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West Country Choral Festival - Cathedrals and churches in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Devon – eight concerts, eight outstanding choirs

  • West Country Choral Festival
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Festival introduction

Top professional choirs; some of the greatest cathedrals and churches in the land; repertoire from the Renaissance to the present day, from England to Italy, Estonia to Spain; a small private audience which lives in curated comfort for the five days of the event.

The musical experience will be heightened by an orchestra, a wind ensemble and a violinist. There are also lectures by outstanding experts on choral music and medieval architecture, Stephen Darlington and Jon Cannon respectively.

A bundle of carefully planned logistics – accommodation, transport, refreshments – ensure a comfortable and stress-free time. Martin Randall Festivals has been impresario of over a hundred similar events in Britain and Europe, and you can be sure that this one has been planned and will be administered meticulously to maximise your enjoyment.

The audience is based in a selection of hotels in Bath, location of three of the concerts, and luxury coaches transport you through the amazingly attractive rural strip of England between Exeter and Gloucester. Wells, Bristol and Taunton are the other places where there are performances.

The choirs of Gloucester and Exeter Cathedrals, among the finest cathedral choirs in the world, perform on home ground. The other ensembles are Stile Antico, Gallicantus, Ex Cathedra, VOCES8, The Oxford Consort of Voices and the National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain.

Instrumental contributions are from Instruments of Time and Truth, the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble and violinist Rachel Podger.


The festival package

Access to the concerts is exclusive to those who take our festival package, which includes:

— all eight concerts

— accommodation for four nights – choose between five options (see Practicalities)

— four dinners, interval drinks

— talks on the music and on medieval church architecture

— travel by comfortable private coach

— assistance of festival staff and a detailed programme booklet


Discover the place

Bath first became a resort town in Roman times, but its modern reincarnation dates from the 18th century. It was then that a succession of architects and entrepreneurs, most of them from the city itself, succeeded in creating one of the supreme achievements of European architecture and urban design, inspired by the memory of the Roman past but adapted to satisfy the taste of the Georgian aristocracy and merchant classes.

Bath owes its origin and much of its present character to its riverside situation, within a bowl of limestone hills where the healing springs of the Roman Aquae Sulis gushed up, and from which the honey-coloured ashlar stone of its 18th-century buildings was quarried. It was an important place even before its Georgian heyday, though never a great commercial city like its neighbour and rival Bristol.

Like Exeter and Taunton, Bath was a flourishing centre of the cloth industry in the 16th and 17th centuries, and some of the houses of the prosperous clothiers still survive, though much rebuilt. But it is the Georgian architecture of the city that remains in the memory: not only the setpieces – Queen Square, the Circus and the Royal Crescent; Pulteney Bridge and Great Pulteney Street; the Pump Room and Assembly Rooms – but also the ordinary houses, many of them designed in the Palladian manner by the local father-and-son team of John Wood, and by a succession of local architects and craftsmen whom they inspired.

Here a succession of fashionable and aspirational visitors lodged for the ‘season’ while they ‘took the waters’, enjoyed musical and theatrical entertainments, and went shopping: a world that Jane Austen described in her novels and which we can still experience today.

Lively and culturally vibrant, Bath is no museum city; the presence of two universities precludes genteel ossification. As well as patches that are wonderfully picturesque – not a quality usually associated with Georgian formality – the centre has much that is surprising and quirky. Festival participants will be given a curated list of the city’s less obvious delights – cafés, independent bookshops, art galleries and unusual museums.

Travelling to the five other places where there are concerts – Gloucester, Bristol, Wells, Taunton and Exeter – will be one of the pleasures of this festival, not merely a tedious necessity. Gloucestershire, Somerset and Devon are among the more rural and scenically beautiful counties of southern England, with rumpled hills, broadleaf woodland, small fields and centuries-old hedgerows.



Meet the musicians

Instruments of Time & Truth
Instruments of Time and Truth was set up in 2014 to take advantage of the many exceptionally talented period musicians resident in and around Oxford and to present world-class performances of Baroque and Classical music in the city and the region. Their success has already propelled them further afield, with performances in London and Spain. The orchestra has assumed a significant role in underpinning the tradition of choral excellence at Oxford through collaborations with several college choirs as well as the Oxford Consort of Voices.

The Oxford Consort of Voices

Founded by Edward Higginbottom and now one of the UK’s leading vocal ensembles, The Oxford Voices is made up of singers selected from college choirs moulded in their student days by the experience and discipline of the University’s famous choral tradition. Its members also enjoy their own independent professional musical careers. They perform choral repertory from the 15th century to the present, and oratorio with Instruments of Time and Truth. 

Professor Edward Higginbottom is one of the most distinguished musicians and choir directors of our time. He was appointed Director of Music at New College at the age of 29, a post he held for nearly 40 years. During his incumbency the choir acquired international renown, with regular concert tours and many recordings. Particularly influential in promulgating French music, he has been honoured as ‘Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’.

Gallicantus – literally ‘cock crow’ – takes its name from the monastic office just before dawn which evoked the renewal of life offered by the coming day. One of Europe’s foremost early music ensembles, the group brings together six highly skilled men who are dedicated to the interpretation of Renaissance music and a love of communicating text. They have performed at some of the most prestigious venues in Europe and the USA and made a series of recordings whose sombre tone and superb ensemble resulted in rapturous reviews.

Singer, coach and record producer, Gabriel Crouch is Musical Director of Gallicantus as well as Director of Choral Activities and Senior Lecturer in Music at Princeton University. A Westminster Abbey chorister (aged 8) and Trinity College Cambridge choral scholar, he spent eight years with The King’s Singers and continues to sing with ensembles such as Tenebrae and Gabrieli. 

Ex Cathedra

Founded in Birmingham 49 years ago, Ex Cathedra has developed into an internationally-acclaimed choral group which has appeared in concert halls and festivals across the UK and overseas. They have made celebrated recordings ranging from Renaissance polyphony via Latin American Baroque to Alec Roth and Roxanna Panufnik, and have commissioned over thirty new works. Ex Cathedra has an enduring commitment to vocal education, from its groundbreaking children’s project Singing Playgrounds to nurturing professional singers early in their careers.

Jeffrey Skidmore OBE is one of the UK’s leading choral directors and an ardent advocate of the importance of singing in people’s lives. He founded Ex Cathedra while a student. A pioneer in the field of research and performance of choral works of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Jeffrey’s driving passion has been to refresh and reinvigorate the choral repertoire and to make it accessible to as many people as possible.


VOCES8 is one of the most sought-after vocal ensembles of its generation, performing globally with repertoire stretching from Renaissance polyphony to arrangements of jazz and pop standards. They regularly commission new music; Jonathan Dove is their current composer in residence. Their collaborations are diverse, from Rachel Podger to Jacob Collier. VOCES8 records for Decca, publishes with Edition Peters and has its home at the Gresham Centre in London, where it spearheads the education programme of the VCM Foundation.

Rachel Podger

Rachel Podger is one of the world’s finest practitioners of gut-stringed and historically informed violin performance. She has several award-winning recordings to her name, including sonatas and partitas by J.S. Bach; she has recently recorded the cello suites on violin. Rachel holds chairs for Baroque violin at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. She is also founder and director of the Brecon Baroque Festival.

Exeter Cathedral Choir

‘One of the country’s finest choirs’ (Classic FM), Exeter Cathedral Choir leads eight services each week during term time, maintaining a tradition that has been largely unbroken for centuries. It also has a busy programme of concerts, recordings, radio broadcasts and tours (recently to Austria and Slovakia). Since the addition of girls’ voices in 1994, there are up to 38 choristers (aged 7–13) as well as adults, lay vicars (professional singers) or choral scholars (students from Exeter University).

Timothy Noon was a chorister at Hereford Cathedral and studied music at Oxford. He has held appointments ranging from Organ Scholar to Director of Music at the cathedrals of Canterbury, Oxford, Dublin (St Patrick’s), St Davids, Liverpool and Auckland (New Zealand). He took up the post of Director of Music at Exeter Cathedral in 2016.

English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble

In 2018, The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble celebrates 25 years at the forefront of the early music scene. In that time the group has performed at many major music festivals and concert halls in the UK and abroad, sometimes in collaboration with other ensembles. They have been involved in many memorable recordings, including Flower Of Cities All with music from Shakespeare’s London and the award-winning Striggio Mass in 40 Parts.

National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain

The National Youth Chamber Choir is made up of singers from the senior ranks of the National Youth Choir, the most inspiring organisation for young choral singers in the UK. The mission of the NYCGB is to discover and nurture exceptional musical talent, provide performance opportunities and world-class musical training and give the spark to the next generation of singers, conductors and leaders. A registered charity, fundraising aims to ensure that no young person is prevented from taking part through financial disadvantage.

Artistic Director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, Ben Parry is a composer, conductor, arranger, singer and producer. He is Co-Director of the professional choir London Voices, Assistant Director of Music of King’s College, Cambridge and Music Director of the Aldeburgh Voices.

Gloucester Cathedral Choir

Nine centuries ago the boys and monks of the then Benedictine Abbey of St Peter sang for daily worship. Today’s choir stems from that established by Henry VIII, and consists of nine professional lay clerks, three choral scholars, 20 boy choristers and, since 2016, 20 girls. In addition to eight services each week they perform in concerts at home and abroad and in live BBC broadcasts. They are key participants in the Three Choirs Festival, the world’s oldest music festival (1715). 

Adrian Partington is one of the UK’s most renowned choral conductors. Currently he is Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral (since 2008), Artistic Director of the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival and Artistic Director of the BBC National Chorus of Wales (since 1999). Herbert Howells was among his teachers at the Royal College of Music. 

Stile Antico

Stile Antico is firmly established as one of the world’s most accomplished and innovative vocal ensembles. Working without a conductor, its 12 members have thrilled audiences on four continents with their fresh, vibrant and moving performances of Renaissance polyphony. Its bestselling recordings on the Harmonia Mundi label have earned accolades including the Gramophone Award for Early Music, Diapason d’or de l’année, Edison Klassiek Award and Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik. They touch the hearts and minds of an audience as few others.

Discover the venues

The Assembly Rooms, Bath
The Assembly Rooms constitute perhaps the finest Georgian civic building in England. Opened in 1771 to the designs of John Wood the Younger, they rapidly became the centre of Bath society, with concerts featuring regularly during the season. There are three halls, and we use them all – the Tea Room for the talk, the Octagon Room for refreshments and the Ballroom for the concert.

St Mary Magdalene, Taunton
The west tower of the church of St Mary Magdalene in Taunton is the finest in the West Country, its beauty magnified by its location at the end of a street of Georgian terraces. With five aisles, the building is large for a parish church and speaks of the wool-based prosperity of Somerset at the end of the Middle Ages. The nave roof (the only timber one in the festival) is gloriously embellished with gilded angels.

Wells Cathedral
For some, Wells is the loveliest of all English medieval cathedrals. Begun after 1175 and completed within 70 years, it was one of the first major exercises in Gothic architecture in England, and provides both the beauty of homogeneity and the fascination of stylistic and technical evolution. The unique and strikingly handsome strainer arches supporting the crossing tower are 14th-century, as is almost everything to the east, including the retrochoir, lady chapel and octagonal chapter house, all among the finest of their kind. Simple beauties interlock with intriguing complexities.

Exeter Cathedral
The great length of Exeter Cathedral is pegged midway by a pair of immense Norman towers, but the rest is Gothic at its most luxuriant. The interior is a profusion of arches and shafts and ornament and elaborate tracery; no two windows on each side of the church are the same. The stone vault with its abundance of ribs, reaching unbroken from one end of the church to the other, is the longest in the world. Three tiers of monumental medieval sculpture of high quality adorn the west front.

Bath Abbey
The church of Bath Abbey – a cathedral for 450 years – was comprehensively rebuilt in the 40 years before dissolution in 1539, and so became the last of the medieval ‘great churches’. The apogee of the Perpendicular style, the light-filled interior rises to amazing fan vaults, which were expertly completed in the 19th century. Shorn of monastic buildings, it sits with wonderful incongruity in the centre of Georgian Bath, though harmony is provided by the honey-coloured sandstone with which both were constructed. Restoration is in progress but should not impinge adversely on the concert.

St Michael’s Without, Bath
Influenced by Salisbury Cathedral, St Michael’s Without announces itself with the tallest spire in central Bath – though in the Middle Ages it lay outside the city walls. Rebuilt 1834–7, it is a fine example of the ‘pre-archaeological’ phase of the Gothic Revival. It was restored and reordered recently and as well as being a thriving church and community centre it regularly hosts concerts. 

St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol
‘The fairest, goodliest, most famous parish church in England’, St Mary Redcliffe is of cathedral-like proportions and ambition – a 90m spire, soaring nave, extended east end and lady chapel, and deep, three-aisled transepts. Construction spanned the 14th and 15th centuries, so while it displays some of the most gorgeous confections of Decorated Gothic in the country, it is predominantly Perpendicular, rippling with profuse but tightly organised ornament. 

Gloucester Cathedral
The 15th-century tower is one of the most beautiful architectural creations of medieval England, the procession of massive cylindrical piers in the nave a potent expression of Norman rule. The fame of Gloucester Cathedral, however, derives from its eastern parts, whose exquisite 14th-century remodelling is the earliest large-scale manifestation of the Perpendicular style. Superlatives continue: the east window is the largest expanse of glass of the Middle Ages, the cloister is the most homogeneous and the tomb of Edward II may justifiably claim to be the finest medieval monument in England.


In addition, there are extra services that can be booked:

— Choose between two pre-festival tours: Architecture of Bath or Country Houses of the South West

— Or a London Day: Seven Churches & a Synagogue. 

Day 1: Sunday 7 July, Bath

The festival begins at 3.30pm at the Assembly Rooms in the centre of Bath with a talk by Professor Stephen Darlington. This is followed by refreshments.

Concert, 5.15pm:
Bath, Assembly Rooms
English Coronation Anthems

Instruments of Time & Truth
The Oxford Consort of Voices
Edward Higginbottom conductor

In an appropriately Georgian setting, a programme of eighteenth-century coronation anthems gets the festival off to a rousing start. Prefaced by an overture by the Oxford-based composer Philip Hayes, there follow William Boyce’s setting of The King Shall Rejoice, composed for the coronation of George III (1761), and two anthems by Handel for George II’s coronation (1727), including one of the best-loved and most stirring of all Baroque pieces, Zadok the Priest.

Dinner in your chosen hotel following the concert.

Day 2: 
Monday 8 July, Bath, Taunton, Wells

Return to the Assembly Rooms for talks at 10.00am by Stephen Darlington and architectural historian Jon Cannon. Otherwise the morning is free.

In the afternoon, coaches leave Bath for Taunton, Somerset’s county town. Refreshments are provided in the excellent Castle Hotel. 

Concert, 3.45pm:
Taunton, St Mary Magdalene
Sweet Laments of the English Renaissance
Gabriel Crouch director

Evidence for the religious preferences of composers around Queen Elizabeth I can be vague or contradictory – unsurprisingly, given the punishments meted out to recusant Catholics. Some
of the greatest works in English music arise from these stresses. While Thomas Tallis became adept at creating the right music for the prevailing religious climate, William Byrd bitterly laid bare his faith and politics. Music by Robert Whyte and John Sheppard reveal that they possessed all the invention and rhetorical power of their more famous counterparts.

A very pretty hour’s drive to the ancient cathedral town of Wells.

Here dinner is provided in the medieval Bishop’s Palace and the Vicars’ Hall before the concert.

Concert, 8.00pm:
Wells Cathedral
Guardian Angel

Rachel Podger violin

This innovative alternation of a cappella singing and solo violin creates a hauntingly beautiful sequence of musical moods and meanings. There are choral works by Praetorius and Gabrieli, Tallis and Gibbons, Rachmaninov and Mendelssohn, Macmillan and Dove, and violin pieces by Biber – Rosary Sonata No. 16, A Guardian Angel – and Bach. The concert concludes with a new commission by Owain Park. These are performed without a break and exploit the spatial complexity of Wells Cathedral while dusk turns to darkness.

Day 3: 
Tuesday 9 July, Exeter, Bath

Leave at 9.30am from your hotel in Bath for the drive to Exeter.

Concert, 12 noon:
Exeter Cathedral
Blessed be the God & Father

Exeter Cathedral Choir
Timothy Noon director

Samuel Sebastian Wesley, grandfather of the English choral tradition as we know it today, was buried in Exeter in 1876. His extended anthem settings find an echo in Walton’s magnificent The Twelve, to which Exeter Cathedral Choir add more recent contributions to the repertoire, from England (John Sanders, Richard Rodney Bennett, David Briggs, Timothy Noon) and the Baltics (Arvo Pärt and Ēriks Ešenvalds). For the concert the choir shares the quire with the audience and the 14th-century stalls and magnificent episcopal throne.

After an independent lunch and time for leisurely enjoyment of the cathedral, drive back to Bath.

Concert, 7.00pm:
Bath Abbey
In Forty Parts

Ex Cathedra
Jeffrey Skidmore director
English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble

Alessandro Striggio’s 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem is believed to have inspired Thomas Tallis to compose Spem in alium. This soaring, truly monumental motet for eight choirs of five voices has achieved cult status among performers and listeners. Spem became the model for all subsequent 40-part works, including two written for Ex Cathedra, Sanctum est verum lumen by Gabriel Jackson and Alec Roth’s breathtaking Earthrise, a meditation on the photograph taken by the Apollo 8 crew as the Earth rose over the Moon’s horizon. Further lustre will be added to the concert by inserting Renaissance and contemporary fanfares. 

Dinner follows the concert in Bath’s historic Grand Pump Room.

Day 4: 
Wednesday 10 July, Bath, Gloucester

There are a two talks in the morning, on music and architecture, beginning 10.30am. 

Concert, 11.30am:
Bath, St Michael’s Without
Women in Song

National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain
Ben Parry director

British choral music is enjoying a modern renaissance, a second golden age, and the outstanding contemporary cohort of female composers gives particular cause for celebration. Vibrant and melodious, both sacred and secular, this programme showcases approachable and enjoyable new music by a dozen leading lights including Roxanna Panufnik, Sally Beamish and Kerry Andrew. One piece reaches back a hundred years: the stirring March of the Women by suffragette Ethel Smyth.

After an independent lunch in Bath, reach Gloucester in the afternoon.

Concert, 4.45pm:
Gloucester Cathedral
Music for Gloucester

Gloucester Cathedral Choir
Adrian Partington director

Gloucestershire has a uniquely rich musical heritage. The list of composers who were born in or worked in the county includes Holst, Vaughan Williams, Parry, Howells and Finzi; works by all of these are in this concert. The outstanding musical tradition continues with pieces regularly commissioned from many of the nation’s best contemporary composers. All who make music in the cathedral enjoy its breath-taking acoustic.

The audience sits alongside the choir, before processing with them to the Lady Chapel for a final anthem.

Return to Bath after the concert for dinner in the hotels.

Day 5: 
Thursday 11 July, Bristol

For the final concert, coaches leave Bath by 10am for the half-hour drive to Bristol. 

Bristol, St Mary Redcliffe
Spanish & Italian polyphony

Stile Antico

This programme of rich variety and dramatic contrasts explores the glorious music composed for Passiontide and Easter. Tomás Luis da Victoria’s meditative O Domine Jesu Christe and Francisco Guerrero’s exuberant Maria Magdalene stand as the extremes of an emotional journey retracing the events of Holy Week – from the Mount of Olives and Christ’s betrayal, through death on the cross to resurrection. There are Renaissance masterpieces from Spain, Italy, England and the Low Countries, including Allegri’s famous setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei.

Dispersal. Immediately after the concert, some coaches leave for Bath while others are driven the few minutes to the railway station, Bristol Temple Meads. You should have plenty of time to catch a train which departs c. 12.40pm or later.

Accommodation & prices

No.15 Great Pulteney
A quirky boutique hotel in one of Bath’s finest, centrally located Georgian terraces. The décor is colourful and eclectic. Each room is highly individual, with modern art by local artists featured throughout. Rooms vary in size and there is no air-conditioning. There is a restaurant, a bar and small spa.

Prices, per person
Double/twin £2,370
Double for sole use £2,650

Macdonald Bath Spa
An attractive amalgam of Georgian, Victorian and modern buildings in expansive landscaped grounds. The spacious bedrooms, decorated in Neo-Georgian style, have recently been renovated, many have views across the city. The hotel has air conditioning, a good restaurant, bar, lounges, swimming pool and spa facilities. A 20-minute walk to the city centre through the picturesque grounds of the nearby Holburne Museum, transport to the concerts and lectures in Bath will also be provided.

Prices, per person
Double/twin £2,560
Double for sole use £2,840

The Gainsborough Bath Spa
Occupying two town houses with grade II listed Georgian and Victorian façades right in the centre, this smart hotel has recently reopened under new ownership. Bedrooms are elegant with marble bathrooms, air conditioning and numerous mod cons. There is a bar and an award-winning restaurant. The hotel has the only spa with access to the city’s natural thermal water.

Prices, per person
Double/twin £2,690
Double for sole use £3,050

The Bath Priory

In four acres of gardens, this beautifully designed country house-style hotel occupies adjacent Georgian mansions. The décor throughout is homely with contemporary touches. The hotel has air-conditioning. There is an excellent restaurant, a brasserie, indoor and outdoor pools and spa facilities. It is a scenic 20-minute walk through Royal Victoria Park to the Bath Assembly Rooms, although transport will be provided for the concerts and lectures within Bath.

Prices, per person
Double/twin £2,820
Double for sole use £2,920
Courtyard view double for sole use £3,120
Garden view double for sole use £3,280

The Royal Crescent

Set in the centre of the Royal Crescent, Bath’s grandest display of Georgian architecture and perhaps Europe’s finest street, the five-star hotel is a peaceful idyll in the middle of the city. Bedrooms are individually styled, making the most of period features; all have air-conditioning and access to the spa facilities. The hotel has an award-winning restaurant that overlooks its attractive gardens.   

Prices, per person
Double/twin £2,960
Double for sole use £3,660


More about the concerts

Duration. Concerts are around sixty to seventy minutes, without an interval.

Acoustics. Most of the venues are very large churches. However, we are limiting the size of the audience to the number that can fit into the quire or chancel, sometimes in the stalls alongside the choir performing. Sound and sightlines will therefore be much better for everyone than for many cathedral concerts, although these features will vary in character according to where
you choose to sit.

Seats. Specific seats are not reserved. You sit were you want to. In the churches seating is largely on pews.

Exclusive access. The concerts are private, being planned and administered by Martin Randall Festivals exclusively for an audience consisting of those who have taken the full festival package.


Travelling to the venues

For five of the eight concerts which are outside Bath, there are drives in comfortable coaches of between thirty minutes and two hours. These are almost entirely through attractive green countryside, with the longer journeys being largely on fast motorways. Timings avoid peak hour traffic.

Within Bath, the three centrally located hotels are within easy walking distance – maximum 15 minutes – of the concerts and lectures. Two others are 20 to 30 minutes away on foot, but transport will be arranged by coach or minibus.

How strenuous?

There are two concerts on three days and one concert on the first and last days. But the schedule is not exhausting. Days don’t begin before 9.30am or 10am and there is over an hour at the hotel before dinner or an evening concert, except for the day when dinner is in Wells before a concert.

All the concert venues are in the centres of historic towns where traffic is strictly limited. Unavoidably therefore it is necessary to be able to walk for several hundred yards from where coaches can park. Bath is hilly, as is Exeter.

If you have a medical condition or a disability which may affect your holiday or necessitate special arrangements being made for you, please discuss these with us before booking – or, if the condition develops or changes subsequently, as soon as possible before departure.

We ask that you consider carefully your fitness before committing to a booking.

Are you fit enough to join the tour?