Fifty years ago this year, I was dropped off by my parents at Marlborough College to start four years of boarding school education. I did not enjoy being away from home and did not fit in particularly well. I survived thanks to a few friends, one or two excellent teachers and by having access to the amazing countryside around the town – chalk downland and Savernake Forest being the main attractions, but we were also taken on trips to go birdwatching further away. The chalk downs also have a long human history, with the most famous local sites being Avebury and Silbury Hill. Stonehenge is not that far away and there are many Stone Age burial barrows. My favourite teacher (in Marlborough parlance: beak) was Chris Joseph, the then Head of the Geography Department. He still lives in Marlborough (more than 20 years after retiring) and was kind enough to invite me to stay with him for the night.
I was interested in the changes over 50 years. The college has become much more famous recently due to the attendance of royals and the town’s High Street also seems to be thriving with quite a few “posh” shops – in contrast to many High Street’s in Britain. The school rules have also tightened considerably. Fifty years ago anyone could wander in or out at any time. Safeguarding and child security now means that I had to be registered in advance to visit. The days where we did not need permission to ride our bikes within a 10 mile radius have gone, and even the sweet shop over the road has closed as pupils cannot go there. I am not sure that I would have survived without that ability to escape on my bike. In those days I had four 10×10 km Ordnance Survey squares to visit for the first UK breeding bird atlas. This occupied a lot of my free time in the summer term, especially on Sunday when the official requirement was to be in chapel….
Chris had been kind enough to organise for me to visit the school, and the Development Officer- Kate Goodwin had kindly offered to accompany us around (a security requirement as well). She is also going to publicise my ride on the school website (I’ll post the ink once I know it).
We visited many new builds In the past 50 years, but also the science block – now a listed building due to its early use of concrete and glass. It was here that a lot of my interest in biology was fostered – and one particular spot was where I ran a moth trap for at least two years of my time there. Some of the moths, once identified, were fed to the school’s collection of insectivorous animals!
Another of my favourite areas in the college was the old water meadows beside the River Kennet. This part of the river’s flood plain had been used traditionally to grow sweet grass for the local sheep in the spring before the downland grass had got going and in some places for growing water cress and the like, but that form of agriculture died away a century ago, leaving a fine watery wilderness. Plainly the school authorities did not like such wildness and the area is now a playing field and a car park. I wonder if the water voles are still present. Certainly the old willow tree where one of my school birdwatching friends , Chris Spray, found a Golden Oriole one day while he was “revising” is gone.
Another spot that we visited was the Mount House. This lies right on the main road, and in my time was the location for the Natural History Society. I was Secretary of said society for at least a year and one of the responsibilities was looking after the collections of moths, butterflies, bird skins and the like – and occasionally setting up little exhibitions. I also used the building as a private hide away. Most of the natural history items are long gone to Devizes museum (a good idea for better curation), and the building is now a gallery next to a new art centre – or at least some of it is. We climbed to the attic where I used to hide away to find quite a trove of fine prints – and the remains of the typesetters table from the old school printing press.
I mentioned that the High Street had changed quite a bit, but was delighted to find that the White Horse bookshop was still there – I wonder how many other independent bookshops in the country have survived 50 years? I bought several of the early New Naturalists there, so was delighted to note that they still had some on sale, albeit in a glass case due to their value. At least two of my New Naturalists came from book tokens won as prizes in the school.
I mentioned good teachers earlier. The man that supervised the Natural History Society was called Beverly Heath. He also took us on bird-watching excursions, usually to places like the New Forest or Poole Harbour, but once to the Camargue in south France. He was a good and very sensitive teacher. I was appalled to hear that he had died in the local hospital due to hospital-acquired infection when he had no family to advocate for him. This should not be happening in modern day Britain.
So thoughts after visiting my school. I have gained in respect for the teachers who had to put up with a wide variety of privileged teenagers – all were working to get the best out of us. I also respected more the business side of running and developing a school – Chris told me of many difficult decisions that had been made (some right, some wrong). I still remember some pretty horrible boys though and I guess that memory will be difficult to ever erase. I do though have at least one good schoolboy friend from my time there – more of that next time.
Answer to where I was in picture – third row back, right of centre – with a centre parting!
Distance today: 49.9 km, ascent 540m, 2 tubs