Memories of Brambletye Boys Preparatory School 1967 – 1971.
When I went to Brambletye at the age of nine, in September 1967, it was my fifth school in the last four years. As my parents were routinely being posted within the Army, they felt a boarding school would give me a more stable education. I vaguely remember touring the school with them and Mr Blencowe, the Headmaster, one summer before term and being asked if I would be happy there for the next four years, to which I obediently replied, "Yes".
The school seemed to be based on many military methods. Each boy was allocated to one of four Houses named after great British military heroes: there were Nelson, Marlborough and Drake, and I was in Wellington. Many boy’s fathers had been to Brambletye when they were young and it was not unusual for them to insist their son followed in the same House. Instead of prefects we had Officers. As just one part of the overall military discipline we had to march everywhere!
We had no first names even though all our parents may have thought long and hard about choosing a name that would either continue the family line, please a grandfather or uncle or be one of the "in" names in the 1960’s. Despite this being formalised by Christening we were only referred to by our surnames. The list of boarders showed a proliferation of double-barrelled surnames, and one poor boy was even blessed with a triple barrelled title. If you had the same surname as someone else, the older and more senior added "1" to his name, the junior adding "2". You had Smith 1 and 2 because they were common. They did get as far as Sommerfelt 3 but no other parents managed to produce four offspring within the four year scope of preparatory school life (fertility treatment had not been developed at this time!).
I remember the first night, going to bed later than it should have been at 6.30pm, and a few of the other sixteen or so boys in the dormitory sobbing into their pillows. They were comforted by the matrons in their starched white uniforms. I had the benefit of a few months on the majority of them as I was a Spring baby born in March, while there were still others born later in Autumn of the same year who were in the same intake. Whether this classified me as "retarded" because there were younger and cleverer boys in the same class, I shall never be sure, but I do know I didn’t cry on the first night.
The dormitory was a long room with nine steel framed beds down one side, seven down the other. One side had deep windows stretching from the high ceiling down to near the floor, overlooking the shallow valley below. To the right you could see a lake or reservoir that glistened in the sun. It appeared only a few miles away. To me it symbolised "freedom" as on nice sunny days you could see yachts sailing on it. But between the shimmering water and me was a gulf that might as well have been a thousand miles wide. I never ever did reach its shores, and be able to look back across to the school.
Winter terms could be dark and huge curtains were drawn across those high dormitory windows. In summer time even they couldn’t make it dark enough to sleep until late. But at least in summertime you could find the enamelled tin potties which were strategically located around the dormitory. These could get rather full and smelly over night and were a disgusting trap for little feet as boys sneaked around barefoot in their pyjamas after lights out. There was many a time when a toe stubbed a potty in the dark. There would be a stifled shriek either followed by the splashing of urine onto the wooden floor or the crashing of an empty tin potty skidding across the dormitory. If it crashed into the steel frame of a bed you had about 10 seconds to run back to the other end of the dormitory in pitch darkness, find your bed, leap under the blankets and "be asleep" before simultaneously the lights came on and a Master strode into the room. Anyone caught out of bed was in for a whacking!
Actually this only happened rarely. Dormitory raids were the exception rather than the rule. Mind you it was difficult from the juniors dormitory. The dormitory door led into a magnificent hall, very much the Headmaster’s part of the school, with offices, and staff rooms to the right. A huge skinned tiger with his stuffed head, bared teeth and glass eyes, lay star shaped on the parquet floor, ready to rip into your ankles if you dared pass. To the left lay a wood panelled corridor leading to Mr Blencowe’s room. Ahead, past the tiger, rose a magnificent wooden grand staircase. Above it a huge portrait of a very stern gentleman stared down forbiddingly towards the dormitory door. Access to the other dormitories could only be gained across this hall and up the staircase. With doors to left and right from which a master might appear at any moment, the staring, watching eyes of the portrait, and the risk of a master or matron appearing on the landing above, it was incredibly risky in a Colditz sort of way left to venture upstairs after lights out. If a number of you were caught, wielding pillows, tip toeing upstairs, there was only one outcome. A quick march down the panelled corridor to the left took you to Mr Blencowe’s office. Normally being there was not good news, but it always gave me the chance to see the two black cast statues of Charles I and Henry VIII(?) that stood in his hallway. I was always impressed by these 3ft tall figures and thirty-five years later was quite upset to hear that they ended their lives thrown in a rubbish tip.
There were a number of strange procedures for First Years. One peculiar rule was that juniors had to line up outside the toilets every morning. A junior officer held a book – perhaps it should have been called a log book. According to the order of name in the book each boy would enter the toilet as a cubicle became available, do what he could and return to report to the officer with either a "1" or a "2" to confirm which bodily function had been completed. A twelve or thirteen year old officer then had the medical responsibility when noting a certain boy had not reported a "2" for several days, to tell him to go back in and try harder. Serious cases of constipation were referred to the school nurse.
After lunch we were required to rest. This meant returning to our dormitory to lie fully clothed in our uniforms on our beds and in silence. Of course at our age this was the last thing we wanted to do. Sleeping was difficult at this time of the day; after all lights out was at 6.30pm every night. You could take one book to read, but if you had made a poor choice you were stuck with it. Fidgeting was not allowed, even if you were bored!
Apart from the above two additions to the day’s routine it didn’t really matter which year you were in, the routine Monday to Friday was the same.
We got up on the alarm bell, dressed and washed. Then all 120 or so boys marched by dormitory into the Dining room to sit on wooden benches down the sides of long wooden tables topped by either a Master or Matron at each end. Grace was said in a silent room to immediately be followed by the din of scraping of chairs and benches, clattering of china and cutlery and 120 chattering boys. The food was always prepared and brought to the ends of the tables in large aluminium trays by some curious little Spanish couple called Angela and Manuel. I was never sure where they lived but it appeared to be in a large cupboard at the end of the dining hall!
The Master or Matron served the food, helped by the boy on the end of the row. We all moved round one place each day. As each plate was filled with food it was passed from boy to boy down the line to the end. Breakfast was always cornflakes in the summer term followed by bacon, egg and plum tomatoes. Sometimes the egg was scrambled in a watery pale yellow mush of nothing. For variety it was fried into flat discs of rubber. In winter it was porridge poured out of a massive jug – every day. Sometimes I ate a few spoonfuls, but despite a rule that you sit there until you eat it, there was always a hungry chum nearby that preferred to eat my porridge than have a dose of scrambled egg. Once I sat in the dining hall whilst the rest of school had morning inspection, chapel, prep and the first lesson, before Angela took pity on me, gave me a smile, and removed the solid, cold bowl of porridge from in front of me. I would have sat there all day, but I think she had been waiting to go shopping!
After the meal we returned to the dormitory to make our beds. This was a precise science recalling military traditions of the 45 degree hospital tuck and razor sharp folds. Points were attributed to the house for clean and tidy dormitories. We then had a short time to brush up our shoes and present ourselves for inspection in the main hall. This was to all intents and purposes a military parade with the Captain walking up and down each line to give a head to toe examination of brushed hair, tie knot, clean knees and polished and tied shoes. We always faced one side of the hall and your eyes naturally rose up to some huge ornate wooden boards listing the names of all the old School Captains who had gone on to better things. I was always struck by this board as it listed boys all the way back to the time of the Great War. I never thought my name would be on this board and I was proven right!
Next came chapel. A short march took us into a beautiful little chapel. I still remember there was so much wood in it and some lovely religious frescos. As a "non-singer" chapel during the week was quite straightforward. You stood up, sang, sat down, knelt, stood up, sang, knelt, sat up, listened to the lesson………..the routine was the same every day. I once was told to read the lesson. I was given a week to prepare for it, and fretted every day over it. Shaking in my shoes I read it in front of the whole school and apparently missed a whole verse out of it, but next to nobody noticed.
We had a short spell of "prep" until nine o’clock (time to do the home work you didn’t do lastnight) before it was full steam into lessons.
Colonel Molesworth, was our French teacher. He was so regimented in everything he did, at lunchtime he would disect a rectangular tray of rice pudding with skin, into 24 precise portions using a knife to gauge the proportions. Then he would take the knife and try to cut a rectangular block of rice pudding! I tell you what, he had some knack! I detested rice pudding, porridge, semolina or tapioca, and still he always managed to give me the same sized portion as everyone else!
He was even more amazing at French. He taught us Franglais, a language quite unknown to the Gallic people of France, so that even after finishing at Brambletye, and continuing it at High school, I still could not speak French after nine years.
He would have left today’s England’s football team in tears with his rules. In the days of wingers on each side, inside left, centre forward, inside right, with right, centre and left halves and a left and right back you could not move out of your "box". As a right back, cross an imaginary line between the goal and the centre spot into the left half and the whistle would blow and you would be sent to run a quick circuit of the four pitches on the lower playing fields. Colonel Molesworth approved of the shoulder barge whereby a four stone weakling on the ball could be shoulder-barged with the force of a charging rhinoceros and no foul given. Similarly Henniker–Heaton’s clod-hopper boots, which were built of half inch thick leather coming up to the middle of his shins, tipped on the sole with half inch steel studs and re-inforced toe caps, could quite legitimately be used to separate an opponents leg from his foot at the ankle without any thought about the need to take time off sports through injury, physiotherapy or scans.
Colonel Molesworth: clipped moustache, highly polished brown shoes: what did he do in the war? (Mmm; he was prisoner. That seems appropriate)
Mr Trevanion was hard. Oh yes!!! He taught Maths. You didn’t say much to Mr Trevanion, you just answered his questions as directly as possible. You tried not to meet eye to eye with him either: his stare was deadly! Sometimes you would have to stand by the desk and wait whilst he marked your work. I noticed his hands then. They were hard!
Scripture was taught by Mr Jones, definitely a man to respect, and whilst he could be strict, I did seem to do well in his classes gaining a few "A-"s, "B+"s and "Satis" all over my work. He made me Form Captain. It was my job to let the class know what their Prep was for the next day so I must apologise to the whole class, now for the first time in thirty-four years, that one day I gave them the wrong details. This meant that the majority of them were in trouble with Mr Jones the next day for doing the wrong work. Protest as they did it was proven I couldn’t have given the wrong information as there were a number of boys who had completed the same work as me. They naturally kept quiet because these were the ones who had copied off me!
Mr Ogle taught Geography which I liked. I was good at locating the Amazon mouth, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the Nile, etc, on a blank map of the world with pinpoint precision. Is this why I later qualified as a Navigation Officer in the Merchant Navy twelve years later? But Mr Ogle was an arty-farty type of teacher into music and art as well. He seemed to swan around in his black gown and couldn’t be taken too seriously.
English and Latin were taught by Mr Glanfield (Glanners). I’m not sure why I don’t remember much about him. I suited Latin as it was very regimented, but unfortunately being good in Latin at Brambletye proved completely useless for any application in the rest of my life. Mr Glanfield lived in a room at the end of the dormitory corridor, up a short flight of stairs. I only got whacked by Mr Glanfield once with a hair brush (and I deserved it for being an irritating little shit in the dormitory after lights out). It was he who also developed the "sitting in" form of punishment. For minor mis-demeanors you could get a 15 minute "sit in" for each offence up to a maximum of an hour’s worth. When the rest of the school was free to play, anyone on a "sit in" was required to sit upright, in silence, facing forward, in a classroom for just you, a Master to watch over you and any other miscreants doing their "sit in". If you accrued more than an hour’s worth of "sit in", you not only had to do your time, but were sent down to see the Headmaster for a bit of serious talking, and maybe a whacking too!
Learning the dates of births and deaths of every English King and Queen, major battle and historical event from 1066 until the 20th Century by heart, now doesn’t seem such a waste of time when you bump into a foreign tourist who knows British Empire history better than you do. But I couldn’t trust the History teacher (whose name I conveniently cannot recall) who showed slightly too much favouritism to certain boys.
Science was a mix of chemistry, physics and biology taken by Mr Blencowe, a very mild man, who as headmaster had to be all things to the school. Not only did he have to lead the school in prayer and hymn in chapel, but conduct daily inspections, administor the whole school and invariably fill in for any teacher who was "away" for whatever reason. Science was fun. Apart from the effects of burning sodium and magnesium we had everything from breeding locusts to hatching chicks and copulating Xenopus toads. I remember Mr Blencowe saying something about injecting the toads to make them breed. I know at the time I thought the whole matter strangely peculiar: why was the male, scrabbling franticly at the top of the tank and the female lying completely breathless at the bottom? There were eggs everywhere! This was not mating as I knew it. Normally it is the male that is exhausted! It’s taken 34 years for Mr Blencowe to admit he was supposed to give the female a larger dose, but he gave it to the male by mistake!
Music lessons were the worry. Singing was not my strength but I learned, as a matter of self-preservation, to mime quite well. Mr Sharpe didn’t just have a sharp tongue; his hand could to do some damage too. This didn’t just happen in music lessons, but more memorably in chapel rehearsing for the main Sunday service. We would have to sing all the hymns and psalms selected for the next day’s service. Mr Sharpe would sit in the organ pit, fingers and feet bouncing off the organ keys and pedals. With back to us, suddenly he wouldn’t be happy with what he was hearing, leap out of the pit and race to the pew where he thought the wrong sound was coming from. Miming was no good at this point: you had to start singing quickly – and in tune too! Without the rhythm and backing of the organ it was doubly difficult and we had to continue to sing as he would come along our row, ear cocked to what we sang. If he heard the wrong note a hand would flash out so fast: "Whack!" right across the face!
I distinctly remember the row of five classrooms partitioned off from each other by wooden folding doors. At prep or when letter writing on Sunday the doors were folded back to allow one teacher to oversee everyone as they worked in silence. With the partitions closed during the day, we sat in cast iron framed desks with a flip up seat. There was an ink well filled regularly with a jug of the blue stuff. It was often spilt and some boys had significant indelible stains on various parts of their school uniform. Ink was used as an offensive weapon too, either flicked from the nibs of fountain pens or launched as a sodden ball of blotting paper into the front rows of the classroom. In one English lesson I remember a classmate taking several thick rubber bands, placing them over the tip of forefinger and thumb to form a catapault, and then placing a pellet of folded card into the "V", pulling it back, until the elastic would stretch no more before firing it into the bare neck of the boy immediately in front of him. Five minutes later he dared to do it again, but this time his aim was slightly out so that the hardened pellet richochetted off the back of the boy’s head, thudding into the wall of the classroom above Mr Glanfield’s head, before falling to the floor near his feet! All hell broke loose then and I had to quickly withdraw both hands from under the desk lid where I had been constructing a Concorde shaped aeroplane out of a felt tip pen body, some paperclips and a folded exercise book cover.
There were regular intervals in the day to run off energy, shout and run about. These were often five or ten minute spells between chapel and lessons, tea and chapel, prep and bed along with morning breaktime and after lunch –unless you were a junior of course.
In the winter and spring term we changed into our sports gear after lunch. We only played football in the winter term, and rugby in the spring term. In summer, games were played after the afternoon break and we always played cricket.
Playing football and rugby in the colder, wetter months, every day was not particularly pleasant. Apart from being hacked to death by Hennicker-Heaton’s boots, it was normally wet and cold. Being in the lower league playing fields and being refereed by Colonel Molesworth meant a long trudge from the playing fields up to the school. I hated how his military precision required us to play until the second hand of his watch hit the hour when some of the younger masters, watching the rain clouds gather, would blow the whistle early. Two hundred and forty hot, sweaty and wet boots were taken off and hung up in the small lean-to boot shed which stank like a giant mud wrestlers armpit, before the boys went up to shower. Colonel Molesworth’s troop, coming from the furthest field, always arrived last to find the changing rooms awash with muddy water and clods of grass, the wooden duck boards barely allowing you to change into dry clothes only by hanging yourself on the clothes hooks, and reaching down to pull your socks on.
If it was too wet to play games, we had to don our macintoshs and "gum" boots and walk up and down the school drive. Normally after two laps from one end to other you were allowed back inside out of the rain! Colonel Molesworth would call out, "Left, right, left, right"………c’mon chaps!"
Afternoon tea comprised of filing past to pick up your Marmite sandwich (jam on Sundays) and third of a pint of milk bottle. These were consumed whilst each boy sat on his allocated locker surrounding the main hall. Every day we would pass the crates of milk on the way to breakfast. In summer they sat in the sun and were still there at 3.30pm. Sometimes you could barely press the bottle top to remove it because the pressure had built up so much, and when you could, you would find the top half of the milk completely solid, curdled and sour. Some would clamp a hand over the bottle, shake it vigorously and swallow the lot in one. Some would put it on the floor, and whilst sat on the locker, "knock it over by mistake". This normally resulted in them being given another one to drink!!!
After games it was back into the classroom for more lessons until teatime. Too often it was bland macaroni cheese – just macaroni cheese on a plate which was abhorred by every boy. Still were to come "Prep", our homework session of homework carried out in silence in the classroom another parade and chapel service before we normally had half an hour or so of play before bed. With juniors tucked up in bed by 6.30pm, the second years were despatched by 7.00pm, third years at 7.30pm. Even the oldest boys had to be in bed by 8.00pm!
Saturday was a "half-day". Lessons and chapel Sunday service rehearsal (watch out for Mr Sharpe) in the morning followed by freetime in the afternoon. Freetime could be spent in many ways. There was a boating pond. Electric boats were rare then, and there was certainly no radio control. Most boats were either free sailing yachts or clockwork powered. We could play rounders, fly model planes, roller skate, do woodwork or pottery, go in the monkey-climb or into the woods. There were marionettes and a steam engine Club too. There were great Chestnut trees so the school went conker mad in October. The school drives were lined with rhododendron bushes and you could in places climb through the bushes without touching the ground for up to 200 yards or so in places. Amongst these boys had dens as they did in the bracken filled bushes of the woods. We had khaki coloured jackets that made us quite camouflaged and apart from the dens there were caverns dug out of the sandstone. These could have been dangerous, but despite having fires in them, the odd roof collapse and "wars" between different groups I’m not aware that there were any casualties.
Sunday was different. Instead of lessons we had the full service in the chapel lasting 75 minutes. This sometimes seemed quite interminable, especially when the sun was shining outside, but you couldn’t relax because the headmaster’s wife, teachers and matrons filled the pews behind you.
And then it was to letter writing. We had to write one letter every week. I nearly always wrote to my parents in Germany. It tended to get a bit repetitive although the scores and names could normally be alternated on a regular basis. "I got A minus in Latin. The First Eleven played Ashdown House and we won 5 –2. The Second Eleven lost 2-0. Crompton and Wallis 2 have got German measles and have gone to the sick bay for three days. Only 62 days to go until the end of term and I am looking forward to seeing you (for the first time in 3 months)". Normally we had to bring writing pads to school with us at the start of each term. The trick was to get a small one with widely spaced lines so that Colonel Molesworth’s demand for all letters to be two full pages didn’t require too many words. Whether it was censorship or not, we had to take them to the front of the class for the teacher to read before we could "finish" which normally on a Sunday meant escape into the woods.
Young as we were, the confines of the school were exactly that. There were areas you would never go in. In the woods there was only a small fence that marked the limit of where we were allowed to go. It might only have been a two strand barbed wire fence but I never crossed it. It was as if there was a hidden Nazi watchtower ready to machine gun you if you touched the tripwire. The limits were marked by a two bar metal fence or the drives in other directions, easily enough crossed, but like the shimmering lake, in four years that I was there, what lay outside was not part of my world.
But apparently there were two escapes in my time at the school. All of a sudden there were rumours that someone had done a runner, but shortly afterwards the school propaganda system kicked in and the "hero" became someone taken out of school urgently to visit a dying grandmother.
I think we bathed twice a week. We lined up in the bathroom, with three tubs, where we would take turns to leap in. I don’t think the water was changed, and matron would wash our hair. Every week we had a "sock" night or a "pants" night when everyone would throw that item in big baskets to be washed. Jumpers, shirts and trousers were washed less frequently. Only seniors, and only if they were over 5ft, could wear long trousers. At least once a term we were weighed and our height was recorded. Presumably the details helped our parents to recognise us when they next saw us! “Oh yes, darling, this one’s 4 ft 5 inches and about 5 stone, just like Timothy’s report says: this must be our son!”
I do remember a few "special" events. We occasionally were shown a film in the library. Apart from Treasure Island and The Robe these normally frightened me, especially the one of the headless horsemen attacking people in the dark! I only saw television a few times. There were some very basic " watch and learn" type physics programs in black and white but the only other thing I saw on TV was a fuzzy grey, live, image of the some men walking on the moon, for the first time.
We had some Spanish guy with long, horny nails come and play classical guitar, which seemed extremely tedious for us and him, and some cowboy who came and shot some balloons in the main hall.
Every year there was a school play. I was too young to be in Oliver. Just as well, as I was scared of the Bill Sykes character played by Jonathon Hughes De’Ath. Without girls in the school female parts had to be played by boys. It was whispered that one master reputedly quite fancied Cadicott-Bull who played Nancy. On the same basis I was quite glad I wasn’t too attractive in my blonde pigtails, pink dress and Bo-Peep hood as a sailor’s girl in the Pirates of Penzance. Playing a black cannibal in HMS Pinafore was much less dubious!
There were visitors to the school. Unfortunately one of these was the school dentist. Once a week we got sweets. A table was set up on the main hall stage and class by class we were taken to line up and chose our sweets. We each had a shilling with which you could get two handfuls of packets of sweets. Then decimalisation came in 1971 and we were robbed! Our shilling had become 5p. Straightaway we could only get about half as much. If we weren’t robbed here, there were other chances to take advantage of us.
Every so often a long haired traveller we called the "Swindler" parked near the school. He had a Commer van. It was stacked with miniature chess sets, models, pen-knives and games. Since leaving the school I’ve never understood why he was given access as he must have obtained his name and reputation from somewhere. But the knives were the most frequently bought items either for activities in the woods or for playing "splits" where two opponents face each other, with two knives. Each in turn throws their knife into the ground, the opponent having to stretch one foot to the knife leading to them eventually doing the splits. Whilst everyone had a knife (and some might come close in this game) I was never aware of any knives being used as weapons. Anyhow, if in any sort of confrontation all you had to do was raise a hand and shout "Pax" (meaning "Peace" in Latin) and for some mysterious reason you were safe. Similarly if a prowling Master was spotted when boys were doing something they shouldn’t, the warning word, "Cave" (pronounced "K.V" and meaning "warning" in Latin) was urgently passed from boy to boy.
There was also a barber who visited a school. Everyone got a cut and there was never any discussion over which style would suit. We all got the same. Strange that we sat in a small room having our hair cut next to a large glass case of British stuffed birds. I wondered if we would turn out the same.
There were tennis courts and a swimming pool at the school. I didn’t take tennis, but one summer a keep fit regime was started. At about 7.00 am we were taken to the tennis courts where we did press-ups, star jumps, and lots of exercises in the dewy, cool morning air. I remembering it lasting a week or so, and then strangely we never did it again.
We had rehearsals for Sports Day, practising marching onto the fields, when we would line up in front of the parents in white shorts, T-shirts and rubber plimsolls. We had to compete in at least two events. Not a natural runner I actually surprised myself by getting into the heats of the 100 yard hurdles one year. I couldn’t jump consistently high enough to ensure I could clear the hurdles, so I developed a technique to deliberately hit the hurdle but make sure I never tripped on it. I was glad when they introduced a new sport called, "Throwing the cricket ball". Requiring one to take a short run and throw the ball as far as you could in the general direction of "away from you", it was a shame they never introduced this at national level as this might have been something I could have done reasonably well at
I had a garden. Those that wanted one were given a six by six plot to till. That’s six feet by six feet. Almost everyone who had one turned them to carrots, radishes, lettuces and nasturtiums, which we were persuaded we could eat. Some added these into their Marmite sandwiches and gave mixed reviews.
Swimming at Brambletye was definitely to be avoided unless you were a frog or a newt……..and despite the name I was not one of the latter. Fed by a stream, this "pit" was filthy for all but a week of the year. It might have been natural, for it was full of the flora and fauna of East Sussex, but it was icy cold even in the middle of summer. Forced to swim its length as a test I would willingly have covered the distance at the fastest possible speed if it hadn’t been for the heart seizures and cramps I got when first entering the water. Fortunately I never showed enough promise to get in the swimming team. How some boys could enthusiastically take up diving I shall never know.
In quieter times I enjoyed playing billiards in the library. Also there was a reasonable selection of books but it was Hornblower and the World War Two escape stories I enjoyed most. This was partly lived out in the upper reaches of the school. Removing some of the wood panels in the bathroom, we found we could climb into the roof space and travel extensively throughout the length and breadth of the school at night, above the dormitories and master’s bedrooms. If this had been Colditz we would have built a glider up here and escaped to freedom!
Some of the fixed steel ladder fire-escapes added to the Colditz feel. Forbidden to use them unless there was a fire practice or real emergency, they were actually so dangerous it was only very rarely we went down them even in a drill.
Some steep stairs led to the sick bay in the highest part of the school. Catching something highly contagious was quite desirable as long as it wasn’t too life threatening. This meant you were isolated in the sick bay, totally exempt from the normal routine, far from the reach of masters and officers and safely tucked up in the motherly care of the matrons. This was the place to have a good time! An outbreak of measles and chicken-pox was of little use to me as I had reasonable resistance to most diseases and only fell to them when most of the school had already got it. This meant the sick bay was already full and I usually ended up confined to my dormitory back under the gaze of the masters and officers.
On the return to each term posted on the notice board there would be all the important dates: start and finish of term, half term, Easter holidays, etc. the holidays were so short, and the terms seemed so long. When I first started at school we were all boarders – day pupils didn’t start until 1971. A half term or Easter seemed such luxury. You got a Saturday, Sunday AND Monday off, all together. Normally I went to my grandparents who lived nearby. Once there were about four of us who had nowhere to go. We got to watch television and have jam sandwiches in Mr Ogle’s bungalow as compensation! I used to fly unaccompanied to my parents in Germany each holiday or to Wick when they moved to the north of Scotland. Once my brother and I were caught up in the effects of a strike at Edinburgh airport.
From time to time they added cut outs of certain articles from the daily newspapers and I remember regular features on the Vietnam War and Cassius Clay who would fight any man in the ring with his fists, but refused to fight in a war.
Mail used to arrive regularly and was handed out after breakfast. Seeing my parents only in between terms, I felt particularly lucky having such loving parents who ensured I was always well supplied with very regular, long letters every week. Other boys, some sons of diplomatic staff based in Embassies around the world, saw their parents very rarely, not even going home in the holidays sometimes. Some were lucky to even get a card on their birthday. But most received a parcel from home on their birthday. These were handed out on the matron’s landing where they had to be opened in front of the staff. Food, sweets and money were immediately confiscated to be saved and supplied to the individual on a rationed basis.
The school changed quite a bit towards the end of my time there as Mr Fowler-Watt was phased in as Headmaster. He had an aggressive look to him and the style of the school became more progressive. Unlike Mr Blencowe who had more of a pained look on his face when a boy’s behavior frustrated him, Mr Fowler-Watt could explode in rage. The Scots breeding in him meant the songs of Gilbert & Sullivan were out for the school play and in came the ghouls, witches and blood letting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Extensions were built to the school, and new Portacabin classes positioned on the ground that was once my garden. And then another class of boy arrived; the day boys, namby pambies who went home to their Mummies every night, and arrived by car, freshly washed and dressed each morning. There was even talk of girls joining the school soon! What was the place coming to?!
Having laboured through the Common Entrance Exams to Public School, I left Brambletye to join my parents and brothers now living in the far north of Scotland near John O’Groats. The difference could not have been more extreme. I passed into the comprehensive school with girls (!), straight into the highest stream without need for examination. This was a lucky streak as they were all sons and daughters of nuclear physicists, doctors and engineers imported from the higher echelons of the fast breeder nuclear industry, the Royal Navy and Rolls Royce. Even though I was always towards the lower end of the class, as each year went by, I was dragged along by the very high standards so that on finishing some 30 of the 32 in the class went on to University. Each night I would endure a journey involving two buses taking an hour and a quarter, sometimes battling through blizzards in the dark to deposit my brother, the cattleman’s son and I at the end of the mile and a half farm road. We had the freedom to drive our own cars from there to the house even at the age of thirteen.
Which type of school was best for me? Both were best. Brambletye undoubtedly taught me self-discipline and respect, kept me fit and healthy. But without life at the comprehensive school I could have been scared of the outside world, completely institutionalised by the limits of the school boundaries and routines. But perhaps I should thank Brambletye for making me want to explore more, starting me on a journey in life that has so far taken me to almost 60 countries. Married now for twenty-five years, with three fine children and director of a highly respected business at Manchester airport I look back on life so far with no regrets and fond memories of my years at Brambletye. I am what I am much because of Brambletye. It’s not all good: my wife still has to tell me to change my socks and underwear more frequently!
My name never did get on those big boards in the main hall, but featuring in four separate photos in Peter Blencowe’s history of the school makes me realise that even though I never made the First Eleven, Second Eleven or even Third Eleven in football, it was the mix of characters and abilities that made the school what it was and every boy can be very proud to have been part of its history.
I was surprised, in 2008, to discover Brambletye Preparatory School had risen to become the most expensive prep school in the country.
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