Monday, 22 July 2013

A Little Bit of Sun Makes All the Difference....

Czechs don't expect Britain to be even a little bit sunny, never
Dining alfresco on a Cornish clifftop
mind persistently near tropical for an entire fortnight. So it's fair to say that for the  visit by Eva Kordova and her Ceske Budejovice tourists the fact that July was busting out all over  was a bit of a surprise to say the least.

To say the most, it was a bloody scorcher. 

Every minute of every day was glorious sunshine. Even the nights. And so England, we can safely say, actually looks nothing short of resplendent in it's summer shirt, pants , open toed sandals and sunblock.


Everywhere we went was a treat. The group stayed at Lizzie Myers Huntstile Farm on the Quantock ridge, even Bridgwater glinted splendidly on the plains below like a wannabe Oxford with it's gleaming spires of West Street Flats, St Mary's church and the mile long Morrisons depot.

Eva Kordova,eagerly expecting rain, points to the Atlantic
Bath is inspiring in any weather and with the sun sparkling off the river Avon and sweat dripping off the chin folds of passing Americans you couldn't move for baked pedestrians. 

Cheddar Gorge cast long afternoon shadows so you could take the shady route down as eagles hovered, goats prepared for satanic rock climbing rituals and potholers discarded their flippers .

Glastonbury Tor shone out like a beacon of poignancy, weighing down the historical graves of Arthur and Guinevere stopping them coming back to rescue us from 11 years of Thatcherism; Wells with it's majestic Gothic Cathedral proving that Jesus would probably not be given a council house should he return to the planet today, happy clever swans pulling strings on moated bells to announce dinner time and the 13th century street scene that is Vicars Close all bathed in sunlight and looked better than the betterest postcards.


Even the evening quiz, sponsored by Bridgwater's answer to Robert Robinson, Mayor Dave
Czechs and Brits pit their wits against themselves
Loveridge, was a happy cheerful affair with Anglo-Czech teams (and an odd German) mixed up and answering questions about the world around them. Man of the tournament was that International jet setter Mr Coram , who was presented by the rest of his team with the bottle of Becherovka prize.

A morning in Bude - they went swimming, an afternoon in Marazion - they misjudged the causeway and went swimming, and an evening in St Just staying at the Lands End Hostel saw the group transfer county bases to Cornwall for a couple of days. 

St Ives sweltered in the heat, the Eden project invited travellers to even hotter climates and a spectacular sunset at Tintagel rounded off the Kernow sojourn.

The Bude-iful Cornish coastline
Still hot and sunny as they crossed the Tamar and wandered the Dartmoors, paraded the Plymouth Hoes and wound up at the much hilled Salcombe hostel. Sadly facing closure. 


A Sherman tank bedecked with barnacles marks the point on Slapton sands where the US army training for D-Day fell victim to a German torpedo boat attack in 1944 with some 700 fatalities. Today it looked like any other bejewelled English seaside resort with sparkling blue water, clear blue skies and well, sand and pebbles of various hues.

Exeter is always a welcome stopover with it's Cathedral green and adjacent tables for diners and snackers and then a pleasant drive up the Dorset Downs to Durdle Door , a cliff walk to Lulworth Cove and an evening in a thatched pub, and the sun was still shining.
North Cornish sunset


So off to Wiltshire, to complete the Wessex motif . Avebury, a stone circled village with a wifi friendly pub in the middle of it was yet again another  English idyll resplendent in it's sunny coat of many lovelinesses. And then Bristol. Still hot. Still sunny. Still there. A bit maritimey. and then,with the aid of avionics, they were off home to the Czech Republic 100% convinced that England was always like this. And perhaps it is.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013


It only seems like 8 years since the Czech choir Labyrint were here last and in fact it was. In them days most of them slept on the farmyard floors of Jess & Malcolm Healey's Glendale Dairy farm in Wedmore. Suddenly it was 2013 and they were there again. Funny how nostalgia hits you.....

Labyrint are from Prague and are a choir. That much we've established. The leader, conductor, dirigent and choreographer is Lenka Charvatova. They came to Somerset twice before and mainly linked up with the Voice of the People choir who occasionally they also linked up with on their European tours - noticeably Krakow and, well, Prague.

This year they thought they'd re-live old times, sleep mainly on the floor of a dairy farm  and see how many 'gigs' they could fit in.

So 12 stayed on the farm, totally at the mercy of the kindness of the Healey family who filled them up with toast, eggs (or whatever cows produce), hams, bacons and cheeses etc. The rest stayed with various home hosts in  Bridgwater. 

Weston Super Wedmore

Labyrint in the Methodist church Wedmore
Day one saw them seeking the sun in Weston Super Mare. Little was there. Bit windy though, so better take a walk down Brean Down. That windswept outpost of Palmerstonian folly blown up by the tedium of it's garrison one drunken night in the 1890's.  But this group was fascinated by the tides. By the Severn and Parrett 'Bores'. So what better place to watch the tide come in than from a peninsula protruding directly outwards into the oncoming surge. It trickled past them.

Concert number 1:- Wedmore Methodist Church. Jess Healey and Gwen Fisher were the first to book the choir into their local church to relive past glories and the group didn't disappoint. Songs from the chorale to the gospel to the churchy to the vaguely religious plus some Czech folk songs about drinking and facing up to the missus. That should do it.

Day two and it was Wells, Glastonbury and Bridgwater. The latter because by now they were so fascinated by the prospect of an 8 metre high wave surging up the Parrett that they had to see it. 3.30 and it still hadn't arrived so I thought I'd tell them a few interesting stories about rivers and waves. Ah...too late, they missed it. The tide had turned. No wave had occurred. There really IS a wave. Honest.

Voice of the Wellington

So tonight they met up with their old friends Voice of the People. Now  based at the Friends
'What shall we do with the drunken county archivist..'
Meeting House in Wellington. Led by the indomitable Yvette Staelens and containing a few old faces, the Voices laid on a bit of a spread for the Labyrintians and then had a 'sing it like it is' contest. But how exactly do you face down madrigals and  renaissance chorale harmonies? Of course- 'What shall we do with the drunken sailor on ilkley Moor bah t'at'. That'll learn 'em. Then the Czechs pulled out guitars, the Brits pulled out kazoos (sic)  and the county archivist pulled out a laptop with ancient folk song lyrics on it and it was just like being on the Mark Radcliffe show. Voice of the People are of to Hungary later this year - now there's a country where the paramilitary wing of the folk song and dance society wear uniforms.....

If it's Friday and the suns come out it must be Lyme Regis. 4 hours in the sun. See, Prague may be consistently and averagely hotter than here but they haven't got any bloody beaches to go to when it is!  Not sure what they did all afternoon but there's a very nice pasty shop down the main street which has wifi access. And warmed up Dorset apple cake. With clotted cream. Knowing they were all on diets I made a point of staying there in case any of them were tempted to go in. No one saw me. I mean, I didn't see any of them.

Martock 303

Harmony 303 arrive on centre court
And that evening was the next big show. Martock All Saints church for a fund raising event with the Stanmore school kids and local choir Harmony 303, who will be visiting Prague later this year to visit Labyrint.  Well, H303 may have the wisdom and experience of age and cake making and Labyrint may know more notes than actually exist, but the toddlers from the school blew them both offstage with renditions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and We're All Going on a Summer Holiday, replete with action choreography reminding us fondly of that time that Cliff and his mates were all nearly shot by Yugoslav border guards. A big audience graced the church despite the Andy Murray semi final and Harmony 303 laid on a splendid afternoon tea including a special Labyrint cake with a life size replica model of the choirleader made of marzipan. And possibly cheese.

Next day was a visit to the Wedmore street Fair. Jam was sold. And bought. Brides were auctioned (I assume, I didn't go myself) and re-enactments of the Treaty of 878 re-enacted. 'sign there please' 'ok' 'thanks'.

Frome here to Martin Dimery

And then an afternoon in Bath before it was off to the Frome festival. 'Which ways A&E?'
All roads leading to Frome
said the bloodied man who greeted us in the Cork street car park. This didn't look good. Had organiser Martin Dimery forgotten to tell us it was a festival of drunken halberd novices? No luckily it was a one-off drunken twat. The festival was great. And the queue to the South African food tent was massive. As indeed was the audience at the St Johns Church concert by candlelight that evening. Labyrint were in fine form - only, for some reason in the town that gave us tribute Beatlemania, they forgot to include their swingle singers version of 'Michelle'. A big turn out and some funds to take home with them and actually Frome is quite a nice place. Possibly. 

And then they were gone. A sunny day in Bristol and a short plane journey back to Prague but with melodies,harmonies and counterpoint sub harmonies it was as if the Renaissance was something that only happened to others.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


Balalaika bashing in Bridgy
We've never had Russians before. Well, we have, but they thought they were the Beatles. This time we had a coach full of the genuine article who had, genuinely, driven all the way from the city of Yaroslavl to visit us here in Bridgwater. That's 2,146 miles. In a bus. 

Leaving Monday they slept through Poland, dreamed through Germany and woke up on a ferry crossing the English Channel early Thursday morning. None of them had visited England before. Least of all the drivers , who made a point of testing the ongoing traffic at their earliest opportunity.

We met them at Greenwich at 7am Thursday morning. 'We' being the Bridgwater International high command (Cllr Smedley) alongside the executive committee of the Exeter Yaroslavl twinning group (David and Julija). Their first sight of London was from atop the Greenwich observatory and their first site of an English breakfast, a Turkish cafe alongside the Cutty Sark.

Old Friend Vlad

The biggest balalaika in Bridgwater College
The Russian Childrens Folk Orchestra had come to our attention via our old friend Vlad Rancev from Lithuania, who we hadn't seen since his country joined the EU and he'd joined a Bible thumping Alabama based religious sect. Now he was the agent for the Russian choir. Except today he'd hurt his arm and so couldn't walk. 

Julija, a Russian speaking Russian, was a star for the day. Her interpreting and communicating skills made our swift guided tour of Greenwich, Docklands, Tower of London, St Pauls, the Globe and the Tate fall into place swiftly and smoothly and without losing many of the 50 strong group en-route.

And then it was off to Somerset where Nigel had swapped his drivers flourescent jacket for a chefs hat and was cooking up a Thursday roast for them. Delicious though it was, most of them slept through it or in it. They were a bit tired.

Mino helps out

But they were here! A coach load of some of the most talented musicians Russia could
Authentic Russian folk singing on stage in Somerset
produce were sat in a youth hostel in Cheddar waiting for the gunshot that would either start the concert ball rolling or execute the organiser.

Off we went to Bridgwater College where the ever helpful Mino De Francesca and his Media department organised a special concert for students which he then filmed and recorded. By the afternoon it was being played on BBC Somerset Sound advertising the evening show at the Art Centre. Also on hand was Irena the Russian teacher and some extra Russian speakers to help the day flow smoothly. A meal at the college and a walk round Bridgwater and then a ploughmans lunch in the Duke of Monmouth and the first day had almost gone.

Mayor Dave meets Conductor Pavel
Only it hadn't. There was a show to do. An array of young Russians in national costume sat on stage playing a range of their folk music alongside some other classical pieces from around Europe , rapidly changing the soloists and all under the firm baton of leader Pavel Sergeev. The audience was hooked. Even Town Mayor Dave Loveridge invaded the stage, handed over a bottle of Somerset cider brandy , did a soft shoe shuffle with his walking stick and looked as though he was about to perform a stage dive. The audience loved it and by the time they were performing a Beatles medley they were all singing along.

Peter steps in

The next day the group  visited Wells. What could be better than the magnificent gothic Wells cathedral we thought. "Where is Asda?" they asked. We compromised on Clarks Village.

That evening they were on stage at the Princess Theatre Burnham thanks to the support
Washboard blues at the Princess
and assistance of local Councillor Peter Clayton and his wife Jo. A good turnout plus an excellent buffet laid on and hand rolled by Peter plus a support slot from the tall debonaire man they call 'Bruce', who sang a short endearing set of Ralph McTell type songs plus one of his own. Again the Russians took the place by storm, some of the Bridgwater audience returning for a second shot.

Sunday was a day off. A day in Cheddar. to see a gorge, sample a cheese and scamper headlong up a cliff-face after a goat. 

Andy comes in 'andy

Another sensational victory for England....
But the afternoon was a treat for all concerned....a celebrity football match!! Bridgwater International had arranged a team of skillfull local footballing celebrities and cllr Smedley,  whilst the Russians fielded a team of largely 9 year olds and some of the more aggressive parents. Bridgwater Town had kindly lent us their Russian looking red and white kit and Andy Merrifield had somehow managed to find some comedy inflatable goalposts. Needless to say the Brits stopped counting at about 10.1 and this was even when we let every last Russian kid play in a human wave formation with 18 of them on the field at once, severely blockading the fat councillor who they'd observed was indeed a threat after scoring the winning (6th) goal. Their tight man-marking combined with his lack of any visible footballing skills at all to prevent him from scoring at least a further 6 open goals. At one point , in an attempt to get himself sent off by battering a Russian child he found himself being judo-thrown by a 9 year old. And deservedly so.

Milans mealtime munchfest

Milan (a Slovakian) and his friend Milan (a Czech) turned up to make a Czechoslovakian
Laura stirs Milans Goulash
goulash for them. Yumski Yumski, as almost no-one actually says.

Monday was an important day for the Russians as it was Exeter Day. Yaroslavls actual real twin town had rolled out the red carpet for them. Twinning organiser David Parsons had a full days programme, civic reception,guided tour and to conclude a concert at the White Ensign club. Yet another triumph for Pavel and his merry melodians.

And that night it was Bath. They'd moved up country slightly as their next target was Oxford. After a guided tour of the Romano-Georgian city with the assistance of Simple Simon, the man with the golden pasty, they pointed the bus in the direction of Avebury. Please don't climb on the stones....too late. Not to worry, they've only been there several thousand years.

Staying at the Ridgeway youth hostel we fed them that traditional olde Englishe staple 'Tortila wraps and chilli con carne'. Then put them to sleep.

Richard hits the bottle in Jericho

one of many talented soloists
For tommorrow we hit Oxford. Well, with the help of Bridgwater wild goose Richard Morley and his flurry of assistants, not all of whom were stone masons like him, we'd got a gig in the St Barnabas church and a meal in the nearby Bookbinders pub in the district of Jericho. Excellent food and the concert succeeded in drawing out a large portion of the Russian community from around Oxford (itself twinned with Perm). Richard, who himself gave the impression of being permed by twins, was his usual effusive happy go lucky self and thanks a lot to him for all his help.

Balalaika it like Brian

And they had their fair share of groupies too. Brian Hulme, one of Britains leading Balalaika bandleaders and exponents of the dark slavic art of balalaikaing, had come all the way from Manchester to shadow their every move, help with translation, technical advice, sign autographs and show his students the authentic artistes in action. He watched every gig, filmed at least one, fixed a couple of instruments, walked with goats up Cheddar gorge and then appeared at the church in Oxford to introduce the band and plug his own.

The final day took them back to London. A bit of a heatwave, another supermarket sweep and a mad dash around the most touristy bits of the capital and suddenly they were gone. 

Pavels lasting legacy
The impressive Pavel Sergeev

But what an achievement! For Pavel Sergeev he'd managed to bring his talented orchestra 3,000 kilometres across Europe to England for the first time and achieved widespread acclaim which could only bode well for the future . For us in the West Country we'd got a dead good band playing  on our provincial stages and for internationalism a great leap forward in these times of far right hysteria and the closing of minds all over Europe.

Lesson 2:- How to herd cats.