My brother Christopher and I first went down to school at Visitation Convent, Bridport in September 1957. We lived in Ascot as our father had been an officer in the Royal Horse Guards and had been based at Windsor. We took a train to Reading and then a GWR express running from Paddington to Newton Abbot.
Travelling to boarding school on a steam train was a complete Harry Potter experience. I can still recall the smell of the steam and coal smoke, the chug-chug strain of the locomotive as it toiled up steep gradients and the sliding windows beneath the communication cord that opened just enough to let in the outside air as the train tickety-tooed along faster stretches. The occasional tunnels were a delight as we hurried to close the window before the smoke and soot came into the compartment. The 2nd train from Newton Abbot to Bridport was a single line in places and required the driver to fetch a relay hoop from the platform superintendent prior to engaging on the single track. Presumably there was only one hoop that then returned with the next train up the line.
Memories of the school itself include pulling Dinky Toy grand prix model cars across the playground by string. There were Maserati, Talbot Lago, Coope-Bristol, Alfa Romeo, HWM and Ferrari cars, all with drivers and real tyres. I was very proud of my Vanwall which was green with a number 35 on the bonnet. We also used to play High Bung with a tennis ball, this consisted of throwing the ball as high as possible to land inside the playground on the far side or caught and thrown back. We weren't allowed to throw cricket balls as there were so many windows on the East side of the playground. We would find pieces of drift wood and fashion them into toys by rubbing them against the tarmac surface of the playground or against concrete steps.
Pupil names recalled include Kazjeck Potalski who used to call Sister Magdalen names in Polish and then laugh to himself. He taught us to say Tee Eschtas Goupi, which I much later discovered means You are Stupid! I recall being pals with Andrew Pierscianowski who was from Cirencester. There was a bespectacled boy called O'Brien who was often in trouble for his bad temper. I also remember the name Morris, who was a wizz at swimming.
Fond memories of walks to Eype Sea and West Bay, where we would try to 'shoot down' gulls with slings fashioned from pieces of leather and farmer's baling string. I don't think we ever hit one, although we could cast pebbles quite a distance. Rock pooling was fun.
I recall some outings by coach to Exmouth, Glastonbury and Wooky Hole caves, where I got into trouble for losing my school cap, keeping a secret for many years that I had hung it on a stalagmite in the hope it would eventually get covered by limestome.
I recall Sister Philomena nursing us when we were ill and a young Sister Mary Joseph who was fond of my brother. The television evenings were all in black and white, favourites being The Lone Ranger, Zorro and, of course, Popeye. We watched a film called The Red Balloon and another about Don Bosco but I don't know if it was a projection or on TV.
Those foul cold outside toilets in the playground remain stored in the deeper recesses of recall in my sense of smell as an extreme parameter of nausea.
Fonder memories of Sister Magdallen's book collection in the glass cabinets at the back of the classroom which we were allowed to read. Boys adventure stories like Jack London's White Fang, Ballantyne's Coral Island and tales of dashing biplane pilots sent to attack Zepplins.
Mealtimes were our introduction to strange tastes, the swede mash, buttered beans and tapioca puddings are fading memories but the tablespoons of cod liver oil and Scotts Emulsion supplied by Sister Philomena no doubt did us good, although disgusting at the time. So much nicer to get fish oils in capsule supplement form today.
Classes were severe but effective, all subjects taught by one teaching nun in each age group. Sister Magdalen's handwriting on the blackboard was amazing, always finishing her Y tails with a flourish to the left, which I still emulate today.
For foreign nuns they gave us a great grounding in English with dictation, reading, hand writing, spelling and grammar, all sadly lacking in more recent generations.
I passed my 11 plus and went on to Worth prep school with my older brother Michael, who had been at the Salesian College in Weybridge till Common Entrance, going into the new Upper School at the then Worth Priory. Christopher went from Bridport to Clare's Court in Maidenhead till Common Entrance and later to Worth.
I am grateful for the effforts and contribution to our early education made by the nuns who worked hard growing their own vegetables and even milking their cows for us. I could not say they were the happiest years in emotional terms but appreciate now that without the structured learning I would not have got through many of life's later trials with the choices that broader perceptions allow. They taught me that there is always an alternative at each cross roads that its best to know of in advance. I've seldom been stuck in the middle of critical indecision as a result. Looking back now, the building looks a bit haunting, like a Victorian Mill or workhouse. It has gone now but remains in our memories somehow as a door through which we had to pass all those years ago. The fleeting images can be recalled of the sloping football field opposite, of the refectory, the playground and the slightly severe nuns. I think they did care about us in their own way. Chastisement was an acceptable thing in those days but few got rapped over the knuckles unfairly.
Timothy Clarke, born 1948. Bridport 1957 - 1959, aged 9 - 11.
A memory shared byon Dec 17th, 2012.
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