Monday, July 4, 2011

2011 Tour - Day 12: Farewell to England

Thank goodness last night’s host families were from the community of the well-traveled Amici Singers. They have been on international tours themselves and understand the rude awakening demanded for an early flight. The birds were chirping and there was daylight here around 3:45 AM local time in England. We know because that’s when many of us were up and getting our day started. Our wonderfully supportive hosts managed to drop us off at one of seven designated locations where the buses began doing pick-ups at 4:35 AM. Several hosts had thoughtfully packed a meal for us. It was sad to leave them, knowing this would be the end to a dream come true!

People settled on the buses for our final trek together in England. Rachel Sadtler was bursting to announce she had searched and found the holy grail of candy last night as a gift for loved ones – the purchase of 16 large packs of Kit Kat chocolate bars in rare flavors of mint and orange. Chaperone Cathy Waters was carrying a dozen glass jars of Bovril for her beloved husband. What we do for love! With our last bus stop completed and our return well underway, the bus became quiet with sleeping passengers.

Our 7:00 AM arrival at Heathrow Airport was good timing for the youth musicians to collect their instruments, chaperones Nick Erdle and Doug Marshall to return the instrument rental van and chase car, and for everyone to get ticketed and go through security. There were relatively no mishaps and all smoothly boarded our single flight back to Dulles Airport in Virginia. The flight was comfortable, even peaceful, with passengers able to view their own movie selections and snooze under a British Airways blanket. Besides the blanket, the airline gave everyone a pillow and toothbrush. We arrived in Virginia late in the afternoon and took the scenic drive back over the Potomac River at Point of Rocks to return to Damascus United Methodist Church. There we had a reunion with family and friends, sharing hugs and stories. Praise God for a glorious trip and our safe return!

We look forward to the Welcome Home Concert tomorrow evening on Thursday, June 30. This will be the finale to an incredible journey!

2011 Tour - Day 11: Cambridge

Our host families provided transportation for our last gathering at The Dragon School with their Music Director, John Madden. Before departing, we learned that John Madden has a dog named Tallis. Given the many references to Thomas Tallis on this tour, this seemed to be a God (dog spelled backwards!) moment.

The buses took us to nearby Blenheim Palace, the largest still lived-in home in England. With so many palaces and castles on tour, you might wonder about the difference between the two. A castle is essentially a fortress whose primary purpose is defense. A palace is all about showing status and grandeur. Blenheim Palace is a showcase of opulence with elaborately furnished rooms and a history of noteworthy events. Blenheim is home to a long line of dukes with the title of Duke of Marlborough. The first Duke of Marlborough was given land for the palace as recognition when he conquered the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Winston Churchill was born there on 11/30/1874 when his mother was visiting Blenheim as a house party guest. Winston Churchill’s cousin was the 9th Duke of Marlborough. The current owner of Blenheim Palace is the 11th Duke of Marlborough. The 11th Duke and his wife still live at Blenheim Palace, and their Standard flag is flown while they are in residence, as was the case during our visit.

We were given a generous block of time at Blenheim, so each person could choose to tour the Churchill Exhibition, State Rooms, Private Apartments, or gardens. The palace has Formal Gardens with an Italian Garden, a Rose Garden, a temple, and an Arboretum. Pleasure Gardens include a train that runs past a shrubbery Maze, the Butterfly House, a giant Chess Set, and a lake.

Our visit to Blenheim Palace had the women chaperones discussing flowers. For anyone interested in flowers, English gardens have a casual-but-elegant look that is among the prettiest on earth. While this was the peak week for lavender, we saw gorgeous blooming flowers of all colors and textures: white freesia, red poppies, sweet peas, verbena, Prince William, phlox, Allium, hollyhocks, rhododendron, Canterbury Bells, roses, and more roses. Besides appreciating the beautiful gardens, we’ve learned to be careful around plants here. Stinging nettles are a plant that will make you sorry you touched!

Our tour chaperones on lunch duty brought in a picnic lunch of Subway sandwiches to feed our group of 100+. This was a fun and casual meal on the grassy wooded grounds of Blenheim Palace, literally in the shadow of history.

Now raining, the buses took us to Cambridge, our second visit to a world-famous prestigious university. Illustrious alumni include Isaac Newton and Darwin. Cambridge is younger than Oxford by about 100 years, and smaller in having only 36 colleges. Each school is integrated with the corresponding town, and both were started as ecclesiastical schools during Medieval times. Both can boast stunning architecture, historical significance, quaint shops, and friendly people.

Using the buddy system, we had the afternoon to enjoy Cambridge in whatever direction we chose. It was a rainy afternoon, and the boats for punting on the River Cam were tied up securely. Many gift shops profited from our business, while some of us did a little sightseeing.

King’s College Chapel is the single most famous building in Cambridge. Built from 1446 to 1515 by King Henry VI through VIII, this is a superb example of Perpendicular Gothic style. There is an enormous single span of vaulted roof, and the interior ceiling is positively ethereal. There are 25 precious stained glass windows from the 16th century, and these were carefully removed for safety during World War II, then painstakingly replaced.

St. John’s College was another worthwhile stop. The college has several beautiful courts and gardens, and a choir was rehearsing at the college chapel. A film crew was busy working on a documentary of Stephen Hawkings at the Bridge of Sighs. He is a world-famous physicist who held a prestigious mathematics position at Cambridge and is something of an academic celebrity.

In walking down King’s Parade, a main street in Cambridge, our group passed The Corpus Clock, a huge gold-plated clock that was designed by none other than Stephen Hawkings. The massive shiny clock catches your eye because it has a mythical-looking grasshopper sitting on top, in theory devouring seconds as they pass. The clock is a distinct work of art for the public and was officially unveiled in 2008.

The rain continued on and off, which prompted many of us to seek out one last cup of tea with scones on this final tourist day of the trip. By now we were regularly drinking tea the British way, with milk and sugar. The scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam were delightful!

All too soon we were rolling on the buses for our destination of Potton where The Amici Singers are based. Between Cambridge and Potton, we actually drove through a stream with the sign “Ford” posted. Upon finding the road closed ahead due to an accident, the buses turned around and we forded the stream once again with great excitement as a photo opportunity. We wondered how a Smart Car would handle the stream. We’ve seen many more of these in England than we have in the US, usually 2-door but some 4-door, and all are teeny, tiny cartoon-looking cars that look like toys.

We arrived at The Oaks restaurant and were paired up with our hosts from The Amici Singers, a female community choral group that has performed internationally. Under the direction of talented Douglas Coombes, they have been to Damascus, Maryland twice. They visited DUMC as recently as Easter Holy Week of 2011! Sitting with our new hosts, we shared stories over a buffet dinner at the restaurant. Dishes included roast beef sandwiches, quiche, mini-pasties, egg salad sandwiches, pizza, and Scotch eggs. We happily went home with them to meet their families (including pets!) and savor one last night of community in England.

2011 Tour - Day 10: Oxford

We had breakfast with our generous host families, and they brought us back to The Dragon School for a kickoff of the day’s activities. In sharing stories about our host homes, we learned that some families choose to live in Oxford so their children can attend The Dragon School. It has been a privilege to experience the inside of such a preeminent institution of learning.

Lavender is in peak bloom everywhere we go, and it smells heavenly. One host family explained that lavender is planted intentionally to reach out over the sidewalk. When you pass by, brushing against the plant releases the sweet aroma even more so.

We were joined by Freddie Simon, a 16-year-old student at nearby St. Edward’s Oxford, a co-ed boarding school where he just finished exams. Freddie led our large group on a 30-minute walk to visit Christ Church in downtown Oxford. During our walk we had the opportunity to learn about Freddie’s background and what led him to us. He is one of four or five boys from outside Oxford, where his family has a farm growing rapeseed, wheat, and barley. When he was younger, he auditioned and was accepted as a tenor to sing in the Christ Church Cathedral boys’ choir. This required years of dedication to daily practice and worship services five days a week. His current school, St. Edward’s, has a community service program that brought him to us as a guide.

Along our walk we had a passers-by view of the town of Oxford. Oxford was first built where oxen crossed, or forded, a river to get to the site. Hence, the town was named Oxford. This place is home to world-renowned Oxford University, which is scattered throughout town rather than contained in an American-style campus. There are 46 distinct colleges within Oxford University, and they are interspersed with parks, residential neighborhoods, and shops. Each college has its own buildings, greens, faculty, and traditions. The oldest college was established in the 13th century, which is incredible! Oxford University tuition currently runs 3000 pounds a year, and next year the tuition will reportedly jump to 9000 pounds per year. Scholarships are available for rowing, rugby, singing, organ, and academics.

Jim Godfrey, a Verger at the church, gave us an informative and entertaining talk about Christ Church. As a college, Christ Church was established in the 16th century. The cathedral was built prior to that in the 12th century and is among the oldest buildings in Oxford. It is the only church in the world to be both a cathedral and a college chapel. The bell tower was built in 1682 by none other than the familiar Sir Christopher Wren. The all-male choir for the church is comprised of lay people who are professional musicians and choral scholars who are chosen through an audition process. Freddie, our walking guide, spent many, many days singing in this beautiful church. John and Charles Wesley not only studied here for three years, but the Wesley brothers were ordained at Christ Church Cathedral.

Jim told us interesting stories about Christ Church. Oxford is 1¼ degrees west of Greenwich where time was standardized in 1852. Each degree of longitudinal separation adds one minute of difference in time. Rather than using the same time as Greenwich, Christ Church uses the technically more accurate value of GMT plus five minutes. Therefore, the daily choral service starts at 6:05, not 6:00.

The famous children’s story Alice in Wonderland was written by Charles Dodgson (published as Lewis Carroll) in Oxford in 1862, ten years after time was standardized. Remember the White Rabbit character? With a time difference of five minutes past GMT, everyone in Oxford is always late for a very important date!

There in the choir stalls of Christ Church Cathedral, our youth sang “If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments” under Cameron’s direction. In this setting, it was a privilege to hear them sing so beautifully. The spiritual message of their anthem was palpable sitting in this historic and gorgeous cathedral.

Jim directed us next to visit a wide stone staircase that was used in the filming of Harry Potter. The stairs led to a Great Hall that was the inspiration to build the movie set for the “sorting hat” sequence in the first film where Harry is assigned to the House of Gryffindor. Our youth lingered on the staircase and took a great while strolling through the Great Hall. With friends or solo, this was the most photographed spot on tour so far!

We were given money for lunch and a couple hours of free time in Oxford. Many people took the opportunity to shop for souvenirs, thinking of loved ones at home. Primark, River Island, and Alice in Wonderland Shop were just a few of the store names on shopping bags that came back to the buses. A couple of groups made a bee-line for University Church of St. Mary the Virgin to climb 127 narrow, twisting stone stairs of the 14th century bell tower. The view from the top of the Oxford spires and colleges on this clear, sunny day was breathtaking. Another worthwhile climb was the Saxon Tower at St. Michael at the North Gate, built in 1040 and Oxford’s oldest building – wow!

The buses took us to visit a school named SS. Philip and James’ Church of England Aided Primary School. The locals call it Phil & Jim. Allison Hall, the Assistant Headteacher, held an assembly of 100+ students ages 8-11 to hear our choir sing. Walt introduced the singing of a portion from our tour program that would most appeal to this younger audience. The children were attentive and interested and, most of all, adorable! The students ended the assembly with three cheers for our youth, “Hip, hip, hooray!” followed by refreshments and mingling.

After dinner in The Dragon School cafeteria, we prepared for an evening concert at nearby St. Andrew’s Church. In chatting with Andy and Jules, who are on the church staff, we learned that Andy was at Phil & Jim earlier this day as well! He paid them a visit to promote the church Holiday Club, which is the equivalent to our Vacation Bible School. What a small world!

St. Andrew’s Church was the venue for the last concert on our England tour. The youth were excited, knowing there was no reason to hold back on voices or playing. The church has beautiful arches and a ½ dome over the altar, making for incredible acoustics. An amazing feast of music was served up this evening. The choir had a full, robust sound. Special recognition goes to our soloists for the Mass – Madeline Waters, Katherine Williams, Dylan Howe, and Dan Krotz. Friends and family are rightfully proud of them! The Yorkshire Ballad flowed with clarity from the chorus and strings. Robert Williams played the French horn brighter than ever in the horn concerto. Sleepers Awake was romantic and playful. Ross Thompson’s trumpet solo on One Faith, One Hope, One Lord was amazing. Omnia Sol was a standout favorite once again. Cameron directed If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments, and he sang a gorgeous solo for Bright Morning Stars. What a talent! God Be with You ‘Til We Meet Again was compelling and heartfelt, and arranger Steve Kalnoske should be extremely proud. Lastly, Matthew Fitzsimmons, Jessie Boulden, and Ross Thompson, backed by the orchestra, played the lively Bugler’s Holiday as the final number to a grand concert series.

Walt and Peggy, we wish you a Happy Anniversary this day! Hopefully you will have many good and lasting memories of this special day.

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2011 Tour - Day 9: From Bristol to The Dragon School

Blogger's Note:  As often happens on Tour the days get shorter and the ability to post each days activities becomes slightly more difficult as the time passes.  The Blog for day 9, 10 and 11 will be posted today with links to the photos.  Thank you to our media team (Wendy, Sue, Suzie and the numerous others who supplied photos), for making the Tour Blog a success this year.  Please read and enjoy the rest of the entries.  ~ Doug


During the early morning drive back to Totterdown Church in Bristol, two youth greeters on each bus made the daily rounds, giving each person a warm hug. On the Gold Cricket bus, greeters were Noah and Hannah Zecher-Freeman. This was a very special day for Hannah. Everyone on the bus sang an enthusiastic “Happy Birthday” in celebration of her 17th birthday!

We arrived in plenty of time to prepare for the 10:00 worship service at Totterdown Church. On this sunny morning, light was streaming in through the beautiful Gothic windows of the church, highlighting the dark green cushions and the wood pews. Our visit to this church was a time of true community in Christ, as a guest lay leader gave the sermon and our visiting youth sang their praises to God our Father. The lay leader also told a children’s story about an elephant to demonstrate that God’s love is immeasurable. We have felt this on tour as people have opened their hearts and homes to us every step of the way. Our choir and orchestra participated in the service on several musical numbers. Our newest piece, Bright Morning Stars, was performed beautifully with Joshua Boulden singing the tenor solo. This song links the imagery of dawn and moving stars to the internal movement of spiritual renewal. When you hear the song, you feel this welling up inside you.

Following the service, we enjoyed a delicious Indian meal prepared at the church by the Eurasian women of the congregation. They lovingly served us a full hot meal of tandori chicken, pulaw rice, spicy vegetables, roast potatoes, salad, yogurt sauce, lemon tart with cream, and ├ęclairs. To sisters Aroona Smith and Anita Lewis, and the other women and young girls who volunteered – we loved the meal – Thank You!!

We drove a couple of hours east to Oxford and The Dragon School, an elite boarding and day school for girls and boys ages 4-13. Our two-day stay in Oxford included meals at The Dragon School with nights spent in host homes.

We received a warm welcome from John Madden, Music Director at The Dragon School. He provided maps (very helpful) and an introduction to the school. We saw a short film that gave us insight into daily life at this school of 850 pupils. The school was founded in 1877, and paintings of their past Headmasters looked down on us as we learned about their program.

School terminology can be confusing, and here is a brief English translation from US to UK:
US private school = UK public school (e.g., The Dragon School)
US public school = UK state school
US elementary school = UK primary (or pre-preparatory) school (ages 4-8)
US middle school = UK preparatory school (ages 8-13)

The Dragon School is socially-minded and aims to develop the whole person. Arts and athletics are at the core of the curriculum along with academics. Students who board at the school have “house parents” who ensure that school is an extended family and truly a second home. The Dragon School has an amazing arts program for string instruments, harp, brass, and pipe organ. Their 50-member children’s choir was a finalist in the 2011 BBC Songs of Praise competition. In the video shown, the choir sang “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” with inspiring tone. Sports include cricket (boys), rounders (girls), and tennis (both boys and girls). The school also offers fencing, rowing, cooking, and climbing. Among alumni names, we recognized actors Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson.

By afternoon the weather had turned incredibly warm and sunny, with temperatures in the 80’s, or 27 degrees centigrade. (One host home gave us a tip on a rough conversion from centigrade to Fahrenheit: [(Centigrade degrees X 2) + 30] = approximate Fahrenheit temperature.)

With a couple hours of free time, some took the 20-minute walk into the town of Oxford to explore churches or visit Blackwells, one of the largest bookstores in the world. Most headed in another direction, to the scenic River Cherwell. The Dragon School is adjacent to “pleasure grounds,” a wooded park-like setting with beautiful poplars growing near a pond that led to the river walk. We spread out to enjoy playing games, splashing in the water, running, or just chilling on the river bank. We saw families of ducks paddle by and many pleasure boats punting down the stream. The greenery and water were the ultimate refreshment on this warm afternoon.

Dinner was served in The Dragon School cafeteria. We learned that “eating irons” are silverware. The main dishes were jumbo fish fingers and a tomato/eggplant dish. A wide assortment of cooked vegetables, salad greens, fresh fruit, cheeses, yogurt, and desserts were offered. We decided the students at The Dragon School must be quite happy indeed.

In the evening we attended a Piano Extravaganza recital at The Dragon School with over 80 short pieces performed. Music is clearly a focus at the school, which we can surely appreciate! We also saw colorful artwork on display that students of all ages had created. After the recital, we were assigned to host homes. Our host families are a mix – some with an association through The Dragon School, others through St. Andrew’s Church only a few blocks away (where we will perform tomorrow night). Another fulfilling day had passed, and we looked forward to staying two nights in a row with our new families.

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