Now that the choir is back in term time, we have had a little time to reflect upon our recent tour to Saintes and La Rochelle, which took place between 3 and 10 April. A strong memory is the invariably warm welcome we received. We met and conversed with people who are passionate about their local history and keen to share it with us; in turn, we were delighted to be able to visit Saintes, which is twinned with Salisbury, and share with them a little of our own history and tradition. With this particularly in mind, it was a pleasure for us to sing at the opening of the Stonehenge Exhibition in Saintes, and to take part in the Sunday morning Messe at La Rochelle Cathedral, whose community could not have been more welcome or accommodating. At Salisbury we see it as hugely important that our choirs reach further than the walls of our own Cathedral, and of course we do this through our work in the diocese; but it was a privilege for us to be so integrated into the cultural events and liturgical rituals of these places, and we very much hope to keep alive the strong relationships we have built with our friends across the English Channel.
Our tour began on Thursday 3 April, when we departed Southampton Airport for La Rochelle. Aside from initial technical problems and a consequent delay to our flight, we arrived at La Rochelle and travelled to Saintes in time to be welcomed by local people at an evening reception. It was, by this stage, raining heavily. Nevertheless, we were accommodated comfortably in a local hostel, and the walking distance enabled us to amble around and explore the town during the course of our stay.
The following morning, we rehearsed in the Abbaye aux Dames (literally on the doorstep), enjoying the beautiful Norman building and its marvellous acoustic. In the afternoon, we visited the fascinating Roman Theatre at Les Bouchauds, and in the evening we sang a concert in Angouleme Cathedral, to a packed audience.
On the next day, Saturday, we visited the local market in Saintes, which sported an enormous range of fish, meat, groceries and local specialities. We sang at the opening of the Stonehenge Exhibition, and in the afternoon visited the amazing Roman Amphitheatre in Saintes, which also gave us the opportunity for some walking. The weather was looking more promising by this stage. Later in the afternoon, we were welcomed at a twinning reception hosted by the people of Saintes, at which we were presented with a Goulibeur galette, and many other local specialities. In the evening, we gave a concert in the Abbaye, again to a packed crowd.
Early on Sunday morning, we travelled to La Rochelle, to take part in the Mass at the Cathedral. It was an enormous privilege for us as a choir to feature in this service, and partake in the worship of the La Rochelle Cathedral community. In the afternoon, we explored the beauties of the town, in some fine weather, and rehearsed for our evening concert in the Eglise de Notre Dame, alongside the highly accomplished choir Col Canto, under the joint directorship of Nicolas Boisselier, and our own David Halls.
The following day, Monday, we travelled to the seaside town of Royan, where we gave a concert at the Eglise de Notre Dame. The town was largely destroyed during 1945, the result of a tragic miscommunication between French and American allied forces, who wrongly assumed the town to be occupied by German forces. The town was completely rebuilt during the 1950s and the Eglise is a classic example of the architecture of the time, built entirely of concrete. We enjoyed singing in the church’s vast acoustic, and admiring its colourful and imaginative use of stained glass. During that afternoon, we also took a boat trip to the beautiful village of Talmont.
On Tuesday, we visited the town of Pons, and viewed a local historic town keep and Donjon (dungeon). The views from the top of the keep were stunning in the clear sunshine. In the afternoon we visited Jonzac, and rehearsed in the beautiful Eglise Saint Gervais, where we performed in the evening to another packed audience. The organist of the Church also performed during the concert, giving a fine rendition of the Bach/Vivaldi Concerto in A minor.
The following morning, the choristers visited the Cordonnerie, a rope-making institute in Rochefort, before climbing aboard L’Hermione, a replica of the eighteenth-century original ship, which is currently being completed for a future voyage. Meanwhile, following a fine lunch, the men enjoyed a tour and tasting session at P. Bossuet, a family company producing Cognac and Pineau. In the evening, we sang our final concert in Cognac before preparing to return home the following day.
Throughout our trip, we were fortunate to experience audience-packed churches. We received many standing ovations, and it was clear just how appreciative the locals were of the music. The tour was also a fantastic opportunity for the choir to spend time together as a group, outside of the normal routine at our Cathedral. The performance of Allegri’s famous Miserere Mei in many of these ancient French churches left audiences deeply moved, and we returned to Salisbury all the better for our experiences.
We are deeply grateful to all who organised this tour (a painstaking operation), to those who welcomed us so warmly, to the staff on the tour who were so indispensable, and to those who continue to keep our relationship with Saintes a close one. Long may it continue.