Roots and Route to St Bees by Don H. Williams (FN 61-64):
“It all began when I was nine years of age. The family home was at Eaglescliffe, near Stockton-on-Tees. After university my father had been working in the chemical industry, but in 1956 with his research and knowledge of nuclear physics he was attracted to take an R & D position at the Atomic Energy Authority in Cumberland. Initially his weekday digs were at the Sella Park Hotel near his new employment at Sellafield. Meanwhile, back at home, with my small sisters and young brother to look after, my mother was busy enough in Teesside preparing our home for sale and a move to Cumberland.
My father already had in his mind that I would be educated at St Bees School, but before this I needed to attend a Preparatory School and pass my Common Entrance Examination. Before Christmas 1956, when I was told about taking a step into completely unknown educational territory, the Lake District sounded like a very distant place. All of this was planned to happen in the New Year for me to start in the January term at Harecroft Hall Preparatory School for Boys in Gosforth, Cumberland. The New Year arrived and with it came some very snowy weather. My new school trunk was packed and loaded into our car and after very sad family ‘goodbyes’ we were on our way. Along slippery and treacherous twisting roads the snow made it seem like a different world from an iron and steel industry-based landscape. It was late when we arrived at the Sella Park Hotel for my first night in the Lakes. I was given a room at the top of a small winding back staircase and after a sandwich and glass of warm milk I was soon fast asleep. I awoke in the morning and peered through the window to see the start of a glorious day. Later that morning before I was taken to my new school, my father told me that he was taking me to see something marvellous. Through Gosforth our black Austin A90 twisted and turned along a narrow road for eight miles before we found a suitable place to park.
The wild, colourful scenic tapestry that set before my eyes remains a lasting memory. With its backdrop of steeply tumbling lakeside screes above Wastwater to the cathedral-like snow-capped line of Great Gable and Scafell peaks, crowning the surround was a spectrum of Yewbarrow’s yellow and brown bracken tints. The tranquil enormity of this was my first impression of this amazing ice age mountain legacy. I was taking it all in for a few minutes in silence. However, almost before I could blink we were back in the car heading to Gosforth and my final destination of Harecroft Hall.
My new life and introduction to boarding school education was to be in this fine Victorian Hall built for Sir John Ainsworth in 1881. It became a private school in 1925. Thirty two years later I was with my father driving through the main entrance. Close to the gravel drive were well kept lawns, a beech wood and playing fields. Being just nine miles from Wasdale there were clear views of the mountains I had just seen. From the rear entrance, there were various outbuildings consisting of a courtyard, former stables with loft and an estate workers’ family cottage. I soon discovered the latter had been converted for school masters’ accommodation and additional classroom facilities. Into the Hall, an impressive staircase with dark wood balustrade led to dormitories having mountain names. I was to sleep in Yewbarrow. For pupils like me there was a back stairway that also led to the matron’s flat, the pupils’ bathroom and toilet facilities. The school matron was Miss Orr, a very kind and capable lady who commanded great respect with all 48 pupils, the headmaster and other staff members. On the ground floor of the Hall there was the headmaster’s study, school rooms, kitchen, dining room, gym, changing room, showers and washroom. Although I was in a new place, my thoughts constantly drifted back to my family. I was always writing letters home and longing for return mail. The comment of the Headmaster, W. H. Dunlop, in my first school report summarises: ‘He has fitted into the school routine and community life very well. But, except in English his work has been disappointing. More concentration and determination in the face of difficulties is required.’
I did pass my Common Entrance Examination to St Bees public school in 1960. The family moved to (Cumberland) Cumbria in 1957. At first we rented a large flat owned by a retired colonel, the managing director of a local iron ore mine. However, in 1959, my mother took it on herself to attend a property auction. My father came home that same evening and to his surprise discovered that mother had just bought a new home for the family. This was a five bedroom detached stone house ‘The Garth’, not far from our flat ‘Yourity’ in Beckermet.
I am pleased that I had been prepared for attending St Bees School. During my life I have valued my education in Cumbria for many reasons and have written about these whilst I was President of The St Beghian Society (2008-2011). However, there are numerous ‘people paths’ that have traversed and coincided over the years. When they occur, these add dimension and interest to our lives of shared experiences. The St Beghian Society is an important nucleus for this. For example shortly before he passed away in 2014, and in relation to his early teaching career, I had been in contact with Canon (Bill) W.F. Greetham (G 53-58). Bill taught for a year (1959) at Harecroft Hall whilst I was there as a pupil. Over fifty years had passed but Bill sent me a couple of photographs taken whilst he was teaching there and was able to pass on some news about some of my contemporaries. One of these photographs showed a group of us including Hugh Redway (G 62-67) from Yorkshire. There were three of us cricketing hopefuls that went on to St Bees. The other was John Hamer of Stalybridge, who was also on Grindal (60-65) with Hugh. Another OSB, M. A. (Tony) Payne (F 59-64) was a prefect at Harecroft Hall in 1957. Today, I am proud to be Chairman of The N. E. Branch of the St Beghian Society.
Sixty years ago when I began this journey, in December last year, I was able to rekindle some of these memories. I was staying at the West Lakes Hotel, Gosforth and took the same trip as I did with my father to Wasdale and then to Harecroft Hall School. Naturally, I took photographs. The scene at Wasdale was unspoilt and still amazing, but Harecroft Hall’s decay since it closed in 2008 was not such a wonderful picture. I understand eighteen staff including eleven teachers lost their jobs in a school that had sixty seven pupils. This ratio was a great deal different in 1957. Comparisons are difficult but it brought to mind the closure at St Bees, although we are now hopeful of a re-opening.”
Please click here to see photographs.