The return home

First mention on this final short blog post goes to this happy, smiley student: Jess Fort everybody!


We set off from our hotel in Grado around 2pm yesterday (Monday) but not before the choir performed one last final rendition of “Like a Singing Bird” in the hotel lobby at request of the hotel management, which was greeted by applause and much thanks from the staff, with one commenting in particular that it touched her soul. 


After the long journey through northern Italy, oohing and ahhing at the stunning Alps into Austria we made our first scheduled stop for ‘relief’. Instruction was clear that this was a water break only,  no purchasing allowed but such was the length of the girls’ queue that the boys could have grown the potatoes, washed, chipped and fried them before finally parting with some cold hard cash. A word of caution to those thinking of taking a trip into the lower alps of Austria – remember yesterday the wonderful friendly priest, a brilliant advert for Italian hospitality? Well Miss Trunchbull’s bigger, meaner, uglier sister was in charge of the toilets and she proceeded to shout, bully and manhandle our charges as if we were inmates of Azkaban. 

Making our way into Germany we passed the Allianz Arena, home of Bayern Munchen, illuminated in various shades of red showcasing the finest in contemporary German architecture. The oft lauded German efficiency and functionality was somewhat tarnished by road closures and ongoing repair work across the Rhine that added a significant diversion and delay to our planned journey home. 

As the sun began to rise the next day lots of very tired eyes began to stir at the sight of bright blue sky and warm sunshine as we drove through the wide expanse of French fields in search of border patrol. 

As of 10:35am GMT we have boarded the ferry across to Dover ready to make our way back into the true heartland of northern England. 

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Day four – Vrsar and back again: a conductor’s tale

Having been more than suitably impressed on our last visit by the port scenery, sophisticated Italian architecture, and local McDonalds, we began our last full day on tour with a return trip to Trieste. First on the order was the mass service at Parrocchia Sacro Cuore di Gesu’. Despite initial apprehension first contact with the priest found him to be a lovely, warm and generous host who welcomed us fully into the heart of the church.

With very little rehearsal time before the clanging of the church bells summoned the sizeable congregation to their seats, the girls choir readied themselves to sing two items. The Simon Lindley Ave Maria was first on the list, and once again demonstrated the choirs superb diction and clarity. John Rutter’s The Lord Bless you and Keep you finished the preludes where the final amen section demonstrated their dynamic control and intensity before a calming resolution. 



Mr Jones was restored in his innermost being and his soul soared as he finally was given rein to flash his fingers over the keys of the majestic church organ. Accompanying Mr Jones in the organ loft was our trusty translator Chiara, who was incredibly useful as given the distance of the organ to the choir, communication was going to be a problem! The first contribution Cantores made was in the alleluia, where they provided a powerful acclamation before the gospel reading. With communication being relayed through both distance and translational stretches, the volume balance wasn’t perfect at the beginning of the Sanctus from Haydn’s little organ mass, which sadly meant the choir lacked support at first however they held their own and within bars were back on track. 


At communion the choir sang two anthems, the first being Samuel Hudson’s Greater Love Hath No Man which has the plainchant ubi caritas woven in. The choir sang the Hudson with elegance and sensitivity, with the middle section standing out in its dramatic quiet intensity. This was followed by Howard Goodall’s The Lord is my Shepherd, the piece beginning with an angelic solo by Meghan Mulvihill; the choir responded in an equal manner. Both pieces were sung with exceptional sympathy and musicality during communion and this didn’t go unnoticed by the congregation, who at the end of the service were keen to show their appreciation, leading to three extra choral postludes – the upbeat Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel, the transcendent Caccini Ave Maria, and a calming performance of Amazing Grace based on Pachebel’s canon.

The local priest, obviously aware of his guests, made every effort to include us as much as possible throughout the service; in a gesture of humility and grace he asked his congregation if they would join with us in saying the Lord’s Prayer in English, a truly humbling experience. We followed the mass as closely as possible and then came the sermon. There are still words that are universal, uniting all who hear them in understanding, despite differences in language or culture and one of these words rang out over the assembled throng – BREXIT. It would appear that our esteemed foreign secretary Boris had been in town obviously soothing tensions and ameliorating angst prior to our arrival.

Inspired by the awe and wonder of the church and all that happened there, Teejay embarked on a dramatic retelling of the Exodus having been cast in the role of Moses. After what seemed like a literal forty years wandering through the wilderness of tall office buildings, with some of the tribe fully embracing their role as grumbling Israelites, Teejay finally led the Children of Israel across many hazardous paths, safely crossing the fast flowing, unpredictable Italian roads to the promised land of Trieste town centre and the Piazza de Italia, ready to further explore the promised fine dining and shopping. With strict instructions not to purchase any golden calfs we were sent out to explore the new horizons and possibly bring back precious booty.

With all fully satisfied and no cries for the cucumbers and garlic back in Egypt, like Joshua before us, we clambered aboard our trusty Chariot for the extended journey over the border into Croatia for tonight’s promenade performance in the town of Vrsar. 


We have seen many a stunning view on this tour, and the arrival to Vrsar didn’t disappoint! The port housed countless luxurious boats and the beaming sunshine glistened on the water front demonstrating the Adriatic Sea in all its beauty. We found the restaurant for evening meal and began the process of ordering 64 meals to sustain us all for the night’s revelries – a chance to have expertly cooked pizza at last. Unfortunately the strain placed on the kitchens meant the pizza dough would not stretch far enough and despite Fergus’ inadvertent attempt to ease the situation by ordering steak, several in the group had to reorder. Will Gray without a hint of chagrin gratefully accepted the last pizza in front of Meghan and Mr Bailey and proceeded to tuck in with gusto, igniting Mr Bailey’s sense of injustice at being denied culinarily once more!



As the sun began to set, the jazz band began mentally rehearsing their finely honed set-up routines as they approached the stage for tonight’s performance along the promenade. It proved to be one of the more ‘interesting’ platforms. At first glance the planks of the raised floor looked like they had been borrowed from the wooden prow of the local pirate ship docked in the bay so warped were they, but ever the professionals, the Jazz band expertly positioned themselves on the rather narrow 6x4m stage to delight the already onlooking crowd who were eager with anticipation for what might ensue – and boy were they in for a treat! 


As Dave gingerly tread the boards of the stage almost buried in the saxophone section in order not to make an undignified splat off the stage the band wowed the audience with Woodchopper’s Ball, Moten Swing and It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t got that Swing! The Croatian audience seemed to double in size as more and more people rolled up to hear the band! After a brief word in English to tell them who we were the band then continued with Fly Me to the Moon and Ain’t misbehaving which drew shouts and cheers from the onlookers! Children danced up and down the front and some of the posh yachts could be seen to have lively dancing in them as people partied the night away as the sun began to set.


Dave’s view as she gazed across the top of the trumpet player’s heads was one of yachts, the glistening sea and the setting sun in the perfect orange sky. Looking back at the band as she directed Final Countdown with a gem of a solo from Rachel Crowe, Watermelon Man with one of the slinkiest sax solos ever from Meghan Mulvihill followed by Mr Robert Williams’ musical trumpet improvisation and Mr Joseph Marshall’s effervescent trombone solo she began to realise that Mr PJ Hitchcock was slowly disappearing into darkness … as was his music!! As his music blew in the wind, he flapped frantically at the stand to try and keep it in place as an interesting array of chords accompanied by a chromatic bass line issued from the stage … ‘Do I pull the plug on the amp?’ she mused ‘Ah no! That pleasure is reserved for guitarists only!’ … Astounding Mr Simon Wilshaw, she asked for louder guitars in A Nightingale Sang in Berkely Square; Mr Wilshaw thought all his dreams had come true in one swift moment whilst Mr Alex Jeffery got so excited his grooving guitar moves became quite wild nearly knocking Mr Wilshaw from the stage! 


The Light grew dimmer and the audience screamed and shouted for more. Mr Marshall leant forward and said to Dave ‘Mood Indigo, I really want to play that one final time with the band before I leave’ … With a melting heart at the thought of losing all these phenomenal musicians this year the band struck up the slow Duke Ellington number and the warm sweet sounds of Mr Marshall’s trombone echoed across the sparkling seas in the last light of the day. 

As the evening drew to a close Mr Lucas McIntyre struck up the introduction to Sing Sing Sing driving the audience crazy and the clamoured for more and more and more! Not to mention the wonderful, dirty trumpet solo from Miss Ella Aldred-Aymen – never played better! By now Mr Hitchcock had completely disappeared and all Dave could see was the occasional bobbing of his head as he frantically tried to see the dots in the gloom. The evening drew to a close with Rock Around the Clock as the band moved with Jukes-like Choreography trying not to fall off the stage as they did so! …. Where was Mr Marshall?!?!?! He had vacated the stage to Dave’s horror as Mr Williams leant forward with a ‘just go with it miss’!!! Then there he was, Mr Marshall, in all his salsa hips glory, dancing across the front of the audience and ‘high fiving’ anyone under the age of 7! Cheers and cries of more resounded through the harbour…..We’ve played the entire pad, thought Dave ……. Oh go on let’s play Moten Swing again. Mr Williams paled visibly on stage, his screaming trumpet would be needed AGAIN?!?! ‘I may pop’ he whispered frantically to Dave ……. In true Dave fashion she smiled, said ‘you’ll be fine just get on with it ……’!!!! He did – the trumpet screamed across the top of the band as the evening drew to a close and his lip did indeed pop but only on the last note so all was well!!! 
The band could have played the night away but alas all good things have to come to an end and so the packing up began with which realisation dawned on Miss Ella Aldred-Aymen that this was the Year 13s penultimate concert with the band and the tears started to flow, and flow, and flow!! Hugs and squeezes all round!! 
Unlike Joshua’s foray into foreign territory this was no piercing trumpet blast of victory and conquest but rather one which drew people of all tribes and tongues together in a spirit of joy. Whilst it may not have had the musical perfection of Valvasone, the universal language of music freely given and gratefully received had dissolved barriers and brought a sense of freedom and community to all, creating lasting, treasured memories for many of those present. If we had been told that this was to be the only legacy of the tour then we could return home to Accrington content, happy in a job well done.

Day three – A Tale of Trieste, Turtles and Tumultuous Applause

After the excesses of the previous day it was a bleary eyed collection of students and staff that descended the stairs to breakfast. However a fine spread of various early morning sundries and a special rousing double happy birthday to Sally and PJ soon had the blood coursing through our veins. Dave was in a chipper mood and granted the parolees the chance to mingle with the natives at the local Saturday market in Grado. High from her success on the Rialto bridge, Hettie ‘Trotter’ Smith cemented her reputation as a haggler extraordinaire bargaining more ferociously than David Dickinson at the local car boot.Cheap, tawdry trinkets purchased, all were seated and chomping at the bit for today’s adventure when it became apparent that some of the Cantores folders were missing – apprentice A.Holmes of room 126 found the mystery too complex to solve, so in Following the advice of another Holmes, “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how unlikely must be true” – could it possibly be true that Dave had left them in her room? Only one way to find out – send a runner. Ideal candidate, bound like a coiled spring, fleet footed Fergus ran through the market with as much grace as a leaping gazelle and dutifully returned clutching two black folders. The journey could begin…


As a recce for Sunday’s church service, a short trip to Trieste was in order, where it was confirmed that we were indeed in Italy as we had to contend with the unpredictable, often impatient Italian drivers. At this point the advanced scouting party of Chiara and Mr Jones left the group to formulate a plan of attack for Sunday’s mission, whilst the rest of us descended on the cafes and restaurants surrounding Trieste square for some food. Having been informed by Miss Davies of the need to synchronise watches and ensure all strategic objectives were met within the window of opportunity provided, the platoon was dispatched into the surrounding territory. Notable success was achieved by several members of the group in sourcing some of the more restrictive dietary requirements, Matthew proffering up his own gluten free rolls to be made into sandwiches whilst Katie and her crew, as a foreshadowing of greater dietary success to come, requisitioned cheese free pizza for a bargain price.


In every squad there are always a few who go A.W.O.L and the senior vocals were no exception. With a strict rendezvous time of 13:30 hrs, some students were still sat in the restaurant at 1.26 eating their last slice of pizza with Rebecca and Cearagh spotted casually enjoying the afternoon sun out in the square waiting on their cold Fanta, Diet Coke and nibbles at a super casual 1.34 blissfully unaware of the court-martial and summary ‘execution’ that awaited them at the hands of General Dave. Pleas for clemency from the non-commissioned officers softened the Scottish granite exterior with mercy ensuing. 

With all mission objectives complete we departed the port of Trieste and headed inland to Valvasone. Some way into the journey the normally tranquil and placid Miss Jukes suddenly rose to attention fizzing and bubbling as she laid eyes on a sign in bold letters announcing directions for “PROSECCO”. To keep her mission focused Miss Jukes not only had to be strapped down but placated with the promise of refreshment at a later date. 


Arriving at Valvasone, we were greeted by two lovely guides for a brief tour of the picturesque village that boasts the only fully functional, original Venetian organ in Italy; Mr Jones was crestfallen when he was denied the chance to tickle the ivories but we were on a tight schedule. Refreshments were procured at the local Gelato shop(sic) with Katie again coming to the fore. Others of the group opted for a more liquid form of sustenance at the local cafe. BBC sport gets everywhere and as Muguruza dispatched Venus with consummate ease, Teejay was transported back to a time when he had the skills, stamina and tennis acumen to write cheques that his failing shoulder can now no longer cash!


With the anticipated smell of oven baked bread in our minds we marched over to the Borgo castle for a masterclass in bread making. Due to a miss communication in translation we were instructed in how to make turtle shaped bread! Numerous exquisite examples of show stopper artistry of the kind that Mel and Sue would be proud were produced although PJ, with his unique bean bag frog design, probably wouldn’t make it past week one. With our bread in the proving oven waiting to be baked, we made our way to the local Trattoria for lasagne and ice cream (not together) in an old, traditional, transformed wine cellar. 

At the conclusion of the meal, Birthday gifts were presented to DJ Peeeeej and Sally B-B with Sally ranking it as one of her favourite birthdays, and PJ giving a short but touching speech. 

Set up for the concert in the square was accomplished without any fuss, even when the ensemble had to go in shifts to get changed in the coach. As this was the first time a concert like this had been held in the village, expectations were adjusted accordingly and just 20 chairs were arranged for the locals, with seating on the side reserved for the choir. The plan of attack was adjusted to take advantage of the Swing band opening the proceedings to announce to the locals that there was something of note occurring in the square – and boy was there ever!


The swing band took to the stage to an already packed square with Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ and cries of bravi came forth at the end of just this first number. Fly Me to The Moon saw the audience swaying in their seats to the laid back jazz feel and then the tempo was switched again with It Don’t Mean a Thing. Next the senior vocals stepped up to the plate with renditions of Circles of Motion and Water of Tyne capturing the mood wonderfully with crystal clear diction and a real purity of tone. Chilcott’s Singing Bird, with both choirs blending with nuanced brilliance elicited cheers from the audience. Cantores opened their program with Caccini’s Ave Maria with solo flute played musically and beautifully by our very own winged messenger Fergus Parker-knapper. The exquisite harmonies of Alexander L’estrange’s Famba Naye then filled the square and, to murmurs of delight from the audience, Eric Clapton’s Tears of Heaven completed the set on an emotional high, bringing one lady to tears.

The swinging salsa hips of Mr Marshall then led the swing band back on to complete the evenings entertainment. After the Jazz standard Woodchopper’s Ball, Moten Swing saw Mr Robert Williams screaming at the top of his trumpet which reverberated around the four walls of the square, now increasingly busy to the point that people had to stand despite extra chairs and the choirs giving up their seating too. Dave decided to introduce the soloists to the crowd, translated ably by the diminutive Chiara and the audience showed their appreciation with rapturous applause. “Sing, Sing, Sing” finished off the official set with a fantastic, dirty trumpet solo from Ella. At the end it seemed as if the whole village had turned out to partake of this glorious celebration of music with the young, dishy mayor ebullient in his praise of the ensemble’s gifts and talents. The band finished with an encore of Rock Around the Clock and Bear Necessities for the many young children in attendance, a perfect end to an almost flawless performance.

Any day-trip this year wouldn’t be complete without Tito making an appearance and yet again he failed to disappoint. Mr Bailey, obviously engrossed in the critical task of recording the proceedings (of which he has had mixed success), felt a presence on his shoulder and his heart sank as he heard the rapid, accented delivery of our favourite Italian coach driver almost ruining the covert nature of his mission.

After a brief detour to see a ‘scintillating’ level crossing (thanks Tito) we arrived back at the hotel where we unloaded the gear, remembering to bring in the band music and distributed many loaves sans fish. PJ was somewhat ameliorated by the fact that a significant proportion of the turtle breads now also looked like a collection of beanie babies. 

A resounding success of a day meant medals for all and the raising of hopes and expectations of further another excursion into new territory and Vrsar. 

Day two – Venetian finery, Dolo decadence, Marshall magic

Friday morning greeted us with the overly familiar sounds of water on glass – heavy rain forecast for the day had us reaching for the Wimbledon umbrellas and Dave’s Cliff Richard CD. However, it wasn’t long on our journey to Venice before the clouds parted to leave us in glorious sunshine…only to become excruciatingly hot upon arrival in St. Mark’s square. 


The journey up the Grand Canal perfectly set the stage for the adventures that lay ahead, and even had Teto behind the wheel of the boat to ensure everybody arrived to shore safely. Having encamped in St. Mark’s square and been briefed on the Venetian etiquette we made our way through the narrow, meandering streets full of spectacular Morano glass, Gucci attire, and artistic costume masquerades…only to hear the dulcet tones of Emily Cooper-Douglas shout with the purest of Lancashire accents, “Can we go in the Disney store?” 


Speaking of high Italian fashion, be prepared for the latest collection from House of the Vatican, a fetching, rust coloured pseudo-chiffon range called “St. Mark’s Basilica cover ups”. These were perfectly modelled along the red carpet of the Basilica by many a student, including Hannah Smalley whose catwalk debut ended as she stumbled most inappropriately with her feet and her mouth!! 


Having worked up an appetite walking around the city Joe Marshall recognised an old friend…from 4 years past. In his disarming gregarious nature Joe began to recount a tale of being locked in a toilet at the tender age of 14 in the exact same pizzeria to a bewildered waiter, who to everyone’s surprise not only failed to recognise him, but thought Joe in his pigeon Italian and broken English was ordering 4 margaritas!! (* the accuracy of specific details in this story including the exact dates are currently being verified by snopes.com). 


There were some notable successes concerning interaction with the locals. In particular, having purchased a pair of sunglasses and then deciding they were not quite to her taste, Hettie informed us that she wished to return them to the Venetian street vendor in exchange for a classier pair. “You’ve got 30 seconds we said” whilst inwardly thinking ‘yeah good luck with that, kid!’ Hettie promptly returned beaming happily with new glasses in hand – anyone going to Marrakech for a holiday could use the haggling skills of this wonder kid, she’ll save you a fortune!

As the day in Venice drew to a close with no further noteworthy incident, thoughts began to drift towards the evening concert. Miss Davies had informed the group that this was a high class establishment and impeccable standards of manners were called for (how would Colette cope😏). Arriving at the venue after another ‘perfumed’ journey showed that Miss was, as usual, spot on with her description; we were greeted with a grand, elegant building Downtonesque in its decor and feel – this would take some serious concentration in the dining room if we were to leave with the name of St Christopher’s intact. Mission accomplished after a wonderful buffet meal only let down by Mr Bailey’s plaintiff cry of “where’s the pudding, I’d saved some room?” Shame on you Mr B – must do better!

Finally the crescendo (see what I did there Miss D) of the day was upon us; the concert was to take place upon red carpet in the presence of numerous Italian guests of both two and six legs – who can ever doubt the all inclusive ethos of St Chris’s. The team were under severe coach-driven time pressure, not helped by the audience taking their time finishing their meals and so it was that, 7 minutes late, our wonderful Senior Vocals took the stage. 


After a less than perfect rehearsal Senior Vocals rose to the challenge, raised their game and gave an excellent performance. Our tour manager translated Dave’s concert narration very well but Dave and the choir had no idea what she was really saying……. For the first time ever in the history of our Concert Tours Cantores then took to the stage WITH Senior Vocals and gave a beautiful performance of Bob Chilcott’s Singing Bird which the audience loved! The harmonies then got richer with a deep ‘Beefy Bass’ from Mr William Gray with Mr Alex Jeffery adding his Pavarotti like tones to enrich the harmony as Cantores performed Caccini’s Ave Maria followed by a Zimbabwean Wedding Blessing song ‘Famba Naye’ which started with the dulcet tones of soon to be 18 …… None other than the Master of the Music himself ……. Mr Paul James Hitchcock ….. More commonly known as DJ Peeeeej to his friends! 


And then in the fastest stage change ever The Swing Band kicked off with Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, Closely followed by Moten Swing, It Don’t Mean a Thing if it ain’t Got That Swing and then Watermelon Man which featured a virtuosic solo from none other than Miss Meghan Mulvihill our very own leader!! Master Lucas our drummer extraordinaire then stole the show in Sing Sing Sing rivals by a nifty, musical clarinet solo from Miss Rachel Crowe. Throughout this Mr Marshall managed to control his swinging salsa hips into a sensible rhythm although Master Williams (Junior) managed to resist the temptation to co-ordinate his hip movements in time with Maestro Marshall! ‘Bravi, Bravi ‘ the Italians shouted as the band, risking the wrath of Martin and Tito dared to perform an encore! After a presentation to the band by the Concert Organiser there then ensued the quickest get out in the history of St Christopher’s! 9 minutes from start to finish!! Hope we haven’t left anything behind ……….. Barry?!?! Where are you?!?

However, the quote of the day comes from the one and only Lauren Southwell who having spent the entire afternoon exploring the passageways of Venice expressed with deep surprise, “You know what…I haven’t seen many pick pockets today” at which point Bree collapsed in fits of laughter. We all feel safer under Lauren’s watch. 

Looking forward to Trieste and Valvasone tomorrow.

Day One – Italiano adventures

Where to start…how about the Fisher Price sized coach that arrived outside St Christopher’s expecting to seat 60 people, plus luggage, an ensemble of musical instruments, in addition to Hannah Smalley’s suitcase! Expert spatial awareness by several key personnel accomplished the impossible (almost). It is with deep regret and a heavy heart that one key member sadly had to be left behind – Barry you would have been great, we really miss you.  


A largely uneventful English coach journey was to take a different tack upon arrival at Dover. We were left in the expert hands of Martin and Tito; Martin the dependable efficient English type and our beloved Italian brother who not only sees his mission in life to expertly drive a coach providing a running commentary on each individual aspect of wherever we are, but also to single handedly spread Bon ami throughout the world – all with the passion and flare that Italians can bring. 

Ferries come in all sorts of sizes and states, some are fantastically equipped with all the mod cons, others are called the Pride of Burgundy! Due to an unfortunate accident with carpet laying glue, the whole ferry smelt like it had just crossed the channel in a force 9 gale – the only saving grace was fine weather which meant an escape above deck. 

Travel for the first dozen hours was likewise equally uneventful – apart from Mr Bailey (did you know that large parts of France are awfully flat and boring, conjuring thoughts of some dystopian wasteland). As dawn approached and the first beams of light caused barely rested eyelids to flicker open Mr Bailey, with his usual indefatigable optimism, welcomed the new day with a weary yay!

Having unloaded, washed and spruced ourselves up we headed for some light relief at the water park. Several sights will live long in the memory. The Greg Louganis award for the most almost successful diver, judged by none other than our artistic coordinator Megan Jukes, goes to Alex Jeffrey who delighted the crowd with a dive of unprecedented difficulty and entered the water with all the poise and grace of a fridge falling from a passenger jet. A much more sauve and debonair encounter was witnessed as smooth hand Joe Marshall wiggled his aquatic salsa hips drawing much attention from the “marine population” of all persuasions.


Food – the course Italian feast – we knew straight away that we were in Italy when on a regular Thursday in England spag bol is THE main meal, but in this fine well cultured establishment it merely served as an entree. 

A brief pleasant evening stroll around the quaint delights of Grado with our expert pocked sized tour guide Chiara ended the day after our long travels ready for the head to hit the pillow. But of course, not before Dave, ever the task master, stretched out the vocal chords of Cantores in a practice in the hotel basement ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Venice. 

Bruges and Ghent – from the finest of chocolates to the best of festivals

And so our final full day in Belgium began. We set off for the beautiful city of Bruges, parking outside the city, which provided us with the glorious opportunity to walk through the meandering streets towards the main square in Bruges. Cobbled streets, unique Belgian architecture with their turrets, and thatched roofs on every other house passed us by as we walked along the river watching the boats go by and see the horse and carts trot past.

It wasn’t long before we set off to explore all the delights Bruges had to offer, and naturally this included as many different types of chocolates as you can imagine from fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate, chocolate shaped animals, sea shells, macaroons, and even spanners, nuts and bolts – hopefully plenty of presents left over for family and friends when we return.

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Despite a down pour of rain, the festival ponchos came out, with spirits remaining high as there as out came the were so many unique shops and picturesque places to see – Mrs Jukes was particularly delighted to discover a ballet museum tucked behind the central square.

With time pressing to make our way to Ghent, life was made more interesting when one member of staff forgot the difference between12 and 1pm – I think he was thinking about cutlery at the time!

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The final concert of tour was to perform at Gent Fest (Gentse Feesten). This festival is the 3rd biggest city festival in Europe behind Oktoberfest with nearly 2 million visitors each year over the 10-day event. As we got off the coach we had to carry all the jazz equipment on a 15-minute walk into the centre of Ghent as the sheer volume of people limited access. The closer we got to the venue the crowds increased, sounds were heard from other stages in the distance, and then we saw it! We were all stunned with delight and a huge sense of anticipation to see the stage on which we were performing, right at the foot of Sint Baaf’s cathedral!

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As soon as we arrived at 2.30pm the manager of our event informed us that we had be moved earlier in the schedule, and that we would need to finish by 3.45pm for security reasons for a following event! With one of the most efficient stage set-ups in the history of St. Christopher’s concerts, our concert began at 2.45, with fully professional stage, lighting and amplification for the supporting staff at the festival on the stage.

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The excitement of setting up so quickly on a fully professional stage showed because as soon as the band was in place they started with the usual “woodchoppers ball”. The sound and mix was spot on. The entire band performed with excitement and it showed. PJ even experimented with a jazz organ sound for a little bit of Lucas, and Lucas was pounding the bongos with a huge smile on his face, and big Jack was clenching the snare drum between his knees hoping the improvised snare drum stand would hold up – fortunately we had used proper duck tape instead of the cheap stuff.

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Somehow Johnson talked his way into one of the adjacent buildings to the stage and on to a balcony to gain a higher view to take photographs of the stage. With revellers from the centre of Ghent hearing the band on stage the crowd grew in size as the sound carried way beyond the surrounding square.

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Rachel performed her last wonderful solo in “Fly me to the moon”, and Eleanor’s bari sax solo in “Ain’t misbehavin’” came through with surprising clarity and crisp tone. A packed 45 minute set was performed and as we finished with “Rock around the clock”, the crowd clapping along. The huge crowd was cheering in Flemish, not understanding whether the cheers were for us to play another or get off, we decided to stay on and play another and we finished with an enthusiastic “Mack the knife”. Fully aware of the time constraints we were under and with a deep appreciation for the opportunity we just had the pack away from the stage was timed to a mere 5 minutes!

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A truly fantastic end to our tour in Belgium – only our final meal in Pizza hut remained, and an evening trip to the local beach to watch the sunset!
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Ypres – a moving day in so many ways…

In full anticipation for what lay ahead we arrived at the cathedral in good time only to discover the doors were firmly shut, but ever the optimist Spoonses realised it was the ideal opportunity for a group photo.

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The moment we walked into the cathedral we were stunned by the beauty and design. Cameras were snapping away at the stunning windows and the effects of the light on the nave. Upon discussions with the representative Spoonses soon sacked the cathedral organist (!) and assumed that position, and after a prolonged audition for conductor of the choir The Hickster was appointed as the successful candidate, however whilst the choirs black formal dress was highly professional, the Hickster’s chinos and blue/white pattern shirt was an interesting choice.

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Spoonses gave the first hymn quite some welly but did not know that none of the congregation had any of the words! Despite grappling with where they were in the Flemish service, the choir managed to sing the right part of Haydn’s Little Organ Mass at the right time and everyone will remember Andrew’s wonderful intonation of the Gloria. The cathedral’s 7-second reverberation time magnified the choir’s already wonderful sound. Exsultate Justi was sung with appropriate gusto and the communion motets Ubi Caritas and Bogoroditse Devo were most effective and provided a lovely meditative timespot for the congregation. Spoonses managed to bomb up and down from the organ loft without incident and rounded the service off with a rousing rendition of the Final from Vierne’s first organ symphony.

The priest thanked the choirs “very, very, very much” and thought they “were voonderful” with the congregation heartily applauding there after. It was a real treat for the congregation as they only have music at major festivals.

Following the mass service there was a short time for lunch before we got to explore around Ypres cathedral with all the lovely chocolate and waffle shops surrounding it. The time flew by, and as soon as we had made our way to the coach we were greeted with a big happy “Hello!” by a young guy called Simon, who introduced himself as our tour guide for the World War I memorials. We were delighted to have Simon as our tour guide as he not only brought great enthusiasm and interest to the whole experience but also personalised each of the two memorials. We firstly set off for Essex farm cemetery, which was a site for British soldiers. The number of gravestones at first was stunning, and as Simon helped us to consider the individual lives and stories behind a few of the gravestones, it brought a reality to World War I that many of us had never previously experienced.

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If this wasn’t enough, we were then to make our way to Tyne Cot cemetery. As we pulled into the car park it became evident that we were about to have our appreciation of the cost of WWI brought to whole other level. The sheer scale of gravestones extended to 12,000 with thousands of other names written in stone all around the cemetery.

One student commented that it should be compulsory for everyone to visit, experience and remember those who have served us and at such a cost – and who could argue with that after today. Of all that we have experienced so far in Belgium, a number of students said that these memorial visits were going to be the highlight of the tour.

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Simon’s explanation of each site was a very profound and moving experience and really deepened our appreciation of the upcoming Menin gate ceremony. I think we all felt the weight and sense of honour and respect to all those who had selflessly laid down their lives for the service of others; it made you reflect on how we spend our time now and how important it is to remember what others gave for us.

The seriousness and respect that our pupils showed to the tour was reflected in Simon commenting how he truly valued our pupils as he was impressed with how mature and respectful they had been with the whole experience and at a level he very rarely sees from school tours.

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Upon returning to Ypres from the Battlefields we were all now ready to tuck into a good hearty meal in a restaurant looking out on the cathedral. We had the entire upstairs entirely to ourselves which, with the managers permission, enabled us to have one last minute rehearsal before the ceremony. I’m sure the other customers in the restaurant would have be wondering where these heavenly sounds from above were coming from!

As we left the restaurant for the short walk across the square to Menin gate an hour before our performance, it be apparent very quickly of the significance of this event as hundreds of people were all ready waiting behind the ropes for it to begin. By the time 8pm came round thousands of people were crammed it to any space that was available. Then, the bugle sounds rang out, and silence fell on the crowd. We heard briefly about the life of two brothers who had lost their lives during the War, and then the words were heard: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

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That was the cue for the choir to sing “Bogoroditse devo” which with the design of the Menin gate powerfully enhanced their singing. This was followed by “Lift thine eyes” and during this time Amelia Studholme carried a poppy wreath inscribed with a message from St. Christopher’s to be laid as a sign of remembrance.

It goes without saying that this experience was one that will live long in the memories of the students at having the privilege and honour to perform at such a ceremony. At the close many British tourists came up to congratulate the choir on how beautiful their voices were.

On Monday we are off for a morning in Bruges followed by the last performance of tour at Ghent festival!