diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 10, 2017

K Twickenham
The London borough of Richmond is unique in that it spans the Thames, its north-of-the-river portion being the former Municipal Borough of Twickenham. Within its boundaries were Hampton Court Palace, Teddington Studios, the National Physical Laboratory and of course the home of English rugby union at Twickenham Stadium. But I've chosen to visit a much less well known tourist attraction, barely a dropkick from the rugby, in the leafy suburb of Whitton. Kneller Hall's collection is only available for viewing for two hours a week, and you need security clearance to get inside, but my word it's worth the effort.

The Museum of Army Music

Location: Kneller Hall, Whitton TW2 7DU [map]
Open: Wednesdays, 2pm-4pm (or by arrangement)
Website: army.mod.uk/music/23294.aspx
Twitter: @armymusicmuseum
Facebook: Museum-of-Army-Music

Whitton's a mixed bag of a suburb, with winding residential avenues and an arterial road slicing through. Its high street is probably the best preserved 1930s high street in the capital, neither over-posh nor unduly chained, almost as if Middlesex were still a thriving entity. But head slightly north and you'll discover a large enclave surrounded by razor wire under the ownership of the British Army. And within the security perimeter, somewhat unexpectedly, is a large neo-Jacobethan mansion with a grand facade, all redbrick bays and pointy towers.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, the finest portrait painter of his age, built his Hall in 1709 on the site of a former manor house, allegedly from a design by Sir Christopher Wren. After his death the house was sold on to a lawyer, then an MP, before being mostly demolished and rebuilt in even grander style. The first new tenant was a teacher training college, then in 1857 Kneller Hall was taken over by the War Office as their first ever school for army bandsmen. Previously it hadn't really mattered that every regiment played music their own way, but the advent of collective military ceremonial, watched by Her Majesty the Queen, forced a rethink. The music school's been here 160 years.

Getting inside is... memorable. I turned up on spec on a Wednesday afternoon, and spent a few minutes looking for a public way in. No such entrance exists. Instead all visitors have to use the main gate, which is padlocked shut, by gaining the attention of the soldier on the far side. I asked whether the museum was open, and he seemed uncertain for a moment, then unlocked the gate and allowed me inside. This felt slightly surreal. Ten minutes earlier I'd been looking at novelty t-shirts in The Rugby Store, and now I was a civilian lurking inside an army base.

Next stop the Guardroom, which is a bit like a concierge's desk but with focused military intent. Most of the hut's business can be conducted through a window at the front, but I had to step inside to open up a chain of communication, and again to have my mugshot taken. I also wasn't going to get any further without showing photo ID - a driving licence sufficed - and then I had to stand around and wait while my details were being checked against some unknown database of national security ne'erdowells. Thankfully I appear to have passed, and a black and white badge was printed out for me to dangle during the rest of my visit.

The Museum of Army Music occupies three of the main rooms on the ground floor of the main building. During the rest of the week they're part of the music school, so rehearsals or drill or study might happen within, but on Wednesday afternoons the squaddies have to get out and the rooms revert to being a collection of display cases. Don't expect to look round unsupervised, I was shepherded by a curator throughout my visit, but that was excellent because she truly brought the place to life.

Over the course of 160 years the museum's accumulated a unique collection, and all from within its own ranks. A wide array of drums is on show, each bearing the painted names of the major campaigns that regiment was involved in. The gorgeous music stand banners have a rather sadder backstory - each ends up here only after its regiment has been dissolved or merged with another, which in these days of Army cuts is all too frequently. A large section is given over to Trooping the Colour, or the Queen's Birthday Parade as it's more properly known, the major annual event at which the armed forces' musicians get to showcase their talents.

The museum's particularly good at showing the evolution of instruments over time, for example how the serpent became the ophicleide became the tuba. They have all the saxophones, despite this not being an instrument you'd normally associate with a military band. They have a pair of super-duper cornets with additional tubing to allow the user to mimic other brass instruments whilst only carrying one. And they also have the pair of busted-looking bugles pictured below, one of which was sounded at the Charge of the Light Brigade and the other on the battlefield of Waterloo. The manuscript book comes from the latter, according to the inscription "picked up by the side of the dead body of a poor drummer boy."

I hadn't previously considered that brass instruments used on battlefields needed to be dull rather than shiny because a telltale glint might get you shot. I learned that army musicians no longer have front line roles because modern warfare requires more specialised training, although they do still spend a fair bit of time on location charged with keeping up morale. And I also got lucky with a slightly broader tour of the house than I think most visitors get, including a nose into the Officers Mess (all armchairs and portraits) and a trip upstairs to see the historic chapel where services double up as additional practice for spiritual ceremonial.

But Kneller Hall's days may finally be numbered, as budget cuts force the downsizing of the MoD estate. The Defence Minister announced last year that the site was to be 'released', with permanent closure currently scheduled for 2020. There just aren't enough trainees left - current numbers are nearer 25 than the original 250 - and the upkeep of a historic building for general admin duties isn't an efficient use of limited funds. Some lucky developer could surely make a fortune by knocking down the barracks and building on the sports ground, although the main house isn't in the best of nick after years of underfunded maintenance so any renovation for luxury apartments might be a costly gamble.

It's OK, the museum has accredited status so its future is secure, and the Royal Military School of Music will be relocated to an as yet undecided location. But its new home will undoubtedly be a long way from London, so if you want to see the collection and poke around inside a historic military building, you probably only have a couple of years left. In the meantime regular chances to enter Kneller Hall exist in the summer when a series of evening concerts take place in the grounds at a specially constructed mega-bandstand. But the museum is off-limits on music nights, so Wednesday afternoons remain your best chance to infiltrate a working army base and meet the top brass.

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