It’s that time of year again. The time when the whole house at Minsteracres is filled with music.
The inspirational Dutch choir director Monique van den Hoogen is back to lead her annual, week-long singing retreat. So popular is she, that she brings with her a readymade choir of Dutch followers, most of whom have been before, to join a similarly loyal group of locals.
As the week draws to a close, they are spending the day practising songs for their concert and the first thing that’s obvious is how this group of individuals has become one powerful choir.
There is no doubt where the participants place the credit for this transformation. “Monique is a special lady,” says Linda Dale from Newcastle, who has been back every year for five years. “She’s always positive and encouraging. She’s a great choir leader and a beautiful singer – and she brings lovely people with her.”
Josie Blay, also from Newcastle, had a surprise when she joined this group last year. “When I arrived I was amazed to meet 22 people from the Netherlands. It was such a surprise – I was brought up there!
“It’s lovely to forget all your other commitments for a week, and I don’t have to bother cooking. When I got home last year I phoned my sister in Holland and she said I sounded full of joy.”
Josie mentions another aspect of this visit which she and some of the others enjoy, “It’s prayerful here and I like to join in the mass in the mornings with the community.”
Marga Brakenhoff, visiting from Holland for the second time remembers what drew her here. “I liked Monique’s way of doing things, and I heard of the retreat and had seen pictures of Minsteracres and my friend Frances and I decided to come.
“I like England and the English people, the hills and the quiet. Minsteracres is such a lovely place to meditate and relax. I don’t like talking, but I do like singing.”
Greet Aafjes has sung with Monique before in community and church choirs. “Monique does everything with great humour, she has lots of compassion and is very knowledgeable. She doesn’t just do, she teaches too. She very quickly grasps the sense of the group and their potential and builds it up step by step. I’ve definitely learned more – new songs as well as technique.”
Most agree they love the peace and calm here at Minsteracres. “I felt it the minute I walked through the door – silence, nature – the whole thing.” They talk too of the healing power of singing, of feeling refreshed – and not wanting to go home.
Jan Piet de Wit has worked with Monique on other projects over the years, but not visited Minsteracres until now. He says that although they are a mixed group of Dutch and English, and they communicate in English – some more easily than others – they all understand what Monique wants from them. “The singing is the glue,” he says.
“I feel the spirit of Christianity at Minsteracres,” says Jan Piet, “It’s quiet and peaceful, which is great – we have all come from a very busy world.” He, like one or two others in the group, has made a habit of starting his day early with a walk to Derwent reservoir.
He pays tribute to the staff and community at Minsteracres for the welcome, the food and the organisation that goes on unseen, “It’s perfect, so much so that we don’t notice it, which is a big compliment!” he adds.
If you would like to hear how they have got on, join us for a concert tomorrow, Saturday 16th July at 4.30 in the ballroom at Minsteracres. Admission is free.