Visit to Marlow on 13/06/2015 by David Sutton
A somewhat dull and dreary day dawned when a small group of CLESO folk descended on Marlow. The town was already buzzing with activity as it was also the annual Regatta Day. To signify this we were greeted by a posse of Thames Valley police cars at our arrival at the train station – they were there to deal with boating crowds, not us (I think!).
Our first port of call was Christ Church United Reformed Church, Oxford Road. Just as we arrived the rain started. This was a bit inconvenient as somehow the person due to meet us and unlock the building had not turned up at the appointed time. So we repaired to the coffee shop just round the corner and had a welcome coffee. Whilst we were there, the “key-man” turned up and we managed to get inside the beautifully modernised and appointed building. The organ, a modest two manual Father Willis, is placed in an open position so the tone floods out into the space. Although the specification is small (Great 5, Swell 4 Pedal 1) the tone certainly was not. Being typically Willis, the robust and singing diapason chorus would (it could be imagined) easily sustain a full congregation of 200+. The mechanical action was reasonably easy to manage and the whole instrument was restored very recently by Willis so it was in first class working order and sounded very fine. Skilled use of the limited stop list produced a satisfying range of sound for the player and listener. The downside for the player was the console area was very cramped as the built-up area of the platform dais encroached so that the wooden surround-screening would not allow the bench to be adjusted backwards.
After a satisfying session at the URC, we adjourned as a group to the local Prezzo and with commendable speed we were served, regally fed and watered, and on our way in 45 minutes in time for our next venue which was All Saints Parish Church.
All Saints Church is a relatively modern building (i.e. mid Victorian) as the previous structures had succumbed to the elements aided and abetted by the adjacent River Thames. The church is located on the river bank by the suspension bridge and one could not wish for a more idyllic situation. From the seats in the churchyard we were afforded a grandstand view of the regatta and its activities as the rain had now stopped. Sadly we had a similar situation with keys as we had at the URC. Yes the church was open and staffed with a marvellous set of greeters but no organist or keys for the organ. Fortunately, a member of the greeting team (who arrived a little while after our predicament) came to our aid and he located the keys to the organ loft and blower which enabled us to get under way. We were not disappointed!
The organ, a three-manual of 35 stops – basically by Father Willis (1876) – was restored by Manders and opened by Jane Parker Smith in May 1997. It is a joy. However, before that, it suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. In 1889, Willis wrote a heart-felt letter of complaint to the church for allowing the roof over the organ to be removed and replaced without any protection. (One can imagine the damage that caused!). In the 1950s the organ was showing distinct signs of old-age and it was decided to employ Comptons to bring it up to date with a detached ‘horse-shoe’ stop-tab console and have the action electrified with a few tonal alterations. This situation lasted until the 1980s when again it was decided to have the instrument comprehensively overhauled. During the restoration the damage caused by the open roof situation in 1889 came to light and had to be dealt with at a fundamental level.
So in 1996 things got started and it was decided to try to re-establish the Willis identity without losing some of the very useful Compton innovations. All of us who played it felt very at home. The problem with the keys had cut short our time there but we all felt the visit was very worthwhile and enjoyable. The greeting team at the church were absolutely marvellous in looking after our needs and questions – what ambassadors! After this we repaired to the local tea shop and had a welcome cup of tea and a cake before our journeys home.
Thanks are due to all concerned who made our day so memorable despite the hiccups in arrangements.