Provincials at the Promshh1>

John Robert Brown

I live in Leeds. Travel to London is on my mind because I want to go to the proms, our wonderful eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts held predominantly at the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington.

The M1 passes the Leeds ring road not far from my house. According to the online AA route planner, the Albert Hall in Kensington is 324.6 kilometres, or just over 200 miles, from Leeds. The journey by car takes about four hours. Alternatively, travel to London by coach is advertised, taking four hours 20 minutes. Coach costs vary, but a ticket that would enable me to hear a promenade concert and then journey back through the night costs a reasonable £25.50.

Unless I stay in London overnight, the car or coach are the only choices available. The last flight from Heathrow to Leeds/Bradford airport leaves at 9:00 pm on weekdays, and 9:30 on Saturdays. The two-and-a-quarter hour train journey from London doesn't offer any later return to West Yorkshire, because the last Leeds train departs from Kings Cross on Saturday evenings at 8:30 pm.

Actually, that's not strictly true. A later train is advertised, being the service that departs from Kings Cross at 21:25 - with an advertised journey time of more than twelve hours! Bus travel between Derby and Sheffield is part of this epic journey. The train finally arrives in Leeds after 10:00 am on Sunday. I could return from New York to Leeds more quickly. The reluctance of air and rail operators to run a later service from London is puzzling. Presumably they'll argue that there's no demand, though I find that difficult to believe when I consider all of the many attractions London has to offer on a Saturday.

Remember that as recently as May this year thousands of travellers to London were delayed or forced to abandon their journey when signals failed near Milton Keynes. Many trains into Euston were cancelled. And in February this year, Network Rail apologised after thousands of football fans travelling to the FA Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff missed the kick-off, then spent hours queuing for trains home after a fault with signals. Who'd trust the train? If you do, leave plenty of spare time, and be prepared to miss the first movement of your concert.

So, one has either to brave what the coach companies brazenly advertise as Executive Travel, or drive 200 miles each way in one's own car. Alternatively, to enjoy the speed and comfort of the plane or train, one will have to stay overnight in London. High hotel prices, added to meal and travel costs, make this a VERY expensive concert outing. I don't intend to modulate into a diatribe on London hotel rates, but do you realise that on a Saturday in July a small room for two in, for instance, the Hilton London Euston will cost between £127 and £216? In the London Hilton on Park Lane (handier for the proms) the rate is between £220 and £424. If, wishing to swing a cat, you seek more space, a suite would cost a lot more. Even for this amount, it's unlikely that you'll be able to listen to Radio Three or Classic FM in your room. Few hotel radios offer classical music. I understand that a number of keen prommers see it as a badge of honour to achieve the 'Grand Slam' of attending every concert of the season. Clearly, Grand Slammers don't live beyond the M25.

Last year I noticed that in general prom matinees sold out weeks in advance. I think we know why. The travel difficulties I'm describing apply to most key UK provincial cities. The music-loving citizens of Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield will also find it difficult and expensive to attend the proms. Given the cheap flights that are available, I find it more attractive to fly from Leeds /Bradford airport to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, go to a French concert, then stay the night in Paris! I've done it, though it's crazy, ecologically indefensible and, of course, the French don't have our wonderful Proms.

Earlier this year, Margaret Hodge, Minister of State in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, suggested that the proms was one of several big cultural events that 'many people did not feel comfortable attending'. No, she wasn't referring to an uncomfortable feeling engendered by the 'executive travel' on the MI that I referred to above. I suspect that she was discussing the last night of the proms. To broaden the audience, Hodge advocated an increase in multicultural works, whatever that means. Now, I doubt that it would broaden the audience in the way that Margaret Hodge would wish, but she could ensure that the audience would be enriched by the presence of a few provincials like me if she could persuade the relevant rail companies to put on some late trains to the shires - a midnight special on a Saturday, say - or have a word with the prom planners to include a few more matinees or drive-time concerts in the schedules.

Let's have more afternoon and teatime concerts, a later train ('concert train'), or hotel prom packages. Failing all that, I long for the year when every concert is broadcast on television. Is either likely ever to happen?

First published in Classical Music, July 2008. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbiden

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