They say you should never return to a place where you’ve been happy. I must admit it was with immense trepidation that I went back to the school where I was not only educated between the age of 6-11, but also grew up, spending not just the term time but also most of the school holidays, for 11 years. It dawned on me recently that not many people even get the opportunity to return to the house of their childhood, let alone one which doubled as not just home, but school too. I left the school (St. Andrew’s, Woking) exactly 30 years ago, so it was inevitable that there would be change, although I had been for a brief visit around 15 years ago. The school was originally owned by my grandfather, who taught me Classics (and a lifelong fear of leaving inkblots on my exercise book (1p fine), of accidentally letting a corner of an exercise book become bent over (1p fine), and of swinging my legs while sitting at my desk (addles your brain). By the time I started at the school in 1978, my grandfather had handed the reins of the school to my father, and taken on the role of school bursar instead. My father taught me maths and hockey, and instilled in me a lifelong love of playing sports (though sadly I was never to play hockey again after I left the school at 11, since at my next school they played lacrosse instead), his skill of teaching by intrigue (almost every idea was reinforced through props, stories and sometimes, to our great delight, acting out scenarios such as Archimedes in his bath), skills which I emulate in my lectures today by introducing quiz games, anecdotes and funny pictures; and his all-consuming fear of idleness (as a result I find it impossible to sit still for more than 5 minutes). I’m not sure I ever shared his belief that a cold shower would help you get maths questions right (a punishment for getting easy questions wrong in class). But I digress.
The occasion was, just over a year after my father’s death, a memorial event at the school, involving speeches, planting of a tree in his name, a memorial hockey match played by alumni, and an opportunity for family members, former staff and alumni to reminisce over lunch.
I was nervous because I knew the school had changed a lot. From being an all-boys’ prep school with around 40 boarders and 70 dayboys (when I was there – I had the honour of being the only girl in the school!), it is now a thriving co-ed day school, with a pre-prep included. Gone were the dormitories and bathrooms, now music rooms, and now there were girls’ changing rooms and toilets (as the only female pupil, I had had to use the staff toilet, to my perpetual embarrassment). My grandfather would probably have had a fit at the thought of girls being allowed! The boys’ changing rooms now have a door so you can no longer see straight into the showers as you walk along the corridor to the classrooms. Gone were also the chicken runs, the boarders’ wood, a large assortment of sheds, the kitchen garden, the rope for the great church bell that indicated the start and end of any outdoor activities, my great aunt’s house, the long jump pit, and the dayboys’ wood. In their place were new buildings, a shiny astroturf pitch and tennis court, a whole pre-prep building, proper sports hall, playgrounds (apparently children aren’t content with building dens in the woods, but need permanent fixtures now, probably on the grounds of health and safety).
But to be honest, apart from the church bell (which apparently had broken and couldn’t be fixed, though the bell itself is still in place), you can’t really complain about the improvements. While memories of hockey on the big slope of “Upper” (the top field) are so abiding that I still have dreams about playing there 30 years later, the new astro pitch is much better technically, and of course better suited to our inclement weather, as proven by the torrential rain that fell halfway through the hockey match. I’m ashamed to say that we all migrated indoors at that point, leaving the alumni to battle on unsupported. Actually I have no idea if they even finished playing, or if they abandoned the game at that point. It seems a little pointless for them to have carried on, since no one really cared who won, given that all the players were alumni. Personally I think an alumni vs pupils would have been. much better idea, and far more entertaining (especially since most of us didn’t have a clue who any of them were). A match involving those of us attending could have included me, my brother and cousins (all in our 40s), some of the former staff (ages ranging from 50s to 90s), most of whom I imagine haven’t picked up a hockey stick since leaving school, or at least university. The highlight of our sports calendar when I was a pupil was always the staff v students match at the end of term, which, at least for hockey, would include my mother and sometimes some of the other keen female matrons and cooks. It was usually a fair battle – the speed and agility of youth vs. the experience of the not-so-young. The astroturf would even have enabled Betty Bridson (aged 93) to play in her wheelchair, though I suspect she’d have declined the invitation. But I suppose there are standards to be maintained, and too much hilarity would have detracted from the seriousness of the occasion.
The other important thing missing was the shed where the stilts were kept. Stilting should be a part of any school curriculum, in my opinion. Though it was never actually taught, it was part of much of our free time, and stilt racing was an essential and hotly contested part of Sports Day, even though most of us were terrible at it and could only manage a few steps before we fell off. The stilts were wooden and quite possibly made by my grandfather, coming in a variety of sizes. I was far too scared (and useless at stilting) to progress beyond the lowest sets, where the rung for your feet was only about a foot off the ground. While this didn’t make the actual stilting any easier, it made getting on and off much easier, and felt a lot less scary. The stilting pros mastered a technique called “Yankee style”, where instead of hooking your arms around the stilt poles, you would hold them like a pair of ski poles. This enabled you to stilt at much greater speeds, but was much harder and required constant forwards momentum in order not to fall off. My all time favourite memory of Sports Day is of Sebastian Coe (who at the time was current 1500m world record holder) attending Sports Day as the official prize presenter in the early 1980s. He was intrigued by the stilt racing, and announced in his speech that if he was ever in charge of the Olympics, stilt racing would definitely be in it. I tweeted last summer to remind him of this, but he never replied.
To return to the point — in spite of my reticence (I think we’re secretly all a bit scared of change, let alone when you have so many very personal memories attached to something), I was surprised to find that I had a wonderful day looking around the school and reliving many memories, and found myself actually very proud of all the progress and improvements that had been made to my family school. Most importantly, they had kept so many seemingly insignificant but to us, very important traditions: saying “the long grace” in Latin before meals one day a week (I’m pretty sure almost every former pupil can still recite it even now), the old dining room with its Honour boards (denoting those pupils who had won scholarships to public school (and on which many of my family members are represented), the giant flowerbeds in the shape of the four suits of cards, and even the same wire shoe lockers in the changing rooms.
The sack cupboard still exists (which was used to store lost property, and involved a punishment of raking leaves or similar for the culprits who had lost their items of clothing: the naming and shaming via the “sack list” was an integral part of morning prayers), though it now just stores empty boxes (we did check for stray socks lurking in the back, just to be sure). Change is inevitable, and while my father was a traditionalist in many aspects, he also realised its importance. I think he’d be very proud of the school today, though I doubt he’d fully appreciate how much of that was down to his groundwork over the preceding years. Doubtless I shall be visiting again in the years to come, but in future I shall look on the visits with eager anticipation, rather than a slightly impending sense of doom.