Why Chester is always on song at Christmas
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 December 2017 | UPDATED: 10:11 05 December 2017
Inspiring and unifying the community is a key aim of event organisers in Chester all year round, not just at Christmas, writes Rebekka O'Grady.
A striking landmark standing proud in the city centre, Chester Cathedral is many things to many people throughout the year. Whether it’s a place of worship, an archaeological treasure, cultural hub or heritage location, one thing can always be agreed on – it’s a magical place to be at Christmas.
Their festive calendar is one to be marvelled at. It ranges from the annual Christmas tree festival, a family occasion where the cloisters are filled with around 50 majestic Christmas trees. This attraction supports the Ultrasound Breast Care Scanner Appeal at the Countess of Chester Hospital. There are also fabulous concerts and recitals, which transform silent spaces into resounding places of glory and joy.
The cathedral is a centre of musical excellence thanks to its purpose-built Song School, where every day choristers of all ages gather to rehearse songs, hymns and carols. The Cathedral Choir and the Nave Choir are the longest-serving voluntary cathedral choirs in the country, and their duties don’t begin and end at Christmas.
‘It’s at Christmas that people say it’s the first time that they have heard the choir. Some people in Chester don’t even realise it goes on,’ said director of music, Philip Rushforth. He is responsible for the Cathedral Choir as well as the music of the cathedral alongside the Canon Precentor. ‘It is great that people come down and see us perform at Christmas, but it would be lovely if they continued to watch us throughout the year too.’
In addition to the daily worship of the cathedral, the choir performs at least three concerts a year, record CDs, regularly appear on radio and television and tour internationally. This leads up to the Christmas season, which this year sees the choir sing on December 9th and 16th at the Cathedral Choir Joyeux Noel concert and on Christmas Eve in the service of Nine Lessons and Carols. ‘We will then have the exchange of gifts from secret Santa and a Christmas Eve party for the children, so there is fun alongside all the hard work. The choristers then return on Christmas morning at 9am to prepare for the two services at 10am and 11.45am. Everyone will have lunch together before returning to further enjoy their Christmas as home.’
Choristers are recruited from local schools or can apply via an audition process, but each chorister must be truly dedicated to the choir: ‘They come every day after school apart from Wednesday, and at weekends. It is a big commitment, so as well as the children being dedicated, their parents have to be behind it as well. You see quite a lot of generations coming through the choir. I was a chorister and my daughter and two sons have been through.’
It was King Henry VIII who founded the cathedral after it had been a monastery and first created the boys’ choir, which has been singing since the 1500s. The girls’ choir on the other hand does not have quite the same history, only dating back to 1996. The girls tend to sing on until they are 18, but for the boys they will only last until their early teens when voices starts to break. However, they do have a chance to return in later years to the Nave Choir, a professional-standard mixed voice choir made up of volunteers of all ages.
‘We have all walks of life, from lawyers to teachers, even a yoga instructor.’ www.chestercathedral.com
A world exclusive
Storyhouse, which opened its doors in May, will celebrate its first Christmas with the world’s first ever stage adaptation of Enid Blyton’s beloved book, The Secret Seven. Artistic director, Alex Clifton, secured the rights after meeting with publisher Hachette – who own the Blyton estate – to pitch the idea of the Storyhouse project, which will run from December 1 to January 14.
‘Storyhouse is very much about connecting people through storytelling, encouraging them to be creative and not to be afraid to use the building as a public space for communities,’ explained Alex, a former resident director at English National Opera. He is also the co-founder and artistic director of the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre.
‘Blyton’s world chimes so sweetly with what we are about. We champion a child’s right to read and literacy with our library space here – we want them to grow up with free access to stories and books. ‘A conversation with a friendly bunch at Hachette saw that the Secret Seven was a right fit as our values matched. It will be a bloody good, hearty family show to tell at Christmas, all about the power of community.’
The classic tale of adventure will be set in the Wirral, thanks to its amazing skyline, sunsets and vivid colours. It of course brings the tale a little closer to home too, the post-war setting of the Secret Seven matching what would have been a destroyed Birkenhead facing years of austerity.
‘It’s very different compared to the naïve pre-war Famous Five; the Secret Seven is set in a recovering Britain. Its core message is about seven children’s journeys, seeing their innocence and perspective on the world despite their town being a bomb site. To them, it’s a massive playground where they can jump and run around – where they are family not just friends. Christmas is about coming together and we wanted to show that on stage.’
Company stage manager Helen Keast adds that the story doesn’t just finish on stage. There will be mysteries and puzzles to follow around the building, a Secret Seven shed in the foyer where youngsters can dress up and continue the fun off stage.
‘Most children’s first experience of theatre is going with a school. However it is harder for schools to afford these trips but if you tie it with literature, it makes things easier. We leave the intercom on so that at intervals we can hear what the children are really thinking and there’s always such an excited atmosphere. If we encourage them to want to return with their parents or continue the creativity of what they have seen on stage at home, then that’s amazing.’ www.storyhouse.com
Looking at the past, with the future
A group of teenagers are helping to inspire others to gain an interest in history and Chester’s past, thanks to a project set up by the Grosvenor Museum in Chester. The museum’s youth panel is made up of 13-18 year-olds who work alongside museum staff members on different projects, including events planning, fundraising and exhibition development.
At its core are four members: Emily Bancroft, 16, Shana Creagh, 17, Clayton Jarvis-Parkerm 17 and Jamie Graham, 18. They meet on the first Tuesday of each month to discuss what they can do to get younger people interested in the 19th museum and the artefacts and displays it shows.
‘I wanted to be involved right from the start,’ explained Clayton, who joined the panel in 2013 after his school, Queens Park High, received a letter from the museum to see if any pupils wanted to sign up. ‘I have a real passion for history so it’s a really great thing to be a part of.’
Emily travels from Derbyshire to be a member of the panel after learning about it while doing work experience at the museum on Grosvenor Street: ‘There is nothing like this around where I live so I really enjoy it. I think it’s massively important for young people to know about the history of where you live. For a young person, history is not really a common thing to enjoy, so to be a part of this panel and speak to other likeminded people who share the same interests is brilliant.’
Lucy Ashdown, interpretation development officer at West Cheshire Museums, said they started the panel after realising that the majority of museum staff were young women in their mid-20s.
‘All of the displays were from our view point. At the time, the majority of visitors we were receiving were either elderly or families with young children. There was no youth element, so we thought it would be great to get some people in to see and hear their perspective. It’s gone from strength to strength and now most of the time we just facilitate and help out where needed, leaving the panel to do their own thing.’
While you’re Christmas shopping in Chester, you can now add a little hygge to your home this festive season thanks to Søstrene Grene. The Danish homeware chain opened its second British store in the Grosvenor Shopping Centre at the end of October, stocking everything from quirky kitchen accessories and soft furnishings to crafts and ceramics.
Jonathan Cooper, joint venture partner for the Chester store, said: ‘The response we have received has been absolutely phenomenal. We thought there was a gap in the market for something like this brand in Chester and the first few weeks has proved us right. We have some beautiful products in for Christmas which are really affordable. With no internet sales, it’s a real sensory experience to shop here with classical music playing and old school values.’
Enchanting new world
With 1.9 million people walking through its doors last year, Chester Zoo is a hugely popular place for locals and visitors alike. With 15,000 animals to marvel at, it’s a special place and this Christmas it’s going to be transformed into an even more magical world.
‘The Lanterns at Chester Zoo will be unlike anything you’ve experienced before,’ said PR manager, Alex Knight. ‘We have run it for a couple of years now and it has picked up a popular following and status, but this year will be bigger and better as we will have more performances and interactivity with having Wild Rumpus on board.’
Incredible animal lanterns will light up the zoo at night and Wild Rumpus, specialists in creating extraordinary worlds, will stage outdoor performances telling stories and bringing lanterns to life. On the new lantern route, which will be filled to the brim with sacks of lantern toys and presents, you will meet colourful, festive characters and may even catch a glimpse of Father Christmas in his sorting office.
‘The thing I am most looking forward to is the new flamingo lounge, where flamingos on roller skates will serve drinks,’ said Alex. ‘It’s a really lovely event and the income raised from it will go to toward our conservation work around the world. We have 80 projects in 30 countries, so it’s a nice message to send out that by having a festive day out with the family you are helping a worthy cause.’