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Feather's Miscellany: Trinity Church Organ

...The church had one solemn, solitary bell, which summoned the faithful to church each Sabbath or tolled in the dead for burial during the week. Trinity Church also boasted an excellent choir coached by Horace Benn. And a very capable organist, Sam Bottomley, made the magnificent organ, constructed by Harrison & Harrison, cathedral organ makers of Durham, thunder out its praise to the Almighty whenever he played it. This story is about that organ...

John Waddington-Feather tells a tale of the supernatural.

Nothing is constant but change. When we are young, we fondly imagine life is going on for ever as we know it; and, indeed, in one sense it does. All our lives, we retain in our hearts the people and places where we grew up and like those who inhabit our dreams, they remain eternally the same.

Yet in the past change hasn’t happened as swiftly as in the last few decades. Think of all the new inventions we take for granted: mobile phones, the internet, and a whole host of medical and surgical treatment, P.C’s and the list goes on. My young grandson of twelve knows more about computers than I do at seventy five; and the way things are going he’ll be outstripped in technical knowledge by his grandson; though sometimes I wonder if they’ll still be reading and writing with pens by then.

So it’s astonishing to realise that over many thousands of years, Stone Age Man, our ancestor, barely changed his way of life at all. Perhaps he was too busy clinging to life itself. Evidence of his millennia-long lifestyle is still with us. On the moors above Keighworth are his artefacts: stones implements, arrow heads and the like; right next to modern bits of technology like radio masts and early warning systems, soon to become obsolete and outmoded ghosts themselves as change overtakes them.

Change hit Keighworth in a big way in the nineteenth century during the Industrial Revolution. Before industry filled the valley, Keighworth was little more than a village at the confluence of two rivers; and they were the reason for its accelerated growth – water power. They provided the power to work its looms and the means to scour the wool and dye the cloth woven from it. Overnight meadows became mills and fields spawned furnaces for molten metal. The pleasant woods and farmland disappeared, and in their place rows and rows of terrace houses were built alongside the many mills and engineering workshops.

Rural wildlife changed for wildlife of a very different sort – urban crime and violence. Keighworth was no longer the peaceful village it had once been. There was more change in ten years than there had been during the fifteen centuries before, when the place had been settled by an Anglo-Saxon thane called Cyhha and his tribe, who’d emigrated from Northern Europe.

Yet all was not change for the worse. Out of the pollution and filth came wealth and an influx of newcomers, and with them came a flowering of the arts and sciences. Because of change, Keighworth had its literary and scientific societies, its orchestra and choirs, its theatre. Art and music flourished in its churches and chapels which sprang up everywhere.

And in 1881, the four corner stones of Trinity Church down Garlic Lane were solemnly laid by Lord Devonport, its patron, and local dignitaries, and then blessed by the bishop. It became the spiritual home of the lane and the community who lived about it.

It soon became a thriving church, serving the middle-crustian parishioners, doctors, bank managers and the like, who lived over the railway line which separated them from the under-crustians who worked in the mills and on the workshop floors.

The church had one solemn, solitary bell, which summoned the faithful to church each Sabbath or tolled in the dead for burial during the week. Trinity Church also boasted an excellent choir coached by Horace Benn. And a very capable organist, Sam Bottomley, made the magnificent organ, constructed by Harrison & Harrison, cathedral organ makers of Durham, thunder out its praise to the Almighty whenever he played it. This story is about that organ.

Sam Bottomley also gave organ lessons and one of his pupils was a very gifted lad called Peter Chapman. He’d started playing the organ from an early age and under Sam’s tutelage went from strength to strength. In his late teens he won an organ scholarship to Oxford University, graduated with a first and later was awarded doctorates at universities in Britain and America, as he went on to carve out a brilliant career playing in an ancient cathedral down south and giving recitals all over Europe and America. Yet he never forgot Keighworth and his roots. He returned again and again to play on his favourite Harrison and Harrison organ in Trinity church.

Then, alas, in the 1950s the winds of change blew yet again down the Aire Valley – this time more chill. The population of the town contracted as industry declined. Church attendance shrank and new people came in of different faiths and languages. Churches and chapels disappeared, and scarcely reaching its eightieth year, Trinity Church became too costly to maintain and was made redundant, scheduled for demolition.

As you can imagine many people were upset and when Peter Chapman heard the news, he thought at once of his beloved organ and set about saving it. He’d enough clout in the ecclesiastical world to find a home for it in a new church in the diocese where he played. He made arrangements to have it dismantled and transferred to its new home; and the night before the dismantling began, before the church itself was demolished, he paid one last visit to the old church to play on its organ.

It was late when he arrived in Keighworth one Hallowe’en. His parents were long dead and he’d no relatives in the town so he’d booked in at the Albert Park Hotel, once a great private house built for a mill-owner next to Albert Park, where Peter had played as a boy. As well as the great house, change had overtaken both park and its museum, for they were now a civic recreation centre.

He collected the key, and when he arrived there was nobody there but himself. Inside, the church was deserted and bare; stripped of all its furnishings. Pews and altar had all gone. It was like a body awaiting burial. Only the organ inside and the bell hanging forlornly outside remained.

Peter sat with his memories on the organ seat and slowly unlocked the pair of large organ doors to reveal the four banks of keys and stops inside. Then he hung up the key at the side, turned on the organ light and power and began playing as he’d never played before; and as he played, dusk fell till only he and the organ were bathed in a pool of light.

As he played memories came flooding back of people long dead: his parents, the choir he’d sang in as a boy, old Horace Benn, the choir master, and his organ teacher, Sam Bottomley, together with a host of others in the congregation who’d passed on. As the music soared up to the rafters the whole place became alive with sound till the church and its people seemed to live again.

Now, I don’t know if it was the memories of folk long dead and the beautiful music echoing and re-echoing round the empty church which triggered off what occurred next, but certainly something very strange happened, indeed.

It was getting on for ten o’clock by the time Peter Chapman finished playing and quite dark outside. When he finally packed up he was exhausted; what with playing the organ so long and the journey up from the south, he was done in. He closed the organ doors and locked them securely, leaving the key on its hook under the seat. Then he rested for a few minutes on one of the chairs left by the workmen, soaking in the atmosphere of the church for the last time.

He must have fallen asleep and began dreaming – or did he? He dreamt he was singing the choir as a boy sixty years before. All those singing with him had passed on years ago, yet there they were, singing as lustily as ever, conducted by Horace Benn, with his old teacher, Sam Bottomley, at the organ. In a blaze of intense golden light, they sang anthem after anthem, and Sam played fugue upon fugue, till suddenly the bell began tolling. In a moment all disappeared; the church was black and empty and Peter woke up shivering.

There was an unearthly silence and he looked at his watch. It was midnight. He’d been asleep two hours listening in his sleep to his old friends and mentors from the past, hearing the old organ played again by his teacher, seeing the pews full of parishioners.

He shook himself and stood up to go, taking a final look round, but as his eyes reached the organ he stared, scarcely believing what he saw. The organ doors were wide open and the key was hanging at the side. Stranger still, as he left the church and locked up, the local policeman doing his rounds confronted him and asked who’d been ringing the church bell at that hour.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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