In a picturesque English country church, a noteworthy conversion A journey abroad

September 29, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

ABBOTSBURY, England -- The sea sent up a mist against the Church of St. Nicholas, as it has done for over 500 years. The elements take their toll here: The stone is pocked, and the noses and other protruding parts of the occasional saint or angel are worn away by time's persistent touch.

Inside the church the Dolmetsch Ensemble prepared the final concert of the annual Abbotsbury Music Festival. The last audience of the year began to compose itself in the pews and loft, where the bell ropes hung. They were country people, some of them, and city people trying to look countrified, all got up in corduroy.

Class is still strongly felt in England, but there are no longer peasants with rough red hands that declare their station to the world. Were there, they would not live in the houses that line Abbotsbury's single street, lovely dwellings of milk-white stone topped with luxuriant thatch that lies across the dormers like the folds of a blanket. These houses cost up to $275,000, and that is only for a lease of between 52 and 110 years. There are about 140 houses in the town, and all but about 10 are leased.

This implies archaic ownership practices. Abbotsbury and the 6,500 acres around it, known as the Ilchester Estate, are owned and controlled by the Fox Strangways family. Their managers labor on behalf of the family's current head, Lady Charlotte Morrison. They are determined that Abbotsbury will lose none of its emphatic charm.

Abbotsbury is quaint and plays to it. There are artisan shops, two cozy pubs and tearooms. If you live here, you are invited by the estate to paint your house any color you wish so long as it is either "muffin" or "country cream." Abbotsbury doesn't surprise so much as satisfy a preconceived ideal. It exists in the mind before one ever sees it, the perfect English village nestled in the Arcadian precincts of Dorsetshire.

The abbey of St. Peter used to rise next to the Church of St. Nicholas. It housed the Benedictines, who grew too rich and worldly. The abbey was pulled down as a consequence of Henry VIII's fight against Catholic Rome. St. Catherine's Chapel, which stands on a hill overlooking the sea, was part of the abbey, but it was left intact because it served as a landmark for fishermen working off the Chesil Bank. In any event, the destruction of St. Peter's Abbey left Abbotsbury one saint short, though two would seem enough to look over such a small place.

The Swan pub is separated from the church by a wide pebble parking lot. The pub is warm and embracing, and I am feeling warm and embraced. Enhancing it all, somewhere in the background, I think I hear Frank Sinatra singing his old songs.

From this cocoon I am dragged with some reluctance across the pebbles and into the stark white interior of the church. It is Gothic, says my architect friend, Micaela, but not entirely so. She indicates the pointed arch; the nave, she says, is some other style. It is a melange, and I sense disapproval.

The Dolmetsch Ensemble is poised to render pieces by Henry Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann. There is even one on the bill by that old scourge of monasteries himself, Henry VIII. The lustful king was no mean musician, I learn. They have not begun, and in my mind I am back in the warmth of the Swan, with Frank Sinatra doing it his way.

The Dolmetsch Ensemble is famous, though not hyperfamous as is "Ol' Blue Eyes." Dr. Carl Dolmetsch asks the audience in a most tentative voice if they would like him to give little interpretive blurbs about each piece of music. There is a murmur of assent. This is the younger Dolmetsch, son of Arnold $l Dolmetsch, who pioneered the worldwide renaissance of early music performed on original instruments.

But Dolmetsch the younger is easily in his 70s. He is a slight man with a delicate voice, which, with its faint lisp, hovers near, but never quite becomes, effete.

The ensemble, all tuxed and gowned, fidget about. They go on tiptoe arranging stools and chairs. They are so seemingly diffident and cautious, as if an abrupt sound from any one of them might bring down the pillars.

Why are they like that? It is said there is a great amount of hypocrisy in English life. One can never tell if this exaggerated shyness and self-effacement are genuine or just an affectation designed to fish compliments. Men and women of staggering accomplishments present themselves as if to ask your permission to share the earth's oxygen. How does one respond to that? Do you say, "By all means, have a whiff"?

After Dr. Dolmetsch's brief talk about the music, the group begins to play. They send forth an enveloping resonance. The recorders are so true you can almost hear the wood in them. (Carl Dolmetsch is world-famous on this instrument, though not as famous as Frank Sinatra.) The viols make the saddest, deepest sounds; they are so full of sentiment. The harpsichord emits the crispest of notes. Every instrument asserts itself, none gets lost under another. It is so balanced, precise and intelligent, this music.

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