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Brass duo go on Cumbrian church crawl

22 September 2023


St Peter’s, Field Broughton, near Cartmel, on 22 August

St Peter’s, Field Broughton, near Cartmel, on 22 August

A SIMPLE plan by two brass players to rehearse duets in the acoustic of Holy Trinity, Kendal, has grown into an intention to play in every one of the 270 parish churches in Cumbria.

Dave Higson and Eleanor Knowles have visited 68 churches since July 2022, under the project title “Expedition Brass”. Both are lifelong musicians, and play with Burneside Brass: Mr Higson is musical director and baritone player, and Ms Knowles is its solo euphonium player. They have a long history of musical collaborations.

Neither has any religious affiliation, but both love what they describe as the “variety and quiet excitement” of each church that they visit. “There’s something deeply joyous in finding these ancient buildings, thinking about the stories hidden in their history, and about the people who have passed through them — thinking about all the people who lived out their lives in the neighbourhood,” Ms Knowles said.

“Brass music resonating around the stonework of these large spaces seems to have a deep power to engage emotion, and the joy of playing is truly an end in itself to us. We don’t play as performers — although we don’t mind being overheard — but purely for our own enjoyment. There’s something truly glorious about hearing these spaces filled with sound.

“It’s an unfolding expedition, an ad hoc itinerary, with no order or plan other than just to keep going as long as we are still enjoying ourselves.”

Their playing has been background music at half dozen or so coffee mornings and similar church events. “We would welcome any offers from churchwardens for us to come and play, if we’ve not yet visited their church — we don’t play in the same church twice,” Ms Knowles said. She is a part-time primary-school teacher in Grasmere, and also has a family business in Rydal.

“We adjust our music to suit: over the year, we practise heaps of different pieces, and have about 90 minutes of performance music, in case of audience. Other times, we feel in the mood for real practice, and we have about six times as much music again that we can work on — including one especially long and technical piece that was commissioned for us: an Air and Variations on the old Welsh tune ‘All through the night’.”

Visits include the “unforgettable” experience of playing at St Olaf’s, Wasdale Head, on a December night, “surrounded by ice, in temperatures of minus ten degrees”. Another was arriving at the remote St John’s, Cowgill, to find a handmade sign outside reading “Live Music 12 p.m.”: “That was fabulous, as it was the first time we encountered a dedicated audience,” Ms Knowles said.

Arriving at the parish church of Kirkandrews-on-Esk, near Longtown, was a surprise for them, “firstly, for the welcome by a very large and inquisitive herd of cows, but, secondly, the scale of the church and the amazing sound that we enjoyed inside. It’s the surprises that we love, whether the big surprises or the small ones.”

Expedition Brass welcome followers to their Facebook page, on which there is a write-up, with photos, of each church visit.

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