In 1996 the choir ventured abroad for the first time, to Epsom's twin-town Chantilly, near Paris. Since then, a long summer weekend 'tour' has become part of the programme and the Society has visited Chantilly, Ghent, Bruges, Beauvais, Klagenfurt, Norfolk, the Lake District, Aix-en-Provence, Bristol, Rouen, Barcelona, Lille, Caen, Lucca, Bruges, Utrecht, Reims and in 2012, Ypres

Ypres 2012

Written by Deb and Peter Humphreys

Supremely boring and bourgeois? - or submissive, surreal and salacious? - Belgium or the Choir? Well, Belgium, has been described in both these ways … but we give the country a big thumbs up as we thoroughly enjoyed the Choir’s trip to this interesting place.

Day 1 – Chunnel Crossing

Early Thursday morning, the double deck coach, with Jules at the helm again, absorbed the troops effortlessly. By 09.00 we were trundling down the M25, towards the shuttle terminal at Folkestone wondering what Teresa May would do with us at Border Security. In fact an unexpected fate awaited us for, as Duncan happily read his book The Art of Slow Travel, we learned that no shuttle place had actually been booked. Sarah was unflappable in the crisis and calmly took charge

Luckily Fate smiled on us. Sunshine struck out as we unpacked our lunches and ruminated on how an international coach company can fail to perceive the need to pre-book a shuttle ticket for either coach or driver. A one-way ticket would be understandable and perhaps pragmatic as the coach did not make it back last year, but an export licence surely was a must, even in the European Union?

So the Choristers, et al, excited by a four-hour delay, banqueted al fresco, using Chunnel picnic tables and flirted with fiendishly hot sunshine. Why were we travelling under the sea to ever–grey Belgium when summer had arrived in Kent? It’s Wimbledon Fortnight!

Eventually we got under way. We shot out of the Chunnel at Calais and forged our way across continental soil, ignoring every corner of these foreign fields, determined to reach Ypres before the chef went off-shift.

Dinner at Flanders Lodge was consumed with gusto, Adrian relishing the thought of lots of Belgian puddings and pastries to come. While some of us continued to worry whether Jules would have a Room in the Inn – being part of an industrial park meant there was no room for a stable – most of us concentrated on fighting their bedroom aircon, thermostat and TV controls. Thank goodness we were still 24 hours from singing.

Day 2 – Poperinge And Menin Gate

Friday was our nearly care-free day. This was good because an invisible hotel cockerel decided to start cheering the new day about 03.00 hours – I am told. However, as most of us had taken our hearing aids out, why should we be concerned?

ECS launched a triple assault on Belgium in the morning. One platoon descended on Ypres without any motorised support; another thrust its way into the St Bernardus Brewery at Watou; another reconnoitred Pops (Poperinge). The latter visited a hop museum but also undertook an intriguing mission at gentle Talbot House.

Talbot House in Poperinge is a handsome 18th century hop merchant’s town house, which was taken over by Tubby Clayton, an army chaplain, and set up as a place of rest and relaxation for the troops away from the front line in the First World War. Here men of all ranks, "Every Man’s Club", could meet friends, play chess and the piano, and borrow books from the library (leaving their army cap as a deposit). Outside, the walled garden with its shady trees provided a tranquil haven for the battle weary men. Though still in use as a hostel today, TOC H (TOC was the British Army signaller's code for T, and H was H), the place seems hardly to have changed, and it was very moving to imagine the men who came there. The Yorkshire warden gave us big pots of tea with creamy milk and Sheila set to with the washing up.

We were now starting to adjust to Belgium café culture. We find Belgian humour is often bizarre; sometimes surreal, if not downright weird. You never know when Magritte will play a little joke on you. You must always look twice at a statue. Eating at Pops, surrounded by portraits of eminent gentlefolk, and the famous "Ginger", the troops’ sweetheart, we were under constant surveillance by several statuettes of dog people, which can be a disturbing experience. It’s best not to notice! Focus on the chocolate dessert, as M Poirot would – which many did.

And then there is the language. "They’re greedy with their vowels here" said Josie, wrestling with Flemish names.

We all visited the Flanders Fields Museum at Ypres in the afternoon, within the glorious (replica) medieval Cloth Hall. This set the scene for our evening appointment at the Menin Gate.

Ypres is a magnificent testimony to humanity's resilience. Virtually in rubble by 1918, it has been carefully reconstructed to retain its former medieval city feel. But does it have a vibrant, pounding heart?

Well hearts were pounding in rehearsal at the Novotel as Robin clearly had a suspiciously keen interest in TV and the semi-final happenings on Centre Court, back in Merrie England – is he a betting man, we wondered? Rehearsal went at unparalleled speed, but was Murray batting for Britain or Scotland?

Menin Gate

Our first performance took place that evening at the Menin Gate, the eastern entrance to the old walled city of Ypres. It was a ceremony few will forget

The enormous archway, with its vast lists of WW1 men "Missing in Action" in West Flanders, forms a daunting but magnificent limestone cavern. ECS huddled in the centre, amongst a dense crowd. There were at least 700 people gathered underneath this forbidding arch, many of them English schoolchildren. As the hour arrived, Silence reigned. Four Belgian bugles froze the throng before flags were slowly lowered; then raised. Our choir sang superbly. The ceremony concluded with the laying of wreaths, mostly by schoolchildren, but Juliet was chosen to be the last to lay, on behalf of ECS.

Many a tear slipped out, even from the youngsters, such was the solemnity and beauty of the music, and the emotion of the occasion. It was a proud moment for ECS

Day 3 -- Diksmuide

There were no commitments planned for Saturday morning so ECS, off the leash, did its own thing. Many of us galloped into Ypres to explore the streetlife. Where was Belgium’s Banksy?

As so often in Belgium, a massive market had magicked itself onto the Grand Place overnight, yet by 14.00 it had nigh on disappeared again. The Knights Templar, as well as various fascinating small museums, lurked in these quaint, cobbled, medieval streets. The lovely Municipal Museum, formerly medieval almshouses, contained a fine art gallery of local artists' work, for those who like brushing with the past. These streets - which do feel medieval – seem almost too quiet to be true. There is no whirligig of traffic in this walled city – lucky Flanders!

ECS continued its café culture studies of (i) Belgian food and (ii) Belgians at lunch, before boarding the coach for a trip to a chocolate factory, near Diksmuide. Most of us were anticipating a Willy Wonka experience, but our young and cheery Belgian chocolatier was intent on educating us. Chat, videos, chat, questions, a teasing tasting, money – what happened to afternoon naps?

Diksmuide, like Ypres, had been utterly devastated in the Great War and had similarly been entirely rebuilt in the 1920s. Even the massive medieval church is a wonder-filled rebuild.

After a short rehearsal, ECS joined in the plainsong chants during Mass, and also performed a few special motets. The chocolatier kept his promise to come to Mass and give thanks to the bounty of the afternoon. The priests and congregation were remarkably appreciative and friendly with wine and other refreshment after.

The subsequent dinner in a handsome hotel, opposite the church, proved a splendid banquet. Extra helpings of soup and chicken proved irresistible to many. St Bernadus (Prior 8 for those with a technical interest) also made his jovial presence felt. Good cheer, and speeches, abounded. ECS is feeling good …………..…. but the cockerel was waiting for us.

Day 4 – Ypres Cathedral

Sunday. Our last day in Belgium! Would the cockerel survive les Anglais? The commercial prospects of the Lodge do not sound good when his searing cries haunt their customers' dreams. But in these peace-loving times we left him intact; still unseen, but in fine humour and voice.

Plan B now took effect, i.e. we now had shuttle tickets booked, but a good two hours later than Plan A. This meant a visit to Tyne Cot cemetery was added in, and very welcome too.

Singing calms the nerves though, particularly when there is a serious Belgian lunch slot scheduled in the Grand Place.

Most of the day was committed to Ypres Cathedral. It began with an ominous, torrential downpour. Undaunted, we skated through a brief rehearsal to adjust to the cathedral acoustics, then in to morning Mass, with a short secular concert after lunch, topped off by a tumultuous organ voluntary from Robin.

The coach journey through Paschendale to splendid Tyne Cot was very beautiful, passing many wonderfully cultivated arable fields en route, including two devoted to rhubarb, (no wonder we have a special affinity for Belgium) as well as many small cemeteries, tucked away, tidily. It’s a tidy country, with wind turbine sentinels everywhere. Not an acre wasted; set-aside unknown.

Tyne Cot commemorates the heavy losses of many Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and British in this part of the Ypres Salient in 1917-8. The cemetery is singularly lovely, and includes simple but dramatic monuments by the architects Blomfield and Lutyens. The garden is beautifully kept and the most picturesque we encountered in Flanders Fields. A very effective and moving memorial to finish our tour.

Summary and thanks

So another splendid choir adventure closes its last page. From the newcomers’ perspective, it has been great fun and a marvellous opportunity to expand camaraderie and dynamics within the choir, as well as revisit that warm, civilised feeling that Belgium always diffuses. Beef, beer, rain, beautifully-spoken English, good manners – it could be England (remember the Angevin Empire was here). "Stuff Happens" on any tour, so it’s good to know that Sarah is poised to pick up all the pieces.

None of this occurs without prodigious efforts by many people, but particular mention must be made of Mike (Chief Planner), Sarah (future Shuttle Ticket Collector), Jules (Coach Driver), Juliet (Wreath Placer) and inevitably, our conductor and favourite organist, Robin Kimber, who made Ypres Cathedral shake.

And of course, the ever smiling St Bernadus.

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