A Dorset life for me
By Roger Guttridge; the illustration is by Becky Unwin
Published in June ’14
Prompted by visits to new school buildings at Blandford and Wimborne, I embarked on a trip down memory lane courtesy of my school reunion association website’s archive section. I’m not bitter but, honestly, the kids of today don’t know they’re born. Or even conceived. And they couldn’t conceive of the conditions we put up with. Braving the elements between lessons, having a potting-shed for a classroom, using a disused graveyard as a playground, walking or jogging daily to off-site locations – all were accepted aspects of everyday life at Blandford Grammar School.
The kindest things to say about BGS’s geography are that it had grown up organically over many decades, that it had character and that just finding your way around helped you to hone your navigational skills.
The ‘heart’ of the school (you could hardly call it a campus) was at the top of Damory Street. Modern flats grace the site today, the stone arch of the war memorial gates being the only survivor from the 1960s. Beyond these gates was the boys’ playground, where quoits and hopping Johnny were played obsessively every break-time.
I once had some neighbours who dissolved into giggles whenever I mentioned hopping Johnny, but I think they had the wrong idea. It was not the name of a fellow pupil (which would require an upper case ‘H’, of course) nor was family planning involved. No, hopping Johnny was a game that involved bounding across the playground on one leg as a crowd of fellow hoppers tried to knock you flying. Anyone putting the other foot down or worse joined those in the middle, and so on until only one crossing Johnny was left hopping. It was a brutal game and I once ended up hopping mad and in hospital after a rule-breaker pushed me in the small of the back and I crashed ribs-first onto the stone steps outside Room Three. The Blandfordians website has a picture of me descending these very steps in happier times circa 1963.
Behind Room Three was the grassy graveyard whose senior occupants surely turned in their coffins at the antics unfolding six feet above. Along one side of the graveyard, tombstones commemorated the lives of Blandford’s long-departed, as they still do fifty years later. On the opposite side lay the more recently departed in the town mortuary; it was considered good sport to peer through some strategically made holes in the windows in a morbid adaptation of I Spy.
The wooden hut that was Room Three was the exclusive territory of Miss Hart, an eccentric history teacher and easy prey for the less sensitive among us. Her first priority was keeping warm, in pursuit of which she wore more layers of clothing than an Eskimo in a cold snap. This only served to increase her already ample figure, hence my reply when I was told off for a rare moment of indiscipline.
‘I shan’t forget, Guttridge, I shan’t forget!’ she yelled.
‘They say an elephant never forgets, Miss Hart,’ I cruelly replied. As I began the lonely but familiar walk to the headmaster’s study, my classmates’ laughter drifted across the playground. Their amusement made all worthwhile.
The head was A D Frankland – Arthur to his friends – and under his leadership, BGS became a growth industry. With more and more pupils staying on for a sixth-form education, classroom space was in short supply and we delinquent fourth-formers had to be found an alternative base. The girls arrived at the start of term to find their desks crammed into a caravan, though even that was a luxury compared to the potting-shed where the boys had their desks.
My career as a cat-burglar began and ended in this shed. After forgetting some books I needed for homework one Friday, I returned on Saturday, removed a window-pane, climbed in and collected the forgotten items. As taught by my parents, I left everything as I had found it. Commendable, I thought – until a stern announcement in the Monday assembly revealed that I’d been spotted. Happily ‘spotted’ and ‘identified’ are two different things.
Beyond the motley collection of buildings on the main ‘campus’, we paid regular visits to the Art Centre off Dorset Street, the Army Drill Hall near the hospital for PE, the playing fields off Milldown Road, the cookery and woodwork centre in Salisbury Road and ‘the Congo’ (as we called the Congregational Church) for circuit training. Not to mention the Liberal Hall in Damory Street, which was assigned to sixth-form overspill, and the swimming pool at the Ham, where we occasionally shared the icy depths with fish that had migrated from the Stour.
The woodwork teacher was Jim Dutfield, a former Labour Party candidate for North Dorset, a role that I imagine was no less thankless than teaching me how to make a mortise and tenon joint. Still, at least I didn’t have a deposit for him to lose. Jim had a special way of enforcing discipline. Any boy incurring his wrath would be hit on the head with a piece of wood, although in fairness he always stopped short of brain damage. How we dreaded the day when we would graduate to metalwork…◗