Bring out the Tom Jones in your soul

Bed, breakfast and singing lessons are on offer at one Welsh B&B, says David Atkinson
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The Independent Travel

First the confession: I was a teenage Goth lead singer. Aged 17, I fronted a short-lived beat combo with a penchant for wearing black and listening to albums by the likes of the Fields of the Nephilim. We only ever played a handful of gigs. Then, one summer night in 1989, after taking our sixth-form common room by storm with a blistering encore of Wild Thing, we split the band, leaving a gaggle of black lipstick-wearing groupies distraught and our beleaguered headmaster mightily relieved. I would like to think that it was musical differences that tore us asunder. In reality, we were just bad and all had places at university to divert us from the heady road to fame.

Since that fateful day I last stomped a black suede bootie against the bass amp and roared in my best nascent rock-god drawl, "Thank you, Chester. Good night," I have refrained from exercising my vocal cords in public. Aside, that is, from trips to Japan where, after one beaker of sake too many, I have been known to slaughter Ziggy Stardust in a fashion normally reserved for the terminally tone deaf.

Now older and wiser, I am resigned to the fact that I will never swagger off stage in Iowa and retire to my tour bus with nymphomaniac Swedish twins and a bag of narcotics the size of Bolivia's annual GDP. But there is still music in my heart.

It took a trip mid Wales to find my mojo again. If anyone could unleash my inner Tom Jones it was Eleanor Madoc Davies, owner of Cwm-moel, the best little singing b&b in Wales. I had come to Eleanor's guesthouse, a 17th-century stone farmhouse in the Edw valley, eight miles from Hay-on-Wye, for some Welsh hospitality and a chance to blow away my city-boy cobwebs. But, most of all, I had come to, quite literally, sing for my supper, a requirement of Eleanor's guests.

Eleanor has more than 30 years' experience of teaching music and has been performing since the age of three when she formed a vocal harmony group with her sisters for the local eisteddfod. She still travels the globe performing and conducting local choirs but, about a year ago, set up the seven-bed b&b. Today, while her husband, Mervyn, looks after the farm down the road, she offers individual vocal coaching in her music room. Previous guests range from beginners to a family of Irish folk singers.

On the first morning, after a fortifying breakfast of farm produce (rather than the traditional singer's breakfast of a raw egg yolk mixed with sherry), we retired to the music room. Eleanor teaches in the classical Italian style, emphasising breathing and posture. "Now, look in the mirror to check your posture, fill the lungs with air and project your voice," she advised me, after some tai chi-style warm-up muscle and breathing exercises. "Imagine yourself a puppet on a string."

After a few assessment bars of "Three Blind Mice" which established that I was a baritone (the same as Aled Jones, apparently) but with a limited range, we went through exercises to improve my listening for pitch. Despite the relaxed setting, after so long away from the sweet nothings of the spotlight I did feel rather self-conscious. Naked even. Yet, as the morning wore on and Eleanor coaxed me towards hitting the right notes with great patience, I started to find both the confidence and dexterity to open my mouth wide and let sweet music fill the valleys.

For inspiration, she took me that night to the see the Builth Male Voice Choir rehearse in an upstairs room of the Greyhound Hotel, in nearby Builth Wells. Formed in 1968 as a rugby choir, they now sing on the international circuit. After rousing renditions of "When The Saints Come Marching In" and Elvis's "American Trilogy", we moved downstairs for the essential post-practice beers and a chance to discuss song in Welsh culture. "Without music I'd die," Vic Morris, a long-term member, told me as he proudly showed off the trophy cabinet in the Greyhound's downstairs bar. "When you join a choir you've automatically got 60 mates. The camaraderie comes from the fact we all enjoy singing so much." Luned Jones, the musical director, adds: "The men tend to join the choir when they can no longer play rugby. There's no audition and some haven't sung since they were children but we all pull together."

The next morning, I was back in Eleanor's music room with renewed resolve, working my way through a handful of Welsh folk songs. As my voice grew stronger and my delivery more lyrical, I progressed to my piece de resistance: a more than passable attempt at John Lennon's "Imagine", a piece used by music teachers for Grade 4 assessment exams.

"You've made real progress. I would always tell someone if they really had no capacity for music but I'm sure if you worked hard and practised, you could be up there performing on Pop Idol one day," beamed Eleanor, who admits a soft spot for dastardly Darius, who "has a good singing voice".

On the train back to London, I couldnot help breaking into song listening to my Walkman. OK, so Charlotte Church shouldn't be too worried. And a support slot on the next Justin Timberlake tour is not likely. But after two days in Wales, some great home cooking and a night in the company of a true community male voice choir, I had found my voice again.

Cwm-moel (01982 570271) offers b&b from £20 per person per night, including a half-hour singing assessment. Subsequent tuition costs £20 per hour. Builth Male Voice Choir (www.builth.screaming.net/ choir/index.html) practices every Monday night and visitors are welcome. Further information from Visit Wales (0800 9156567, www.visitwales.co.uk). The National Eisteddfod (029-2076 3777; www.eisteddfod.org.uk) runs until 9 August at Mathrafel Farm, near Meifod, eight miles from Welshpool.

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