North America 2018

A view from the back of the choir, from second Bass, Ben Richards:

6th April

A ridiculously long day, but one that saw my first visit to a new continent.

          We met at Heathrow around 10am, emblazoned in Royal Holloway merchandise. After a refreshing brief time in departures, we boarded Flight DL22 to Minneapolis.

          Now, those of you reading this will know that I was more excited for the flying than anything else. However, no matter how you dress it up, eight hours in a cramped tube with nothing but sky, sea and snow out of the window isn’t how I’d choose to spend my day. The truth is, train travel is far more relaxing, definitely more comfortable, and the scenery is more interesting.

          Anyway, I digress. The flight happened, and we didn’t die so hurrah. Then we faced the joys of US customs, where we put our unique British skill in queueing to good use. Sadly, no amount of British charm and wit could soften the border officers who remained rather terrifying as we entered their country.

          On the plus side, Minneapolis Airport was wonderful. Despite being the longest building in the history of forever (until we get to Dallas Fort Worth of course), there was an adorable little metro train which helped relieve our tired legs, presumably in such a state due to all the walking we did to prevent deep-vein thrombosis. There was even classical music playing in the loos – take note, Heathrow.

          Another three-hour flight awaited us, this time on board a rather claustrophobic Bombardier CRJ900LR, however the crew were simply wonderful. In fact, every Delta employee I’ve encountered has been nothing but helpful, kind and charming. They didn’t even force us to sing when they knew we were a choir – how wonderful!

          Eventually, we landed in freezing Edmonton, a delightful airport, where we were greeted by what can only be described as a party bus to take us to our hotel.

          If we are to make a loss on this tour, it’s because we must be spending a fortune on swanky hotels. The Chateau Lacombe was a very welcome sight as our time awake approached 24 hours. The views of snowy Edmonton are lovely, and there’s even a revolving restaurant of the top floor. Tomorrow, we’re let loose into the cold, but for tonight, a well-deserved rest.

 

7th April

          Everyone in Edmonton is very keen to inform us that the bitterly cold weather is uncharacteristic for April. With much enthusiasm they all say, “usually it’s much warmer, like five or ten degrees”. One can only imagine how scorching their summers must be.

          Thankfully, whoever designed Edmonton though it a good idea to be able to walk across the centre of the city indoors. Not that there’s anyone to appreciate it – for a city with no with so many high-rises, it’s eerily quiet.

          In the afternoon, we met with the University of Alberta Madrigal singers and their conductor Leonard. After a refreshingly brief rehearsal, we all went to a nearby restaurant for a “mixer”. We spent a delightful couple of hours in their company, and they proved to be absolutely delightful. Of all the members of the choir, Jack is perhaps our most wonderfully British, so much so that by simply talking in that wonderful, slightly frantic way of his, nearly made poor Olivia from the UoA Madrigal Singers wet herself with laughter.

8th April

Concert day arrives, and my, what a venue! As well as being delightful, the Mads are pretty damn good singers, and the two items we do together go well. Much hilarity and jollity followed at the bar with the Mads. Will they come to England to visit?? 

9th April

          After a stress-free flight, a short bus ride to the ferry followed, where the blossom trees, Japanese signs and even some of the architecture convinced us we’d flown a bit too far and journeyed to the Land of the Rising Sun. The views on the boat, however, were even more stunning, particularly as we passed between some islands on the way to Victoria. The ship’s horn, on the other hand, was loud enough to give us all a heart attack!

          Anyway, we got to Victoria in the haze of late afternoon, and whilst we waited for our hosts some of us took a stroll into town. It’s safe to say it didn’t take us very long to fall in love with this remarkable city. Everywhere we looked, the views were stunning, the Pacific Ocean and various mountains surrounding the city. Walking along the harbour front past the Empress Hotel and legislature building, it finally felt as if we were on holiday.

          Things only got better when we met with our hosts. James, Will and I were to stay with Hilary and Russ, and it was Russ who met us at the cathedral.

          Back at their house (which we all LOVE), a small party of the choir and their hosts had gathered for an evening of mingling and lasagne. The star of the evening was Darwin, the giant Bernese shepherd who Izzy had the pleasure of staying with (and his owner of course). 

          Thankfully, we all went to bed and in all seriousness we all want to be fostered by Hilary and Russ and stay in Victoria forever. They’re absolutely splendid in every single way, and my room is nicer than my room at home.

10th April

Things only get better at breakfast – BAGLES! Peter joins us for a bit later and along with Adam we head in the cars around Victoria’s coastline. Despite us all rather enjoying the scenery, Hilary thinks it’s a bit grim – either of the houses are too expensive there anyway, so there’s no point looking.

After stopping at the cathedral to meet with the others, we head downtown to the museum. There are a wide variety of exhibits on display, ranging from the natural history of British Columbia to the history of clothing.

After a decent lunch, we returned to the cathedral for a rehearsal before a pretty excellent concert. Much fun was had in the sticky wicket afterwards with some students from the University of Victoria, one of whom was 6’10” – or what I like to call, ‘normal height’. 

11th April

A bittersweet day, as we leave our hosts and beautiful Victoria for a quick stop in Vancouver. In the end, everyone seemed to enjoy staying with their hosts, none more so than Will, James and I. Hilary and Russ were so welcoming, and hopefully we’ll be able to keep in touch.

          The weather is pretty grim as we arrive in Vancouver – one can only hope the concert venue isn’t…

          Well, although the concert venue isn’t the most spectacular, it does have a certain charm. The area it is in, however, is a sorry sight indeed. There are homeless people everywhere, and drugs are rife. Tentatively and with umbrellas to hand, Libby, Izzy and I take a damp stroll into town.

          Eventually, we found a coffee shop, but it was the most offensively MacBook-owning, vegan-loving, edgy place I’d ever been. I had what was basically a turkey and bacon toastie (not a sandwich as the menu falsely promised) which was tasty enough, whereas Libby and Izzy had waffles, with Libby’s draped in “pecans, darling”.

          Anyway, we trudged back to the church, where we had an open rehearsal for some school children, which was lovely. Despite the poverty in the area, the church had a vibrant music scene, with kids having instrument lessons and attending choir practise, which is so wonderful.

          The concert itself went well once again, with some very enthusiastic audience members leading the standing ovation. A reception followed in the church hall, however you had to fork out $5 for wine and the cake was rather rubbery – it was simply not in the same league as a Pembrokeshire reception.

          Jon, James and I were staying with a wonderful couple, who were our contacts in Vancouver. After what felt like a walk through Grand Theft Auto, we arrived at the 9th floor apartment which was very swanky indeed. Sadly, unless we all fancied cosying up in one bed, someone was on the floor and another was on the sofa. I shouldn’t have hesitated as Edgeler nabbed it, so I was on the floor. Where’s Hilary and Russ when you need them?

12th April

The floor was as comfortable as you’d expect, but the views in the daylight from the wraparound windows were stunning with huge mountains to the left and the Chinatown below. Over breakfast, we discussed tea and weddings, and drank a wonderfully aromatic Golden Jubilee blend with our eggs and toast.

          Walking back through Vancouver under a sunny sky revealed a far nicer city than the cloak of night suggested – Chinese market-sellers were setting up shop, and there was a quietly busy air to the place. We should visit again, to get a truer picture.

          Today is a purely a travel day, with a four-hour flight to Dallas before a short hour flight to San Antonio. As a result, not very much happened. The views all day were stunning, however, from the snow-capped mountains over northern USA to the arid-looking plains of Texas. As we land in Fort Worth, the view is bathed in the haze of a setting sun. Such is the size of the airport, we taxi ever a freeway, and after disembarking we catch a light-rail system to our connecting terminal.

          At long last, there was a McDonald’s at the airport – hurrah! Oddly enough, it tastes better in Britain – how disappointing.

          After a very brief connecting flight we’re met at the airport by our hosts. Jon and I were to stay with Becca and Tony, along with their two dogs and seventeen-month old Olivia. They live in the northmost suburbs of San Antonio in a modest but quite charming little bungalow.

13th April

Due to our hosts setting off early, we’re Uber-ed into a very humid San Antonio – and I’m deliriously happy. I’m decked in linen and a panama hat, ready for the sun.

          You’re immediately aware that you’re in America when you travel on the roads. Huge billboards saturate the view as far as you look, and there seems to be an almost constant stream of food outlets available. It’s both fascinating and hilarious in equal measure – I love it!

          St Mark’s Episcopal and its surrounding buildings strike a markedly Anglican tone against the other buildings around town. Jon and I join Bradley and Liam to walk to the Riverwalk via the Alamo, the site of a battle against the Mexicans in the 1860s.

          The Riverwalk is certainly San Antonio’s greatest asset and has a theme-park quality to it. Touristy souvenir shops and restaurants litter the flanks of the river, and you can pay for a boat ride if you so wish.

          I join up with Celia and Emily and we head to the shopping mall. We joined some of the others at Landry’s, a fish restaurant by the river. Sipping a mocktail, I had never felt more like a tea-plantation owner – all I need now is a white linen suit and a veranda to sit on.

          The sun came out after lunch and how wonderful it was to stroll back to the church in the glorious heat and humidity. Entering the church itself for the first time, we were greeted with stunning stained windows, and beautiful air-conditioning. Sadly, we weren’t able to use the organ’s favourite brace of trumpets, but Liam did give us a little fanfare.

          Short rehearsal over (plus some additional work on Kreek’s Notebook), we lounge in the park across the road, taking each other’s portraits and bathing in the afternoon sun. The concert was a shorter one but well-received by the audience – it’s always nice to walk down the aisle as everyone applauds you on their feet.

          Back at the house, we said goodbye to Becca in the traditional British manner, with a Bo Hansson CD. She was leaving early in the morning, so we wouldn’t see her again. Jon and I spent the evening with Tony, chatting about our cultural differences, and showing him our new plastic money. Apparently, he has a couple of guns, but they’re old and Russian, and he has no ammunition – phew!

14th April

Tony drops us off in town and we say our goodbyes – what a lovely family they are. Their dogs are hilarious, scared of you one moment and barking the next. Olivia was absolutely adorable – reminiscent of Boo from Monsters Inc. and it was sad to leave them. We joined with Adam and Peter for a drink at the Rainforest Café, before venturing to some souvenir shop were Adam and I… wisely… bought some rather wonderful ponchos.

          I was very excited for today’s road trip, and to see America as God intended it – by road. The non-stop drive-thrus and billboards continued, and the flags are many and rather large at that. Religion is in abundance too.

          Much excitement was had near Austin, as we spot the Circuit of the Americas, home of the US Grand Prix, and as we head towards Dallas, we stop at Buccey’s.

          Buccey’s is a service station experience like none other, one that needs to be seen to be believed. Under one roof is simply everything – all the fast food under the sun, a supermarket and a souvenir shop – all on a massive scale. They were even selling barbecues, much to Rupert’s fascination.

          The remainder of the long road to Dallas was without incident, and we all cooed at the lovely high-rise buildings in the centre of the city.

          Our hotel is wonderful, and mine and Adam’s room even has a kitchen. This comes in handy later, as all the surrounding restaurants are either too busy or too expensive for my taste, so I head to a nearby supermarket for sandwich-making supplies. I was delighted to see the British shows on the TV.

15th April

A busy day at the Church of the Incarnation, which is surely the richest church I have ever come across. Everything is impeccably finished, and the buildings accompanying the church are vast.

          The first job of the day is to sing in the Eucharist at 11.15 in the delightfully Anglican main church. This was high Anglicanism with a Texan twang, and it was a wonderful service. Communion wine was good too…

          After a lunch of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and a short rehearsal, we return for our 4pm concert. The church is packed, and the lovely comments we received in the reception afterwards (where the wine was free and the food was delicious) were a delight to hear, as always. One audience member even has a daughter studying History at Holloway – what a small world!

16th April

After popping to the supermarket for some scran, a few of us sit by the pool as we wait for the bus. The closest I get to swimming is dipping my feet and ankles into the water, but a swimming pool is a swimming pool, and being in one even partially means I’m on holiday so that was exciting enough in itself!

Another long bus journey followed, this time to Houston. Nothing of any significance happened on this trip, and it was largely similar to the trip to Dallas.

          St Martha’s Catholic Church is in a suburban area in the outskirts of Houston, and it is here that we meet our final hosts of the tour. Jack, Peter, James and I are paired with Margaret Rose and Frank, who have an eight-seater Ford truck. A promising start.

          Their house is absolutely delightful, with décor that looks as if it hasn’t changed since 1996. We firstly pick rooms, and naturally, James nabs the nice guest room. I get their son’s bedroom, which is the most typical teenage American boy’s room you could imagine. There were model cars on shelves, and every surface is adorned with a poster showing some sports team or another. The odd thing is, however, that he’s away on a business trip and he’s graduated from college – in-between the teenage knick-knacks, there are wonderful silk ties, and an Omega watch box. 

          We head downstairs and gladly take the offer of a cold beer on the patio. For the first time so far this tour, we feel truly relaxed! We learn a little more of our hosts over our drinks – Frank is a big boss with Exxon Mobil, and his work has taken them all over the world. Margaret once had her own jewellery business, but now is retired, so now spends her time sewing and making quilts.

          We enjoyed a truly delicious dinner of pasta and real Italian meatballs. Afterwards, Margaret asks if we would like tea – in Texas! Before we know it, the table is bedecked in Wedgewood china, and we drink masses of Earl Grey. We spend the evening sampling the Holloway recordings on Apple Music which naturally let to the chaps sharing their favourite liturgical masterpieces. Oh, and finally, for the dog-lovers among us, there was Lizzie the Labrador, and Emma the cocker-spaniel, which brings the total dog-count in the tour diary up to five!

17th April

The smell of bacon sizzling finds its way upstairs. Our senses practically pulled us downstairs to breakfast, where there are eggs and toast aplenty – more Earl Grey, too.

          After breakfast, we head to the church in order to carpool to Rice University. Daniel Knaggs (composer extraordinaire, music director at St Martha’s and possessor of the finest eyes in Texas), takes us on a tour of his Alma Mater, which, whilst not being my preferred way to spend a day, proved most enjoyable!

          The music facilities were simply astonishing, and whilst we couldn’t have a look at the concert hall, we did visit the organ room, wherein lay a simply enormous organ. Rupert couldn’t resist a go, even in flip flops, and it’s fair to say it was mighty impressive sound.

          After walking through the beautiful main quad, with is immaculately cut lawns, we strolled to a beautifully park where we sat by a stunning water fountain-cum-lake. Some of the choir chose to play a spot of football on the lawn, whilst others just basked in the midday sun. Very relaxing indeed.

          One thing that’s important to know about Margaret is she can pretty much organise anything, anywhere, and so after lunch she made sure we visited Cavender’s.

Cavender’s is the one-stop shop for all your Western clothing needs. As you enter the building, the smell of literally hundreds of leather boots hits you like a smack in the face. But as impressive and numerous as the boots were, I was here for the hats. The staff were very helpful and lined my chosen Stetson with extra cushioning to ensure a good fit. We also purchased a bolo tie for Rupert, which aptly bore an image of a Native American chief.

St Martha’s was clearly not designed with music in mind, made clear by its cavernous size and ropey electric organ. Nevertheless, the size of the space provided Rupert with endless possibilities for stage management, which we spent the afternoon rehearsal experimenting with.

Before the concert, we took a whole-choir photo outside the church, before we went inside to perform to the largest audience of the tour, and indeed any concert here at Holloway.

The concert was a resounding success, with my favourite moment being Ave Generosa, performed scrambled in the Anthrax – it painted the piece in an entirely new way.

After the concert, it was a delight to see out hosts’ reactions to a concert which will live in the memories of us all for a long time to come. But as this was the last night of the tour, we couldn’t very well just all go back to our individual hosts’ homes. Thankfully, Jack thought to mention this, and Margaret and Frank were on it! After a few false starts, we settled on Barney’s, a billiards saloon in one of many strip malls by the highway.

Barney’s was the dankest, dingiest bar I’ve ever been to, and the air was heavy with the smell of tobacco smoke. It was PERFECT.

We spent the evening with all of our hosts, playing pool and drinking beer. A few of our group members got acquainted with some Texans who were quite clearly country dwellers – Lord knows what they must have thought when they saw thirty Brits walk through the door!

18th April

Breakfast at Margaret’s was, once again, stupendous, and slightly late as ever, we head to St Martha’s to catch the bus. Margaret and Frank have been so hospitable, and find myself torn as to whether they topped Hilary and Russ. The truth is, I can’t decide between the, -- all I know is that I’d prefer to live in Victoria, but I’d come to Texas for a good time!

Final goodbyes all said, we head on the bus to Kroger, which is basically an American Tesco. Having sufficiently topped up, we headed to a nearby wood for a picnic, complete with some ‘lemonade’ which Rupert kindly provided. It was a lovely way to end our time in Texas, and the tour as a whole.

The rest of the day has been spent flying – out first strip to Atlanta involved the plane banking rather too heavily, resulting in the engine stalling – at least, that’s what Will said. Still, we’re alive, I suppose.

So now, we’re all lounging around in Atlanta International, out flight delayed by an hour, so it’s time to sum this tour up.

Firstly, it must be said that this has felt like much longer than two weeks – Edmonton feels like a distant memory, now!

Despite being a long time, it hasn’t felt nearly as tiring as the Netherlands, probably due to us having so much more free time and travel time on this trip.

Canada (on the whole) was stunning – every location had stunning vistas from the oil fields of Edmonton to the mountains of Vancouver and the harbour in Victoria. Victoria was a real highlight – it being the first place we were hosted, Hilary and Russ set a real benchmark for the rest of the tour. The combination of its proximity to the sea, its beautiful architecture and its sleepy suburbs make it somewhere I would definitely consider moving to in the future.

Texas couldn’t have been any more hilariously different. Our road journeys across the ‘Lone Star State’ were a real highlight for me – mile after mile of truck-stops, fast food and ridiculous billboards. Also, viewing Texas from the road made you realise just how surprisingly green it all was, and in parts the landscape did look rather like that of the UK.

San Antonio was a real break of (very humid) fresh air, and the touristy nature of the Riverwalk made us feel like we were really on holiday. Sadly, we saw nothing of Dallas but the church there was wonderful. The same can be said of Houston, although Rice University was impressive.

What made this tour so enjoyable as always was the people. Spending two weeks with the choir has been so much fun. Of course, it’s never plain sailing, but overall, they’ve been an absolute riot and it’s been fun living with different groups of people.

The hosts really added to this. All of the, made us feel at home, and one can only hope they know how grateful we are for their hospitality. I still can’t decide between Hilary and Russ and Margaret and Frank. Both made us feel as if we were already family, and I genuinely think we will keep in contact for many years to come!

So, overall a wonderful time was had by all, and as we sit here, looking forward to seeing our friends and family at home, I can safely say that on a scale of 1 to sothat’sallgood, the tour found more ways to be even better than that. Hurrah!

 

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