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Sir Edward Elgar at his leisure: The Firs

Photograph showing wall art of Elgar on his bicycle and taking his feet off the pedals at The Firs
Elgar on his bicycle | © Peter Young

Despite being a prolific composer, Elgar found much time to indulge his variety of hobbies. Some people who knew Elgar said that he liked to give the impression of a country gentleman who, after a round of golf, would come home and just happen to write some of the greatest music ever to be produced in this country.

A wide variety of pastimes

Whether it was cycling along the almost deserted lanes of Worcestershire and Herefordshire; walking the Malvern Hills; flying homemade kites; fishing the Teme; spoiling his daughter's pet rabbits or his own dogs; causing explosions in his laboratory at Plas Gwyn; cultivating roses at Napleton Grange; baffling his family and friends with cryptic notes and amusing them with cartoons, or simply losing money on the horses.

All these activities were very much part of the man and thus part of the artist. Hobbies may be a form of escapism, but so is artistic creativity. The two went hand in hand.

'he looked to composing and hobbies for the same thing, escape from the world of dull routine and into realms of the imagination'

– Jerrold Northrop Moore


In the 1890s Elgar was introduced to golf by Richard Baxter Townshend who was to become one of his friends pictured within the Enigma Variations.

He became a member of the Malvern Club, once describing the sport as: 'the best form of exercise for writing men, as it involves no risk of accident, is always ready to hand without waiting for a 'side' and it has the inestimable advantage of being seldom worth seeing and rarely worth writing about.'

Elgar's original golf clubs are now in the Birthplace collection.


When living at Severn House, Hampstead he decided to buy an elaborate billiard table with special lighting, having been introduced to the game at Ridgehurst, Hertfordshire - the big country house of his friend Edward Speyer. Elgar resolved to pay for the table by selling his precious Gagliano violin.

It was Alice who was reluctantly assigned the mission and she noted in her diary that ‘she felt such a traitor to the thing she loves’.

Elgar's great friend, the orchestral leader Billy Read remembered the games of billiards: ‘as in everything else he set himself to do he was dead serious about it, and would never attempt the most obvious shot until he had thought out exactly where the balls were likely to be, not only for the next shot, but for the one after that. After these exhausting calculations, the obvious shot was missed more often that not; so the rest of the plan did not materialise.’


Dora Penny, Dorabella in the Enigma Variations, lived with her family in Wolverhampton. She recalled a day in December 1895, the first time that she met Elgar: ‘music was the last thing he wanted to talk about. I think we talked about football, he wanted to know if I ever saw the Wolverhampton Wanderers play, it all delighted him.’

Miss Penny sent Elgar a newspaper report from a match in which a player ‘banged the leather to goal.’ Elgar was particularly taken with this phrase and in a letter to Dora he set it to music.

Horse Racing

Elgar's serious interest in horse racing really started during the 1920s when he became a member at the Worcester Race Club, but it was an interest which went back much earlier.

Elgar's godson, Wulstan Atkins, recalled a particularly fine day in April 1926 when Elgar picked up the Atkins family for an excursion to the Croome Races: ‘He and my mother had a wonderful time going into the paddock, examining the horses, discussing form, odds etc, and placing bets on every race. I can see Elgar now, immaculately dressed, with grey top hat and racing glasses.’

Place your bets

Elgar kept a separate bank account for his racing bets but believed that he usually evened out by the end of the season. This however is not the official line taken by the bookmakers.

When Elgar was alive it was said to be advisable to find out which horse he was backing in any race and then back something else, for bookmakers, who were awestruck by his infallible skill in picking losers, could only attribute it to some mysterious power.

The Billiard's Room at Lanhydrock, with a billiard's table in the foreground and a fireplace in the background.
Billiards was a favourite pastime of Sir Edward Elgar | © National Trust Images / Andreas von Einsiedel


In the summer of 1900 while staying at Birchwood Lodge, his cottage just beyond the north end of the Malvern Hills, Elgar learned to ride a bicycle.

'Our cycling trips began in earnest after 'Gerontius'. There cannot have been a lane within twenty miles of Malvern that we did not ultimately find, to Upton, to Tewkesbury or Hereford, to the Vale of Evesham, to the lovely villages on the west side of the hills. As we rode, he would often become silent and I knew that some new melody or, more probably, some new piece of orchestral texture, had occurred to him'

– Rosa Burley

Elgar purchased two ‘Royal’ Sunbeams over the years both of the machines had 28in frames and three brakes. He called them both 'Mr. Phoebus' and he was an enthusiastic cyclist, often going to the works for a 'tuning'.

According to factory legend, Elgar sometimes went by train with his ‘Royal’ Sunbeam to the Wolverhampton works on Saturdays, enabling him to watch his favourite football team, The Wolves, afterwards returning home by an evening train with his serviced bicycle.


As an older man much of Elgar's life was centred on dogs. He had grown up with them - one a family pet and another as a companion during the years before his marriage.

Alice, however, was not as keen on dogs and cited their frequent absences from home as an excuse for not keeping one. After Alice's death, Elgar started to become more and more sentimental about dogs and over the next 14 years he made up for the deprivations of the previous 30. First came an Aberdeen terrier called Meg, then Marco, a spaniel, and finally, Mina, a cairn.

Close up of a small brown and white dog
Much of Sir Edward Elgar's life as an older man centred around dogs | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

These animals were his constant companions, even seeming to take precedence over his music. On the night of his seventieth birthday, Elgar conducted a massive concert of his music for the BBC. At the conclusion he stepped up to the microphone and said: ‘Goodnight everybody. Goodnight, Marco.’

Marco and Mina are buried in the garden at the Birthplace cottage.

'At tea-time the three dogs [Marco, Mina and Meg] line up in front of Sir Edward, who sits on the arm of a couch and gives them sweet biscuits and cake. At a word they simultaneously rise up like soldiers and stand at attention. A friend of Sir Edward's calls them "The Three Musketeers" because of this trick.'

– The animal writer Rowland Jones, c.1930

View of the house at The Firs, Worcestershire. Birthplace of Sir Edward Elgar

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