This October, ladies from the Isle of Man’s Women in Song ventured to the picturesque, canal-lined Dutch city of Leiden. Over the course of five days, the community choir experienced a true taste of Dutch culture and tradition in the region’s pretty towns and coastal resorts.
Each of the choir’s concerts were truly memorable and, whilst the ladies received a standing ovation for their performance at Amsterdam’s Oosterkerk, it was actually the performance at the residential care facility, The Willem van der Bergh Centre, where they received their most appreciative audience with residents getting up on stage to join in!
After hitting the headlines in local papers following the success of their experience, we hear from choir member, Susan Collins, as she reminisces about their truly memorable tour – giving us a ‘through the keyhole’ glimpse into the experiences of a choir tour.
All the fun of the fair
We thought it was very nice of the people of Leiden to lay on a massive street party and firework display to welcome us on 3rd October. In fact, we were a bit disappointed when we realised that the town was actually celebrating Leidens Ontzet (Relief of Leiden) and commemorating the Spanish siege and subsequent relief of the city in 1574. Sadly it was late afternoon when we arrived and we had missed the parade, but our hotel was right in the heart of the city, so we had ample opportunity to go out, find some food and enjoy all the fun of the fair after checking in to the hotel.
The city centre was packed with street vendors, children’s rides, booths with games and all sorts of family fun. The fun fair was huge and you could be whizzed round on a roller coaster, flung up in the air on a giant pendulum ride or get on a huge umbrella-like ride, where the carriages not only swung out on the spokes of the ‘umbrella’, but shot up the central column. Definitely not for me, I’d left my spirit of adventure back in the Isle of Man! The crowded streets were festooned with coloured lights and the atmosphere was magical. Everyone was having a whale of a time!
The Dutch take their food very seriously and the market vendors selling really tasty local delicacies, sweets and nuts was testament to this. I have it on good authority that the burger stall served the best beef burgers ever! A couple of our ladies were caught on camera eating some very large chips… and the sausages…!
We learned later that despite the partying, Leidens Ontzet is a celebration with many traditions which have historical meaning. The morning of 3rd October starts at the city hall with free herring and white bread being given out to Leiden residents. We could relate to that as ‘spuds and herring’ is a traditional Manx dish too. How lucky we felt to be able to include this festival in our tour. After a long day, we eventually made our way back to our hotel and our very comfortable beds.
There’s no such thing as bad weather…
I have heard it said that there is no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing choices. So it was just as well that we had consulted the long-range weather forecast before we left home and abandoned our usual choir uniform fleeces in favour of waterproof jackets. Day two started very wet, so after taking our fill of one of the best presented breakfast spreads you can imagine, we split up to spend the morning exploring Leiden – a beautiful, friendly, medium-sized city and a really great base for our Rayburn tour. There is so much to do in Leiden with so many galleries, the windmill museum, the civic museum, as well as some great cafes and chocolate shops! Lots of them are hidden gems so it really pays to do your homework before you set out.
None of the concert venues were too far away from our base and our itinerary had been carefully planned to give us ample opportunity to fit in additional excursions, as well as some free time for leisure activities. A good street map is an essential piece of kit to get before you set out to explore a new area, as two of our choir soon found out when they lost their way and couldn’t find the coach rendezvous point. Thankfully, through the wonders of mobile phones, they made their separate ways back to the hotel and from there took a taxi together to meet up with the rest of us in Den Haag. All’s well that ends well!
The tour schedule provided us with a chance to spend a few hours exploring Den Haag before we rejoined our coach to travel to the coastal town of Noordwijk. Sadly the rain was a bit too heavy for many of the group to venture into the town and most remained on the coach. A few of us did take a walk down to the beach and dashed down the main street, taking shelter in a coffee house – the cinnamon and apple cake was well worth the soaking!
A very personal journey
Our first concert was in the evening and two of our ladies chose to miss the tour of Den Haag. Instead they took advantage of the excellent rail links from Leiden and made their own way via Utrecht to see the famous bridge at Arnhem. Their fathers had been involved in Operation Market Garden at Arnhem Bridge during the Second World War.
Sandra’s father was in a glider, but unfortunately the glider tow rope broke and he came down behind enemy lines. Some of his fellow soldiers were killed but miraculously her dad escaped, hiding in daylight and moving at night to try to avoid capture. Her mother had got the dreaded telegram saying he was ‘missing in action’, but thankfully he survived the war and lived until he was 88 years old.
Lynn’s father had also fought in the Arnhem area with the Canadian forces. Both ladies felt that they wanted to spend time at Arnhem Bridge to pay homage to the courage of all the soldiers and civilians who suffered there, and to try to understand what their fathers had experienced 75 years ago. They were delighted that the schedule allowed time for them to undertake this very personal journey which was, for them, the highlight of the tour.
“Some words they can’t be spoken only sung”
It has always been the aim of the choir to take our music into residential and care facilities as often as our busy schedule allows. So we were delighted when we read in the brochure that Rayburn Tours could arrange for us to do a concert at The Willem van der Bergh Centre in Noordwijk – a large facility which provides a valuable care service for patients with mental health conditions.
Concerts and other musical events play an important part in the centre’s patient treatment and are greatly appreciated by the residents. The audience of around 120 interacted with the choir throughout the concert, some getting up to dance and most of the audience singing along to the more popular songs. Several younger ones even got up on the stage to join us. One young lad stood on the rostrum with Karen Elliott, our Musical Director, and conducted the ladies. He was in time too! Another danced with her during her solo and a young woman embraced Karen and sang along beautifully during Halleluiah from Shrek.
The opening line of Gary Barlow’s song “Sing”, one of the pieces we performed, summed up the emotions of the night; “Some words they can’t be spoken only sung.” Our previous tour to Belgium in 2017 had been amazing and singing at the Menin Gate had been a ‘once in a life-time’ experience, which the ladies all believed that it couldn’t be beaten. However, this concert gave us the perfect opportunity to give something back to the community, while providing us all with yet another truly memorable experience.
We were on a high after such a fantastic concert and it was a very happy group which gathered in the lounge at our hotel that evening to celebrate the 80th birthday of Peter, one of our ‘choir husbands’ who had joined us on the tour. We did so in the time honoured way by singing Happy Birthday and raising a glass or two. In fact we had five birthdays to celebrate during our tour!
Weather-wise day three was a good deal brighter, and by the time the coach arrived at the Rijksmuseum for the first of our pre-booked excursions, the sun was shining. There really is so much to see, both inside and outside the museum, that it really needs at least a full day to take it all in.
Inside of course, so many national treasures to wonder at, outside a group of musicians played classical pieces. My ears pricked up when we were waiting for the coach, as I heard another group play the opening bars of a jazz classic from my youth, “Petite Fleur”. How I swooned when the legendry Monty Sunshine played this on his clarinet in the 1960s! Next they upped the beat and we were dancing in the street to La Bamba – we managed some fancy footwork too!
Then it was off to the Oosterkerk, (Eastern Church) a 17th Century Dutch Reform Church in Amsterdam for the choir’s second concert. The building had not been used for church services since 1962 and fell into decay. Restored in the 1980s, this large venue now has a comprehensive programme of musical events. We were made really welcome by the organisers and the tea and biscuits went down very well. The concert again attracted a very appreciative audience of over 100 and the ladies received a standing ovation for their performance.
A day in Delft
I was really looking forward to day four and our second pre-booked excursion to the Royal Delft Pottery. Boy did we need our waterproofs that day! Fortunately it was dry and warm in the pottery and the tour was very well organised. There was plenty of seating during the illustrated talks on the history of the pottery, excellent demonstrations and some amazing ceramics on display, including a dress! We had a chance to buy some small items to take home. I would have loved to add a hand-painted Christmas bauble to my collection, but sadly they were a little out of my price range, so I had to settle for the transfer printed versions.
Our driver did his best to get us as close to the centre of Delft as he could, even so we were all soaked by the time we arrived at the venue for our final excursion. No trip to Holland would be complete without a visit to a pancake house, and Het Gulden Pancake House on the banks of the canal in Delft was well worth getting wet for. The pancakes were beautiful (I had apple and cinnamon) and it was really lovely having the swans swim right up to the windows, peering in to see what they were missing!
Meerkats on tour
Sadly it was raining a bit too hard to spend a lot of time exploring Delft, so we made our way to the Maria van Jessekerk – the neo-Gothic Roman Catholic parish church which was the venue for our final concert. The choir was asked to sit in front of the chancel and the seating area was very high up and behind an ornate balustrade. I did hear it said that when we were seated we couldn’t be seen from the body of the church, and when we were given the signal to stand, we looked like Meerkats popping up. It certainly gave our Musical Director something to think about, I don’t think she’s ever had vertigo when conducting before!
“I did hear it said that when we were seated we couldn’t be seen from the body of the church and when we were given the signal to stand, we looked like Meerkats popping up.”
The acoustics in this huge cathedral-like church were amazing though and particularly suited Karen’s solos. The audience was smaller than it might have been due to the torrential rain, but they were no less appreciative and gave us our second standing ovation.
No doubt about it, Rayburn Tours are addictive! No sooner were we on the ferry heading home to the Isle of Man after the first venture into Europe in 2017 than we were choosing the destination for our second tour to Amsterdam in 2019. And as we sat in the departure lounge waiting for our flight from Amsterdam, we were already talking about 2021. Where will it be? Dublin, Paris, Normandy?
Have you been inspired by Women in Song’s adventures?