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Some of my memories of Caldecott Communty

Robert Lawton 1942-1957

 

I set out to write these notes full of optimism. An easy task I thought, but not so.

I have so many memories of my time at Caldecott Community but so many of those are like isolated snap shots in time and I am unable to fit them into the chronology of this narrative, so they are left undocumented. (Just as well, it's turned out long enough as it is!).

Why at Caldecott?

Parents married in 1938. difficult early years. War mother moved to Deal, Kent, Father in London (War Office). Mother pregnant in 1941 by US soldier. 'Kidnapped' by Father so he gained custody after divorce.

While searching for help to look after an infant boy Father found someone who knew someone who knew of Leila Rendel (Principal of The Caldecott Community) – shortly afterwards I was accepted into the Community at Hyde House, Wareham, Dorset in 1942.

The above was told to me by my Father when I was about 19 years old.

Holidays shared between parents as far back as I remember.

Father re-married 1954. Same Year all maternal relatives emigrated to Australia on their £10 tickets. Stayed with Community until exams finished (1957).

 

Hyde House. Wareham, Dorset. (Now demolished according to Google Maps).

Few ad-hoc memories as only about 6 yo when moved to 'Hatch'.

Indoor activities centred on play-room above front door with adjacent dormitory & bathroom.

Walks along the lanes to Bovington Camp to watch the tanks practice. Standing by the roadside whilst ranks of soldiers marched by – often handing out chocolate & sweets to our strange party of children. (I distinctly remember this but looking at Google Maps the distance seems a bit far. Perhaps the tank range was much bigger then).

Daily 'sleep' periods each afternoon. On lawn, under the oak tree in summer (Tree still there 1989).

Free time play in large field, feed horses, sand pit, lots of grass.

Strapped to an inflatable ring and dangled in the stream – Why?

Having nightmares in sick-bay until Nurse (Nobbs?) discovered two cats trying to sleep on my bed.

Father visited once per term. The penalty of having a 'day-out' was to sit in the playroom afterwards and tell others of days events. This was a must - for the benefit of those who didn't have parental visits (but looking back – a dubious benefit for the listeners).

Can't remember where I spent holidays whilst at Hyde House.

Overall a memory of structured days, fixed routines, interspersed with freedom of choice during play periods. As I had learnt to read a bit by the time the Community moved to Mersham-le-Hatch there must have been periods of teaching but formal or ad-hoc I know not.

 

Mersham-le-Hatch. Ashford, Kent.

My earliest memories of the “Hatch” start with the Junior Study on the ground floor of the semi-circular protrusion on the rear (North) side of the central block.

I have no memories of continuing in the Nursery group. (Like at Hyde House).This may be loss of memory, (age doesn't come on its own) or because I was old enough to go straight into the juniors.

The Junior Study was a fairly plain room, flagstone floor but with nice size widows and a door to the outside (always locked as far as I remember). Above the external door was a large flat stone with a carved (moulded?) surround on which was recorded the names (Adam) and dates of the buildings construction.

To both side of the Junior Study playroom, in the main block, were changing rooms (for raincoats & Wellies), toilets and washing facilities. Girls to the east side, boys to the west.

The relative remoteness of this study from the older children and staff meant that we could run riot in our free time without upsetting others. Not that there was much to run riot with – the main feature of this room was a large wooden rocking horse.

Sometime in the second half of the 1940's, the late Queen Mother visited Hatch and I was proudly riding this wooden horse when she appeared. Someone must have mentioned that I collected stamps because she asked to see my collection. I was so proud of my few stamps, mainly British with a few from Argentina,(courtesy of Christmas food parcels received by my mother). I am sure she was impressed!

This was the age group when 'proper' schooling began. After breakfast we would walk (run if you were late) across to the stable block where classrooms for Junior Study and Senior Study were housed on the ground floor in the south side of the block overlooking the kitchen gardens. The upper floor was the domain of the Nursery group.

Adjacent to the stable block (east side) was the Gym where we were introduced to balancing, rope climbing, and simple ball games. The Gym also housed a piano so was used for singing lessons – usually ending in one child choosing a song for the whole group to sing.

Outside the classrooms was a 'Portico'. Full length, glass roofed, supported on a colonnade of steel columns. In the summer with the doors all open it was like having lessons in the open air. On wet days it was the play area for break-times. On a dry day we could go out past the gardening sheds to a large grassed area with logs to jump on/off and trees to climb (a lovely lime tree and a beech tree with a swing).

This blissful period came to an end when I was about 9 years old, and returning from holiday I found myself “promoted” to the Senior Study group.

The Senior Study Group.

This was the room immediately above the junior study, but what a difference. A magnificent Adam fireplace, a beautifully decorated ceiling and polished wood floor.

In this group we were supervised by Mrs Hansen, both indoors and when she took us on long walks at the week-ends.

There was plenty of space in this room with a number of tables and chairs. Children building things with a large wooden block set could do so without interfering with those playing board games (of which there were many). Chess or Monopoly could take several days to complete and were left out on the tables without fear of interference.

Schooling still in the Stable Block, but became more serious, we had to learn spelling as well as improve our writing; numbers became 'times-tables' up to 12; there were frequent tests, and as we approached the dreaded 11+ sums and fractions appeared. Literacy and numeracy had never been a problem for me, so I enjoyed this schooling. The discipline and repetition of the school hours made the free-time play even more enjoyable. So much to do, and so many places to explore and the decision on what to choose was one's own.

Although schooling and playrooms remained communal, this was the time when dormitories became single sex. Ours was in the south west corner of the second floor of the main house with an external access to the adjoining West Wing.

Saturday afternoon walks along narrow lanes, endless countryside, non-existent traffic – oh! bliss. These usually ended at Brabourne Lees (I think) sweet shop, where we would spend our few pennies on ¼ oz. of sweets for the following week – my favourites being liquorice torpedoes, being a compromise between a reasonable size sweet and sufficient quantity to last the week.

I believe this age group also saw us introduced to 'Saturday Morning Housework'. Each term period we were allocated a specific activity to carry out after breakfast for about an hour or so. This could be sweeping and polishing an area of wooden floor (of which there seemed to be acres), helping to prepare food in the kitchen, washing & drying the many plates, cups, bowls & cutlery used for the breakfast, or even helping 'Major' (ex-army & gardener/groundsman) in the kitchen garden, and feeding chickens and collecting the eggs.

In the later period of this age group, I escaped the 'housework' replacing it with woodwork under Mr Gladstone. Not only excellent instruction in the craft, but also in the care of tools, and putting them back in their proper place when finished – a useful discipline that has served me well throughout life. I enjoyed it so much that it wasn't long before I remained at woodwork right up to lunchtime, instead of just the hour or so allotted to 'housework'.

The last year in this group ended with the sitting of the 11+ exam, and being allocated a place in one of the Secondary or Grammar schools in nearby Ashford.

 

The Seniors.

At this stage, sex segregation was mainly full time except for communal activities such as meal times, School meetings in the Library (monthly if I remember correctly always including a very energetic rendering of “Jerusalem”), Sunday Chapel, etc. Also free time outdoors during which mixing was allowed. Senior girls lived in the top two floors of the main building, whereas the boys were allocated the whole of the West wing.

The week-days routine for the boys started at 7.0'clock with the loud call from Miss Travers “Time, runs and showers”. This was the signal to leap out of bed into shorts & vest and (in any weather apart from ice) run approx. ½ mile to the start of Bockhanger Wood and back, followed by a cold shower (at least 10 secs). (This seems harsh but it was noticeable (at least to me) that Community boys arrived at their respective Ashford schools wide awake and alert, which couldn't be said for many of the boys arriving from their parental homes.)

Then beds had to be made, shorts changed for school uniform, in time to be inspected for clean hands & shoes before being allowed to breakfast at 7.30.

After which a pleasant (weather dependant) walk through the grounds and woods to reach the bus stop on the A20 – to be transported to the various Ashford schools.

Arriving back from Ashford, first task – change out of school uniform into Caldecott uniform (long grey socks, short grey trousers, blue tee shirt, and in the winter a grey sweater/jumper), then into the common room for a hot drink and a thick slice of bread with a topping of Marmite, or peanut butter, or even jam.

For most boys it was then free time until back to the Dining room for Supper at 7 pm. Older senior boys who attended the Grammar School and had 'homework' to do would spend the time in the 'Prep room' in the Stable Block, under the watchful eye of Miss Davies (Vice-Principal). After Supper, into dormitories by 8.00 or 8.30 depending upon age, and 'lights-out' at 9 o'clock.

Week-ends were less constrained. Still some routine 'must-do' activities (e.g. Housework, and on Sunday morning a Chapel service).

Saturday afternoon was usually 'outing time'. This could be a simple walk (perhaps 3 or 4 miles) sometimes accompanied by the Community ponies with walkers taking it in turns to alternate between riding and walking. The better riders would try and get the last ride- a lovely gallop across the Deer Park to the Heron Pond, a leisurely walk up the stony track, and then the last furious gallop back to the stables.

Alternatives were a trip to one of the seaside towns (even as far as Dungerness), often leapfrogging between walking and riding in a car (more often than not with Simon Rodway).

Sunday afternoons included a period of football or cricket depending upon season.

Most of the remaining time was 'free-time' divided up by mealtimes.

Many activities including mealtimes were governed by 'The Bell'. A large bronze bell outside the rear entrance to the East wing. 1st bell was 10 minutes before the activity was due to start, reminding all to 'wash & brush-up' ready for the 2nd bell that defined the start of the activity.

Half-terms were even better. For those remaining at 'Hatch' it was an extended week-end with even more free time to do what they pleased. Other boys, perhaps the lucky ones, would go away on a camping or Youth Hostel trip.

Camping in 1953 at a farm near Penshurst (I think) included a trip to London to see the aftermath of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Lots of empty seating along many roads, but still masses of people. Simon Rodway led the way holding aloft a large Union Jack, the rest of us following as best we could chanting repetitively “Follow the Flag!” Thus we managed to return with the same number of people as when we left Penshurst.

Toward the end of my time at Hatch, a small group of us older Seniors were allocated our own small common room. No real benefit except a sense of pride at being trusted to behave without direct supervision. We even had a small radio, and no-one dare interrupt us whilst we were listening to the Goon Show.

Free time:- choice of free time activities was up to the individual. either alone, in pairs or groups. Indoors, the senior common room (flag stone floor) had many wall-fixed small cupboards each allocated to an individual to hold personal possessions, a few tables and chairs for reading or playing board games etc, but pride of place was given to a full-size table tennis table – always in use and many children became very proficient.

Outside, large lawns for football or cricket practice, Archery, Croquet on the front lawn, even a tennis court. Acres of woods to explore, and trees to climb within the Hatch grounds, but there didn't seem to be any restriction to stop the more energetic going as far as the Deer Park. Another popular activity was cycling around the several miles of lanes and paths in the Hatch grounds (Although not on the main A20 road without permission!).

Discipline:

Everyone knew the routines that defined our daily lives, and the constraints that they imposed upon the individual. From an early age the responsibility of following these routines and living within the constraints lay with each individual. Failure to do so could result in punishment.

Punishment in its simplest form seemed designed to embarrass the individual (e.g. being late for a meal could result in having to stand behind your chair for 5 minutes whilst the rest of the table continued the meal. In a dining room of about a dozen tables of ten people each, all sitting, those standing up where highly visible).

More serious failures tended to result in restriction of freedom. e.g. not being allowed outside in free periods; staying indoors instead of going on a Saturday outing; or going to bed before supper with only a plate of bread and cheese to eat; or more seriously sleeping alone in the attic, with only bread and cheese instead of supper.

More importantly, never once in my years at Hatch did I witness, or hear of, physical violence being used as a punishment. (unlike the Ashford Grammar School where the headmaster's gym-shoe across the backside seemed a fairly common event). This must have been a policy handed down by Miss Leila as temptation must surely have been there on occasions as we misbehaved like any normal children (I know I did).

Looking back:

The circumstances that existed during the holidays with either parent gave little opportunity for 'bonding' between us. As a result the end of each holiday was usually greeted with a sense of relief that I was going 'home' to Caldecott and meeting others at Victoria Coach Station for the journey back seemed like having a reunion party.

Year in, year out, nothing seemed to change at the Hatch. The buildings never changed, the grounds remained the same. Year after year one could find the same individual trees, the same shrubs standing like old friends. The key staff never changed, and routines and time-tables seldom varied.

To me this resulted in a strong sense of permanence and security– my 'home' would always be there. A 'home' I was proud (and grateful) to belong to; governed by simple rules and routines with a strong element of personal responsibility – my world in fact.

Several years ago I searched the web looking for Caldecott Community and Mersham-le-Hatch, only to find that the Community seemed to have been disbanded and the property was for sale. Even after all the intervening years the sense of loss was overwhelming.

And finally, I had described my early life to my first wife. Living in Tunbridge Wells during the 1960's we took a day trip to the Hatch, looking at the buildings and walking most of the grounds with a running commentary from me on what was done where. On departing to go home my wife said to me “having heard about your early life I felt very sorry for you. What I have seen and heard today I now think you are the luckiest person I know”. I could only agree with her.

Robert Lawton, March 2013.

Caldecott member 1942-1957