2005 Regionals: North of England - Postcard from Darlington


4BR certainly enjoyed ourselves at the Dolphin Centre in Darlington - although why on earth it was called as such we never got to find out.

There are not too many brass band contests where you can play, get changed, go for a swim or workout in a weight room, get a decent hot meal and still have money in your pocket for a bag of monkey nuts and the bus fare home.

The Dolphin Centre certainly isn't the most glamorous venue to hold a Regional Contest in the UK: It doesn't quite have the splendour of St. George's Hall, the faded paint and peeling wallpaper of the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, or even the nubile young lovelies that adorn the walls of the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. (Come to that, we don't think there is any other contest where bands play in a room that has more bare chests on show than a copy of the Sunday Sport). However, it is perhaps the most practicable and best value for money venue of all eight on show this month. 

No, the North of England Regional Contest is held in a multi purpose county council sports complex – a product of the civic thinking of well meaning councillors and architects who were brought up in the school of Eastern Europe brutalism. It certainly isn't a beautiful building – more Corbusier than Christopher Wren for sure, but then Christopher Wren didn't have to design a hall that incorporates a swimming pool, two multi purpose sports halls, a restaurant, weight rooms and various little nooks and crannies for al those who want to make themselves fit and healthy.  You even need to walk up two flights of stairs to get to the contest.

The Centre itself is on the site of a former Quaker Meeting House (the town's football team is still nicknamed the ‘Quakers'), which became a public house of some repute (not all of the ill variety) called for some unknown reason, ‘The Dolphin'.

Although we did ask around, no one could really come up with an explanation for this. By all accounts as Darlington is a fair old distance from the  North Sea coast, there were no actual dolphins ever to set foot (or fin) anywhere near the town.  Why then was it named after an 18th Century version of ‘Flipper' we may never know. The religious history though was still being felt even up to a few years ago, when the variety of brass band traders here were not allowed to sell their wares at the venue – take orders, but not exchange hard cash. That has thankfully now changed, but it is nice that some regard is still given to the beliefs of former inhabitants.

However, the Dolphin Centre it is still a pretty good venue for the bands here, and over the weekend it revealed itself to be the ideal centre for this well run and friendly contest.  There were rumours flying around that the organisers were considering hiring the Sage Centre in Gateshead for next years contest, but that is said to cost over £5000 a day and with an audience that never really got above 300 in the hall to listen, that would be financial suicide. The Dolphin Centre may be utilitarian and functional, but that's all that is really needed.  

Alan HopeIn addition, unlike most sports halls, this one offered the bands a pretty good acoustic in which to perform. The floor of the hall was carpeted (by all accounts a job lot negotiated by the Regional Committee, although it is rumoured Alan Hope's living room is the same colour!), whilst the walls have wooden slats along it length and breadth. Whether this is deliberate or not is another matter, but it did offer a lively, but not over resonant soundboard, and with the adjudicator's tent placed intelligently close to the stage, it meant that the playing was crystal clear.

That was a plus and a minus point through the weekend. It meant that the three judges got to hear every performance clearly, but it also meant they got to hear some of the lesser efforts from the competitors in full stereo sound as well.

What was a real plus point was the friendly atmosphere that was on offer, plus the genuine warmth of feeling that the people here have for fellow competitors and rivals.

For instance, the announcement of the Reg Vardy Band's achievement in coming third at the Royal Albert Hall last year meaning that an extra representative would be making the long trip south this October was greeted with a real sense of pride. You don't get that in many places elsewhere round the country.

Ray EvansAlso, there was the reception given to Ray Evans of the Bearpark and Esh Band who was presented with the Diploma of Honour from the Worshipful Company of Musicians for his lifetimes work in developing literally hundreds of young players through his indefatigable teaching in the area.  His family (nearly all players with the band) were all on hand to see him receive the honour presented by Geoffrey Whitham, whilst the warmth of the applause from the hall was testament to the popularity and affection he deservedly holds in the region.

That rounded off what for 4BR was an excellent weekend. Wales of course had won at rugby (although Cardiff City had lost to local team, Sunderland), the organisation and welcome from the North of England Committee was excellent (they even introduced us to the hall at the end of each section) and it showed that even though this is in numerical terms the smallest region in the country, it is one with the biggest and most welcome of hearts.

Alan Hope and his team run a very good event here and it was a joy to be part of it this year as well.

We will be back next year for sure.


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