The cylinder player

For any lover of recorded music in all its forms, it’s worth being reminded of how it all started, and there’s no better place to get a potted education in the history of mechanical music than the aptly titled Mechanical Music Museum in Northleach, Gloucestershire. Northleach itself is just the place for a museum like that – an old wool market town with lots of lovely Cotswold stone and some prize pubs and tea shops and the Museum’s premises share that wool trade heritage. It’s a working business, too, playing host to craftsmen who are world leaders in the repair and maintenance of all kinds of antique music machines, so the exhibits are drawn from the very best that the scene has to offer.

The first jukebox

Entry gets you straight onto one of the continuous tours led by a small team of well-informed and entertaining guides. Although one can join the tour at any point, the chronology begins with a domestic barrel organ from the 1740s – possibly the first way that the householder could hear music in the home without making it himself or employing someone to do it. The story then steps through an exquisite collection of music boxes, including those produced with some strange gimmicks as manufacturers desperately tried to hold on to a vanishing market as customers tired of being limited to the selection of tunes available from each box. And cue the arrival of the first ‘record’ – a two-foot wide metal disc, punched through to create tiny spikes that would pluck a musical comb creating a sound much like the music box but, most importantly, capable of being changed to vary the tune to the listener’s taste. In the display, that’s exemplified by the first jukebox – a wardrobe-sized cabinet holding a selection of discs that would move automatically to align the chosen one, rise into place, and play the customer’s selected piece.

The classic ‘Nipper’ HMV gramophone

We move on to recorded music as we would recognise it – beginning with the wax cylinder, effective but hard to produce in multiples and with a very short life. And so on to the ‘record’ that those of us who grew up with vinyl would recognise: round, flat, and with a continuous groove carrying the sound wave – a design that has survived to enjoy a resurgence today. What has changed beyond recognition, though, is the equipment to play it on, and the Museum has everything, including the classic wind-up gramophone (complete with HMV ‘Nipper’ dog). For the early 20th Century hi-fi fanatic, there the sublime – an EMG handmade gramophone, complete with horn that would fill most average living rooms and represents the equivalent of the monster Wharfedale speaker of the post-War era. At the other end of the scale, there’s the tiny portable housed in a biscuit tin, and potentially representing the lowest ‘fi’ on display anywhere in the Museum.

The climax of the tour is in a demonstration of one of their player pianos, using one of a collection of piano rolls created direct from a performance by the original composers of timeless pieces. Where else could you hear Grieg, Paderewski, Rachmaninov or Gershwin playing ‘live’ for a small crowd? To add to the effect, one of the models used includes the connection to the keyboard, so the pianist is almost there with you. Slightly ethereal, but very effective.

The player piano

There’s an excellent shop, too, with a wide range of musical boxes for sale along with a selection of unusual music-related gifts. The Museum is open every day, all year round apart from Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and it’s close to the A40 trunk road. Their website gives all the information you’d need for a visit.

If you time your visit to Northleach right, you might also squeeze in a visit to The Dolls House, right opposite the Museum. It’s a marvellous, chaotic gem of a shop, the first specialist dolls house shop in Britain, opened in London in 1971 and resident in Northleach since 1995. Amongst the properties crowding its shelves, you’ll find everything from brand new high end residences, through vintage hand made and commercial models, to abandoned projects and starter kits. There’s a selection of furniture, and a fascinating range of brick, wall and floor papers. Best of all, though, is the chance to talk to founder and proprietor Michal Morse, who not only knows more about dolls houses than anyone you’ll ever find, but can also tell you the story behind each of those for sale. Even as a chap, I can’t help but be drawn to the 1930s to 60s houses, both the handmade and those from classic toy manufacturers like Triang and Lines Brothers – it’s the MidCentury World in miniature. You can find the details for the shop, and an idea of the houses they’ve recently had in stock, on their website, but do check they’ll be open before the trip – as a one-woman operation, it’s worth making sure and you’ll find a lot out just with a phone call.