Last week I put my writing on the back burner and met a couple of friends for lunch. I don’t usually do this – it felt a bit like bunking off school – but it was the only dates they could do. And sometimes it’s good to break from routine.
One of my meets was with an old work friend. We met in Bradford on Avon for a light lunch at the double award winning Bridge Tea Rooms near the town bridge. The building dates back to 1502, which means small doorways, low ceilings and beams – not forgetting a couple of well worn steps you need to negotiate as you enter the building.
The tea room has a Victorian theme with waitresses dressed in black with white aprons and caps. The food is excellent with a wide range of options from breakfast through to lunch and afternoon tea.
I have a great fondness for Bradford on Avon with its Saxon church, Tithe Barn and lock up on the town bridge (pictured below) where it was reputed John Bunyan spent a night. It was where I spent my senior school years after moving to West Wiltshire. Fitzmaurice Grammar School was a smaller school than Marlborough, where I spent my first year. It was also lot closer to home – two bus rides each way as opposed to a daily 30 mile round trip by train. During my first year at Bradford on Avon our form room was at the rear of the school in a long wooden building known as The Gallipoli hut (shown behind the main building in the picture below), which had been erected in 1920. It housed both second years (year 8 in modern speak), the 5th form cloakroom and the male staff room. These huts were like freezers in the winter and saunas in the summer. Thankfully, by the time we reached the third year (Year 9) we had moved up to classrooms in the newly-built Physics and Chemistry block. It was in there that the whole class of 3A fell foul of an American exchange teacher. I think the move from a US high school in Philadelphia to a small provincial grammar school was a bit of a culture shock for him. I’m sure this was the reason he appeared to have very little humour and even less patience. On this particular occasion while we were waiting for him to arrive from the main school building a large black Labrador wandered in. As two of the class tried unsuccessfully to catch it and put it out, he arrived. Not at all amused, he wanted to know who had brought the dog into the classroom. When told it had come in by itself he refused to believe us. He gave ‘the culprit’ the chance to own up and when unsurprisingly no one did the whole class was given detention.
In those days school rules were strict. Any pupil discovered beyond the school gates without their hats or caps were automatically given detention. Eating in the street was another misdemeanour which attracted the dreaded ‘D’. Once a month the headmistress would keep all the female pupils back after assembly. On those occasions we usually had a lecture about short skirts, nail varnish and wearing hair loose below collar length (neither of the last two was allowed). When I see schools turn out today it makes me wonder if she was still around what she would make of 21st century uniform and rules.
Someone else who had her own set of rules was our games mistress. During winter months the afternoon games period would find her choosing pupils for netball and hockey teams and those left over were sent out with the boys on a cross country run. No gloves, no scarves but at least we got to keep our jumpers on! The run was all along the canal to the hamlet of Avoncliffe (picture right) a couple of miles out of town then back along the road and into school. Remembering occasions when the fog came down really thickly I sometimes look back and wonder whether it ever crossed her mind about the danger of sending young girls out in twos and threes along deserted tow paths (in those days the local canal was full of duck week and fallen trees). On really cold days we got into the habit of setting off only to spend our time in Tithe Barn (left) where there was a certain degree of protection from the elements. We had the whole thing down to a fine art; staying there for the right amount of time and then sneaking across the railway line and back into town,looking suitably breathless as we struggled back to the changing room!
On rainy days our PE lesson was spent learning ballroom dancing. Sometimes the boys were ‘persuaded’ to join us and of course they hated it! It did, however, give us a grounding in the tango, the waltz, the cha-cha and an introduction to Scottish dancing by way of the Gay Gordons and the Dashing White Sergeant.
When I finished my four years at Bradford on Avon I was looking forward to college, a business diploma and the intricacies of the typewriter keyboard. College meant no uniform, a more relaxed regime and being treated like an adult. It was the final step towards the working world. But even now, wandering around the town soaking up the memories and seeing the changes which have taken place, in some ways I really miss those school days. Most of the teachers are, of course, long gone. The school closed in 1980 and transferred to Christchurch Secondary School at the top of the town (a larger more modern campus with the potential to extend) to become St Lawrence Comprehensive. For several years after the school stood empty and neglected – a sad end for this lovely building. Nine years after closure it was eventually rescued. The main school was converted into accommodation and several new builds added in the grounds to provide 42 upmarket retirement flats with a new name – Fitzmaurice Place. A happy ending after all.