Tour de France - Carlton Brass style

25-Jul-2004

The Midlanders have just returned from a very enjoyable tour of France. This is their very personal account of the trip to enhance the "Entent Cordiale" between our two great nations.


Carlton Brass - Longué - Jumelles

Another highly successful year in the fortunes of Carlton Brass. The busy Christmas concert season completed, a trophy cabinet full of silverware and promotion secured to the second section.  It is against this background that members of the band enjoyed an after practice drink at the Fox & Hounds. Talk turned to the remarkable progress of the band and how, from its creation in 1998 from the remnants of the old Carlton Silver Junior Band, it had attracted new players and began its rapid period of growth and improvement. Improvement that had seen success after success on the contest stage and had seen the band rise through the ranks to become one of the better 2nd section bands in the country. The future was looking very rosy indeed.

Senior members reminisced about old bands, old friends and shared banding experiences. Several current members had played in the 70s, 80s and 90s with the Calverton Colliery Welfare Band. The band had now gone  - finally dying with the demise of the colliery, but memories lingered on. Memories of the times when the band visited Longué-Jumelles in France, to take part in the twinning of the two villages. 

'Wouldn't it be great' said someone,  'If Carlton Brass could organise a similar overseas trip'.  Everyone agreed. The band had come of age, it was making warm, rich sounds, it approached every contest full of confidence and finances were bouyant having secured generous sponsorship from Lakeside. What better a way to celebrate our success and strengthen the bonds of friendship than going international for a long weekend. 

'Well, I still have links with the Calverton / Longué-Jumelles twinning association and I still communicate with Chantelle our past host' said Janet Bailey, ex-Calverton band member and now tenor horn player with Carlton Brass. 'I am sure they would welcome us with open arms'.  And so began a furious exchange of letters and e-mails and great feats of organisation by our fantastic  secretary, Michele.

July 8th 2004 - Thirty eight excited but very nervous people gather together outside the band room. Due to pre-booked holiday and work commitments, a number of Carlton Brass players have to forego this historic trip. However we are lucky to get some fantastic players to join us. 6 players from Ransomes, 4 from Newstead and 4 from Nottingham City Transport band. The band is a bit larger than usual - 2 extra cornets and 2 extra horns. However, after just a single run through of the concert program, in a practice session only a few days earlier, we know we have something very special.

Recent weather has been atrocious. Storms across the English Channel have resulted in several ferries being cancelled. Will we ever get there? Will it be an organisational disaster?

The omens are not looking good. Members of the band had been playing at a local fete the week previously and had met the Mayor of Gedling Borough. He had been delighted that the band were fostering international relations and had promised to deliver a gift on behalf of the council to present to his counterpart in France. This had not turned up. A few frantic phone calls and a mad dash to the Council headquarters on the morning of departure and we were all set to roll.

2p.m. arrives, the time when we should have been on the road - still no sign of the coach. Has the secretary booked the correct day? 2:10p.m. and the coach finally sweeps round the bend pulling up beside the anxious faces of the committee members. The hydraulic door opens and man mountain Dave, our driver, steps out. Dark suit, shaved head and terminator style sunglasses. People are sure they have seen him somewhere before. Was he one of Britney Spears's Giant Body Guards or is he one of the gorillas normally seen standing outside the Palais de Dance on a Friday night. One thing for sure, nobody is going to dare tell him that he's late!

It is soon apparent that he is a gentle giant and is going to fit in really well. Twenty minutes later the final instrument is stowed under the bus. They have only taken about 80% of the available space. People nervously eye the mountain of suitcases and holdalls still to be loaded. Wasn't that pile bigger than the instruments?  Not to worry, the driver is an expert at loading and 10 minutes later the hydraulic doors are lowered. It is doubtful that there is space left even for a single packet of cigarettes.  This has some members panicking - where are we going to put the duty free booze?

We finally set off on our journey to catch the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre.  Halfway there and the heavens open. We find ourselves in the middle of the high winds and stormy showers that had been making such a stir in the news. Luckily for us, the weather front is moving north and we are heading south. By the time we reach Portsmouth the weather has cleared and we are promised a calm crossing. Things are looking up. We even manage to meet up with our final 2 band members, who had been attending a concert in London.

By some miracle nobody has forgotten their passport and after dropping off our bags in the cabins we hit the ferry bar. The channel is as calm as a millpond and the crossing is the smoothest that many seasoned travelers have ever experienced. Members of all 4 bands sit together and mingle as if they have known each other years. Inter-band rivalry is forgotten and we have a jovial evening laughing at each other's jokes and banter - we also have a good giggle at the on-board cabaret singer.

Some members hit the casino, where the black jack croupier seems to be acting as the middleman collecting one band member's stash and giving it to another. The rest of the band have discovered the ferry's special offer of £1 a bottle on a popular ladies Schnapps drink. After many hours, and a disgraceful lack of masculinity, the male banders have assisted the ladies in clearing out the ferry's entire stock.

After a relaxing crossing and a questionable on-board breakfast, we finally arrive in Le Havre.  Our driver, Dave is obviously a seasoned traveller in France, we are soon crossing the stunning Le Pont de Normandie bridge and heading along the French motorway system toward Le Mans, the Loire Valley and our final destination Longué-Jumelles.

We make excellent progress. The weather is looking good - the odd short shower but clearing all the time. Many take advantage of this time and catch up on some of the sleep that was lost to the previous night's Schnapps party. A couple of hours later and we stop at a motorway services. Here we go, our first contact with French speaking peoples.  A queue builds up at the café bar and wildly varying utterances of  'Je voudrais un bagutte de fromage avec un grand cofee blanc s'il vous plait' are heard.  Luckily the girl serving seems to understand us - even when some un-enlightened souls say "Al 'ave one a them cheese cob things 'n a large coffee please!"

Our progress continues apace and we are in danger of arriving too early. Our hosts have arranged to meet us after 1:00pm at Longué town hall. It will be embarrassing to arrive too early. We moderate our pace and at the designated time we arrive on the outskirts of the Village. The sign, written in French, is there clear for all to see -  Longué-Jumelles avec Calverton.

In a tremendous feat of memory, John Bailey, last here with Calverton Band over 10 years ago, guides the bus through the winding streets towards the village centre. The village is beautiful. All the buildings are built of the local chalky, white limestone, which helps in the production of the fine wines from this area.
The buildings around us suddenly thin out and we find ourselves in a large square overlooked by the impressive church at the top of the hill and dominated by the town hall at the opposite end.  This is picture postcard stuff, totally unspoiled and reminiscent of a more gentle, bygone age.

Then we see them. About 50 people standing together smiling and waving at us. The butterflies in the stomach start. Oh dear, what do we say to them. The bus stops and no one dare move. 'Get off then' someone shouts. We step down from the bus and sidle along its length, our backs against its reassuring bulk. We survey the group opposite. It's like a stand off in an old western movie. The band is thinking 'Oh I hope my host is that pretty blonde lady - she looks nice and friendly. The French are thinking 'Oh, I hope I haven't got that big hairy brute - he looks like a bass player!'

After a few uncomfortable seconds the ice is broken. Old friends are recognized and the hellos begin. The novices take note of the method of greeting - how many times do you kiss them on their cheeks?  Which cheek do you kiss first?  Do I kiss the man or will he think I'm gay?   Somebody produces a list - names are called and introductions are made.  Now the panic really starts, our French hosts know less English than we know French!. What happened to that  introduction phrase we have been rehearsing for the past two weeks? - its completely forgotten. Oh why didn't we pay more attention to our French lessons at school.  Agghh! disaster - the french phrase book is packed away in the suit case!

We enter the town hall where numerous glasses of wine have been poured as part of our welcome.  In the confused melee many of us have already lost our allotted hosts!  At last, a Frenchman calls for order and introduces himself as the Mayor of Longué, thrice removed. He is the deputy Mayor's deputy. Regardless of his dubious office, he speaks perfect unbroken English. He makes a charming speech giving us a generous welcome. He recalls the time 30 years ago when the first twinning visit occurred and how the Mayor representing Calverton stepped off the bus, shook the Mayor of Longués hand and said 'salut mon canard' or translated from broadest Nottinghamshire 'Aye Up Me Duck'

After a short reception we re-board the bus and drive a short distance to the Longué Salle Municipale. A purpose built, municipal concert hall and theatre complex, where we will play later that night. We unload our instruments and dress uniforms into the theatre, taking a quick peek at the stage. It's a very impressive facility for a medium sized village like Longué. A large, professionally lit stage and an auditorium that can probably seat in excess of 400 people. Dare we hope that we are going to have a good audience tonight for our joint concert with the Bande de Longué.

We recover our personal baggage and then finally its one on one - we leave the safety of our colleagues behind and drive away with our French host families. As we arrive at our host's homes we begin to forge our friendships. We are shown to our rooms and given the chance to freshen up after our long journey - finally a chance to find that french phrase book at the bottom of the case - we can now make sense of our introductions and express our thanks.

Now begins the marathon of food and drink, where the French show what a fantastic, friendly and generous people they really are. We do not find the English stereo-type of the French - of the little Napoleons wanting to run Europe. We find fellow bandsmen, happily giving up 2 of their 3 bedrooms to complete strangers. We discover their fantastic culinary skills - course after course of exquisitely prepared dishes, accompanied by fine wines and liqueurs. This cannot be normal. They have surely gone to considerable trouble and expense to lay on this outstanding welcome. We feel humbled by their generosity. We flip though the tourist phrase book looking for adequate words to express our thanks. Somehow phrases such as 'Where can I buy a postage stamp' and 'Help, I have been stung by a jellyfish' seem totally inadequate. French-English dictionaries, lurking at the back of the wardrobe for years are found and dusted off. These are not much better.  Never mind though - the international language of wild gesticulations, confused looks, smiles and laughter will surfice. As the wine flows, and we begin to relax in each others company, the communication becomes much easier.

The hours pass and we start to get nervous. Shouldn't we be setting off to the theatre for our concert? Will we still be able to play after our well oiled lunch? Rural France obviously has no concept of time. Eventually we are delivered back to the theatre where we meet our fellow band members. All have huge grins on their faces. We have all obviously been subjected to the same levels of hospitality. We eventually sit down for a communal meal with our fellow concert performers the Bande de Longué. This is primarily comprised of our hosts and their children but we also meet the rest of the band.

We finish our excellent repast long after the concert was due to start. Does anybody look at the time in France?  We join our remaining hosts in the, now full, auditorium. The audience doesn't seem to be at all bothered about the delay. Longué band start their short concert programme.  A charming, typically continental, oomph pa pa type village windband. Maybe a little out of place in such an impressive auditorium we thought. Perhaps more suited to the village fete or local carnival.  What sort of reception would we get? We were just so different in style and content. We were either going to be cheered to the rafters or have rotten tomatoes thrown at us.

We shouldn't have worried. Tony Wilson, the musical director strides across the stage giving a short acknowledgement to the crowd, raises his hands, a quick one, two  then Thwack!, we hit them straight between the eyes with a fast, loud and very tight rendition of the Waltonian. There is a collective gasp from the audience and the sound of jaws dropping. The vast majority of the audience had no idea at all of the standard of a modern English Brass Band. Especially an up and coming second section band boosted by Championship Section players, all on a high after their fantastic welcome.

As the cheers die away we give them a flavour of the depth and richness of sound we are now making. Dave Bird, soprano cornet at Ransomes, excels in a rendition of the beautiful and haunting 'La Califfa' . They are now agog, we have them eating out of our hands. They marvel at the sound and technical virtuosity of some of our players. The excellent rendition of 'Hailstorm' by principle cornet Alan Tyler has them shaking their heads in disbelief.

Time now to lighten the mood. And Lyndon Cooper a guest player from Newstead Welfare Band does us proud. He stands up to play the euphonium solo 'Wee Cooper of Fife'. This 'Wee' Cooper makes his way to the front of the stage deciding to tip-toe and pirouette his way along the front of the band using the spare 3 inches of stage from left to right hand side.  The smiles disappear from the faces of the audience on the front two rows as he pretends to loose balance. The sigh of relief is audible as he reaches the music stand stage right.  What are we in for now? thinks the audience, as Lyndon proceeds to remove his jacket, take off his tie, unbuckle his belt and roll up his sleeves. The audience are already giggling before the 3 foot wide, tartan tam'o'shanter is donned.  What the audience get is a masterful rendition of the demanding candenzas in this piece. After each solo Lyndon milks the audience. Other members join in mopping his brow, cooling him down by fanning him and turning his music the right way up. The audience love it. As he finishes his final cadenza he throws the tam'o'shanter, frisbee style, across the stage. By a freak accident it lands perfectly on the Flugel Players head.  Such professionals think the audience - he must have practiced that even more than those cadenzas!

Our Directors of music exchange gifts and we present the Crystal so nearly forgotten by the Mayor of Gedling Borough.  The concert continues. Every piece is a triumph. The power and depth of sound from pieces like the 'Gladiator' is followed by up-tempo swing numbers like 'I will follow him' and 'Beyond the Sea' this has them clapping and dancing in the aisles.  All good things have to end and Tony finally decides we should wrap things up.  If it was up to this audience we would be playing all night and we have to keep something in reserve for the following night's concert.

In the bar afterwards we re-connect with our hosts. Are you professionals they ask, how many times a week do you practice?  Many laugh and talk of  'the big English Jester' -  'le grand farceur Anglais' or 'La Clown'

Not only did our French audience enjoy our concert, by coincidence there just happens to be a number of Brits in the audience who are visiting friends. People from Newark, and Stoke on Trent  approach the band afterwards and rave about what a great show was put on and how they didn't know they liked brass bands so much.

What a night - if we had packed our cases there and then and headed back to England it would have been a trip to remember - an absolute tour-de-force. But no, things were only going to get better and better. Leaving our dress uniforms and instruments at the concert hall we head back to our hosts' homes. Sleep that night is well deserved - some even have to run the gauntlet of further drinks and the challenge of the local 'eau de vie' and home made wines before going to bed.

Saturday morning is spent with our hosts. Strong French coffee, Croissants, Chocolate and home made jam fortify the system for a round of visits to friends and relatives. Many go on walks around the village, the local farms and nature reserves. Dairy farming seems to be a popular occupation amongst our hosts and many are treated to demonstrations of milking.

Petanque and boules seems to be the main passion in the village. The surrounding area has 7 clubs all with large memberships. Several members are taken on visits to have a try. First a welcoming drink at the club bar. Cassis, a blackcurrent Liquer,  is topped up with the local wine and the locals all raise their glasses to us.

The boules lane is a strange affair - a large half pipe lane whose sides you can use to zig zag your ball to its target.  The English novices all make the same mistake - giving the ball a hefty shove as you do when green bowling. Wrong tactics - the ball shoots up the lane at an incredible pace shooting off the end of the lane.  You are then marched to end of the building and requested to ring a bell and pull on a curtain cord. The curtain is swept to the side revealing a cartoon of a can-can dancer bearing her bottom. You must pay for your mistake by kissing her on both cheeks!

Lunch time soon arrives and the marathon eating and drinking session recommences. This close knit community seem to drop in on each other all the time. It is not unusual to go for a walk or a drive with your hosts only to find several members of the band at the other end. Many band members and their hosts enjoy a communal meal. 

We are eventually delivered to our bus that is waiting at the carpark at the top of the village in readiness for our organised trip to 'Les Caves Veuve Amiot' in Saumur. We Tour the cellars of this fine wine maker and sample the local 'methode champenoise' sparkling wine, which is considered to be the best in France outside of Champagne itself. The sampling of the wine is very successful and the band is very impressed that you can buy this very high quality 'Champagne' at less than £5 a bottle in the gift shop.  We now have the problem of where to stow the numerous cases purchased. Fortunately the cases fit snugly under the seats of the bus. The bus must have been designed purposely with this in mind.
   
Back on the bus and we cross the beautiful Loire river and drive up the hill to impressive Château de Saumur.  Built on a hill overlooking the Loire, the chateau de Saumur, with its many turrets, was built in the middle of the 14th century on the ruins of a former fortress. This very pretty chateau is now home for a Museum of Decorative Arts as well as a Horse Museum. We only have time to look around the exterior before our two host guides start panicking and call us all together for our trip back to Longué and our onward trip to the evenings celebrations. At last a Frenchman with a watch who takes time keeping seriously!

Back in Longué we load our instruments and uniforms onto the bus for their carriage to our final concert of the trip.  We rejoin our hosts who ferry us to a country park out in the middle of the countryside. We arrive at the venue the 'Lac de la Forêt' - the lake by the forest, and we find a hive of activity.  A huge, open sided barn like structure stands amongst the trees, with trestle tables and benches that can accommodate about 600 people.  The sides are surrounded by marquee like shelters which are pinned to the barn and considerably expand the covered area.  Along one side of the barn, in one of the marquee like structures there are serving tables.  At one end of the barn is a purpose built stage where a guitar and accordion band are tuning up. At the other end of the barn, in another Marquee like shelter, the Bande de Longué is setting up.  Outside there is a line of 5 open fires where suckling pigs are being slow roasted.  Next to the fires is another building where a long bar is serving wine and beer. 

What a great accident of planning. The weekend we decide to visit coincides with the start of the French Holidays to celebrate their revolution. It is the big holiday weekend - culminating in Bastille day on the Tuesday. Every one is in party mood and out for a wonderful time. It is also the 100 Years anniversary of the of Entente cordiale. How fitting that our traditional British brass band is to join our hosts in the highlight of their year.

Soon the punters arrive and the tables start to fill up. Its yet another sell out.  The festivities begin. The Bande de Longué strike up and wow! What a difference. We think they must have taken some tips from our concert the previous night. They are playing a blinder. The audience are loving it. The wine starts flowing and we are served our starter - A half melon filled with Port - The atmosphere is electric. The Suckling pigs are butchered and served up with delicious harricot beans.  The Longué band, feeding off the wild response from the audience start to play the old cheesy Mexican song 'Chihuahua'. Mayem ensues - the audience love it. Carlton\Ransomes\Newstead and NCT have a new anthem,  we sing along with gusto until our lungs are bursting. Soon afterwards the mexican waves begin,  running up an down the lines of tables.  How are we going to follow this.

Longué eventually finish their program and take our places at the tables for their well deserved supper. We re-arrange the playing area, sit down and the first serious rain of our visit begins. Not to worry, We are experts playing under canvass and dodging streams of water. Our recent win in the Dukeries 'Brass in Bloom' contest , performing in the worst English weather of the year, had prepared us for this minor downpour. In the end it mattered little as the rain soon cleared during our first couple of numbers. Again the audience love us. We play a similar program to the first night, but this time we slip in some more upbeat numbers. We have the storming performance of the Bande de Longué to consider - this audience are in party mood.  The soloists are again on top form. Instead of his high wire act on the lip of the stage, Lyndon decides to do a balancing act standing on a white plastic patio chair. The legs bow alarmingly but by some miracle hold out to the end of 'Wee Cooper' If you ever need to purchase garden furniture you will not go wrong if you look for the Made in France mark.

High spot of the concert is our rendition of  the Can-Can. The band's ladies abandon their instruments and lead our hosts and several of the audience in a clumsy but enjoyable impression of the dancing girls from the Follies Bergere.

The band finishes its concert to rapturous applause. What an evening. The band packs its instruments and dress uniforms on the bus and rejoin our hosts. Many of the Longué are now assembling outside the barn where they are joined by a host of young children carrying paper lanterns. What is happening now? The band strike up and we are grabbed by our hosts who fall into step behind the band and children. We parade for a few minutes through the woods eventually joining the crowd gathered by the lake side. French national music floats across the lake and coloured lights illuminate the trees.  Then the 'feux d'artifice' start. A 20 minute spectacular of fireworks and singing.

The final explosions are met with a roar of approval from the crowd.  Back up to the Barn where all the tables and benches have now been cleared to make way for the dancing.  Members of the band take delight in joining our hosts  in their traditional dance. A cross between line dancing and 'March of the Mods' We have an hilarious time trying to copy our hosts - but we soon master the dance on the third circuit of the dance floor. The guitar and accordion band are excellent and have a beautiful girl singer who does not hit a wrong note all evening. The dancing doesn't stop until well into the small hours of Sunday morning. Even the most conservative of the band let their hair down and have a bit of a boogie - some are fortunate enough to have a slow smootchy dance with their hosts.

All good things have to end and the bus driver starts to get concerned that if we stay much longer he will not be able to drive us back to the ferry next morning due the strict driving time limits. We don't care too much  - we would like to stay much longer.   We feel immensely proud and privileged to have been part of such a special evening and want it to last forever. As the party winds down a few bandsmen return to Longué on the coach. Others stay a while longer at the bar with their hosts.

Back at Longué a number of impromptu house parties spring up. Out comes the champagne, the Eau de vie and the liqueurs. We all want to celebrate such a magical night.  The sun is well above the horizon when many of us finally get to bed.

Monday morning and most band members sleep in finally waking in time for a final farewell meal with our hosts. Language is not important anymore, we understand each other perfectly, our music has bought us together and we are now friends. We have shared two very special nights that we would never forget. We thank our hosts as best we can for their hospitality and present the meagre gifts that we have bought from England. The useless French tourist phrase book is left in the suitcase. Phrases such as 'Is there a campsite nearby' could never express how grateful we feel. But it doesn't really need saying. Our hosts know we have loved every minute of our visit and we sense they have really enjoyed having us.

In a fantastic turn of events it turns out that next year is the 30th anniversary of the twinning of Calverton and Longué. Each and every host invites their lodgers to come back and do it all again next year.  You bet we will!. French classes here we come - if only so we can insist in perfect French that it is now definitely our round at the bar.

The goodbyes in the carpark at the top of village are a long drawn out affair. Apart from the fact that many of our French hosts seem to have lost their watches again, we just don't want to be separated. Cameras are passed back and forth as numerous group shots of host families and lodgers are taken. As the last suitcase is loaded on the bus a spontaneous chorus  of Chihuahua erupts - both bands singing with gusto. A final large group shot, lots of hugs and kisses (we are now experts at the 4-cheek-kiss shuffle - why did we ever find it embarrassing?), and its time to board the bus. Several females in the party turn on the waterworks, and, truth be known, many of the males have lumps in their throats.  As the coach pulls away we wave at the same people we were waving at only a couple of days ago. What a difference those couple of magical days have made. Nervousness and trepidation of these strange foreigners replaced by warm feelings of camaraderie and a longing to meet up again as soon as possible.

The trip back and we are in a daze. It may be the lack of sleep, the excess of food and wine - who knows. What ever it is we all feel the same emotions. We feel flat, we feel elated, we shake our heads in disbelief. What an outstanding success. Our first ever international visit  - and what a visit it has been. Even the veterans of many previous international ventures have to admit, this was head and shoulders above anything that they have experienced before.

The ferry journey back is another ultra smooth voyage. Most band members don't bother to sleep and stay up all night in the bar talking about the fantastic experience - and of other less wholesome things (shame on you Mr Rutt).  Back in Blighty and the trip suffers its first hitch when we lose two of our players. However 20minutes later and a short bus tour of the ferry terminal and we on our way back to Nottingham. We arrive back at the band room a couple of hours ahead of schedule. The instruments and suitcases are unloaded and the bus springs let out a sigh of relief as numerous cases of Veuve Amiot are removed from beneath the seats.

Tony excuses us from practice later that night - he thinks we have probably deserved the rest.  
We all drift home - time for a hot bath, another sleep, a proper cup of tea and some plain, old, boring, English food. What a superb weekend. Another great chapter is written in the remarkable history of Carlton Brass. 

Can it get any better than this? - probably not  - such an experience will be very hard to beat. 
But then again this is Carlton Brass - don't hold your breath.

VIVE LA FRANCE, VIVE LA CARLTON BRASS et CHIHUAHUA.

Ray Ward, Carlton Brass

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