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A trip down memory lane

A few days ago Fr Andrew received a lovely email from an ‘old boy’ of St.Stephen’s. He thought you might like to read it, so with Nigel’s permission...

Dear Canon Sage

Some weeks a go, coinciding with Storm Ciara, I visited St Stephen's for the 10.30 Solemn Mass. It fulfilled a long-standing ambition to attend a service at the church where I was Assistant Organist to John Askew in 1967. I grew up in Blackpool; my father was vicar of neighbouring St Paul's North Shore, and, having received no encouragement from his organist, I was fortunate in becoming JA's assistant (as well as having him for AL Music at school). My salary was £25 a year with a free organ lesson (in those days £1 a half hour) and for that I was expected to attend the Friday rehearsal, take the probationers' rehearsal on a Saturday at 9.30, and play for most of the two Sunday services. The choir's strength was some 20 boys and 14 men; and they were extremely good. It was the best training I could possibly have wished for and I went on to read Music at Cardiff University, gained the FRCO diploma and taught (Comprehensive and Independent) in the Bristol area until taking early retirement some ten years ago. Along with teaching I have always had a church organ post, and for the last twenty-eight years I have been (and presumably will be after the present situation) Director of Music at Dursley Parish Church, Gloucestershire where we have a fine organ (with a regular recital series) and a mixed adult choir of some thirty-five voices. We sing around thirty-three different Mass settings during the year, some of which have their roots at St Stephen's! I am fortunate in having an Assistant, but getting a Sunday off is never easy, given music we sing, and after my parents retired back to South Wales in 1986 I have only been back to Blackpool once; to give a recital on the wonderful Fr Willis in St John's in 2003 before it was removed to Lancaster Priory. So I was delighted to attend St Stephen's on Sunday 9th February 2020 and see how little the service had changed since the 1960's, complete with full ceremonial and Merbecke's setting of the credo. Unlike so many churches, St Stephen's still has a prayerful atmosphere, and has avoided being transformed into an ecclesiastical hotel lounge bar like so many “upgraded” churches! It was a pleasure to be part of the congregation. Enclosed are a few bits which may be of interest. My mother died in 2018, and my wife and I have been sifting through an amazing amount of paperwork; it seems that my parents never threw anything away! Quite why there should be a copy of the January 1931 St Stephen's parish magazine, I really cannot imagine, but it makes interesting reading.

It is fascinating to note that within a few years of the church's dedication there was already a strong musical tradition which, I think, reached its peak in the time of John Askew. He and Fr Geoffrey were both very strong characters who appreciated each other's skills and expertise, but it was never a particularly cordial relationship! I was never convinced of the “new” organ from St Philip's Blackburn as it was just too big for the building and never worked particularly well. I remember playing it in the mid 1970's and being very disappointed that there was a horrible time lag and there never seemed to be enough wind to power the fine reeds. Ironically the little Harrison organ it replaced was a gem and, apart from the odd occasion, was powerful enough for the building. Still I'm glad to see that you now have a good digital organ which works really well, but quite what to do with the Willis pipes must be a bit of a headache – especially in a case which does little to enhance the building, unlike the excellent “completed” West end. We had hoped to pay a visit to Blackpool later in the year, hopefully over a Sunday, but as the weeks of lock-down roll by that prospect is fast diminishing. 2021 perhaps? In the meantime, my gratitude for maintaining the best Anglican tradition at St Stephen's (long may it thrive!) at a time when the C of E really doesn't know where it stands, and I hope to be able to meet you in the not too distant future.

Yours sincerely, Nigel Davies

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