They say that there are two kinds of people, owls and larks. Like many who write, I am most definitely one of this world’s owls and, because of this, I doubt anyone would have put money on me ever passing the Royal Grammar on my way to school before 7.00 am. But such was the case on the gloriously sunny morning of Tuesday, 30th August 2016 – the day that NHSG staff were finally ‘officially’ allowed into Tankerville to start the repopulation of the building. I took a photograph of the RGS clock, bathed in sunrise glow, ‘for posterity’. Because, I promise you, this is unlikely to happen again, however beautiful the streets of Jesmond may have been in the morning light. God was definitely smiling on this very special day and, after two years of waiting, I nearly had to pinch myself to make sure this was not a dream. Especially as the doors were, even now, still green.
Having got there at exactly the time School was to be re-opened, those dark green doors did seem very firmly shut. A bit strange. I was carrying three pictures from Church High’s Pastoral Room that had accompanied me to Eskdale to remind me of ‘Home.’ My parcel was proudly positioned on the doorstep so that I could take a photo. Evidence that some of Church High’s artefacts had come full-circle too. But where was everyone? Old habits die hard, clearly. For the moment at least, the Main Door was not the main door of NHSG. Just the first of many switches and changes to our working patterns as we shared the site with builders for the next four months or so. But I mustn’t get ahead of myself. We didn’t know any of this yet.
Moving away from the Main Door, I was gradually aware of activity to my right outside of the newly-created entrance. David Heaton, NHSG Caretaker, had clearly just opened up the building and was now talking to two Wates guys and our own Nick Hearfield, who is still in charge of catering at the new school. As they turned around, their expressions said it all: ‘We might have guessed you’d be here!’ Or as Hilary once said about me: ‘There’s no show without Punch!’ Everyone knows how much I love the Tankerville Old Building and this blog has revealed both its character and architecture in many different ways. But buildings are created for people and this post celebrates just that – those Early Birds who, despite still being on holiday, wanted to get past the gates, have a good look around and start to unpack & make themselves at home as soon as they possibly could. So, this is the way our ‘old patch’ was repopulated once again.
Always an early-bird on a work morning too, the next person to arrive after Nick and I was Mrs Kay Thew. Her surprise at seeing me already there at that ungodly hour was evident, but it was nice to be able to walk through the door with an old work colleague and see the transformation through the eyes of someone last there in 2014. And, of course, it meant I got a photo of me on the threshold too.
Perhaps David Heaton hadn’t opened up after all, because as Kay and I went inside we saw Hilary French was already at her desk.
Because Kay hadn’t been inside before, we made a beeline upstairs to the Main Corridor where both of our teaching rooms used to be. Although my room was no longer there, we went into old Room 4 for Kay and, in fairness, I did once use to teach in there a long time ago. With the sunlight now streaming in through the windows, this really was the perfect way to come back home again: ‘Let there be light!’
The room that I was most interested to see was my new teaching classroom, Room 18, as the door had been locked on the Saturday. All classrooms are painted white with one dark grey feature wall, you may recall, but since the grey wall in Room 18 also included the teaching wall and shelving, the predominant colour here was white. Very white – and it’s a big room too. I don’t like white walls. Really dislike them! But as this room used to be the Church High social staffroom and the top half of the working staffroom where my own desk used to be, I can’t tell you how happy I was to be based there. I could see the trees outside and it was going to be a sunny room too.
Our next port of call was the Head of Year Office, aka the Chemistry Prep Room. Our crates had been put in place by Quicksilver on the Saturday and now it was a question of finding where we were to sit. Our telephones from Eskdale were already in situ, which is how I came to be working where the Chemistry Prep room sink once was.
The unpacking process wasn’t easy at all. Those crates were really heavy, the room was very narrow and those Quicksilver guys had clearly not thought about the weaklings who would be moving them when they piled them up four crates high! Or dragging the filing cabinets into position too. But we were getting there by the time we received our very first visitor, who was Church High’s David Hyde. I don’t think it was by chance that, other than support staff for whom this was a working day, the staff in early were all from Church High.
Movement and voices in the corridors indicated that the building was starting to come to life at long last. Time to prowl with camera. On the bottom corridor of the Main Building, now known as The Catherine Cookson Building, Gillian Thorpe (Reprographics) was already at work in her new room – complete with sliding window.
The changes to the Dining Room area do make it tricky to find your bearings initially if you were familiar with the old building layout. The top end has been divided up into small administration offices as can be seen from the shot below where the site team were gathered.
Time for a break, Kay and I headed for the staffroom in the new building in the hope of finding some hot water – a situation anyone who has ever moved house will recognise. As a consequence, we reached the side door at just the right time to record yet more staff arriving. This time SLT members John Crosby and Amanda Hardie.
For me, it was a really special day. Not only was I returning home, but there was also the added pleasure of seeing my Wates friends around the site clearly hugely enjoying watching me do this too. Like Ken Fickson below, they knew what this moment meant to me.
And the news would certainly soon be out that ‘The Old Girl’ of Jesmond was open for business once again, ready to do the job for which she first designed, this time for the girls of the 21st Century. Beyond the seahorse gates, NHSG’s Director of Marketing was already on the street with a local press reporter and photographer.
When you enter the new building, you find yourself immediately in the Kitchen/Dining Room area and this is where I bumped into Nick Hearfield again, this time surrounded by members of his catering team. As the majority of the catering girls worked at Church High, they all looked delighted to be back home on Tankerville again too.
Just around the corner was another old friend of Church High who it was lovely to see again. Paul Rea and colleague were on site to work out what signage was required and where it all needed to go. I know Paul as a parent – father to creative Laura Rea who joined us from La Sagesse – and as a colleague, having worked with him for five years or so to create Voices, the School magazine. Paul’s company, Red Square Design, did a lot of work for Church High and now for NHSG.
We did eventually get to the new staffroom, although there was no possibility of getting a cup of tea as yet. In fact, it would be a good few days before the staffroom became fully functional. I know we all believe in putting the girls first, but staff do need looking after too. We did have some say in the colour scheme for that room – at least as far as the fabric was concerned. The request was for something soothing and restful. From my point of view, blue for the sky is fine.
However great it was to know the full-circle was now complete and that Newcastle High School for Girls was finally in its home, looking around us it was clear to all that there was still an awful lot of work to be done – both inside the buildings and outside in the grounds. The guys from The Tiling Company (Northern), Ltd, whose job it was to lay the grey stones of the Pupil Plaza, would be with us for days.
Yet at the same time, some little finishing details were already in place. A lot of people may still not know they are there, but, if you look closely at the railings, you’ll notice that every few spikes and on all gateposts there sits a tiny, black, cast-metal seahorse. These came all the way from America. I know this because Lee Williams and Dirk McLean of Davison Fencing who fitted each one told me so.
So, the repopulation of our home patch had begun. And, however beautiful it may be in itself, even I recognise that, at the end of the day, a building is designed to be filled with people. Over the years, many different personalities have made their contributions to the rich texture of this particular old building, both via its construction and the education which has gone on within its red-brick walls. For a school, by its very nature, is a vehicle for growth and change. And that is good. Yes, even if the changes may not be of our choice. If we set aside the two memorial notices, it has taken me 120 posts to get the story of the Old Girl on Tankerville Terrace to this point – waking up to a new dawn which should enable many, many more generations of girls to receive a good education within its walls. It has certainly taken a lot of time and effort, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently if I was faced with the same choices again. I’ve met some marvellous people and some of the moments virtually alone in the building, stripped back to its Victorian inner-skin, when it felt almost possible to reach out to the very hands which laid each stone and made each mark, were just too special to put into words. I am so grateful for these experiences. If anyone has read every single word, I can tell you that you have read 100,755 words in total (not including captions). Hard work, but a labour of love. Add to this an accumulation of strains, stresses and losses, then the final image of this post is testament to ‘What a difference two years make.’ I may be in the same place once again, but I look quite different now.