Senior Choir Day at Salisbury Cathedral, Old Sarum Castle and Bath Abbey

 After breakfast on Thursday, Mr Attwood commented that military expeditions have been organised with less paperwork, but it was a complicated day for the Senior Choir on Thursday, and paperwork does oil the wheels… …according to bureaucrats, at least. The Year 8 boys were due to climb the spire at Salisbury Cathedral in the morning, while the Year 7 boys went to Old Sarum castle, just to the north of Salisbury. Mr Attwood, Miss Powell and Miss Evans set off with 9 boys straight after Breakfast as they had to be at Salisbury Cathedral ready to start their climb at 10:30am, and Mr Pilkington and Mr Stackpoole set off 20 minutes later for their climb which began at 11:00am. Salisbury Cathedral took 38 years to build, in one continuous operation, and so it is all built in the same style, on foundations only 4 feet in depth. The boys climbed up to the inside of the west window and then walked along a wooden walkway above the ceiling vaults and under the slate roof. Once in the central tower, they were able to see all of the reinforcements put in by Sir Christopher Wren when the great weight of the spire caused the tower to start to distort in the 17th Century. They then climbed a steep set of wooden spiral stairs right up to the top of the tower, where they were able to see the intricate wooden struts that hold the 404 foot high stone spire in place. As it wasn’t windy, they then went out onto the parapet, and, although it was a misty day at that altitude, the boys could see out across the city to the hills surrounding the valley of the River Avon. Salisbury Is one of the few cathedrals without a peel of bells (a bell tower in the Cathedral Close was demolished when it threatened to collapse hundreds of years ago), but it does have one of the oldest clocks in the country, and the boys were deafened when it struck at the quarter hour just as they were passing the bells.

As the Year 8 boys were out on the parapet of the tower of the Cathedral, the Year 7 boys were looking at them from the ramparts of Old Sarum Castle, 4 miles to the north. They had travelled there with Mr Darling and Mrs Westley, having seen Stonehenge from the minibuses on the way there – you get the best view of Stonehenge from the A303, if not for long once the proposed tunnel is built. The Year 7 boys charged up and down the ramparts of the outer defences, and toured the central Norman motte and bailey castle, and inspected the foundations of the original cathedral, which was moved stone-for-stone to the ‘modern’ cathedral when the Old Sarum site came to be abandoned. They also discovered that Prime Minister William Pitt the Older had been MP for Old Sarum in the mid-18th Century, when this ‘Rotten Borough’ had no electors, but still sent two MPs to Westminster. Pitt the Older was Prime Minister when the United Kingdom defeated France to conquer India and Canada, and set the UK on course to become Number 1 Nation, and so he might be forgiven for his undemocratic seat in the House of Commons.

The next stage of the day was a rendez-vous for all of the groups at the Little Chef on the A36 at Warminster, halfway between Salisbury and Bath. The boys munched their way through their selections from the menu, before an advance guard set off with Mrs Westley to Bath Abbey, where they met Mr and Mrs Inglis and unloaded the cassocks, surplices and music and set things up for the arrival of those still munching away at the Little Chef.

Bath Cricket Club came to the rescue of a mini-crisis about parking the minibuses in Bath City Centre, and, eventually, everyone was ready to rehearse in the Song Room of the Abbey. The boys have worked really hard over the past few weeks to hone the many components of the Evensong, and Mrs Westley took them through each section. Then they put on their cassocks and rehearsed in the Abbey, drawing quite an audience of appreciative tourists.

Then it was the section of the day that some boys had been preparing for for a number of weeks. It was time for retail therapy… …of the edible variety. Boys had to weigh up the deliciousness of the ‘Real Italian Ice-Cream Company’ on a chilly afternoon with the longer queues at the ‘Famous Fudge Shop’, whereas some staff were happier with the delights of Costa Coffee. 

Full of recuperative sugar, the boys then robed up again and prepared for the Evensong. The service went off perfectly. From the introit of ‘Lead me Lord’, through the Psalm and Responses and the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Tertius Noble the boys sang accurately and sensitively. A special mention must be made of Benedict , who took on the role of cantor, and was note-perfect throughout the Collects and Responses, in a huge Abbey church with a magnificent acoustic. The highlight of the Evensong was, perhaps, the anthem of Howard Goodall’s modern setting of Charles Wesley’s famous hymn ‘Love Divine’. Mr Westley played a rousing Gordon Jacob organ voluntary on the vast Bath Abbey organ, as the boys processed out for a final prayer from the Priest-in-Charge in the South Trancept. They then filed back in to the High Altar for a commemorative photograph.

In a wonderful example of what can be achieved by teamwork in a short period of time, all of the cassocks, surplices, music and packed suppers were loaded into one of the school vehicles, and those parents who had come to the Evensong collected their boys, and the rest set off back along the M4 to Elstree.

The Evensong at Bath Abbey is always one of the highlights of the Elstree Senior Choir’s year, and this was a truly memorable day with the expeditions in and around Salisbury in the morning, and such a wonderful service at Bath Abbey in the evening. The boys rose to a challenging programme of music under the expert and sympathetic instruction and guidance of Mrs Westley.

RNMD