My Old School Friend and my early life in Wales
My school days started in Wales in a small village school. It was a somber red brick and stone Victorian building surrounded by a bumpy cobbled play ground called the Ton, the source of many a scraped knee and broken wrist. A small sweet shop was tucked away on its border, strictly out of bounds during school hours but mobbed by excited children as soon as the last bell sounded. I loved it, I knew all the children and their families, in fact it was a family in itself. It smelled of pine from the “Dusmo” , a mixture of sawdust and oil, used to sweep the wooden floors and that slightly musty smell of lots of books.
On a hill behind the school stood the friendly old Norman church where we used to file for services on Harvest festivals and Christmas and other church occasions. My favorite was Easter, when we covered the stone benches with damp green moss and bunches of soft Spring flowers, violets, primroses and purple ladies smocks fresh from the protective hedge rows. The scent gently guided you into the solid old church. We nearly all attended Sunday school there and would call at the vicarage to collect the elderly archdeacon, help him with his robes and escort him to the church. We loved the kindly old man. Harvest festival was another wonderful occasion that gave us occasion to decorate the alter with sheaves of corn, plump pumpkins, bountiful baskets of beautiful plums, apples, quinces, pears, and vegetables, the pride of the village allotments. The local baker surpassed himself with great golden loaves shaped like sheaves of wheat and braids of bread. It was a sumptuous sight of plumptious plenty. Deep brown eggs decorated the ledges or nestled in pale nests of fragrant hay. As the country had just finished fighting WW ll, it was also an amazing site to us after diets of carrots and dried egg! Christmas was a bounty of holly rich with crimson berries, ivy straggling up every pillar and discreet bunches of mistletoe placed to catch the unwary. It was a good church.
The school, which boasted three rooms was heated by large coal burning stoves, one to each room with a lid in the shape of a tortoise that was lifted several times daily to keep the fire well fueled with good Welsh coal. Around the fire were positioned the numerous crates of milk, fresh from the farm, our nourishment at break time ( this free milk was stopped by Mrs Thatcher even before her reign in office during the eighties. Mrs Thatcher, Milk snatcher! Was a popular refrain.) During summertime, the milk was left in the sun, sometimes it was thick and creamy if a cow had given birth and the “Beestings” were regarded as a great treat. Not surprisingly, it gave several of the children infections which resulted in the legislation that all milk had to be certified Tuberculin tested and hence forth the bottles were marked TT.
We ambled to and from school playing games, sometimes hoops, sometimes whipping tops or conkers in season . Conkers was a venerable old game played with the nuts from the horse chestnut tree. The nuts were strung on a strong cord about a foot long and your opponent had to try to break your conker, taking turns to bash each others nut. Secret recipes were used to harden the nuts, soaking in vinegar or baking them in a slow oven Often we hitched a ride on Frank, the milkman’s cart and were even allowed to hold the soft well worn leather reins drinking in the aroma of sweaty horse and delighting in the slow clop clop of the horse and the whishing sound of the large wheels on his yellow cart and the clink of the milk bottles. We dissolved in giggles when the big old brown horse passed wind, it was the highlight of the day for the little boys crammed amongst the milk crates in the back of the cart. It was magic.
The Eleven plus was a much feared exam which sorted out those destined for the Grammar school and those left behind to leave school at fourteen. I was given a shiny, black Hercules bike for my triumph in passing the exam. This was almost a necessity as it entailed a very early half hour bus ride. The school was enormous by our standards, being three hundred strong,. We quivered with anticipation as we first walked through the imposing wrought iron gates not knowing our fate But we soon mingled in and got to know who to avoid and who to befriend. It was laid back and friendly, the school caretaker, Mr Grocutt lived in the pretty lodge cottage. He kept pretty little bantams who shared our sandwiches at break time. They strutted around in fine style and I determined that when old enough, I would have Bantams of my own ( which I did) When the sun shone, their feathers glistened iridescent green, gold and red,,.but as this was Wales it all too often rained which produced the bonus of lush greenness.
My Dad got a job in Berkshire 150 miles away, when I was fifteen. We packed up everything including the pets, chickens, guinea pigs and Whiskey the cat. The cat returned to his original home soon after we got there, my Dad reluctantly returned to retrieve him and we buttered his paws to prevent a recurrence. (This actually worked!).
My fate was sealed! No more friendly faces at school. My new school was The Abbey School, Reading, a very posh school where everyone seemed very aloof. I hated it at first but slowly made friends and waited with bated breath for break when you could buy a Chelsea bun for a penny. The pleasure of unraveling it to expose the plump currants and chunky, spicy brown sugar almost overcame my sadness of leaving my old friends behind. One of my hurdles at the Abbey was to rid myself of my Welsh accent which was a point of ridicule and was not allowed. Soon I learnt to say Sorspan instead of Sosspan, Barth not Baath and Gararge not Garridge. At this point I could pass as a young lady worthy of The Abbey School.
Sorely missing my old friends in Wales, I was slow to make new ones. One of my first friends was Sally who traveled on our bus each morning Abbey school girls were very noticeable for their green uniforms with stylish beige bowlers. I was in awe of her as she produced perfect homework and declined latin verbs with ease. Eventually, we chatted on the bus and I was even invited to ride out with her on one of ponies. We were in the same science group, a new diversion for the school. Our teacher was Professor Harris, newly retired from Farnborough Aeronautical College. He held the curriculum in disdain and left behind Boyles law, Hooks law and J numbers. We embarked on a voyage of lift and drag as he proudly taught us all he knew about the wonders of Flight. We all failed our Science A levels. I was ostracized by my family as they had all put their money on me to be the first college student in the family. Soon I left home and took an aptitude test for Computer programming which I passed with flying colors and never looked back. Little did I realize how useful the discourse on flight would be much later in life. But that is another story.
Sally retook her exams and went on to the London School of Economics, a prestigious college. She stunned me one day when I met her in our local town wearing eyeliner, blush, the works. She was tall and willowy and had taken a modeling course, the ultimate in sophistication. I felt very much the country bumpkin in jeans and a tweed hacking jacket. Sally looked radiant in the latest Mary Quant style.
Years passed by and I moved to the USA. One day, feeling a little homesick I browsed a club for reuniting school friends and there was Sally in our school site, I emailed her and we corresponded.
This year, after over forty years apart, we met. I was in Wales to visit my little cottage at Dinas. Near Fishguard in the Pembrokeshire National Park I told Sally I was coming to UK and she suggested we meet. To my surprise the address she gave me was in Wales! She had been living in a Welsh farmhouse on the slopes of the Brecon Beacons for over twenty five years and her main pastime was gardening. Her Partner’s Welsh accent was stronger than mine had ever been! The farm is on the route to our little cottage in West Wales so we call by often.
We got on like a house on fire despite the missing years, it was amazing that my sophisticated friend should end up where I started. Our friendship has been rekindled and we intend to keep it that way. Sally has discovered what I knew all along, Wales is a very special place. I have written several hubs about it already, You really should go and check it out! You won't be disappointed.