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A very Dorset Christmas: The Ridgeway Singers and Band

PUBLISHED: 21:21 25 November 2019 | UPDATED: 21:21 25 November 2019

Christmas Concert by the Ridgeway Choir and Band in 2014 showing Phil playing his serpent on the left and Tim on accordian on the right

Christmas Concert by the Ridgeway Choir and Band in 2014 showing Phil playing his serpent on the left and Tim on accordian on the right

Archant

The Ridgeway Singers and Band, led by Phil Humphries and Tim Laycock, offer a joyous musical celebration of a Dorset Christmas both past and present - and they're putting on a whole host of concerts this December

There's no better way to get into the festive spirit for a Dorset country Christmas than to attend one of the December concerts of the Ridgeway Singers and Band. Led by Phil Humphries and Tim Laycock, the 50-strong ensemble have enlivened the musical life of the county for the last six years with their authentic and exuberant performances of the old local carols - these are often referred to as West Gallery carols.

From the early 1700s until the mid-19th century, most churches had a west gallery usually at the opposite end to the altar. This was where the choir and instrumentalists would sit to accompany the church services. Most of the music was written and taught by people with little formal education but they produced great music in two, three and four parts with plenty of vitality, often very rhythmic and full voiced. Certainly it would have been something that the writer Thomas Hardy and his family would have known.

The choirs had a mix of members: some would have been able to read music and others not, so the instruments (often a mix of what was available in the parish) would be there to help support the singers. These musicians became a vital part of the village community and, besides their involvement in church music, they could be found singing and playing at dances and other secular social occasions as described so vividly in Thomas Hardy's 1872 novel Under the Greenwood Tree.

Phil Humphries conducting the choir and band at a Christmas concert in West BayPhil Humphries conducting the choir and band at a Christmas concert in West Bay

There is plenty of evidence of this musical tradition too. Dorset County Museum has hand-written musical manuscripts from several local churches, including Winterborne Monkton, Martinstown, Hinton St Mary and Pulham. The Hardy family books, containing carols played at Puddletown, hold pride of place in this collection. The carolling almost died out after the First World War, but in recent years, thanks to groups such as the Beaminster Gallery Choir and the Purbeck Village Quire, these traditional local carols can again be heard in Dorset.

The Ridgeway Singers and Band, one of the great exponents of this musical genre, were originally formed as part of the South Dorset Ridgeway Landscape Partnership. This was established back in 2011 to explore the archaeology, natural history and culture of the Ridgeway. Artsreach, Dorset's Rural Touring Scheme, approached musicians Tim Laycock and Phil Humphries to set up a group to research and perform the music of the area. Both Phil and Tim had worked for many years with the old carols, folksongs and traditional dance music of Dorset, and this was a great opportunity to share the music more widely, and introduce it to people living in the county.

Ridgeway Band and Choir performing at Dorset County Museum in 2017Ridgeway Band and Choir performing at Dorset County Museum in 2017

Phil Humphries, who lives in Dewlish, is not only a professional trombonist but also one of the leading exponents of the serpent. This sinuous-looking instrument is descended from the cornett, is a distant ancestor of the tuba, and is on nodding terms with the woodwind family. No West Gallery line-up would be complete without a serpent adding its deep resonance to the backing band. Phil is the principal arranger and conductor of the Ridgeway Singers and Band. He has also been a full-time member of the Mellstock Band for many years, and as such has provided music for adaptations of Hardy novels on film, TV and radio, and the celebrated BBC TV adaption of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice. He has also toured all over the country, Europe and to the USA performing the traditional music and song of Dorset.

Tim Laycock, who grew up in the north of the county, loves the old stories, traditions and songs of Dorset. As an actor, folk musician and storyteller he has a lifetime of experience of researching and performing and celebrating the musical life of Hardy's Wessex. Tim is also the artistic director of the New Hardy Players, and is often to be found at Max Gate and Hardy's Cottage telling stories and playing the music and songs associated with Thomas Hardy.

Drawing on their combined knowledge of Dorset's rich musical history, Phil and Tim devise the programmes of the Ridgeway Singers and Band. The performers, all local and from all walks of life, are united by an interest in the musical traditions of the area. Over the last six years these musicians come together in October to rehearse a new programme of seasonal songs, carols, traditional music and stories, inspired by Dorset and the surrounding counties. Over time the group has developed its repertoire, and new songs and carols have been written. These 21st century additions include Tim Laycock's Ridgeway Carol (One Bright Star), Phil Humphries' setting of Dorset by John Betjeman, Lizzie Lucas's lovely arrangements including her setting of Thomas Hardy's poem Great Things and Anna Eveleigh's evocative In Praise of Dorset Apples with its litany of old Dorset apple varieties.

In 2018 the group recorded some of their favourite carols, dance tunes and folksongs. The CD One Bright Star is a lovely mix of traditional Dorset material as well as new songs and settings. You can pick up a copy at any of their concerts, including four in December, which offer a truly heart-warming Christmas experience. So do try and make it to one of these events.

West Gallery Carol Concerts

The Ridgeway Singers and Band's celebration of a Dorset Christmas past and present, including works from the Puddletown and Bridport manuscripts, are at these four concerts:

1 December:

All Saints Church, Piddletrenthide

Starts at 4pm. Details and tickets 01300 348247 or 348851, or artsreach.co.uk.

11 December:

Weymouth Library

Starts at 7pm. More details 01305 762410 or book tickets online at Eventbrite.

15 December:

St Christopher's Church, Winfrith Newburgh

Starts at 4pm. More details and tickets 01305 853783, Winfrith Village Stores, or artsreach.co.uk.

20 December:

The Dorford Centre, 2 Bridport Road, Dorchester

Starts 7.30pm. Tickets TIC in Dorchester Library, 01305 852826 or whitecockade@gmail.com..

Find out more about these events at ridgewaysingersandband.wordpress.com

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