Memories of Woolmer Hill Secondary School Haslemere, Surrey 1973-78
In 1973, Woolmer Hill County Secondary School, as it was then called, catered for the majority of those children, aged eleven to sixteen, who had failed their eleven plus examination and would not be attending Godalming or Farnham Grammar Schools. Haslemere, then as now, was a rich town in the outer reaches of London’s commuter belt, so its ‘secondary modern’ school, Woolmer Hill, took in a large middle-class contingent in addition to pupils from the council estates. The school was streamed into A, B and remedial classes.
I was born in 1962 and from the age of one lived in Haslemere. I followed a set course with my cohort of classmates. I was at Derby Road Infant School (1967-69), Chestnut Avenue Junior School (1969-73) and, after failing the eleven plus, attended Woolmer Hill County Secondary School from the age of eleven to sixteen (1973-78).
There are several pieces of writing here. You may wish to scroll down to the section that interests you.
- Nostalgia: why these memory sketches were written
- First lessons: September 1973
- The rituals of school meals
- The horrors of the playground
- The dark cloud of discipline
- Sports’ Day: an annual farce
- School trips
- School Reports
- Rules and Rebellion
- No Tuck Shop
- Vista of a classroom
- The Last Day: the end of an era
- Mr Anning goes swimming
- Going home and the Little Chef Cafe
Friends Reunited and the nostalgia industry
In the spring of 2003 a friend told me about the website Friends Reunited, and like thousands of other people entering middle age I thought it would be interesting to see what had happened to my classmates from school. In those days, before internet social networks, the lives of schoolmates with whom you had lost contact, were unknown, particularly if you had moved away from the area. So the opportunities provided by Friends Reunited were new and exciting.
The site offered a choice of institutions (schools, colleges, universities) to which people could add their name and details. Yet, there no doubt that the main institution of nostalgic curiosity for the majority was secondary school, with a special attachment to the leaving year. And that applied to me too. I left Woolmer Hill School aged sixteen in 1978, and it was my fellow pupils, who had accompanied me in my journey from child to adolescent, that I felt the greatest need to contact and catch-up with. I had lost contact with them all without ever intending to, but now a new window was opening in cyberspace, which would satisfy my voyeuristic curiosity and would allow me a limited means of self expression on a formative period of my life.
Of course I knew that Friends Reunited was not there primarily to reunite friends, but to make money. I, therefore, had to negotiate your way through the flashing banners for dating agencies and get blocked whenever I wanted to say something that fell outside their template for marketable nostalgia. In the spring of 2003 there were themed notice boards on which users were invited to post their memories. On each one I decided to take up the theme and compose a written memory sketch, so the topics of the comments below was decided by Friends Reunited, not by me. No sooner had I finished than the notice boards were reserved for subscribing members (£5 and later £7.50 p.a). I never paid Friends Reunited anything, and nor would it seem did many other ex-students, so my posts for a long time retained their first place position on most of the boards.
At the end of decade the experiment which was Friends Reunited had been overtaken by other social networking sites such as Facebook. Friends Reunited abandoned its attempt to charge fees for ordinary members, made its service free and attempted to expand its social networking functions. By this time, however, most people, particularly the young, had lost interest in the site and new postings became fewer. And in January 2016 the site closed down for good.
I abandoned Friends Reunited in the mid 2000s, but occasionally used it thereafter as a source of reference. I did not stop writing, however. In 2006 I composited my existing material and placed the content on what was then a newly created blog, adding a few words of explanation to the texts. Then, as my own memories flowed, and as memories from fellow pupils were communicated to me, I penned some other pieces, Woolmer Hill teachers 1973-77, Corporal Punishment at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s, Uniform at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s, and A 1970s Woolmer Hill School Romance.
While all of the later written articles have a clear theme, this collection of memories retains its original character and darts from topic to topic.
First lessons: September 1973
On the first morning at Woolmer Hill the father of a friend, who was being driven to school, picked me up. This is what I wrote about the first day.
Yes, I was frightened on that September morning in 1973. After all, what was there about Woolmer Hill to reassure me? Mr Anning, the school’s headmaster, otherwise known as the ‘the old man,’ ‘pop’ or ‘the cunt,’ designed every part of himself to instil fear: dark suit, the sun glasses, and the pat on the shoulder that could signal mocking sarcasm or a prelude to worse. We had to digest a myriad of rules: which grass you could walk on, which doors you could go through and at what time you could join the lunch queue. We scared ourselves with stories of punishments and found fault with each other’s uniforms. Then in military formation in the hall we were separated from our friends and shunted off with our form teacher. For me it was Miss Savage. We sat there as more rules were rattled out while she constantly blinked her eyes. Things could only get better, and fortunately they did.
The rituals of school meals
The lunch hour was an attempt to drill the satiating of children’s hunger into a choreographed eating routine. A long disorderly queue meandered back from the door of the school hall with a bell periodically permitting yet another year to join the throng.
I never tasted the fodder of boiled-to-death vegetables and meat that was handed out at the end of the line because as a conscientious objector I managed on sandwiches. My alienation from school dinners means that I have no idea of whether the school’s culinary delights were created in the school kitchen behind the stage or imported from elsewhere, nor whether the taste matched the foul odour.
The long lines of tables where the pupils sat gave way two thirds of the way up the room to three blocks of tables where the staff sat. Between them and us (in the first couple of years I ate my sandwiches in the hall too) was the teachers’ serving table. Had they spooned out the food to themselves, the image of this collective eating ritual might not have retained its place in my memory. But as if to reinforce a sense of hierarchy, the girls on a rota system were allocated the dubious privilege of acting as waitresses and maids to their teachers.
The boys had their turn too: the dragging, dissembling and piling of tables after the event. Strangely one figure, Headmaster Anning, was absent throughout. Did he unwrap his sorry bag of sandwiches alone in his office, or was he provided with room service at lunch?
At the entrance to the main hall at lunchtime there were two queues. The longer one on the left was for school dinners. The shorter line on the other side of the door was for the conscientious objectors who elected sandwiches over for the fodder of boiled food. We were waiting for a space at the one table allocated to us.
Making my sandwiches was a chore. I had be up in time, cut the bread straight, hope the butter was not too hard and divide the pot of paste equally between the sandwiches. In the early years I staved off hunger and didn't break the rules by eating before lunchtime. Once, somewhere near the back of the queue, I was overcome by pangs of hunger so I slyly opened my lunch box and nibbled away. My jaw motion caught the eye of a passing Mr Anning who despite my fears laughed off my misdemeanour.
By 1978, and in my final year, I had long left the sandwich queue behind. My current penchant for eating mid-morning was firmly in place. I was ensconced in the Upper School building, which accommodated the final year pupils, and was munching away and chatting.
Arriving at Woolmer Hill in 1973, I found the playground far more dangerous and threatening than the lessons. Sex apartheid was the order of the day: the girls occupied the tennis court next to the main drive into the school; the boy’s tennis court was beside the gym. The fear was pain and bullying. As you entered the playground from the school next to the tall gym wall, there was a row of boys methodically throwing tennis balls at the new arrivals. If you could make your way onto the few pieces of grass permitted to you, the situation was slightly better.
Staying inside was strictly regulated. A board hung near the back exit of the school saying “in,” “out” or “optional” depending on the weather and Mr Anning’s whims. I even swallowed my life-long atheistic beliefs to attend lunchtime Christian Union meetings to keep out of the cold. By the fourth year a gentle liberalisation (even before Mr Anning’s departure) had set in, and we stayed in more.
The dark cloud of discipline
At about the time I was writing on Friends Reunited there was a group of people whose main interest was discussing and relishing in accounts of corporal punishment (real or imaginary) in various schools. Presumably for commercial reasons, or possibly to prevent libel claims against the site, writing about punishment seemed to become restricted to reminiscing about detention. When I tried to add the entry below it was zapped; and this is the only entry not to appear on the site.
In the mid-seventies at Woolmer Hill detention was not a usual instrument of pupil control because, I very much suspect, monitoring students out of hours was felt by the staff to be unduly burdensome. The repertoire of sanctions included a ragbag of measures most of which involved standing somewhere for a specified time.
Corporal punishment (caning, slippering and slapping) had not yet died, but cast their grim and humiliating shadow over the school. Apart from a cohort of working class boys, who may have danced that duet with the handful of abusers who administered it, such choreographed institutional violence was a background menace rather than daily ordeal. On entering the school at eleven the idea of it conjured up a nightmare of terror, but as a youth of sixteen the notion that one could be assaulted was merely an affront.
The high priest of darkness was Mr Anning. He self-designed every part of himself to instil terror believing that only the meek and terrorised child could become an underling and cog in his England. His black suit and penchant for sunglasses combined with his chilling artificial laugh and pat on the shoulders all cultivated the threat of imminent violence. A group of teachers liked to engage with the pupils in that halo of fear, but to be fair the vast majority did not.
Sports’ Day: An annual farce
Sports’ day meant a silly circus. In my second year the school was divided into six houses named after the wives of Henry VIII. Sports day was about the only occasion when these meaningless entities crawled out of the woodwork. Mr Jimpson and his co-believer in his brand pedagogic machismo, Miss Davis (or was she Mrs Morgan by then?), attempted to inject some enthusiasm into the proceedings by an exaggerated cheering of their Aragon House team. School and staff were unimpressed. While Mrs Blewett practised her elocution over the PA system, the strange couple of Mr Anning and his wife sat watching the proceeding bolt upright side by side both wearing dark glasses. Off the field there was another activity going on: the attempt to escape school, which had Mr MacShane driving the roads near the school to spot possible escapees.
Mr Jimpson was a ‘jack of all subjects’ teacher who specialised in rules and discipline. He normally taught the low level classes and, it seemed to me, if his pupils granted him ‘respect’ he handed out slaps on the back. I had little to do with him.
Miss Davis was a young starter whose lessons were extremely boring for those not in her little favoured group. she was often at Jimpson’s side, but I really think their relationship was platonic.
Mrs Blewett was a heavily opinionated English teacher who was head of the fifth form. She prided herself on having the best English language elocution in the school.
Mr MacShane was the ‘third-in-charge’ in the school. He was also a self-styled disciplinarian, but who, unlike Jimpson, was not on an ego trip. In the 1980s he involved himself in an unsuccessful campaign in the town to prevent the showing of the film The Silence of the Lambs.
School trips: a valued experience (1976)
We went on few – maybe once a year. Of course, there was the excitement of the deadening routine of school life being temporarily suspended, a pleasure somewhat diminished by the teacher’s control of you outside the borders of Woolmer Hill School. Most of these excursions were so unremarkable that memories of them have dissipated like dust in the wind.
I do recall, however, a trip in my third year in 1976, organised by Mrs Christopher, our geography teacher who kept two Alsatian dogs in the back of her van. Nominally for the purpose of teaching geography, it involved a walk along a disused railway line where we were supposed to look at the flowers and stones.
As it was an outdoor venture, we received a dispensation in the requirement to wear school uniform. The ability to decide one’s attire was a right rarely granted to us, so we exploited it to the full. I arrived in my 1970s flared jeans and brightly coloured shirt. Just before the coach departed we had the inevitable inspection from Mr Anning who made his wrath known and then stormed off powerless as he could hardly cancel the whole outing. Yet more than that, it was Jacqui B – very much a girl’s girl – who remains at the centre of my memory. In response to one silly boy’s attack on my clothing, she uncharacteristically jumped in to rescue me, “Well, it looks better than yours, you idiot."
How crazy it seems now, but I really valued Jacqui’s intervention. I cared about my appearance for perhaps the first time in my life, and had I received recognition from the usually razor-tongued Jacqui B.
School reports (1977)
School reports, along with parent-teacher evenings, stand apart as being one of the few connectors linking home and school. I never feared reports much; they seemed to say more about the teachers than they did about you. At the bottom Mr Anning scrawled some inane remark, or ‘meaningfully’ underlined something that a teacher had written. You took it home and brought it back – and that was it.
In 1977 I was in Commander Campbell’s registration group. He was a harmless retired naval officer who habitually picked his nose. The blackboards doubled up as cupboards and in Campbell’s maths classroom the right hand part of the board was secured with a combination padlock. For several days after school we had attempted to crack the combination until someone suggested pi = 3.142. It worked. We were able to go through the whole class’s reports, and thought up a plan – never executed – to take bets on people’s grades. I went out of the room leaving the task of replacing the reports and re-locking the cupboard door to others. Half way down the corridor and coming towards me was the black-suited dwarf, Mr McNally, a strict but effective maths teacher. Ignoring his injunction to stop, I tore back to the classroom and urged haste on my co-conspirators. By the time he arrived, McNally found nothing amiss in the room and despite a full repertoire of threats, nobody would reveal our misdemeanour. We knew that even at Woolmer Hill we could not be punished for an unknown crime which might not even have taken place.
Rules and Rebellion
The years 1977-78 were turning point years. For me my intellectual and emotional drives matured rapidly. In the school Mr Anning was replaced with Mrs Hollingdale who hitherto had been the deputy. The administratively able Mrs Hollingdale was no liberal alternative teacher, but she did achieve two things. First she ended the bleak militaristic cult which lay behind the Anning regime, and second, she re-established the relationship between the staff and headteacher.
The regime put in place by Mr Anning, and still holding on in the mid-seventies, was a myriad of mind-numbing rules. Nothing escaped their grip: the doors you could go through, the type of shoes you could wear and the pieces of grass you could sit on all fell within their grip. Most of these rules were easy to assimilate having become ingrained through several decades of enforcement. Some were undoubtedly functional like the walking on the right in the corridors and stairways, but others served mainly to reflect hierarchy, to humble and to humiliate. What sense lay behind little boys in their sweat saturated shirts being told to put their ties straight, or little girls freezing in winter but denied the right to wear trousers?
Anning’s rule-ridden world invited rebellion. The eternal protest of youth met up in the seventies with the disintegration of the certainties of post-war Britain. A tide was turning that not even Anning’s morning assembly rant against the Grunwick picket line could reverse. The post-war generation of ex-servicemen teachers was being replaced by a more liberal breed. His authority was eroding. In the three-day week and amid power cuts, pupils marched into town to demand the right of the girls to wear trousers. A barrage of graffiti, stink bombs, parent protests and Anning’s overreaction to everything all took their toll. Rules were to remain, but they had to be shifted down a gear and Anning was not the man for the job. In 1977 he said good-bye, characteristically with his black three-piece suit, dark glasses and shaking hands wearing a glove.
No Tuck Shop
During my years of incarceration, 1973-78, there was no tuck shop at Woolmer Hill School. If you forgot your packed lunch, or ate it too early, you went hungry. Water from the drinking fountain was the only refreshment.
The only exception was the small bar open at lunch times in the Upper School Building. It was staffed by fifth formers exclusively for the benefit of fifth formers; it constituted one of the few privileges that were deemed suitable for senior pupils. Its fare was meagre: instant coffee, tea and oxo and several types of chocolate bar. I am not sure whether this refreshment facility was an established institution or whether it was one of the concessions that coincided with Mr Anning’s retirement in 1977. (The other was the relaxation in uniform: the monotone black and grey clothing requirement expanded to encompass dark blue – except for jeans).
The main effect of this bar was positive; it created a temporary zone of comfort in an otherwise uncomfortable institution. My main memory, apart from drinking my five pence cup of oxo, was the opportunity it gave Jill and me to become acquainted just that little bit better.
Vista of a classroom (1978)
Thinking back twenty-five years to 1978 and to my final year lessons at Woolmer Hill, it is not so much reminiscences akin to moving film that retain a place in my memory, but voluble photo stills. The most clearly focused is one of sitting in Mrs Blewett’s English lesson in the Upper School Building. Mrs Blewett distinguished herself in her profession not simply by engaging you in her subject, but by taking on the role of someone who wanted to chisel into your teenage lack of confidence and uncertainties. She claimed for herself the role of gatekeeper who told the secrets of, and set the rules for, entering the adult world.
The architecture of her room with a central block of seats surrounded by a horseshoe has allowed me to retain a vista of the class. In the central block sat Darryl B, Tracey C, Jacqui B, Susan B, Christopher E and Jonathan B. The horseshoe contained Judith M, Diana B, Rosemary W, Frances O, David R, Martin S, John C, Brian B, Me, Una S, Sue T. I know I have forgotten people, so the picture is not complete.
Despite or because of Mrs Blewett, it is that configuration of people and the relations I had with them - sometimes through personal friendship or with others through mere observation – that form an enduring memory in my mind.
The End of an Era: the last day
If the events of the last day at Woolmer Hill were meant to add up to a rite de passage, then they failed miserably. Mrs Hollingdale and Mr Jimpson had made much of the need to turn up for that last rainy day in July 1978, but after the routine-breaking comings and goings caused by the O–level exams in June, the last day was little more than an over-delayed good-bye.
In one sense we were bidding farewell to an era. I’d joined the school as a prepubescent boy of eleven nervously jumping around to the rhythms of school rules. Now as a youth of sixteen, the magic of school authority had vanished. The teachers had already distanced themselves from us, as we had now slipped through their hands. Those, such as Jimpson, who had based their authority on the height of the horse they sat on, fared worst. With their authority now expired, they withered in front of us to become indistinguishable from other late middle-aged people in the supermarket checkout queue.
Yet on that day I remember not looking back, but forward. Much of my Woolmer Hill life would continue into the future. Most of my cohort of friends were transferring to Godalming College. In this new establishment we would leave behind the monotone drabness of school uniform and the daily humiliation of arbitrary rules. But what we were leaving behind was memories, the full meaning of which were not apparent until several years later. My only fear at the time was my daily loss of contact with Jill who had been by my side in my final year and would be no longer.
Mr Anning goes swimming
Whenever former pupils share memories of Woolmer Hill School in the 1970s, either in person or online, one topic more than any other is soon thrown into the conversation: the summer day in 1975 when Headmaster Leslie Anning was pushed into the swimming pool. Let us start by establishing the context of this incident.
The open-air school swimming pool consisted of a raised tank with corrugated metal sides, perhaps some fifteen metres long and three wide. A few metres away, and running parallel along the pool’s length, was the then modern Upper School Building. On the opposite long side was a small grass lawn, normally out-of-bonds, and beyond that a fenced off tennis court used as the boys’ playground. The shallow end of the pool was a few metres from the tall windowless brick wall of the school gym and the entrance to the changing rooms. The deep end faced a sloping field used as a play area for boys on dry summer days.
Most of the year, the swimming pool stood unused with green algae discolouring the water. The pool entered our lives only negatively, as a place that was out-of-bounds and forbidden, one of the several locations in the school grounds that could only be approached tentatively when daring to retrieve a stray ball. Only on rare occasions during the summer term were we able to go swimming, and once a year there was an annual swimming gala.
The swimming gala was an absurd event. Between the long edge of the swimming pool and the concrete path alongside the Upper School Building was a gentle grassy slope of no more than a couple of metres. Perched on this slope were two or three rows of chairs for the school staff to feign interest in their pupils, as they clumsily propelled themselves through the water. In the middle of the front row of teachers sat a suited portly Headmaster Anning and next to him his shrivelled wife, both wearing dark sunglasses and sombre expressions. Their fixed forward gaze was disrupted only by their occasional restrained applause in response to some swimming feat. Around them, the PE staff were busy lining up pupils to get into the water, while other kids, shivering with cold, made their way back to changing rooms.
At the other side of the swimming tank, directly opposite the rows of sitting teachers, was the lawn, normally out-of-bounds, but which, during the swimming gala, served as an enclosure for the non-swimming pupils. It was from here that I, then aged thirteen, had my vantage point on the events of the day. My memories of thirty-seven years ago are disconnected images which, coupled with information acquired afterwards, make up a reasonably coherent narrative of the incident.
At the deep end of the swimming pool, there was a raised concrete platform at the same height as the tank. I think under it were the pumps and heaters for the pool. The gala was over. Anning had come onto the platform to give a formal congratulatory speech to the swimmers. I was bored and conscious of having to stop a conversation with Peter M. who was standing next to me. I did not witness the push itself, but I do recall Anning moving forward with small dance-like steps and then going over the edge, feet first, into the water. At that moment, not knowing the cause, my initial thought was that he had gone mad. It was only a few seconds later that I learnt that he had been pushed.
Although I didn’t see it, Anning must have been pushed from behind. The shove was not powerful enough to propel him head first into the water, but sufficient to cause him to lose his balance. To steady himself in a hopeless attempt to bring his legs under his forward moving body, he made those miniature – and humiliatingly ridiculous - steps forward, hoping with each one to regain his balance. But it was not to be. He faced the stark choice of attempting to stand still before the edge and plunging into the water head first, or else walking over the rim into the pool. He chose the latter.
There must have been a split second when Anning was in mid air awaiting his plunge, a moment no longer than when a hanged man feels the trap door opening beneath him but before the rope breaks his neck. What thoughts would have flashed through Anning’s mind: the physical pain of the cold water awaiting him, unpleasant but probably not more so than the average slippering he administered. More likely, he would ponder his complete humiliation: degraded publicly in front of his wife, his staff and the whole assembled pupils of his school. Or, perhaps, thoughts of revenge against the sixteen year old girl who had pushed him in occupied his mind. We will never know.
And then Anning was in the water. Curiously enough, his head appeared to remain above the surface. And though he fell into the deep end, the top of his suit did not seem to be wet; his jacket rode up like a skirt to his shoulders and floated on the water around him. I have no recollection of how he got out of the pool. But by that time we were laughing too much to take in the details: his pain, his humiliation, but our joy.
Around the pool the reaction from staff and pupils became progressively more animated. Headmaster Anning had been ceremonially degraded and incapacitated, and momentarily authority ceased, as if the cage door had been suddenly and unexpectedly left open for a few moments. Laughing and cheering among the pupil intensified. The teachers for the most part looked stunned, though I remember the pupil-friendly former navy commander, Mr Trench, smiling broadly. He might not have been the only one. Only one more memory has stayed with me: a fifth-form girl - who I later learnt was Gayle W., the culprit - was rushing up the bank to the side of the Upper School Building. She was physically stopped by the near retirement age technical drawing teacher, Mr Pavey. He held her and appeared to be appealing to other teachers, for an answer to the question, What shall I do with her? Adding to the tension in the vicinity were a group of older boys, who seemed to be helping her, at least verbally. And at that point my personal memories of the events finish.
After thirty-seven years some of my memories of the incident may be lost, faded or distorted. And, of course, my memories from that 1975 summer’s day are incomplete; others will recall details which I either never knew or else have forgotten. Yet, the veracity of the essential sequence of events is not in doubt in my mind, nor in the minds of others who observed the incident.
So why is the incident so important that, along with recollections of corporal punishment and other humiliations, it retains a privileged place in the memory of so many? And why at the same time is it so unimportant that it changed nothing – either in terms of the structure of the school or for the persons involved?
Quite obviously, the incident is important, if only because it is remembered and talked about by those who witnessed it. Traces of any number of events stay in the conscious mind, such as an embarrassing moment on a bus, but few are articulated and shared with others – and even fewer are retained and talked about three decades later, especially when, as in this case, none of those reminiscing was either materially or personally affected by the incident..
One key aspect of this event, which served to propel it into a topic of reminiscence, is that it was unusual, unique in fact. By contrast, few ex-pupils would single out memories of events for reminiscing, which were repetitive and mundane, such as the paths that pupils were permitted to use or the smells in the toilets, even though these things had a far greater influence on the daily life of pupils than watching Anning tumbling into a swimming pool. It is the abnormal, something picked out of the daily flow of routine events, which is remembered and remarked on, not what is happening all the time. And that is a perversity of the human condition.
Yet, Anning plunging into the swimming pool is remembered not just because it was out of the ordinary in the sense that one might remember an eclipse, but because it was embedded with symbolism. Most obviously, it was represented the humiliation of man whose raison d’etre almost seemed to be the parading of his arrogance and domination over a school of teenagers. His authority was never negotiated; it was imposed and, therefore, to a greater or lesser degree resented. Thus the puncturing of that authority - however momentarily - was a cause for celebration.
The manner of Anning’s humiliation was important for two reasons. First, it was highly symbolic that it was female who pushed him in. Within limits female violence against males, especially more powerful ones, is always given a degree of licence: the slap across the face or the thrown glass of wine down the suit front. One writer on Friends Reunited expressed the idea thus: Remember the Gayle W. the only one with the balls to...” Had Annings attacker been male the whole ambience of the incident would have been different. Second, the way in which Anning was humiliated played a role. Clearly, that Anning was degraded without being injured in any way was vital; had he been pushed down the stairs nobody would be laughing. Water has always been a tool of non-injurious humiliation from the intention behind the ducking stool to the bucket thrown over drunks and young lovers.
All of this then helped propel the incident into topic of collective reminiscence, even decades later, for those who witnessed it. Yet, in so many ways the incident was merely an amusing blip on the daily routines of school life at Woolmer Hill. One is reminded of the aphorism, einmal ist keinmal - that which happens once never happened at all.
Funny perhaps, but pushing Anning into the swimming pool held out no model for the future. Authority could be ridiculed and dented, but then again it was easily restored. In the winter of 1974 a large group of pupils had marched into the centre of Haslemere demanding the right of girls to wear trousers, a demand particularly pressing given the power cuts and minimal heating. They won the right. By contrast, Gayle W.’s push achieved nothing.
Anning recovered quickly: practically, all he needed was a new set of clothes. Perhaps there was some embarrassment in the assembly the following morning, but if there was, I didn’t notice it. But what of Gayle W? As a school leaver, she was pretty much untouchable: expulsion was an irrelevance. I did hear rumour that Anning’s solicitors demanded the cost of a new suit. But in the years to follow, according to information she put onto social network sites, she made a career for herself at British Airways and now resides in a prosperous Sussex village.
And what of the swimming pool? In the Christmas holidays of 2003 - the last Christmas I spent in Haslemere, I wandered up to Woolmer Hill School and looked around the deserted school site. The swimming pool had gone.
Going home and the Little Chef Cafe
School rules were supposed to grip all pupil behaviour between the home and school gates, a point about which Headmaster Anning never tired of reminding us in morning assemblies. The most severe injunction was against cycling down the undeniably steep Woolmer Hill; cyclists were required to detour on the roads though a small housing settlement. Peddling up Woolmer Hill was never discussed, as it was almost impossible. From time to time, issues arose over rowdy behaviour on the 13B bus, which ran the few kilometres from Woolmer Hill through the centre of the town and on to High Lane, the housing estate which provided much of the school intake. Occasionally, issues of smoking and disorder raised their head, but leaving school did, for most practical purposes, signal an end to Mr Anning’s authority; and, of course, the further from the school one went, the weaker that authority became.
Even today it surprises me that no regulations were in place for the Little Chef restaurant. It was never discussed; and until I was fifteen I didn’t even know of its existence. Its obscurity lay in its location. Most of the pupils going home by bus, on foot or by bike made their way eastwards into the town. Leaving the school and travelling west on the small road that gave access to Woolmer Hill School, one came to a junction after a few hundred metres. One arm ran downhill to the small settlement of Hammer, which lay in the adjacent county of West Sussex. Another, taken by a few students with bikes, headed north and met the main road, the A3, running to Hindhead and then on to Guildford and London. The remaining option was to continue straight ahead for a few hundred metres along a little used piece of road with heathland on either side before intersecting with the A3 a little further south. It was at this junction that one found the Little Chef restaurant.
In the 1970s roadside restaurants were dire: tea, biscuits, chocolate, cheap coffee and fried breakfasts served on formica tables. Little would have attracted me to such a place had it not been a warm refuge. It was a solution to a geographical problem.
I lived in the centre of Haslemere. When I first started at the school, I had made use of the crowded 13B bus, then for a short period I had cycled and finally, after I was about fourteen, I saved my bus fare by walking home. In my last year at school - we remained at Woolmer Hill until we were sixteen - Jill, whom I wanted to be with as much as possible, lived in Hindhead and cycled to school. That gave rise to a major difficulty: the further I walked home with her after school - our intimacy always impeded by the need to push a bike - the greater the distance I had to walk home myself. Occasionally, I did walk all the way to Hindhead and then home, which was a journey of some six or seven kilometres. Such is young love.
In the autumn of 1977, Jill and I could wander onto the heathland, but as the nights drew in and the cold encroached, our options decreased. And that was how the Little Chef restaurant became important to us. Earning at that time around around three pounds a week from delivering morning newspapers, I had a hole burnt in my pocket from purchasing even our two cups of low quality coffee, but it was worth it. Nobody could disturb us; we were our own masters; and we could stay as long as we wished. Why no other other couple from school found this peaceful hideaway remains a mystery. And, in so much as it mattered, we were breaking no school rule.
From the spring of 1978 the Little Chef restaurant became less relevant, except perhaps when it rained. In June we left school, so Woolmer Hill, its environs and the Little Chef were forgotten. My affair with Jill, upset by lack of routine daily contact, took me on an emotional helter skelter journey throughout the long summer of 1978 before withering in the autumn. Times moved on.
A quarter of a century later in 2003, I spent my last Christmas in Haslemere. An urge took me to walk to Woolmer Hill School, quiet and abandoned in the winter holiday. I headed onwards to the Little Chef restaurant which was then still in existence. How strange it was to go in alone and order a coffee; I think I had a latte. The girl who served me would not even have been born, when Jill and I had last sat there. Yet, something else impressed itself upon me on this sentimental re-visitation: the sufferer of nostalgia feigns homesickness and desires to return to a place, but it is not a place that he really seeks, it is a time - and that can never be revisited.
At some point towards the end of decade, the Little Chef restaurant was abandoned and then pulled down to make way for the widening of the A3.