Of Psalms and Scrabble

Nick Gower recalls his week in Chester

Having been on the last seven singing holidays, I thought I knew what to expect from this years visit to Chester Cathedral. But two things made this visit very different. Firstly, I had never heard of Chester so didnt even know where it was, let alone what sort of outings we would be going on. Secondly, it was my first choir holiday singing on the back row of the choir. I knew there would be a bit more freedom without having to stick with the other boys, and that the singing would be a little more challenging, what with sight reading most of the music. But it was far more different from what I expected

The journey up to Chester was long and arduous, but was made easier by listening to Englands emphatic victory overAustralia, in the fourth test of an otherwise dismal Ashes series. I arrived in the late afternoon with Dad, Edward and Paul Hewett (with whom I would be sharing a room, along with David Hewett and Nick Brook). The school was virtually invisible from the road, owing to a line of tall trees and bushes. We were guided around to the back of the building by a helpful member of the school staff, who waved us up a narrow driveway to the limited parking facilities.

The school was small and had very little in the way of grounds for ball games, as Dick had warned the Choir and supporters some weeks before. We were shown to our room at the top of an extremely narrow staircase and soon unpacked ready for supper.

Chester High Street

If we thought the grounds were cosy, the dining room was something else! All fifty-odd hungry members of the choir and supporters crammed into the small room at the rear of the school, only to be greeted by portions of lasagne more suited to the resident ballerinas than famished choirboys. After the customary welcomes and briefing, Nick, Paul and I left to explore the city and find the nearest McDonalds.

We returned home by nine oclock ready for the late evening game of Scrabble, which has now become almost as much of a tradition as the holiday itself. As per-usual, games were dominated by Margaret Stott and Tim Rogerson (whos score announcements became more elaborate and loud as the week progressed). One thing I had learnt from previous holidays was that the first night is always disrupted by the over excited choirboys, but this year was to be an exception to the usual rule. After a very quiet first night (largely thanks to Stephen Browns unquestioned authority) we assembled in the dining room for a rather more generously portioned breakfast.

Nick (left) with friends
Paul Hewett and Nick Brook

The first practice is always a telling one, and considering the long break singing together, the choir sounded very confident. The psalm singing (which was for many people a highlight of the week) was started in grand fashion with forty-two verses of Psalm 119. The first trip was a walk to the Jubilee Tower, on top of Moelfamau, an 1818 ft (554 m) high peak not far from Chester. The first evensong went very smoothly, impressing the clergy and congregation for whom we were the first visiting choir this summer. The portion sizes for the evening meal were a little better, but the catering staff had still under-catered.

After another good nights sleep, a short practice and trip over the Pont Cysyllte aqueduct on the Llangollen canal, the second Evensong again went without a hitch. For Paul Hewett, Laura Brown and Jenna Williams and I, Thursday was the day we got our GCSE results. All had done very well and in the evening the Gowers, Hewetts and Brooks went to celebrate in one of the citys many pubs. Thursday night is also midnight feast night for the choirboys, who again behaved impeccably under Stephens martial rule.

Friday was another first for me; the mens voice evensong. The close acoustic of Chester Cathedral is ideally suited to the softer singing and close harmonies of the Byrd Three-part mass that was performed extremely sensitively, along with Boyces The Lord is King. After a much more successful supper of steak pie, Nick, Paul and I went into Chester to watch the newly released Planet of the Apes (perhaps the only truly disappointing part of the whole week) at the local Odeon cinema, before returning for yet more Scrabble.

Saturday saw the unavoidable steam train ride, this time through the breath taking scenery of the Welsh valleys. However, a late change to train timetables left the Vicar standing on the platform, half an hour after the trains departure. The music for evensong was deliberately loud before a more reflective Sunday service. One of the highlights of my week was going into the cathedral on Saturday evening to turn pages for Tim Rogerson while he practised the music for Sunday. The high organ loft gave a panoramic view of the cathedral from the north transept and the high gothic arches were even more spectacular in the dim light coming from the windows at the West end.

Sunday morning was an early start and straight to the cathedral. The Sung Eucharist (with a superbly written and delivered sermon) was followed by Mattins. After the standard packed lunch in the Cathedral Close, we embarked on a walk around Chesters Roman walls (the only city in England to have complete city walls). With some fantastic views over the canal, weir and racecourse, the walk made for a nice breather before the final service.

I left with my family on Sunday evening, missing what I have been told was a very good last night. All in all, the whole week was a huge success. Singing on the back row of the choir has been a revelation in many ways, and I am already looking forward to next years holiday in Southwell.