The deep, rich sound that sends shivers through you. A sense of warmth, belonging, community. There’s nothing like the tone of a brass band, especially magical at this time of year. Our county has plenty of musical tradition and bands of note – big and small – and all with fascinating stories.

Great British Life: The world-famous Foden's Band on home soil at Gawsworth HallThe world-famous Foden's Band on home soil at Gawsworth Hall (Image: Foden's Band)

Foden's Band
Cheshire's most famous – Foden’s – are renowned the world over as among the very best. Originally formed in 1907 as the Elworth Band, they disbanded to be taken over by vehicle manufacturer Edwin Foden in 1909. The owner of Foden’s Motor Works wanted only the very best – and he had the means to make it so. 

Principal cornet and band manager Mark Wilkinson explains: ‘Edwin Foden instructed his builders to travel around the country to find the best players at the various competitions, and those players were then offered a job at the factory and accommodation. That was when Foden’s started winning all those other competitions. It wasn’t like being in a professional band where people were paid for the company – they were paid for working at the factory, but would go off for weeks at a time playing at parks and festivals down south.’ 

From that point until the present day the band have maintained their status as major players in the world of brass. The multi-award-winning musicians perform more than 30 concerts a year across the country, working in the community and running a youth band. Awards over Foden's 100-year-plus history include the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain 15 times and the British Open Championships 12 times. 
'We are lucky that we have such a fantastic music scene in Cheshire, says Mark. 'Even though we’re very competitive, we’re all really supportive of each other. 

‘Cheshire is such a beautiful, historic place, with lots of villages and parks with events our bands play a part in – we all love supporting the community.'  

Great British Life: Barnton Silver BandBarnton Silver Band (Image: Barnton Silver Band)

Barnton Band
Barnton Silver Band, based in Pickmere, dates back to1891. Amanda Harrison who has been playing tenor horn with Barnton since the late 1980s, says: ‘We were originally Barnton Temperance Band, which always makes us smile because apart from Salvation Army bands, many bands have an enjoyable culture that includes the pint or two.’ 

The name was changed to Barnton Subscription Band to encourage members outside of the church to join, and in 1894 got premises in Oakwood Lane in Barnton. In 1921 the players had their first job, leading the procession to open the Comberbach Memorial Hall.

‘In the 1940s, a family called the Leicesters got really involved – everyone said if they left there would be no band, as there was so many of them,’ Amanda explains. ‘I met one of them at a care home where we did a concert and we realised the connection.’ 

Great British Life: Farndon Brass playing in a Remembrance Sunday paradeFarndon Brass playing in a Remembrance Sunday parade (Image: Tony Pugh)

Farndon Band
Farndon and District Brass Band celebrates its 125th anniversary next month. Longest-standing member Phil Mason says: ‘The band was established as a result of Queen Victoria's Jubilee. The gentleman of the village and surrounding areas donated money and the band was set up.’

An extract in Malpas Deanery Magazine of July 1898 states the Jubilee Brass Band consisted of 25 members who had their first meeting in October 1897.

None of them had played before; however, the session was deemed a great success. The late 1940s and early '50s saw an influx of new members to Farndon Band, Phil Mason joining in 1953. ‘I was persuaded by my family I needed to do something in the school holidays – my grandad was a church organist, so I got my musical talent from there.

'From there I’ve played pretty much every instrument in the band and been secretary and chairman too.’ 
While the band entered competitions in the 1980s and1990s, they now focus their attention elsewhere.

‘Contesting is very difficult – you've got to dedicate a lot of time to strive for perfection. Our members wanted to concentrate on entertainment and now do a lot of charity events,’ Phil says. ‘We are a charity too and perform at fetes and concerts to raise funds for ourselves. There's a heck of a lot of brass bands in the world but in Cheshire our bands are like a community.'

High notes

 ‘We’ve played for royalty twice – once in 1938 and once in 1986 at Buckingham Palace,’ Mark Wilkinson says. ‘We’re also the only band to have what's called the double hattrick. We won the National Championships of Great Britain in 1932, 1933 and 1934 and because we won three years in a row, we were barred from 1935. Then in 1936, 1937 and 1938 we won again, which had never happened before.’ Most recently Foden's won the Nationals at the Royal Albert Hall in 2018 and 2021 and have taken the Whit Friday Marches 19 years out of 20. 

Phil Mason's favourite memories of Farndon band are festive. ‘My earliest recollections of the band are playing in December time around the villages. We’d light the lamp and hang it on a shepherd’s crook, fighting for light to play. On Christmas Eve we’d do five-hour stints, broken up quite nicely by wealthy homeowners who’d invite us in to play and give us beer and mince pies. We had to use cigarette lighters to de-freeze the slides of the trombones and the valves of the instruments.’ 

Amanda Harrison’s fondest recollections are more recent, with the band spreading positivity during the pandemic. ‘When we could only have six people in the garden, five others would come over to me and play – which must have been quite surreal for the residents of Hartford, who could hear the music floating across the village.’

Being able to come back from lockdown, when many other bands had folded, makes Amanda feel especially lucky. ‘Our very first performance after lockdown was at the Rotary Club in Knutsford and it absolutely poured with rain and the audience was mostly made up of my family. We all joked that our first public event was a washout but we really were all so pleased to be back.’

Playing on 
Disaster struck Foden’s in 2016 when a fire at the band room in Sandbach saw their equipment and history go up in smoke. ‘We lost artefacts, instruments, and more than 3,000 pieces of music, which was really traumatic. Trying to rebuild after that was really difficult,’ says Mark.

But the band played on, applying for Heritage Lottery funding, which allowed them to create a website to preserve their archive digitally, as well as buy new instruments, music stands and uniforms. Foden's went on to win the National Championships in 2018.

Mark says: ‘The heritage of Foden’s is really important, and we’re keen to ensure we keep that 120-year history going forward. Because we’re so good, we have so much demand and we get to play all over the country and to large audiences, which is incredible.’ 

If you would like a taste of the Foden’s magic, they are performing in a Memories of Christmas concert with singer Matt Ford at Congleton Town Hall on December 3.

Farndon and District Brass Band’s challenges come due to the fact they’re a charity, relying on the public to help continue their legacy. ‘Maintaining instruments and buying music cost a lot,’ Phil says. 'About 30 years ago, we were seeing reduced numbers and held an emergency meeting where we all agreed we must get stuck in and make sure the legacy continued.

'Sure enough, former members started playing again and newcomers to the area saw what a friendly band we were and wanted to join. People love the camaraderie.’

The band is 125 years old this December – quite the achievement for a 'small village band’, as Phil puts it. Celebrate along with them on November 26-27 and December 10-11 at Bellis Brothers Garden Centre in Holt.

Amanda Harrison says: ‘There’s a warmth about playing in a band that doesn't leave you. When you hear the sound of a brass band, it absolutely fills you with joy. I think it sounds very British in a good way.’

You can enjoy all the beauty and Britishness of the Barnton Silver Band at the Christmas Crib at Tatton Park on November 27 and December 4.