After a busy year of school and many exciting choral events along the way, the Tiffin Boys Choir, following a week of rest, left Birkenhead Avenue for their annual tour, this time to Estonia and Russia with a short stop in Finland on the way. This choir tour was to be the last for our Director, Simon Toyne, who I’m sure everyone in the choir would join me in thanking for his huge contribution to music at Tiffin over the past twenty-or-so years. While we were sad to see him go, we were determined to make sure he left for his new job at Malcolm Arnold Academy in Northampton with good memories of his last tour with us.
At an ungodly hour, most of us arrived at the back entrance of Tiffin School with suitcases varying vastly not just in size but in style as well! Unfortunately there was not enough space on the bus for everyone, so Mr Ferris and Mr Bazalgette had to make their own way to Gatwick Airport. Despite the early start, we were all in good spirits, excited about the week ahead. When we got to ‘London’ Gatwick Airport (so called because it is nowhere near London), we joined up with the boys who had been driven there at the Norwegian Air Shuttle (not Norwegian Airlines!) check-in desk.
For me and indeed the vast majority of the choir this was to be the first flight on the Norwegian airline that flies all over Europe and from many places outside Norway to the US as well. This was rather exciting because unlike British Airways they have free Wi-Fi on their 737s, although this turned out not to be quite as good as we had envisaged.
Having cleared security and got some breakfast in the shopping foyer at Gatwick, we went to the gate to board the flight to Helsinki Vantaa. Boarding the plane by the back, we all got on and settled down for the short flight. Gladly the journey was uneventful and we landed in the Finnish capital quickly, although without any real experience of the hyped-up Wi-Fi which was very slow.
Most people got through security and passport control without losing anything (I wasn’t so lucky!) and we preceded to the tour coach where we met our suitably enthusiastic Estonian tour leader who told us that Finland is ‘not that big but quite nice’; Estonia is ‘not at all big but very nice’; and that Russia is ‘very big but not very nice. People in this part of the world clearly still have misgivings about being ruled by the Kremlin in the not-too-distant past!
After a brief coach tour of sights such as the 1952 Olympic Park and a couple hours on the seafront doing some shopping and eating, we parted company with Helsinki and went to catch the cleverly named Tallink ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia. We enjoyed a buffet dinner and spent the rest of the two-and-a-half hours either reading, playing games, sleeping or standing outside on the deck, causing friends at home to see many pictures of the sea and the Estonian flag clogging up their Instagram feeds.
When we arrived in Tallinn, which actually means ‘the Danish town’ despite being the capital of Estonia, we got on the new coach with our new driver who would eventually take us to St Petersburg. Once we got to the hotel, we had a good night’s sleep so we were rejuvenated for the next day.
In the morning, we had to get breakfast early (not all choristers managed this) and get our suit carriers so we could drop them off at the church where we would later give our first concert, Kaarli Church in Tallinn. Before that though, we had a sightseeing tour of Estonia on the coach where we saw the idyllic Toompea (Old Town) and the rather less idyllic modern areas with some ‘interesting’ Soviet architecture as well as new buildings built in the years the small Baltic country has been independent.
It is probably worth noting that Estonia has not been independent many times in history; it has been ruled by many other states from Germany to Sweden to Russia as well as of course the Danes. A tall glass cross commemorates Estonia’s victory in the War of Independence (our tour guide said this was the time ‘we actually won a war’) over the Russian SFSR and the German Baltic Land Army. Of course this independence was short-lived because the USSR invaded Estonia under the pretext of the Secret Protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1940 and the people of the country didn’t see independence again until the Singing Revolution of 1987-1991.
Anyway, we had a few hours of free time in Tallinn in which we ate and did some sightseeing and pointless-souvenir-buying. After our morning and early afternoon of leisure, we got down to the serious business of singing. The concert was of course musically brilliant and we got a full house with a standing ovation at the end although it will live long in the memories of the choir because of our Estonian superfan; a woman who stood up for the whole rehearsal, tried her hand at conducting when Mr Toyne moved back, looked up at us when we sang in front of the organ, cheered vigorously at the end when Mr Toyne was given flowers for his birthday and waved goodbye as our coach drove into Tallinn for our well-earned evening meal.
On the next day we visited the Estonian Maritime Museum where we got to dress up like Soviet army generals, giving us opportunities to take pictures of teachers looking ridiculous. There were many fascinating exhibits and we were there for a couple of hours before most people went to the cinema (although I personally didn’t go so can’t comment on ‘Jurassic World’ or ‘Paper Towns’). After this, everyone joined those of us who’d had a few hours in the city for free time. Activities included riding about on Segways, using rickshaws as a form of transport and visiting old buildings like St Olaf’s Church which was apparently once the world’s tallest building hundreds of years ago.
After giving another fantastic concert in the Niguliste Museum-Concerthall with a totally different programme of music to the previous day, we retired to bed (well, the trebles did anyway). In the morning we would be travelling across the border between the European Union and Russia so we needed the sleep.
We boarded the coach on Wednesday knowing we were going to be on it for a long time. We stopped in the border town of Narva, a city which has gone from being under consideration to be the Swedish capital to destruction by the Red Army in a strategic bombing raid against the Wehrmacht in 1942. Apparently it used to be a beautiful, baroque city but there were few signs of this when we got there.
Getting through Estonian border control was smooth; the same cannot be said of the Russian side. Some rather scary ladies shouted loudly and unsmilingly at us as we waited in the small building in which we certainly weren’t allowed to take photos. Once we eventually cleared this obstacle, we made it into the Russian Federation, the world’s largest country by area by a very long way.
For us, our journey would end in St Petersburg a few hours later. Personally I thought we would stay in at the hotel after the long journey but luckily our outgoing leader Mr Toyne had different ideas and the majority of people decided to go on the Metro, one of the world’s deepest, and see the sights of St Petersburg on the first night; St Isaac’s Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral, the Winter Palace and the surrounding square including the red granite Alexander Column, celebrating the Tsar who lead Russia to victory over Napoleon.
After seeing the incredible city, famously called Petrograd to sound less German in World War I when it was the Russian capital and Leningrad in the Soviet era to commemorate the leader of the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution of 1917, we returned to the hotel, tired from the long day of travelling.
The next day we visited the State Hermitage Museum, encompassing the Winter Palace and several other buildings, which purports to be the world’s biggest museum. Surely it is the world’s grandest; it is lavishly decorated from the era of the monarchical years of the Russian Empire. After seeing hundreds of brilliant paintings and artefacts, including a dog ornament that looks like Putin, we left the Hermitage and had some free time in the city.
Our first concert in St Petersburg was arguably even better than the two in Tallinn as we were experienced with the programme by the time we sung in St Paul’s Church in Russia’s second city. After lots of fine choral music, we returned to the hotel for dinner and got some sleep before our final full day in Russia.
The next day, we had several hours of free time to explore beautiful places like the Church of the Spilt Blood and the aforementioned landmarks. It also gave us the opportunity to buy some faux-Soviet-era souvenirs including colourful fluffy hats with hammers and sickles on aptly described by Mr Toyne on the choir Twitter account as ‘idiosyncratic’.
Our final concert was definitely our best. Many choir parents made the journey to the Church of St Peter and St Paul as well as a huge number of Russians who were excited to see us perform in the concert hall which used to be a swimming pool in the Soviet era. After Mr Toyne’s final concert at the helm of the Tiffin Boys Choir, we posed for photos, some serious, others less so.
The next day it was time to leave St Petersburg and end our tour. We all had a great time and got some good musical experience under our belt. Finally, and most importantly, we gave Mr Toyne a great tour to remember Tiffin by.
Euan J O’Connor, Year 8 Treble