40 years of music in the Wychwoods

wychwoodchoirThe Cotswold hills – and valleys – are alive with the sound of music.  For many years, our communities have resonated with music of all types.  The choirs are well known and well liked but that’s not the whole picture.  Instrumental players abound, performing in and around the area, while there is a thriving folk club in Ascott.  But let’s start with the choirs.

When Stewart Taylor, an experienced organist and choirmaster, came to live locally in 1985, the choir at St Mary’s church consisted of, in his words, ‘a few older ladies, one dedicated teenage girl and an old gentleman.’  This did not look promising.  However, the vicar, Graham Canning, was an enthusiast and keen musician so growth in the Sunday School and the congregation was accompanied by encouragement to join the choir.  When Stewart became Musical Director of the Chipping Norton Choral Society, further contacts were exploited leading to increasingly occupied choir stalls at St Mary’s.  Under Stewart’s tutelage, the choir gained in confidence and expertise.  When he moved away in 2002, replaced by current choirmaster Bernard West, he had clearly prepared the groundwork for future development.

The February/March 2020 issue of this magazine charted the choir’s progress since Stewart’s departure so little more needs saying at this point.  Suffice to say, the choir has made a CD, has sung in several cathedrals, and its offshoot a capella group, ambiguously named ‘Eight in a Bar’, demonstrates a fine level of accomplishment such that they have been invited to sing at several prestigious events.

The Wychwoods Singers, in their original creation, have been rehearsing and performing to wide acclaim since 1984.  That was when Dennis Iles, a recently retired lecturer from Oxford Brookes and living in Milton, organised a weekly singing practice at Wychwood School.  As early as June of the following year, the group gave their first concert at Bruern Abbey.  Guests over the following years included Richard Stilgoe and Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Members fondly recall that it was while Dame Peggy was guest speaker at one of their concerts, on a less than spring-like summer day at the Abbey, she requested and was given a hot water bottle before she went on stage.  The Singers continued to entertain and to be instrumental in raising funds for such organisations as Helen House until their final concert at the Beaconsfield Hall in November 1998, with more than 50 members taking part.

That was that for 13 years.  Then came a renaissance.  Robin Martin-Oliver, a professional musician from Ascott, drew together a small group of no more than eight enthusiasts, meeting in the library, to enjoy singing together.  Little more than a year later, the group had outgrown the space and moved into the Baptist hall.

rockbandOn into 2016, the group was officially designated as The New Wychwood Singers, moving across to the New Beaconsfield Hall as space was again at a premium.  Performances were given in the Wychwoods as well as at the Chipping Norton Music Festival, weddings and fund-raising events.  Even the greatly lamented premature death of Robin in 2018 did not put a halt to progress.  The multi-coloured hair of new musical director Lizzie Soden was soon gracing the scene, raising the choir’s sights still further, including a prized certificate of merit at the 2019 Chipping Norton Music Festival.  Rather like the church choir, The Wychwood Singers is going from strength to strength.

The Wychcraft Rock and Pop choir are the new kids on the block, even if their retired members may laugh at the description.  Formed in 2017 they perform to audiences which find it hard to sit still, such is the liveliness and enthusiasm of their concerts.  Accompanied by a guitarist and keyboard player, under the cheery direction of Gordon Halliday, the choir entertains and engages in equal measure with a foot-tapping selection of songs from the 1960s onwards.  Rarely can a choir provoke such widespread smiles among their audience. It was entirely fitting that when local community stalwart, David Trollope, attended what he knew would be his farewell appearance at the Good Companions in 2019, he chose the choir to provide the entertainment. Nobody enjoyed it as much as he did.

Ever since the 1970s, folk music has thrived at Ascott. Its roots go back nearly 50 years when Tony and Lyn Collins moved into Ascott having lived earlier in Towersey, home of the well-known Towersey Folk Festival.  Together with John Townsend of Fisher and Townsend fame, they began monthly ceilidhs at the old Tiddy Hall with Tony as MC. Famous names like Isla St Clair, Pam Ayres and the Yetties featured at these popular events.  Funds were raised for the new Tiddy Hall and the Sports Club.  Concerts continued after John’s death, in his memory, once or twice a year.  Wychwood Folk Club began officially in 2014, thanks to the enthusiasm of Elaine Biles and Mark Pidgeon, showcasing an eclectic mix of folk, roots, acoustic and Americana music at their monthly concerts.

Perhaps less well-known is the Ascott Songsters who started early in the present century under the leadership of Daphne Abe.

Music in the Wychwoods is not restricted to voices.  Many instruments are played by musicians across the villages, everything from piano to guitar, from harp to violin.  Piano lessons with Pauline Carter have long been a fixture at Tiddy Hall while anyone walking close to the Wychwood Inn may well have heard the strains of a somewhat raucous accordion playing outside on summer evenings.

The hills were alive to the sound of music, they still are, and, if the past is anything to go by, they always will be.

June – July 2020