My birthday treat this year was a trip out to Worcestershire to visit the birthplace of Edward Elgar. It’s funny, but I’ve lived in the West Midlands for nearly thirty years, and yet it’s taken me that long to make the journey over to Broadheath. But after quite a few years of driving over to Hay-on-Wye for the festival and passing signposts for the Elgar birthplace, it was inevitable that we should eventually go.
But first, we went a bit further along the road to visit Bromyard – one of those quintessentially sleepy English country towns that still flourish in the depths of the countryside. Ostensibly, we were going to visit a teddy bear museum that was signposted from the main road – only to find that the owners had retired and handed the business over to their middle-aged son, who had changed it into a Doctor Who experience some years ago (but not approached the council over getting the official brown tourist signs changed). Now, that’s an interest that both Cathy and I share, so it wasn’t such a disappointment. The owner knows his stuff, and has spent a lot of time gathering props and memorabilia; at £7.50 the entry price seems a bit high, but when you look at the sort of costumes and props he’s gathered, you begin to understand exactly why he has to charge what he does. Original Daleks, for example, now commend prices at auction in the £15-£20k range – and this bloke has six of them! There is also a genuine Pertwee-era Tardis and some of Mat Irvine’s work (the owner was a bit impressed when I was able to claim acquaintance with Mat through the scale modelling world). And the museum is well set up, with proper display cases and lighting. For those with any interest in the show, it is well worth visiting.
Anyway, after Bromyard, we retraced our route back to Broadheath. The Elgar birthplace has a fine visitor centre, partially funded by Lottery money, though supporters raised the initial capital for the bricks and mortar. Although Elgar only spent his childhood in the house at Broadheath, he retained many of his connections to the Worcester area and the county as a whole. The view from the car park, for example, looks out across rolling fields towards Worcester; for me, this was more evocative of Elgar and his music than the traditional view towards Malvern. The visitor centre and the personal exhibits in the house do a good job of showing Elgar as a fully-rounded composer, rather than the purveyor of patriotic tunes that he can sometimes be painted as, though it’s always difficult to get a sense of the person behind the music in these situations. Perhaps the best example I ever came across was Beethoven’s apartment in Baden, near Vienna, where he wrote the Ninth Symphony; his apartments have been furnished simply with furniture and a few artifacts from the period, whilst an adjoining apartment has been taken over as the museum itself. The museum in Baden keeps odd hours, only opening for a short time in the afternoon, so you have to make a very special journey to visit it. Also, it has to be said, there are so many Beethoven apartments in and around Vienna (old Ludwig not having been the most model of tenants) that the tourist trail gets thinned out when you go further afield – all of which meant that when I went, I was about the only visitor, so I was able to have some quiet time and absorb some of the atmosphere. As Elgar never actually composed much at Broadheath, the connection to his music is more visceral than historical.
The birthplace itself is a small, two-bedroomed house, with a typical cottage garden in the front. Some artifacts, such as a gazebo and seat, have been brought from other properties he occupied in later years, whilst more recently a life-sized statue has been erected of the man himself, sat at the bottom of the garden looking out at the hills. The whole place is staffed by enthusiastic volunteers, many of whom are musicians themselves.
We were talking to some of the volunteers and discussing our visit to Bromyard, and our liking for little market towns like that; and one of the helpers suggested that we drive down and look at Ledbury. As I’d never been there, I was happy to do that, and found it to be another charming town, with a large church (with a separate bell tower, a Herefordshire oddity), a rather fine wine merchant and a town library that looked as though it had come straight out of a Faller catalogue. Another place to put on the list for when that elusive Lottery win comes through…