A couple of miles from the middle of the city hidden away on a quiet St Albans street in a warehouse, we discover St Albans Organ Theatre. As soon as we step past the entrance I immediately get the feeling that we’re stepping back through time.

We go into a dark auditorium. The light from pink bulbs under tall glass lampshades diffuses the atmosphere. Leather seating has been arranged for visitors and every wall is furnished with a selection of fairground, dance and theatre organs from different eras, illuminated and richly decorated with flowers and bunting. We’re welcomed by David our host, who gives us a little background to the museum. This afternoon’s concert has a Eurovision theme: we’ll be listening to some familiar tunes from the 1960s and 70s played on this amazing collection of mechanical organs.

First off, we’re shown a dance organ, the Decap ‘Jeanneke’, dating from 1939 with more than 300 pipes. It is encased within a wide wooden unit and at its centre is a red drum kit and two accordions expanding and contracting of their own volition on either side. The music begins and takes a little getting used to. The drum kit comes to life and I love the sound made by the Chinese temple blocks!

The music is upbeat, celebratory and from an altogether different era. We’re invited to go and see how it operates and are fascinated by a key frame reading a never ending perforated concertina book. The unfamiliar music fills the air and my imagination begins to take off. I watch the instruments play by themselves and feel as if I could be on a Tim Burton film set.

Another volunteer introduces us to a wonderful selection of varnished music boxes in walnut cases presented in a row along the edge of the stage. Notes cascade from a Swiss-made Nicole Freres music box like gentle raindrops. The music chimes beautifully and is like something out of a fairy tale or from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The audience seems mesmerized and transported by the light and dulcet tones. I can see how these music boxes evolved into toys and am taken back to my childhood and remember turning the base of my musical doll that would play a light melody hypnotically until I’d fall asleep.

Next, we’re shown something altogether different, the American ‘Violano Virtuoso’, a self-playing violin and piano encased in a cabinet dating from 1912. It lies flat as the strings vibrate and create melodic tunes. This one is a more advanced invention and is electric rather than pneumatic like the others. A paper roll is spun on a barrel and wire contacts pass through its perforations. I’m in awe of its complexity.

The Eurovision theme continues and we turn our attention to the ‘Bursens’ Café organ dating from the late 1940s. The lights change colour according to the instruments being played. Unexpectedly they play two Italian tunes, Ciao Ciao Bambina and Volare. My husband smiles as he knows it’ll remind me of my roots. It is heartwarming for me and takes me back to those huge Italian weddings I attended as a small child, watching larger-than-life Italian musicians dressed up in suits playing the accordions so animatedly. The music feels cinematic could easily feature in a Fellini film.

The mighty American ‘Wurlitzer’ Theatre organ dating from the thirties brings me back down to earth with ten ranks of pipes and an extensive percussion section hidden from view. It has been painstakingly restored and the organist plays it expertly. It make such a grand sound; we watch him concentrating as the tempo rises and falls and his hands dance across the keys as he presses the wooden pedals; I marvel at the wealth of joyous music at his fingertips as he plays two Andrew Lloyd Webber pieces. It’s a strange experience I must admit. I feel as if I’ve been caught up in some kind of twilight zone and this entire afternoon has a dreamy quality to it.

The afternoon continues as we listen to a variety of Eurovision tunes such as Abba’s 1974 hit ‘Waterloo.’ The guide admits that the cheese factor is rising and when I hear Sandi Shaw’s ‘Puppet on a String,’ I’m elbowed by my husband for giggling!

Luckily at this point, we’re offered a nice cup of tea in the break, I buy some old postcards then chat with David our guide; he’s all smiles and tells me that in 2018 the charity not only celebrated its fortieth year but was awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in recognition for the work they are achieving within the local community.

I’m intrigued that he’s still only in his early thirties and ask him how he got into all of this, he explains that he’s a local and used to regularly come along with his grandparents on a Sunday afternoon for the organ performances and absolutely loved them. He particularly enjoys watching people’s fascination and enthusiasm as they walk into the museum. I can feel his love for the organs, which comes across in his guiding, and can see that he is a real asset to the charity.

Apparently, Charles Hart, a local builder, began collecting mechanical organs in the late fifties. They were stored in his building yards and he was quite happy to play them and show them off to the locals. They were also a feature in Verulamium park, delighting the children during the school holidays. Hart’s collection grew as he added music boxes and pianos which led to regular Sunday afternoon performances. By 1978 Hart set up a charitable trust to care for the collection permanently.

My favourite organ this afternoon has been the Rutt dating from 1935 with its unique illuminated glass surround and chrome trim; it is only one of three electro-pneumatic organs built by R Spurden-Rutt from East London. It caught my attention from the moment I walked in and I had a feeling it would sound special. The music has a timeless and surreal quality to it. As I close my eyes and listen, I imagine it to be the soundtrack to one of those early American sci-fi movie.

This has been one of the strangest places I have ever visited (in a good way) and there has definitely been an hallucinatory quality to this experience. We leave feeling relaxed and step back through our portal fast-forwarding back to the digital age.

  • Marisa Laycock moved from south west London to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city.