13 January 2023

Music and memories: celebrating 60 years of Ashwell House

“There has always been lots of music in Ashwell”, said Eileen Cole during the interval of a concert to celebrate 60 years since Ashwell House first welcomed students in 1962.  In 1990, when Ashwell House moved from Notting Hill Gate to its current location in London’s zone 1, Eileen was the Director. “I first saw this place on a drizzly, grey day”, she recalled. “It was a cavernous building and the area was derelict, with trees growing out of the windows of the buildings round about.”

Fast forward to 2022, and what a transformation! Ashwell House is now in a vibrant area of London, full of businesses, cafes and restaurants.  Gone is the empty cavern and on October 29, an eager audience was streaming in through the gate for an evening of music and memories.

International performers

Francesca Orlando

In 2014, Francesca Orlando was a music student studying at the Royal Academy of Music and living in Ashwell House.  Now she is an international piano soloist. “I loved it here,” said Francesca, looking round the hall. She took a leading role in putting together the programme for the 60th Anniversary concert, inviting some of her talented musician friends to perform.

British soprano Helena Moore is one of Francesca’s friends who made time in her busy international schedule to be part of the concert. Accompanied by Francesca on the piano, she delighted the Ashwell House audience with songs by Mahler, Strauss and Britten, ending her recital with the beautiful Ave Maria by Schubert. This was followed by German pianist Stella Maria Lorenz, who, along with violinist Pietro Genova Gaia, played a Brahms sonata. 

“I loved living here!”

“Living in Ashwell was one of the best years of my life!” “I loved living here!” “It was so friendly and welcoming.” These are the voices of past residents, all remembering their time at Ashwell. Jane was a resident 2006-2007 and is now a GP. Maria Carla lived in Ashwell 2015-2016 and flew in from Milan specially to be at the concert. Monica was a law student from Canada and stayed at Ashwell 2015-2016. She now works remotely on law reform and human rights in South Africa.

Romina, Leti and baby Hugo

Two babies were among the audience, including six-week-old Hugo who was there with his mum Leti and his godmother Romina, both past residents, 2012-2013. “I made the best of friends at Ashwell,” said Leti.

Space for life’s big issues

Beate Loonstra

In 2015 a young Dutch woman telephoned Ashwell to enquire about living there. “Hello, she said, “I am Beate Loonstra from the Netherlands.” “Hello,” came the reply from the then Director, Alison Birkett, “That sounds like the Eurovision Song Contest!” “Well,” thought Beate, “I think I’ll like it there!”

Now an acclaimed harpist, Beate was clearly so happy to be back at Ashwell for the concert.  She related that Ashwell had been a good place for her to live while she grappling with some of life’s big issues. Who am I as a person and a musician? How do I interpret the music I play and why do I play it? Ashwell gave Beate the space to think about all these important topics. “I would have felt very lost living alone in flat in London,” she said.

Perhaps with these sentiments in her mind, Beate chose to play a piece written specially for her called “A night in a city far away.”

L to R: Helena Moore, Pietro Genova Gaia, Stella Maria Lorenz, Francesca Orlando, Beate Loonstra

Close to my heart

Francesca rounded off the programme with a stunning performance of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor. Why that piece? “I played this five years ago and it’s very close to my heart, so I decided to play it tonight,” said Francesca.  At the end of a joyous evening it seemed as though everyone who has lived there has a special place for Ashwell in her heart.

Lifelong friends

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