For some reason I woke up wondering how many mornings I had spent in the world. 26,280. It meant nothing to me. Like the circumference of the earth and the National Debt it is an unimaginable figure. However it is neat and round and as my erstwhile editor Stella Barnes says that I must write a blog, it seems as good a day as any to start.
Just over 19,000 days ago my public school headmistress Miss C. B. Galton, whom we called Betty, summoned me into her study and in an attempted put-down told me that as I was contributing nothing to the school I should leave at the end of the summer term. With what must have been infuriating teenage gall I agreed with her on the grounds that I felt the school was contributing nothing to me either. What she must have planned as a castigating interview was over almost before it had started.
Her study was a very elegant small drawing room on the first floor of New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire. It had a pretty fireplace, a high ceiling with fine mouldings and a large sash window against which she sat so that it was difficult to see her facial expression. Deciding that there was nothing to be added I thanked her for seeing me – her choice not mine – and let myself out through one of the cornice-height, slightly bowed, mahogany double doors. Why anyone would choose to be the headmistress of a boarding school full of academically selected teenage girls incarcerated in rural Wiltshire in the 1960s I cannot imagine. I was not the only one who must have been exasperating.
Cranborne Chase School had been founded in 1946 and was the ‘sister’ school to Bryanston. The wonderfully named Thorold Coade had been headmaster of Bryanston where Betty had taught Geography and it was said that it was he who had persuaded her to become headmistress of the new girls school. He visited her regularly until his death in 1963. I suspect that he was only metaphorically holding her hand but as teenage girls, pre-occupied with ‘love’, we decided that their meetings must be romantic. Of course we had no evidence of it and the only manifestation of her ability to be affectionate that we ever witnessed was occasioned by her overweight dachshund, Rupert.
In the early days the school was housed at Crichel in Dorset, a stunning house designed by Thomas Hopper with interiors by James Wyatt rented from the Martens who had successfully fought the Government to reclaim land compulsorily purchased during the war – the Crichel Down Affair. Many teachers came from Bryanston, all parents were interesting and most famously intelligent. A decent mark in Common Entrance had to be backed up by a successful interview with Betty. When the lease expired in 1961 the governors bought New Wardour Castle about 20 miles to the north in Wiltshire. It is another wonderful building. Designed by Paine with additions by Quarenghi, known for his work in St Petersburg, it sits on a slight hill surrounded by earth moved under the direction of Capability Brown. The magnificent rotunda featured at the end of the film Billy Elliot.
By the end of the 50s it had been neglected for years following a few childless Baron Arundells of Wardour and the death of the last in WWII. Its purchase caused the school near brankruptcy owing to the spiralled cost of renovation that to our unbridled delight made front page news in the Daily Express during the summer holidays prior to our first term there. Parents had to cough up a donation, the equivalent to a further term’s fees, or find somewhere else to send their daughters.
The move to Wardour gave staff a reason to leave. Many would have had their commute through the lanes of Dorset increased by two hours a day. One took up a headship in Tasmania. The Director of Studies and Classics master, Anthony Brackenbury returned briefly to Bryanston and then became the first head of the Yehudi Menuhin School. Some of the teaching dipped. Ironically as Coade was known for his interest in sports and orienteering we were known for taking as little exercise as possible – it simply wasn’t cool to rush about cradling a lacrosse stick. If one played two musical instruments one was let off a day’s sport each week in order to give us enough time to practice both. Consequently the school of 130 girls could muster two orchestras. We ligged around in pencil tight charcoal grey skirts and baggy sweaters, with hair hanging over our faces like half-drawn curtains. Some of us built up such a surplus of energy through lack of academic and physical exertion that it led to a wide spectrum of disapproved diversions.
So there I was outside Betty’s study just having volunteered my departure. I was sixteen. Somehow I had to explain this to my widowed father. The fact that I can’t remember how it went shows that he took it as pragmatically as he took everything else. After the gut-wrenching death of my mother eleven years previously everything paled in comparison and nothing really upset him.
I had spent the years at Wardour in the distant Art Room while listening to our master, the Dorset painter Anthony Brown, chewing the fat with (Sir) Harrison Birtwistle (CH), who taught Theory of Music O level, some woodwind and sometimes even composed for us. It was by far the most interesting place to be but it did nothing for my academic progress – or lack of it. I avoided lessons and made up spurious excuses for not having done assignments. As a result I passed only one of the ten ‘O’ levels for which I had been entered: French.
After a spell at Davies Laing and Dick, the crammer in Notting Hill Gate, I added what was deemed enough to the tally and 18 months later I found myself at Marignane Airport, Marseille. It was the heat of a Provencal early autumn evening that hit me first. I had been to Brittany and I had been skiing in Austria but this was something else. Then it was the smell. That cocktail of rosemary, garlic, Gauloises and the mild sea air of the Mediterranean was like nothing I had smelled before. In the distance tyres screamed, claxons sounded and ships’ horns blew. As I walked across the warm tarmac to the terminal I realised that it wasn’t only language, faces and topography that changed across the world, and about which I had known thanks to the National Geographic Magazine. It was also the sounds and smells that hadn’t emerged from the printed page.
I had been hooked by abroad and the quest to travel; to be able breath and hear as well as to look.
(Cranborne Chase finally closed in 1990. In 1992 New Wardour Castle was bought by Nigel Tuersley and converted into flats. Betty’s study is now a bathroom.)