Tuesday, December 22, 2009
The Docks' Choir.
My Grandfather was choir master for the Falmouth Docks' Choir. My Mother was a pianist, accompanying a large Dance Band Orchestra during and after WWII. Somehow it took me years and years of my adulthood to stop taking those facts for granted and to realize that my Mother's name "Carmen"; completely unusual and incongruous in rural England; was bestowed upon her in an uncharacteristically romantic nod to Grandfather's passion for music.
Grandad worked as a Marine Carpenter at Falmouth Docks. There was an honest to goodness wood-shed in his back yard where he stored remnants and off-cuts that he brought home from work. As kids we were allowed to play with hammers and nails and to split wood with an axe to make kindling bundles for the neighbors, all in the clean aroma of fresh wood chips and damp sea air.
In a corner of the wood-shed was the outdoor lavatory, which had been added to a house originally built without plumbing. Rain or shine, when we stayed at our Grandparents' house, we would follow the call of Nature through the kitchen, down the outside back stairs and into the woodshed, which closely hugged the house, although lower down the hillside. There were a couple of concrete steps and a wood plank door, always freshly painted. The water cistern was high above the toilet and we were always delighted to pull that dangling chain.
Sitting on the throne for more than a moment, we would notice another door facing us. This had been a space dug under the house, into the hillside, to serve as a bomb shelter during the war. Now used to store books, we could rarely resist opening it up, just to see.
33 Beacon Road, is the address, on Beacon Hill. It is where I was born. My parents had flown home from West Africa to make sure I was born on British soil. My Grandparents raised five daughters there, were a mecca for returning grandchildren and Grandad was still looking after himself and living there, independently, when he died in his ninety-sixth year.
Beacon Hill is so named because it is the highest point for miles around. This was one of many Beacon Hills in England. If the Spanish Armada or other invaders were sighted arriving from the sea, beacon fires would be hastily lit and the warning would reach London, hundreds of miles away, in a very short time.
Falmouth is an estuary, the mouth of the river Fal spills out here into Carrick Roads, all protected from wind and weather by the jutting headlands, still crowned by centuries old Pendennis Castle. The ebb and flow of salt and fresh water encourage the oyster beds and the oyster boats are distinctive with their red-brown sails. For preservation purposes the boats cannot be bought, only handed down generation to generation and a moving boat is the only legal way to collect the oysters.
The Port and Dock area of Falmouth is the third deepest natural harbour in the World. Not suprising how a tradition of boat building and repair would grow here. The local Coast Guard coordinates search and rescue missions over the whole Atlantic Ocean and there are huge ocean-going salvage tugs lurking all year round for news of a ship in distress. If they rescue a ship then the old maritime laws of salvage apply. This is the reason that a Captain tries his hardest to stay with his ship until the end.
Falmouth has one main shopping street. The High Street runs parallel to the water, with shops on each side. The street is narrow with barely room for one-way traffic and, when a delivery truck drives slowly through, pedestrians must retreat into shop doorways. When I was a kid this was still a two way street.
The feeling in town is festive and friendly, many people know one another, having grown up and spent their whole lives right there. There are almost as many Pubs as Tea rooms; you must have somewhere to sit and refresh from all that Christmas shopping; peeling off layers of raincoats and headscarves; surrounded by crinkly paper bags of last minute gifts.
Christmas Eve afternoon is a "not to be missed" part of getting into the spirit of the holidays. The men of The Dock's Choir begin carol singing at one end of High Street and work their way along; stopping on the church steps and at several pubs along the way to entertain an appreciative crowd and raise money for charity.
I was looking for a breath of home; visiting the home town newspaper online, and was rewarded by the following snippet about a local tradition that I can visit in my mind's eye, even if I won't be there in person.
Falmouth will ring out to the Harmony Choir on Christmas Eve. by Stephan Ivall
Thousands of people are expected in Falmouth on Christmas Eve to listen and take part in the singing by the Harmony Choir.
The choir, once known as the Falmouth Docks' Choir and now made up of singers from choirs all over the area, always muster in the town on Christmas Eve to raise money for local charities and to bring a festive cheer to the town.
As usual the choir will be getting together near Trago before making their way through town to Market Strand and ending up outside The Seven Stars pub on the Moor. From there, the choir will move to the Falmouth Rugby Club which will be providing a pint and a pasty and where everyone is welcome to join further singing of carols and songs.