On the edges of Salisbury Plain in mid Wiltshire lies the quiet, unassuming village of Edington, the sort of place you drive through without really noticing more than a few pretty cottages. The village has a long and venerable history however, as it was the site of the Battle of Ethandun where King Alfred won a pivotal battle against the Danes in 878 AD. It was also home to Edington Priory, a 14th century monastic house, of which the church still remains as the parish church of the village. This church hosts the Edington Music Festival every August, the longest running festival of ecclesiastical music in the UK and possibly the world.
A Brief History of Edington Priory Church
Edington Priory was founded by William Edington, the Bishop of Winchester, in 1351, with the church being consecrated ten years later. The church is unique in that not only was it built in a short space of time, but that it has had little alteration done to it, some 17th century enhancements but luckily no Victorian 'improvements'.
The church survived the Reformation by being a parish church, the rest of the monastery was divided up and sold off. Parts of it still remain such as the garden, some walls, a stone building over their water source and a fishpond.
The church was built in the transition period between Decorated Gothic and the final style of English Gothic and is Grade I listed. It has a vaulted wooden roof with the ceiling covered in puce coloured ornamentation which is not the most aesthetic colour to look at - apparently that was the original 17th century colour but is one I think they should forego when renovations are next due.
A Brief History of Edington Music Festival
In 1956, the then vicar of Edington was in desperate need for funds to repair the church. With his friend who was a former choral scholar at Kings College Cambridge, they gathered other choral scholars and held a weekend of full sung choral liturgy.
The event proved to be a resounding success and so has been repeated every year since, extending to the current eight days with four services a day and three choirs. Within choral circles it is a highly prestigious event with older music being rediscovered, new commissions being added to the body of church music and musical careers launched from the event.
Visiting the Edington Music Festival
What is so wonderful about the festival is that it is entirely free to attend. The festival publishes the events on their website and you just show up to the ones you want - no booking or payment required. The festival relies entirely on generous donations though, so if you do go they will be very grateful for anything you can give. Just head for the church and follow the signs to the parking, where a helpful guide will guide you to a spot on the grass verge opposite the Old Monastery Garden. It is then a short walk to the church where you sit wherever you fancy.
The events take the form of actual church services following the standard ecclesiastical day - Matins, Eucharist, Evensong and Compline, sometimes with additional music before the service. Three choirs perform under the country's top choral directors and music is played by renowned organists, all overseen by a Festival Director. Each festival has a different theme for the music, sermons and prayers. The Wednesday Evensong is usually recorded and broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
I visited on a Wednesday, too late for Matins but in time for the Solemn Eucharist at 11.30am. After recovering from the shock of the garish pink ceiling, I took a seat at the back, where each pew has a booklet with details of all of the services so you can follow along. It was a full service of the High Church variety, with full audience participation and a lot of standing and sitting to order as is always the case. The church was filled with incense which surprised me as incense was considered rather Catholic in the distant days of my church attending childhood, but I believe it is something which has now come back into fashion in Anglican circles.
The music was lovely, provided by an excellent choir of earnest looking school boys and intense looking men, all of whom sang their hearts out. When it came to the hymns the choir were a real asset, covering over the shy hesitance of the congregation so that everyone ended up singing at full volume. The congregation were mostly elderly; men in suits and women in simple colourful dresses. I suspect that at the weekend and evenings there is a more diverse crowd, but a Wednesday morning tends to be for those with the time available. A Eucharist includes communion - taking the bread and wine. Bear in mind that if you have not been confirmed then you cannot do this, you can either stay in your pew or just ask for a blessing instead.
After the service was a few hours break where I had lunch at the Edington Farm Shop, eating the largest cheese and chutney roll I've ever had and enjoying a fresh green smoothie, followed by a visit to the nearby famous White Horse for a brisk walk.
I returned for Choral Evensong. This was being recorded by the BBC and there was a frisson of excitement in the air. I arrived early and heard one of the choirs rehearsing, looking far less angelic out of their cassocks. The grey BBC sound van was parked outside and inside tall microphones decorated the aisle. After the rehearsal a disembodied voice floated through the church, telling the choir that they were 'bob on' with their singing but could they just pronounce the 't's better in the final song?
When the church had filled and the start time drew near, the owner of the disembodied voice arrived, a cheerful BBC producer who asked us all to turn off our phones and keep any coughing to a minimum. There was a chance that certain songs may need to be re-recorded if mistakes were made, so could we all stay in our seats afterwards, just in case? She would come back in afterwards and let us know.
A nervous looking festival director sat in front of me, looking anxiously around him. Within five minutes of the start, the sound of people chatting could be heard coming from outside the church and the director shot off to deal with it.
There was clearly a drama with a car being badly parked, as a man soon walked in, took off his noisy shoes and walked around the entire congregation showing us a piece of paper with a car registration written on it. It was rather entertaining watching him shuffle barefoot around the pews, heads shaking at him as we all disowned the guilty vehicle.
It was soon forgotten though as the service got into its stride. All three choirs were present and all were truly fantastic; I can only imagine the hours of rehearsal that must have gone into each song and chant. It was interesting to watch them all when the other choirs were singing, one of the choirboys sinking slowly against the side of the pew, eyes closing, others staring into the distance or sharing the odd secret smile. They all came to life though the minute it was their turn to sing.
The final song sounded incredibly complicated to sing, based on words written by 17th century Wiltshire poet and rector, George Herbert who was actually married in this church, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who thought that if they were going to have to re-sing anything, it would be this one. The service ended with an organ voluntary. The rather elderly lady behind me started whispering loudly to her daughter; the director leapt up and put his finger to his lips and remained hovering in the aisle, just in case more of us felt the need to chat. When the music ended we all sat completely still in anticipatory silence. What would the BBC director say? She came in, took to the lectern and announced that other than having to re-record part of one of the readings, all had gone well. There was a collective sigh of relief, particularly from the choirs.
I sat outside the church as everyone left and listened to the chatter of the choirs; the relief that no re-takes were required, laughter over someone who had got an 'amen' wrong and then plans to head to the local hostellery for much needed liquid reward. It must be hard work to produce such a consistently high quality of music over the week, I can imagine that the rehearsals are endless and the planning and timing required to co-ordinate with the clergy must be tiring but it is certainly well worth it for those of us listening.
I highly recommend a visit to the festival: the beautiful sounds echoing throughout the building, the swirls of incense caught in the rays of sun, the fresh flower displays, the rhythm and cadence of the liturgy all create a tranquil and meditative atmosphere in which to spend time at peace. It’s just such a shame about that puce ceiling.
Find out festival dates and programmes on the Edington Music Festival website >>
Good to Know: the pews are horribly uncomfortable. Not only are they hard wood as you would expect but they have a wooden kneeler which goes right where your feet should and as the pews are so closely packed together it can be hard to stand. I saw several people, who had clearly been before, carrying garden chair cushions under their arms, which at least offsets part of the discomfort.