The ancient settlement of Bosbury lies within the rolling countryside of eastern Herefordshire, to the west of the Malvern Hills. This land of rural villages, isolated farms, hopyards and orchards is rich in literary and musical association. The neighbouring town of Ledbury is home to an annual poetry festival, whilst the world-famous Three Choirs Festival rotates on an annual basis between the nearby cathedral cities of Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester.
Poets from Piers Plowman in the fourteenth century to Ledbury’s own John Masefield in the twentieth have drawn inspiration from this landscape. In music Edward Elgar is known to have visited Bosbury on his regular bicycle rides from his homes in Malvern and Hereford.
The church of Holy Trinity, with its impressive detached bell tower, dates from the early twelfth century. It was subsequently enlarged by successive Bishops of Hereford who had a summer palace nearby, the gateway of which survives as part of the adjacent farm buildings. The church is rich in historical artefacts, most notably the rough stone bowl believed to have served as the font in an earlier Saxon building on the same site, the late-fifteenth century rood screen with its exquisite wooden fan vaulting, and the magnificent three manual organ built in 1871 by the notable but short-lived Victorian firm of Speechly and Ingram.
This organ is a unique heritage artefact, recognised as of national importance by the British Institute of Organ Studies. Built in 1871, modified by Ingram in 1897 and largely untouched since, it is a rare example of high Victorian artistry and craftsmanship gifted through philanthropy in a manner more usual in prosperous urban industrial rather than rural locations. Visually the organ is magnificent: the richly decorated pipes of the full length 16’ Double Open Diapason project a majestic presence into the chancel and thence into the nave; to the side smaller pipes provide an impressive backdrop to the fine Jacobean pulpit. The tonal specification is of dimensions more commonly found in cathedrals or grand civic temples than modest country churches. Speechly and Ingram’s work thankfully escaped the attentions of the well-meaning but historically intemperate organ reform movement of the last century, all too often intent on tonally reconstructing such instruments as pale imitations of the North German high baroque. Moreover, the robust mechanical action, which includes a remarkable parabolic transfer linkage mechanism possibly unique in English organ construction, is still intact and operational. As one of the reports from firms invited to carry out an inspection put it, ‘All of these idiosyncrasies point to an organ of exceptional quality. The sound is superlative and surpassingly beautiful in tone’.
It is unsurprising that after a century and a half of continuous use this Victorian treasure is approaching the end of its serviceable life. The mechanism, though mechanically intact, is worn to the point where running repairs and maintenance are barely sufficient to keep it in working order. The pipework is tired and overlaid with a thick accumulation of the kind of dust only ecclesiastical buildings seem to generate; the handsome console is sorely in need of refurbishment. It can only be a matter of time before failure of the life-expired leatherwork of the wind reservoirs and trunking renders the organ unplayable. Restoration in accordance with its historic significance is the only way forward if this masterpiece is to be saved for the benefit of the local and wider community. But, as with all labour-intensive crafts, organ building is prohibitively expensive. Estimates range from £78,000 for a phased general overhaul excluding the cost of a much-needed new blowing plant, to a whopping £246,000 for root and branch restoration from the fortress-like building frame to the smallest pipe. These figures are exclusive of VAT, which on such sums is a considerable extra financial burden.
In the 1952 Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt, the local village community are trying to save their branch-line railway from closure. The enthusiastic but other-worldly Rector excitedly outlines a range of fund-raising activities to purchase the line outright: ‘We’ll have a jumble sale, a line of pennies, we’ll put on The Mikado again’. ‘Sam’, says the pragmatic squire, ‘We did all that for the organ fund. How much did we raise?’. ‘£49 three shillings’, replies the crestfallen clergyman. ‘Yes’, replies the squire. ‘We’ll need at least £10,000. But if we can interest Mr Valentine […]’. Through a combination of the kind of gentle coercion and mild skulduggery characteristic of English comedies of that period, the resourceful locals do indeed interest wealthy Mr Valentine, who opens his cheque book and the railway is saved!
After 70 years of inflationary uplift, the people of Bosbury face a similar situation. Determined local effort, plans for which are well in hand, will raise the profile and generate goodwill, but cannot hope to generate sufficient funds. What is more, Bosbury has no Mr Valentine.
The kind of sum needed to restore this Victorian masterpiece to a condition where it will serve to local community for another 150 years can only come through substantial philanthropic support. The small group charged with driving the project are therefore seeking financial aid from grant-giving bodies associated with the Arts, Faith, Education and Heritage. The recent re-ordering of Bosbury church interior, together with the provision of domestic facilities, has created a large, welcoming space for community activities. The near proximity of the local primary school provides an immediate opportunity for educational outreach and historical awareness.
This wonderful example of Victorian heritage, with its unique ‘barley sugar’ mechanism, could become a driver for local and community-based activities if, and only if, large-scale funding is forthcoming. The alternative is that the organ will deteriorate from its present state of disrepair to dereliction. It will quite soon become unusable and be most likely be replaced by an inexpensive but historically inappropriate alternative.
As the expert independent advisor commissioned to inspect the organ puts it:
This impressive instrument is a remarkable Victorian survivor, with not only an amazing ‘one-off’ piece of mechanism at its heart but also the grandest of musical aspirations. Solidly and lavishly built, scarcely altered, in in need of little more than a thorough overhaul, I commend it as one of the most important church organs in the Diocese and County of Hereford, worthy not only of national historic recognition, but also of a long and splendid future musical life, once restored.
This organ was donated 150 years ago by a local family. The irony is that as a result of the immense historical and cultural paradigm shifts since that time, an example of late nineteenth-century philanthropy has become an early twenty-first century liability. It is only if substantial financial support from charitable funding bodies is forthcoming that its future can be assured.