The organ at the Church of St James the Great has been at the heart of village life in Cranham for more than 100 years.

It’s played a role in countless weddings and funerals and accompanied the singing of thousands of hymns and carols during Sunday services.

But in just a few weeks’ time its 412 pipes will fall silent as specialists take it apart to clean away 50 years of earwigs and cobwebs, replace leather fastenings made brittle by time, repair worn-out parts and generally get the instrument into good shape for another half a century.

And with the work estimated to cost at least £26,000, villagers are already working hard to come up with money-spinning ideas for their organ restoration fund.

Great British Life: Beryl Berry outside the Church of St James the Great at Cranham. Beryl Berry outside the Church of St James the Great at Cranham. (Image: Sue Bradley)

Among the events they’re planning is an “Organathon” on March 9, with players from across Gloucestershire and beyond invited to perform their favourite pieces during a day of continuous music. Members of the public can drop in to listen, enjoy refreshments and make a donation. There are also opportunities to sponsor sections of the event.

Among the performers will be the person who knows the organ better than anybody else: Beryl Berry, who has been playing it for more than 50 years.

The mother of four has been the organist at St James the Great since the early 1970s, following on from her father Laurence Head, a surveyor who performed the role between 1948 and 1966.

Great British Life: Organist Laurence Head, who played from 1948 to 1966Organist Laurence Head, who played from 1948 to 1966 (Image: Sue Bradley)

In effect, she’s grown up with the organ, helping to operate the bellows in the days before an electric blower was installed in 1963, and she remembers the last time it was taken apart, cleaned and repaired back in 1972.

‘Boys from the village were paid 6d to operate the bellows, and if they didn’t turn up it would be the verger or choir boy, and as a last resort my mother Dorothy,’ explains Beryl.

‘Close to where the handle for the bellows used to be, you can still see the lines that were a guide for the weight that regulated the amount of air required.

‘If you didn’t pump in enough air the weight was too near the top and the sound would waver; and if you pumped too hard there would too much air and it would make a mighty rushing wind noise, both of which would be annoying to the organist.

Great British Life: Organ stops. Organ stops. (Image: Sue Bradley)

‘I started learning the piano when I was seven and later accompanied the hymns at assemblies at Stroud Technical School for Girls.

‘The technique for playing the organ is different from the piano, with the main differences being the use of the foot pedals and a third line of music to read.

‘I would ask Dad to give me organ lessons, to which he’d reply “all in due course”. Sadly he died in 1966.

‘I started playing the organ regularly in the early 1970s, learning as I went along, although I had a break between 1979 and 1982 when my twins Michael and Jonathan and their siblings Charlotte and Stephen were born. Playing the organ means a lot to me, particularly because it feels almost like a memorial to Dad.’

Beryl’s family moved from Ewell in Surrey to Cranham in the days when the Gloucestershire village was still without electricity or mains water, and she remembers how people would fill up buckets from a spring.

Great British Life: Brass plaque in memory of Laurence Head. Brass plaque in memory of Laurence Head. (Image: Sue Bradley)

Laurence had been the deputy organist in Ewell, having had lessons with the tutor Mabel Tudor-Craig during his years in Earlsfield in London, and it wasn’t long after his arrival in Cranham in 1948 that he was asked to fill a vacancy left by John Maybrey, who had played between 1892 and 1934.

Along with accompanying hymns and carols every Sunday, he and his family helped to take care of the organ, which was made by Lewis & Co Ltd of Brixton and contained within a case designed by Sidney Gambier Parry, half-brother of the Highnam-based composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, who wrote the music for Jerusalem.

‘I arrange for the organ to be tuned once a year and ensure it gets a certain degree of humidity as it’s a bit sensitive to being dry, so we make sure there’s a bowl of water close to it over the summer months,’ explains Beryl.

‘Dad was the organist when the organ was restored in 1954 by JW Walker & Son of Ruislip, and we still have the Walker record book listing work that was done, and the recommendation that an electric blower “would be a Godsend”. The blower was installed nine years later.

‘Fortunately, there’s nothing really wrong with the organ now, other than the occasional cypher – a note that plays when it shouldn’t – and the keys being a bit more rattly, but with the passage of time there are always bits that need replacing, and I hate to think how many cobwebs and woodlice they’ll find in the works.’

Great British Life: The 'Cranham' setting for In the Bleak Midwinter, by Gustav Holst. The 'Cranham' setting for In the Bleak Midwinter, by Gustav Holst. (Image: Sue Bradley)

Cranham occupies a special place in musical history, having been the place in which the Cheltenham-born composer Gustav Holst wrote a setting for the English Hymnal of 1906 to accompany Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Bleak Midwinter. His tune is known to this day as Cranham, and the name ‘Midwinter Cottage’ marks the spot where it was written.

The composer had family connections with the village, with his mother, Clara Holst nee Lediard, being brought up at the Buckholt. She is said to have played an earlier organ or harmonium at St James the Great.

The modern-day village continues to have a vibrant musical life, with a small orchestra that attracts players from a wide radius and a choir, both started more than 50 years ago by Beryl.

‘The choir came about using music dad had from conducting the Glee Singers, and a small group of us got together to sing it… it grew from there and we now have around 20 members,’ recalls Beryl, a qualified piano teacher. ‘It was a similar story with the orchestra, which began with a handful of strings and now has around 16 regular players and several friends who join us for our Christmas and summer concerts and at various events we’re asked to play at.

Great British Life: Beryl Berry, playing the organ. Beryl Berry, playing the organ. (Image: Sue Bradley)

‘The choir and orchestra has already helped to raise £326 for the organ at its joint Christmas concert.’

Beryl and the Cranham villagers raising money towards the organ repairs are hoping for a good turnout for the Organathon and are keen to hear from any players who would like to take part.

‘Organists can come along and play anything really,’ says Beryl, who also accompanies congregations at Brimpsfield and Birdlip.

‘I’ll probably play my usual things that I can do without any big mistakes, such as Bach’s Short Eight Preludes and some old English music.

‘The main thing is that the church is filled with music before the organ is taken apart and prepared for another 50 years.’

To volunteer for the Organathon, contact Sylvia Ardron at