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Military Wives choir ‘saved me from sinking into loneliness’

PUBLISHED: 11:00 07 March 2020 | UPDATED: 10:23 09 March 2020

Members of Wattisham Military Wives Choir last December, at the Co-op Funeral Services Carol Concert in Stowmarket Church. Bex Barnard is the lady in glasses, on the back row, and Jan King is fourth from the right, wearing pearls       Picture: COURTESY Wattisham Military Wives Choir

Members of Wattisham Military Wives Choir last December, at the Co-op Funeral Services Carol Concert in Stowmarket Church. Bex Barnard is the lady in glasses, on the back row, and Jan King is fourth from the right, wearing pearls Picture: COURTESY Wattisham Military Wives Choir

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With film ‘Military Wives Choir’ pulling in audiences, two Suffolk women tell us about the power of singing and sisterhood

Jan King came to Suffolk three years ago with her husband, retired colonel Phillip J King OBE. Sadly, he died within five months - of oesophageal cancer. The former soldier was just 57. "I was very much alone, grieving and lost," says Jan. "I didn't know anyone apart from my daughter, who we came down here to be near, to help out with childcare etc."

Jan had always sung, "and throughout our 34 years of moving around the country/world every other year, I always managed to find a church/choir to sing in".

She heard that Wattisham (the airfield near Stowmarket is best known as the home of Army Air Corps Apache helicopters) had a Military Wives choir. Jan emailed.

"I was welcomed with open arms and my life turned around from then on.

"Basically, they saved me from sinking into loneliness and helped me with the grieving process without even actively doing anything but being there every Tuesday and singing together.

"They have become very much part of a family of friends who are very much at the centre of my life."

A new recruit in the making. Bex Barnard and youngest daughter Edith      Picture: Bex BarnardA new recruit in the making. Bex Barnard and youngest daughter Edith Picture: Bex Barnard

A phenomenon is born

Catterick, Yorkshire, in 2010. A choir is started for military wives and girlfriends. One of the founders writes to choirmaster and broadcaster (and University of East Anglia graduate) Gareth Malone, pointing out how it helps those left at home when personnel deploy to Afghanistan.

It inspires him to create 2011 TV show The Choir: Military Wives, which follows the launch of two groups in Devon.

A song tops the UK pop charts and other choirs start - Wattisham's is among the first.

Now, more than 2,000 women with a military connection belong to 74 choirs in the UK and abroad.

Flashback: This was members of Wattisham Military Wives Choir in 2012, when they made a calendar and shot pictures on the airfield     Picture: LUCY TAYLORFlashback: This was members of Wattisham Military Wives Choir in 2012, when they made a calendar and shot pictures on the airfield Picture: LUCY TAYLOR

The story inspired new film Military Wives, starring Kristin Scott Thomas. With the men serving in Afghanistan, the women form a choir that sustains them in uncertain times.

Tea, chat - and cake!

Like Jan, Rebecca Barnard is glad she found Wattisham Military Wives Choir. Bex, who'd grown up in Mildenhall, met her soldier husband-to-be in 2011.

She joined the choir in 2013, when their daughter was 10 months old. The family wasn't in military accommodation, "so I didn't have any interaction with Army life, really. He just went to work, and came home, and disappeared (on military business) for a few months at a time.

Like family. Bex Barnard (and Edith) with Jan King, Cherry and Sam   Picture: Bex BarnardLike family. Bex Barnard (and Edith) with Jan King, Cherry and Sam Picture: Bex Barnard

"I went to a families' day on camp and got pounced on by the choir - with cake! I joined the same week."

Now a mother of four girls (aged five months to nearly eight years) she's also on the choir committee.

"Basically, the choir was my way of finding out about Army life and getting involved - meeting ladies who are going through the same thing.

"You might be having a rubbish week. You might not have been able to get hold of your husband or boyfriend, or wife in some cases, and you don't know how they're doing or where they are, or if they're safe.

"It's a welfare network, with singing in the background. And lots of cake and tea and chat!"

Must I be a great singer?

No. "There are no auditions," assures Bex. "You'll find, pretty much, that everyone can sing, anyway. It's having the confidence to do it. It's all about breathing and relaxing and having fun, really."

Soprano Bex studied music at school, and reads music, too, but that's not a requirement. Members learn the tunes together, she says.

The choir sings at some events, such as Christmas services, but there's no obligation to get involved in performances.

There have been some super highlights, though - such as singing in Christchurch Park, Ipswich, with Laura Wright and Brian Blessed, and at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds with Lulu.

Choirs such as Wattisham's are open to females with a military connection, including those serving, veterans, mothers, sisters and daughters. And just to make clear: in the choir, there's no military-style hierarchy!

Anyone keen to learn more about the Wattisham choir can email wattisham@militarywiveschoirs.org or check Facebook.

Or pop along to practices: Tuesdays at All Saints Station Church, by the airbase, from 7pm to 9pm.

"Many ladies feel shy, embarrassed to come along for the first time, but there's no need to be," says Jan. "We were all there once - and, believe me, I'm sure you will have fun. If we know you are coming we will bake a special cake too!"

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