Paul Bland remembers… St Mary’s Church

Angels and demons...

St Mary’s Church had been a focal point since it opened in 1885. Designed by the architect responsible for St Matthews and, effectively, a quarter-sized replica of that edifice, its purpose was to cater for the spiritual needs of the sizeable population which grew up with the coming of the railway. My parents had married there in 1936 and my sister, and then brother followed suit almost 30 years later. It was inevitable that I would become drawn into its congregation. My Certificate of Baptism testifies to the fact that water was trickled on me there but I can remember little else until, aged 8,  I was admitted to the choir on Advent Sunday, 6th December 1960. I think because my brother was a long-term member of the choir, I avoided the traditional initiation: being hurled into the gorse bush in the garden of the library on the other side of Towcester Road.

There was an audition. Hopefuls were invited to attend a practice, then sing a verse or two. Those who could both read and hold the tune were invited to join. Those who couldn’t invariably became Servers. This was a significant role as the Server got to hold the Processional Cross aloft and lead in the choir and priests. The skills included not dropping it, holding it at the correct angle and, most importantly, not wedging it in the top of the doorway of the screen en-route to the altar. Mostly, this was achieved without incident but there were occasional glitches as an audible ‘clunk’ signalled contact with the woodwork, followed by a gentle tug to release the pointy end before forward progress was resumed without too much giggling from the tail-gating choristers. So it was that my unmelodic mates Howard Cooke, Brian ‘Brillo’ Brinklow, John ‘Pod’ Lloyd and David Bates assumed this role, which also included a bit of ‘housekeeping’ as the priest celebrated the Communion. I had to do it once when, owing to the complete absence of the Servers, I was briefly seconded to lead everyone in. It wasn’t quite as easy as it looked but no-one was injured!

Walter Roberts was the organist and choirmaster and he presided over his motley band of vocalists during 30-minute practices on Monday and Wednesday evenings, and a full hour on a Friday, for the second half of which we were joined by ‘The Men’. Of course, he had to call time on the impromptu football games which invariably began when enough of us had gathered; then, bikes securely chained to the noticeboard, we trooped through the vestry and took station in the seats adjacent to the piano and commenced rehearsal. Fully attired in blue cassocks, white surplices and rigidly-starched ruffs, we plied our trade in public for the two scheduled Sunday services: Eucharist at 9.00 am and Evensong at 6.30 pm. Additional paid engagements on Saturdays during the wedding season allowed us to pocket the magnificent sum of 2/6 as compensation for the 30-minute interruption to whatever else we might have been doing. We also received a quarterly remuneration for our, mostly, tuneful interruptions to the spoken business of Praising the Lord but this was insufficient to excite the Mandarins at the local tax office.

I recollect some names from that time, including John Slade, Head Chorister, who had a large model railway layout in the attic of his parents’ house on London Road. He and I once invested 1/6d each in a return ticket from Bridge Street Station to Wellingborough for a day’s trainspotting. (Of course, I still have the Ian Allan ABC and a list of numbers from that day.) Michael ‘Taffy’ Mewis, Paul ‘Puggins’ Page, Michael Church, Patrick Bolt, Richard ‘Dick’ Roberts, son of the choirmaster, Charles Marsh, son of the vicar, Duncan Faulkner and, later, his brother Andrew. Then came ‘The Men’ who provided the alto, tenor and bass parts to complement our youthful soprano: Walter Lamberton, Tom Law, Don Prior, my brother, and Alf Ballard, whose tremulating alto solo of ‘Thou Visitest The Earth’ earned us a right telling off from Mr Roberts as, to a man, or rather boy, we all burst out laughing!

Another rebuke came from the Reverend Bazil Marsh’s sermon one Sunday evening when he accused us publicly of trashing the daffodils in the garden alongside the main church building. We took it stoically as group loyalty prevented us from ratting on the guilty party, his own son Charles, who had taken considerable pleasure in riding his younger brother’s tricycle the length of the bed, so flattening the whole lot.

Those familiar with the interior of St Mary’s might remember the wooden screen which used to segregate the choir stalls and altar from the main body of the building. I believe it has now been re-located. It was a real boon for us, concealing the activities necessary to keep us awake during the frequently interminable, mind-numbing sermons. Service sheets provided conveniently-sized drawing pads, while volumes from our small library of pocket-sized comic books could be passed around without attracting attention. Occasionally one of ‘The Men’, seated in the rear stalls would be overcome by self-righteousness and administer a discreet clip around the ear, or make a complaint to Mr Roberts. However, as a schoolteacher, he understood children and knew that a little lee-way encouraged a decent return in loyalty. He, of course, had his music to look at as a happy diversion from the fire and brimstone being projected at the faithful, always fewer in number than in the morning devotions. Even the Far Cotton Faithful had their limits.

Psalms were practised and the occasional anthem prepared, but the hymns we rehearsed charted our way through the year. We knew most of them off by heart, the words of the Victorians hoping to rhyme their way into an eventual better place, and the tunes, some uplifting and optimistic, others simply repetitive dirges. Those dark, satanic mills had a lot to answer for. I always enjoyed the build-up to Christmas as the music became more cheerful and there was the prospect of the Midnight Mass; something a little different and a genuine reason to stay up late. I got to sing the solo first verse of ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ before we processed from the vestry in the Church Rooms via the rear of the church and up to the stalls, I’m not sure we were ever trusted to attempt walking and singing simultaneously.

Typically a Sunday service would begin with the tolling of the Summoning Bell (St Mary’s only boasts two, historically referred to as ‘The Bucket’ and ‘The Kettle’), then the organist would commence the Introit and the mellow sounds of the 1884 Walker Organ now, alas, no more, would quieten the congregation. As the choir vestry door opened the Server, hopefully, would lead us all round to the steps and we would assume our respective positions before the organ sounded the melody of the hymn and we would all give it our best shot. There was one of ‘The Men’, who shall remain nameless, who frequently became so immersed in the proceedings and indifferent to everyone else that he would literally boom out his part and derail the whole shooting match. I guess every choir has a character something like that.

Those eight years passed quite quickly. I, in my turn, became Head Chorister and wore the coveted Red Ribbon with its slightly quirky medallion and had my own stall. Then maturity, or something like it, decreed that I could no longer hit the high notes, although I was mercifully spared the embarrassing indignity of my voice breaking, it simply changed gradually. It was time to hang up my cassock and surplice for the last time, return my carefully-looked-after copy of ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ and look for a seat amongst the groundlings. I considered taking the traditional route, a few months off then becoming one of ‘The Men’ when my voice had decided in which tonal register it would be most comfortable but with sixth-form education in the offing and other distractions beckoning I sensed that my time within that St Matthew’s sibling was drawing to a close.

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