Brian Kay’s Cotswold life

Brian Kay

Brian Kay - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

Brian Kay, founding member of the King’s Singers, has lived in eight houses in the same village since moving to these parts. He tells Katie Jarvis about his Cotswold life / Photography by Antony Thompson

Brian Kay

Brian Kay - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

Brian Kay, a founding member of The King’s Singers, celebrates his 70th birthday this month – but make no mistake: the tempo of his life is as allegro as ever! On the eve of his celebrations – May 11 – he’s conducting an all-Mozart concert in the Royal Albert Hall, with 2,000 singers from The Really Big Chorus [TRBC], Britain’s largest choral society. And on November 30, he will conduct the 40th anniversary performance of TRBC’s Messiah from Scratch, where around 4,000 singers will perform without rehearsal: “It’s such a thrill,” Brian says. “The moment it’s over, I start counting the days until the next time!”

Brian Kay

Brian Kay - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

Brian is also conductor of Vaughan Williams’s Leith Hill Musical Festival in Surrey, and of the Burford Singers, who will be staging a Gilbert and Sullivan Gala Concert with the Cotswold Chamber Orchestra on June 29.

He and his wife, Gilly – who, as Gillian Fisher, was a leading Baroque soprano – have a son and a daughter and three grandchildren.

• Where do you live and why?

We live in the village of Fulbrook, which we absolutely love. I moved here from Surrey, simply because I fancied the idea of living in real countryside and not having to fight against commuters going into London. I found our first house in the village during a break in a concert I was doing at the Oxford Playhouse with The King’s Singers: I wandered into the estate agent next door and asked, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a five-bedroom Cotswold stone house with an acre of ground for £30,000?’ He replied, ‘If you could stretch to £33,000, it’s your lucky day; one’s just come in.’

• How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

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That was back in 1977, and I’ve been here ever since. But I was brought up in a little village in Yorkshire, with the glorious name of Upper Poppleton, where members of the Kay family have been since 1675. My grandfather - Sir Robert Newbald Kay - lived in Poppleton Hall, and was a founder of the family firm of lawyers as well as a Liberal MP. I have two brothers who still live in the area, but my sister – Heather – is down here: she is married to Nicholas Cleobury, who conducts the Oxford Bach Choir, among many other things. Heather was in The Swingle Singers, so we’re a fairly musical bunch.

• What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?

It’s sitting in the house or the garden, reading books; maybe barbecuing if the weather is nice - taking it easy, because my life is fairly hectic. I’ve just had a week in Italy, conducting a concert in Naples with my Really Big Chorus. Then I spent the whole of last week auditioning 60 singers for the Kathleen Ferrier competition, as I’m chairman of the jury for this year. After that, it’s a case of going back to Surrey and rehearsing 700 singers for six hours on a Saturday. Life is pretty full. Although people think that, at 70, one should be looking forward to retirement, nothing could be further from my interest.

• If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?

Our house suits us perfectly. Although it looks much older, next year is its 20th anniversary: it has the charm of an old cottage but everything works! It takes its name from the bells of the church next door; there used to be three, one of which was cracked, so all you got was Three Blind Mice every Sunday morning - not a musician’s idea of fun! But the village got together 10 years ago and raised enough money to have the three recast and three more bells added.

• Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

Anywhere that’s not Fulbrook. It’s perfect. You can think of chocolate-box villages around here where there is no life; while ours is not quite as pretty as it might otherwise be, we hardly have any weekenders. Everybody knows everybody.

• Where’s the best pub in the area?

Obviously, I would opt for the Carpenter’s Arms here in Fulbrook, because it’s run by two lovely people - Bridgett and Adrian. The food is outstanding, and Adrian keeps the best pint of my favourite beer imaginable: Greene King’s Abbot Ale, which I was weaned on when I was at Cambridge

• And the best place to eat?

Recently, we went to the Wild Rabbit in Kingham for the first time, and that was excellent. You can’t get a table at the weekend for weeks in advance. The Lamb in Burford has always been a bit of a favourite, too.

• What would you do for a special occasion?

As far as music is concerned, that’s a tricky one because – goodness me – each concert has its own special feature. The Burford Singers did a performance of the greatest work ever written by the greatest composer who ever lived – that’s Bach’s B minor Mass. The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 was another wonderful experience, particularly because I was a founder member of the Monteverdi Choir, the finest in the world. I recently went back to King’s College, Cambridge, my alma mater, where we started the choir with John Eliot Gardiner on March 5, 1964: on March 5, 2014, we all met again to do another performance of the same work, which was broadcast live on Radio 3. It was a sensational occasion and all we founder members sat drooling with pride.

• What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?

Coming from a Yorkshire village which is all red brick, to me Cotswold stone is perfection: that honey colour looks as if it’s grown straight out of the earth.

• And the worst…?

Traffic, I’m afraid, is the inevitable answer. One villager told me that, when he was a lad, they used to play cricket in the road. They had to stop once a day to let ‘the car’ through. Can you imagine that? The last survey they did at the bridge in Burford - which must be getting on for 20 years ago – showed the daily average to be 19,000 vehicles. A staggering amount.

• What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?

I can’t think of anything that’s underrated; but, certainly, if people only go to professional concerts, then they’re missing out. When I use a professional orchestra with an amateur choir, the orchestras always say to me afterwards: ‘It’s so nice to hear people singing from the heart.’ It sounds corny but that’s exactly what it is. We’ve very lucky with my Burford Singers: one of the great things is that we have a fantastic audience – loyal and devoted. We have a waiting list for the choir, and I do have high standards. We work very hard.

• What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

One is so completely spoilt for choice. If you go towards Pershore, there’s a moment when the whole of the Vale of Evesham lies before you. Or it could be driving into Chipping Campden; or the view down Burford High Street. They all have such charm.

• What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?

It depends how you define quintessential. If you want beauty with no life, that’s one thing. If you want life with no beauty, that’s another. If you want both together, it would be hard to choose. We love Fulbrook. Because we don’t have a village hall, the little church is now called the Fulbrook Meeting Place and it’s used for everything: services, where I play the organ; pig roasts; keep-fit; bridge; soup lunches for the elderly; wine-tasting. It’s a catalyst for the village. A great friend of ours, who has now retired as the Chamberlain of York Minster, is a composer called Richard Shephard. When he walked in to our church, he said, ‘It smells lived in and loved,’ which is exactly what it is.

• Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds…




• What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?

Burford Church - magnificent and very highly rated by Simon Jenkins: we [the Burford Singers] do all our concerts there. I also love Ditchley Park, which we use for Dean & Chadlington [Summer Music Festival]. It’s a wonderful house in Charlbury, built by the Wills tobacco family, where Churchill lived during the war. I’m having my 70th birthday lunch there with family and friends from all over the world. My birthday is in May, which meant I was always away at boarding school or university. It’s only since the grandchildren came along that I’ve taken any interest in birthdays.

• What would you never do in the Cotswolds?

I would never draw graffiti on any of the buildings.

• Starter homes or executive properties?

The nightmare is that these people in London, earning colossal amounts of money, can outbid anybody locally; and the tragedy is that the next generation simply won’t be able to afford to live here. I think all villages should be closed to estate agents: when someone gets too old for a big house they should move into a small one. My ideal is that nobody ever moves out of Fulbrook – we all just move round! And having lived in eight houses in the village, I’m a prime example.

• What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?

In terms of churches where I’ve performed:

Tewkesbury Abbey; Gloucester Cathedral; Burford Church; Bath Abbey.

• If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?

I’d probably take a Lowry signed print that I have of Burford Church, which I love. When my daughter got married in Burford Church, we got her a copy.

• And which book should they read?

A Little History Of The English Country Church by Roy Strong. I met him when we went to a prom one year, as guests of the controller after all my years of working for Radio 3: Roy Strong was in the box with us. I said to him, ‘You must come down to Burford and Fulbrook because we do exactly what you say we must – we use the our churches every day.’ He didn’t get as far as Fulbrook but he did come to Burford and talk to an audience there.

• Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?

I have two regular walks: one is round Swinbrook, which is about five miles; and one is down what we call the Middle Road, to Barrington and Taynton. It’s just me and the birds… and the occasional plane – unfortunately – from Brize Norton. Otherwise, it’s heaven!

• To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?

The great composers associated with the Cotswolds have been well represented: Vaughan Williams in Down Ampney; Holst in Cheltenham. And does Worcester count? For me, Elgar is one of the greatest composers of all time. I have a handwritten letter from him to the chorus master of the Leeds Festival, framed in my downstairs loo, with that wonderfully distinctive Edward Elgar signature.

• With whom would you most like to have a cider?

There would be two people: Vaughan Williams, because at Leith Hill I conduct from his own antique music stand. And the other is the great Kathleen Ferrier. People always said of her the old cliché: that she walked into a room and it would light up. I’d talk about music to both of them, but all I’d really want to do is to be in their presence.


For more information, and to book tickets, visit:; for Leith Hill Musical Festival; and for The Really Big Chorus

This article is from the May 14 issue of Cotswold Life

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