Salt mines to St Paul's, the Harborough Singers' most memorable venues

The salt mine in Poland the singers performed in
The salt mine in Poland the singers performed in

Gill Guest takes a look at some of the venues the Harborough Singers have performed in during their 40 years

My rummage through the 40-year history archive of the Harborough Singers has revealed some very odd concert venues. Plenty of quaint churches and village halls of course, but also a remote and rural cinema in Hungary, where the start time wasn’t set but everyone simply waited for the villagers to put away their cattle for the night.

At Norwich Cathedral

At Norwich Cathedral

Or the first Class Cabin of flight BA71 to Toronto – a plane called William Shakespeare – where the choir sang for the flight crew and were plied with champagne.

One of the oddest, and certainly the coldest, was the fairytale Křivoklát Castle, tucked away deep in a Bohemian winter forest. All bare branches and snow, like something from an Eastern European Folktale, and so chilly that we were instructed to wear our choir uniforms over our clothes.

Every breath hung in front of us as we sang, crystallized in the freezing air. Yet somehow this only added to the magical effect.

Fortunately, the Wieliczka Salt Mine was warmer – a balmy 15 degrees C all year, irrespective of the weather above ground. Possibly the choir’s most outlandish venue so far, which the choir visited on a 2005 trip to Poland.

The choir in Peterborough Cathedral

The choir in Peterborough Cathedral

Somewhat predictably, there was lots of ‘Hi,ho, hi, ho, it’s off to work we go’-ing as we negotiated the hundreds of wooden steps down into the depths of the workings.

Wieliczka is one of the world’s oldest salt mines and a unique and surprising world heritage site – it contains four underground chapels and literally dozens of statues all hewn out of rock salt by the miners.

We sang in the Chapel of St Kinga, a most impressive concert hall sized space where even the chandeliers were made from salt.

If the underground cathedral-like space like Wieliczka is extraordinary, above ground cathedrals are no less impressive. Goethe called their architecture ‘frozen music’, an absolutely glorious description.

Singers in St Paul's

Singers in St Paul's

The choir has been lucky enough to sing in a number of these ‘frozen music’ buildings both in the UK and abroad.

Most memorable among them, but for totally different reasons, are at Kracow, in Poland in 2005, and at the iconic St. Paul’s in London in 2008.

During the choir’s visit to Kracow, the Pope – ‘their Pope’, the popular Karol Jozef Wojtyła, John Paul II – lay dying. This meant the type of concert contingency planning the choir is unlikely to see ever again. The Vatican was using text messaging to keep the faithful informed, so for starters this was one concert where the phones weren’t going to be turned off.

If the Pope died before the concert, we were told that we would have to cancel. If he died during the singing, we would have to stop. Just stop.

As it happened, he didn’t die until afterwards and the concert was completed as normal. But later that same evening the choir joined the crowds at the candle lit vigil in Kracow main square, experiencing first hand the extraordinary outpouring of grief and love as the city mourned its beloved ‘Wujek’ (Uncle).

Fast forward three years, to the enormous St. Paul’s in London. Now there’s a space with wow factor. A national treasure. In a huge space like this, even simple things like processing in become more complicated. A lot more complicated. Brass studs about as big as coins set into the capacious floor guide the feet of the walkers. I recall following those markers like a bloodhound, afraid that if I deviated for a second I would go sailing off and be lost and adrift forever somewhere in the cavernous space.

Speaking of the cavernous space, St. Paul’s also has a notorious echo to master. Somewhere between eight and twelve seconds, depending on how full the cathedral is. While this is tricky during the singing, it’s absolutely brilliant at the end. To hear the sound we made eight, seven, six, five seconds ago, reverberating around the exquisite stonework and rolling down the nave while we stood silent and just listened, is the choral equivalent of having your cake and eating it.

Were you in Kracow? Or at St. Paul’s? Or do you remember any other odd or amazing venues? Do write in and let us know! The address is