Wylye Valley - 17 April 2010

A number of intrepid members journeyed to the Wylye Valley, north west of Salisbury, where we were greeted at the the church of St Margaret of Antioch, Knook, by our guide for the morning, Mark Venning, Chairman of Harrison & Harrison Organ Builders.

Knook is a small hamlet just off the main thoroughfare through the Wylye Valley. The church has served the community for many years, although it is now only used a few times each year for services.

The anonymous organ was rescued from the nearby Congregational Church in Heytesbury by our guide, who installed it over an intensive weekend while a student at the RCM in the 1960s. The history of the organ is a matter of conjecture but it has survived with its GG compass and gridiron pedal board to bottom FFF intact. The Great Organ has a beautiful chorus from Open Diapason to Fifteenth and Twelfth, which gives a splendid effect in the extraordinary acoustics of this barrel vaulted church. Even a small group of 8 people singing has the sense of sounding much grander than it actually is. This organ is still pumped by hand and, although the Swell Organ has not been in operation for many years, this organ is perfectly suited to this hidden gem of a church.

We moved to nearby Heytesbury, a small village which enjoyed considerable wealth from wool in the middle ages. The impressive cruciform church at the centre of the village was originally a collegiate foundation. The organ, at the head of the south chancel aisle, faces west and was built in 1854 by J.W.Walker, although it is said to contain pipes much older, possibly from the old Gerard Smith organ of St. Mary's Church of Bermondsey, South London.

This exceptionally fine instrument has survived with remarkably few alterations. The tenor C Swell Organ survives intact and yet it is remarkably useful and effective. It balances the Great Organ stop for stop with the box open but sounds more distant as the box is closed until it is almost inaudible. The only stop on the Pedal Organ, a 16ft wooden Open Diapason, is not too overpowering to use underneath the quietest stops and yet underpins the full organ in a satisfying manner. At some point in the 1950s a radiating concave pedal board was fitted with a compass to top f, although the pipes stop at top d; it is hoped that this pedal board is replaced with a more suitable example in the future. Unusually, the Great Dulciana is an independent open stop to bottom C, the bass pipes forming the prospect pipes in the northern frontage. The mechanical key action is admirably precise and well weighted and overall this is an exceptionally fine musical instrument to play and listen to.

Our final stop of the morning was to Sutton Veny, a J.L.Pearson church of 1868. In this splendid architectural space, the Gray and Davison organ inhabits a chamber above the vestry on the north side of the chancel, with the Great and Swell organs speaking into the sanctuary and the pedal pipes (a 16ft wooden Open Diapason) forming a display on the east wall of the north aisle. The case, with exuberant pipe stencilling and two overlapping fields of Open Diapason pipes, is quite spectacular and unique, as the pictures below show.

The organist sits at a console neatly incorporated into the east wall of the north aisle, where he does not have the the best opportunity to hear the organ. Many of the stops still sound very fine, although a certain amount of tonal remodelling in the 1960s has resulted in some of the upperwork not blending so well with the foundation work. The key action goes through 90 degrees and some fairly heroic runs and requires a certain force to operate. Although it works, it does not encourage rapid tempos or playing for long periods.

After a fine lunch at the Woolpack in Sutton Veny, we travelled to Warminster, where we had a very hospitable reception. The basis of this organ is the 1792 G.P.England organ but it has received thorough rebuilds by Vowles, Hill, Norman and Beard in the 1960s and more recently by Griffiths and Cooper. Although the most recent rebuild has been capably carried out and done the best that is possible within its constraints, it is clear the organ had strayed some way from its roots. Some of the tonal changes, such as the displacement of the old Choir Clarinet to the Swell Organ, are hard to fathom and make the organ harder to manage. While there are some pretty sounds on the organ, it has lost much of its musical identity and physical integrity in an attempt to "keep it up to date" for the organist. Despite the recent work, some of the elements, such as the 1960s Great Trumpet, still stand away from the rest of the organ. The post-war console and the electro-pneumatic action feel inconsistent with the Georgian organ case and the sound of the Great chorus.

Our final visit of the day was to Westbury Parish Church, where the son of the organist and resident organ builder showed us the organ. The organ is a typically vigorous Bevington organ of the 1860s, which has been sensitively rebuilt by Stephen Cooke. Although the main structure of the organ has been respected during a careful and clever re-working, a large sound board has been added behind the organ for the Pedal Organ. Although the organ is clearly used as an experimental test bed by the organist/organ builder, it gives a good account of itself and demonstrates the obvious craft and skill of this builder.

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