Easter is always a busy time for cathedral musicians and this year was no exception with choral services on every day of the Triduum and Festival Eucharist and Evensong on Easter Sunday itself. There was also a liturgical performance of Charles Wood’s St Mark Passion on the evening of Good Friday.
However in the minds of 26 young choristers, all of this was a mere prelude to something much more exciting: the prospect of an epic voyage by land and sea to a distant country, sleeping in bunk beds for four nights and to cap it all, missing a day of school. Yes the Cathedral Choir was on tour in Wales, and specifically St Davids (with no apostrophe), the smallest city in the UK and its medieval cathedral.
The full party was of 40 people, including supervisors, adult singers and Canon Daniel Nuzum representing the Dean and Chapter of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral. The coach journey from Cork to Rosslare passed by very quickly as spirits were high, and then everyone boarded the early evening Stenaline crossing to Fishguard. The boat was exceptionally quiet and they had exclusive the use of the amusement arcade! Four hours and a plate of chicken nuggets later they landed and drove the short distance to St Davids and the accommodation in the dark.
The next morning everyone was delighted to see that the St Davids Bunk Barns owners had supplied them with a full cooked breakfast before they headed down to the cathedral for a guided tour. Pilgrimage and the shrine of St David are major themes inside and the tag line ‘turning visitors into pilgrims’ is clearly displayed. The guide linked St David to St Patrick and pointed out snakes, shamrocks, leeks and daffodils. There are also several examples of the pilgrim’s scallop shell around the cathedral, the shell which has lines all leading to the same point.
After lunch and exploration around the sweet shops of St Davids it was then time to rehearse for the first service of the tour, Evensong in the Quire area of the cathedral. The choir are used to singing in a very open space in St Fin Barre’s with the sound disappearing in all directions. The Quire of St Davids is rather more intimate and enclosed in beautiful wooden carved stalls, making the singing a totally different acoustic experience. They were required to sing all 43 verses of Psalm 107 which was a shock to the systems, although it does aptly include the verse ‘they that go down to the sea in ships’. Please note that there was no staggering like drunken men at any point during the visit.
The day off from singing was Saturday, although the choir squeezed in an early morning rehearsal at the Bunk Barns before traveling to the seaside resort of Tenby for the day. The plan to take a boat trip to the monastic Caldey Island was scuppered by the weather, although they were told it was the tide that was the problem rather than wind or rain. Everyone spent some time on the beach instead, playing volleyball and even building a scale model of St Davids Cathedral in the sand.
An early night seemed like a good idea as Sunday began at 9.30am for a rehearsal in the cathedral before the first of the two services that day. Unusually for the choir the principal morning service was Matins and they had diligently been learning Britten’s Te Deum and Jubilate in C major specifically for the tour.
Ms Phoebe Chow ( Assistant Director of Music) was at the organ and the choir was in the Nave for this service. After a glorious afternoon in the sun (sleeping off roast dinner in some cases) everyone returned for Evensong with a sermon delivered by Canon Nuzum. He picked up on the theme of pilgrimage once again and indeed presented each of the choristers with a scallop shell on a chain as a memento of their visit.
There were some sleepy eyes on the return journey, both young and old, after five days of working hard and playing hard. For many it was the first time away from home and although they had thoroughly enjoyed themselves it was nice to return to a bedroom not shared by seven other children and to their families. There is the next visit to look forward to after all!