people watcher. “Look at that lady walking along. She has the most lovely dress and a bow in her hair. And there’s a couple coming, I think they must be folk club types.”

When I asked Claudia what she meant by that, I was surprised at her reply. “Oh, I used to go to a lot of folk clubs back in the 70s.” She’d kept that quiet when admiring the Donny Osmond posters on the wall of my bedsit. “Ralph McTell and his Streets of London is one of my all-time favourites,” she said.

“It’s based on Surrey Street and Church Street,” she told me. “I had a thing for him because he was born in Croydon.”

On the other side of the aisle, a couple of rows further forward from us, was the Mayor and Mayoress. We assumed that was who they were, because of the chains of office. The Mayor looks like the kind of fellow for whom “culture” would usually only be found growing at the bottom of his unwashed tea mug.

“He’ll be enjoying a fair few freebie nights out, and a few freebie drinks, too, over the coming months,” Claudia said, nudging me in the ribs with her bony elbow.

I got back to reading my programme, where it informed me how, during his lifetime, Vaughan Williams had collected more than 800 traditional, mostly old English, folk tunes, and then used them in all sorts of music as well as turning them into hymns.

The first half of the concert was a sort of ping-pong between the two folk groups. I have to say that whoever came up with the name of Broomdasher for the acapella singing group deserves much credit. They sung the folk songs very well, explaining their history and whereabouts they originated from.

New discoveries: the Pub to Pulpit concert was an all-round delight

When the other group, Coracle, came on, Claudia nearly fell off her seat. She wasn’t much interested in the accordionist but his musical partner was something else.

“Look at that girl’s shoes!” she whispered, but far too loudly, “they’re electric pink platforms!”

I know you can’t judge a musician by their footwear, but this young lady, Anna Tam, certainly made an impact even before the music started. She had a stunning voice, but it was when she began to play her various stringed instruments that the audience became hooked.

Claudia was riveted. So was I. The highlight for both of us was when Tam played the nyckelharpa, a Swedish “keyed fiddle”. I hadn’t seen one of those since father had been posted to Stockholm during his spell in the diplomatic service, but I never remember it being played like this. The nyckelharpa and the accordian blended together so well.

As well as our programmes, the kindly woman on the door had given us a coupon for a complimentary glass of wine in the interval. That’s what I call looking after your audience.

As the first-half ended, Claudia moved swiftly to get her glass of not-quite-chilled-enough white wine. I get exasperated with her sometimes. One minute she needs an arm to steady her, but when there’s a free drink to be had, she’s off like a shot.

She was only second in the queue this time, though. The Mayor had got there first…

When we got back to our seats with our pinot grigios for the second half, one of the Broomdasher group explained how the next part would work.

They would sing the folk song that Vaughan Williams discovered, Coracle would mash it up a bit with their instrumental arrangement, before the church organ would blast out a hymn tune which we could all join in with, being led by the choir.

I was sceptical about how this might all work, and I sensed Claudia thought that, too.

Thirty minutes later, both of us looked at each other with an expression of “Wow, that was brilliant!”

The last of the three tunes which they mixed and mashed together was a firm favourite He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster, a hymn we had sung together many times in our school hall. Neither of us knew that the tune was from a folk song in which a girl was imploring their sweetheart not to go and fight in a war far from home.

Tune hunter: Ralph Vaughan Williams

It turns out that Vaughan Williams had transcribed the old tune from listening to a woman, a Mrs Harriet Verrall, in a place called Monks Gate in Sussex about 120 years ago. The tune sung millions of times since, in churches, school assemblies, even at state funerals, has been called “Monks Gate” ever since.

The Minster choir, their voices clear and resonant, were just the lead that we in the audience needed. When the thundering notes of the organ started, it made the back of my neck tingle. Claudia belted out the last line of each verse with gusto, “To. Be. A. Pilgrim!”

I must confess there was a little tear in the corner of my eye as I remembered school friends of mine who will have sung this with us in our long-lost youth, and are no longer with us.

After the audience had given the musicians a richly deserved round of applause, Claudia nudged me and said, “Let’s go down to the front and see that Anna Tam. I want to tell her something.” She winked, which would have been unbecoming anywhere, but especially here.

I thought for a moment that Claudia was going to compliment the young lady about her electric pink shoes. But Anna’s face lit up when Claudia told her how much she appreciated her lovely voice and what interesting instruments she played.

You can always tell how well a concert has gone by the buzz of conversation afterwards, and this was certainly the case after Pub to Pulpit.

Kenny was there to meet us in the Roller and as we drove Claudia home, we agreed we must try to get to some more of the culture events.

“Aren’t there some giraffes to go and see, too?” asked Claudia. I pretended I didn’t hear, as we had just had such a lovely evening and I didn’t want to being her down to Earth with a bump about the less well-delivered This is Croydon nonsense.

We got back to her house and she thanked me for a lovely evening. As she closed the car door, I could have sworn she started to hum Monks Gate. Ear worms, I think that’s what they call them.

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1 Response to Minster moments that brought culture from the pub to pulpit

  1. chris myers says:

    Brilliant piece, thanks Bella. I see you have fallen for the old ‘nyckelharpa’ trick that the Swedes play on foreigners! As your will find out, a ‘nyckelharpa’ is more correctly a term of ridicule for someone who affects cultural airs and graces.

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