The bond made while sharing a dormitory at boarding school is never broken; one carries the common experiences for ever. By another of the great good fortunes in my life Jan and I had just met for the first time after leaving prep school over fifty years earlier and discovered that by extraordinary coincidence we were to spend the next fortnight together riding across the Thar desert followed by a few days of rubbernecking in Rajasthan. Our driver loaded our bags and we set off on the six hour drive for Dundlod, 240km south west of New Delhi in the Shekhawati region, where we were to spend the night.
We had last seen each other at Hanford House, a glorious, honey coloured, Grade II early seventeenth century manor house in Dorset after which our school was named. The school had been founded in 1947 by The Reverend Clifford Brooke Canning, and his wife Enid. He was much older than she and I think it was her ‘project’ after the years she had spent in a supportive role to him. We had landed there in the mid ’50s before the days of OFSTED; Health and Safety or Catering and Hygiene.
The teaching was the best I was to have in any school and much more inspirational than anything that followed. Mrs Canning’s father, Sir Cyril Norwood, had been successively head of Leeds Grammar, Marlborough and Harrow, President of St John’s College Oxford and had been knighted for Services to Education. C. B. Canning – or as we called him (to his face) for some long forgotten reason – Tin Can – had been a housemaster at Malborough before becoming head of Canford School. Not only were they steeped in experience but they had friends throughout the academic world a number of whom taught us in their own retirement including at least one public school headmaster. Pre-pubescent girls must have seemed enchanting to teach after a lifetime teaching adolescent boys. Our single school visit to the sea at Lulworth Cove each summer was augmented by a day for each top scholarship gained to a public school – one year we had four.
‘Health and Safety’ was governed by Mrs Canning’s common sense. We climbed high into the great Cedar trees and played tag, usually running along the branches without holding on to anything. As long as we had enough experience or guts we rode ponies flat out over the Hod and Hambledon Hill forts, flying the gorse bushes, whooping as we went. If we helped in the stables and the Portman hounds met nearby we were rewarded by a day’s hunting. Probably during most terms at least one of us ended up in plaster but it was part of learning to look after ourselves and by others’ mistakes. We swam in the ornamental lily pond that was fed by a very chilly spring that came straight from the hill, and then had to run naked down to the house and back ‘to get warm’ before towelling off.
The food was hit and miss – usually miss; often disgusting. The hits were the wonderful fresh vegetables that were brought in daily, in large wooden trugs, from the two high red-bricked-walled Victorian kitchen gardens on which the fruit ripened. However war-time rationing was still fresh in everyone’s minds and we had to clear our plates and be grateful, even if the cauliflowers contained boiled caterpillars (“…high in protein!” – really?) or the porridge had spent the night bubbling on the Aga with an old washing up cloth inadvertently left in the cauldron. None of us died although the mother of one girl, taken to the family doctor at the start of one holidays, was told that her daughter was suffering from malnutrition.
She must have been cleverer at avoiding the food than I was. We ate in the centre of the house, originally an Italianate courtyard that had been glazed over by the Victorians who also panelled it. Mrs Canning had a habit of rescuing the less fortunate. Lottie, an East German refugee, was the school cook who walked over the fields from Shillingstone every single morning, whatever the weather, fording the River Stour on her way, but who showed no inclination to master English. More than once she confused the hessian sacks washing soda with salt; frothy but not mousseline. There were two short tables on either side of what had been the front door from the courtyard, and three long ones arranged in a horseshoe. If one sat at the short tables one could usually slip unpalatable food through the fretwork of the panelling where it must have become biltong on the concealed radiators before it fed the mice. Strangely it never smelled. Off-loading food when sitting at the refectory tables was more challenging and depended on one’s ability to flick it unnoticed from one’s plate, into the waiting jaws of the various resident long-dogs. Their help depended on how many others had got to their appetites first. Failing to accomplish off-load meant that one had to sit there until one had finished everything even if it meant missing games. One couldn’t even get away with hiding bits of gristle under a fork and one soon learned that eating it warm was better than trying to swallow it at tea-time when one had looked at it for hours and it had congealed. It was perfect training for adventure travel when needing to accept appreciatively the choice cut of something very dubious looking.
The thing that made Hanford different was that the Cannings were like the parents many of us had. They were artistic, intelligent, humorous, loved rural life, believed in discipline and manners and they had lots of interesting friends. When those friends visited they ate with us so it was not unusual to find oneself sitting next to people like Sir William Coldstream (many of his paintings were hung on the walls alongside Utrillo and Passmore) or Sir Anthony Blunt – Mrs Canning had been at the Slade. Sunday services were held in the tiny chapel of Medieval origin and visiting preachers were often bishops. They made us think. Before the days of advertising or open days parents were friends of parents and we tended to come from colonies in places such as Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Inverness or London. Although we only went home once in the Winter and Summer terms and never in the Easter term, what with seeing our parents’ friends and the Cannings’ friends, we somehow felt it wasn’t that divorced from home. By and large it was the most tremendously happy place to be; we loved it; cried when we left and returned as adults.
Years later Bhopal Singh, our lovely guide in Gugarat, warned those who had not been on Indian roads before that you need three things to survive them – good brakes, a good horn and good luck but in the six hours that it took our driver to extricate us from Delhi and to reach Dundlod, we had been far too busy catching up with each other’s lives to notice the weaving, dodging, braking, near misses and our driver’s covert exclamations. An hour to each decade or 2 hours to each topic – “What has happened in your life?” “Whatever happened to so and so?” and “Do you remember when….?” – although necessarily those criss-crossed as memories triggered names and events.
The light was starting to fade by the time we reached Dundlod. Our driver slowed to weave between the early evening shoppers and a brief pause in our chatterings gave him the opportunity to tell us that we were there. With that he swung into a grass courtyard through the huge open timber doors (designed to withstand aggressive elephants) set into a long, defensive wall. We had arrived at Dundlod Fort.
Dundlod is a rural town of about 10,000 people and at its heart is the fort, built in 1750 by Keshri Singh a direct antecedent of our host Kr.Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod known to everyone as Bonnie. All the while that our driver removed the luggage from the car he had a flickering smile. I realised that other than a couple of stops on the way for samosas and lassi not only had we not talked to him but Jan and I hadn’t stopped talking to each other. I apologised and explained that until an hour before he collected us from the hotel in Delhi we hadn’t seen each other for fifty years. His smile became laughter.
“Oh it was wonderful. You were having such fun. Normally the English just sit in the back of my car in silence. You are so different.”
With our bags neatly arranged at the foot of the wide steps leading up to canopied terrace he said he would go and look for someone. Although there was a promising smell of cooking wafting across the courtyard there was no other sign of life. After a while he returned with Sunayana, Bonnie’s assistant and as we were to discover, the organiser of most things. She showed us to our rooms and after we had dumped our stuff we returned to the duchatta – on the first floor whence the women used to watch proceedings happening in the Diwan-i-Khas, the hall where audiences took place. It turned out that despite staying in one of India’s Heritage Hotels we were the only guests there. Not only that – we had joined a private house party and it was a birthday party to boot. Besides Bonnie and Sunayana, there was Pip Priestley, the Oz caterer from Edinburgh who owns Polo Chef, and the famous German equine photographer Christiane Slawick and her Hungarian husband. Everyone would gather later to have a celebratory supper, in the meantime we were free to explore.
So I’d lucked in again – Fortune Favours the Fortunate.