Music and Poetry for the Harvest of the Sea at St Mary-at-Hill church in London

Almost exactly one month ago, on Tuesday 6th October, I was delighted to be able to attend a recital of music and poetry for the Harvest of the Sea at St Mary-At-Hill church in London. My brother Charles MacDougall, who is a tenor, professional choral animateur & vocal coach, was singing in the choir, so that, combined with the fact that I adore classical singing, meant that I couldn’t wait to get there. I was really amazed that such a service existed, I mean everyone has heard about traditional harvest services with fresh fruits & vegetables, tinned mandarin segments and bulging bunches of wheat at the front of the chapel, but a fish harvest, what was that?

Historically and to this day, St Mary-At-Hill has been the church for the mariners of the Parish of Billingsgate, where the famous Billingsgate fish market was originally located (it’s held now in Canary Wharf).  ‘An ancient church on the site of St Mary-At-Hill is mentioned in a legal document dated 1177’ and the ‘Billingsgate Quay was an important harbour in the 10th and 11th centuries'[cited from www.stmary-at-hill.org/history.php]. Nestled between Monument and Tower Hill and round the corner from Pudding Lane where the Great fire of London started in 1666, the steep walk up to the church from the River Thames, gave rise to it’s slightly strange name. The fish market dating from at least as early as the 1500’s, is said to have been the largest in the world during the 19th Century.

Every year at St Mary-at-Hill they hold their Harvest of the Sea Thanksgiving service on a Sunday, where the local fishermen still put on an extraordinary display of seafood, caught freshly that morning. As I attended a midweek music and poetry recital, the display wasn’t there for me to photograph, but my brother took a picture for me which I am sharing with you. You can see for yourselves how colourful and beautiful the display is. My brother assures me that it is quite a unique experience to partake in the service, with the seafood on display and a smell not of fishiness, but of clean, nose tingling sea salty freshness. The fish isn’t wasted but is kept on ice and immediately after the service, is collected and donated to the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest charity on the East India Dock Road.

The music and poetry recital was glorious – food for the musically and aesthetically hungry. Directed by the very excellent Robert Mingay-Smith (Director of Music for St Mary-At-Hill) and sung by him and the choir of St Mary-At-Hill, all the songs were about the sea and seafaring scripture, with titles like ‘They that go down to the sea in ships’ and ‘Never Weather Beaten Sail’. The scripture readings were read by Stella Davies the church’s Poet in Residence, who also had written an emotive four verse piece for the service called ‘In The Fishery Of Souls’ which had been set to music superlatively by the Harvest of the Sea composition competition winner Andrew Wilson. James Norrey (previously Assistant Direcotr of Music at St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle and Director of Campus Music at Northumbria University) was on the organ.

It was a truly exquisite experience to be there, but also surprising.  I know that as a busy mother of six who struggles to satiate her thirst for culture, that I am inclined to be bowled over by the combined effect of voices as if from heaven, in the setting of restrained ecclesiastical grandeur. However, for what was essentially a concert performance, I was expecting there to be more people in attendance. Coming straight from Manchester, I had succeeded in arriving early, in the belief that I might not get a seat otherwise. Especially as I had been at St Mary-at-Hill for another event a couple of years ago and it had been packed to the ginnels; as I believe it was for the Harvest of the Sea Thanksgiving service on Sunday 11th October. Add to that, the fact of the recital being free of charge, in the heart of a bustling City of London and it was quite a shock; I was struggling to compute why more people didn’t want to listen to that.

I spoke to my brother about it over lunch. His feeling was that people working in the area (mostly City bankers), simply didn’t have a proper lunch hour anymore. “Our recital is only thirty-five minutes long but the average business person has more like fifteen minutes in which to take their lunch break and that’s probably taken at their desk rather than away from it. So they have no time to attend a music recital. It’s a pity, because after hours the same people would pay proper money to attend a recital or concert at say, the Wigmore Hall, perhaps also because they aren’t aware that the standard of the artists at our music recitals are comparable. If people came to our recitals, they would realise very quickly that they are listening to artists with international performance portfolios, but they are simply not coming through the door in the first place”.

My brother feels that people’s perceptions of how you should behave at a recital are also effecting numbers; “There seems to be a general consensus that in order to attend, you must sit absolutely still in complete silence.  Robert (Mingay-Smith) and the team here, put in an incredible amount of work for these Tuesday recitals and to have only twenty to thirty people in the audience, is quite frankly discouraging. We would much rather have a room full of munching, slurping, cityites with their Costa paninis and their plastic wrapped cake bars, than the dreadful void. We understand and appreciate that people don’t want to disturb the performance, but this is not something that is an overriding concern; the punch that eight classically trained singers can pack is considerable. What we are offering is a snapshot of classical music if you like, it’s an ideal opportunity to do something cultured and fun.”

 

If you would like to attend any of the Tuesday recitals at St Mary-at-Hill please visit their website at www.stmary-at-hill.org

 

After the performance I interviewed my brother at Fortnum & Mason over lunch, where we both ate Coronation Chicken – one of our mutual favourites. For dessert we had a scrumptious Sacher Torte. Just love Fortnum and Mason!

 

My brother Charles MacDougall below.


Interviewing Charles MacDougall about St.Mary's At Hill Harvest of the Sea service over lunch at Fortnum & Mason , Mayfair, London

Lunch at Fortnum and Mason – Coronation Chicken.

Coronation Chicken for lunch at Fortnum & Mason.

Sacher Torte at Fortnum and Mason, Mayfair, London.

Chocolate Sacher Torte at Fortnum & Mason in London.