Tunbridge Wells,

King Charles the Martyr &Vale Royal Methodist

Unlike many English towns, whose origins can be traced back through the centuries to Saxon, even Roman times, Tunbridge Wells is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1606, the nobleman, Lord North, a courtier to James I, chanced upon a spring which stained the ground a rusty red, a chalybeate spring containing iron and believed to have mystic healing properties. Returning to London, Lord North’s testament to the beneficial medicinal effects of the spring spread amongst London society, who visited in increasing numbers to such an extent that by 1638 extra wells needed to be dug and a pavement laid.

Thomas Neal, an entrepreneur and London builder, saw the commercial possibilities and purchased the site of the springs and the immediate area, now called the Pantiles. He assisted with a scheme to design and build a chapel which, as well as a church, would serve as an assembly room and shelter for visitors to the wells.

Built in 1676, the Church of King Charles the Martyr was an extraordinary building with exquisite plaster ceilings by John Wetherell who had worked for Christopher Wren at Greenwich. However, by 1688, such was the rising popularity of the new resort, resulting in unseemly overcrowding in the chapel, it was decided to enlarge the church which was doubled in size involving even finer plaster work, this time by another of Christopher Wren’s craftsmen, Henry Doogood.

The church had its first organ in 1784, although its details are unknown, and a second instrument followed in 1827. However, the present organ is based on the J W Walker organ installed in 1867, which was subsequently enlarged from a two-manual and pedal, to a three-manual and pedal instrument in 1909. The present "horse-shoe" Walker console dates from 1938 when a further rebuild was undertaken. This distinctive Walker console was fully restored and updated with new pistons and playing aids during cleaning and tonal work undertaken in 1988.

Michael Bacon, the Director of Music, gave us a comprehensive and detailed résumé of the organ’s history and demonstrated its attributes in a well-chosen recital programme. The organ’s clear Diapason and Flute choruses proved delightfully effective in Bach’s Fantasia in G, followed by Wernurden lieben Gott and Wo soll ich hin fliehen. The organ’s unabashed 20th century tonalities were revealed in Whitlock’s Salix from the Plymouth Suite and Pæan from his Five Pieces. Michael’s recital concluded with Langlais’ Cantilène (Suite Brève) and two pieces by Hakim, Antienne (Mariale) and Le Tombeau d’ Olivier Messiaen, a composer perhaps new to some members.

King Charles the Martyr, Walker

Michael Bacon’s discerningly expressive playing was a pleasure, gradually revealing the organ’s capabilities through his evolving recital programme, culminating in a grand finale exploiting the organ’s specification to the full: Great Organ, 16 8 8 8 4 4 22/3 2 111 8; Swell Organ, 8 8 8 8 4 4 111 16 8 8 Tremulant; Choir organ, 16 8 8 8 4 4 22/3 2 8 8; Pedal Organ, 32 16 16 16 16 8 8 8 4 4 16 16 with full couplers and piston aids.

Tunbridge Wells’ "Royal" prefix dates from 1909, when King Edward v11 officially recognised the town and its many attributes. As we left King Charles the Martyr and the Pantiles, we made our way along the now, aptly named, Vale Royal to Vale Royal Methodist Church to find our next organ. The Methodist Church, built in 1873, is an impressive Victorian building designed by the architects Charles Bell of London and is constructed on two levels, with a grand staircase façade leading to a foyer into the main church, and a ground floor level, which has meeting rooms and full facilities.

Tunbridge Wells, Vale Royal Methodist Church, HN&B

As an extra item of interest, following a good tea, Malcolm Hall had arranged a "name the organ part" quiz. He had thoughtfully brought along several small organ parts and pipes; the challenge was to name them and describe what they were. Curiosity overlaid with bemused bafflement added to the fun as the pieces were examined and theories expounded. But, in the final analysis, and with the highest number of correct answers, the winner was Alistair Curtis, who was presented with a box of chocolates and a round of applause for his extensive organ knowledge.

The organ in the church was built and installed in the west gallery in 1883, its original builder regrettably unrecorded. However, it was moved to the chancel in 1909, where it stayed for many years until it was finally restored to its rightful west gallery position in 1982. While still in the chancel, it was rebuilt in 1968 by Hill Norman & Beard with a number of tonal additions and changes; its two-manual and pedal electric stop key console still remains in the Chancel. 1982 also saw the addition of an En-Chamade Trompette adding to its already impressive specification: Great Organ, 8 8 8 8 4 4 4 22/3 2 13/5 8 4; Swell Organ, 16 8 8 8 8 4 2 111 16 8; Pedal Organ, 32 16 16 16 8 8 4, with usual couplers.

Our recitalist, Chris Harris, a freelance musician from Crowborough, had thoughtfully prepared a programme that would show the organ to advantage. Featuring 17th to 2oth century composers, he began with Fanfare by Lemmens, then Voluntary by Robinson, Tuba Tune by C S Lang, Postlude by Ch H Rinck, Psalm Prelude in E flat (Set 1 No 2) Howells, Six Preludes and Postludes (Set 1 No 6 in E flat) by Stanford, Recit de Nazard and Caprice sur les grands jeux by Clérambault, and concluded with Toccata in A Minor by J L Krebs. Chris Harris’s playing was exemplary. His articulate and vivacious performance, delivered with a captivating rhythmic urgency, demonstrated his ability to capture different moods and styles, making this a thoroughly enjoyable recital.

The organ, speaking into a sympathetic acoustic, was able to provide just the right tonal colour for the wide-ranging programme. A fine En-chamade Trompette for Lang’s Tuba Tune, luscious strings for the Howells, and colourful mutations providing "mounted cornet" mixture effects for the Robinson and Clérambault. The Swell Organ, with its 16ft and 8ft reeds and three rank mixture, displayed a "full English Swell" sound, which comfortably balanced the Great Chorus and colourful mutations. The Pedal section was just as full and tonally articulate, with the Great Trompette 8ft being extended to 16ft on the Pedal; it is undoubtedly a fine two-manual and pedal organ.

We must thank Malcolm Hall who had so kindly arranged the meeting for us, together with recitalists and competitions, which was an altogether stimulating and absorbing afternoon.


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