Visit to St John’s Stratford Broadway on 12/04/2014 by David Sutton

St John's Stratford visit 120414The ‘Old Lady’ was in fine form today. This is the affectionate name given to the three-manual Lewis organ which (who?) resides in this church. Some 13 members and friends attended on her and paid court today and found her beguiling and very becoming.

The church itself is a large building, built in 1834, right in the centre of where it all happens in Stratford (apart from Westfields and the Olympic Park), and the parish priest David Richards, his wife Carol and vibrant congregation are playing their part to make it even more at the centre. At a guess the building seats at least 450 and has a lovely acoustic to match helped by a high vaulted ceiling, generous areas of glass and exposed stonework. Its architect was Edward Blore, who had a hand in finishing Buckingham Palace after Nash had been given the sack. So the reader will guess this place has a lot going for it, both in the past and in the present.

We were met by Geoff Hobbs the organist and our host, and David Richards in the modern welcome room in the annexe added very tastefully to the side of the original building. Geoff gave us a brief introduction outlining the history of the organ in this church. The original organ – a Holdich – no longer exists as it was replaced in 1895 by the current instrument - the Lewis plus one or two additions made by the Hill Norman and Beard rebuild of 1920.

After Geoff’s intro we were escorted into the spacious nave to hear it. To illustrate the tonal capabilities of the instrument, Geoff gave us a rendering of the first movement of Elgar’s Organ Sonata. What an inspired choice and so beautifully played! It showed off the lovely, sonorous, singing diapasons Lewis is renowned for and those mellifluous flutes, string-tones and reeds which this 34 stop instrument possesses. It really whetted the appetite for when we had the chance to play it ourselves.

The organ has been restored to its former glory when it had fallen on hard times after sustaining a bout of water damage in the 1980s. Before that it had served well acting as the organ class base for the renowned Stratford and East London Festival in the middle of the 20th century. Now it plays as well as ever. The writer found it very easy to manage and the pneumatic thumb-pistons are very prompt in action. Wandering round the church listening to the others I got a real sense of space and grandeur of the sound which is not fully appreciated at the attached console.

Whilst the players were enjoying themselves, the non-players explored the building’s interior and were surprised to find several connections with the church which they never thought existed. One of us, who had roots in Forest Gate, pointed at one of the display of photographs showing individuals (and accompanying captions) who have played a part over the years in the parish, and exclaimed that a lady must have come to their house in Forest Gate when he was a boy! Another of our group said his parents had their banns read there. Although the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Catholic priest as an adult, he was baptised in this church as he grew up in Stratford as an Anglican before he converted to Catholicism. There is a memorial in the churchyard (erected in 1879) commemorating the 1556 martyrdom of Protestants by Mary Tudor nearby. I wonder what he felt about that?

This visit was not scheduled to happen at all but an aborted trip to Highgate timed with a fortuitous invitation from Geoff Hobbs made this event truly a marvellous end result. Our thanks are due to Geoff and Revd. David Richards for the warm welcome and ensuing afternoon, and also for allowing us to pay court to the wonderful ‘Old Lady’ who is still going strong in her 119th year.

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