Old West Downs Society

A Talk given at the OWD Society Dinner — 3rd March 2003

I had been asked to make a short after dinner speech about our time at Blair Castle. Every time I thought about those times, and in particular the two stories I recount here, I would start to laugh, and so never got down to actually writing it out. When I did write it down, I ran it through the speech programme on my computer, and found it was ten minutes! So on the day itself I simply started the speech halfway through. The indented section is what I left out.

In July 1940 the school was advised by naval and military parents to move from Winchester, as that was where the main battle for England would occur after a German Invasion. They broke up three weeks early and looked for somewhere to take the school to. They moved all the school paraphernalia to Glenapp Castle in August, and term began in September 1940. There were good rooms for dormitories and for Shakespeare-cum-Chapel. Scouting facilities were excellent. Football was just possible, cricket hardly so.

On September 8th, 1941, just before term began, Glenapp Castle was requisitioned. For three weeks the Tindalls visited, or enquired after, over sixty large houses. Blair Castle seemed a possibility, but there was a delay while Perthshire County Council fought with Glasgow Corporation who wanted it to evacuate more children from Glasgow to -- there were already 40 in the far end of the south wing.

In October 1941 the school paraphernalia was moved to Blair Atholl, and term began in early November. Many parents were glad that the school stayed open over Christmas, and more than half the boys did not go home for the Christmas holidays. They were glad because the long train journey of 15 hours was made even longer by stops during German air raids.

There was a twenty week term, more than enough for boys and staff.

Blair Castle

Look at the pictures I’ve distributed. The main bulk of the castle had boys’ dormitories on the first floor, mainly at the back. Picture Dormitory was a very ornately decorated Reception Room. There was wonderful plaster-work, and voluptuous lightly clad maidens were painted on the ceiling. There were a few classrooms on the ground floor, but most of these were in the South Wing. The Glasgow evacuees had the far end of the South Wing from the corner you can see in the picture. There was a magnificent ballroom which we used as Shakespeare, dining hall, and chapel. The scout headquarters were in a minstrel’s gallery. You will notice that the Sick Room was exactly over the Front Entrance to the Castle.

Break took place on Banvie Lawn. The belt of trees in the picture are along the Banvie river. The main road was a mile away to the left of the picture, and perhaps fifty miles away to the right.

Scouting and nature studies flourished. There were red squirrels, pine martens, capercaillie in the forests, roe deer and red deer, ptarmigan, golden eagles, and numerous other birds of prey on the moorlands. There are nine mountains over 3000 feet on the Atholl estate. We were taught to appreciate life in the forests, lochs and moorland, summer and winter. I can’t begin to tell you what fun we had with our Scout wide games.

I’d like to tell you more about the staff, but will restrict myself. Miss Hills, known as Squilley, had taught Lower School for 42 years, and had just retired, due to deafness, so I never knew her. Sam Cameron was a new boy of my term and his family governess was Maisie Richardson, who arrived at the school September 1943. Over the 91 years of the school, Maisie and Squilley taught Lower School for 85 of them.

I’ll be quick here. Harry Ricardo did english, art and scouting, all very ably, and we were very lucky to have him. David Howell Griffith did the games and taught the years that were coming up for Common Entrance. Walks were shepherded by Madame de Coutely, who always wore extraordinarily baggy clothes, to keep warm, also by Miss Coombs, a pretty woman who was a ski instructor in peace time, and who often led her walks near the Canadian lumber jack’s camps. She taught us P E and dancing. Miss Lunn and Miss Playsted did the music, Mr Rose, of whom “Godfrey” in Dad’s Army always reminds me, had come out of retirement as his War effort, did French and walks, but the poor fellow died just as soon as we got back to Winchester. Ledgard, a 14-18 war hero, taught Senior Division Greek, and checked our money cards. Sister Guy, very starched, with a big white hat, did our health, assisted by Sour Face Tiptoes, the night sister. Miss Ward was the matron.

In 1944 W J “Peg-leg” Tremellen arrived, a world war one flying ace who had written for the “Boys Own” paper, and who had published books of the Biggles genre. He was supposed to have fallen out of his Sopwith Camel into a ploughed field, and messed up his leg, which was why he limped. He was a great hit with us boys.

One day soon after I arrived, there was a tap on my shoulder after breakfast. It was Sister. “Get into your pyjamas, bring a book, and come up to the sick-room.” “Am I ill?” I asked. “No, you just look tired, so we’ll give you a day out of school.” Little did they know what was to happen! That’s the sick-room, marked S.R. in the picture, strategically placed over the castle’s main entrance.

I read my book, and then I read the book that was permanently to be found in the sick room. Then I was bored. I looked around for something to do. There was one of those raising and lowering candelabra things. I stood on the end of the bed and raised and lowered it. I realised that the ornate blob in the middle was a counterweight. How did it get to be the exact right weight? This required investigation. I pulled the lights up to the ceiling, and found that the counterweight had a hole at the top, and that it was full of lead shot. How very useful! I tipped some out, but unfortunately tipped out more than I intended, which went onto the floor. While I was trying to retrieve this, the counterweight ascended, being no longer heavy enough, and got out of my reach.

With some paper I made a few darts, weighting them till they flew properly. Could they be made to fly further than the Banvie? Then I made some little paper holders for the shot, and attached them to a pocket handkerchief. These made parachutes that floated gently down from the sick room window to the gravel outside. Then I had an inspiration. With some paper, and the water from a carafe thoughtfully provided, I made a supply of water bombs, and waited for a target. I hadn’t long to wait. The station taxi came to a halt in front of the castle, and Mrs Tindall came out to welcome the visitor. Fire One! Fire Two! Fire Three! The aim was excellent!

I was hauled downstairs to put on my clothes, and apologise for my misdeed. I had bombed no less a person than the Bishop of Saint Andrews, who had come to confirm some boys. He was very kind, and we got on well together.

A week later KT asked for volunteers to be fairies and elves for the school play, a Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was turned down. “You’d wreck it,” said K T, even though all the other new boys of my term were going to take part.

A year later I begged KT to allow me to be in the School Play, which was to be “As You Like It”. “I won’t wreck it,” I promised. I was given a small part, Audrey, who is a village maiden with about one line to speak. Rehearsals all went well. The Dress Rehearsal went well. Then came the Great Day. It was my tenth birthday. An open-air stage had been made in the middle of a wood, mostly of young trees. The stage area was veiled from the back stage activities by a ring of thicker shrubs, mostly yew trees. While the audience and the actors were assembling K T came to me with some sort of animal. “It’s a goat,” he said. “Audrey is a goat herd. I want you to come on with the goat. It will look authentic. And you’ll have to look after the goat, which eats anything it can find, including wigs. So just keep an eye on it. Whatever else, don’t let it eat any of the yew berries, because they are deadly poison to goats.” That goat must have made a note about the yew, because for the next two hours my life was a misery. It would tug me towards a yew tree. I would tug it away. All would be well for a while then it would make a dash for a yew tree somewhere else. Several times this was on the opposite side of the set, so that it made unscheduled appearances on stage, dragging me behind it with its halter, in hot pursuit, and once even it ran through the audience. K T and I had words about this afterwards. “The goat was a bad idea,” he said.

Well, they were very happy days at Blair Atholl, and we were lucky to be there.

And now it is my great pleasure to introduce to you our guest speaker, Paul Light, who is Principal of King Alfred’s College, part of Southampton University, and hopefully soon to form Winchester University. At the Grand Opening of the new West Downs Centre for the Performing Arts, in May 2001, he made a wonderful speech, in which he quoted from our School Prayers, and quite won me over, for I had been rather sceptical about what we had seen the young people doing as we walked around the West Downs buildings. And I was completely won over a few months ago when I attended a Degree Day for the College in Winchester Cathedral. I had a seat only six feet from the Vice Chancellor as he spoke individually with each new graduate, holding their hands and looking each one in the eye as he spoke with them. They all looked to be such lovely young people, and I realised that King Alfred’s under Paul is doing a great job.

The toast is: “To the future of West Downs!”

Ladies and Gentlemen, Paul Light.

Nick Hodson, OWD Society Secretary