Country: Where there's grass there's brass

The Bretforton village band, the only one in the country, owes its existence to asparagus, writes Chris Mowbray
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The Independent Online
English villages do not come much more traditional than Bretforton, in the Vale of Evesham. Nestling in the rain shadow of the Cotswolds, among orchards, farms and market gardens, this mixture of medieval, Tudor and Jacobean houses and cottages can trace its origins to the Bronze Age.

It has narrow, winding streets, a 12th-century church and five historic pigeon lofts.

But on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings,the peace is shattered by a cacophony from the former Baptist chapel.

For this is now the home of the last village band in the county, which is surviving into the third millennium because of a unique annual fundraising auction that attracts leading hotels and restaurants to pay top prices for the nation's most expensive asparagus. Even the Dorchester sometimes bids for the best locally grown crop, which changes hands for up to pounds 6 per bud.

The Bretforton Silver Band may not have quite the resonance of Yorkshire's old colliery ensembles or the artistic finesse of the London Symphony Orchestra, but to locals it is the most heavenly music in the world. Time was when scores of villages in the area had their own bands. Now only Bretforton remains, and the asparagus auction, which has just celebrated its 30th anniversary with a record income, provides the finances to keep it on song.

The band is thriving musically because, like Manchester United, it has a youth policy. Twenty young musicians aged nine to 18 turn up at the village band room to be put through their paces by John Wood, nursery worker, principal euphonium player and conductor of the junior section.

There is fierce competition to graduate to the senior band and take part in 30 public engagements a year in Worcestershire, Warwickshire and the Cotswolds, as well as occasional visits to a village band in Bavaria.

"It is a big thing here if you get into the village band, and the youngsters enjoy practices so much because John makes them interesting," says Chris Hemming - self-employed carpenter, trombonist and band chairman. "We kit them out with our old instruments and uniforms, though some of the jackets are a bit large and the younger players have to turn back the sleeve cuffs. The village is supportive because it is so proud to have its own band."

It has not always been so. In the past the Bretforton band has nearly run out of wind and followed its neighbours into history. It has avoided doing so only by moving with the times.

Founded a century ago by the temperance movement, it fined any members caught drinking the sum of 6d (2.5p), and expelled them after a third offence. By the Thirties it was becoming so short of players that the committee decided music was more important than abstinence.

The players were once all market gardeners. The present line-up includes a solicitor, surveyors and builders, and they are conducted by the county's director of education. The band has long since abandoned its insistence on silver-plated instruments and allowed cheaper brass alternatives, and women were admitted nearly 40 years ago.

"Some of the old-timers must be quaking in their resting-places in the village churchyard whenever they see what the present band looks like," says Chris Hemming. "Half our members are women, and we have such a mixture of instruments that we should really be called the Bretforton Mixed Metal Band. We also have to decline new marching engagements because we are not very good at it now we don't have many old soldiers, but it is all part of the reason why we are the county's only village band."

That distinction was achieved 30 years ago, though it threatened to be short-lived because of tottering finances, until salvation appeared in the shape of the asparagus auction.

The event was the brainchild of Pete Tomkins, former euphonium player and retired market gardener, who ties up "rounds of grass" (bundles of asparagus) for the sale with strips of willow. It is held in the crowded flagstone yard of the Fleece Inn, a 600-year-old pub now owned by the National Trust. Making a successful bid has the same kudos as winning the Beaujolais nouveau run.

The star attraction is a prize "hundred", paradoxically containing 120 asparagus buds, which was knocked down this year for the mouthwatering sum of pounds 700. Outside bidders retired early, leaving Harry Warden, licensee of the aptly named Round of Grass public house in neighbouring Badsey, to fight it out with the Lygon Arms Hotel in Broadway.

Mr Warden emerged victorious for the second year running and, as last year, gave away his prize buy to be cooked with hollandaise sauce for patients in a local hospice. "It cost only pounds 180 last time," he explains, "but there were a lot more punters this year. Still, I was determined to have it, because it was grown here and belongs here."

The village band raised pounds 1,800, by auctioning more than 1,200 asparagus buds and offering another 480 as raffle prizes. That was fortunate; the musicians need new uniforms costing pounds 6,000 and, more prosaically, the band room roof needs repairing.

As Chris Hemming says: "With this sort of support, we shall still be here in another 100 years' time."