Festival History

Now in its twentieth season, and many awards for tourism received, Sherborne Abbey Festival can justifiably be described as a well established event!  There can be no doubt that in Sherborne the first weekend in May now means only one thing – wonderful music of all kinds.

This year’s programme is no exception, and is full of exciting and adventurous concerts, workshops and performances; something for all tastes and ages and up to 70% of all performances free entry.

In the heart of the warm, golden-coloured town of Sherborne stands the magnificent abbey with its earliest roots in the 8th century. This is the home of the locally acclaimed and nationally supported Sherborne Abbey Festival. Sherborne has much to offer: a perfect mixture of peace and daily bustling activity; a place with narrow streets, weekly markets, the gentle descent of the main street, Cheap Street, packed with interesting shops, two (12th and 17th century) castles and a variety of many charming buildings dating from the 15th and 18th centuries.

It is a centre for several schools as well as a popular tourist attraction. Surrounded by green and pleasant hills, the town is a “must” for visitors who wish to enjoy the Abbey’s 15th century Perpendicular architecture and in particular the glorious fan-vaulted roof. For thirteen centuries the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been a place of prayer and pilgrimage. From Saxon cathedral to Benedictine abbey, the abbey exudes history and reverence as a very special place of worship. It is the “Cathedral of Dorset” and is an ideal concert venue and place of pilgrimage for music lovers to visit. The abbey is therefore the natural stage for the major events of the festival as well as being the principal building in the town

The story of this relatively young festival is worth telling as its origins and subsequent success are mainly thanks to the initiative of its founder and present Director John Baker.  John would be the first to confess that he had a limited musical upbringing; however, when his son became a chorister at Wells Cathedral in 1995 he set out on a musical journey of his own. Particular inspiration came from his first visit to the Edington Music Festival in Wiltshire; a choral liturgically-based festival that has now been running for fifty years which made John think how a similar series of events could work in the equally beautiful surroundings of Sherborne Abbey.

With the Vicar’s support a working party was set up to explore the idea of how the festival could work, with the initial group made up of John, the Vicar, The Revd. Canon Eric Woods, Malcolm Archer, Master of Choristers at Wells Cathedral and John Padley, Choir Master at Sherborne Abbey. The working party decided that it would be a good idea to aim for a four day festival at the beginning of May 2000. It was also agreed that it should be based around the liturgy, rather than being purely liturgical, as this would allow the festival to host a wider variety of concerts. With many ideas and much enthusiasm, there was only one key factor that the working party needed to arrange for the first festival to go ahead – the funding. In this instance it was the Parochial Church Council (PCC) who came up trumps with enthusiastic support and a loan of £1000, to act as a ‘pump primer’ in order to facilitate funds to be obtained from other sources. This loan was agreed between John Baker and the PCC on the understanding that any profits made would be used to fund future festivals and to promote music in the Parish.

The principal aim of the festival is to act as outreach for the abbey, staging attractive programmes with internationally renowned performers. By putting on popular concerts, people would be enticed through the doors in order to experience the beauty and majesty of Sherborne Abbey. In addition, the festival aims to encourage not only local patronage but also visitors from far and wide to the town and the South West in general. Furthermore, the Sherborne Abbey Festival encourages the participation of younger generations by offering them the opportunity to take part in workshops with professional musicians and to perform in the festival before a live audience in inspirational venues.
The initial working party was the basis for the Abbey Festival Committee when it was formed, with the then Sherborne Abbey Treasurer, David Lovelock, joining the committee as Treasurer for the Festival. Having decided the line-up for the first festival, which included Clifton Cathedral Choir, Bath Camerata and Wells Cathedral Choir, a steep learning curve was faced as to how to get the publicity leaflets, posters, programmes and tickets designed, laid out and printed. With no funds available for professional design, John Baker had no option but to learn, together with Richard Churchill – a verger at the Abbey, how to design and lay out everything, from tickets and programmes to websites and posters. In the early days there were many instances where the whole project would have collapsed if it hadn’t been for members of the Abbey’s community, such as Richard and Brenda Phillips, coming together to work it out somehow!

In the third year of the festival, the role of Concert Manager was formalised, with John Bowles being the first to take up the voluntary role and Andrew Cross taking over from 2005 onwards. The support of Committee members John Jenkins – Director of Music at Sherborne Girls, Bernard Brown – Abbey Treasurer, Malcolm Archer – Master of Choristers at Wells Cathedral and Sue Cameron – Secretary to the Festival, was also invaluable. The first festival cost £5,000 to stage; it made approximately £2,500 profit and, as a consequence, we were able to pay back the loan to the PCC before the festival actually took place.

In 2003, the Sherborne Abbey Festival Patrons were established in order to allow people the opportunity to support the Festival financially and help it grow. There are now four levels of patronage: platinum, gold, silver and bronze – all offering different levels of benefits from advanced bookings, generous ticket discounts, pre-concert drinks and even a special party! Visit our Patrons’ Page for more details.
Sherborne Abbey Festival has grown beyond all recognition since those heady days of self-help, although it must be stressed that the organisation is still entirely run by volunteers.  The Festival is fully self-supporting. It is reliant on local and national sponsorship and advertising as well as its patrons. It has, to date, received the backing of Classic FM , international charitable fund The Dunard Fund (which supports the Edinburgh Festival, Glyndebourne and the London Philharmonic Orchestra), as well as many local businesses.

More financial support is of course welcome, especially as the Festival continues to grow in popularity and the demands increase. Each year, profits are reinvested in the following year’s Festival enabling it to invite more and more artists of international renown.

The profits have also enabled the Festival to support various local initiatives such as music and singing lessons for the Abbey choristers, support and funding for Sherborne Young Singers and the Sherborne Young Musician of the Year event. We also give financial assistance, where needed, to music scholars to progress their musical careers.

Pin It on Pinterest