Walking with Edward Elgar

Walk Three - Above Pencombe

The image at the top of the page shows St. Johnís, Pencombe, opposite the Billiard Room opened by Elgarís enigmatic friend Winifred Norbury.

"If you want a wife for a country life, to Pencombe you must go".

The refrain is from the ditty written for the candlelit opening in 1892 of the Billiard Room in Pencombe. Sung to a variation of the tune for "The Lincolnshire Poacher", it was performed by the lady to whom it was dedicated, Miss Winifred Norbury. The thirty-year-old was a friend and associate of Edward Elgar. The new recreation facility doubled up as a Reading Room and also offered shelter for horses and carriages when people from the outlying farms gathered in the village. Now Townsend Cottage, near the start of our walk, it was a gift from the lord of the manor, John Hungerford Arkwright of Hampton Court.

The ancestral Arkwrights were entitled to a pair of gilt spurs each time a mayor of Hereford died in office, and it was on their land that the "new" Pencombe School was built in 1862. Increased by the arrival of four families from Little Cowarne boasting 24 children between them, the register had 45 names in it by 1871. At that time an Arkwright was the rector of Pencombe and he was giving religious instruction to those pupils in the top two classes who were not playing truant. If they weren't being kept at home to help with the harvesting, haymaking or hop-picking, they were taking days off to visit local fairs and markets or Bromyard Races. In December the records tell us that Joseph Richards was caught smoking in the playground; he promised not to do it again.

But what do we know about Miss Winifred Norbury? was she a "wife for a country life"? Well, the Norburys lived at Sherridge, an 18th century country house admired by Elgar which stood in a pleasant park near Leigh Sinton.

A tall and somewhat angular person, Winifred was a fluent speaker of German, sang at village concerts and conducted the Leigh Musical Society with great enthusiasm. A co-founder and joint secretary of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society, which Elgar himself conducted, she was invaluable to the composer with her readiness to spend hours copying and correcting orchestral parts during his early struggles.

On the day Elgar posted the final score of his Enigma Variations Miss Norbury joined the Elgars for tea in Malvern. Acceptance and approval of the work by the hugely influential Hans Richter, who conducted its premiere, proved to be a turning-point in Elgar's career. It was dedicated to "my friends pictured within" and the eighth variation to "W.N.", which gives us a lasting impression of the lady. The unmistakably feminine portrait suggests a charming, suave and rhythmic figure. We also hear in the work Miss Norbury's characteristically trilly laughter, with a few extra chuckles thrown in at the end just before the opening bars of the iconic Nimrod.

Always the cryptic one, Elgar noted that "through and over the whole set of his Enigma Variations another, larger theme "goes" but is not played". Many scholars have grappled with this enigma in the last century and Winifred herself always thought she knew the hidden tune, but Elgar said she was wrong when she suggested it to him. The mystery continues to baffle, but not the identity of the person who first intoned the Pencombe Ditty.

"If you want a wife for a country life.
To Pencombe you must go".

It was Miss Norbury in the Billiard Room with a candlestick.

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