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Bohemian Journey

Veronika Jordan met up with John and Jaye Vickers, owners of Vintage Strings and well-known names on the Cheltenham music scene. crack

Anyone familiar with Cheltenham’s music scene will have heard of John Vickers and very likely heard him play at any number of venues around the town, from The Cotswold Inn to The Bayshill. I have always been impressed by his jazz guitar and banjo-playing with Vintage Strings and Swing from Paris or his jamming with other local musicians. John truly is one of Cheltenham’s Own musicians; despite being originally from Brighton he has made his mark on our town since moving here in 1980. I have got to know John through my son Tom’s love of his shop Vintage Strings. It is here that John expertly repairs and sells a plethora of stringed musical instruments.

Vintage Strings is situated on London Road and is hard to miss with its maroon-colour shop-front and windows full of weird and wonderful instruments. As I walk into the shop the sound of a guitar strums and I check I haven’t walked into something. I’ve been here many times before but this time it looks different; it’s tidier and there is less dust.

“Ah! Tom’s Mum,’ John says as he appears from the back of the store beckoned by the strum of the guitar. Walking further into the store I notice a small dog fast asleep and seemingly unaware of my arrival.

“That’s Sidney,’ John explains, ‘he’s a bit deaf these days.” Later when John picks up the violin to play it, it becomes clear that Sidney, a pure bred Norfolk terrier, is not too deaf as he happily sings along. The tidiness and demise of what John calls, ‘a decade of dust’ is due to a female touch. John got married three months ago to Jaye Woodfield, also a musician, whom he met while he was in the audience at a concert where she was accompanying local opera singer Evelyne Beech on the accordion.

“I was in awe of this beautiful woman playing the accordion so wonderfully.”

This was just 18 months ago and they have been inseparable ever since. Originally from Kingston-Upon-Thames and having grown up in Coventry, Jaye moved to the Cotswolds to live on a narrow boat on the Thames docked at Lechlade. After a short stint in Cirencester she moved to Cheltenham.

Jaye filled me in on the shop being spruced up due to a recent visit from Carston Kresse from the Weltmeister Accordion factory in Saxony in East Germany. Vintage Strings is an established stockist for accordions with prices ranging from £300 to £3,000. This was an important visit for Jaye who is a talented accordion player and has played from the age of 11. But what made her choose the accordion as her first instrument?

“We didn’t have the space for a piano in the house!”

This decision may have been purely practical at the time, but has led to her making a successful career out of this conveniently-sized instrument. Having never set out to be a professional musician she went to college in Northampton to train as an occupational therapist. It was here that she met a group of bohemian musicians and started playing accordion with them. “It seemed like an attractive proposition at the time. I spent nine years with them, playing travelling circus, folk, medieval and theatre-type music.”

She never became an occupational therapist, though she considers her work with the elderly in care homes to be therapy. “When I’m playing at the care home they particularly enjoy music from the 30s and 40s. It brings some sound and life into their day.”

John didn’t start playing as early as Jaye. In fact he didn’t start playing an instrument until his granny saved up her Green Shield stamps (remember those?) to buy him his first guitar in 1969 when he was 15. Shortly afterwards, he joined the Navy where he stayed until 1978. He was an Air Fitter in the Fleet Air Arm. That was on an aircraft carrier which had a Royal Marine Band – they always had a band apparently for ceremonies– and this one had a dance band as well.

John’s friend was in the band, playing the double bass. He let John borrow it and that’s when he started playing seriously. Then around 1974 he broke his leg and ended up in the sick bay. This was the time the film Deliverance was released and the song Dueling Banjos was always on the radio. “I was a captive in my bed and captivated by this song,” says John. “One day the daily orders came through and there was a banjo for sale at £10. I only had £5 but as I came out of the sick bay I found another £5 note under the stairs. Perhaps I should have handed it in but I went straight to buy the banjo!”

John can play any stringed instrument, while Jaye plays all types of instruments apart from strings and brass. In Vintage Strings they sell and repair everything stringed except pianos. Around me I can see violins, guitars, balalaikas, mandolins, ukuleles, an Arabian sass, an oud from North Africa and the Middle East, lots of double basses and an African kora. They also sell the largest selection of strings in the county, including strings for harps and sitars.

“Have you got a sitar,” I ask John.

“Not in the shop,” he replies, “but there’s one in the cellar somewhere.”

John also gives banjo lessons while Jaye teaches at her Belleville Accordion Academy, the county’s only accordion specialist.

“What makes the accordion so popular?’ I ask Jaye.

‘Because of the film Amélie,’ she says, ‘or because they want to play it in a folk band.”

John and Jaye play together as Bohemian Journey and have already released a CD called ‘A Night in the Garden of Eden,’ a tune from their Klezmer repertoire. Klezmer means ‘vessel of song’ in Yiddish and describes most Jewish-influenced music. They often play at weddings and include standards like As Time Goes By and Singing in the Rain. A second CD is expected soon.

Vintage Strings is located at 88 London Road, Cheltenham GL52 6EH.

Tel: 01242 515949

Email: johnbelleville@btinternet.com

Open Tuesday to Saturday 11.00 to 5.30.