Gardening: The old girl has been in tremendous form

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The Independent Online
Feeling quite emotional, I put Mrs North on the bus at Haverfordwest, whence she repaired to a small Greek island, pausing only in north London to pick up her two holiday companions. These last are dear chaps, charming drinkers and smokers on an Olympian scale, and unlikely to be a threat to any lady's virtue.

Back at St David's, I gave the kids a couple more days of sun, wind and wave, and then headed home, where Hereford was knuckling down to a cultural convulsion. The Three Choirs Festival had come to town.

I slipped into concerts in the cathedral each night. It is not, I think, a pretty building. True, its stone has a sort of reddish tinge which reminds one a bit of the county's wonderful soil. But it is a heavy sort of a building, well short of the geological take-off achieved by Lichfield or Chichester.

The chap who got me into the first concert says Hereford Cathedral resembles a fat, laying hen spreading herself in preparation for a dustbath. I like the place more for this homely image. Anyway, the old girl was in tremendous form that evening: the televison lights made her seem almost glamorous, and the hubbub of excitement had woken her up a bit.

I introduced myself to the mayor and the mayoress (both of them women and widows) and was invited to the mayoral reception the next day. I warm to Madam Mayor because she dives out of concerts with all the alacrity that civic dignity allows, tailed by her official minder. ('It's not me he guards, dear, it's this,' she says, as she rattles her chain.) Once out, she lights up a fag while mulling over the music with enthusiasm.

The reception was almost comically low-key, as things in Hereford should be. I wished the mayor had broken free of the receiving line to enliven our sturdy conversations. I enjoyed the whole thing a good deal, not least because in the ante-room to the parlour there were two lovely pieces by the painter John Ward, who was born here. One was a painting of High Town (our main street) after it had lost most of its medieval buildings, but before it had been pedestrianised. It might have been an illustration from those fine spelling books which we had at school. The other little work was an illustrated, hand-written letter thanking the city for some civic honour, and including a self-portrait.

One night I took my 11-year-old to hear Elgar, Finzi (an English composer who seems to have become a minor cult) and Walton. The next night, I met a Roman Catholic thriller writer and antique dealer and some co-religionist friends of his in the only chic wine bar in town. One of our number then went off to a sung mass, one stayed on to finish the bottle, and my companion and I went off to hear a stunning new work by Alan Ridout, and the Beethoven Mass in C.

By now, a drink followed by a concert was becoming practically a routine. I took my 15-year-old to Elgar's Dream of Gerontius and recommended that she take a book to read: I thought she might share my horror of being pinned to a bony concert chair with no distraction. She took Josephine Tey, did not fidget and said the Elgar was pretty strong stuff.

Not all my arrangements went so smoothly. The Spread Eagle, a scruffy and relaxed pub I have always liked, is near the cathedral and was the watering-hole for both brass section and choir, who were in fierce competition for drinks in the intervals. Thinking, at last, to steal a march on these hardened pros, I enterprisingly arranged interval drinks - not ordered in advance exactly, but bought and hidden in readiness on top of the one-armed bandit. This was the last night, and it was too late: The Dream of Gerontius was done non-stop, with no pit stops.

Never mind, there were some remarkably Hereford moments on the fringe, especially at the Green Dragon, with its fabulously grand frontage on what remains of the strikingly grand Broad Street. One afternoon, the writer and performer Jeremy Sandford regaled us with accounts of Hereford gypsies, some of whom turned out to sing, dance and play various weird instruments. Except that the audience and the spirit of the thing was wildly right-on, it was a very touching couple of hours.

After one concert, we trooped out of the cathedral and into the Green Dragon for a show of archive film of musicians. It was great fun. The best bit was seeing and hearing Malcolm Sargent doing the conducting and speaking for Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. It reminded me of how miserable that piece was, as performed (without voice) at last year's Proms. The 11-year-old even stopped doing cartwheels in the coaching entrance of the hotel to watch. Her generation usually despises black-and-white films.

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