AUTOBIOGRAPHY (2) In September 1959, at the age of ten, I was sent to boarding school. You may imagine the feelings that overcame me as the dreaded day approached. And then there I was, at Crossways, Gresham’s School, Holt, Norfolk. In fact it was only 30 miles from home, but it was on a remote planet as far as I was concerned.
Crossways was not built as a boarding house, and consequently the dormitories were small, each one containing three or four beds, and the relationship with your dorm-mates was therefore intimate. The whole house was intimate, containing only 24 boarders with maybe a dozen or two dayboys (day-bugs), who didn’t really count. My first evening was all strange, until I got into bed, where I felt safe to certain extent. We had about a quarter of an hour before lights out for reading. The book I had brought was volume two of Tolkien’s trilogy of Middle Earth, The Two Towers. This was quite an advanced book for a ten year old, but obviously I had already finished volume one while still at home. I moved on to Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge – my father’s choice – and moved on to A Tale of Two Cities. Ivanhoe started an intensive period on Scott, coming to an end halfway through The Antiquary. I was an unusually advanced reader for my years. Indeed I read books that I could not even attempt now. Obviously I read at all sorts of times during the day, not just the quarter of an hour before lights out, and this I think is part of the reason for my voracious reading – it was an escape from a strange and mildly menacing world.
It was also during my first evening at Crossways I was addressed by Charlie Barratt (now Charles Barratt, a respected stock-broker and ex-High Sheriff of Norfolk) with a demand to know if I was going to join what I thought was the ‘Senior Chess’. Actually what he was asking was if I was interested in joining the C.N.H.S., the Crossways Natural History Society. This club was really run by Dick Bagnall-Oakeley (our Geography teacher) from a room in Old Kenwyn, and contained a fascinating selection owl pellets, aquaria and vivaria. From one of the latter a grass snake absconded and took up residence under the floor among the central heating pipes. This terrified our female member of staff, Ma Dilly, more officially known as Mrs Dyson. She was the mother of James, better known to most people as Dyson the vacuum cleaner billionaire. In 1959 he was just Dyson minor, a Kenwynite, i.e. as resident of New Kenwyn, the other Junior School house, then newly built. It even had underfloor heating. It was purpose built, larger than Crossways, and rather boring.
Mention of central heating in Old Kenwyn brings me to the subject of central heating in Crossways; there wasn’t any. There were two heat sources in the house, an open fire in the library (the Quiet Room) that was only lit on winter evenings, and the boiler in the boiler room. This was a small room which was, nevertheless, called into use for three of us to our ‘prep’ in. Unlike the rest of the house, which was too cold, the boiler room was far too hot. It provided hot water for washing and so ran winter and summer. Often we would sit swelteringly doing our prep as the boiler hissed and crackled and gave off sulphurous fumes. It was coke fired, and had to be regularly fed by Peart, the odd-job man, from a hod. If it got too hot, the pressure gauge on top crept up to red, indicating an imminent explosion. But as I say, most of the house was freezing. The Play Room, which contained our lockers, never had any heating at all. The dormitories, on the coldest nights of the year – about half a dozen at most – would each be heated by a portable electric heater, tall and unstable, emitting a warm glow from a red light bulb, but minimal actual warmth.
FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE