Combined Bands Tour to Normandy, August 2013

by Sally Clough

I have played with Charnwood Bands for nearly two years and this was my first tour. I was looking forward to the sight seeing in Normandy as well as the performances, and getting to know other band members better.  This is my account of our fun, busy and musical four days in France.

+ + + To see a selection of photos from the tour please click here + + +

Thursday

It was an early start and a long coach journey to Caen.  We passed the time with games of cards, Scrabble, a fiercely competitive quiz and goodness knows what else was going on at the back of the coach. Although we arrived at the hotel later than planned, they kept the bar open and so after a few beers and some KFC chips, we all went to bed happy, tired and full of expectations.

Friday

Our first trip was to the D-Day landing beaches where we had a couple of hours strolling on the beach in the warm sun, having a drink and admiring the scenery; it was a great way of relaxing after the long journey the day before.

Then it was off to Caen where we spent a pleasant time having our first real French food and visiting the chateau and abbey. Amongst other things, Caen is proud to have the tomb of William the Conqueror.  After a trip back to the hotel to freshen up and change we set off for our first concert.

A quiet sense of anticipation and nerves fell over the group on the drive to St Aubin. We had amazingly transformed ourselves from a rowdy, colourful straggle of English tourists into a smart and professional group of musicians. The ladies were all in black and then men looked great in their waistcoats and dickie bows.

St Aubin is a small, pretty coastal town and we were pleased to see posters up advertising our concert. The church was a beautiful setting to play in and people started arriving about half an hour early – a good sign. After some last minute language coaching, Judy introduced the band in French. The audience were still coming in when we started and when I looked up after the first piece (executing Judy’s instruction to “Smile for the audience”) I was amazed to see the church was full. There were at least a couple of hundred people there; they were soon clapping along to the marches and swaying to the waltzes. They loved it. There were encore calls and cheers when we finally finished at about 10pm. We were then invited for some very welcome local cider and cake.

Saturday

This morning we visited the D-Day landing cinema and museum at Arromanches. I had wondered if it would be tacky – glorifying the war for making money out of the tourists, but it certainly wasn’t. The  360° cinema show was intense and although it minimised the sight of the dying and dead, the impact was still very moving and I saw a few people close to tears.  I was glad of a brisk walk on the cliff top afterwards. The museum was very interesting – it explained about the building of the Mulberry B harbour and the 100 days after the D-day landings. At the tourist information centre I met a 91 year old man who had landed on the beach in the war and he was proud to show us his medal.

One of the amazing things about this tour was the age diversity of the participants – from teenagers  to septuagenarians. A few people remembered the war years, and then someone else told me that even their grandparents were too young to be in the war.  Thought provoking.

The afternoon’s visit was to a local cider farm – which everyone was looking forward to. We had a tour where we learned about the manufacture of apple juice, cider, Pommeau and Calvados. We saw big vats and barrels containing various stages of fermentation. The tasting of all the products afterwards was great fun and of course there were lots of clinking bottles in the coach on the way back.

Then it was straight to the next concert in Grandcamp-Maisy.  This was a large hall and it looked as if the audience would not be  as large as yesterday. However, yet again they appeared from nowhere and were equally appreciative. The highlight of this evening’s concert was at the end when a man asked us to play Habanera (from Carmen) again and a lady came to the stage and sang to it while we played. This amazing spontaneous event just showed how much they enjoyed it.  More local cider and biscuits rounded off another superb day.

Sunday

Our last day: how did it go so quickly? Today we had 2 concerts in Port-en-Bessin. In the morning we played outdoors in the market. This was great fun as it was more relaxed and again clearly enjoyed by everyone. We were all wearing our Tour T shirts. People stood and listened. At home if there was a band in a market, you might say “that’s nice” but you wouldn’t go out of your way to stop your shopping and stand for 20 minutes to listen. The French do that naturally. The children were dancing in the streets, the clouds were gathering but the rain held off just long enough.

We piled back into the coach and had a short drive to Bayeux where the Tapestry was a must-see. I had always wanted to see this and I wasn’t disappointed; the commentary brought the story alive and the museum filled in the background and added some mystery about the history of the tapestry.

Back to Port-en-Bessin for our final concert – how could this improve on the other two? We were worried that people wouldn’t come out as it was a bit rainy and at the start the band outnumbered the audience, but yet again, after the first piece the audience had doubled, and continued to grow. At every concert it was as if families had sent out a scout and after the first piece had texted home “C’est bon” and so the rest of the family came over.  Again the audience were clapping and enjoying the music. It was lucky Judy had had ballroom dancing lessons all those years ago, as a French gentleman whisked her around the hall for a waltz while we played the Strauss variations. I can’t wait to see the video.

It seems like a tradition for a final drink and some different music making on the final evening. With James on the guitar and Rachel leading the singing, a good time was had by all, until the early hours.

On the journey home we were kept busy with a ridiculously hard quiz from Richard and a ridiculously easy one from Judy. Prizes were awarded for outstanding contributions to the tour including Navigation Skills (Tim), French Coaching for Judy (Anna), Counselling for Judy (Bill) and Responding to the “Is Anyone a Doctor” Call (Clare).

 The tour was everything I had expected and more. I can’t wait for the next one.