In Praise of the North: Christmas with Durham Cathedral Choir

It is true that many of us look forward to the end of the year. It’s a chance to stop, reflect, perhaps refocus our energies and hopefully look forward to what lays ahead in the new year.

Emotions ranging from euphoria to down-right exhaustion, are always evident on any High Street as the month of December progresses. This year has been particularly challenging and it rose to a crescendo with a general election last week. It’s an election that although asking us to think about ‘one nation’, could potentially be the most divisive for years.

A nation struggling with its identity might make us want to hibernate, but thankfully – if you know where to look – there are indications that we will get through this, if we stay close to the good folk and give the ‘lemons’ amongst us a wide-berth.

We’re blessed in the north. (I know – you know.) None of us are very far from an inspirational landscape, either natural or man-made. If you’ve stood on Winter Hill and looked towards the Irish Sea, or watched the Tyne glide by from the Quayside – you’ll understand. Malham Cove. The Lowry. Whitby Abbey. Striding Edge. Top Withens. The Great Whin Sill. The Oldest Sweet Shop in England. Some things are bigger (and better) than tribal politics. Thank goodness as northerners we have these things close by.

Christmas with Durham Cathedral Choir

So, what’s my point? Well over the next few weeks, one of the most majestic and important buildings in our region is primarily concerned with the business of glad tidings and goodwill.

With hundreds of others on Saturday evening, I climbed the sandstone promontory that forms the epic plateau on which Durham Cathedral stands, to experience one of this 900-year-old institution’s festive traditions. The eagerly anticipated ‘Christmas with Durham Cathedral Choir’ is a concert much beloved not only in the city, but across the north.

An immaculately-behaved queue of battle-weary pilgrims quietly discussed recent events in Blyth Valley and Redcar as they filed past the Sanctuary Knocker and through the Galilee Chapel, within earshot of St Bede. The hope: to lock-out negativity – and thanks to the artistry and excellence of Cathedral Choristers and the Reg Vardy Band, the mission was more than accomplished.

The concert forms part of a series of services and events throughout December to celebrate Christmas – and no matter how secular you may consider yourself, I think it would be difficult to experience such sumptuous choral voices and brass and not leave with a sense that actually, perhaps things aren’t going to be so bad.

The Reg Vardy Band is quite simply a talisman for everything that is brilliant about the north. Founded in 1910, they were originally a Colliery Band, formed to provide much needed recreation for miners. Thanks to the sponsorship of a north-east vehicle retailer, the band continue to delight audiences and win accolades, decades since the last coal was hewn in County Durham. Their sound within the setting of the Cathedral was magnificent. Ironically, the only seam of unmined coal in Durham sits beneath the feet of visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Durham Cathedral Choir conducted by Daniel Cook small

Saturday’s programme included  the Appalachian Carol ‘I wonder as I wander’, ‘O magnum mysterium’ (Morten Lauridsen) and the ‘Shepherd’s Pipe Carol’ (John Rutter). The evening concluded with Mendelssohn’s ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’, with choir and audience in perfect harmony.

Stepping back out into the frosty night beneath the illuminated 200 ft tower, there was a palpable sense that perspective had been restored – and while we might want to cast our hands to heaven in exasperation at the palaver practised by our leaders and betters, a visit to Durham Cathedral this season will confirm that we are all part of something much bigger – and shouldn’t forget it.

Durham Cathedral is open every day of the year and a range of special events, exhibitions and services are taking place up to 25th December. Full details at: https://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk

News and information about The Reg Vardy Band can be found at: https://www.regvardyband.co.uk

Information on the Durham Cathedral Choirs can be found at: https://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/worship-music/choirs

Colin Petch

December 2019

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