The Ancestral Seat Of Dukes – School days revisited.

I grew up in an abundant countryside. My home was an old, three storey, 18th century Farmhouse, all red brick, and four square, surrounded by fields and bordered on one side by the capricious, but sweetly disguised, River Dee. I grew up green, and not quite part of the world as my friends were. My spun silk cocoon even reached the edges of my school; it was just there across the fields, out of sight, and a bracing walk away, but still part of the place I belonged to.

The Monk's Walk.
The Monk’s Walk.

I would leave it when I had to, walking out of bounds down the monk’s walk, and heading  out across the fields as the crow flies. It was a tiny school back then, two hundred pupils perhaps: the building itself having been the seat of the Abbotts of Chester, then the Duke of Westminster, who, on completion of the much grander Eaton Hall, gave it to his sister. I’ve never quite figured out why there were nuns present when I first started, nobody would question such a thing back then, but in my head their timelessness seemed to fit.

Eventhough the school was tiny, still a house really, with working bathrooms and cast iron baths instead of showers, it could feel like an angry beehive, and the press of others often sent me off across the fields. I was ten years old when I crossed the threshold of that school, a year ahead of my peers thanks to some unusual schooling decisions by my parents, and I left at eighteen, and never once did I feel comfortable: all that time had passed and the girl inside me had never sat down to a single lesson. Everything she learned in those years came from books.

But time has passed, and I like my own personal history, I don’t worry about the mistakes I made, or the people I pissed off. All I know is the trip from there to here has gifted that green girl with a whole spectrum of colours to call on. All those barefoot escapades have toughened her skin, and she is now broad shouldered enough to distance herself from a world pressing in. But even as a child I never bought in to the myth of perfection: perfection is beige, and as unrippled and dull as stagnant water, it holds itself so poised that it becomes invisible. I look at the radiant young people around me and relish the disaffected ones giving off sparks, those angry, jagged edged individuals that just don’t fit the mould. I want to tell them to remain annoying and sarcastic, observant and vociferous, sly and smart, and that at some point soon they will realise why the world prefers them to be none of those things. All my most interesting friends were trying teens, irritating or unusual; they are, however, the adults who smile the most, tell the best stories, and know what it is to feel content. They have learned the fine art of being both compassionate and uncompromising.Out across the Cheshire Plain.

So maybe it’s understandable that my memories of school are such a lucky dip, and why so much of that time is a patchwork of blanks. I had never even considered going back to visit until my school shouldered its way into my writing; it is a character in itself now, and not surprising really, as the basis for the entire story came from a piece writing I started in Sixth Form. My main protagonist came to life in one angry burst on an autumn afternoon in lower sixth and stayed, crouching in a dark corner until I finally picked up a pen again, and now, like my teenage self, she refuses to shut up.

The Grotto. A Victorian folly.
The Grotto. A Victorian folly.

I finally returned to my school two years ago on a sunny day in April. The gardens, extensive and beautiful, had been opened to the public, and I was rather pleased to feel my teenage self so close by, still with a disinterested sneer on her face, and pretending not to be captivated by this part of our history caught in stasis. The school was beautiful, the gardens were beautiful and my memories, both good and bad, remained intact. And, best of all, my own daughter walked beside me, as unique a creation as I have ever met, although I think I’ll keep the stories of the girl I once was to myself for a little while longer.

The walk across the sandston ramparts.
The walk across the sandstone ramparts.
The spring garden.
The spring garden.
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