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Story Notes:

Christmas With The Rutherfords
For a schoolgirl used to the tranquillity of the Oberland, the bustle of King’s Cross rail station on a Friday afternoon came as something of a shock. But, destined to be one of the great concert pianists, travel was something Nina Rutherford would no doubt become accustomed to.

Nina stood in a small group of girls of various ages, all trim and trig in gentian blue uniforms, set off by berets embroidered with the maroon and silver badge of the Chalet School. The school was based in Switzerland but run along English lines, with pupils attending from all over Europe. Autumn term had recently ended and the girls were on their way home for Christmas. Nina had travelled as far as Paris with her great friends Vi Lucy, Hilary Bennet, Leslie Malcolm and Barbara Chester, but she was with now with her cousins Alison, Alex and Anthea, part of a relatively small group of pupils from the North of England.

The girls were accompanied by an escort Mistress, who at this moment announced their train was boarding and to hurry along without delay. The locomotive was resplendent in its new black British Railways livery, and the girls clambered aboard while the mistress ensured a porter loaded their baggage. 

Without delay, but with a great deal of smoke, the train pulled away from the platform and before long the sprawling London suburbs were behind them as they steamed towards Stevenage. After so long in the Alps, the landscape seemed rather flat, but Nina found it interesting none the less. She was reading a poetry book by Robert Herrick but between poems, she would look at the passing scenery and consider the words she’d read. Whilst music was her life, Nina could see the beauty in well-crafted words too. In this fashion, the afternoon passed pleasantly and fairly quickly.

As the train approached Durham City, large flakes of snow began to fall gently and, before long, the track-side was covered with a blanket of white. They crossed the viaduct into Durham station and Nina gasped at the picturesque scene of the magnificent Norman cathedral. The cathedral stands atop a hill beside Durham Castle, home to University College. At that moment they were both under snow with more adding to it by the minute.

The train was soon under way again and only a few minutes later they crossed the King Edward VII Bridge and into Newcastle Central Station. Although only late afternoon, it was already dark, and a cold freezing fog filled the air, creating halos around the station lights. A large man, well-wrapped against the cold in scarf and overcoat was waiting on the platform and was easily recognised as the familiar shape of Sir Guy - cousin and guardian to Nina and father of the other girls. 

Sir Guy’s Rover 16, which he drove himself, was parked underneath the station’s entrance canopy. Blankets and hot water bottles were waiting inside for them and before long, they were on the A1 passing through Gosforth where Alison pointed out St.Cecilia’s school, which she and her sisters had attended before moving to the Chalet School. After another quarter-hour of motoring they reached the gates to the Brettingham Park estate. The car crunched over the gravel drive and they pulled to a halt outside the Rutherford’s neo-Gothic home. Sir Guy helped them from the car then threw open the door to the house proclaiming loudly “Yvonne dearest, the girls are home!”

Cousin Yvonne appeared, took one look at the rather drawn faces on the girls and declared that, after such a long day of travelling, they must be put to bed immediately. Yvonne took up Nina up to her room, promising that Carson would bring up a supper tray and hot water bottle. 

The following morning dawned bright and crisp. Nina woke, briefly wondering where she was in this strange room, and then remembered she was home with the Rutherfords again. She drew back the curtains to see the familiar view of the estate blanketed in snow. The cottages cousin Guy had been working on last year were now complete, a row of neat little homes for his workers. No-one was around although there were sundry tracks in the snow. Although the house was still quiet, Nina dressed quickly, made her ablutions then headed downstairs to the drawing room which housed her beloved Bechstein piano.

After working through some basic scales and arpeggios, Nina was playing Adolphe Adam’s beautiful carol Cantique de Noël, when the door to the room opened quietly.

“It’s been kept tuned for you,” Cousin Yvonne said, making Nina jump. “Come into the morning room dear, breakfast is ready and you’ll catch a cold in here. I’m afraid breakfast has to be an informal affair today. Carson has a day off to visit her brother.”

Nina entered the room and her cousin Roger, home from the Air Force, flashed a welcoming smile at her. He was already breakfasting on a generous pile of toast and marmalade. Her cousin Francis was absent though. As a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, he was away with his ship and wouldn’t be home for Christmas. 

Alex, Anthea and Alison were busy selecting breakfast items at the dresser and looked around as she entered. Nina suddenly felt rather nervous, remembering her last visit here and that she hadn’t perhaps been as pleasant to her cousins as she might have been. But, so much had happened since that difficult introduction and her cousins had long since forgotten it.

Sir Guy was sat at the breakfast table, finished eating, but reading his morning newspaper. He put it down as Nina entered the room and enquired “Did you sleep well and are you quite recovered from your journey?” Nina admitted she had slept very well and was quite refreshed, to which Sir Guy beamed and announced “I have a special Christmas surprise for you all, as soon as breakfast is over and tidied away wrap up warmly as I’ve planned a trip to Newcastle for you.”

Sir Guy elaborated that they would first go Christmas shopping, then take afternoon tea and afterwards they were to go to the Assembly Rooms where he had tickets for Claudio Arrau, the famous Chilean pianist, who would be playing a selection of Bach’s work. Nina’s eyes positively sparkled and she clasped her hands together in joy. She had read much of Arrau, but to hear him play would be the most marvellous experience!

“I didn’t realise an international musician could be playing locally”, she exclaimed to Sir Guy, before blushing slightly as she realised that must have sounded quite rude.

“Well, we might not be Italy, but there is quite a centre of musical culture here”, Sir Guy explained with a sparkle in this eye, “In the mid 1930s Sergei Rachmaninoff played at the City Hall. 

“I didn’t attend of course, but it caused quite an excitement at the time. The Conservatoire has closed now, but the Halle Orchestra visit several times each year. They are playing a selection of Strauss Polkas next I believe, we might be able to fit it in before you return to school.”

Two hours later the party were walking up bustling Northumberland Street, the main shopping area of the city. Nina’s cousins had insisted that she “simply must” see the Christmas windows of Caller’s department store. She wasn’t disappointed, this year the windows held a series of tableaux with puppets depicting various scenes from Dickens’ novels. 

The girls all had purchases to make, small items for themselves and the last few Christmas gifts they needed. Nina was delighted to find an excellent sheet music shop in Central Arcade where she found a piece by Orlando Gibbons which she knew Mr. Denny wanted. Sir Guy went to the haberdashers in Fenwick’s department store for a few items his wife had requested.

Before long the sky was starting to darken and snow was falling gently. Sir Guy announced that he didn't want the girls getting cold and in any case it was time for tea. Aware that they had been walking for some time, they boarded an electric tram and rode down to the Royal Station Hotel where Sir Guy had reserved a table for tea before the performance.

The concert was sublime. With the house lights dimmed and the audience hushed with anticipation, Claudio Arrau entered the stage and the "Aria" began J. S. Bach’s Goldberg variations. 

A little over an hour later the "Aria da Capo" returned the audience to the famous motif at the start of the work, emphasising the journey through the variations. Yet of course no one could be returned to quite how they were at the beginning such was the quality of the performance. As the house lights came up, Nina’s expression was one of simple joy. Of course she gave an immediate thanks, but later she would reflect much more deeply on the kindness and thoughtfulness of her cousin.

“Was he good?” asked Sir Guy, deferring to Nina’s musical knowledge. 

“He was spellbinding,” answered Nina, “completely natural and so faithful to the composer. Did you see the way he played the keys, such unusual style, he pawed them like a bear!”

Sir Guy wasn't quite sure what to make of this, but Nina had clearly enjoyed it very much. She was certainly a thoroughly different creature to the pale creature in mourning attire that he remembered from not so long ago. The Nina in front of him was a proper school-girl in behaviour and the alpine air had given healthy colour to her complexion. 

Before long they were back in the Rover and heading home. Nina was quiet on the back seat, thinking over recent months. What a time they’d had of late, the tragic loss of her father, Alex’s illness and most recently Cousin Winnie coming down with acute appendicitis. But they were through the worst now and next year would be very different. Nina reflected how very lucky that, while she had lost her father, she had two loving families in the Rutherfords and Emberys, smiled and said “Merry Christmas everyone!”
Chapter End Notes:
Rachmaninoff visited Newcastle in 1935 as described. He played with the Newcastle Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Edgar Bainton, tutor to our very own Elinor Brent-Dyer. Despite Sir Guy’s pride of his area in fact by the late 1940s the Conservatoire had closed, as had the Newcastle Philharmonic and Symphony orchestras, leaving Newcastle with very little in the way of classical music, certainly compared to the other great industrial cities.

Claudio Arrau did indeed play at Newcastle, though it was actually in 1947. I received the description “pawed like a bear” from dear friend who attended one of Arrau’s later performances and was enthralled.

The tram Nina and her family took would have been in its final weeks of service, though the ‘trolley bus’ service continued until the 1960s. LNER had only been nationalised the year before, so the British Railways train livery would have been quite new, and the Royal Station Hotel had just passed over to British Transport Hotels. This, together with rationing means I’m not sure how sumptuous the tea would have really been.

The Christmas window display at Caller’s used to be a regular part of Christmas for families in Newcastle, but in 1969 the Christmas display caught fire causing the largest fire in Newcastle’s history. Caller’s stopped future displays, but competitors Fenwick’s started their own displays in 1971 and they are now one of the city’s biggest Christmas attractions.

The Assembly Rooms closed in the late 1960s and were almost demolished, but they’ve now been restored and are a successful wedding venue. City Hall is still a going concern and continues to host occasional classical music events. J G Windows of Central Arcade where Nina bought her music is still Newcastle’s premier music shop.



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