Mark Deller and The Stour Festival of Music
- Credit: Archant
The Kentish musical feast takes place at Boughton Aluph Church this month
For the musical cognoscenti of Kent, June means one thing: a trip up a winding country lane to the 13th-century All Saints Church at Boughton Aluph to enjoy excellent entertainment, food and fellowship in a glorious setting.
The Stour Festival of Music, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, was founded in 1962 by the renowned singer Alfred Deller, principally as a festival devoted to early music.
Alfred’s son Mark, who shares his father’s remarkable countertenor voice –seen as radical and controversial when it was first heard – took over running the festival in 1974 from his father, who sadly died just five years later at the age of 67.
In the first years it included exhibitions of paintings organised by John Ward, who introduced his great friend Alfred to the ancient pilgrim church where the festival now takes place over the last two weekends of June each year.
Named after the River Stour, which runs along the valley between Ashford and Canterbury, initial festivals were held in several different venues, including Canterbury Cathedral and the impressive country house Olantigh near Wye. Alfred was then at the peak of his career and able to attract many leading names from the early music scene to perform, plus his own renowned group The Deller Consort, which his son joined in 1962.
“It was all done on a wing and prayer really,” says Mark. “After the first festival we sat round in my parents’ sitting room to count the cost and we were out by 8s 6d, so dad put his old garden cap on the floor and we all threw in our loose change to make up the difference.”
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Mark and I first meet up at the Grade I listed church so he can demonstrate its perfect acoustics and show off features such as the lovely south transept window, which was restored in 2003 by The Friends of Stour Music in memory of Alfred. The specially commissioned stained glass was designed by Leonie Seliger, director of stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral.
“We can get nearly 500 seats into the church and do 10 concerts over the two weekends, from 7.30 to 9pm,” explains Mark. “Then we feed the troops in the big marquee in the field and it’s back here at 10pm for a late candlelit, shorter concert. These have become really popular and are a great platform for young musicians.”
The morning is becoming increasingly wild and wet, so we retire to nearby Wye, where Mark has lived for more than 40 years. His cosy town house is filled with books, music, paintings of his father (to whom he bears a great resemblance) and in the sitting room pride of place is given to an elderly Yamaha piano.
“It came from the song room at Canterbury Cathedral and they were throwing it out about 10 or 15 years ago,” says Mark. “It was the piano my dad was playing when he was discovered in the early 1940s and the composer Michael Tippett heard him singing.
“I said ‘you can’t throw that out!’ and gave then £300 for this 1900 Broadwood. I had nowhere to put it and only got it into the house with enormous difficulty.”
Mark’s family is from the area and in the days when he was commuting up to London to sing at St Paul’s, he decided that Wye, which he knew from childhood, would be a good place to live and bring up his three sons (now all grown up and with four grandchildren between them).
Mark’s earliest memories are of music. His father, who was born in Margate and sang in his local church choir as a boy, later became a member of the choirs of Canterbury and St Paul’s Cathedrals.
The Dellers moved to Canterbury just before Mark’s first birthday and it was there where Alfred was discovered by Tippet, who engaged him to sing some concerts in London. In 1946 he moved to the capital to further his singing career - the same year that Mark had started as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral.
There began the most extraordinary childhood. “It’s almost Dickensian now, you wouldn’t believe it,” he chuckles. “Canterbury had a quota of choristers who were either day boys or boarders. I was accepted as a day boy because my parents were living in Canterbury at the time, but when they moved to London I wasn’t allowed to change, so my mother decided to put me into digs. I was eight.
“At the end of my first year they relented and allowed me to become a boarder, but whenever the holidays came round I still had to revert to being a day boy. My first digs in Military Road had no bathroom, a tin bath in front of the fire on a Saturday night and a toilet at the end of the garden.
“My dad was becoming busy and working abroad and I didn’t see much of him and my mother had to have a job – which was not that common then but it was the only way. I have a brother and a sister 11 years younger who needed looking after.”
After completing his schooling at King’s Canterbury, Mark won a scholarship to St John’s at Cambridge. After graduating in 1960 he went to sing at Salisbury Cathedral, got married and his first child was born there. Mark also started a concert series in the Guildhall and as a result was asked by Salisbury City Council to run its new arts festival. “I had never run anything like that before in my life and after a few weeks I thought, gosh, what have I done?” he says.
“But it was a great cutting ‑teeth exercise because it was a big three-week festival with all the arts – I even had a fantastic exhibition of Constable and Turner works of Salisbury from the Arts Council touring company. You could never do that now, the insurance would make it impossible.”
Mark clearly had a flair for directing festivals and upon his return to Kent got heavily involved with Stour. When the Canterbury Festival re-started in 1984 he ran that too for about 20 years. A long-time member of the Ashford Choral Society, in 1970 he became its conductor.
Times have changed of course, and the days of chucking in some small change to make up a deficit are long gone. “Now even a relatively small festival like Stour costs £120,000 to put on, which we fund raise to achieve,” Mark explains.
“Someone was very wise (not my dad, he was hopeless with money) and raised about £3,000 in the early 60s, enough to set up a Trust Fund. That was a lot then.
“The money was invested and over the years has become a sizeable chunk that has been able to support the festival to a certain degree. But I still have to raise about £20,000 of sponsorship each year.”
Mark, who has always been a one-man band, will this year have help from a part-time assistant and a concert manager during the two weeks of the festival. He is also supported by a loyal team of 60-70 volunteers doing everything from car parking duties to selling programmes.
“In the past I’ve been up there from noon to midnight because the artists need looking after, chairs have to be sorted – and I’m getting a bit aged now,” he laughs. “It’s a year-round job because you’re always working three years ahead to secure artists, negotiate contracts and so forth.”
Last year, the 50th anniversary event raised more than £50,000 in ticket revenue – “which for a small church like that is pretty good,” says Mark. So what keeps the audiences flocking to this obscure spot in Kent, year after year? “The continuing appeal is the quality, people feel confident in advance that they are going to get something of a high standard and compared to London, ticket prices are very reasonable,” says Mark.
“The venue is very special too, up there in the summer it’s very special indeed, you’ve got wonderful views and an extraordinary building with exceptional acoustics. The artists all love coming and performing here because the audiences are reasonably knowledgeable.”
In the early days Mark’s parents would put up a marquee for the artists in their garden and his mum would feed them all, a tradition that became a firm favourite (especially the puddings). When Alfred died and the house was sold, Mark felt the tradition must continue and the artists’ marquee is now always beside the church; other marquees – where the audience can also dine – are in the field opposite.
I ask Mark how he sees the future of the festival developing, now that he is in his 75th year and none of his sons look like following in his footsteps (his youngest is a jazz flautist and saxophonist and lives in Ramsgate, so maybe there’s hope yet).
“Having achieved 50 years it would be nice to think it’s going to carry on and it’s got a good base from which to do that,” he says. “In the normal way of things one would advertise for a new festival director, which is how I got the Salisbury job, but Stour is such a strange animal, so connected with my family and with a particular ethos about it that one wouldn’t want just anyone taking it on.
“I need someone like I was back then, someone in their forties, making a bit of a reputation for himself in the world and meeting lots of different musicians he can invite to perform. I do less and less singing now but I do still wave my arms around. Hopefully I’ve a couple of years left in me.
“Getting younger blood in is vital, but these things do tend to self-regenerate. It was a little bit higgledy-piggeldy in the early days but we have settled into a pattern that works really well now.”
My Favourite Kent...
Boughton Aluph church, because I’ve seen it transformed from being almost closed and derelict to a lively centre, and my dad’s buried up there. Canterbury, because all my formative years were spent there, Wye, because I have now lived here for so long, and it’s a village I knew from my childhood. And I must know
the A28 better than any place in the world.
The whole of the Stour Valley is very special to me, but I love the Downs, from the top of the Crown looking across the valley. Between here and Stone Street it’s extraordinary countryside.
My legs aren’t so good now, but walking the Pilgrims Way from just above Boughton Aluph church to Chilham, about six miles, through Bluebell Wood, was always a favourite. We used to do it every New Year’s Day as a family.
I’m a Kentish lad through and through and have always been a keen Kent cricket supporter and played a bit on the St Lawrence ground when I was a kid. I am a life member now.
I always loved The Wife of Bath, the restaurant started in the same year as the Stour Festival. I love Froggies at Bodsham and used to love going to Waterfields in Canterbury.
Find out more
21-30 June 2013 Stour Festival of Music
Boughton Aluph Church, TN25 4EU
Seating: tickets of £15 and over are all numbered and reserved, as are £12 tickets for the Late Night Extra concerts.
10 per cent discount when booking for six concerts or more, 10 per cent discount for parties of 10 or more, discounts do not apply to online bookings, children under 16 half-price to all concerts for reserved seats and free for unreserved seats, but ticket required.
Box Office: Crowthers Music, 1 The Borough, Canterbury CT1 2DR, 05603 434123 or online: www.crowthersofcanterbury.co.uk