Magical Brass Band Contest

Early in 2012, Simon Parker of the Western Morning News invited me to contribute to a feature in which people wrote a short piece about anywhere in Cornwall that meant something special to them. It could be a town, village, building or piece of landscape. Mine was published in the Cornwall edition on 26th January. All the others I saw were very varied and individual. He has now gathered them into an e-book, called ‘Kernow Kerensa,’ available from the Amazon kindle book site. For anyone interested in Cornwall it is well worth getting hold of. Ashprington author Laurence Green, a contributor to my Berry Pomeroy Castle book, is also in it. All proceeds go to local charities (which does not include, alas, the authors!).

It is a place that you probably pass through, barely noticing: squat bungalows, new estates, stretches of white road, flat fields and the community focus of a pub and a few shops. Towering clay tips indicate that this is a village brought into being by a particular industry.

Those who live here, who watch the seasons and generations change from these houses, obviously know it far more profoundly than I ever could.

But for me, and for thousands who love the soulful sound of the cornet and flugel horn, the brilliance of the trombone, the water-colour softness of the tenor horn, the heart-breaking melancholy of the euphonium and baritone, and the deep purring of the bass, this is a very special place indeed.

Because we are in the heart of Cornish brass band country, at Bugle: home, each June, to the most magical band contest in the world. I say this having attended the National Finals at the Albert Hall, the old British Open in Manchester and the Whit Friday contests around Saddleworth Moor.

Bugle contest began in 1912, and though it was never restricted to Cornish bands, it is somehow as Cornish as Padstow on May Day. In an ideal world I’d be at both every year.

I first visited in 1974 at the age of 15, with Totnes Band, for the fiftieth contest. Our conductor was a Cornishman, from this very area.

I realise now how much he had to prove, and what it meant to him: bringing a young, unknown band, and from Devon, was really putting himself on the line. But he got it right – we won everything in our section.

The adjudicator was Eric Ball, composer of the test piece, the most revered man in the brass band movement, and who could argue with that?

We marched triumphantly through the village in the evening, wives and mothers striding before us, laden with trophies.

It is decades now since I played at Bugle, or even sat, in the sun, listening to some nostalgic tone poem and feeling that I was somehow absorbing the whole banding tradition. But about four years ago, journeying from the south to north coasts, we were passing through a fairly ordinary looking place, the name of which I somehow missed. Then suddenly, on the left, was the Bugle Inn, and as we came over on to that short, gently sloping road, I realised where I was, and my mind was overwhelmed with memories: of youth, friendship, passionate music-making (fuelled, let’s admit, by lots of adolescent hormones), and I knew that this was one of those places which has, for ever, a deep place in my heart.