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Britain’s best places to see: Musicians’ houses and musical instruments

The UK has a rich music heritage, from Holst to the Beatles. Explore the homes of some of the most influential composers and musicians in Britain, as well as sublime galleries dedicated to revealing the beauty of masterfully-crafted musical instruments.

Handel & Hendrix in London
London

photograph of interior of georgian terraced house showing room with piano and painted portraits

The Music Room at Handel’s house. Image: James Newton

photograph of interior of flat with woven carpets, wall hangings and guitar

Jimi Hendrix’s London flat. Image: Hugo Pettit

Exploring two world class musicians, Handel & Hendrix in London comprises the former house of German-born composer George Frideric Handel and American virtuoso rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix’s flat, located just next door. Though worlds – and centuries – apart, Handel and Hendrix were both to find their fame in this corner of Mayfair.

Handel was the first person to live in this house at 25 Brook Street, residing here from 1723 until his death in 1759 and here he would compose his music. Four restored historic rooms together with period instruments and furniture embody Handel’s Georgian London. Weekly recitals from young Baroque performers help transport you further into Handel’s time.

The only officially recognised Hendrix residence in the world, Hendrix’s flat is in the top floors of number 23 Brook street – he lived here between 1968 and 1969 with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. It was his time in London and the connections he made there which turned Jimi Hendrix from opportunist guitarist into one of the greatest rock and roll musicians of the sixties. Hendrix’s reconstructed flat features instruments, items of clothing and records – including Handel’s Messiah, which he is said to have jammed along to.

 

Royal Academy of Music Museum
London

photograph of interior of museum gallery showing glass cases containing stringed instruments

The Strings Gallery at the Royal Academy of Music Museum. © Royal Academy of Music

For the true music geek a trip to the UK’s oldest conservatoire’s museum is a must. Situated within the Royal Academy of Music on Marylebone Road, the museum has three permanent galleries as well as space for changing temporary exhibitions.

The ground floor offers the history of the conservatoire, which was founded in 1822 and has been shaping many of the world’s most accomplished musicians for nearly 200 years. The strings gallery features exquisite bowed and plucked instruments from world renowned makers, including Stradivari, and overlooks the Academy’s luthiers’ workshop where these spectacular instruments are cared for. The final permanent gallery showcases the Academy’s piano collection, charting the development of the instrument, the oldest of which is an Italian virginal dating from the early 17th century.

Gallery assistants are all students at the academy and are on hand to offer their expert knowledge of the instruments and the conservatoire. If you’re lucky they may even be able to demonstrate one of the pianos for you, which are all kept in playing condition.

 

Horniman Museum and Gardens
London

photogrpah of museum gallery showing cases full of different musical instruments, with three tables spaced evenly down the aisle

The Horniman’s Music Gallery features a wide range of instruments from around the world. © Horniman Museum and Gardens. Photo, Sophia Spring

The Horniman’s Musical Instruments gallery draws on the museum’s internationally-important collection. More than 1300 instruments are on display in a gallery which crosses cultures, spans centuries and transcends genres.

Displays in the gallery chart instrument making, evolution and migration, revealing the role music plays throughout our lives, while interactive tables throughout the gallery give you the chance to listen to the instruments being played.

Don’t miss the glass harmonica, or armonica, a bizarre instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin which harnesses the ethereal sound of ringing wine glasses with the practicality of a keyboard instrument. A series of tuned glass bowls are mounted horizontally on a rotating treadle-operated spindle, the musician simply needs to touch the edge of the rotating bowls to produce a sound which is both haunting and beautiful.

 

Holst Birthplace Museum
Cheltenham

photograph of interior of victorian-style house with grand piano, music stand, cabinet and photographic portrait of man

Holst’s piano, in the Music Room. Courtesy Holst Birthplace Museum

Best known for his rousing orchestral suite The Planets, Gustav Holst was born in this modest Regency house in 1874, and lived here until his mother’s death eight years later. The museum’s restored Victorian rooms reveal the ins and outs of day-to-day Victorian life, as Holst may have experienced in his youth.

Inside the house you can find treasures including Holst’s very own piano, on which he composed The Planets, paintings by the composer’s great-uncle Theodore von Holst and a selection of paper-based objects as well as digitised manuscripts. Knowledgeable volunteer guides and an in-depth video offer a fantastic insight into the life and philosophy of one of Britain’s greatest 20th century composers.

 

Bate Collection of Musical Instruments
Oxford

photograph showing museum display of stringed instruments

Stringed instruments at the Bate Collection, University of Oxford. © Fab738 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

With more than a thousand instruments on display, the Bate Collection has an especially strong collection of Woodwind, brass and percussion, with all of the most famed makers from England, France and Germany represented.

Housed in the university’s faculty of music, this hidden gem of a museum reveals the development of wind and percussion instruments from the Baroque to the modern day.

Visitors are supplied with an audio device which allows you to listen to some of the instruments being played as you journey around the museum, and if you visit during term time you may be lucky enough to catch a student practising their repertoire on one of the instruments.

 

Leith Hill Place
Dorking

photograph of exterior of worn-looking grand building in grey

The south front of Leith Hill Place, Dorking, Surrey (Now open to the public). ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Though it may not be much to look at from the outside, the imposing, if somewhat rather dilapidated-feeling Leith Hill Place has beauty and genius ingrained in its well-worn walls. Recently reopened to the public having been leased by a boarding school since the 1960s, this house was the childhood home of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the 20th century composer who created some of our most emotive modern pieces of music.

Inside the house, which was owned by Vaughan Williams’ grandparents, Josiah Wedgwood III and his wife Caroline (née Darwin, sister of Charles Darwin), you’ll find histories relating to the family as well as Vaughan Williams’ own piano, which he would have used to compose some of his pieces on.

The house’s true asset is its surroundings; perched on the highest point for nearly 50 miles it offers spectacular vistas over the North Downs. Go on a clear day to get the most of your visit, and learn a little more about Vaughan Williams’ life and work while you take in the breathtaking views that no doubt made a lasting impression on his music.

 

20 Forthlin Road and 251 Menlove Avenue – The Beatles’ Childhood Homes
Liverpool

photograph of 1960s era kitchen showing sink, crockery and tins

A corner of the Kitchen at 20 Forthlin Road, Allerton, Liverpool. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra www.nationaltrust.org.uk

You can’t really talk about British musical heritage without mention of the fab four. These two unassuming properties in Liverpool were the setting for the formative years of the founding members of arguably the most famous band in history.

The former home of Paul McCartney and his family, 20 Forthlin Road is a 1950s terraced council house in the south of Liverpool. McCartney’s mother sadly died when he was 14, and he and his brother Michael were raised here by his father. Inside the house you can see original photographs of Paul taken by his brother, while your tour guide tells stories of the band’s relationship, their music and what they wrote here.

251 Menlove Avenue, nicknamed ‘Mendips’ was the home of John Lennon, where he lived with his strict but loving Aunt Mimi and her husband George, who were Lennon’s legal guardians. Lennon would also suffer the loss of his uncle and his mother while at Mendips, a factor which brought the musical pair closer together.

The only way to visit these houses brimming with stories, creativity, and sadness and is via a tour by the National Trust, who now care for the properties. Located less than a mile apart you can visit both houses on your own magical mystery tour, but you’ll need a ticket to ride first.

 

The Firs
Broadheath

photograph of mantelpiece with two wally dogs, two miniature union gflags in a cup, ornaments, candlestick and books

Detail of the fireplace in the Kitchen at the Firs, Worcestershire. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey www.nationaltrust.org.uk

This pretty country cottage set in the outskirts of Worcester was the birthplace of Edward Elgar, the composer of the celebrated Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance Marches – part of which is still heartily celebrated each year with a gleeful enthusiasm by flag-waving prommers at the Last Night at the Proms.

Though the family moved away when he was just two, Elgar visited the village often and treasured Broadheath all his life. He asked that, on his death, his birthplace could be made into a museum celebrating his life and work. When he died in 1934 his daughter Carice obliged; the space was created as a shrine to the celebrated composer, and has remained a museum ever since.

The cottage’s new neighbour, a modern visitor centre, contains an exhibition with a wealth of information about the man and his music, with star exhibits including his writing desk, an original manuscript for ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and his HMV gramophone.

 

The Red House
Aldeburgh

photograph of interior of home library, showing large grand piano in the centre of the room

Britten’s Library at The Red House, Aldeburgh. Image: Philip Vile © Britten-Pears Foundation.

Set on a secluded lane on the outskirts of Aldeburgh, the Red House was home to dynamic 20th century composer Benjamin Britten and his muse, confidante and lover Peter Pears, who was considered to be one of the greatest tenors of his time. The pair moved to the Red House in 1957 after swapping their seaside home Crag House with the artist Mary Potter, and they both remained here for the rest of their lives.

The house today is beautifully kept, re-presented as it would have been when Britten and Pears lived here. Visitors can explore the house via a booked tour and see the original interiors, as well as personal objects and stunning artworks collected by the pair. Buildings around the grounds also house Britten’s studio – containing the piano in which he wrote some of his famed compositions including War Requiem and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Library, which houses Britten and Pears’ substantial book and music collection and hosts regular musical performances.

An archive and exhibition space on site let you delve further into the world of Benjamin Britten, whose passion was as much about sharing the joys of music with the masses as it was composing it.

 

Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum
Morpeth

photograph of set of bagpipes in museum display case

Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum © Museums Northumberland

An unusual museum celebrating an unusual instrument – lesser-known than their Scottish counterparts, Northumbrian smallpipes are a kind of bagpipe first documented in the 1600s. The pipes hail from Northumberland, the only English county with its own official musical instrument.

It’s not just the Northumbrian pipes represented in this collection though, the museum has more than 120 sets of pipes from across Europe on display, from the Highlands to Spain, France and Estonia, telling the story of the history of bagpipes and comparing the Northumbrian pipes with their famous Scottish cousins. Regular live music performances of this unique instrument help bring the galleries to life.

The museum is based in Morpeth’s historic chantry building; built in the 13th century, the chantry was both a chapel and a toll-house, controlling the nearby bridge – the foundations of which can still be seen in the river. The building also boasts the town’s oldest window.

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