A day to discover what lies beneath turned into an altogether unexpected musical encounter as I headed out to spend a morning learning about the archeology that litters the floor of an ancient Chilterns woodland at Pigotts Wood.
Near High Wycombe, Pigotts Woods is really tucked away in the Chiltern Hills, and if I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to the course on time, would have found many distractions along the way to explore and photograph. The single lane wound its way up the hill with muntjac deer alongside the road which suddenly opens up into a sunny field with Pigotts up ahead.
We assembled in the music room in what was the former home of Eric Gill, sculptor, typeface designer and printmaker who was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. He designed one of the most famous British typefaces, Gill Sans, used in the classic design system of Penguin Books and by British Railways, with many additional styles created by Monotype both during and after Gill’s lifetime. Most famously perhaps as it was the typeface adopted GNER for their flagship ‘Flying Scotsman’.
Now home to the Wheeler Robinson family for over 50 years. It was they who began the tradition of amateur music weekends where young musicians could tackle not only the symphonies of Beethoven, but even mounting their own Ring cycle. Our host, Nick Robinson has continued this tradition and is a relaxed, affable man who was at one with his historic home. I liked him and loved his house; full of brick-a-brack and clutter, but I am sure each musical instrument, book and painting was there for a reason and not by design. I wonder how much the location influences the choices made and how each member performs on those weekends?
Set around a grassy, sunny courtyard the converted barns and pretty cottages are very much lived in, relaxed in and enjoyed, and that I could tell from the first five minutes. We helped ourselves to mugs of tea whilst Nick told us more about his amazing house and music tradition before we got stuck into recognising natures’ signs with John Morris from the Chiltern Woodland Project including; from the woodland flowers, mossy banks, trees and even a pillow mound – a rabbit warren for rabbit farming – and how to recognise a saw pit which are a special feature of the Chilterns. I am especially interested in the stories associated with past trades and industry and in this case, once a heavy log had been placed over the pit and secured into place with a hook called a ‘dog’, the man who worked on top of the log was the top dog and the one beneath (having to do all the hard work I suspect), was the underdog. I was struck too how once, absolutely everything had to be grown at home, farmed, or ingredients sourced and items made as there weren’t many middle-men or a B&Q to pop into to buy charcoal, a new shirt or the weekly groceries. If you weren’t making it yourself, in the main you didn’t have it.
We returned to the house to enjoy my first picnic of the season as the weather was so warm and Nick had a huge pot of homemade vegetable soup waiting for us and with plenty more stories to tell about the fascinating history and past occupants of the house, including the infamous black bath. But that story is for another time.
This is what I love best about the Chilterns: you set off thinking you will be doing one thing when in fact something quite different and delightful comes along. It’s such a cliche I know, but Pigotts really is hidden gem – one of many we have stashed away in the woods!