EXETER: 8th-10th April 2016
As a Brit, a highlight for me on this choir tour has undoubtedly been seeing some parts of England that were previously unfamiliar to me. I had never – to my memory – been inside Winchester Cathedral, nor had I visited Salisbury or Exeter (going through Exeter St David’s on the train doesn’t count). Having been a longstanding member of the choirs at Westminster, Winchester and Exeter cathedrals, Warren’s extant connections to these fine establishments have enabled the Choir to perform there during our tour, thus getting a taste of English cathedral life. We are very grateful to him for all that he has arranged by way of performances, travel and accommodation.
We reached Exeter by coach from Winchester (where we sang from 6th-8th April), via Salisbury and its cathedral, where we had one hour to look around (having also seen Stonehenge en route). I knew almost nothing about Exeter before we arrived, except to say that I knew it had a famous cathedral. Perhaps the main reason I had not heard much about the city is because so much of it was decimated during World War II such that, despite various rebuilding exercises, it is fair to say that in this respect it has never quite recovered. Nonetheless, there remains a charm to the city and some lovely things to see. We stayed in a Premier Inn 5 minutes’ walk from the cathedral, which was clean and comfortable.
The cathedral itself is a sight to behold, standing alone on a green in the centre of the town. Among other factors of distinguishing significance, it has the longest unbroken stretch of Gothic vaulting in the world; two Norman towers; the tallest bishop’s throne in the world which, along with the Choir stalls, is beautifully carved of wood; a mediaeval gallery from which musicians used to perform (and which we viewed); a beautiful organ from 1665, which includes a rank of 32 foot stop Contra Violone pipes in the cathedral south transept (which when necessary lend oomph to proceedings!); and several significant marble tombstones and memorials, not least one to erstwhile organist of the cathedral, and well known composer of Anglican choral repertoire, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, and one to the curiously named ‘Rev’d Nutcombe Nutcombe’.
The Choir very much enjoyed singing several services over a three day period: evensong twice, and Sunday Choral Eucharist. The latter was interesting because we had to sing in the open as it were: there is a contemporary wooden altar in the middle of the cathedral; we were seated on chairs in a semi-circle facing the West end of the cathedral, and sang all our music in this formation.
In terms of the city itself, as aforementioned sadly much was destroyed in the War. However, I visited two remaining mediaeval churches (though there may be others): St Stephen’s and St Martin’s. The latter is situated on the corner of an ancient street as well as facing out onto the equally ancient cathedral close, and is of an interesting stone, reddish in hue. It was founded in 1065 and, though small, has some interesting memorials. St Stephen’s is mediaeval but gradually fell into ruin (not to mention also being damaged in the war) over the centuries. Unfortunately almost nothing except the principal building shape remains though during its restoration some interesting archaeological finds were made, which are documented within the church. However it has been completely restored on the inside, thus enabling the church to be used regularly within the community, especially for charities of all kinds.
Exeter’s cathedral close itself is still host to an array of mediaeval buildings and is very pretty; some are of the aforementioned red-brown colour; some are whitewashed. In terms of our social excursions, before one of the evensong rehearsals some of the Choir greatly enjoyed a traditional Devonshire cream tea in Tea on the Green, which is a lovely old tea room on the green. But our social highlight was undoubtedly our last night in the city, Sunday 10th April, where we were invited to dinner by Warren’s old friends Phil and Nicky Hobbs. The Choir arrived en masse at their delightful hilltop home with open fire, where they hosted us alongside several of their good friends. Phil and Nicky were extremely warm towards us, and we were treated to an absolutely wonderful dinner after which we sang a couple of songs for their entertainment. It was hugely convivial, a lot of fun, and a great opportunity to see something of the “real” Exeter. We are very grateful to Warren, Phil and Nicky for their kindness in arranging this.
In sum, our visit to Exeter gave us some valuable new connections, rounded out our experience of a majestic and varied set of mediaeval English cathedrals (Westminster Abbey and Winchester having come before), and prepared us appropriately for the splendour of those on the Continent.
Isabella Woods – soprano