Vaughan Williams' Year in Saffron Walden
An anniversary celebration in music and words
Our 'Vaughan Williams' Year in Saffron Walden' project involved a huge amount of research into RVW's time in Walden in 1915 which was combined, with his music, into an 150th anniversary celebration concert in St Mary's church Saffron Walden on 2 April 2022. Here's an article, which was written for our programme, alongside some of the letters and photos we collated for this project.
1915: RVW in Saffron Walden - by Philip Parker
This year - 2022 - is the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). His music has graced national life from the coronation to royal weddings and funerals. As a local choir, Granta Chorale was surprised to learn, while planning this RVW150 concert, that Vaughan Williams had lived here in Saffron Walden in 1915.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Ralph Vaughan Williams was 41 years old: too old to serve in the infantry. By the end of 1914, with the war not over as quickly as expected, Vaughan Williams resolved to play his part and signed up as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
In his spare time, Vaughan Williams visited the Friends Meeting House on the High Street, where he could get a meal, write letters or read a newspaper. A fellow soldier wrote: “Of all the organisations which befriended the Tommies during the war I would award the palm to the British Women’s Temperance Association at Saffron Walden... [who] organised a soldier’s canteen... Beyond the cheapness and quality of the food was the delightful friendly atmosphere which pervaded the place and the spirit of kindliness which radiated from Mrs Midgely and her daughters”. In May 1915, he marched 55 miles from Watford to Saffron Walden and was billeted with the Westwood family in Bridge Street. His billeting sergeant recalled: “I don’t think we shall ever forget that trek during the early summer through some very pretty country, via Ware, Dunmow and Thaxted. Nor shall we easily forget our stay in Saffron Walden, the quiet quaint old Quaker town with its fine church and historic inns... Being an old-fashioned town, Saffron Walden was not an ideal place for procuring billets, but many people were kindness itself... It is a marvel that some of the fellows did not crack their skulls or break their necks where they had to go through the family’s bedroom to reach a wooden ladder which led up to their loft”.
Vaughan Williams spent his time training as a wagon orderly: how to load wounded men into ambulances, do field dressings, as well as military basics and camp hygiene. That summer of 1915, Vaughan Williams moved out of billets to camp in Audley End Park, where he and the soldiers practised ambulance duties in the water of the lakes. His fellow soldiers recalled: “The lovely expanse of buttercups when we arrived there...and the odour from the goat who attached himself to our Unit”. The Unit also had to route march around local villages, such as Littlebury and Hadstock, or further afield to Braintree via Stebbing - hard for Vaughan Williams, who was flat-footed.
Vaughan Williams got permission to come to St Mary’s church in the evening to practice the organ. Ursula Vaughan Williams explains, “Ralph spent much of his free time [in 1915] playing the organ in [St Mary’s] church, Bach being the most certain refuge from the soul-destroying route of an army in training”.
Vaughan Williams also formed a military band which practised on the Common - townsfolk generously provided some of the instruments. In November, he moved to billets in Bishop’s Stortford, from where he took part in major military manoeuvres. One attacking force of British soldiers advanced from Cambridge and ‘captured’ Saffron Walden, and Vaughan Williams’ defending side had to block their ‘advance’ on London by pretending to blow up the Newport and Quendon railway bridges. He spent Christmas 1915 billeted with a musical family, accompanying their music-making in the evenings on their piano.
Vaughan Williams was frustrated to be in England in 1915, but from mid-1916 he was to see real action at Vimy Ridge in France, Salonica in Greece, and - having in 1918 earned a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery - in Belgium and Germany. We are lucky he survived - others such as his friend, the composer George Butterworth, did not. Vaughan Williams wrote a letter of condolence to Butterworth’s father:
“I feel I may write to you about his music - at first one can only think of all the possibilities locked up in him and of the great things one knew he had it in him to express... There is all the beautiful music he has already written - that remains with us as something imperishable. But even that still bigger music which was still unfulfilled in him one cannot believe is lost - it must have its influence on the world somehow - from the very fact that it existed locked up in his mind”.
Vaughan Williams’ time in our area was his happiest in the war, and he remembered Saffron Walden through his long life. In 1952, when he was 80 years old, Ursula recalled “we drove up through Essex, stopping at Saffron Walden, where Ralph used to practise the organ when his unit was stationed there”. As the London Field Ambulance’s war-time song put it:
But now we’re leaving Walden and we’re very sad at heart.
We do not want to leave you, but we think we ought to part
For if we stayed much longer I can see it plain and clear
That every single man of us would soon get married here. If only you would keep us what a winter it would be; I’d billet at the meeting-house. This hut would do for me...
Happy Days. Happy Days. I should cease to pine for Walton-on-the Naze Or Audley End or Dunmow I should say “Well, this is some go!” Here’s to good old Saffron Walden! Happy Days.
Read the full programme
Photos of Vaughan Williams and the RVW logos used are by kind permission of the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust