It's always the way, isn't it?
Just when you've got yourself comfy, just when you know where everything
is and where everything that isn't where it ought to be is and you
finally settle down for spot of well-deserved feet up, life comes
along with the metaphorical hoover and asks you to lift your feet
So it was a few months ago when I was handed my notice to quit my
It seemed that time had moved on for the owners of the country
estate where the workshop resided, and what with the children having
long since grown up (and their children too) there was no longer
a need for a 'family seat' - and so the estate was to be put on
the market...and it was deemed that the property would sell better
without any tenants.
Naturally, I was disappointed - but more than that, the thought
of having to move 14 year's worth of accumulated clutter filled
me with a creeping dread.
I was surprised too inasmuch as it was fate that led me there in
the first place.
I've been very lucky with my various workshops, I've never really
had to 'go looking' for them, they've all popped up out of the blue
- and with the sort of timing that a Hollywood scriptwriter uses
whenever the Cavalry is needed.
I found the workshop (or rather, it found me) in the closing months
of my time at the London shop. I'd already made the decision to
move out of London and had taken up residence in Hampshire. As the
closing date drew nearer I printed up some flyers for my regular
clients, informing them of my move and giving new contact details
for future repair work. I handed one such flyer to a regular client
who took a look at it and recognised the local phone code. It turned
out her family lived in a neighbouring village, and when I asked
her if she knew of any suitable workshop premises in the area she
told me there was an ideal building in the grounds of the house.
And so that weekend I found myself driving through the gates of
Broadhanger House in Froxfield, little knowing that I'd spend the
next 14 years there.
To say I was thrilled would be something of an understatement,
but it wasn't merely the fact that I'd found a workshop - it was
more the fact that it wasn't a basement. I'd spent years working
in gloomy basements, and the chance to feel the sun on my face as
I sat at the workbench was a prospect I was very much looking forward
As it happened the thrill soon wore off - I found the sun didn't
just shine on my face, it shone right in my eyes...and I quickly
discovered that natural light coming in through the window reflected
off the shiny surfaces of the instruments and made it extremely
difficult to see what was going on. So I put a blind up. Typical.
As you might imagine I had more than a few amusing incidents happen
to me during my tenancy.
Some clients may have availed themselves of the "rural comfort
interface" - AKA the outside loo. Ah, what simple pleasure
it was to sit upon the throne of a sunny morn, the door slightly
ajar, feeling the sun's tentative rays upon my knees. Such contemplation
was to be had there...until the day the horse in the adjoining stable
pushed its head through the rotten fibreboard wall.
I've heard of people being caught out by assorted spiders, or interruption
due to an incautiously unlocked privvy door - but it's not every
day that you're hassled by a horse whilst perched on the thunderbox.
And it wasn't my only run-in with horses.
Being something of a night owl I often found myself waking up in
the wee small hours, and having nothing better to do I used to get
an early start in at the workshop. On one such occasion I arrived
at the workshop to find that a couple of horses had broken out of
the paddock and were idly wandering around.
Of course, I couldn't just leave them - so I attempted to chivvy
them back to the paddock. I managed to grab one by whatever it is
a horse wears around its face and made to lead it back to safety
- but the horse clearly had other ideas and simply stood there.
We were at a Mexican stand-off...half a ton of best quality dog
food...and ten stones of me. I looked around for a stand-offish
Mexican to assist me, but couldn't find one.
I tried a few stern words. Not knowing any horsey terms I used 'dog
language', and taking into account the apparent stubbornness of
the animals I pepped it up a bit with a few choice oaths and curses
on the basis that any animal that big that's that uncooperative
is bound to understand swear words.
They weren't having any of it though, and being mindful of copping
a hoof in me ear with no prospect of assistance until daybreak I
resorted to jumping around and waving my arms in the air. If this
worked (which it did) it was probably because the horses had had
enough entertainment for the morning and decided to wander off home
for a kip.
I also had my closest brush with lightning at the workshop.
Being quite high up geographically, the village seemed to be quite
the magnet for electrical storms. More often than not the power
would fail, and it was often the case that it was best just to give
up the moment the thunder started and go home - rather than wait
for the inevitable to happen.
I rather foolishly waited out a particularly fierce storm once,
and listened with mounting trepidation as the huge bangs of thunder
got ever closer and louder....until there was the most almighty
flash and bang that fair had me jumping right out of my shoes.
Showing the sort of courage that made Britain the nation it is today,
I dived headlong under a bench. It was only when I got there that
I realised it was all pretty pointless and very much after the event...the
lights had gone and there was a dreadful fizzing noise and flashes
coming from outside. Turns out the local overhead power cable above
the workshop had taken a direct hit and been blown apart, the trailing
cable now thrashing around on the wet ground outside, blue sparks
flashing over the puddles.
My poor ears were ringing, but even in the midst of all that chaos
I took comfort in the fact that if ever I was going to get struck
by lightning there was no way I'd know anything about it...unless
I survived, of course.
Then there was the winter where I found myself completely engrossed
in the restoration of a late 18th century clarinet. It's rare that
I'm ever that captivated by my work - what with frequent trips to
the kettle, the phone, the computer, the radio etc. but the job
was going great, and was fascinating work.
I must have started it around midday, and it wasn't until around
4pm when I raised my eyes from the workbench and looked out of the
window. There was a good inch of snow on the ground.
Now, that doesn't sound like much to some of you - but in terms
of British weather an inch of snow is enough to send us back to
the dark ages.
Traffic stops, trains stop, the telly goes off and Vera Lynn is
wheeled out to sing songs about birds and coastline features. Not
only that, but I had to negotiate a short but viciously steep hill
on my way home. I knew I could get down it...I just didn't know
whether I'd be able to stop when I got to the bottom, and I knew
for certain that I'd never get up it again the next day. I also
knew that sod's law would dictate that another vehicle would appear
coming the other way when I was halfway down.
It didn't though - and I managed to stop the sliding car quite effectively
by steering it into a grassy bank.
To add insult to (vehicular) injury, there was a witness to my predicament.
Seems to me that the more isolated a place you choose to live and
work in, the more likely it is that you'll be caught in a compromising
position by a passer-by. I shouldn't complain, I've done it myself
- winding down the car window and shouting "It's always the
way, eh?" as I've passed someone taking a sneaky wee behind
So it was quite a sad day when I took to the task of boxing up
my life at the workshop, but it proved to be an illuminating experience.
I've always been something of a hoarder (as clients will attest)
and it was quite a surprise to note that out of about 70 boxes of
assorted bits and bobs, barely ten of them contained the actual
tools and materials associated with my work.
Clients who visited during the course of the great pack-up nearly
always said that I was sure to find lots of things I didn't know
I had - but you know, I found just one item that had slipped my
memory...a lead for a laptop modem card (I KNEW I had one somewhere!).
More importantly (to me at least) I found very little to throw away.
As I got down to the last knockings, with just a few shelves to
dismantle and a big pile of stuff that couldn't be easily categorised
earlier - which ended up in a collection of boxes marked 'Misc.1..2...3..etc'
(a policy I came to rue a few weeks later when I started to need
things out of boxes I'd long since forgotten the exact contents
of) - I found a slightly grubby old greetings card that had fallen
down the back of a stack of shelves. It seemed familiar, so I opened
it and read the inscription.
It was a 'best wishes' card given to me by a chap called Lew when
I last moved workshops, from London to Hampshire, over 14 years
Lew suffered from severe depression - or at least that's what 'they'
told him. I'll admit that he could often be a bloody miserable sod,
but even then he seemed to have a very down-to-earth and clear view
of the world. One might almost say that he was cursed with being
He had what his psychiatrist called 'an unhealthy obsession with
death'. Lew didn't see it quite like that and always maintained
that it was good to have a hobby. It wasn't the 'act' of death he
was interested in, more the notion of it, the folklore, the mystery.
I think most of us are, in some fashion or other, though it's the
kind of thing you're careful not to think about too much lest you
I think what really unnerved the shrink was that Lew had a skeleton
for a friend.
Yep, a real one apparently. I think it was called Dot, or Dotty..or
something like that, and Lew would drape it over the sofa of an
evening and they'd watch telly together.
Well, it makes less mess than a dog, and eats less than a cat...
I remember him coming into the shop one day in a foul mood. He never
really got angry, more frustrated - and he'd just come from a visit
to his shrink. It seems Lew had landed, after a very long time without
employment, the most perfect job for him - as an assistant in a
This didn't go down at all well with the shrink - but neither Lew
nor I could see anything but sublime logic in him doing this job.
He only ever gave me two cards - he never really went in for 'that
sort of thing'. One was a Christmas card that played a tune when
you opened it, complete with a twee rhyme. Inside Lew had written,
with characteristic dourness, 'F***ing load of old b****cks'. I
loved it, and I loved it all the more as the battery slowly drained
and the little electronic music box began to drift even more out
of tune than it already was. I think I still have it too.
The other card was that 'best wishes' card I mentioned earlier.
I must have placed it on a shelf when I set the workshop up and
left it there, to be found some 14 years later. "With all best
wishes for what happens next", he says.
I dusted it off and rested it on a window sill. I'll put it up in
my new workshop, where perhaps it'll stand for another 14 years.
First though I had to find that new workshop.
Rural workshops are quite hard to come by as a rule - or at least
workshops that meet my needs.
There's a trend these days to convert old farm outbuildings into
commercial premises (given that small-scale farming is on its arse
over here), but these tend to be quite posh, and expensive, and
I really wanted something quite isolated. You'd be surprised how
important it is to have quiet when you're setting up an instrument...you
can tell a lot about what's going on with a horn from the sound
the action makes and the 'pop' the pads make as they close. I also
didn't want to have to travel too far. It's not that it's a problem
out here in the sticks - with the lack of traffic few people think
anything of driving 30 miles or so to find a particular shop - I
just felt it was worth making the effort to find somewhere local
so that my travelling to and fro didn't make too much of a dent
in environmental terms (something we're all going to have to think
about very soon indeed).
A local resident had very kindly made a couple of portable buildings
available - the sort of thing builders put up on large construction
It would do for temporary accommodation, but I really didn't relish
the thought of spending a winter working in what was really just
a steel box. I'd almost resigned myself to it though, as none of
my efforts to find a new place had came to anything...and then the
It was a local client, her child's saxophone needed a service.
As it happens I'd been recommended to give her a call by the secretary
at the local primary school - the client owned a farm, and there
was a chance that there might be some workshop space up for grabs.
I mentioned as much to the client, who said they'd seen my advert
in the local parish magazine, and although there was some space
on the farm she and her husband weren't really sure whether or not
it would be suitable...and it needed some work doing to it...and
it was full of rubbish..and...
Well, I'd stopped listening by then - I had a feeling that it would
be worth my while popping round to have a peek...which I duly did
a few days later.
She was right, it did need some work doing to it, quite a bit in
fact - and it was also full of rubbish, and the farmer said that
if I still felt I could make use of it he could probably have it
cleaned out in about three months' time when the farming work eased
off. I said I'd move in Monday.
And I did.
The farmer popped by a week or so later to help clear out some of
the rubbish. It was mostly old paint pots and general builder's
tat - and I was quietly pleased to note that the farmer and I appear
to have that magpie streak in common.
With every paint tin I handed him he'd glance at the label, give
it a shake and say "Ooh, there's a bit left in that one, I'll
keep it...just in case - might come in handy, no sense in throwing
away good paint" - and every now and again as I handed him
a rather strange-looking bit of twisted metal he'd say "Blimey,
you can't get these anymore - better put that to one side".
I think we're going to get on just fine.
It's a little larger than my last workshop, which was the largest
I'd had so far - and best of all it has a very substantial and large
workbench built on four steel legs concreted into the floor.
This is quite an attraction - in most workshops you end up working
facing a wall, simply because you need to build the benches against
them for the support they give - but this bench sits slap in the
middle of the workshop. This means that the centre of the workshop
won't fill up with clutter...it'll have to go against the walls,
or nowhere at all.
It also gives me the opportunity to set up dedicated workstations...no
more shoving bits of dismembered instruments about to make space
when an 'OTS' (on the spot) job comes in. In fact, the bench is
so large that I reckon I could get four bass saxes on it, and still
have room to put me feet up.
I still have much to do before the workshop is fully functional
- and I have yet to catch up on the work that had to be put aside
whilst the move was underway - but I'm getting there, slowly. There's
only so much time out I can take before the clients start pleading
for me to take on their work, so I'm currently swapping roles between
woodwind repairer and general builder in an effort to get the workshop
into shape and keep the clients playing.
And if you're wondering just how busy that makes me...it's taken
me two months to find the time to write this article...