The Finchcocks Piano School is in a setting worthy of any historical drama. A long private lane snakes between fields and gently takes you away from daily life until you get that first tantalising glimpse of the main house.
Finchcocks is a spectacular Grade 1 listed early Georgian manor house. It stands proudly against its rural setting. Showing off its grandeur like a haughty, slightly intimidating peacock yet, once you step inside, it’s obviously a home. It’s a house that’s always given me goose bumps and underneath it all lies a very special new room.
The sound of echoing footsteps accompanies my descent into the newly restored music cellar. Neil and Harriet, the owners of Finchcocks, explain just how much work has gone into the restoration of both the main house and the piano schools residential Coach House over the past few years. It’s easy to see how much they both love it, but the renovation of the music cellar presented them with several challenges.
During its existence, Finchcocks has taken on many guises including a school for evacuated children, an art gallery, a ballet school and a musical museum. The cellar has most recently been used as a café and all the brickwork was covered in white and pink paint. Layers and layers of it.
Neil and Harriet were keen to expose the brick beneath and Harriet says, ‘We learnt about eleven different techniques for how to strip the paint off. We had to find the one which didn’t damage the bricks but got rid of enough paint.’
The process was extremely messy and Harriet adds, ‘There were buckets of toxic sludge being shipped out because we used some really strong alkaline. But it was amazing uncovering all of this and there is some ancient graffiti too.’
Harriet leads me over to the doorway eager to point out the engraved ‘EB’ etched into the brick. The initials stand for Edward Bathurst, the man who built the Finchcocks. You get a real sense of the houses’ history when Neil explains, ‘the house was finished 300 years ago but it was probably started 20 years before that, so these initials are over 300 years old.’ Bathurst was obviously proud of his creation and his initials can also be seen, in a much larger format, on the front of the property.
Now the bricks have been restored, it’s easy to see the arched domes created throughout the cellar. One leading into another, slightly obscured by the supporting pillars but tantalising enough to lead you from room to room. Until you have visited all the separate practice rooms that lead off the main performance space.
Neil reveals that every brick used within the cellar was made at Finchcocks. And there’s a big hole in woods where they dug out the clay to prove it. The bricks were shaped and fired onsite before being taken to the site of the cellar where ‘the master bricklayers carved every single one of them to create this amazing vaulted effect.’
You wouldn’t think that an underground, brick lined space would be a good environment for fine pianos. But the rooms are carefully temperature controlled and the light-coloured carpeting has deadened the echoes and improved the acoustics. The size and shape of the individual practice rooms has revealed that some pianos suit some spaces better than others. According to Neil each piano has ‘its own character and sound’ and he will be moving them around to get the best fit.
Getting the pianos into the cellar was a huge challenge and Neil says, ‘we tried to get the smallest one down the stairs and got stuck. We had lots of brawny piano movers, but it took them ages to get it out again. So, then we hired a crane. We had to pack up the pianos, all seven of them, and lower them, keyboard down, through a light well then push them in sideways. It was really hairy.’
All their hard efforts have certainly paid off and the new music cellar is an incredible place to visit. It’s a space that could easily feel dark and claustrophobic, but it’s been turned into a remarkable, performance space with an incredible atmosphere. I’m betting it would look stunning by candlelight and it’s so easy to imagine yourself sitting at one the piano school’s charitable concerts with your eyes closed as the sound of music swirls around you.
The music cellar can accommodate approximately 100 people and the concerts only happen a couple of times a year. So, if you want a chance to visit this remarkable room for yourself, keep an eye on the Finchcocks Piano School’s website or sign up for one of their retreat like piano courses.
Unlike many piano schools, this one is designed for adults (of all abilities) and I have to say I’m tempted to take up the piano just so I can attend. Guests stay in the newly renovated 18th Century Coach House, which I would be more than happy to move into, and are taught by world class pianists during the day before enjoying a meal supplied by a private chef brought it to cater for their needs. Sounds great doesn’t it.
Until next time,