The Whit Friday March Contests – 13/6/2014


All aboard the bus!

Friday 13th may not strike many as a lucky day to be entering the gladitorial arena that is brass band contesting, but that was the date of this year’s Whit Friday March Contests in the beautiful West Pennine areas of Tameside and Saddleworth.


Off we go – the ‘classical music corner!’

The Whit Friday Marches, as they are known, are one of the oldest and certainly one of the most traditional, band contests in the world. This series of competitions dates right back to around 1884, if memory serves and it would be a real privilege for me personally to be participating competitively for the first time in well over thirty years.


Band disembarking at our first contest – Lees


Getting fitted for my uniform at the bandroom

A couple of members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra brass section having been enjoying playing with a brass band in close proximity to Liverpool of late. When the orchestra hasn’t been working they have been nipping down to Ashton-In-Makerfield for a evening’s blowing with Greenalls Brass band. The band was named after what used toi be the local brewery, distillery and pub chain, Greenall-Whitley. Since the closure of the brewery, the band has managed to keep going with a mixture of enthusiasm, dedication of the members and a genuine love of music making.


The conductor of the band is policeman and keen lifelong brass band enthusiast Phil Boardman. Phil is a euphonium player, currently playing with the Territorial Army Band alongside his duties as musical director of this wonderful community ensemble. The band consists of a broad section of the area with pensioners, teenagers, teachers, nurses, in fact a bit of everything. They take part in a lot of competitions but are more about friendship, I’d say. More than half the band are related, either through blood or marriage and these family generations are also strongly represented.


A limited opportunity to limber up!

Phil Boardman, the conductor is a regular attendee at RLPO concerts at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and is a good friend of the orchestra’s brass players. We often meet up with him for our post concert drink or two! It was on such an occasion, recently, that Phil was expressing a little concern that Greenalls Band were looking to be short of players to compete in the Whit Friday Marches this year. A couple of vacancies, a dental operation, illness, holidays etc had meant that a lack of personnel may spoil the band’s chances of doing themselves proper justice in the contests.

It turned out that the RLPO wasn’t working on Friday 13th of June so we offered to fill all the vacant chairs for Phil. That is why there would be a big ‘chunk’ of the RLPO brass section playing for Phil and Greenalls Band in Saddleworth and Tameside this year.


Lining up for our turn behind the other bands

So Simon Cowen, Simon Powell (trombones), Chris Morley (horn), myself (trumpet), Robin Haggart (tuba) and Emma Crossley (percussion) would be shoring up the defences for this important occasion


What exactly are the Whit Friday Marches? Well, hundreds of brass bands, their supporters, tourists and band fans descend on these many villages in Tameside and Saddleworth to take part in what has become known as ‘The Greatest Free Show On Earth!’ Bands. in their buses are roaming all over the area competing against each other in all of these little villages. Competition starts early in the day and continues to about midnight. A band chooses the first destination, arrives, registers, gets in line behind all the other bands in the queue, marches down the street playing a march, arrives at the contest stage and once the previous band has performed to a hidden adjudicator, the band the hightails it back to the bus to go to the next destination and it all happens again.


Very smart!

This is a fantastic trdition, as already stated, going back to 1884. All the world’s best bands are here; Black Dyke Mills Band, Brighouse & Rastrick, Fodens, Fairies et al. The Brass Bands of the British military would also be competing, as were bands from Holland, Japan and elsewhere. This is a big do. Many thousands of people arriving in these little picturesque villages takes some policing and marshalling.


Little has changed in the contests since they came into being despite an ever changing world springing up around them. It is one band’s skill against another that counts and the accruing of silverware is taken very seriously. There are many prizes in each contest, ranging from the elite Championship Section bands down to the fourth section and youth section. Each band competes for a deportment prize (how good they play and look as they march down the street) and the actual contest march performance. This is why the bands play in as many villages as possible; to win as many trophies as they can.


Preparing to play Underhill House on the contest stage

How would we do? The RLPO contingent had been attending rehearsals and taking matters as seriously as anyone else and Phil had been putting the band through it’s paces to say the least. Via his military experience, Phil had chosen a couple of marches not so well known to the brass band movement and had carefully arranged them to suit Greenalls. He had chosen ‘Carry On’ to play whilst marching and a much more exacting piece, ‘Underhill House’ for the more serious contest stage.


The performance

Underhill House was an interesting choice. Not just a traditional style march, it contained a lot of counterpoint to give reign to as many soloists as possible to display their wares on the performance platform.


Preparing to march off at Delph

We all met at the band room in Ashton at 2.45pm boarded our coach from Ogdens and set off, picking our conductor up en route. The banter on board was great; so much laughter and enthusiasm for the events ahead. Jimmy Ball is the bands manager and he works tirelessly in his free time, unpaid but not unappreciated, to ensure the smooth running of the band. He had provided me with a lovely cornet, a lyre to hold the music and managed to find one the band’s resplendent uniforms to nearly fit me.


Waiting for the replacement bus at Delph

Our bus was arriving at our first destination. Jimmy had chosen Lees. We parked up behind the other coaches and disembarked to get ready for our first contest. Jimmy and Phil went off to register while the rest of us got everything ready and took our places. We had quite a long wait here as there were a lot of bands ahead of us. A Dutch band was in front of us and a band of ex-Salvation Army members. The Dutch band were all kitted out in matching Denim and impressed with their complex counter-marching and choreography as they marched off.


The crowd watching the spectacle at Delph

Now it was our turn. I hadn’t marched since I was a kid and was dreading trying to march and play at the same time, with the mouthpiece bouncing on and off my face with every step. I also had to concentrate on ‘staying in line’ and not walking into the next row of players ahead! Phil called us to order, the bass drum struck and off we went, marching and playing round a mini roundabout on our way downhill to the contest stage.


We arrived at the bottom of the hill still in good shape and waited for the previous band to finish on the contest stage. Phil got us all to huddle round as closely as possible, to get the tightest ensemble, and we played. Things didn’t go too badly and we walked briskly back to the bus, boarded and off we went.


The contest stage at Delph

In this day and age of modern technology, someone had recorded both audio and video of our performances and we all listened intently as we travelled to the second destination. Phil made some sound observations about some necessary improvements as a result.

Here is a more unusual entry. Have a listen to the fabulous Jon Stokes, marching with Bad Ass Brass to his own arrangement of a Fats Domino favourite…

<div id=”fb-root”></div> <script>(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); = id; js.src = “//″; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, ‘script’, ‘facebook-jssdk’));</script> <div class=”fb-post” data-href=”; data-width=”466″><div class=”fb-xfbml-parse-ignore”><a href=”″>Post</a&gt; by <a href=””>Jim Lynch</a>.</div></div>

Also in Bad Ass Brass are ex-Greenalls soprano cornet Jim Lynch and Greenalls regular guest Tilly Tomkins. Cracking that!

Jimmy had chosen Delph this time. I remembered Delph as I had played the contest there as a kid with Hoggarths band from Preston. We had been pelted by peashooters from the awaiting local kids as we marched. However, Black Dyke Mills Band received the same treatment as they marched before us on that occasion!


Amusing ourselves as we wait for the replacement bus!

Delph was packed! Thousands of people and many bands in line. Our coach had started making funny noises and smells on the way to Deplh, but we thought no more about it as we got off and got ready for our turn to march again. We would be following Championship Section band Hepworth here; Greenalls is a third section ensemble. The sun was blazing on a glorious day as we set off on our march down the crowded but very pretty high street. Hepworth band were very impressive as we eagerly awaited our turn.

Maestro Boardman

Maestro Boardman

The band considered that we made a better account of ourselves in Delph.


On the road again

What better way to spend your eighteenth birthday?! This is Miss Alice Ball – Solo Horn.


Happy 18th birthday Alice

We hurried back to the coach only to find that it was kapput and Ogdons were sending another. It would take at least an hour! What a shame. That would mean at least two contests less… So, with no option we repaired to the White Lion for a refreshing pint or two as we waited for the replacement bus.


About one hour and twenty minutes later we were on our way again, this time Jimmy was taking us off to Denshaw. We past several other contests taking place, on the way. We also had to wait while the coach of one of the army bands had to take a lot of attempts to round one of the seemingly impassable bends en route.


RLPO ‘Bumper’ Horn Chris Morley

Many of Britain’s military bands have dispensed with woodwind players and become solely brass bands of late. The army bands would be keen to impress, especially in the marching prizes and we had heard tales of them practicing for this occasion for eight hours a day for weeks.


Is RLPO trombone Si Powell getting all religious before the Denshaw contest?

Denshaw is indeed as beautiful a place as I had heard. Glorious panoramic views of the Pennines greeted us and very big crowds considering it is a little place. We were setting up to play and I caught sight of Murray Grieg watching. Murray is Principal Trumpet of Opera North and head of trumpet at the Royal Northern College of Music. We are the same age and were at college together.


The crowds at Denshaw


These are just the bands registered to play SO FAR!

Also in the crowd, with his family,  was my old schoolmate at Chethams, Marcus Bousfield. Marcus was a violinist at school and I hadn’t seen him since I left. We used to do distance running together. Bizarrely, Marcus is cousin to Greenalls Band Principal Cornet Howard Bousfield and Howard is brother to Ian Bousfield, one of the best trombonists in the world. Wow, music is a small world!


Principal Cornet Howard Bousfield and Bass Trombone Jimmy Ball

We played very well in Denshaw and boarded the bus in good spirits. This time off to Friezland, another pretty place. Friezland was specifically for third, fourth and youth bands so we were eager to do well here.


The RLPO chunk of Greenalls Band

There was also a great barb-e-que and beer tent!It was nice to see Brindle Band from my home town of Preston ahead of us. I had played with this band several times as a youngster.


By the time we started the light was beginning to fade and after we marched to the concert stage it proved difficult to see the music.


Playing as the sun went down in Friezland

We thought we did okay under the circumstances though and boarded the bus to what would be our last venue. It was way after ten o’clock after all.


By the end of the march many of us couldn’t see!

As we were getting ready to march the world famous Black Dyke Mills Band walked past us as they had finished. The Principal Euphonium player of Black Dyke is Gary Curtin and Gary often plays with the RLPO when we need a euphonium player for Holst, Mahler and Strauss etc. It was nice to see Gary before Black Dyke were hurriedly whisked off for their next contest. It is considered more important than life and death at their level!


Marching uphill and trying to avoid potholes at Lydgate

The march here was uphill, full of potholes and in the dark! The contest stage was well floodlit though so we had no trouble seeing the music here. After our performance it was time to enjoy a few beers together and watch the performances of the remaining bands. It was a pleasure to hear the performance of Dobcross Youth Band after us. They were in fine shape under the baton of RLPO regular extra trombone player Jonathan Parkes. ‘Parksey’ is the son of legendary brass band conductor Major Peter Parkes.


RLPO Principal Trombone Si Cowen concentrating during the performance at Lydgate

The last destination, Friezland, was in the beer garden of a rather large pub, the White Hart, which was having a real ale festival and no official closing for last orders. A perfect end to a perfect day.


RLPO Principal Tuba Robin Haggart in performance at Lydgate

Oh, we got three first places at Lees, Denshaw and Lydgate and a second for our performance in the dark at Friezland. Champion!


Waiting in the queue to play at Lydgate gone 10pm

If anyone wants to play with/join/ book Greenalls Band call Jimmy Ball On

Tel : 01744  730406


Email :

Greenalls Band Website


About brendanball

Professional Trumpeter: Soloist, Orchestra Player, Chamber Music, Contemporary Music & Education.
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3 Responses to The Whit Friday March Contests – 13/6/2014

  1. Bryan Walker says:

    Excellent report! I am now much wiser of what the Whit Friday March Contest is all about. Clearly a successful day all round!

  2. Ian Wright says:

    A great write up, Brendan, of an obviously very happy day. Chris and I want to come to see you do it all over again next year. Well done to you all!

  3. Steve Uttley says:

    Great write up.

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