Stondon Massey, Great Warley,

Chelmsford & Brentwood

Once beyond the perimeter of London’s M25 motorway, the county of Essex reveals its true character. It is largely a rural county with quiet country lanes linking tiny hamlets and villages, its undulating farmland interspersed with ancient woodland and church spires with the occasional windmill nestling under billowy Constable skies.

Although Stondon Massey is little more than a hamlet, its parish church of St Peter and St Paul contains a notable memorial to the composer William Byrd who died in 1623 having lived in the village for the last thirty years of his life. We were welcomed to this historic church by churchwarden, Ann Springate, who gave us a brief outline of its history while coffee and biscuits were served. The church dates from 1108 and has a carved wooden pulpit of 1630, which is particularly fine. The organ, built by Cedric Arnold of Thaxted in 1953, is a one-manual and pedal tracker organ with a specification of Manual, 8 8 8 4 11; Pedal 16. Although modest in design, this small organ sounded warm and full in the church, perfectly suited to its task of leading a congregation.

Great Warley is a scattered village steeped in history, its component parts evolving over the centuries. However, the present parish church of St Mary the Virgin is relatively modern, built in 1902-1904. It is one of only three churches in the country built in the Art Nouveau style and is known locally as the “Pearl Church”, because of the wide use of mother of pearl in its decoration. Peter Proud, a past churchwarden and expert on the building, gave us an intriguing talk on the history and design of the church, with the Arts and Crafts movement influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. The bronzed copper of the pulpit and the extensive use of aluminium leaf on plaster mouldings, with its intricate detail, are immediately arresting. The organ, with its ornate Art Nouveau metal case mouldings is, nonetheless, a standard two-manual and pedal Norman & Beard instrument of 1902 with a specification of: Swell Organ, 8 8 8 8 8 4; Great Organ 8 8 8 4 4; Pedal Organ, 16 8, with usual couplers. It produced a warm rich sound — especially the pedals — that resounded in the building, complementing the early 20th century design of the church.

Fascinating as these churches had been, it was soon time to move on to Brentwood for lunch and the new Catholic Cathedral of St Thomas. This is a bustling market town with fine Georgian and Victorian buildings gracing the town centre. Situated close to the high street, the new Cathedral was designed by the architect Quinlan Terry and finished in 1991. Retaining and incorporating the 1861 Gothic revival church on the site, the new Cathedral is almost square, built to an Italian Renaissance style. The exterior, with its warm Kentish ragstone, has a pleasing arched grandeur. Internally, it is visually stunning, its clear leaded arched Classical windows lighting the internal colonnades of Renaissance arches. A central high altar is set under an octagonal lighted tower and brass chandelier.

Brentford Cathedral, Hunter

Stephen King, the Cathedral organist, welcomed us with a short talk on the church history and the rebuilt 1881 Alfred Hunter organ. It was originally built for St Mary-at-the-Walls, Colchester, but has been totally rebuilt by Daniels of Clevedon for the Cathedral. It stands within the confines of the old 1861 church, but speaks well into the main building. Organ Scholar, James Devor demonstrated the instrument for us with a set of short improvisations in the French style, followed by Toccata, Symphony No. 5 by Widor. This was played at a beautifully controlled speed with its underlying pace and rhythm producing a performance of magnificence and grandeur, James’ stunning clarity of technique mastering the resonant building. The forty-eight stop specification has recently been enhanced by the addition of an electronic 32ft Pedal reed which completes the already generous Pedal section. Wooden 16ft Pedal Open Diapasons, by Hunter, are renowned for their fullness and the Pedal section here is no exception, sounding warm and rotund in the Cathedral acoustic.

Chelmsford is the county town of Essex and is worthy of its 15th century Cathedral. However, the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, was only adopted as the Cathedral in 1914 when the Diocese of Chelmsford was created. The fine decorated nave ceiling was rebuilt in the early 19th century and, in 1983, the cathedral floor was completely re-laid in warm limestone, enhancing the building’s acoustic and sense of light and space.

Chelmsford Cathedral, Mander

The west-end organ, installed by Mander in 1994, is completely new and has four manuals and pedals with tracker action and a specification of forty stops. The attractive organ case is based on designs and work of Arthur Hill. In 1995 a twenty-four-stop chancel organ was added, which incorporates a large proportion of pipework from an 1844 Holdich organ from St Andrew’s, Cambridge, now a redundant church. Although this chancel organ has mechanical action, the console has been configured to allow the Swell, Great and Pedal sections of the West End organ to be played electrically, adding immense flexibility.

Following tea and cake in the Cathedral rooms, evensong was sung by the choir of seventeen boys and six Lay Clerks, conducted by the Assistant Director of Music, Tom Wilkingson. The Canticles were by Stanford in B flat, Responses by Radcliff, Psalm 104 vs. 1-23 to a chant by W Hayes and the anthem was To Thee O Lord by Sergei Rachmaninov. Although the Chelmsford choir may not be in the first rank of cathedral music, there was some pleasant well-controlled singing and clear boys’ solos. Unfortunately, the final climax of Stanford’s Magnificat Gloria was marred by the injudicious use of the Great trumpet. However, the voluntary was the rousing Flourish for an Occasion by William Harris.

Following the service Tom Wilkingson kindly gave us a tonal tour of the organs with individual stops demonstrated by organ scholar, James Dorry, all from the east-end console. Tom then splendidly demonstrated the main west-end organ with the “St Anne” Fugue in E flat bwv 552 by J S Bach, its English voicing of clarity and character ideally suited to the building. There was time remaining before our coach was due to allow several members to try the main organ for themselves adding a further frisson of excitement to an altogether splendid day. We must thank Andrew Cesana for arranging it for us and also our lady coach driver who overcame the unexpected difficulty of the coach she was driving from Charing developing a fault and arranging for a replacement at such short notice, allowing our day to return to schedule.

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