Kathryn Harries - Soprano

Saturday, June 17, 2006

A cow's point of view...

Diana and I got up at 6.15am – yes, four hours of sleep – washed and dressed as quietly as possible, had a quick breakfast and drove back to Wing in Diana’s car.
We’d agreed with Lorna the previous evening that she should have the day off nannying us and spend Saturday catching up with paper work. She would pick us up at the end of the day and run us back to Wing where we were going to leave Diana’s Mazda.
The main reason for getting up so horribly early after such a late night was to do a reasonable amount of walking before it became uncomfortably hot. The weather forecast for the weekend was for more blisteringly high temperatures; not an appealing prospect when trying to cover more than 20 miles.
Yesterday evening we asked the landlord’s permission to park in the pub car park for the day – and he kindly agreed we might do so.
We chose the shadiest spot we could find, gathered together our rucksacks, maps and several bottles of water each and strolled out of the car park and into the village.
The temperature was blissfully cool and the slight breeze carried the subtle fragrance of jasmine and roses. We ambled rather than strode along the pavements to loosen up our muscles and enjoyed the peace and quiet of early morning in the glorious countryside.
After an uneventful few miles on minor roads we reached the beautiful little village of Deene; it was already very hot and we both needed a pee – is this a problem of middle-age? Do you need to go more frequently after a certain birthday? Perhaps it was just the quantity of water we were drinking but whatever the reason, we looked in vain for a loo.
Studying the map on a grassy bank took our minds off our bladders and we opted to backtrack slightly and walk along a footpath into Deene Park.
We walked into the park and stood admiring a sizable lake covered in shiny yellow water lilies – I went through the usual ridiculous rigmarole to take a photo and as we turned onto the path again we stopped dead.
Blocking our way were twenty or more Friesian cattle; we looked at them and they looked at us for a long minute and no one moved. It was like another scene from a cowboy film where the Goody and the Baddy face each other in the main street while all the townsfolk run for cover.
Bugger this for a game of soldiers, I said, and walked into them waving my cap. They moved higgledy piggledy out of my way and revealed… a very large bull.
He and his latest squeeze were, by good fortune, on the other side of a cattle grid so Diana and I hopped over a stile and crossed a stream to what we thought was safety.
We were WRONG.
As we hopped over another stile into the next field, lo and behold, we were greeted by the bull and his girlfriend who’d simply walked around the thicket of bushes through which we’d passed and which we’d assumed separated one field from the other.
What a statuesque figure he made; what a big boy he was, in every sense of the word; and how close we all were to each other…
Diana and I looked at him, looked at each other, looked at him again and began to sidle very gently along the fence in the opposite direction to the one we wanted. ‘Walk normally,’ she whispered. ‘No problem,’ I whispered back. And we slowly angled our route up and over the hill, avoiding his harem and multitude of progeny, until we were well clear of the lot of them and could have a nervous laugh.
He, of course, was king of all he surveyed and didn’t give a monkey’s about two pathetic female humans; and I must say, from a cow’s point of view, he was rather a hunk.
We strolled onwards, admiring what must have been Deene Hall to our left, and with the threat of being gored behind us, the need to pee returned tenfold. Diana must have a bigger bladder than me – mind you, she doesn’t drink as much water as I do. Whatever, I could wait no longer and nipped behind a handy tree. Oh joy, oh rapture.
Lighter now and with renewed vigour in my step, I ran a couple of hundred yards across the grass to join her as she reached a copse. The footpath sign indicated straight on over the stile, so this we did and entered the cool darkness of the densely growing woodland. The narrow path meandered before us and as I led the way, Diana gave up the unequal struggle and nipped behind a tree. HA!
Within moments, I emerged from the trees and was faced in every direction with impenetrable thickets of five foot tall stinging nettles. Where the bloody hell had the path gone? I picked up a stick and thrashed about in an unsuccessful fashion reminiscent of a field trip up the Amazon; and when Diana caught up we agreed that all the Anthisan in the world wouldn’t be enough to soothe the nettle rash that would result should we be stupid enough to push our way forward. So we made our way back through the wood, over the stile and towards a gateway.
It said in very large letters; WAY OUT.
So, with red faces and tingling, stinging legs, we followed the signs until we walked under an impressive archway and out on to the A43. What a pair of pillocks.
We crossed the main road and wended our way up hill for a short way before turning right along a quiet lane that eventually led us onto what we thought was a disused airfield. As we walked along what I suppose must once have been a runway, a hare suddenly darted out from the undergrowth to our right; it dashed away from us, zig-zagging like a lunatic until it bolted into the grass further along. Then back to silence and the glare of the midday sun.
We gave a first class impression of startled deer as a microlight flew over us without warning; the whining buzz ripped through the air like a circular saw and, shading our eyes, we watched as it motored through the sky like an ungainly invention of Heath Robinson.
The shadeless runway went on and on and on, taking us parallel to the north of Corby on our left, past some aircraft hangars where more microlights were stored until, eventually, we turned right onto a bridleway that brought us to the A 427.
We crossed over onto another bridlepath and after a trouble-free, cattle-free few miles ended up in Brigstock. We stopped at the first pub we came to – the Three Cocks – and staggered out of the bright sunlight into the comparative gloom of the bar. It was fairly full and I was acutely aware that my wearing shorts was a really bad idea; we ordered our drinks and jacket potatoes from the charming lady behind the bar while the mostly male customers looked us up and down in flush-inducing scrutiny.
Sidling past testosterone-packed males seemed to be the order of the day so we slid into a safe and solitary corner of the pub where we ate a very enjoyable meal. The barmaid very generously offered to fill our empty water bottles for free and put them in the freezer to chill until we were ready to leave.
We took advantage of the facilities, comme toujours, and as she handed us our water bottles, the kindly barmaid asked us where we were walking. A grave error from her point of view because we told her.
Leaving the pub, we had to shade our eyes against the brightness of the day. The heat was now very intense and we walked in whatever shade was available as we took quiet lanes and footpaths due south through Cranford St Andrew and Cranford St John.
While we sat for a few minute’s rest on a handy bench, a car containing four well-dressed young people drew up and the front passenger asked us fumily for directions to Cranford Hall. Diana had the map so Diana got up to help them; what a star. They appeared to take in what she had to say – even though more than a little drink had already been taken – and with jovial cries of thanks they proceeded to drive fifty or so yards round the corner to their destination.
Johnny rang to say that after expenses the concert last night made over £4,000 which was terrific and a sizable addition to the funds.
Diana and I eased ourselves stickily off the bench and, toiling in the now unbearable heat, we left the Cranfords. Within a mile we took a footpath that led us across a field and unbelievably down a flight of steps onto the A 14.
This dual carriageway is like a motorway and the average speed of the cars and lorries along the stretch we wanted to cross must be well over seventy miles an hour. Traffic whooshed past in a constant stream and we looked at each other in horror. Diagonally across the four lanes of tarmac was another flight of steps leading into a field on the opposite side, so this was evidently the official way forward.
So, like racehorses in the starting stalls, we waited for a gap in the traffic and shouting, ‘GO!’ we legged it as fast as we could to the central reservation. Whew! And then we had to do it all over again to get to the other side; this was beginning to feel like one of those ‘why did the chicken cross the road?’ jokes.
We climbed the steps and followed the grassy footpath across a scorchingly hot meadow. I felt like yelling at the sun to bugger off because it was really unpleasant and I kept thinking that heat stroke was but a whisper away. Oh, the relief to leave the unforgiving open field and walk along a short stretch of shady road.
It didn’t last long, however, and within a quarter of a mile we were back on the blistering tarmac and heading for Great Addington.
Diana had kept up with me all day without any difficulty but now, because I wanted to get out of the sun as fast as possible, I lengthened my stride and the distance between us opened up. I hot-footed it – literally – up and down the hills heading for the church spire that appeared tantalisingly from time to time.
I reached the Jag, which Lorna had parked beside the church, several minutes before Diana and I hopped into the back seat to avoid the full blast of the air conditioning which makes me cough like an idiot. It’s a boring singer thing.
Diana arrived, plonked herself on to the front seat and map-read us back to Wing while I fell instantly asleep and nodded and drooled attractively in the back. A cup of tea would have been lovely, but Lorna hadn’t thought to bring any hot water or tea bags. Oh well…
Once back at the pub in Wing, Diana and I got into the Mazda, waved goodbye to Lorna and drove back to Stretton.
Now, you might think that having walked 23 ½ miles we’d have had enough exercise for the day. And you’d probably be right. But Helen had offered to take Diana and me out for a ride that evening and we weren’t going to pass up the opportunity.
So, back at Rookery Farm, we changed out of shorts into trousers, borrowed half-chaps and riding helmets and went into the GH stable yard to get the horses ready.
Diana rode Emily’s clever little black and white pony, Keely, I borrowed Helen and Dom’s very large and very forward going mare, Vanity, Helen GH was on her smart young performance horse, James and the other Helen had borrowed a rather handsome grey fellow called Jack.
We rode out through the village in two pairs, chatting and enjoying the coolness of the evening air. The motorists were mostly considerate, slowing down and giving us lots of room as they passed. Out of the blue, James shied violently at something in the hedgerow and pushed Van into a sports car that was creeping past – and fortunately, it was only her tail that swished across the car’s paintwork and nothing more substantial. The gasps from behind me told me how close a call it was and it reminded me that there are around 3,000 accidents each year involving horses and motor vehicles. The two Helens knew of two local women who’d had serious road accidents whilst riding; one died, the other was paralysed from the neck down. A sobering thought.
If you don’t already do so, please, please, please drive slowly past horses giving them as wide a berth as possible; it might save someone’s life.
We left the roads and walked and trotted across beautiful rolling meadows and giant fields of corn, through Clipsham Quarry and along wide inviting bridleways. Van was extremely keen to gallop but as Helen said her brakes weren’t much cop, I held her to a reluctant trot and she thought I was a total spoilsport.
We got home around nine, washed off the horses and joined Johnny on the terrace for a barbecue.
My God, Helen’s a lucky girl; he cooked butterflied lamb on the barbecue and it was gorgeous. Melt in the mouth delicious. We all drank far too much – oh what a surprise – before repairing to the sitting room to watch a recording of Katie’s concert which took place last week.
She sang like a pro and shows every sign of having what it takes to be a star.
Lorna fell fast asleep on the sofa and had to be woken up to walk across to Helen and Dom’s.
Diana and I shall be doing the same thing tomorrow and giving her a day off nannying. She can pick us up wherever we finish and hopefully have a good rest during the day. She looks pale, drawn and exhausted. Perhaps a walk in the fresh air would do her good…

Friday, June 16, 2006

Starring Bernard Cribbins

After breakfast Lorna drove Diana and me to Whissendine where we resumed our walk armed with rucksacks, several bottles of water each and our maps. Lorna had things to do for the evening concert and we were quite old and able enough to look after ourselves for a morning’s walking.
It was hot with only a suspicion of a breeze so we took advantage of every little piece of shade we could find. The four mile walk into Oakham was on a tarmac footpath so getting into a good, mile-covering rhythm was easy. We sailed past the future Oakham by-pass and reflected what a boon it would be to this pretty little town when all the heavy traffic was diverted away from the narrow, winding streets.
I had a chat with Bernard who’d just finished his interview at Rutland Radio and who was going to Rutland Water for an hour or two’s relaxation. Bernard is a great outdoorsman; he fishes and shoots at a very high standard and you can regularly see him on TV on programmes to do with fishing in particular.
As we crossed the level crossing and walked past Rutland Radio for the last time, I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window. Oh God, what a fright. I suppose we all have a mental image of ourselves that has more to do with wishful thinking than reality; when I saw this bloody great middle-aged dragon with rugby-playing thighs on display, I resolved there and then to put the shorts back in the case, whatever the weather, and seriously consider liposuction when I got home.
Diana bought some new laces for her boots and we followed the signs to the castle where there were some loos. On the way out of the square I noticed a sign outside a shop advertising ‘knick-knacks’ and ‘old peculiarities’. We didn’t linger just in case.
We bore left out of Oakham and made for Rutland Water. It was getting hotter and hotter and the glare from the sun bounced up from the tarmac in a shimmering haze.
Tractors bearing huge rolls of hay grumbled past us – driven, I have to say, by rather handsome young men. A quick consultation with the map spread out on a shady grass bank confirmed we were on the right path and we began our ramble around Rutland Water. We didn’t catch a glimpse of the water until we’d walked a good half mile or so but it was worth waiting for. Through the restful shade of the deep green trees, the water looked coolly blue and tranquil. We took some photographs through a gap in a fence to remind us of the day before rejoining the gravel path that meandered through the woods. Taking photographs is a bit of a song and dance because I have to take off my rucksack, drop my water and map on the ground, remove my baseball cap, put my specs somewhere safe before even beginning to make some sense of my digital camera. Pathetic really.
We heard the Land Rover before we saw it and stood to one side to let the vehicle past; suddenly the driver backed up until he was level with us. ‘Are you the Opera Walk?’ he asked, pointing at our chests. (we were wearing identical T shirts and looked like those sad couples who always dress the same way) ‘Indeed we are,’ we cried. It turned out he was the Ranger in charge of Rutland Water and was coming to the concert tonight. After reassuring him that I wouldn’t look like a grubby tinker, we waved bye-bye and wandered on guessing the odds on that meeting happening at all.
We left the banks of Rutland Water and ended up at the Horse and Jockey pub in Manton. With the weighty heat of the sun bearing down on us, we’d started to trudge rather than march, so being indoors away from the breathless warmth was a relief. Speaking of which, the facilities were excellent.
We had a very tasty lunch in the recently refurbished pub and can recommend it to anyone who happens upon Manton. Top marks.
Diana rang Lorna – she had a mobile signal and I didn’t – and Diana gave Lorna clear instructions on how to find us. And then, surprisingly reinvigorated, we set off to walk as far as we could before being picked up.
We managed another 1.6 miles and stopped at yet another pub in the pretty village of Wing. We piled into the Jag and were back in Stretton by 3pm.
Time for an hour’s snooze for me and a bath for Diana while Lorna went off in search of refreshments for the artists between the rehearsal and the performance.
At 5pm, Diana was by the printer in Johnny’s office as it churned out 200 sheets listing the items for the auction; I warmed up my voice in the dining room and Johnny, who had a million and one jobs to do as usual, dashed here, there and everywhere in a fever of activity. He’s amazing.
At 5.30pm, Diana and I followed Johnny and Bernard into Oakham, parked close to the school and lugged the masses of gear we had with us into the chapel and Green Room.
We had to wait outside the chapel because a wedding rehearsal was underway – it was too late to shout ‘don’t do it!’ – but the wedding party to be rather pointedly closed the doors while we chatted quietly on the bench outside; I think it showed that our version of quiet was not necessarily everyone else’s…
Once the chapel was free, we ran through the few numbers that remained after last night’s rehearsal and then got ourselves dolled up for the concert. Lorna’s first-class sandwiches were demolished in short order and while we got dressed and made up in the funny little lavatory, she and Diana put out the concert shells, donation forms and programmes with the help of some Oakham pupils.
While Lorna went to fetch the wine from Stretton, Diana and Emily GH put the concert shells on the two hundred plus seats, set out about 300 glasses and laid out the T shirts and CDs for sale.
At least sixty people turned up at the door thanks to Rutland Radio and word of mouth and the concert, which began at 8.15pm, was a huge success.
We all sang really well in that splendid acoustic; the Rosenkavalier was a triumph and Peter Davis played the piano accompaniments as if he was a one man orchestra.
The Oakham Chamber Choir sang wonderfully and showed beyond shadow of doubt why they have reached the finals of the BBC choir of the year competition. Johnny joined them in a Czech version of the Lord’s Prayer by Janacek and they brought the house down. Magificent.
Bernard was simply brilliant; he read the Father of the Bride’s reply which he did at Coverwood three years ago and had everyone howling with laughter. And when the piano intro for ‘Hole in the Ground’ began, it was like a Hollywood film. The audience cheered and clapped and then sang along. Bernard’s voice is as youthful and attractive as it was forty years ago and I can tell you categorically that the man’s a genius.
Johnny auctioned a recital by him and Helen as well as several sets of tickets for performances at ENO. He raised a great deal of money and if he ever gets fed up with singing he could consider becoming a professional auctioneer. He certainly has the knack.
After the show, everything that had come out of the cars had to go back in, so Diana, Lorna, a number of very charming and helpful Oakham girls and boys and I tidied up as swiftly as possible. The Ranger we’d met earlier in the day said hello and told me, a little shyly I thought, that I really had scrubbed up rather well. And then, that too was consigned to history.
Back to Stretton and a party catered for by the Olive Branch Pub. What fantastic food and company and it was gone 2am before Diana and I tottered up to bed somewhat the worse for drink. Lovely-jubbly.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Footpaths - an endangered species

I got up at 5.45am, shuffled all my bags to the front door, stripped the bed, tidied up, had a cup of tea and left my very nice flat in Leeds for the last time. Lorna brought the Jag right to the front door of the apartment building to save me a hernia and as soon as we’d loaded up, we were away and on to the M1.
I fell asleep yet again; poor Lorna drove all the way to Nottingham with me huffling, snuffling and swaying beside her. We negotiated the Ring Road without mishap and she deposited me back at the spot at which I finished last night.
Lorna went pavement hunting for me as I made for the main road to Melton Mowbray. By the time I reached the roundabout where I turned onto the A606 I was seriously overheating. The sun was ferociously hot in spite of the early hour so I dragged off my fleece, tied it around my waist and followed the pavement – a welcome surprise – to a garage where Lorna was waiting. I had coffee and sandwiches for breakfast – not necessarily the healthiest way to start the day – and minus the fleece, and drinking water like it was going out of fashion, I carried on along the main road.
It was noisy and tiring; but when the pavement turned into grass verges that hadn’t seen a mower for several years, walking became annoyingly awkward. I had to switch from one side of the road to the other, time after time, to negotiate these bloody verges and wondered for the umpteenth time why footpaths are an endangered species.
Eventually I regained pavements, but only briefly, and then it was fluorescent tabard on and into fast, unyielding traffic. Hopping out of the way whenever I thought my number was up slowed me down considerably – and did nothing for my temper – but eventually I made it safely back onto a stretch of tarmac pavement and could relax my hawk-like vigilance. There’s nothing better designed to stop you blinking than walking into really fast and aggressive traffic. Every moment demands full attention or you die; simple really.
As I approached the top of a fairly steep hill, I suddenly encountered a tall young bearded man who began to applaud me enthusiastically and unexpectedly. He had a toddler in a pushchair with him and after a moment’s wondering what the hell was going on, I realised it was Ashley Holland, the fine British baritone.
Johnny Graham Hall had told Ashley that I would be walking that route today and Ashley very sweetly turned out with 17 month old Ewan to spur me on.
We bade each other goodbye after a ten minute chat, much to Ewan’s undisguised relief, and I took advantage of the ladies facilities at the garden centre beside which we’d been talking. Ewan’s relief paled into insignificance compared with mine.
Then onwards under the blazing sun, past neat houses with colourful gardens and serried ranks of bins waiting to be dragged back to their household stations after emptying.
I ran out of water – and had no idea where Lorna was. I rang her and got the voice mail because the mobile phone signals were patchy and shortly after she phoned back and said she was a few miles further ahead and would drive back.
Fifteen minutes later, refreshed and clutching yet another bottle of Buxton Water in my hot sweaty paw, I marched at full pelt along the A606 through a couple of villages and began the ascent of Great Broughton Hill.
Time was not on my side at this point because I was due to record an interview for Rutland Radio in Oakham at 1.15pm and I didn’t want to be late.
I pressed on, dodging juggernaut after juggernaut and throwing myself into nasty scratchy hedges every time anything large thundered past. It became very clear that to proceed any further on the road would render my children motherless, so I did a lightning dash across the road, climbed a rusty gate and trespassed my way through a field that followed the direction of the hill. It was rutted and steep but safe; but was there a way out? No.
I shimmied through a tunnel of nettles and brambles, climbed under, then over, two scrappy fences, negotiated a ditch and rather more solid fence and then fought my way into the next field through more nettles and brambles. Uncomfortable, yes, but mercifully not fatal.
There was no way out of the field that I could see, so I climbed another rusty gate back on to the road and started toiling up the tarmac ready to leap into the lowering hawthorn hedge at every moment.
As I sweated past a lay by on the opposite side of the road, I called ‘hi’ to a burly chap standing beside his truck and who was looking at me somewhat quizzically. ‘Are you the footpath lady?’ he called; ‘I thought you might be the footpath lady what with your fluorescent tabard and your map,’ he cried. Ah! The farmer across whose land I had just trespassed. ‘No,’ I shouted back, ‘I’m walking to London and I’m really sorry if I’ve offended you by trespassing on your land. I just wanted to reach London alive and not in a wooden box.’
That seemed to satisfy him and with a final few words of warning about the next killer bend, he leapt joyously into his truck and drove off in a cloud of exhaust fumes.
Were there actually footpaths there, I wondered? The footpath lady in these parts must be quite a formidable character if the reaction of this particular farmer was anything to go by. Go girl!
Time was now getting short and no sign of Lorna so I called her on her mobile and suggested she might like to fetch me asap if I was to get to Oakham in time for my interview.
She picked me up about half a mile further on at a crossroads and we drove into Oakham and parked near the Radio Station. I of course was by now an indescribably grubby mess covered in goose grass, dust and scratches from the morning’s walking. And to make matters worse, I was in my shorts – a sight which was enough to make strong men faint.
So I stripped off swiftly, put on some trousers and a clean shirt, dragged a brush through my hair and, having pointlessly thrown some lipstick at my chapped lips, made my way out of the car park and to Rutland Radio.
What a delightful bunch of people; I was welcomed into the handsome house that serves as the premises of Rutland Radio, given a cup of tea and unstinted use of the facilities, before being ushered into a studio to record an interview with Graham.
Graham was one of the original team which founded Rutland Radio in 1998 and he was great; full of enthusiasm about the walk, the concert at Oakham school tomorrow, meeting Bernard Cribbins and life in general. They really were like a large, energetic and very happy family, all crowded together and getting on with whatever jobs needed to be done with endless humour, patience and expertise.
Graham asked all the right questions and I cudgelled my brain into providing the right answers. The interview was to go out later in the afternoon and our hope was that we might drum up some more audience for the Friday concert. Fingers crossed.
Graham recommended the White Horse next door for lunch and while I was sipping my pint of Guinness, Diana and Lorna joined me and I treated them to a jolly good meal. The landlord seemed interested in hearing about the walk – well, he didn’t glaze over for at least five minutes – and he most kindly knocked a few quid off the final bill as a donation to the cause. What a lovely man.
Facilities were taken advantage of by us all and then we drove back to the crossroads above Great Broughton Hill and Diana and I set off together as if no time had elapsed since the parting of the ways by the Severn Bridge.
Diana’s blister had healed nicely and she was off like a bloody rocket – I could hardly keep up with her!
The day was still sunny and hot but a cooling breeze had sprung up obligingly and the walking was very pleasant. We went immediately onto minor roads and away from the A606. What a contrast to the death-defying morning. Occasional cars slowly and politely wove their way past us and we had a chance to catch up on walk news and family doings. I cheerfully handed all responsibility for our route back to Diana; she’s a damn good map reader and it was a chance for my navigational nerve centres to shut down for a well-earned rest.
We decided to go off road into Melton Mowbray and I phoned Lorna to say we’d see her somewhere in town. The paths were brilliantly well-marked and for the first few fields it was clear that the farmer and footpath lady were close chums. The paths were wide, easy to walk on and even I couldn’t get lost on them.
The same could not be said of the next few fields; the footpath lady and farmer were evidently in dispute about the state of the paths if the notices on several successive stiles were anything to go by. The paths were absolutely appalling. Nettles, brambles, waist high grasses hiding trappy holes and ruts, and the paths were frequently completely obliterated by crops. We had to lift and hurl our legs over the giant tussocks, churning up clouds of bright yellow pollen until we looked like a couple of jaundice victims reeling out of an isolation hospital.
Eventually, we made it onto better ground and walked through a housing estate wafting pollen with every step. A few turns to left and right and we were back on the old A606 once more and heading into town.
All the leg-hurling had led to an urgent need for a pee so, having spotted a suitable pub, we legged it across the road and entered a parallel universe…
The pub was festooned with England flags and the place was full of hoards of men, women and children wreathed in smoke and hollering happily at each other. The din was incredible so no one noticed two middle-aged ladies in shorts surreptitiously weaving their dusty way to the Ladies. The teenage girls in the loo who were painting each other’s faces red and white barely tossed a disdainful glance in our direction and as I sat in solitude in my cubicle, the strains of God Save the Queen filtered through the walls in an eerie and unnervingly out of tune rumble.
We slipped out of the pub as unnoticed as we slipped in; everyone’s attention was on the big screen and the battle of Titans that was shortly to begin.
Melton was like a ghost town; it took no great leap of the imagination to envisage tumbleweed bouncing down the main street and Clint Eastwood riding solitarily into the square with his hat pulled low over his eyes…
WH Smith was open but empty and we bought an OS map in record time from extremely helpful staff.
Lorna was parked in a car park somewhere near by and we told her our route out of town and asked for some more water supplies to see us through to the end of the day’s walking.
Twenty minutes later Lorna finally tracked us down on the main road out of Melton and while we walked the last couple of hours, she took the Jag to Stretton to offload all my gear at Johnny and Helen Graham Hall’s home, which was where we were staying for several days.
Diana and I wended our way briefly across country and onto tiny lanes which looked really quiet on the map but weren’t. Huge blue lorries appeared one after the other and obliged us to stand on the banks out of their bulky way. Eventually things quietened down and we could walk side by side again admiring the lovely views and the translucent quality of the evening light.
We had more than a few anxious moments wondering if we’d missed our turning – one path to Oakham after another beckoned seductively to our right and the dog-eared road map I was using was all but useless. But we were on the right road and ended the day at Whissendine where we met Lorna. I walked 25 miles today and Diana walked a very creditable 13 blister free miles in great style.
Lorna drove us to Stretton where, after a rapid bath, we all ate wonderfully well, courtesy of super cooks Johnny and Helen. Glorious roast chicken and astoundingly gorgeous roast vegetables went down a treat; at least walking long distances gives you the perfect reason for eating shed-loads. It’s going to be so depressing to go back to worrying about how many calories sneak their way down my throat when I get home.
Johnny, Helen and I went into Oakham after dinner to rehearse for tomorrow’s concert. Diana stayed behind and Lorna, who was looking absolutely shattered, went off to the GH’s terrific neighbours, Helen and Dom, who were putting her up most generously for five days.
Oakham school is beautiful; and the chapel is lovely to look at and a delight to sing in. Peter Davis, the director of music was ready to rehearse and he turned out to be one of the best pianists and accompanists we had ever worked with. Sorry – stuff these prepositions. I know I shouldn’t end the sentence with them but I sound like a pretentious prat when I manoeuvre round and round them.
Rita Cullis was there and as my first job in opera was as a Flower Maiden in Parsifal at WNO with her in 1983, there were lots of hugs and girlish cries of joy…
She sings like a goddess and somehow we managed to rehearse pretty well everything including the famous trio from Rosenkavalier. What a staggering piece of musical genius it is. So, no pressure at all to turn in a superlative performance tomorrow.
Back to Stretton and bed after several generous glasses of Graham Hall rosé.
The GH household is grand; they have a lovely big family house and 10 acres of land. Johnny is completely outnumbered by the females of the family who are as follows: Helen (wife and international soprano); Emily (13 yr old very beautiful daughter); Katie (15 yr old very beautiful daughter who sings like a future star); three lady canines; a young lady feline; at least one lady equine; several lady leporines (rabbits to you and me). Then we have the males: Johnny (husband, father and international tenor); Norman and James (geldings – male horses who’ve had their bits removed); and a solitary ginger cat, all of whom fight their manly corners with great strength and energy. Not a lot of success, but plenty of energy.
Diana and I were sharing a bedroom and had no difficulty falling fast asleep within minutes of our heads touching the pillows. Lots of sun, fresh air and exercise are conducive to a really good night’s sleep. The copious amounts of wine had nothing to do with it – really, ociffer.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

What a dump

Last night Lorna and I agreed that we’d meet by the car at 6.15am this morning. It seemed like a really good idea at midnight, but at 5.30am when I dragged myself out of bed, I seriously wondered whether or not we were insane.
The reason for getting up so early was for me to walk as far as possible before BBC TV phoned to organise an interview back in Leeds late afternoon.
I spoke to the producer yesterday and he seemed really keen to record something for the evening Look North programme. Sadly, as has happened more than once on the Opera Walk, they didn’t phone and we didn’t get the chance to publicise the venture. Our publicity efforts have been ill-starred at every turn and I begin to wonder whether the media are only really interested in bad news.
Ho hum; so I walked 25.25 miles instead and when I finished was on the A606 heading out of Nottingham towards Melton Mowbray.
The day started with more traffic dodging on the B road to Mansfield. Given my mind was as vacant as it is possible to be and still function, I was lucky to survive without incident. At one point, however, when faced with a very narrow, blind summit, I’m afraid I took a footpath into a field and then trespassed my way parallel to the road until it was safe to rejoin it. ‘Safe’ is a comparative term as it wasn’t safe in any real sense of the word.
The walk through Mansfield and on to Nottingham was alright but boring. It came on to rain in a dreary, piddling sort of way that reminded me of countless Welsh holidays when I was small. My mind remained vacant and untroubled by any significant thoughts as, clutching my plaid umbrella and water bottle, I threw one foot in front of another hour after hour.
Lorna gave me some pasta salad for lunch and I had a cup of coffee and a bar of chocolate to give me some get up and go. I felt rather weary and, having walked 17 miles by 1pm, my spirits sank when I saw it was still 5 miles to the centre of Nottingham. The food did the trick, however, and my energy levels shot up very noticeably.
I bade farewell to Lorna and said I’d see her again somewhere south of Nottingham, which is a notoriously difficult city to negotiate by car.
As I walked along the A 60, I’m afraid I kept thinking ‘what a dump.’ I rang Sharon, Will’s girlfriend, and asked her how in heaven’s name she’d managed to live there for three years while she did her history degree. ‘Necessity’ was the brief reply [Editor’s note: I assure you it was NOT a brief reply].
The shopping centre was more engaging than the hideous, run-down Mansfield Road but walking out of the city and crossing the river was a gigantic relief. I have no wish to offend people who love Nottingham, but I didn’t see too much to love along the route I walked.
My friend and mentor, the late and great Constance Shacklock, came from Nottingham but I doubt that either she or Robin Hood would care for the way it looks today.
An hour out of the city I met Lorna on the A 606 and called it a day.
We drove to the M1 and as we got onto the motorway, I fell fast asleep in that peculiarly unattractive nodding dog fashion you see on trains. If I hadn’t been restrained by my safety belt, I’d have cracked my teeth on the dashboard.
We got stuck in a huge traffic jam that lasted for aeons and just as we were losing the will to live, we left the motorway and negotiated our way cross-country until we could rejoin it several junctions later - where the vehicles were no longer parked three a breast for the foreseeable future.
Another triumphal entry into Leeds – that is, we found our way to the flats without mishap – and after a sketchy tidying up of the contents of the Jag, we went our separate ways to prepare for another insanely early start tomorrow.
I’ve an interview with Rutland Radio at 12.15 and want to get to Melton Mowbray beforehand if at all possible. Then Diana is going to join me for the afternoon and through till Sunday. It’ll be great to have company again while I’m walking – I do enjoy being on my own when the countryside is beautiful but trudging through dreary towns and cities is dreadfully dull without company.
I’ve packed my bags ready to leave Leeds and shall take this opportunity to say a big thank you to Richard Mantle, Emma Hall and all at Opera North who have helped us with the Opera Walk.
And I’m looking forward to seeing Bernard Cribbins who is coming up tomorrow, the day before he presents the concert at Oakham School. They’re in for a rare treat as Bernard is the most phenomenally gifted and charismatic entertainer I’ve ever met. When he’s performing, his energy levels are so high they’d keep the National Grid going for years.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A change of career?

I had a radio interview with BBC Radio Leeds at 10.10am, so had to get up at a reasonable hour to gather my wits. I acquitted myself reasonably well and got the message across, but it seems more and more that the people who are going to give money to this venture are actually my fellow musicians, generous philanthropists or people who support me personally (in all my madness). Members of the general public are probably not going to be moved by the plight of theatre people and I’m going to have to lump the fact that I’m not going to make as much money as I’d hoped. Bummer – that’s what I say.
I did some shopping for shampoo and stuff, did an interview for a magazine, and then went back to the flat to sleep for a couple of hours. It’s so SAD. When did I turn into someone who needs an afternoon nap?
Lorna and I met at 4pm and drove to Harewood House just north of Leeds. The Earl and Countess of Harewood had generously allowed us to give a concert in this glorious stately home and, thanks to Emma Hall and her colleagues at Opera North, about seventy seats had been sold at the not inconsiderable price of £37.50 a ticket.
We went in Below Stairs and were met by the super-efficient and charming Sue Paige. She’s in charge of events at Harewood House and she’d organised the room, the piano tuner, the dressing room and the refreshments. Brilliant.
Linda, Tony Kraus, Sarah Beth Briggs, Margaret Howard, Jill Phillips, Johnny Graham Hall and I rehearsed in fits and starts over the next hour and a half. Linda and I also moved the audience seating closer to the stage so neither we nor they would be totally intimidated by the yawning gap between the front row and the stage. We were so adept at doing this that we’re seriously considering a sideways career move into furniture redistribution.
Lord and Lady Harewood came to have a chat with us while we were rehearsing; they didn’t feel up to attending the concert on grounds of antiquity – their words, not mine. Lord Harewood gave me my first job at ENO in 1984, so I was delighted to see him again and say thank you for such a great opportunity.
The concert began shortly after 8pm and, if truth be told, the audience was a reticent one; they didn’t seem to have grasped the concept that they were there to enjoy themselves. Perhaps they were intimidated by the glorious but formal surroundings; maybe they were expecting a serious recital that required a serious response. Whatever, it took a while before they realised we were there to entertain and amuse them as well as sing beautifully. And then they were fantastically enthusiastic and joined in when I sang Vilia and laughed like drains at Linda and Johnny’s antics. When we finished, Judith, the concert organiser, said it was the best concert they’d had there for years. Not bad, eh?
At the end of the evening I signed a T shirt for lovely Tony Kraus; he said he’d wear it for the chorus who are in Aberdeen on tour. It appears that not everyone at Opera North is aware of the Opera Walk, so he’s going to make sure that the word is spread throughout the company.
We all went our separate ways once everything was tidied up and when I finally fell into bed, I was deeply relieved that the evening had been such a great success. A wee curiosity; as Lorna and I drove slowly down the dark driveway towards the main gate of Harewood House, a hare lolloped slowly across the road, paused in the beam of our headlights, and then hopped away into the darkness. Unusual and strangely apt.

Monday, June 12, 2006

On the move again

I got up at 7am and packed, ready for the resumption of the Walk. Linda and Jim arrived just before 9am and I took them in the Boat to Gatwick for their flight back to Scotland. They are such stars and yet have no overweening airs and graces; rather the reverse because they are self-deprecating and modest about their great gifts.
We said goodbye; well, Linda and I said ‘see you tomorrow,’ which felt bizarre in the extreme given that ‘tomorrow’ would be Harewood House in Yorkshire. And then back home via the doctor’s to pick up a couple of scripts. Thyroxine keeps my metabolism going, as I’ve said, and I needed new supplies or I’d become fat, hairless and tired somewhere near Barnsley…
Lorna, bless her cotton socks, was not only early but had packed the Jag with the help of my aged parents. So it was time for the off.
I slept quite a lot of the journey back to Rotherham; Coverwood is always knackering and this year was no exception.
We arrived at Ridgeway, where the girls had picked me up on Wednesday and I set off just after 3pm.
Within five minutes it was hissing down in torrents; unbelievably heavy rain that lasted for a drenching half hour. Then it was fine till 8pm after which I’d covered 17 miles. Not bad because I was quite tired from the weekend. It was great to be moving again and out in the fresh air without having to worry about pollen because I was singing.
The route was very easy and unremarkable; all pavements for ages until an attention-focusing B road for the last hour. I spent as much time in the hedge as I did walking because the traffic was fast and had nowhere to go – except over me if I didn’t move sharpish!
I’m acutely aware when I’m walking into traffic that I have a great responsibility towards everyone’s safety. It’s the same as when you’re riding a horse or riding a bike; you have to be aware at all times, be grateful to those who slow down or move out for you, and learn strong swear words and gesticulations for the bastards who don’t give a toss whether you live or die. I reckon that four out of ten motorists will actually try not to kill you and the rest don’t even notice that you’re there. And there are those who, should they by some perverse chance spot you, think it’s a jolly good wheeze to swerve towards you and force you into the hedge, wall, or even better, run you over. What in God’s name has happened to this country when it comes to manners and consideration for the welfare of others? Are these people just thick? Or aliens? All answers to the present government please.
I sweltered all the time I was walking this afternoon; it was the hottest June day on record apparently, and I felt rather like a goldfish in a very small bowl trying to suck in oxygen for dear life. The air was heavy and humid and thunder rolled and grumbled from time to time as I sweated damply up hill and down dale. Not a pretty sight as many startled passers-by could testify.
The towns were all slightly run down and glumly depressing. Lovely countryside surrounded man-made ugliness and the industrial past resounded throughout the landscape. Remains of mines stood starkly and accusingly silent as I passed and the buildings often had an air of down-at-heel neglect.
When I stopped I was just east of Bolsover in Derbyshire and it was a fairly simple journey back to Leeds on the M1. We found our flats at the first attempt so retired for the night justifiably proud of ourselves. We were both weary after a long day and I’m afraid my supper consisted of two boiled eggs and two whiskies – or was it three? Lorna very kindly had offered to cook for me, but I knew I’d fall face down into my supper if I accepted. Not an appetising prospect, all in all, so I declined and said I’d see her sometime the next day. Zzzzzzzz.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Bordering on insanely hot

Well, I had a voice this morning and spent a couple of hours catching up with paper work and packing for tomorrow’s journey back up to Rotherham. I decided to try staying indoors as much as possible and not singing a great deal before the concert. Hope springs eternal. Ha!
I felt very proud of myself when I finally sorted out all the post, tidied up or chucked out piles of paper and sort of packed for tomorrow.
Pathetic really.
I put some medium and small Opera Walk T shirts into the boot of the Boat with a box of Kathryn Harries and Friends charity CDs. My dear friend Peter Knight, with his customary generosity, paid for the CD to be produced and manufactured back in 1998. It was wonderfully produced by former concert pianist, Amanda Hurton, who is in huge demand now in her capacity as Panda Productions. She has the most phenomenal ‘ears’ and can be trusted to produce recordings of the highest possible standard. Clever girl.
Then a very brief rehearsal because today I was trying the ‘not singing too much’ approach and certainly trying the ‘keep indoors as much as possible’ approach in an attempt to thwart this bloody hayfever.
It must be so wonderful not to suffer from it; I’m sure all my singer friends who don’t get it think I’m a whinging Moaning Minnie. But it is such a difficulty and like a lot of things, only people who’ve experienced it can truly understand what it’s like. I know at least one singer who has given up because allergies made the continuation of her career impossible. I had Kenalog injections until last year to enable me to keep going but it seems that these slow release steroid injections (which go into the buttock of choice) make your hips disintegrate and collapse. So, that’ll be off the menu for the foreseeable future.
I’m going to try desensitisation if my allergy specialist agrees and see if that works. What fun it is; hayfever from February to August and colds and bronchitis in the winter. It’s all very character building but my character is quite well-built now, ta very much.
The concert in the evening was probably the best of the bunch – a fantastic crowd, lovely weather bordering on insanely hot – and everyone sang and played really well.
My boring hayfever meant I had to wriggle round the problem all evening but I managed to do it reasonably well and the result was ok. Not fun but tolerable. And the members of the audience were very generous when it came to donations in the bucket, lots took donation forms home with them, and quite a few T shirts were sold.
A final supper party after the show; I’d loaded up the Boat with the remaining T shirts, CDs and Opera Walk literature and after paying the artists, had some of Ann’s famously delicious lasagne. And a welcome glass or two of red wine.
What a pleasure Coverwood is; and when we do the ‘post mortem’ in a few weeks time, we’re going to bring some exciting new ideas to the table and make the Festival even better next year. If you’re interested, have a look at this site early next year and read about the 2007 Coverwood Concerts; I do hope you’ll come and I promise you, you’ll be in for a real treat.
Then back home and bed. I left everything in the Boat to be sorted out first thing in the morning. Lorna is hopefully going to be on time and arrive at 10.30am to load up the Jag and then back to Rotherham to start walking again. It’ll be a very funny feeling after being home to resume the gypsy life. Still, only about ten days to go.