Today I am going through all the usual pre-flight panic. Was irritated to learn my dh had arranged for us to go and see the Colt collection of pianos first thing this morning (we fly at 9.30am tomorrow and I have too much to do as usual).
Two friends arrived to share the visit and we drove through the lazy green English countryside, over the Downs and along towards Bethersden. There, on the edge of the village is a small wooded area and hanging from one of the branches an old noticeboard.... Colt Houses.
We had been year about 20 years ago to view the amazing modular wooden homes built by Mr Colt and displayed here like an empty village. Each house had at least one old keyboard instrument in it, a quirky feature. The house-building business has long gone, sad to say, but the Mr Colt's passion for pianos lives on, in the form of a range of rooms (all made to his 4' panel design), stuffed to the rafters with musical treasures.
Our small party was led (and met) by David Willison, the famous accompanist and (till recently) the Director of the Rye Festival. He and he curator, Mr Spiers, jostled a bit for command of the tour, but we fell in behind David while Mr S stayed at a distance, issuing jokes and wisecracks like Derek Guyler, and longing to be allowed to speak.
The instruments are so closely packed in these huge halls that you can only just squeeze between some of them. Spinets, clavichords, harpsichords, forte-pianos, box pianos, upright grands, boudoir pianos, a giraffe, organs, pianolas, push-up piano-players.... they are all here. Amazingly, there is no catalogue to hand. David explained how some of them worked, tried out various kinds of sustaining pedals or levers, opened various mechanical swells, compared Austrian and English actions, and played something appropriate on various instruments as we passed along in awe. Some of these things are two hundred and sixty years old or more. Some were made for royalty or (very ornately) for Rothschilds. Nearly all remained unlacquered with beautiful natural wooden cases, as Mr Colt loved wood so much, I imagine. It was quite cool in the collection, kept at 50 degrees, and some of the instruments were in quite good tune. We were allowed to play what we liked, under Mr Spiers' watchful eye.
My favourite was a small Wornum, made in London in the early 19th century. It was not very grand at all, but had such a wonderful voice. I really wanted to pick it up and take it away. It was not the grandest at all, sitting there beside a Steinway and not far from a lovely Bosendorfer, and amidst all those French and English splendours. But I loved it.
This is a marvellous thing to see (by appointment only). It is probably of international significance and should be catalogued and promoted. Mr Spiers cannot do it on his own, even with his Trustees keeping an eye on him. He has troubles with his eyes, and is quite deaf, but has a wicked sense of humour and understands everything as well as being a fount of knowledge about each instrument. He started as an office boy in the house-building company in 1970 when he left the army.
It calmed me and cheered me terrifically to go and see this place, even though I am feeling rushed. How utterly remarkable to find this extraordinary assemblage of sonorous instruments all laid out in rows in a range of 1950s designer barns in the middle of nowhere, 25 minutes from home. The last group to visit before we went today was there in July. The pianos are all silent (as far as we know) unless someone comes to fondle them and play them. Then their voices call out, jangling, or soft, or warm, or loud, or enticing, as they are able to speak. Their wooden cases, some quite tiny and some really big and show-off, some very square or humble, some embellished with gold and brass inlays, or marquetry, are shining in the veiled light. When they eventually get out into the world again, I imagine no-one will be allowed to touch them again. They will be regarded as too precious. Which they are.
We are heading tomorrow to Somatianá, near Thalames, south of Kalamata in the Mani, in Greece. We hope the disgruntled air-traffic controllers of Athens will take pity on us and allow us through. It is a remote place, with very limited access to the internet, so I shall revert to compiling my blog on a tiny notebook and feeding it to the world when I get the chance. Thus the flow of information during the next ten days will be slightly irregular, but I hope that will not put you off. Please follow our adventures and if you want to know something about where we are, I recommend Patrick Leigh Fermor's 'Mani' which was published in 1958 and remains a classic of English literature, very funny, full of history and description, and vivid so you feel you are there. Unfortunately I have not managed to get hold of Peter Greenhalgh's 'Deep Mani' before we leave. I hope they have a copy there waiting for us.