Abbey Gate College Chapel Choir was formed in 1983 by its current Director of Music, Stewart Smith. It began as a Chamber Choir of 15 members which has now expanded to a membership of over 70. As Chester Cathedral has no choir school Abbey Gate College is amongst a group of schools fortunate to benefit from educating some of the boy and girl choristers with the obvious advantages such they have in choral singing which is a great asset to the Chapel Choir. In addition to two annual school services at Christmas and Passiontide, held in Chester Cathedral, the Choir gives regular concerts and sings for services in the local area as well as further afield.
The Choir recorded its first CD in March 1997 in Chester Cathedral, which includes the Fauré Requiem, Zadok the Priest and the Hallelujah Chorus. The second CD ‘Bright the Vision’ was recorded in 1999. In celebration of Abbey Gate College’s 25th Anniversary a third CD was recorded in Chester Cathedral on March 6th and 7th 2003. A CD has been made from live performances made during the Choir’s 2006 tour of the Czech Republic and in October 2009 the choir recorded a CD of ‘Christmas favourites’.
The Choir has toured Holland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, France, the Czech Republic, Northern Italy including Venice, Belgium, Poland and the USA on two occasions. The choir performs Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, London every year and has sung in most major English Cathedrals on summer tours over the past 26 years. The most recent tours abroad were undertaken in July 2009 to Northern Italy and Venice and included a performance in St Mark’s Basilica, Venice. This was followed in 2010 by a tour of Belgium. In the summer of 2011 the Choir sang five Evensongs at Westminster Abbey, London and in July 2012 a similar tour took place to Norwich Cathedral. July 2013 saw the Chapel choir travel to Krakow.
The choir travelled to Poland in July 2013. You can see what they got up to by reading the Poland blog page on the top navigation bar.
There are 75 singers in the choir some of whom are current and ex Cathedral Choristers. The choir rehearses twice a week and gives at least four performances per term. These performances include two services a year in Chester Cathedral for the whole school and an evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral London once a year at Easter. Each summer the choir has a tour either abroad or to an English Cathedral. These tours have included Poland, Czech Republic, Italy, Belgium, Poland and Westminster Abbey.
Day 1 – On the coaches
What a beautiful sunny day to be sat on the coach! We are on our way!!!
Day 1 – We have arrived!
So, after a five hour coach journey, two hour wait at the airport, two and a half hour flight and an hour transfer, we have finally arrived at the hotel in Poland! Rooms were allocated, immediately followed by some much needed dinner. A short walk to the local park, accompanied by an army of mosquitoes, concluded a very hectic and tiring day. Lights out, all out!
Day 2 – A long day ahead…
8am start with a varied breakfast, Polish style! The first banking session of the trip then followed with maths certainly put to the test, converting sterling to Zloty, which ultimately resulted in ‘I’ll just take a hundred and see what happens’! (Zloty not pounds!)
Next, a conveniently short walk, in the already sweltering heat, to the local mini-market: a hoard of 80 sweaty tourists swarming, stripping the shelves of…water (and some sweets) and the much needed mosi spray!
With music packed, sun lotion applied we await the arrival of our coaches. A short rehearsal and then off into Krakow old town for our first real taste of Polish culture…
Day 2 – Hail Gladdening Light!
Hail Gladdening Light indeed, as we entered St. Franciscan Church – which was in semi-darkness – and made worse by the fact our eyes struggled to adjust from the brightness outside! We gingerly processed through the atmospheric gloom to our positions under the tower. Here we waited for prayers to conclude and light to appear, then we took to our places for a ‘short’ rehearsal. Those tourists milling around were quite abruptly introduced to Abbey Gate College Chapel Choir as we thundered in with the magnificent opening of the Stopford ‘Alleluia’. And, we were introduced to the incredible acoustic of this amazing building – this was going to be special..!
After rehearsal we were met by our guides who were to show us around Krakow Old Town. But first, we needed a bit of a break. We were led to the square inside the Royal Castle grounds. Here, as with all we have witnessed of Krakow so far, we were able to relax and chill, with an ice-cream, in such beautiful and grandiose surroundings. When we were suitably refreshed we split into two groups, to be guided around the old town; as you would imagine, this place is steeped in history, myth and legend. We learned that for some 120 years Poland did not even exist as Poland! We even learned of the King and his awkward problem…a dragon, which was eating the townsfolk. So desperate was he, he offered any man who could slay the beast his daughter’s hand in marriage! Needless to say, many died trying. Anyway, long story short – the local shoemaker worked wonders with a sheep and some sulphur, and the dragon drank so much water, it exploded! Hurrah for the shoemaker! We say, what a load of cobblers!
Moving on, our final destination on the tour was the very grand, central square. Here we learned of two feuding brothers who were commissioned to design and build the twin towers of St. Mary’s Basilica. So at odds were they, they built two completely different towers! As all tragic stories of jealousy inevitably end, one brother, seeing that his younger sibling’s effort had the potential to be far superior, decided stabbing him to death was the answer! Riddled with guilt for the death of his brother, he threw himself to his death from his own tower! As a mark of respect for these tragic pair, a bugle is played from the highest window of the tower, every hour, on the hour, 24/7!
Once the tours were over, we were free to explore this vast square, and consume some much needed sustenance. Some found restaurants, others snack bars, and Mrs Jones? – McDonalds! (She’ll have you believe it was the year 7s idea!)
Back to the hotel for a quick turn-around: changed, dinner, coach to the concert..!
The start of the concert was a little vague due to the fact that Mass immediately preceded it, and it was a lottery as to how long the service would be! Thankfully, it was a short one and we were soon silently stood in our lines and the back of the Church awaiting our cue to begin – there was a real buzz as we knew what an impact we were about to have on our unsuspecting guests, and we did not fail to impress. How could we in such an amazing building?
Our audience was surprisingly small to begin with, but by the end, the church was packed! People arrived throughout the concert – could they hear us from the street? Even with the accompaniment of the passing trams every few minutes, we delighted our way through the ambitious program: thunderous choral works such as ‘Zadok’; contrasting light and serene pieces such as the Polish lullaby, ‘Lullay Lord Jesus’; the intricate, sacred works sung by the magnificent Old Saightonians and, of course, James Kealey on the organ, returning to remind us what we have missed this year. All this concluding with the tumultuous crescendo that is, indeed, Hail Gladdening Light!
Day 3 – St Mary’s masterclass!
8am breakfast is becoming the norm. The group were quite subdued in comparison to the euphoria of last evening. Today’s ‘micro-concert’ is the main event of the day; a 15 minute slot before the ‘Opening of the Altar’ ceremony in St. Mary’s Church, Krakow, beginning at 11:30am. This is an interestingly popular daily event, which guaranteed us an audience and the opportunity to enhance our reputation. The latter being illustrated further when a number of audience members enquired as to when and where else we would be performing! The huge mass that gathered were treated to the immense Stopford ‘Alleluia’, Gerecki’s lamenting, ‘Totus Tuus’. Following these, the contrasting, ‘Beati Quorum Via’ by Stanford, and finally, a beautiful piece, most befitting the setting, Palestrina’s ‘Agnus Dei II’.
Day 3 – Alleluia!
A morning ‘micro-concert’ at St Mary’s Basilica, Krakow. We sing Philip Stopford’s ‘Alleluia’
Day 3 – ‘Mine-d’ Blowing!
Lunch was a speedy affair, with the lure of the Golden Arches being too much for Mr Smith, on this occasion! Then it was back to the hotel to change out of our posh frocks and into attire more suited to the subterranean world beneath Krakow – the Wieliczka salt mine.
On the map, this was a relatively straight-forward hop across town, but in reality, a frustrating stop/start journey through numerous traffic lights, negotiating the wide variety of vehicles on these congested Polish roads. Upon arrival at the mine, it was decided that we separate into our Houses – Marmion, Hastings and Ripley – to ease movement through the 3km of mine shaft, along which we were about to venture. It has been lovely to share our concerts with those parents that have been fortunate to travel to Poland and meet up with us. And, it was great that they could join us at the mine, as we had been offered the privilege to perform in the St. Kingas Chapel, some 134m below the surface!
But first, the incredible descent, 54 floors down the winding staircase. Down and down into the increasingly cool air – such a relief from the sweltering heat outside. Deeper and deeper we descended into the soul of Krakow, to a depth of 68m. Exploring the warren of mine shafts, caverns and chapels, this was once a self-sufficient, underground village – at one time, it even had the deepest Post Office in the world! Nowadays, it is gauged around tourism and boasts gift shops, chapels (of which we saw three), a restaurant and cafe, a museum and WC, and, of course, not forgetting…a lot of salt!
The mine itself was impressive on many levels (no pun intended!). A major positive of Krakow is how clean and crisp everything is, especially the Old Town, and the mine was no different – it was immaculate. Another quality was the engineering and precision that had gone into creating this vast network- 300km in total! It made the whole experience all the more impressive.
Dropping steadily deeper we descended ever-closer toward the earth’s core(!), down beautifully crafted staircases and tunnels, we experienced huge caverns with underground brine lakes, until, eventually we reached St. Kingas Chapel. Words are not going to do this justice. We turned a corner and onto an elevated balcony overlooking the most awesome sight: an immense cathedral-esque ‘chapel’, complete with three salt-crystal chandeliers running down the centre, illuminating carvings in the salt-rock itself – the birth of Jesus, The Last Supper and other iconic religious scenes and figures, as well as an incredibly life-like sculpture of the late Pope John Paul II, who was once a resident of Krakow. It is here we were invited to sing one of our repertoire, a very moving rendition of ‘My Soul There is a Country’ – and without Mr Smith conducting too! He went walkabout, as the lure of this special place got the better of him, and he took the rare opportunity to actually stop and listen! He was impressed too. Briefly, we brought this place to a standstill and managed to raise it to another level! Too soon it was all over, and we were once again off exploring. Ironically, so deep underground, the group were on a high, and unfortunately, nothing beyond this point could quite live up to the experience in the Chapel! Mine-d blowing indeed!
Day 4 – The road to Trzebinia…
…is much the same as all the others really! Trzebinia itself appeared at the end of a narrow lane, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by industry typical of the drab, functional buildings of it’s communist past – and a pungent smell to match!
That said, Trzebinia Church stands majestically, rising above the gloom. Upon closer inspection, the church lies on the outskirts of the town, adjacent to a picturesque park, with the low-rise housing complexes beyond. A relief to know that our efforts would not be in vain, and we would, in fact, have an audience later this evening!
Once again, we were afforded a marvellous acoustic in which to perform. Thankfully, rehearsal was kept to a minimum, as many choir members were beginning to display the effects of the rigours of the past few days. A motivating factor, that had the ability to lift the spirits, was the opportunity to partake in a ‘flash-mob’ of Stopford’s ‘Alleluia’ in the market square outside St. Mary’s Church in Krakow – our only chance before we head home.
Many discussions and last minute preparations later, we head into Krakow for lunch. With clock ticking…3:15pm is the time. Bring on the flash-mob!
Day 4 – Gone in a Flash…
Following a relaxing lunch in one of the square’s many restaurants, a quick reconnaissance presented the ideal location for our eagerly anticipated flash-mob. Next, we needed vantage points from which to catch as much of the event as possible – the large statue in the centre proved perfect. Then, on to meet the group in the prearranged corner of the square. The excitement in the air was tangible, this really was a popular choice with the whole group, and although many were nervous, they were determined for this to be a success. They’ve all seen flash-mobs on the Internet and secretly harboured a wish to participate in one, and now was their chance!
After a quick recap of how and what we wanted to achieve, we divided into small groups and headed towards our start positions. Everyone followed the plan to the letter. Hearts raced, anticipation grew. The signal was given and in burst Ed and Nick from behind their respective photographic poses – ‘al-le-lu-ia!’ Immediately, the choir exploded to life from where they were stood, before gravitating slowly towards the centre, crescendoing to an almighty climax! Then, as stealth-fully as they had arrived, they were gone…in a flash!
Day 4 – The Long Day Closes.
High-fives, whooping and cheering was the order of the day, when the choir regrouped behind St. Mary’s church. The beaming smiles said it all – the flash-mob was even more of a success than we had hoped! The euphoria lingered for quite some time, as we shared the footage and individual experiences on our return to the hotel for dinner.
An earlier start to this evening’s concert should have ensured an early night of much-needed sleep, despite the 45 minute journey to and from the hotel! Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be, but for positive reasons.
Once again, the varied programme ensured that our hosts’ experience was a special one: from the majestic and rangy ‘Lord Though Hast Been Our Refuge’, to the sublime encore, ‘Ave Verum’ by Stopford. The spontaneous applause that followed was a true indication that our Polish friends were impressed. Following the concert we were invited to stay for some coffee and cake, by way of thanks. A lovely gesture, and perfect as we had eaten dinner early this evening!
A hectic day! The children arrived back, virtually on their knees. Immediately to bed, it was not long before most were counting sheep, as the long day finally came to a close.
Day 5 – Classic cruise!
We were rewarded with a late breakfast this morning – 8:30am – 30 minutes extra sleep time! Coupled with the relatively early night last night, perhaps it was an unrealistic expectation for the group to actually lie in! Not a chance. Doors opening and banging. Bursts of unsubtle laughter. The perils of having staff rooms amongst the students – a necessary evil! (For both parties!)
The relaxed theme was to continue, as this morning did not involve a rehearsal – hoorah! Instead, a gentle river cruise on the river Vistula, which flows through Krakow. After a short coach trip, and even shorter walk, we arrived at the water’s edge. The river was very impressive and perfectly complemented the Royal Castle, elevated on an outcrop beyond it. As we approached our vessel – playing Kool and the Gang’s, ‘Celebrate’ for the world to hear – the mood lightened further, as members of the group spontaneously broke out into song (and the odd boogie). These guys do not need an invite to exercise the vocal cords! We felt a tinge of disappointment when we boarded our splendid ship, only to process straight off the other side and into a smaller, slightly inferior… boat! Nevertheless, our cruise was a pleasant distraction from the norm, and everybody chilled. We had learned that Poland was devoutly religious, and out of respect, we should dress appropriately and sensitively when rehearsing and visiting the religious buildings – to cover up shoulders and legs! Quote of the morning goes to Laura who asked Mr Smith, ‘Do we need to cover our shoulders on the boat?’ His reply..? ‘Yes, the boats are all Catholic!’
The highlight of the cruise has to be a panoramic photo taken by Ed, of the whole group at the front of the boat, complete with ‘Captain Smith’, who, as a special little treat, was allowed to steer the boat and wear the Captain’s hat! A classic moment. A classic cruise!
Day 5 – Oh God, our help, in ages past…
Next, an emotionally charged visit to the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, the scene of an horrific chapter of world history, echoed throughout cities across the length and breadth of Poland. Because this area was overlooked by the Royal Castle, and the recently invaded Nazi regime, some 65 000 Polish Jews were forced from their homes and moved to another part of the city. This became known as The Ghetto, which we witnessed first hand when we were driven past the main square. The square now carries a memorial to all those that were unceremoniously gathered there, before being condemned to the prison camps. The memorial: large empty chairs with a single candle placed in the centre of the seat, replacing those long gone, but not forgotten; a poignant reminder of the brutality and waste of innocent lives.
Earlier, we had been guided around the Quarter, steeped in history, with a story around every corner. We visited a narrow courtyard of small coffee shops, but along the walls were black and white photos of scenes from Schindler’s List, which was filmed at the same location. It was explained that the movie was actually filmed here, and not in the Ghetto area itself, as it was relatively untouched and authentic.
Finally, we stopped at the memorial stone to remember all those whose lives were taken from them. As horrific as this chapter from Poland’s past is, it has become evident over the past few days that this is one of many, often tragic, chapters in a library of turmoil and unrest.
Day 5 – And now, the end is near…
As is often the way on these trips, the end comes around so quickly – too quickly! The finalè to our tour took place at St. Sepulchre Basilica in Miechow. A quick hotel lunch, then an hour journey, and the perfect opportunity to sort music – who needs an iPad?
It had already been suggested that we would be impressed by The Basilica, and it did not disappoint. It is one of those buildings that you see from a distance and know it is going to be special. Firstly, it was as large as St. Mary’s in Krakow, and of a very similar style. But it was the interior that was absolutely magnificent. The altar was huge, stretching, reaching high into the roof. So much gold adorned the walls, stalls and statues. And the acoustic? Possibly the most impressive of all the venues, and surprisingly easy to sing in!
Places organised, procession rehearsed and fine tuning of odds and ends of pieces, and soon it was time for dinner at a local restaurant in Miechow, a pleasant village, typical of those we have witnessed in our short time here. Then back for our final concert…
…Mr Smith decided to open with us singing in the cloister, off the main building. It felt awesome as we waxed and waned our way through ‘My Soul There is a Country’ by Parry. This was followed by our now customary plainsong procession by the men. Once in position the concert could begin properly. We sang like our lives depended on it, another diverse and varied programme which best showed off our range of ability and talents: beautiful solos, duets and group singing; the Old Saightonians and the James’s on the organ; Powerful, grand choral pieces, like ‘Hail Gladdening Light’ and ‘Zadok’; Slower, more gentle and emotional pieces, such as ‘Ave Verum’ and ‘Lullay Lord Jesus’. The climax of the concert – and of the whole tour – was the brooding and atmospheric ‘Lord, Though Hast Been Our Refuge’, which concluded with such an immense wall of sound that the audience were simply blown away, spontaneously breaking into applause and standing to ovation! A fitting end to a memorable tour of Poland. And all thanks to Mr Smith, who, as always, did it his way!
Day 6 – Photos
Day 6 – Altogether Now!
Upon arrival back at the hotel last night, we gathered in a conference room for the customary end of tour presentations, thank yous and farewells. Mr Smith opened the proceedings with…some notices regarding up and coming weddings, before thanking the choir and all involved in making this trip the undoubted success it was!
Then, in keeping with tradition, the departing upper sixth members took the mantle, beginning with individual memories of tours of yesteryear, then thanking staff and support members with a token of appreciation from the whole choir. Of course, Mr Smith was kept until last, and the best was to follow: a select group sang their own, hilarious version of ‘The Book of Late Attendance’, completely dedicated to Mr Smith and his ‘Rules of Abbey Gate Chapel Choir’. Some things are best left on tour! A perfect conclusion to a perfect trip. Good luck to all those moving on to pastures new – you will be missed!
Day 6 – ‘Aqua’ La Vista, Krakow..!
This morning, all that remained was to finish packing, check and clear the rooms, say our goodbyes and head for the Wodny Aquapark! There was a genuine buzz of excitement, not witnessed since the flash mob! This park had 11 water slides! A climbing wall IN the water! Jacuzzis, water-jets, massage jets, rapid river, water polo, wave pool, swimming lanes, assault course – everything one could possibly want from an aqua park, and under one roof! We swam, we splashed, we swished, we swashed, we screamed, we cheered, we paused for breath…we ducked, we dived, we climbed, we jumped, we screamed, we cheered, we noticed the time. One more dip and swim and massage, then out – thoroughly satisfied with two hours well spent.
Time for lunch and off to the neighbouring shopping precinct to fulfil our need…food! With the combination of post water-madness and a large meal, the fatigue set in. At the pre-arranged time and pre-arranged place we reconvened. Heels dragging we made our way to the coach for the last time. Our next stop – the airport – it was time to embark on our long, long journey home…
At the airport we learned that our flight was delayed by 30 minutes – a long journey made longer. Through check-in (it’s amazing how many people get frustrated by a school party of 78 excited students! And then, feel it appropriate to push their way into our line and split us up – a brief explanation put it right!), and straight to the gate to be informed that our flight would be delayed by 40 minutes – and a little longer…or perhaps not. We have just landed and the decision has been made to travel, non-stop, back to school to make up the lost time. ETA is now 12:30am.
Day 6 – Full circle…
And so we arrive safe and sound, back where it all began five days previous. Over the coming days and weeks, we will take time to reflect, perhaps read this blog to jog the memory, look at and share photos and memories of such an amazing and satisfying trip to Krakow.
Our very limited experience of Poland will be varied, but all, I’m sure will agree and say that the people are friendly, everywhere is so clean, the cathedrals ensured that each concert would treat us to an acoustic only usually reserved for our annual visit to St. Paul’s, and the food was cheap!
Please feel free to read, re-read and share our experience, through this blog. We have thoroughly enjoyed keeping you updated and thank all of our visitors for your company and patience when waiting for the next instalment. If you have found it useful, please drop us a message.
This tour would not have been possible without the team of teaching staff: Mr Smith, Mrs Jones, Mrs Kingsley, Mrs Dukes, Mrs Campbell-Woodward, Mr Andrews, Mr Hartwell Jones and Mr Butcher; and support crew: Emily Burnett, James Kealey, Francis Hills – we were truly a well-oiled machine and the company made the tour all the more special. Thank you.
Thanks also to all returning ex-pupils. A big thank you must go to the choir. All of the hard work and rehearsals paid off – you were simply magnificent! Well done and Thank you.
The biggest thanks must go to Mr Smith. Hard work, determination and and an unerring eye (and ear) for perfection have once again produced a tour to remember. Two standing ovations speak for themselves. Justification indeed.
Bye, until next time…
Written by Mr Paul Butcher.
Photos, video, editing: website management (and patience of a saint!) by Mr Ed Hartwell Jones.