A fanfare from the cowshed

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All the world will see new trumpets raised to herald the opening of the two biggest events of the year. Michael Hickling reports from the North Yorkshire cowshed where they are made.

Head north out of Sheriff Hutton, take the first turn left to Whenby and you seem to be on a road to nowhere. You could add a question mark on the signpost after Whenby, a place for travellers with no particular place to go and plenty of time to get there. Turn left on the road again, this time up an unmarked track, and you really are in the back of beyond. Fields of vigorous-looking wheat grow to the margin of the rutted track.

Richard Wright soldering one of the trumpets

Richard Wright soldering one of the trumpets

Follow it slowly up to the top of the hill to a farmyard where on the right stands an ancient cowshed. Step inside and the interior still looks how its builders intended. Racks for the livestock’s fodder are still attached to the wall.

The man intently working at a bench with a blowtorch and a tube of metal used to be a farmer before he became manager of a garden centre in Malton.

The rest of the time he’s here in this old cowshed, making some of the best brass musical instruments in the world.

Quite a lot of the world was watching earlier this week when a number of them were on show. At Wellington Barracks in London 150 or so fanfare trumpets attempted the world record for the longest fanfare. Most of them were made in this North Yorkshire cowshed.

The newest batch were a special commission. They have been packed snugly inside stout travelling cases and dispatched down the lumpy track to Knightsbridge Barracks in London to be played on perhaps the biggest global television stage there has ever been.

These are fanfare trumpets for the Household Cavalry on which they will perform the two iconic moments of the summer. Their notes will signal the opening of the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant when the Queen will take to the Royal barge along with 1,000 other boats. And they will herald the opening of the London Olympic Games.

The trumpets have been developed by Dr Richard Smith, who made a prototype based on the trumpet the Household Cavalry were already using, but easier to play. It also had a better weight distribution – an important consideration because fanfare trumpets are usually top-heavy from the richly-embossed banners attached that make a such a fine spectacle when the trumpets are raised with a flourish.

It took Dr Smith years of negotiations with the Army before they would give the green light for an order of 20 of the instruments which cost about £2,000 each.

“It’s been a three-year project delayed by the Army’s inability to make up its mind what it wanted until December, which made it a bit of a rush by the end,” he says.

He had to go to the Lord Chamberlain’s department for permission to use the Royal cipher on the trumpets with “Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee” inscribed. These were made by the Queen’s jeweller Thomas Fattorini and then soft-brazed onto the bell of each instrument in the cowshed workshop.

The Life Guards and the Blues and Royals who comprise the Household Cavalry are to have ten of the trumpets each. It may seem a lot of money for an instrument that’s only going to be heard for ten seconds. But all the world will be watching as two trumpeters flanking the Queen and Prince Philip blow a fanfare, so you have to have the best.

This trumpet maker and the military go back many years. It began when the Royal Marines came to Dr Smith about an order for fanfare trumpets after their supplier, Boosey and Hawkes, stopped making them. Dr Smith had been that company’s chief designer of brass instruments

But the remarkable story of this tiny business in a cowshed that makes a big noise goes back further back, to the days when Dr Smith was training to be a teacher at St John’s College in York and also when called upon, performing in York Minster with his contrabassoon.

His instinct was for research and an acoustic physics project ignited his imagination. Part-time, he started working for an MPhil degree, researching into woodwinds and then moved on to a PhD studying the tubing of brass instruments and discovered the shape of the bore holds the key to success.

To investigate this he invented a piece of kit to measure the sound wave down a brass instrument as it passes through three microphones. Dr Smith published a laser hologram in 1978 which was the first picture to show how the walls of a brass instrument bell flare vibrate.

From the university laboratory Dr Smith moved to work for Boosey and Hawkes and then in 1985 started his own business Smith-Watkins. His partner, Derek Watkins, is now seriously ill, but was one of the best trumpet players in the world.

Why set up a business of their own? “I thought I could do it better,” says Dr Smith. “I worked on the kitchen table at home in Southgate in London. That spread to a garden shed and then two garden sheds.”

He started making regular B Flat trumpets with an interchangeable lead pipe – the pipe to which the mouthpiece is attached. Just a hair’s-breath change in the pipe’s size will change an instrument’s musical qualities, namely the response, tone colour and intonation. With the cornets that he makes, his selection of lead pipes offers 27 different combinations.

Seven years ago he moved back to Yorkshire when his wife Deborah was made a professor of biology at York University, a department which she now runs. He also has his own sentimental reasons for settling here. In the 1950s his grandfather was the Methodist minister in Hovingham and also served in other places in North Yorkshire including Malton and Robin Hood’s Bay. The redbrick manse where he lived in Hovingham still stands by the village green.

“I always remember us coming up to see him in dad’s car,” says Dr Smith. “Sheriff Hutton Castle used to look pretty spooky to me.”

The place he bought was a farm called Cornbrough. The cow shed across the farmyard was unprepossessing, full of junk and damp. “I arrived here in December and I was sitting at the bench with a little electric heater blowing into my back and another blowing into my front.”

He was a one-man band until in nearby Malton he found someone on the same wavelength. Richard Wright had been a maker of French horns at Paxman’s, a famous London company, before deciding to take up a new life in Orkney as a farmer.

After ten years he thought it was time to move on again and came to North Yorkshire where he too had once enjoyed family holidays and got a job at a Malton garden centre, also playing the French horn with the Scarborough Symphony Orchestra for relaxation.

It was his tenor horn playing in the Kirkbymoorside brass band which brought Richard Wright into Dr Smith’s orbit when the band ordered four cornets from him.

Now Richard works half the time managing the garden centre and half the time in the cowshed. In a sense it’s a manufacturing operation which is as much in tune with the 18th century as the 21st. No-one has come up with a better way of making the best instruments than by the eye and the hand.

One modern introduction is an hydraulic ram which draws out the raw brass tubing to the required thickness. But that too has a home-made quality since it was fashioned by the farmer at the bottom of the track. The hydraulic tubes for it came from a local farmer who is in this line of business. “Everything we need is around here,” smiles Dr Smith.

“I still have to spend quite a lot of time in London and so does my wife. When we get back here we think ‘are we really living here or still on holiday?’ It’s a cosy little life, put your feet up, look at the view.”

But others must think it’s time someone started blowing his trumpet. The organiser of the York Science and Innovation Grand Tour, designed to celebrate York’s achievements in science and innovation on the 800th anniversary of the city charter, for one.

It’s an event backed by the council and the city’s two universities and they have arranged for one of Dr Smith’s fanfare trumpets to announce its start on the steps of York Mansion House next Wednesday.

It offers a free walking tour of 60 exhibits, one of which will be that eye-catching hologram from 1978 when Dr Smith used quantum physics to reveal the sound wave patterns on a trumpet.

Good vibrations for everyone.