Thursday, 1 October 2009

School's 90th birthday

Three Old Girls in front of the school
The secondary school I attended from 1975 to 1982 is housed in:
"a building of great character, the former manor of Highams built in 1768, and has extensive and beautiful grounds designed by Humphrey Repton. The school opened in 1919." [From the school website.]
Of course, I appreciated none of this when I was there, but I returned last weekend to celebrate its 90th birthday, at an event run by the Old Girls Association (for it was, and still is, a school for girls only).

View of the school from the back terraceThe main reason I attended the event was that, as an 18th century building, the school had a good deal of character, and I wanted to explore the nooks and crannies: the 'twisty passage' between the dining room and the main corridor to the Hall, the hidden spiral staircases and corridors of classrooms. I was no longer able to join together the fragments of memories of classrooms and corridors and staircases into a coherent whole. The fact that a lot of other Old Girls would be getting in my way was inconvenient, but manageable.

It was hugely satisfying to explore, especially the places we weren't allowed to go when we attended the school - entering by the big front door was forbidden to all but members of staff. As I wandered, I found corridors and rooms existed that I had completely forgotten. For seven years the geography of the school had been imprinted on my brain, seemingly unforgettable, and now I couldn't even remember where the art room had been.

Spiral staircase up to the turretI found my way to the upper sixth form 'flat', right at the top of the building, accessed via a narrow spiral staircase. I imagine that this is where the servants quarters were, in the original manor house. Within this flat is a 'turret' with windows all round, and in my time this area was the preserve of the prefects and Head Girl. Back then, the door onto the roof wasn't locked, although I'm sure we weren't supposed to go out. The views all around were spectacular.

Wooden board with inscribed gold names of State Registered NursesI visited many of the classrooms, strolled down the corridors, climbed up and down staircases with wonderful wrought iron detailing, peered through windows into familiar labs. The 'Honours Boards' showed Old Girls' achievements in the 1950s, including those who had become State Registered Nurses, of whom the most notorious is poor Ina Buckett. We all felt for her - what were her parents thinking when they named her?

Going into the library, I was taken aback by the memory of that exact smell, when I used to retreat there to do a bit of quiet reading. In the geography room, the time when Mr Nivison sang the national anthem of the Isle of Man came to mind. I peered into the physics lab and remembered the rheostats: large cylinders wrapped in wire with a big old slider. I glanced into the biology prep room, where my mum used to work in the last two years of my school career.

French door with stained glass panel of the Essex coat of armsThe medical room was where we lined up for our BCG vaccination, next to the rack where hockey sticks were kept. The Hall, with the same light fittings, same huge steps up to the stage - not bad for more than thirty years' service, although of course we girls weren't allowed on the stage in normal circumstances. It seems the details of where we were and weren't allowed to be are almost more vivid than what I did in the various rooms.

Meanwhile, the formal timetable for the School Birthday continued, and the scarily familiar sound of the school bell called us to assemble in the Hall. The vice-chairman of the OGA proceeded to conduct the AGM in a wonderful, half-serious, half-teasing manner, encouraging us in our rendering of the school songs, which were belted out in the most enthusiastic manner imaginable. This was followed by tea and chat, when I finally got round to talking to those of my peers who were also there.

I have written previously about our class reunions, but for me this event was more about nostalgia for the school building itself. I hardly visited the grounds, which are also amazing, and the newly built (in the 1970's) lower sixth form block, which stands apart from the main building. I didn't go to the brand new sports hall, and missed seeing what is now in the building that used to be the swimming pool. But no matter, I achieved my main aim, and renewed my acquaintance with a quirky but much loved old building, in much the same state of external decrepitude as it was in my day. Some things don't change.

View of trees and distant buildings on the horizon

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