Deal Memorial Bandstand, Walmer, Kent, England

Christmas Carol Service, Deal Memorial Bandstand, Walmer, Kent, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Miss Ericord
Church: Christmas Carol Service, Deal Memorial Bandstand
Location: Walmer, Kent, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 12 December 2009, 5:00pm

The building

The bandstand was built using donations from the people of Walmer to commemorate the lives of eleven musicians killed when an IRA bomb was detonated at the Royal Marines Barracks just across the road on 22nd September 1989. It is a twelve-sided, open bandstand on a raised mound in the centre of Walmer Green, with a name plaque on each of eleven flat sides. For this evening's service it was decorated with white rope and icicle lights, of which only one set appeared to be working! Screens had been placed around one side to improve the acoustics, and the congregation surrounded the other side.

The church

The bandstand hosts concerts every Sunday afternoon during the summer months, with brass and swing bands coming from across the country. The highlight of the season is the visit of Her Majesty's Royal Marines Band from Portsmouth each July. In addition to the carol service that is the subject of this report, there is also an annual remembrance service. The service is organised by the Deal Memorial Bandstand Trust.

The neighborhood

Walmer is a quiet, picturesque seaside town in Dover. The bandstand sits on Walmer Green just next to the lifeboat station. On one side is the pebbly beach and the sea; and on the other, a row of small shops (the fish and chips shop was doing a very brisk trade!). The nearby town of Deal used to be a busy fishing (and smuggling) port, but is now an average small town with the usual high street shops, home to 30,000 people. The older parts of town are popular with second-homers.

The cast

Introductions were made by Steven Parks from the Bandstand Trust. The service proper was led by the vicar of Walmer Parish, the Revd Seth Cooper, who is also chaplain to the lifeboat station. Music was provided by the Snowdown Colliery Welfare Band under the direction of Kevin Spencer, and a children's choir from the Deal Parochial School.

What was the name of the service?

Carols at the Bandstand.

How full was the building?

Jam-packed, so much so that the children's choir were standing in considerable peril atop a fairly steep slope. The congregation were stood on the green below and around the bandstand – I estimate there were 300 people present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As we arrived, a lady shoved a service sheet at us without making eye contact. I appreciate it would be tricky to welcome everyone personally when your congregation is arriving from all directions, but a smile would have been nice! Is a "Merry Christmas" too much to ask?

Was your pew comfortable?

We stood for the duration as chilblains crept up our trouser legs. "Bring warm clothing and a torch," the advertisements had advised. Would that we had – and would that the adverts had mentioned chairs as well! Some more organised souls had brought folding picnic chairs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Festive. We arrived right at starting time, but it was clear that there would be a delay as people fiddled with microphones and herded children up the slope. It was pretty dark, and the lights around the bandstand and from people's torches were rather lovely.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"CHECK!" (Testing a microphone at full blast, making at least half of the people present jump out of their skins.) The actual opening words were: "Good evening ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and Father Christmas. Welcome to Deal Bandstand." Yes, Father Christmas was there and sang with gusto.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A booklet printed specifically for the occasion with words to the carols (eleven of them). The Revd Seth Cooper read from John's gospel (New International Version).

What musical instruments were played?

A full brass band of around 30 musicians. I counted ten cornets and trumpets, five horns, five euphoniums (euphonia?), four trombones, four tubas (including an enormous one that was at least twice the size of the musician – I actually feared that the poor chap might fall into it!), but no percussion.

Did anything distract you?

Only the fact that I couldn't feel my toes within half an hour! It was cold! A lady behind me kept winding up her torch rather vigorously between carols such that I almost offered to lend her a battery.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was just as community carol singing should be hearty and joyful. One of the primary school children sang the first verse of "Away in a Manger" alone at about twice the tempo that the band were playing it – but the round of applause she received at the end of her verse allowed everyone to catch up!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon. The Revd Seth Cooper read from the gospels between carols.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Singing the old familiar carols by torchlight on a crispy winter evening was pretty heavenly. And the Revd Seth Cooper used the Common Worship additional simple blessing that I love ("May the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the perseverance of the wise men, etc.").

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I think I have frostbite. Did I mention it was cold?

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I tried to look lost – but a sea of people were making their way across the green, heading home or for the nearby pubs!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We went back to my house for mulled wine and mince pies – fab!

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – There aren't regular services here, but I'll definitely try to be back next year.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Absolutely – it was very "Joy to the World."

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The sense of community spirit.

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