I have always loved the very top corridor of the Church High Main building. Those unmistakeable echoey school sounds which used to travel up the north stairwell from the main corridor below became muffled the moment the dark green fire-door closed behind you. I never lost the thrill that I was now walking through the roof eaves.
Perhaps it was the floor-to-ceiling sky blue walls or the fact that you could touch both sides of the passage way as you walked along, but it always felt very comforting to me up there. It’s only struck me very recently why it seemed so easy to feel at ease at Church High (something everybody who joined the school would comment on). With green at your feet and pale blue at eye level everywhere you went in the building, things always felt sort of ‘the right way up’. The colours mirrored nature. It’s how the world was meant to feel.
This area of School is first mentioned in the Jubilee Book when what we now know as the Dining Room and Staff Room block was added to the main building in 1933. The 1935 history tells us that ‘extension at the north end was made possible by taking down the caretaker’s cottage (in place of which a flat has been built in the space under the roof).’ The caretakers at that time were Mr and Mrs Mattison and it would have been then that the four front dormer windows were added too – apparently none too subtly either, according to the present work-force. Most of the king posts were simply hacked out.
In later years, this space under the roof with its narrow corridor, sloping ceilings and small but characterful rooms would be adapted for Sixth Form use, as it will be once again when the renovated building reopens in September. Although I taught one or two S Level lessons up there as a young teacher, for most of my time at Church High I knew the lofty heights of the top corridor as ‘Administration Alley’, the hub of the school, which housed the indispensable folk.
Sadly, since the demolition of the north staircase – something I still find hard to believe was actually allowed to happen to an Arts & Crafts R.J. Leeson designed building – it’s no longer possible to approach this special space the way I’ve just introduced you to it. Instead, for a similar effect, we must use the existing south stairs. For now, the familiar blue-green paintwork is still there, but it won’t be for much longer, of course. The new school will be neutral.
To our left is the room created in recent memory for the Head of Marketing, Head of Pastoral Care, Director of Studies and SENCO by lowering the ceiling of Room 8 (latterly a Maths room) below it.
To our right, is the room initially created not too long after I joined the school for the storage of GCSE coursework and where David Cocallis worked most recently managing SIMS and data systems.
Once up the step and through the doorway, although the dividing walls are all now knocked down, the corridor can still be made out down the left-hand-side if you knew it was there in the first place.
On the top floor, the offices were on the east side of the corridor with the smaller eaves spaces on the west side used for storage. From the south, the first office you came to on the right- a room I remember once being a classroom – belonged to the Deputy Head. I served under three Deputy Heads at Church High: Gillian Willett, Yvonne Fleming and from the late 1990s to 2014, Alison Roe. I knew Alison initially as a Geography teacher, then as Head of Geography, as my Director of Studies and finally as Deputy Head. By 2014, Alison had devoted 34 years’ service to Church High.
The space behind the next dormer window in the roofline was divided between the Staff Gentlemen’s toilet with changing area and the Alumnae Office, home to the multi-tasking Sarah Timney: NCHS Old Girl, parent of two Church High daughters, teacher in both Junior & Senior Schools and finally Events and Alumnae Co-ordinator. Sarah used her detailed knowledge of Church High and artefacts from the Alumnae Archive to create an illustrated Timeline History of the School for the final ‘Heritage Edition’ of the School Magazine.
Before the third dormer window, an intriguing wooden structure has now been exposed. It was an unexpected find and Wates were going to knock it down until they realised it was structural. I had an idea what it might once have been the moment I saw it, and I have subsequently been proved right, but that’s the subject of another post. It now seems this must have been our Alumnae Archive store.
The next room on the right, the third dormer window, has been the Bursar’s Assistant’s Office since 2001/2. It has always housed the School safe in a strong room behind it and, for the last 17 years, it was ‘home’ to the indefatigable and ever cheerful Brenda Cavanagh.
The room behind the last dormer window (the first office you would come to on the left if you entered the top corridor at the north end), has been the Bursar’s Office since 2001/2. Before then, the Bursar and his Assistant shared the room next door and this space was the English Department book cupboard which was moved into a smaller space nearby in the west eaves. I knew three Bursars in my time at Church High: Geoffrey Doxford, Dorothy Ratki and finally Peter Keen, who ably managed the Church High finances & buildings, as well as being Line Manager for all NCHS Support Staff, for 21 years.
It’s hard to encapsulate the exact ingredients that made Church High such a special place and a very happy working environment; life there certainly wasn’t exempt from its everyday ‘ups and downs’ over the years. Nonetheless, I worked there extremely happily for 29 years and would have continued to do so. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this way either. In its 129 year history, the School has had only twelve Headmistresses. During the war years, their tenures, understandably, tended to be short. However, four Heads guided the School for more than ten years and it is these ladies who really left their mark on the School. I count myself very lucky to have served under and learned from two of them. Mrs Lesley Smith was Head for 12 years (1996-2008); Miss M.R. Wood [latterly Mrs Pybus] for 20 years (1945-1965); Miss Patricia E. Davies for 22 years (1974-1996). The School’s most influential Headmistress was undoubtedly Miss Louisa M. Gurney, who served for 34 years in total and actually increased numbers during the First World War.
An Old Girl like Sarah Timney, from 1886-1937 Miss Florence Dickinson was also connected to the school for decades as pupil, teacher and, ultimately, an exceptionally well-loved Deputy to Miss Gurney. She started Newcastle High as a young girl in the Jesmond Road houses, confused by which door of the four was the main door, and taught at both Newcastle High and Church High for 38 years (1899-1937). The Jubilee history makes it very clear that such records of long service are not just confined to the teaching staff, but also extend to the governing body and support staff too. The first caretakers, Mr & Mrs Waterman, stayed for 24 years and as we know from the staff mentioned in this post, this was not unusual.
So it should come as no surprise to those who know the School that the people working in their offices on the top corridor tucked away in the ‘Space under the Roof’, had years and years of service to Church High between them. Nor that they kept School ticking over like clockwork. And I haven’t even got to ‘Computer Corner’ yet.