My Home: Richard Sisson, composer

How do you get a grand piano up to the top floor of a windmill? The composer Richard Sisson relives the highs and lows of his restoration
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The Independent Online

The composer and pianist Richard Sisson, 49, wrote the score for Alan Bennett's play The History Boys. He lives alone in a converted windmill near Hitchin, Hertfordshire

I've lived in the mill for six years. It's the longest I've ever stayed in one place. I was born in Singapore and have lived all over the world. In the years before moving here I shared my time between a brick-and-flint cottage in the village and an apartment in London's Maida Vale.

I blame Dame Maggie Smith for the fact that I haven't been able to restore the sails on the front of the mill as yet. I composed the music for Alan Bennett's play The Lady in the Van, in which Dame Maggie starred, and this financed the completion of the top two storeys of the mill. I get a royalty from ticket sales, and my share of the takings from the Broadway transfer of the play was going to fund the restoration of the sails, or sweeps. Unfortunately for me, Maggie, Alan and Nicholas Hytner, the director, decided the play would not repeat its London success in an American theatre. So, no sails. But I now have high hopes for the success of The History Boys which is in London's Wyndhams Theatre this Christmas for a season.

I'm surrounded by woodland and fields, and waking up to a view of rolling green is wonderful. The acre of land immediately surrounding the property is private, though I get a lot of curious ramblers lurking. When I moved into the mill in 2000, the garden was a wilderness. It had once been a nursery for the fruit trees of the estate, and there remains a variety of fruit trees. In spring it's a great riot of blossom.

I found the property by chance, while visiting a house in a nearby village where a friend from the Royal Ballet lived. Walking Daisy the dog through local countryside, I stumbled across the dilapidated ruin of the disused mill. I'm a city boy at heart, with a fixed idea that I need the energy of the streets to survive, but the filth, traffic and expense of life in London had begun to take its toll. I realised that what I needed was more space and a bit of room to grow. This place offered the perfect retreat. Joan Rivers tours all over the world with my musical comedy act Kit and The Widow, and she assures me that it sounds frighteningly primitive and she'll never set foot in it.

A windmill is an expensive structure to renovate, and also very tricky to furnish, due to the curved dimensions. Mine is a listed building, so any work must be sympathetic to the period of the building. Coming from a minimalist abode in London, I was used to glass doors, chrome, leather and a polished concrete interior. Here in the mill I've chosen to go rustic with an agro-industrial edge. I've incorporated Luton's famous bricks, Luton Greys, which are used as a base for the work-surfaces in the kitchen and feature elsewhere in various structural furnishings. Some of the shelves and surfaces inside are made from beautiful 150-year-old oak salvaged from the workings of the mill itself.

The building was constructed in 1856, and was only in use for the short period of 40 years, which is why it has survived for so long. I worked with a local architect and started on the bedroom and kitchen first. Because of the curve of the walls, there isn't much room for furniture, and it's hard to find a place to hang pictures. It proved impractical to divide the space on each level, as even at the base this is a relatively small area. I worked within the ordained dimensions of the building with a single room on each floor. I executed a lot of the work myself. It was the perfect excuse to buy a set of flash DIY equipment.

Laying the wooden floor for the stairs was particularly challenging - the computer couldn't draw a floor-plan because of the complexity of it progressively both curving and tapering. I ended up working it out manually with the builder and then did the timber cladding myself.

It was important to me that I personally administered as much of the work as I could. This included making and fitting the wardrobes, and repointing all the brickwork. I tried to use as much of the original material as possible, and made the banisters from old timber salvaged from the top of the mill.

My grand piano proved particularly challenging to deal with. It's a wonderful Bösendorfer, which I had left in Andre Previn's hotel room for three months while I sorted out its installation. The removal men were less than pleased when they saw three flights of spiralling staircase.

The studio has six windows, two pairs of which are set, rather poetically, on the axes of the summer and winter solstices. The handcuffs kept on the windowsill are part of a current experiment, in which I'm trying to compose a piece that can only be played when wearing them. The house is embarrassingly full of theatrical mementos. I am also very proud of my complete collection of books by Richard Dawkins. That man is a god to me!

Much as one might be tempted by a more lavish lifestyle, a simple, peaceful home is what pleases me most. Much of my life is dominated by touring and I think of my home as a holiday retreat. I love waking up here. It's private and removed from the daily bustle of life. Until my hips finally give out on the stairs this is where I'll be. At that point, I'll relocate to a tent in the garden. Due to the blessed infrequency of visitors, it'll be a good 10 days before they find the body. The smell and the buzz of bluebottles will alert the world. Then I shall be quietly buried in the woods, next to my beautiful dogs.

Richard is one half of the musical duo Kit and the Widow, who appear for a Christmas season at the Arts Theatre, London, 10-12 December

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