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Thoughts on my recent trip to Great Britain - Part I

Scarlet Stone
Posted 4/13/22

On Friday, March 25, I was very fortunate to travel from Minneapolis to Great Britain with my Soudan friend and travel expert, Mary Batinich. Jill Wagoner, also from Soudan, joined in and the group …

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Thoughts on my recent trip to Great Britain - Part I

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On Friday, March 25, I was very fortunate to travel from Minneapolis to Great Britain with my Soudan friend and travel expert, Mary Batinich. Jill Wagoner, also from Soudan, joined in and the group happily grew from two to more with others joining us across the Atlantic. The purpose of the trip was simply to “nip” across the pond (Mary’s expression) for leisure, but also for Mary and some of us members of the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center’s (LVCC) Fundraising Committee to meet with a distinguished male vocal choir (Cor Meibion Rhos) from the mining village of Rhosllannerchrugog (Rhos) in northeast Wales.
Singing has always been part of the Welsh people’s identity because it allowed them to escape the labor and danger of the mines through the joy of singing. Also, for centuries, their English suppressors would not allow the Welsh to use sophisticated musical instruments so their voices became their orchestras. To accompany their beautiful songs of six to eight-part harmony, they developed and used small harps.
Known as the “Land of Song”, Welsh choral and folk singing took place in churches, parties, schools and was prevalent in the pubs, too...as we witnessed!
The Rhos Choir was formed in 1891 and has been at the forefront of male vocal singing, winning numerous awards and accolades while touring extensively. Mary has arranged and managed three tours to the U.S. for the choir, with the last being over a decade ago when they performed on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. Keillor later said the Rhos choir was one of the top ten acts in his twenty-five years. A year or so ago, Keillor reached out to Mary saying he would love to sing with the choir once more. Mary then contacted the choir and asked if they would like to come to the U.S. again. They said “yes they would,” but then COVID hit and plans were put on hold. Because the popular personality Keillor has had health issues, he may not be able to be part of an upcoming tour, projected to be in the summer of 2024, but he is one of choir’s most enthusiastic fans. The choir would have several performances in various locations as part of ongoing fundraising efforts for the LVCC in Tower and for their own expenses. I am thrilled to be part of this LVCC adventure and have been a singer, performer, graphic artist and most recently assisting with fundraising for the LVCC since I moved to Soudan in 2017.
On with the trip! The three of us overnighted in Minneapolis, then flew to Philadelphia, on to Heathrow Airport in London, then took a flight to Manchester, England. It was here we were met by Mary’s Scottish red-headed friend, Kevin Shaw, who drives coaches and vans for BARC transportation company located in Peebles, Scotland. He has driven for other trips Mary has hosted to Great Britain, the last being a LVCC tour to Roman and Celtic Britain. Accompanying Kevin was a young family-friend of Mary’s, Sofia Furrh of Dallas, who is a student of English Literature at the University of Glasgow and she was excited to enrich herself in the company of older characters. It was super having this young, vibrant and intelligent student with us. We proceeded to Chester to meet another travel partner, Debbie Prutsman, who is a vocalist/actress and teacher from Los Angeles and was featured at a Midsummer Concert here in Tower a few years ago. Deb’s mother grew up with Mary in northern Itasca County in Minnesota.
We were all experiencing some heavy jet lag, with none of us catching much sleep on the seven-hour flight across the Atlantic. As we passed by the green, sheep-dotted rolling hills at the height of daffodil bloom and lambing season... I felt as if I were in a vintage illustrated children’s book. Scenes of charming stone walls from centuries ago when fields were cleared for grazing and farming held the countryside between villages that were bordered with hedgerows and ivy- covered trees. I was fighting back the desire to nod off for a nap but didn’t want to miss any of the amazing scenery. Delightful cottages and farms seemed painted into a long series of picturesque settings. We traveled along narrow curvy roads and arrived in Chester where we walked the worn brick lane to a cafe near a small open canal. My artist’s-senses were on major overload....and still are. Following lunch and meet-n-greets, Kevin drove us to meet Mary’s longtime friends, the Brookshaw family, who own and operate the Plassey Holiday Park, Retail Village and Golf Course in the picturesque River Dee valley near Wrexham in North Wales. Most of the group stayed with matriarch Della Brookshaw at her exquisite home, the Whey House, that she and her late husband Tony built to match the style and appearance of the century-old manor house.
Over sixty years, they developed the entire Plassey Park on what started out to be lovely property with just a large manor house and a crumbling farm. Driver Kevin and I stayed nearby with daughter Jane Brookshaw, who lives in the small village of Overton on the English border. Jane is an established artist for Dunoon English fine bone china with many award- winning designs over her twenty-five year career with them. She also sells paintings at local galleries. That being established, you can bet we all later came home with many lovely coffee and tea mugs with Jane’s designs, ranging from brightly illustrated fashionista-ladies to whimsical sheep and Scottish bagpipers. I thoroughly enjoyed staying at Jane’s and seeing her lovely home and illustrating/painting studio that fills the upper third floor, not to mention she had a nice cat that filled my kitty-momma void.
We had arranged to be at the Rhos choir’s rehearsal on Monday, March 28 at a large hall in Rhos. Before leaving for the rehearsal, we enjoyed a beautiful dinner with the Brookshaw family at their restaurant, the Black Sheep, at the Plassey, which is a brilliantly renovated cow barn. Following dinner many of us traveled to the rehearsal in Kevin’s van and enjoyed listening to his heavy Scottish brogue. Mary warmly greeted the director and choir members, many of whom she already knew, and introductions were made. We sat on the side of the room and listened to their practice and when they were finished Mary took the podium and spoke to the members about the plan to have them return to the United States again to tour and sing. Following her talk, in a sharing of music and fun, I performed the satirical-novelty song, “Lime Jell-O Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise,” by William Bolcom and Joan Morris, that has been a popular piece on Prairie Home Comanion. Then Debbie performed the song, “Memory,” from her appearances in the musical, Cats. Before we departed the practice room, Mary requested the choir to please sing a favorite of hers, the Welsh National Anthem, (Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau which in English means Land of My Fathers). The singers gladly rose from their chairs and proudly sang it for us and as the basses rumbled their deep, full melodic notes I felt chills move through me from the richness of sound, opportunity and gratitude for being there. In their standard routine we all walked next door to the Hafod Social Club to share a pint or two of Guiness and plan their upcoming trip. We listened to pub songs sung by the choir including the song that made us all explode with laughter, “Goodbye My Mother-In-Law.”  The lyrics containing humor such as ....“I’ll come back to you someday, when you’re in a box and far away...goodbye my mother-in-law goodbye....I’ve had enough of your bloody old jaw...goodbye my mother-in-law goodbye.” This was a high point of our trip and I was able to capture several memorable song videos on my iPhone. We returned to the Brookshaws’ to rest and bolster our strength for more rich and full days of traveling to Bodnant Gardens, Ruthin Castle, the Lake District, Glasgow, Highlands and Edinburgh over the next week. In upcoming columns I will have more stories to share about this wonderful adventure.

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