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A visit to the Yehudi Menuhin School

By the good fortune of Lilia’s music talent, we took part in the  Open Day in the Yehudi Menuhin school in the village of Stoke d’Abernon in Surrey on 24 October 2017.

Yehudi Menuhin school

In some respect, this is a typical English boarding school, but it is also a unique hub of music making, and a place steeped in history.

A couple of Victorian houses, now extended and complemented by modern buildings, stand amidst beautiful grounds in a typical English countryside setting. Founded in London in 1963 with only 15 pupils, the school moved to its present location a year later. Now it has 80 superbly talented young people being taught and looked after by 50 members of staff.

Yehudi Menuhin school

Yehudi Menuhin was an amazing musician – and just as amazing person. A violinist since the age of 4, by 7 he was performing as a soloist with a symphony orchestra in America. Yehudi’s parents were Belorussian Jews, who emigrated to the New World. His family later went to Europe, and Yehudi eventually settled in Britain, becoming a British citizen. He travelled and performed all over the world, pushing the boundaries of violin performance, as well as what classical music should be in a modern society, receiving an honorary knighthood in 1965. Menuhin’s name lives on through festivals, music schools, foundations and projects, music books,  specially written or commissioned works, collaboration with such luminaries as the sitar legend Ravi Shankar, jazz virtuoso Stephane Grappelli and Sir Edward Elgar and countless musicians and composers who had good fortune to work with the great master.

Menuhin
Menuhin in 1937 – from wikipedia.org

Menuhin said that he had an affinity with young people, because he felt so youthful himself. When he died in 1999, he was buried in school grounds. As we were being shown around, we felt his spirit living through the ethos of the school, with pupils talking about him with love and respect.

Yehudi Menuhin school

To become a student of the school one needs to fulfil only two criteria – to be between 8 and 19 years old, and have an exceptional musical talent and a dedication to become the best performer in the world in their instrument – any type of strings, including guitars and harp, or the piano. Most students are boarders, only a handful come as a day pupils. With the school fees in excess of £40,000 a year, they have generous provision in grants as means tested bursaries, so if a child has talent, money is not a barrier.

Yehudi Menuhin school

The entrance is by auditions, the final round of which is a three day stay at the school to see how he or she fits into the school life. They are looking for the natural talent, and also the ability to perform in public. Even to qualify for an audition, the child needs to reach a performance standard on their instrument, and a perfect pitch certainly helps!

Once in, the pupil’s life revolves around music, which is the main subject at school. Personal tuition is supplemented by a generous curriculum of music theory, history of music, composition, ensembles and practice sessions.

Yehudi Menuhin school
A typical music classroom – not a bad place to have your daily lessons!

Yehudi Menuhin school

A swimming pool and fitness sessions ensure that the young performers stay in good form for their rigorous music making.

We were shown around by a young lady studying violin, who was ecstatic about her instrument and life at school. At the end of the tour we were directed to the theatre for the student performances. She forgot to show us one block, though – where they do their academic studies – completely slipped her mind! We did a quick tour of this and saw nicely equipped classes for the core academic subjects. The class sizes vary, the largest has 15 pupils, and the smallest – current year 6 – only 4. This is because they only take the pupils who fulfill all their criteria, and if on a certain year there aren’t many of those, they do not  fill the class, – also, they are restricted by the number of boarding places.

Yehudi Menuhin school

The school’s website talks about the high standards of academic education, but it seemed that in practice this is very much an afterthought to music, judging from the attitude of the pupils and the fact that academics were not even mentioned in the introductory talk by the headmaster. This may not be a bad thing – if you are going to the Menuhin school, it means you dedicate 100% of your life to music, and the school helps you to reach the horizons of excellence that only they can open in front of you!

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Sheringham

The sea side town of Sheringham lies in the middle of Norfolk coastline. Its story is typical for hundreds of coastal towns around the British shores. It is likely that there was a little fishing village there in the Anglo-Saxon times, and when the Vikings came to settle here in 900s, they gave it their own name – meaning ‘The Ham of Scira’s people”. Scira might have been their leader in battle.

Sheringham, Norfolk

Viking longboats, perfect for the rough North Sea, proved excellent for fishing, and for the next few hundred years Sheringham fisherman built their own fleet of sturdy open broad boats, pointed at both ends, for catching grab, lobster and whelk. A community of blacksmiths, fish merchant, rope and sail makers and other tradesmen grow steadily, culminating in about 200 boats working on the beach here by the beginning of the 20th century. Bigger boats, manned by up to 12 people, sailed as far as Iceland. Fisherman’s wives and daughters were closely involved in the family business, ‘dressing’ crabs, mending sails and ropes.

The arrival of railways in 1887 boosted the fishing industry, enabling Sheringham fisherman to become major suppliers of crabs and lobsters to the London fish market.

At the time Sheringham was served by two railway lines, The Midland and Great Northern from the West and the Great Eastern from the East, making it possible to get to London in just over 3 hours (not much change there this is how long it took us to drive from London last weekend!). This gave rise to the new industry in Sheringham, which gradually replaced its fishing – the holiday makers paradise.

Today it is a perfect location for a family sea-side holiday, with picturesque walks in the nearby Sheringham park, run by National Trust, cliff walks, Blue Flag pebble beach with multi-coloured beach huts on the promenade.

Sheringham Beach
Sheringham Beach

A number of festivals are held throughout the year, including our special favourite Potty Morris and Folk Festival.

Sheringham Potty Morris and Folk Festival

The town’s history is celebrated in the Mo Museum, which tells the story of the local fishing and shipbuilding industries, historic life boats and the life of its people through the ages, as well as a geology section, featuring 1.5 million year old elephant bones, found locally among the fossils. The museum incorporates Sheringham Shoal Wind Farm Visitor Centre – you can see the wind mills going round  far away in the sea on a clear day.

Most of Sheringham’s houses come from the end of 19th/beginning of 20th century and many are decorated with flint, found in abundance on the local beaches.

Sheringham does not have a harbour, so the boats have to be dragged on and off the beach. This also means that the coastline is vulnarable to the rough weather and erosion, so in the 1970s the coastline was re-inforced to strengthen the coastline in front of the town: a concrete sea wall was built, which also serves as a promenade, and a series of groynes, reinforced at the base with huge blocks of natural stone.

Sheringham’s claim to fame:

Sheringham shares with Great Yarouth the dubious claim to fame of being the first in England to be bombed by the German Zeppelins during World War I – and incendiary bomb hit a cottage in Jordan’s Yard, Windham Street in the evening of 19th January 1915. It did not explode, so no one was killed. The second bomb, dropped in Priory Road, did not cause any fatalities either.

English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams first visited Sheringham in 1905, when he was visiting Norfolk collecting folk songs. He wrote down a couple of tunes – from a railway worker and at a local pub. In 1919 Vaughn Williams and his wife lived briefly at Martincross, a large house on The Boulevard, where he wrote his Sea Symphony.

As a summer holiday resort at the turn of the last century, Sheringham attracted polar explorers Scott and Shackleton, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who based The Hound of the Baskervilles on the legend of North Norfolk’s ghostly hound, Black Shuck.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams and Leith Hill Place

St. George being the Patrol Saint of England, his day, 23rd April is duly marked by Classic FM (our favourite radio station) as the day for English composers. They have played lots of them, most hardly known to the general public. Apart from a handful, who are famous internationally, and Ralph Vaughn Williams is one of them.

We visited Leith Hill Place, his childhood home.

Leith Hill Place, home of Ralph Vaughan Williams
Leith Hill Place, home of Ralph Vaughan Williams

Lying amidst Surrey hills, this modest house was built in 1600s and in mid 18th century acquired its classical Palladian look. A hundred years later it was bought by Josiah Wedgwood III, grandson of the Josiah Wedgwood of the famous pottery works. He retired from the family business to settle in this remote countryside home with his wife Caroline, who was the sister of Charles Darwin (the very same who gave us On the Origins of Species) – she was his cousin. Joe’s sister Emma married Charles Darwin. With the families so closely related, the Darwins were frequent visitors to Leith Hill Place, and the upper rooms of the house, on the 3rd floor, were reserved for Charles to work in when he came to stay.

Darwin's room
Darwin’s room

Currently those rooms feature a ‘soundscape’ – a series of audio recordings, telling the story of Vaughan Williams, as visitors move from room to room.

It was Caroline who organised the planting of the rhododendron forest in the grounds.

Joe and Caroline Wedgwood had three daughters. One of them, Margaret, married the Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams. The young family lived in Gloucestershire, but after Arthur died in 1875, Margaret and her three young children came to live with her family in Leith Hill Place.

Leith Hill Place
Leith Hill Place

Her youngest son Ralph, born in 1872, began piano at the age of 5 with  his Auth Sophy, who also lived at the house. Having composed his first piece later on that year, he was not too keen on the piano, preferring the violin, which he began learning a year later. He was also fond of playing the small organ, which was installed in the entrance hall of the house – the servants having to pump it, which, apparently they did not enjoy much!

The organ is no longer there, instead, visitors can play the piano in the hall.

Ralph did grow to love the piano – one of the few original Vaughan Williams’ artifacts in Leith Hill Place is his piano, which he owned later in life when he lived in London, and composed most of his famous works on it, including The Lark Ascending.

Vaughan Williams' piano
Vaughan Williams’ piano

Ralph went to a boarding school and later on to Charterhouse School, where his musical talent was encouraged to develop further.

Coming home during the holidays, Ralph wondered through the park and picturesque Surrey countryside, developing a taste for folk songs and tunes that he heard in the local villages and inns.

View from a top window
View from a top window

In 1890 Ralph left Charterhouse School to study at the Royal College of Music and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, and this was the end of his connection with Leith Hill Place.

After the death of Ralph’s mother and aunts, and of his elder brother Harvey, Ralph inherited Leith Place and gave it to the National Trust in 1945. It was leased to other members of the Wedgwood family, and in later years was a boarding school.

In 2013 it was opened to the public as a Vaughan Williams museum, displaying only a few photographs and information boards, although the National Trust website says they are working on developing the museum further.

Leith Hill Place - waiting for a new futureLeith Hill Place – waiting for a new future

Ralph Vaughan Willams went on to become of the most influential English composers. He wrote concert pieces (like the famous Lark), songs, operas, ballets, chamber music and symphonies.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

Alongside Cecil Sharp, he collected English folk songs, which were included into Cecil Sharp’s series Folk Songs of England. Vaughan Williams was President of the English Folk Song and Dance Society, their home, Cecil Sharp House, includes a library named in his honour – Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Vaughan Williams’ compositions are deeply rooted in English folk and Tudor music, and amongst his most famous works are Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), and the London Symphony.

Vaughan Williams has been composing for over 50 years, only stopping when he went to the front during the First World War. He was in this 40s, and too old to be conscripted, but joined the medical core anyway, risking his life on the battlefields of France, and damaging his hearing, which was a cause of deafness for him at the end of his life.

Ralph has not forgotten his childhood home – and Leith Hill has not forgotten him – in 1905 Vaughan Williams helped Leith Hill Music Festival for amateur musicians, and was its principle conductor until 1953. The Festival is going strong, with a varied programme of events for 2017 – www.lhmf.org.uk

Vaughan Williams was composing until his death in his London home in 1958. His ashes are interred near the burials of Purcell and Stanford in the north choire aisle of Westminster Abbey.