Tetbury Life, Gloucestershire

Its not all antiques in Tetbury. All over the town, there are entrepreneurs and artistes who are striking quite a different note.

Tetbury is, as its latest publicity leaflet says 'the home of antiques in the Cotswolds'. The town's present-day reputation devolves on a trade that it previously appeared unwilling to admit to, or use to its advantage. More than one hundred and fifty dealers are represented in its streets, mostly in premises that are much older than the artefacts on sale. Only four years ago, when writing about Tetbury, I was asked by townspeople to not give undue weight to the businesses in antiques, memorabilia and collectables, lest it should be thought that there is little else here to offer the visitor. Tetbury has much more to offer everyone.

It has, for example, the world-famous House of Cheese in Church Street; in nearby Artique, you will find the largest collection of central Asian artefacts for sale in England; it has a branch of the applauded Hobbs House Bakery; and, in Long Street, the equally well-liked Cotswold butcher Jesse Smith. All over the town, independent traders are refurbishing, and adding to their premises. Tetbury Old Books, for example, has lately relocated to Long Street, where it is now right in the shopping centre and much easier to visit. The town has numerous upmarket specialist retailers; new businesses have started up over the last few months, and, as you will read, the town is set to become an IT trailblazer. With all of this, historic buildings lining every roadside, and a Police Museum, Tetbury is a great place to spend the day.

It is a fact, though, that almost all non day-to-day interest in Tetbury does in one way or another devolve on saleable items of the past, or else it depends on visitors to nearby Highgrove, Gatcombe Park, Chavenage Manor or Westonbirt Arboretum. I bring up the matter of hiding lights under bushels because of another strand that has been steadily building up in the town: the Tetbury music scene.

Take the Tetbury Music Festival. While some people may visit a town whose retailers wear their Prince of Wales feathers with pride, in the hope of glimpsing the young princes in the street, the Music Festival - running in 2007 between 4 and 7 October - has HRH The Prince of Wales as its patron. The Festival was co-founded in 2002 by Elise Smith, who was on the Board of the Royal Academy of Music, and Graham Kean, who is currently Director of Music in the parish church. Elise ran an annual concert of choral works in Cheltenham for ten years. She is currently president of the York Gate Collection of musical instruments and artefacts at the Royal Academy of Music, and chairman of a classical and baroque instrument collection. She is also involved with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which plays Baroque, classical and early romantic music on original instruments. According to Elise, there is a thirst for good music in the area, with about eighty per cent of the audiences at the Music Festival coming from a radius of twenty miles.

St Mary's church is ideally suited to concert performances of classical music, and the church organ - a magnificent three-manual instrument that has about 2,250 pipes and sits in the west gallery - makes a fine accompaniment to the full choral evensongs of the excellent choir. However, its internal workings are now more than a century old and are in need of a major rebuild. Doubtless, more will be heard of this in the coming months.

The church's late 19th-century spire - the fourth-highest in England - stands on top of a medieval tower and fixes Tetbury's position in the landscape from miles around. The interior is late Georgian Gothic revival, designed and built by Francis Hiorn of Warwick between 1777 and 1781. The antiseptic hall-like interior with its incredibly thin clustered pillars is not to everyone's taste, and Hiorn's flight of great Perpendicular-style windows sit oddly with the interior. But they are spectacular viewed from within, or from the hillside to the south. According to Graham Kean, these elements have created a combination of acoustics and atmosphere that is perfect for the music. The acoustics are said to be very similar to those of the Wigmore Hall in London.

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"This is a large church," says Graham, "with lantern windows that flood the building by day with a warm light; the high, vaulted ceiling and impossibly slender pillars display a special elegance; and the Georgian box pews add solid splendour - even if they do lack a little comfort. And - very significantly for musicians - the church possesses a wonderful acoustic; a bright and warm resonance transmits music with crystal clarity to all corners of the building. It facilitates the finest music making, lit in the evenings by the two massive candelabras over the nave, and enhanced with subtle spotlights."

This venue has attracted classical musicians of international stature in just four years since the Festival began. Its artistic advisor is the world-famous cellist Steven Isserlis, and it has already built a roll of internationally known names, performing choral music, piano trios and quartets, cello recitals and vocal recitals. There has been music from Bach to Brahms, to living composers like Michael Berkeley. This year, there is to be a concert of Renaissance music from the Sistine Chapel, performed by one of the finest choirs in the world - The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers. The Festival even has its own official 'fringe' event; this year it will be 'free, educational, wild and wacky but very professional recorder playing'. Tetbury is now one of the places at which international classical artists ask to perform.

Of course, not everyone enjoys church music or classical music. Certainly, sixteen-year-old Hayley Cowan of Westonbirt School manages both with consummate ease. She sings in the choir at St Mary's, and also plays acoustic guitar and sings modern songs at the Priory Inn. This is an establishment that Dave Kelly bought in 2004, when it was 'a bit of a lad's pub', and has since refurbished and repositioned the place, turning it into an award-winning, fourteen-bedroom hotel with a wide reputation for Sunday night acoustic music sessions.

"We have just started to tap into the wealth of singer-songwriters and performing music talent in and around Tetbury," says Dave. "We have acoustic, folk, country music, bluegrass, and contemporary; we might have cello, piano and guitar one evening, a singer of Celtic songs at the next. Every so often we do an open-mic night with the 4014 Project, when so many performers turn up from around Tetbury that it is frequently a struggle to get them all on during the evening."

One of the Priory faithful is Heather Bristow, bluegrass singer from North Carolina, who runs Strictly Strings in Long Street with her husband, Daniel. She has been singing and playing in the genre 'almost as long as I could talk'; and, since 1988, Daniel Bristow has been making, selling and restoring violins and the like in his associated business just down the road. He is a talented craftsman who trained at the Newark School of Violin Making. From Strictly Strings, the couple hire out everything needed by those who are making their first foray into stringed instruments, and those who are experienced in using them in a wide range of musical genres. Heather can be heard at The Priory, singing an eclectic mix of bluegrass and Irish songs, often as part of a trio called 'Alison Murphy'. If this is your music of choice, you might care to note that the 2007 Didmarton Bluegrass Festival will take place on Kemble airfield during the first weekend of September; check www.didmartonbluegrass.com for details.

Another performer at The Priory is Tetbury singer-songwriter Ellie Ponting, formerly a music student at Derby University, who is currently working on her first recorded album. Ellie and her husband Jon run the town-based 4014 Project (www.4014.co.uk), a not-for-profit community group that promotes local artistes and bands. It has issued a twenty-one track compilation CD of some of these, celebrating a wide range of local talent, from metal to country music.

Jon explains: "In 2004 we became part of the Tetbury music scene when we set up a website that contained a small directory of local bands and venues. The list of bands grew, and, in 2005, the 4014 Project really took off." It was named after the road running between Tetbury and Malmesbury - the towns that hosted the project's first two concerts. "The Project has discovered a wealth of talented people. We now consider ourselves to be the driving force behind free semi-acoustic open-mic nights in the Cotswold area." Encouraged by the way musicians are thinking, both locally and internationally, and the music-listening public's desire to download material from the internet, the Project has just launched its new commitment to local talent. This is the area's only download shop exclusively for locally based musicians, and is being produced in Tetbury.

This year (16-22 July) the town will be staging its Alternative Music Festival, in conjunction with the Town Council and the Tourist Information Centre. There will also be a Youth Music for Tetbury event at the school at the end of that week. A prime mover in the Alternative Music Festival is Margaret Lamont, who runs Tetbury's Alternative Research (alternative medicines, recycling, reusable fuels, etc.). She says that there is a great deal of non-classical interest locally, with great potential for concerts by musicians who are proficient on instruments such as mandoline, acoustic guitar, flute, harp, etc; the Festival will include folk, bluegrass, rock and pop.

Monthly concerts, aimed at raising funds for the Alternative Music Festival week and providing regular entertainment for the local community, have been held at Dolphin's Hall since last year. These have so far included a rock and acoustic event; Spanish flamenco jazz player Eduardo Niebla performing under the subsidised Air in G Scheme for talented foreign artistes; and ukulele player Steven Sproat.

Early in 2007 there was a Battle of the Bands at Westonbirt School, the first in what is expected to be an annual event, in which eighteen young bands competed.

Tetbury has its own George Formby reincarnation, in the ukelele player Matthew Devall. This remarkably talented young musician, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, is also a skilful magician and juggler, and a stand-up comedian. He was recently heard on BBC Radio Gloucestershire, and has been given a grant by the Princes Trust to make his own CD. Margaret Lamont, who has experience in autism, has been preparing him to deal with performances and audiences. At the time of writing, she is looking for financial co-operation in order to give Matthew experience of live performance, and to carry out her desire to showcase the considerable number of good musicians in and around the town.

Nor is Matthew Devall alone on the town's musical comedy scene. Gwen Bruist, a Priory Inn open-mic and 4014 Project veteran, has been writing and performing comedy songs in the town for years. This otherwise amateur dramatics performer is trying hard to get musicals into the local performance calendar, and, with bandleader Andy Goswell, is hoping to set up Tetbury's first writing circle for poets and musicians. You can occasionally also catch Gwen at Dolphin's Hall or the Crown Inn.

Tetbury has a varied music scene, and one that has huge potential. Ian Cox, guitar-playing folk and blues singer, has been organising ad hoc music events in the town for more than twenty years. He was influenced by the folk clubs era and sees no reason why - given the will of artists to commit themselves to a couple of hours on a regular basis - a weekly folk and blues club could not be established at one of the local hostelries. The talent, he says, is there; there is entrepreneurial potential; the requirement is committed artists.

What is needed, according to Margaret Lamont, is a permanent home for weekly concerts by local acoustic performers. She says that the little-used Market House is ideal for small-scale musical performances; an entertainment licence would be free, and available funding for village halls would take care of any administrative costs. So far, however, the Feoffees - the venue's governing body - have not felt able to accommodate the idea. It could become a place where up and coming musicians could practise, and residents could hear the results of their work at very low cost. Meanwhile, there is no shortage of individuals who are working to enhance Tetbury's reputation for classical and choral excellence, and others are looking to enhance the evening economy and give it a vibrant reputation for a diverse range of music.

First in the land

What is believed to be the first wireless internet initiative of its type in any town in England has just been launched in Tetbury. This broadband system, using compatible mobile phones, is centred on an access point at the Blue Zucchini caf� bar in Church Street and will ultimately benefit the community when local news, information and community websites are activated. From the tourists' point of view, the initiative will 'differ from other wireless networks by providing free access to selected local websites that promote Tetbury and the surrounding area'. When it is fully developed, the network will be able to take visitors on an electronic tour of the town; it will enable them to identify specific retailers, art galleries, etc., and essential services. Additionally, it will give limited free access daily to the rest of the internet so that users can check their e-mails. The initiative has involved the Cotswold Community Network, connect.glos - a programme managed by Gloucestershire First to encourage greater use of broadband technology in the county - the Cotswold District Council, Tetbury Town Council, and Tetbury Chamber of Commerce.

Opening in time for this year's tourist season is Hortensia, a shop selling luxury handmade chocolates, traditional-style confectionery and speciality Fairtrade coffee, in Market Place. The owners, Hortense and Gerald Oates, have recently refurbished and split the shop in two; there is now a fruit smoothie and fresh juice bar, with seating for 16, and a wonderful array of quality ice creams. Hortense spent fifteen years in retail, in John Lewis, Oxford Street, London, and six years operating a coffee shop. At Tetbury, they will offer some twenty-four flavours of fruit drinks, as well as freshly-made hot waffles.

Across the road, former stockbroker David Herbert, and his wife Philippa, recently opened Quayles delicatessen in Long Street. Their idea is to give to the small market town high-quality foods that are rarely seen in supermarkets, yet more readily available in London, from where the Herberts came. They have created a brand, which is visibly discernible on their own-label French wines; among the New World wines is one from California named after David's daughter, and a New Zealand white named after his niece. Australian wines come from his son's godfather's vineyard in Australia, and the whisky has travelled from his brother-in-law's business in Scotland. The foods sold in the shop have been sourced from small, family firms, of which a good many are local to Tetbury.

Words and photography by Mark Child

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