A visit to St Mary’s Standon on 05/09/2015 by David Sutton
Standon is that quintessential English village with its main street of ancient dwellings, two pubs, and the church at its heart. The chancel of the present church dates back to the 13th century and the remainder was erected in the 14th and 15th centuries. The building is unusual with the chancel being set at a much higher level than the nave and is reached by a flight of six or seven (quite high!) steps. The altar is set higher still. It is called a processional church and was founded by the Knights of St John. You can see the familiar ‘St John’s Ambulance’ cross on the wall by the console. The Victorians did a major restoration in the 19th century, added a vestry, and supplied an organ of very modest proportions – two manual and pedals (Great 7, Swell 5, Pedal 1) sited in a chamber on the South side of the choir.
How this instrument coped with accompanying a congregation in a church of such large dimensions can only be imagined. A rotting timber floor in the organ chamber brought things to a head. Then fortuitously a number of things came together - firstly the presence of Kevin Bowyer on the organ bench, and secondly, the availability of the three manual chapel organ of Haileybury School which was now redundant as it was being replaced by a Klais. Coupled with Kevin’s enthusiasm, Saxon Aldred’s organ-building skills and the availability of a second-hand organ of some considerable resource (including its three manual console) the new organ at St Mary’s took shape and was refashioned into what we have today. What was previously ‘locked up’ in the chancel was now able to be heard properly as the Great and Choir sections are located in the nave in a handsome new case in the south aisle. The Swell section speaks directly into the nave through the tracery opening between the chamber and the south aisle. The new instrument is substantial (Great 10, Swell 11, Choir 10, Pedal 10).
Michael Smith was our host for the afternoon and he had very generously provided literature for us which gave the history of the organs and perhaps more interestingly a copy of the story of Saxon Aldred written by him. Michael gave us a quick demo of the instrument showing its versatility and range of colour from pianissimo to fortissimo and then we were allowed to play it for ourselves. (He then went home to have some lunch and a rest as he had played at a wedding in the depths of wildest Essex earlier and had come straight back for us.) It is wonderful to find such an instrument of this stature in a village church. The music tradition at St. Mary’s is well documented and the choir is over thirty strong! The light and airy space has a rich resonance and is very good for the music, although Michael said it can be bitterly cold in winter! For me the organ ‘sang’. All five players put it through its paces – the music ranging over three or more centuries - and it coped admirably.
Those of us who were a little adventurous ventured outside into the sunshine and sampled the view over the glorious Hertfordshire countryside whilst seated in the churchyard which occupied the ground to the rear of the church. The building is built into the side of a hill and the churchyard surrounds it. There is allegedly a race to see who can get pole position for his or her grave! The views are stunning and it was very peaceful up there, particularly so because it was (for once) a lovely day. Inside Michael had provided refreshments.
All in all we all had a fantastic afternoon and grateful thanks are due to Michael for being so helpful and giving us the opportunity to play such an instrument in such august surroundings.