So, the morning after we saw Birmingham Conservatoire’s production of Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, we drove to Bath. It was a beautiful clear day and the roads were empty, so at Cirencester we decided to take a slight diversion – and make a long-intended pilgrimage to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s birthplace, the Cotswold village of Down Ampney.
I’d always lazily pictured it in some little Gloucestershire valley or on a hillside, like Painswick or the Slaughters. In fact, it lies some miles behind the Cotswold escarpment in wide open countryside, rolling so gently that it’s practically flat.
Other than that, it’s much as you’d expect – quiet, certainly not coach party-pretty, but extremely pleasant: birdsong was in the air on this March afternoon, and there’s clearly as much going on as you’d imagine in any medium-sized English village.
There’s no museum or monument to RVW. And unless you’ve done your homework, there’s no outward sign to tell you that the village’s Old Vicarage was the birthplace of Britain’s greatest symphonist post-Elgar. We didn’t hang around outside; it’s clearly still a family home and anyone who’s ever lived in an Oxford college knows what it’s like to look out of your living room window and see a tourist camera pointed straight back. It’s shielded from the road by thick yew hedges. We didn’t want to turn into stalkers, so we walked on.
Instead Down Ampney wears its connection to RVW modestly, but with quiet pride – exactly how you suspect he’d have wanted it. The focus for pilgrims is the village church of All Saints, located next to the manor house down a quiet lane about 10 minutes’ walk from the village centre.
It’s not all about RVW. There was an RAF base in the nearby fields during World War 2 and the churchyard has numerous war graves. There’s also a Victorian stained glass tribute to Vaughan Williams’ father, the Rev Arthur Vaughan Williams, who was vicar of Down Ampney at the time of Ralph’s birth. The church is unlocked during daylight, though a sign on the door warns you to shut it firmly after you “as birds find the interior fascinating”.
And there’s a small but very comprehensive exhibition about the composer at the back of the church, provided by the RVW society.
But the best finds were the little things that show that so many years later, RVW is still a presence in the life of this church and community – we spotted this embroidered hassock. And the music of the hymn Come Down O Love Divine was pinned to the organ – to the tune, of course, that Vaughan Williams wrote in 1904, and called (what else?) “Down Ampney”.