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A VISIT TO THE SERPENTARIUM - Dorchester - 27 May 2019

You may possibly own a terrarium, and you’ve probably visited an aquarium at some time, but have you ever been to a serpentarium? If you have, you’re lucky, because they only occur once every two years, in a different part of the world on each occasion, and they inexorably draw serpents (and their players) out of their lairs and away to wherever the event’s being staged.

On this occasion, the event was centred in and around Dorset’s county town of Dorchester and organised by the redoubtable Phil Humphries, serpenteer in the Mellstock Band, to take place over the Whitsun bank holiday weekend. Phil mentioned to me that there was to be a free concert on the last day, and the weather being fine and my motorcycle willing, off I went.

There were serpents of all sizes and ages, from “anacondas” downwards, together with their owners; several had come from the USA, one from Germany, one from Australia and a couple from Scotland, and Phil conducted and MC’d a most enjoyable and informative afternoon of music interspersed with informative comment and good natured humour. I suspect that many of us will have shared the assumption that these are an old English instrument (in my case due to Hardy’s references to them in his writing), but they were in fact spawned in France and began their lives as military band instruments, which later brought them over the water to our regiments, and thus to the village bands and church musicians of Hardy’s Wessex.

In my ignorance, I had always thought these idiosyncratic instruments might have a very limited range, but the participants had spent the weekend polishing up examples of everything from marches, dances from the Hardy manuscripts and traditional song tunes through to gospel, classic Scots tunes and (as a grand finale) Eric Idle’s Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, polished off with an encore of the theme from the Wallace and Gromit movies. All were performed by the assembled players with panache, enthusiasm and expertise.

I left for home with a smile on my face, glad that I’d had an opportunity of broadening my musical experience that is not often available. And to crown it all, the westering sun was shining over the Dorset hills as I rode home.

John Waltham