The intention was always for the High Times blog eventually to become a collecting place for stories of Church High’s history and the people who studied or worked in the old school building. But, as with the Ancient Mariner telling his tale, this could only be done once the record of the changes to the Tankerville site was complete. What I didn’t expect was that it would take so long for it to happen. My apologies. A lot has happened in the intervening time since my June 6th post about the demolition of the old Central High building. I’ve left NHSG. My Dad has had a stroke. But my voice is back now.
There has been plenty of time this summer to muse on things past and what life throws our way when we are busy making other plans. Many things have had to be put on hold because of hospital visiting, but I did manage to get to the Edinburgh Book Festival to hear NCHS Old Girl, Nancy Campbell (published writer and printmaker) give a talk about her most recent book, ‘The Library of Ice’ (2018). It was lovely to see Nancy doing so well at such a prestigious venue and also to be able to meet up with her again after such a long time. It was a nice feeling for me when she recognised me in the audience and a rather odd one for Nancy as she signed my book ‘To Christine’.
Meeting Nancy after so long and the fact we greeted each other as if we last connected only yesterday, brought to mind the wise words of writer William Faulkner, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’. Something intangible connects us to people from our past, because they are already so closely woven into ourselves and our life story. Jamaican political activist and orator, Marcus Garvey, was probably musing on a similar notion of shared identity when he wrote that ‘a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots’. It is our Church High roots which bind us all.
On the train home from Edinburgh, I started to read Nancy’s book. In her Introduction, ‘The Broken Mirror’, I found one of the passages she had read out loud, her first walk around the Upernavik Museum: ‘The morning after my arrival, I walk through the cold museum building, peering into vitrines at the scanty evidence left by earlier visitors. I admire the ornate lettering engraved on a barometer and the entries in a logbook from one of the whaling ships that looted this coast in the eighteenth century. The first European explorers named Upernavik the ‘Women’s Island’. No one knows why for sure …. I almost walk past the tiniest object in the museum, the pride of its collection. It’s a copy of the Kingittorsuaq Runestone, a piece of soft slate into which a short text was scratched by three Norsemen around eight hundred years ago and left in a cairn on a neighbouring island. Only the men’s names survive.’ (p. 6-7). It resonated with me because of my own delving deep into the past history of Church High and the Tankerville building. It also made me very proud of the education that enabled Nancy to write this way.
Nancy was writing specifically about the very remote museum in Greenland where she had taken up the post of artist-in-residence, however, her observations could be true of any museum anywhere. Historical facts may survive and random artefacts still exist, but without a voice or a story or the memories to link them together, breathe life into them once again, then the past will remain cold, inert. How much did the image at the start of this post speak to you, I wonder? Did you recognise it? Or could you work out what it was? It is a photograph of the Old Girls’ Display Cabinet in the Waiting Area in Reception at Church High, as it appeared when first created. Without a personal memory of 2002 or the Alumnae article below, there is no way of knowing now that it displayed Old Girls’ books.
The School’s history has always been an important part of Church High, whether it was being recorded in the Jubilee or Centenary books or re-enacted by the Juniors in their plays. In my time, both Junior and Senior schools had a glass display case for artefacts in Reception and also a trophy cabinet, but it was only when I read the earliest NHS School Magazines in Tyne & Wear Archives that I realised how far back in School’s lifetime this respect for history – both natural and social – began. The School once had a Museum. A very quirky little museum admittedly, but clearly something very important to Miss Gurney’s girls in their quest to share knowledge and to understand the living world around them more thoroughly. A museum clearly not too unlike that described by English translator, children’s author and poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland: ‘When I was a boy, I took over the shed at the bottom of the garden and displayed fossils and potsherds and coins in it and proudly called it my ‘museum’. His childhood curiosity about items from the past clearly fuelled later retellings of traditional tales, shaping the way he viewed the world around him. It seems the same was true for the NHS girls in 1906.
Miss Ram and Miss Edmunds had clearly been passionate in instilling their curiosity about the living world to the Newcastle High School girls because by the next issue of the magazine it is clear that the museum had enlarged greatly from ‘a few stuffed birds and shells’:
Indeed, by 1914, the museum’s artefacts had grown in such an impressive way that the Governors had kindly provided the School with ‘a glass cupboard with adjustable shelves’ fit to adorn a main corridor. The same kind of pride of place as the modern day cabinet.
The collective sharing of knowledge was obviously as important then as today and this is the role this blog will now take on. An accessible voice and resource – an online display cabinet, if you like – to help breathe a little life back into facts, artefacts and Church High persons now fallen into disregard or a disconnect by dusty time. The English word ‘museum’ derives from the Greek mouseion“place of study, library or museum, school of art or poetry,” originally “a seat or shrine of the Muses”. And ‘to muse’ means, of course, to think on. If from now on this blog could act as a form of online museum for Newcastle Church High School, then I will feel it is a job well done. Because, in the beautiful words of the American novelist, Nanette L. Avery, ‘a museum is a place where nothing was lost, just rediscovered’.
I never intended to document the demolition of the Central High building, the world having moved on from there a good while ago. In the end, it really just boiled down to the fact there was a story there still to be told and a well-placed narrator still willing to tell it. Me. Just as I had passed Central every morning on my way to Church High, I still passed by it each day. Any change to the façade, I saw it. And I had to pass by on my way home each night after work, anyway.
My interest has always been in preserving the Church High history, but it was hard to pass by each day with a realisation dawning that, if I didn’t do something, a piece of Newcastle’s history was going to vanish without trace. No-one at work was bothered at all. In the end, it was me who talked to Tolent’s Tony Davidson to ensure the Foundation Stone and a couple of pieces of the Sixth Form Library woodwork were moved up to Tankerville Terrace. And if I hadn’t done this, then the Victorian time capsule they found concealed in a small cavity beneath the stone would never have been discovered. Other than this hole left in the brickwork, from Eskdale Terrace there was little evidence for a very long time that work had begun. But Tony had told me the machines were being delivered to the back of the building so, from that point on, my walk to Jesmond Metro at the end of each day was via the back lane instead of Eskdale Terrace.
When I saw the first machine had arrived on site, my curiosity got the better of me, of course. Once the thread of a narrative begins to develop, it’s hard, as a writer, to resist the urge to follow it through. I like people and I am endlessly fascinated about the jobs that they do. So, just as a chance conversation with Nick White at the gates of Westward House in 2015 had led me to Peter the Gateman, my initial conversation with Tony Davidson would lead me to meet Andy, which eventually brought me to Dave, via yet another Tony. As Miranda exclaimed in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, ‘How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world/That has such people in it!’ And timing is everything, of course. Had I not arrived at the back of the building to take photos of the first day’s demolition just at the end of tea-break, I would never have met Andy Held, who turned out to be the Machine Operator of the ’20 tonner’. Like the Ancient Mariner, I had my tale to tell and, when I’d told him it, he kindly started up the machine so I could get shots of my Eskdale office being destroyed.
The following day, I saw Andy again as he was joined by a friend of his, Tony. All I knew at this point was that the pair were ‘Brothers in Arms’ – or, as Tony would later put it, ‘brothers by another mother.’
On Day 3 of the demolition. the work had advanced to the School Hall (which put up a bit of resistance before it finally succumbed) and Tony told me of a huge water-filled void they had uncovered. Right in the very centre of the Hall. To show me, he took some photos on his mobile phone and offered to send them to me at work. As had happened previously with the Waites team on Tankerville, Tony would continue to take photos for me for the length of the job.
I would later learn that the main demolition team working onsite were all Tony’s guys. His company, Rae Demolition Ltd, which is based in Falkirk, regularly acts as a sub-contractor for O’Briens. The actual Demolition Manager was Dave Hamilton, whom I met one day. He explained the ‘plan of attack’ for dismantling the building. If you were facing the back, it was modern offices and School Hall to the left first, followed by a similar modern extension to the right. They would then go ‘in through the middle’ (taking out the Sixth Form Library building which linked the main building to the ugly modern Science wing) before flattening the Science Block. From this point, the Main Building would topple, end-on, from south to north.
On March 22nd, they told me the ‘Big’ Machine was due to arrive and on my way to the Metro that night, I literally had to squeeze past a huge excavator seemingly parked in the middle of the lane. It seemed a bit strange, but allowed me to see its huge bucket up close.
Unless the situation changed, Andy indicated this was his bed for the night. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. A car belonging to a tenant living on Eslington Terrace turned out to be blocking the way. As turned out to be the case with Tankerville work, my visits often seemed to coincide with some interesting and critical events. Later on in the process when I was taking a photo of the widening space, a man stopped to talk. We both commented on how much less oppressive it felt in the lane now the building was nearly down. It turned out that he was renting one of the properties that had faced onto the back of the school. He was also the owner of that car.
What we also passed comment on was the unbelievably powerful smell of old wood. For as you walked along the back lane now, all that was left of the building was high piles of timber framework.
My aim had always been to create a time-lapse montage of the disappearing building, but how I was going to manage this wasn’t at all clear. The Central building was huge and the back lane low. A vantage point was what was needed and, suddenly, the fire-escapes at the back of Eslington Terrace began to look most enticing. I found one that did the job and had availed myself of its prospect a number of times before I met up with its owner on his way to his rubbish bin. Permission granted, I felt much better. And it offered a perfect view.
For those interested in details, the image below is a close-up of the gable-end of house with the balcony. The fire-escape is to the extreme left and the low brick wall mid-image is my viewing point.
No more words. The pictures Tony & I took now tell the whole story.
There is no mention of him at all in the Centenary Book and only two brief references on Page 16 of the Jubilee Book, but anyone who has been shaped by Newcastle Church High School – whether aware of it or not – owes a debt of thanks to a Mr Benjamin Chapman Browne. By all accounts, he was one of Nature’s true gentlemen and in 1887 was knighted by Queen Victoria in her Jubilee year, but, despite meriting an online obituary in Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, he is a shadowy figure today. Even in Newcastle where he served two terms as Lord Mayor, in 1885 – 1886 and 1886 – 1887. However, without his initiative, experience and practical support, Newcastle High/Church High might never have been founded.
A mechanical engineer by trade, B C Browne became a Magistrate in 1877 and was elected to the Newcastle upon Tyne Town Council in 1879. We know from the Introduction of ‘Selected Papers on Social and Economic Questions by Benjamin Chapman Browne, Knight’, edited the year after his death by his daughters E.M.B and H.M.B., that ‘he threw himself warmly into municipal work’ for ‘he greatly enjoyed coming into contact with all classes of the community, and the welfare of his adopted town was very dear to him.’ No doubt inheriting his philanthropic nature from his mother’s great-uncle, Granville Sharp
(the man who carried the test-case which finally forced the historic decision that made slavery illegal on British soil), Browne – by then having taken over the engine works of Messrs. R and W Hawthorn – ‘interested himself actively in the original founding of the Durham College of Science (later Newcastle University) feeling how important it was that the young men and boys of an industrial district should have within their reach opportunities of high-class scientific education.’
As an enlightened man and the father of four daughters, it should surprise nobody that B C Browne was also actively involved in creating access to high-quality High School education for the young women and girls of Newcastle at this time. And as ‘a faithful and devoted son of the Church of England’, it is also no surprise that the organisation he looked to in order to provide such an opportunity was The Church Schools Company, as opposed to the G.P.D.S.T. Formed in 1883, by the end of 1884 Company High Schools for girls had already been established in Durham and Sunderland. And, from the Church High Centenary Book, we know that as early as 28th February 1884 the Company ‘was considering the desirability of establishing a high school at Newcastle.’ Possessing no capital itself, Company policy was to found schools only where the demand was supported by a willingness to take Shares in the Company, thus forming a sort of guarantee. The approach from Newcastle intimating ‘sufficient financial backing would be forthcoming’ had come via a letter from B C Browne to Dean’s Yard, the Westminster offices of the Church Schools’ Company in the building adjacent to Westminster Abbey.
It is unlikely the letter itself has survived, but we know from Vol. 1 of the Company Minutes that on June 5th 1884 ‘Canon Holland read extracts from the Report on Newcastle’ and that ‘the Report of the Local Committee was accepted with the following amendments: That Canon Holland and Canon Cromwell be appointed a Sub Committee to complete the negotiations for carrying out the school at Newcastle on terms which shall not exceed the proposal’s contained in Mr B C Browne’s letter!’ As he then was, Councillor Browne was clearly acting as Chairman of the Local Committee (a body of guarantors) which had been created in Newcastle in order to establish a C.S.Co. girls’ school there. The other 11 members, half of whom were women, were: Mrs Catherine Pennefather (wife of the Vicar of Jesmond); Mrs Emily Wilberforce (wife of the Bishop of Newcastle); Mrs W D Cruddas (wife of William Donaldson Cruddas, industrialist, of Haughton Castle, at this time Director of W G Armstrong & Co); Mrs J Spencer (wife of John Spencer, owner and director of J Spencer & Sons’ Newburn Steelworks); Mrs W Boyd (wife of William Boyd, engineer and Managing Director of the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Co) and Miss Hewison, formerly Headmistress of the Jesmond Road School, who acted as the Local Secretary. In addition to the new school’s Patron, Dr Ernest Wilberforce, Bishop of Newcastle, a further five men representing a cross-section of the most eminent citizens of Newcastle and Northumberland at the time made up the Committee: Canon Arthur T Lloyd, Vicar of Newcastle and the Bishop’s right-hand-man at St Nicholas’ Cathedral; George Hans Hamilton, Archdeacon of Northumberland; Councillor Thomas G Gibson, a businessman and the present Lord Mayor of Newcastle; Mr Charles B P Bosanquet, JP, of Rock Hall, Alnwick; and Mr E A Hedley, most likely co-owner of colliers Hedley & Bell, a descendant of William Hedley of Newburn.
Newcastle’s High School for Girls was formally opened on Wednesday, 21st January 1885 with a church service. Afterwards, a meeting was held in the School where Canon Francis Holland spoke for the Church Schools Company followed by Councillor Browne who explained the financial position to those present. The initial idea had been that ‘two hundred shares of £5 each in the Company would have to be taken up in Newcastle’ for the School to be viable, but ‘later it was found that four hundred shares, or £2,000, would be necessary’. B C Browne explained that ‘Mr Cruddas had expressed himself willing to take up any which were left’ (Jubilee Book, p.17). The great industrial families of West Newcastle were a close-knit community. ‘Based in Benwell and the West End, close proximity brought further friendship, neighbourhood ties and intermarriage’ (The Making of a Ruling Class, p.38) and many of the men were members of gentlemen’s clubs, such as the Northern Counties Club on Hood St. This concentration of economic power brought with it great wealth. W.D. Cruddas could afford to do this. At his death, his estate was valued at £1,042,000.
But for a man such as B C Browne, in his prime at 45, with a busy public life and happy family circle, this was not a business exercise. Always interested in the young and a lover of original thought, his interest in learning was such that he was asked to deliver a lecture on ‘Education from an Employer’s Point of View’ to The Teachers’ Association at the College of Physical Science in 1896. In this lecture, which was later published by his daughters in his Selected Papers, he speaks of the ‘art of learning’ and ‘training the child’s mind.’ Ultimately a respected figure on the national stage with regard to labour issues, B C Browne’s views on management must surely have had an impact on the type of school Newcastle High/Church High would become, where the girls were allowed a voice and were valued as individuals. ‘It always seems to me’, he said, ‘in managing any large number of people to individualise as much, and to generalize as little, as possible …. It is disheartening for children, and even for grown-up people, to feel that their individuality is not recognised, that they are lost in a multitude, and that nobody thinks of their special trials and troubles. What a master or mistress can do in this way is of incalculable value, and I believe this is the way interest is not only made but used to the best advantage afterwards ….. Be it yours to make the best of every boy and of every girl that is placed in your charge, and if you cannot show them how to raise their position, at all events you can brighten their lives, making them good, useful, happy men and women in every relation of life …. And it must be remembered that the value of a school career is not to be measured by the amount of information that a boy or girl has got during the years that were spent at school, but rather by the amount of desire and power that they have acquired to accumulate knowledge by their own efforts in after life.’ That sounds very like Church High to me.
It has been a real pleasure for me to research the life of this wise, remarkable man and to share what I learned with others. We should take real pride in the School’s connection with a person of such high standing in our region and on the national stage too. There is no record of how long B C Browne served as Chairman of the Local Committee or kept up a connection with the School. However, since he would soon be elected Mayor of Newcastle, we must assume that he was soon contributing to public life on a much larger scale. We do know that by early 1887 the Tankerville Terrace site had been obtained for the promised, purpose-built school, though. As the rented plot was St Mary Magdalene Hospital land, use of which was managed by Newcastle Corporation, it is probably safe to assume B C Browne played a part here, by then in his second term as Mayor. A mortgage agreement with William Temple to build residential properties on another area of Magdalene Hospital land dated March 18th 1887 certainly shows by the mayoral signature and Corporation Seal on the reverse that B C Browne signed off the contract.
Deeper reading has allowed more cross-referencing and, the more I have thought about it, the girls of Newcastle were very lucky indeed that their desire for education was championed by Mr B C Browne. He really was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. An independent school is a business at the bottom line, of course, and Benjamin Browne was undoubtedly one of the most successful and experienced businessmen in Newcastle in the late 1880s. But his connections and affiliations were religious too, which is the all important ingredient for a school with the ethos Church High had. Via his marriage to Annie Atkinson, BC Browne became part of the ‘landed gentry’ in Newcastle, which meant here a connection to coal. But industrial takeovers are expensive things and BC Browne has gone on record with regard to the support given to his companies by bankers, which in real terms in Newcastle at this time meant John William Pease and Thomas Hodgkin, partners in the Barnet, Hodgkin and Pease Bank: ‘I was entirely made by the bank.’ When it was decided in 1882 that Non-Conformist Newcastle needed a Bishop to raise the profile of the Church of England in the North and Gladstone appointed Ernest Wilberforce to the See, it was John Pease who offered Benwell Towers as the bishop’s official residence. As B C Browne’s family home ‘Westacres’ was also in Benwell, he and the Bishop became close neighbours and, over time, good friends too. Indeed, when Bishop Wilberforce held his first Diocesan Conference on September 25th 1885, he was supported on the platform by a body of leading laymen including two Dukes of Northumberland, the Earl of Tankerville, the Lord Mayor T G Gibson as well as Councillor B C Browne (The Life of Bishop Ernest Roland Wilberforce, p. 134-5). The platform party also contained Mr C P Bosanquet. As he, T G Gibson and B C Browne were all on the inaugural Local Committee of Newcastle High School for Girls (Church High), it is really no surprise the Bishop became its Patron. For as Ernest Wilberforce’s biographer makes clear, ‘no layman in the diocese could have better opportunity of estimating the Bishop and his work than Sir Benjamin Browne, a very prominent figure among the Churchmen of Newcastle from the formation of the See down to the present day ’ (Ibid. p. 168). It’s always all about connections.
B C Browne’s daughters noted that his two years as Mayor of Newcastle, although busy and tiring, ‘were years of great interest to him. A Royal Agricultural Show in the first year and an exhibition in the second, both held at Newcastle, brought him much extra work but also much pleasure.’ The former was visited by the Prince of Wales and the latter was opened by the Duke of Cambridge, both sons of Queen Victoria. The exhibition they refer to was the Royal Jubilee Exhibition which opened on May 14th and was held in Bull Park extending onto the Town Moor. Its full title was the Royal Mining Engineering Jubilee Exhibition and it was intended to be held in 1886 but it was decided to defer the event to associate it with the Queen Victoria Jubilee Year celebrations of 1887. The exhibition was split into 4 main courts containing exhibits from local industries, including Armstrong’s great guns. There were also gardens, a theatre, art galleries, a photographic section and even a replica of the old Tyne Bridge, built in 1250 AD, which had been partially destroyed by flood of 1771. Over 2 million visitors saw the exhibition, although only the Exhibition Park bandstand remains of this exhibition today.
1887 was certainly a very busy and productive year indeed for Benjamin Chapman Browne. It’s amazing he found the time to locate the best available site for the new purpose-built High School for Girls on top of his civic duties as Mayor and hosting such a huge public exhibition in Newcastle. The best was yet to come, however. For, in the words of his daughters, ‘it was after his strenuous work in connection with the Newcastle Exhibition that Sir Benjamin received the honour of knighthood at the hands of Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight [her favourite residence], in June of her jubilee year.’
The Royal Exhibition and his knighthood must surely have been two of the high points of a life well-lived for B C Browne, who would go on to become a Deputy-Lieutenant of Northumberland and in 1905 act as a member of the special committee of the Home Office to enquire into the working of the Workmen’s Compensation Act. The girls’ school he helped found does not even appear as a footnote in any of his biographical information, but I would like to think he would have been amazed to see the fruits of his labour there 129 years later. And, hopefully, also very proud of those who continued his efforts too. Even in retirement he continued to work, only resigning his office of Chairman at Hawthorn Leslie a few months before his death. For the last months of his life, he suffered from growing heart-trouble, and after ten days of acute illness, in the early hours of Thursday, March 1st, 1917, his daughters record their much-loved father, Mr Valiant-for-Truth, ‘passed through the valley of the shadow into the fuller light and joy beyond.’ God rest his soul.
This area of the School’s history only came together over time from just the briefest of occasional references and who knows whether I would have pursued them so curiously had B C and I not had the name of Chapman in common. I don’t think we’re related at all, Benjamin Browne hailing from Gloucestershire originally, but it just goes to show that, as F.M. ended her piece in the Jubilee Book, history is ‘at best a thing of shreds and patches, woven from memories …. strengthened where possible by recorded fact.’ You just have to care.
‘It ain’t over until the fat lady sings’. An interesting proverb. I mean, who’d have thought that four years further on, almost exactly to the day, I would be donning hard hat and reflective jacket yet again? Wikipedia defines this phrase as alluding to the fact one should not presume to know the outcome of an event which is still in progress. More specifically, when a situation is (or appears to be) nearing its conclusion, it cautions us against assuming the current state of an event is irreversible or that it is clear how or when an event will end.
Positive as I am, even I must admit that in September 2016 when we moved back into Tankerville, never mind way back in July 2014 when its doors were closed, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that the Central High building would be reduced to rubble within five years. But that will indeed be the case. And very soon.
The Eskdale gates now look very, very different from the way they did when they were used to launch the NHSG brand back in 2013.
“Life is flux”, said the philosopher Heraclitus. “The way up and the way down are one and the same. Living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old, are the same.” He meant that these things are the ‘same’ because they are all subject to change, arising from one change only to vanish into another. All things, constantly, are in flux. So should we be surprised that a school only built on Eskdale Terrace because the Tankerville building was ‘not for sale’, a hundred and thirty years later finds itself ‘on the way down’ again? Yes, the only constant in life is change. And things inside are certainly looking different now.
My guide was Tolent Construction’s Site Manager, Tony Davison, who I had met that day on my way to work, up a step ladder in the middle of taking down the Shepherd Offshore sign affixed to the NHSG sign poles. I’d started talking to him to ask about the demolition schedule, aware NHSG were hoping to reclaim the building’s foundation stone and perhaps a bit of the Sixth Form Library too. It turned out the time-scale was tight. Tony told me the window for having a last look inside the building was only a couple of days. At that point, I had no intention – and no wish – to go back into Eskdale myself, but, having passed on the information at NHSG, I found myself free just before lunch and phoning the number on the business card Tony had just given me. The quickest way forward is always to do it oneself. And I was feeling the ‘pull’ of the blog once more. So that’s how I came to be in a hard hat again, one last time.
Not all empty buildings feel the same, of course, and it won’t come as a surprise to hear that my mood on January 25th 2019 was very different to when I saw the state of the Tankerville interiors when I finally got back inside. Although it was a shock to see Church High stripped back to the brickwork, it was also fascinating to see bits of the Victorian structure re-emerging. With Tolent only just taking possession of Eskdale, inside should have looked largely the same – minus furniture. But Tankerville hadn’t stood empty without site checks for 2 and a half years. In the interim, Eskdale had had visitors.
Tolent’s strip-out work would clearly not be taking as long as planned. As I could see all around me, Tony told me the building had been infiltrated for months by scavengers looking for scrap metal. In some places, such as the flight of stairs I had to use every day while working there to get to the Head of Year Office, metal items such as radiators had been left lying ready to take away next time.
You may know that these days all the wiring is installed in the ceilings in modern builds. But, in Eskdale, all the valuable cabling was long gone and the cheaper CAT5 cables littered the floors. In places, it brought to mind wading through a mass of blue spaghetti.
The proliferation of purple still had the power to oppress me, despite time passing, but we soon reached the 6th Form Library. Now, as when I worked there, the dark wood of this room felt like an oasis of calm as we opened the door. Amazingly, it was still virtually intact. Modern day thieves aren’t interested in old wood, it seems.
The Sixth Form Library, like its namesake at Church High, has moved position over time, I believe. But, when it hosted the NHSG Brand Launch, it exuded a veneer of historical and cultural permanence.
However, devoid of its books and the re-located Central High stained glass window, the old Library’s dark woodwork was neither as ornate nor as substantial as I’d thought. As I looked around, there was a sense of ‘smoke and mirrors’ evident now, which shocked me.
Between us – myself, Tony and two other members of the Tolent team who’d joined us in the room – we selected a piece of panelling by the window for preservation. As we stood in the centre of the room talking, Tony nodded towards the green ‘pod’ thing in a recess with a quizzical look and told me they’d been finding them all over the building. It brought home to me just how much ‘meaning’ relies on context. One person’s seahorse is someone else’s oddity.
Before I left the building, Tony kindly allowed me time to explore a little further with my camera. We didn’t go far. I just wanted to venture upstairs a little way. To the Main Corridor and Staffroom. The first floor corridors at Tankerville and Eskdale are very similar in design, with both adding atmosphere to their respective schools. In its time, the Eskdale Main Corridor was darkly imposing, but if I hadn’t seen an old photograph I would never had thought that now.
The sole inhabitant of the Staffroom now was an agitated pigeon, which found refuge in the Workroom when we came on the scene.
The Staff Workroom had been well-and-truly plundered for cabling.
Tony told me that, as well as cabling, lead had been stripped from the roof. This was evident at the top of the building, where a pungent smell indicated water had got in. I’d intended to take a last look at the Head of Year Office. But as we stood on that corridor – where the stuffing seemed to have been ripped out of the walls – I knew I didn’t need to go further. Time had moved on and so had I.
As I handed my hard hat back to Tony in his yellow cabin, my mind inevitably wandered back in time to Peter and his cabin at the start of this ‘Tale of Two Schools’. I paused for thought a second time as I walked through the Eskdale gate for the very last time, my eye clocking the O’Briens van pulled up in the back lane to my left. I was still standing – and smiling – but Eskdale’s future was not so bright.
And did my Eskdale ‘Unfinished Business’ have the ultimate effect of laying some of my old ghosts to rest? Yes, in the end, I think it did.