Everyone who attends the lunchtime concerts at St John’s Peterborough knows Alun and Mel Williams. Alun organises and introduces the popular Tuesdays Till Two concerts and talks, while Melanie presides over the equally popular cafe. Between them they provide food for the body as well as for the mind.
As I’ve often pointed out in my reviews for the Peterborough Telegraph, St John’s makes an ideal music venue. It’s located in the very heart of the city in Cathedral Square and is easily accessible to everyone, both people who come specially, and passers-by.
You don’t even have to open the doors manually to enter the lovely decorated medieval church. Once through the automatic doors the tables of the cafe are in front of you, the tea bar is to the left, and the performing area to the right at the end of the nave. Hidden away near the screen is the Harrison organ, but resplendent and centre stage is the magnificent Steinway grand piano.
“The concerts are a collaborative effort by the church, the city council, and Vivacity, who own the Steinway,” said Alun in answer to my questions. He told me that the Tuesdays Till Two concerts and talks began about five years ago. And for the last couple of years he’s been in sole charge, introducing the events and booking the musicians.
I asked him if they were difficult to find. “There are now more musicians available than opportunities to perform,” he confirmed. “Sometimes people tell us about singers and players they’ve heard elsewhere and would like to hear at St John’s. Sometimes it’s a question of asking performers to return.”
As Alun said: “Musicians always seem to be happy to perform at St John’s. Probably because of the beautiful surroundings, the good acoustics, and the piano.” Of course there are other attractions for musicians and audience alike. Mel’s cafe for example. “We just aim to give them a good all-round experience,” she explained.
You’ll have gathered from this that Alun and Melanie are a bit of a dream team, and in Valentine’s week I couldn’t resist asking them where they’d met. “It was at a book club about ten years ago,”Mel said, “but we didn’t really get together till 2011. A year later we were married at St John’s because we liked the way it engages with the local community.” It’s always interesting to hear this kind of thing, don’t you think?
“After the ceremony we went on to the Green Backyard for part of our wedding reception before moving to an indoor venue,” she told me. The GBY is another local enterprise with which the couple have close links. Situated on Oundle Road, Alun described it as not just a garden but a community growing project. The deliberate ambiguity implying that its function is not just to grow flowers, fruit, and vegetables, but also to grow a sense of community.
In fact the ‘sweets and treats’ available at the concerts are provided by this sister organisation, and Melanie’s official title is Manager of the Green Backyard Pop-Up Cafe. I began to feel distinctly peckish as she reminded me of all the goodies on offer, including Dorset apple cake and vegan chocolate cake.
Two surprising points quickly emerged. That Alun bakes a lot of the cakes himself, and that all their produce is homemade. “Our most distinctive cakes contain fresh fruit,” he told me, “including apples, rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.”
“Most of it is seasonal,” Mel confirmed, “and a lot of it based on old English recipes.” Mmmm.
Moving swiftly on, I asked Alun about the cultural community that is gradually growing at the St John’s concerts. He explained that ideally they were trying to encourage people to turn up week by week as a matter of habit, almost regardless of what was on the programme.
Melanie pointed out that St John’s is a small, intimate space with the performers only a few feet away. “You often see people in the audience chatting to the musicians after the concert and most of the performers are only too happy with this.”
As well as the music and talks, St John’s hosts the highly successful Piccolo sessions for young children, not to mention occasional art and photography exhibitions. As Alun said: “St John’s is a shared space for the church and the community.”
“A shared space with common ground,” quoted Mel.
Watch this space for details of future concerts and talks. Then why not go along and give it a try? See you there.
Interview: Joe Conway