5 August 2018
I can count the number of times I’ve been truly surprised on one hand. It’s not particularly easy to surprise me – I am curious about anything and everything! So, sitting in The Garden Cafe, Hale, on my 50th birthday, I was highly suspicious when best friend and UKFast Space MD Joe said we had to pop over to Bowdon to look at some fences.
Fences? When I’d been given strict instructions not to work all day? I knew something was up! However, I never could have guessed what was in store.
Arriving at our house, my wife and daughters were waiting for me with a helicopter ready to whizz us away. Gail arranged it all and as we flew over Cheshire, she told me where we were heading. Flying over the extraordinary city of Durham, I knew the day would be one to remember.
I’d never seen the city from the sky before, but knew the place at ground level very well. At seven years old, I won a free scholarship to the Chorister School. I moved there from the small Welsh town of Denbigh. Leaving my family, I was to board there, completely free for the next five years. Back then the place seemed enormous. The Cathedral was very special; the maze of streets was incomparable to the green hills of Denbighshire.
Yet, walking down those familiar paths, they seemed tiny. Having spent the past 35 years in the hustle and bustle of Manchester, Durham now seems quaint, historic and a different world. So much so that the kids were thrilled; as massive Harry Potter fans, they felt like they’d been transported to Hogwarts! In fact, a number of scenes from the first film were shot in rooms we spent a great deal of time in, in the Cathedral.
A flood of memories
Walking through the arch, I touched the door that once was the entrance to my home. As I turned to walk away, Gail egged me on: “Knock on the door!” A prime example of how we balance each other perfectly. Gail is always the one to continually push me that little bit further, to achieve the best outcome. Incredibly, someone answered and we were given a guided tour of my old school.
After going through my old school, Gail had organised a behind the scenes tour of the Cathedral by getting in contact with my old organist, Richard Lloyd.
It is said that when we look back on things we tend to put on our rose-tinted spectacles and remember them as far greater. The opposite was in fact true as we walked across the walled college grounds, past Mr. Lloyd’s old red door and headed to the cloisters that connect the Cathedral.
Reminiscing, explaining to our kids that I wore a mortar board and cloak every day when walking between the school and the Cathedral, memories flooded back with each step. It’s remarkable how, as adults, we’re shaped from our early experiences to make us who we are today.
A real honour
To leave home at just seven years old, and to have the responsibility of singing solos in one of the country’s – if not the world’s – greatest choirs and Cathedrals was a huge honour and undoubtedly shaped the way I am today.
Even back then at such an early age, I knew I was lucky and I knew the experience was a special one. A couple of mornings every week I’d have the responsibility to “serve” for one of the clergy in the early morning service before breakfast.
I was the youngest chorister to have this responsibility as I was confirmed as a chorister in St. Asaph Cathedral the year before I left. “Serving” meant preparing the bread and wine for communion. You had to walk up and hand the plate just at the right time. My favourite person to serve was the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Ramsey. Being around amazing characters like this was a privilege and one I have always treasured and still do.
There is no doubt that my time walking those corridors, performing for Royalty and having such a high level of responsibility and independence as a child made me the person I am today. There is no doubt that Richard Lloyd and the obsessive standards he set, set the benchmark for how I would measure myself moving forward.
I try to instil these values into our family today. My daughters have always spent time at UKFast, helping Gail and I wherever they can and being in an environment where they have a responsibility to behave in a certain way, to fulfil certain roles. Of course, it’s a million miles from living away from home in school steeped in tradition, but I hope it nurtures some of the incredible lessons I learned there for them too.
Not only that, as a child chorister, you know that your days in the limelight is numbered.
It’s a unique role and very different from the upbringing I would have had.
When trying to explain to people just how different chorister life was, imagine Christmas Day, instead of going home like the rest of the school, and going to bed on Christmas Eve with your family, as a chorister, we stayed at school for an extra week.
It was called Chorister Period. We woke up on Christmas morning and went downstairs to open presents with the twenty other choir boys, before putting on our cloaks and mortar boards and heading for chorister practice.
Any normal human being might think this is terrible, but for us, it was the best job in the world. Singing three services on Christmas Day and hour upon hour of practice in between.
But the hardest part of being part of something special like that, is when it’s taken away from you. Once your voice breaks, your gift disappears overnight and you can no longer hit the extraordinary notes that you once could. You look like a child, yet sound like a grown man. It is something that taught me an incredibly valuable lesson.
I often talk about the most valuable asset we all have being time. I learned this the hard way after my avalanche accident, yet it is something that I have been taught throughout my life, at various stages. Even as a child under 10 years, I knew that my days as a chorister were numbered.
A special milestone
People often joke that I am a rhinoceros, tenacious almost to a fault. If I set a goal or see something that needs changing for the better, there is nothing that stops me on that quest. Perhaps that’s because I know too well the value of time and taking action as soon as you can. You’ll often hear me ask, what are you waiting for?
There’s something strange about reaching this 50 milestone. I don’t feel a day older than the young man who left Wales and headed to Manchester as a teenager. Yet, being back at Durham with my wonderful family, reminds me just how far I’ve come since those early days. And of the sacrifices I made to get here.
Ultimately, there’s nothing like a trip down memory lane to fan the flames and get you even more motivated. I am determined to make this next chapter the best one yet. Who knows what’s to come. Although I do have some unfinished goals that need completing and no doubt I will be adding to the list too!
I share more about the day in Durham in my podcast, which the team are publishing tomorrow over on iTunes. Have a listen and let me know what you think.