When I was a Chorister in Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge (1957-63) a new alto, from the recently defunct Clare College Choir, joined us: David Munrow. He introduced early music on original instruments to college concerts and into my mid-teens world, and my life was changed for its duration. From then onwards, I was aware of the activities of Cambridge early music people like Thurston Dart (Jesus College) and John Stevens (Magdalene) and, from time to time, heard inspirational performances on BBC radio, which included odds and ends such as a piece by a medieval Parisian (?) composer called Blanquette Flannel, of whom I have never heard again (but always remembered!).
From about the age of four my entire raison d'être has been split down the middle, equally to music and natural history. At school, we were given a music project for which my friends chose a story I would read many years later, The Hobbit. It was decided I would 'compose' music to represent The March to the Mountains. Around the same time we had a project on the drainage of the Fens. I found a way to avoid the main topic and learnt nothing about geography, history, dykes or Vermuyden. I spent all my effort on the Coypu, and I learnt precious little about that! True to form, I didn't bother to read The Hobbit, but instead concentrated on my latest enthusiasm and more or less reproduced from memory a tune I had recently heard David Munrow playing in a Jesus College concert. It was totally irrelevant: an English dance entitled Ductia, which every medieval ensemble used to play. As I remember, this arrangement, to which I applied all my thoroughly inconsiderable creative ability, was not bad.
The early music revival was well under way by the late sixties and I was able to build up a large collection of 12" records by The Jaye Consort (Francis Baines), Musica Reservata (Michael Morrow), St George's Canzona (Francis Grubb), Studio der Frühen Musik (Thomas Binkley), The Roger Blanchard Ensemble, The Early Music Consort (David Munrow) and others. I also got hold of a lot of obscure European recordings thanks to the 'deleted' shelf in Cambridge Music Shop's record department. By today's standards some of them were pretty poor performances and a few were utterly awful (I have them still, so can prove it). The sound of the counter tenor voice (John Whitworth, young James Bowman and other pioneers) was never the shock it is to some people, thanks to my having been a chorister and having already heard the incomparable Alfred Deller, whose gramophone records we had had when I was little (and who I still enjoy on CD).
By the late seventies I had landed in another centre for early music, York, inspired by performances by the local Landini Consort and other ensembles at the new York Early Music Festival, itching to play early music myself. But I had no early instruments and nobody to play with.
The answer was an instrument with its own accompaniment, a bagpipe. By then, I was aware of the Early Music Shop in Bradford and knew they sold a reasonable medieval bagpipe substitute, the Spanish Gaita. I managed to secure one for about £90, which was very cheap, but then its quality wasn't marvellous. But it was OK. I managed to teach myself to play it for personal therapy and to the dismay of my tiny daughter who would cover her ears and shout "shut up" repeatedly and very loudly until I stopped.
At that same time, the Landinis were running early music workshops in York and I went along with my bassoon. There I met others of a similar mind, including some chaps who were in the process of inventing The York Waits. I bought a bass cornamuse and, a little later, my first curtal, and got together with friends at the University of York (Kim Baston, flute, recorder; Steven Boffey, harpsichord; Martyn Craft, rebec, fidel; Ros Goddard, flute, recorder and Martin Shepherd, lute) to form ensembles called Kemp's Consort, In Nomine etc. We worked hard, improved and before long, played quite well. I also made sure I befriended The York Waits and was soon was invited to join them. I first performed with them - one of their very first paid gigs - in October 1979, at a dinner for Civil War re-enactors Sir William Pennyman's Regiment at the Merchant Adventurers' Hall in York. Our Royalist audience pelted us with coins, including some impressively authentic, but painfully angular 'siege money' stamped with the King's initials "C.R." After a lamentable start at school, where I hated it, I had begun to learn about history - and enjoy it!
Once I was a fully-fledged 'Jacobethan' wait, my tatty gaita that had served me so well became a bit of an embarrassment. Even with its traditional red and yellow Galician adornments replaced with a plain brown bag and a lick of matt black paint with gold highlights it passed as a first medieval instrument, but would not do for 17th century. It did not resemble or sound like a renaissance English bagpipe (not that there's much to go on in illustration or literature). A coincidence answered my need. I wrote to ask Jonathan Swayne, a bagpipe maker I'd met at an Early Music Exhibition, if he knew of anyone making a renaissance English bagpipe suitable for a wait to play. He certainly did, for he had just developed such an instrument in G. My order went in immediately. It was a wonderful instrument; though it had an unfortunate habit which I later learnt also bugged the maker himself. The long, parallel-sided cane chanter reeds worked well when new and gave it a lovely tone but, particularly in hot dry weather, the blades warped slightly, leaked along their sides and failed. Sometimes this bagpipe played beautifully and sometimes it was completely unplayable, often during a concert.
Around that time The Bagpipe Society came into being. I immediately joined and discovered myself in the midst of people of a similar mind pursuing all sorts of bagpipy projects, looking critically into the past, exploring the present and (very exciting) creating a brand new future for bagpiping in England, whilst embracing bagpipes throughout the world, even the GHB. Mercifully, the BPS takes bagpipes seriously, but not itself, so that serious progress and lots of fun might be given as its purpose.
Meanwhile, Swayne bagpipes evolved and he invented his classic student bagpipes and half-longs. He was willing to make me a renaissance look-alike with their internal structure, so I was able to get hold of a lovely period-look instrument with robust plastic reeds. It plays straight from the box under almost any climatic conditions (condensation on chilly drone reeds eventually puts it out of action during winter processions, though it plays well for a while). Beautifully made, reliable and more flexible than the old one, yes, but I still miss my favourite cross fingerings, and the rustic appearance, chunky 'feel' and rich tone of my favourite Old English Bagpipe. It's been in Jon's workshop attic for several years, necessary restoration delayed by the nesting acitivy of a mouse.
I also invested in a Swayne mid 16th century Flemish bagpipe in D (after Pieter Breugel), perfect for the music of Tilman Susato whose dance music published in 1551 is ideal for a band of mid 16th century waits (as a young man, Susato was a member of the Antwerp town band). Other York Waits obtained G, D and C pipes and we were eventually able to play in consorts of 2, 3 or even 4 bagpipes together, marvellous. My collection increased with purchases of several bagpipes from Julian Goodacre so that I/we could play the right sort of bagpipes at any medieval or renaissance event and play them along with hurdy-gurdies and other instruments. We discovered many satisfying combinations of bagpipes and other instruments.
The Goodacre connection led to several exciting adventures in the practical history of bagpipes and I've managed to persuade him (willingly) to create several additions to his catalogue. He made me a reconstruction of the conventional, single-chanter instrument played by Albrecht Dürer's 1514 bagpiper, but our exploration of 2-chanter bagpipes turned out to be extremely fascinating (obsessive?). Julian had already made a splendid version of the Altarnun bagpipe [read] and, when I discovered another sort in North Devon it was to him I reported the find before anybody else and the Marwood bagpipe was soon up and running [read].
I don't like to think of myself as a collector of anything, but I do seem to have an accumulation of a modest fourteen bagpipes:
Gaita Gallega from Galicia, Spain (modified Early Music Shop, maker unknown, 1979)
Gaita Gallega from Galicia, Spain (Spanish, maker unknown, 1990s)
Old English (Swayne, c. 1982)
English 'Renaissance' (Swayne, c. 1992)
Flemish, after Pieter Breugel, mid 16th C. (Swayne, c. 1983)
Bellows-blown half-longs in G (Swayne, 1990s)
Medieval English based on Chaucer's Miller, Ellesmere ms., 14th C. (Goodacre)
16th C. German, after Albrecht Dürer, 1514 (Goodacre)
'Leicestershire' smallpipes (Goodacre, 1980s)
Altarnun bagpipe (Goodacre c. 1995)
Marwood bagpipe (Goodacre)
Greek Island Tsambouna or Tsavouna (Naxos, 1980s)
Duda from Prague, Czech Republic (maker unknown, not top quality)
An incomplete, non-functional, cheap & nasty half-size Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland (maker ought to be ashamed)