A visit to Notting Hill Gate and Bayswater on 11/10/2014 by David Sutton

St John Notting Hill1In the summertime we went east. Now in the autumn we went west. Perhaps this is a bit beyond what could be described as “our patch” but who cares! CLESO regards London as its oyster and we are indeed so fortunate to live here with such a variety of fabulous instruments to hear and play. So with eager anticipation we took to the Central Line to Notting Hill Gate.

St John’s Church stands in a commanding position at the top of a hill in an area which has had something of a chequered history. Now it is one of the prime areas of London to live but, not so long ago, it was an area known for Rachmann and the terrible situation he created with his empire of sub-standard rented housing. It has always been a location where the extremely well-off and the poor have lived cheek by jowl. Indeed the church was built on the site of a racecourse (The Hippodrome) on the Ladbroke estate and opened in 1845. The then organ was acquired from Holy Trinity Clapham and therefore created a connection with Wilberforce the reformer. It was re-built by Hele (c1880) incorporating the Gray pipework of the Clapham organ and put into a chamber by the lady chapel. It proved in the event to be rather cramped and did not allow the instrument to give a good account of itself.  As time passed it became the worse for wear due to dirt and old age and the time came for decisions to be made as to its future. 

The ‘Wilberforce connection’ enabled a generous donation to be made and opportunity was taken to move it to the north transept and now it now speaks unhindered into the large and airy space of the building. The result of the deliberations and work is stunning both visually and aurally. Sadly the resident organist could not be with us but he was ably represented by Sam Barber the organ scholar. He gave us a short introduction and led us through the wonderful exhibition/display which is mounted in the transept where the organ now is. This exhibition gives, in pictorial form with explanatory text, the history of the instrument and also a working ‘model organ’ which illustrates how the various parts work. Lights are also strategically placed which can be activated by draw-stop switches, each bearing the title of the function it illuminates. We also had a lovely time exploring the tonal resources of the instrument beautifully restored by T.W.Fearn. The mechanical action is very light and easy on the fingers and the Barker Levers work a treat – compared with others of the same vintage the writer has experienced!

Sadly we had to depart too quickly in order to get our lunches in and get to our next port of call in Bayswater.

St Matthews as a building is huge, seating about 1500+. Its stature befits its illustrious surroundings with Hyde Park, the Hilton, St Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral and a large synagogue in the vicinity. Its interior footprint is almost square in dimensions - with a gallery and its height almost making it a cube. The organ, a three-manual 1912 Walker built for the building is situated high up overlooking the altar on the north side. It therefore has every acoustic advantage (and it shows!). All the pneumatics have been retained (including the pistons) and the plumb-bob on the console stop-jambs indicating the level of wind in the bellows. It has been lovingly and beautifully restored. Unfortunately the organist of the church could not be with us on this occasion so we had free reign from the very beginning of our visit.

The writer was very fortunate to have played this instrument in the 2013 Ride & Stride Day when CLESO provided organists for participating churches who wanted their organs played for the visitors. But he had not heard it as the congregation do because the console is attached. Although it is very satisfying to play, the full effect can only be appreciated down below from the main body of the church. Sam Barber of St John’s had joined us for the afternoon and he showed us what it could do with a rendition of a movement of a Mendelssohn sonata. It was much appreciated by all. Alan Winn (of the Surrey Association and guest for the day), also managed to have his play as his contribution to the 2014 Ride & Stride and Open Day was thwarted by a power outage on the day shutting down the blower. From a purely practical point of view, one of our folk who suffered from vertigo had a certain difficulty in playing it as the organ stool is only backed by a stone wall only just over three foot high and the drop (about thirty feet!) to the church floor below looms rather dramatically. We wrapped ourselves in the rich yet bright sound this organ makes. This is Edwardian splendour at its best!         

Our grateful thanks is extended to all who gave so freely of their time at both churches and made our day so enjoyable.                                                                        

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