For years I have been zooming through the town of Hitchin (Herts) on fast trains without giving it a great deal of thought. But having visited, I now know that its origins are impeccably historic, 'from the 7th century, the home of the Hicce people, situated on the River Hiz'. Even my extremely short walk from the station revealed two very significant locations, the first (pictured) being the site of the UK’s first residential (university-level) college for women, which a few years later moved to Cambridge and became Girton College. It was not easy for those first women to establish this place with its important principles, and I felt I was on sacred ground as I walked along the suburban pavement.
The second important site (my goal on this visit) was Benslow Music Trust. Almost 90 years ago this institution was founded as the Rural Music Schools Association - an organisation which did what it said on the tin, 'promoting musical education for social benefit' around the country. During the last century, local authorities began to assume these duties; successfully for a long time, but as we know, in steep decline recently, making places like this all the more essential nowadays. Benslow has become a residential centre for music courses, given in a comfortable Victorian house surrounded by some more recent purpose-built spaces, themselves surrounded by opulent gardens.
Having little previous knowledge of this purposefully relaxed and deceptively low-key organisation, I was amazed to find out how much it offers, and I would urge anyone who has ever considered undertaking any kind of adult musical tuition to look up its list of courses, which run almost every week of the year, many conveniently timed on weekends or as one-day courses. My short visit coincided with a tango orchestra, a guitar class and a romantic piano seminar. Meals, or cakes, appeared effortlessly at every break. Costs including a B&B element seemed extremely competitive. Especially with the fairly basic summer holiday accommodation in Scotland I have just booked, which certainly does not additionally offer an ‘Oboe Extravaganza’ or a ‘Try the Viola d’Amore Day’.